Nobody knows when we’re leaving Tuvalu

Day 3,417 since October 10th 2013: 201 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic! 

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).

This is Tuvalu (TIT)


What motivates me? Sometimes it is passion. Sometimes it is anger. Sometime it is the ripples that Once Upon A Saga sends out across the world. Sometimes I just don’t know?

Last week’s entry: Leaving Tuvalu (maybe). TIT.

Welcome back. Here’s yet another entry from Tuvalu. I’m pretty fed up with a lot of things. I often feel like I’m carrying the entire weight of this project although I know it is not true. There are many who help and they do so in many ways. I finally stopped reacting to comments on social media all together. There are about 130,000 accounts following Once Upon A Saga on various platforms and I have been managing social media nearly on a daily basis for close to a decade. Most comments are really nice and supportive. The answers to most of the questions people ask me can be fund online. Often when I answer people anyway, they do not thank me. A lot of the questions are also not asked politely. People ask me like they would ask Siri, Alexa or type it into a search engine. I suppose I’ve just reached a point where enough is enough. People follow for free. I generate content and people can react to it how they want. I still skim the activity but for a week now, that’s about it. It probably took me a few years to figure out that I have imposed “shackles” upon myself. Not the social media. The social media is just a tool to promote the Saga’s values and open doors. Sometimes it is company too. No, the shackles relate to the Saga’s rules. I cannot go home until this thing has been completed. I cannot fly although it would speed things up considerably. The 24hr rule hasn’t been much of an issue lately (but it has in the past). This is what I have sometimes described as “a tunnel of countries”. We did not get this far by coincidence. It has been a tremendous amount of effort especially on my part, although many hands have helped. I’m tired of it. I have been tired of it for many years. I want to be free.


I've done a little research on processed meat. Tuna: good. Corned beef: very bad. The one thing I've had more than anything in Tuvalu is rice mixed with chili tuna.

I’m not blinded by many things which other people are. Sure, there’s plenty of tropical beauty in Tuvalu but I don’t care much for white sand beaches or turquoise waters. I haven’t gone swimming once while in Tuvalu. It makes for great photos though. I’m far more interested in the fabric of societies and how well things work: the educational system, the healthcare system, the infrastructure, the government, public transportation etc. Having been to as many places I have, I can get to the point faster than others and evaluate my environment faster than those who are dazzled by all the noise of new surroundings. I have long since declared that Tuvalu is not a sustainable country and that the country is spending way above its paycheck. I have met many Tuvaluans whom fully agree and see the sickness with their own eyes. I have also heard a few disgruntled voices, stepped on a few toes, and been told that I’m just a visitor and that I do not know what I’m talking about. That is perfectly fair. I fully understand national pride and the defensiveness that sometimes surrounds it. I have also voiced out many nice things about Tuvalu, its unique social fabric, its cultural heritage, and the openness of its people. The funny thing about small societies is that if you offend one person then you might find far more than one being against you. Likewise, if you delight one person then you might also find huge support from many. Those who have voiced disagreement with my assessment of Tuvalu’s situation have mostly been Tuvaluans living abroad while I genuinely feel like I have a lot of support from Tuvaluans living in Tuvalu. Isn’t that interesting.


Tuvalu: where things come to die :) This is one of three forklifts near the wharf rusting away.

For more than a week now we have been trying to guess what the heck is going on? The crew of the good ship Tala Moana (which I’m living onboard) counts about twelve men. Are we leaving for Fiji or not? There are two captains connected to this American (Pascagoula, Mississippi) built ship. The captains do not have any answers. The kind team at the Marine Department likewise find themselves confused and have no answers. The storm headed south and devastated parts of Aotearoa New Zealand. In a news report I heard of people swimming out if their living room windows! The good ferry Nivaga III has been fixed and is back at sea. MV Moeiteava has likewise been at sea responding to a medevac (Medical Evacuation) at the northern islands. So we are not waiting due to bad weather and we’re also not held back as the only vessel capable of carrying out medevacs. It’s political. In a literal sense, politicians are expected to let us know after a cabinet meeting. Why is a ship which is ready to go, and has been due for drydock for over a year, being held back? The temporary repair of the hole in the hull is exactly that: temporary. I have heard that 75% of the repair costs in Fiji has already been paid. People talk. People guess. I have heard many things. One story goes that Tala Moana is a money-making machine as she is often leased out. Sending Tala Moana to get repaired equals lost income. However if that is the reason to avoid repair then that is terribly shortsighted. So, let’s hope that it isn’t.


Well done everyone!!! Be proud! We're making a difference to the lives of people in need. DKK 40,000 is a great start. The goal is 50,000! We can do it.

I have now overstayed my initial one-month visitors permit. The Saga reached Tuvalu on January 9th and MV Tala Moana was set to depart on January 7th. Initially all was fine. The good ship Manu Folau is still awaiting spare parts and repair. She was the one we reached Tuvalu onboard after a sixteen day wait in Fiji. I hold a return ticket for Manu Folau but given her current condition it was speculated that MV Nivaga III would be making the journey instead, ferrying students back to Fiji. As of late I have heard that Tuvalu’s government has subsidized the airfare for the students and that they have all been flown back to Fiji. As such there’s no need for a ferry to return. As per last week’s entry I mentioned a German cruise ship which was due to arrive in Tuvalu yesterday, February 16th, and reach Sri Lanka in April. An optimal solution. I heard back from the company and it was truly a very kind reply: “Unfortunately we can't offer you the opportunity to join MS Amadea. The ship is fully booked on this route, there's no cabin free. Next time cabins are available will be in Japan, Tokyo, 03.03.2023, but due to the Japanese authorities we can't offer exceptional embarkation there. We wish you all the best for the rest of your exciting journey”. Like with much in life its hard to say if that is the truth or if they were letting me down in a gentle way? But I think it’s truthful given the added element of mentioning Tokyo. Regarding immigration I met with Mrs Lelani (possibly the head of immigration) and she was as lovely and understanding as anyone could be. Mrs Lelani assured me that we would find a solution. The part of Tuvalu I love: an easygoing atmosphere and no end to people’s kindness.


Arriving to Amatuku, Funafuti, Tuvalu.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Captain Logo invited me on a sightseeing trip to some of Funafuti’s islets. Funafuti is an atoll which from above looks like some small, or sometimes long and narrow, islands which form a ring in the ocean. A rather large ring as it is about 15km (9mi) across. The phenomenon is commonly explained as a once active volcano emerging from the sea. Over time the volcano calmed down and corral began to form on the outer side. As more time passed the part of the volcano above water collapsed into the crater and now all which is left are the corral islands. By the way, imagine an active volcano 15km (9mi) across!! Anyway, we followed Fongafale, the main island of Funafuti, until we reached the end and then we approached the first island after that which was Amatuku.


At TMTI. Captain Logo in blue and Tapualiki in red. Unknown man in yellow.


On a quiet Saturday one activity might be to roll cigarettes from dried Pandanus tree leaves for a little extra income. A pack of tobacco is enough for 29 Pandanus cigarettes. The smell is quite pleasant. 

Amatuku is home to Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute (TMTI). Tapualiki from Tala Moana had joined us and our first action was to ask for permission to be on the island. Both Captain Logo and Tapualiki were educated at TMTI and Captain Logo even worked there as an instructor for a few years. The school was founded in 1978 and in its heyday 120 cadets would have graduated each year. Those days seem to be long gone now and I think I heard someone say they currently have 11 trainees. The need for seafarers still exists but there is also competition. There are higher transport costs for Tuvaluan seafarers to travel to ships, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to other seafarers. The environment of TMTI was really nice and clean. We walked about and saw the training facilities, classrooms, dorm rooms, the educators quarters, and the island itself. Many competent seafarers would have come through the island over the past four decades.


Amatuku, Funafuti, Tuvalu.

We then headed across the lagoon, past three islands, to the tiniest most isolated island I might ever have been on within the Pacific Ocean. Think about those classical cartoon strips with a man on a deserted island. Okay, this one had far more than a single palm tree but you would be able to explore the island in a matter of minutes. I quickly walked around it just for the sake of it. Captain Logo had already made himself a sunhat from some palm leaves he stripped from a tree on Amatuku. He now sat down to make a basket. It was done in a matter of minutes. I really get the sense that Captain Logo has a great set of survivor skills. He grew up catching crabs with his bare hands and shooting birds down from the sky with rocks. He is a skillful fisherman and he knows the flora and fauna well. He would probably thrive in a sustainable lifestyle. The tiny island was called Te Afualiku and is sometimes used by fishermen to rest or organize. There was no infrastructure whatsoever.


Te Afualiku straight ahead. Funafuti, Tuvalu.


Captain Logo weaving a basket. Te Afualiku, Funafuti, Tuvalu.


Done in minutes! Te Afualiku, Funafuti, Tuvalu.


Te Afualiku, Funafuti, Tuvalu.

We returned to the last of the islands we had passed and visited Paava, which I also think had no infrastructure. I was encouraged to take lots of photos and video. It took about ten minutes to walk around this small tropical beauty. Meanwhile Captain Logo and Tapualiki were collecting “laulu” as it is known locally. Some places people call it “bird’s nest fern” while the Latin name is asplenium nidus. You can eat the fresh curly tip of a leaf and it tastes and smells very much like green peas. I was first introduced to it on Nanumaga almost a month ago.


"Laulu" (asplenium nidus). Captain Logo and Tapualiki filled the basket with it.

The next island was Fualifeke which was slightly larger and had a bit of infrastructure. A few houses at least. We came across two guys from Tonga who were rehearsing a TikTok dance. Because why wouldn’t two young guys on a small tropical island within one of the worlds least visited and most isolated countries not be doing that?


Fualifeke, Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Our final island was Mulitefala which is another tiny little thing although it has a small beach resort. I had long ago been told that I shouldn’t go to the islets without permission but here I was with two Tuvaluans. I asked Captain Logo if I could walk around it and he gave the go ahead sign. There was much land erosion on this island. As I walked past the resort I made sure to take a photo in case I wanted to promote them on social media later on. I didn’t take many photos as it was the least scenic of the islands and I was much more interested in the sunset which was taking place across the lagoon. Once I came full circle Captain Logo and Tapualiki were gone. The small boat we came on was still there so I assumed they were inside the resorts house. I walked towards it while taking another photo of the building and then saw Tapualiki waving me inside. Within the building I found Captain Logo, Tapualiki and an old man seated at a table in a small room with lots of framed photos on the wall. There was an abundance of food on the table and the man got up, greeted me and then proceeded to get me a plate.


Palms bowing down to the sun. It's hard to tell if land erosion is natural or caused by climate change. Land erosion has always existed. The ocean even eats mountains.

I was told to help myself and so I did. The food was good. It was leftovers from some guests which had departed the island earlier. It didn’t take long before the man launched into a 20-minute seemingly unprovoked lecture about Tuvaluan culture, customs, and traditions, which was aimed at me. I quickly recognized some slight hostility hidden within the kindness of sitting at his table and eating his food. It was strange. The lecture was very superficial and did not reveal anything I did not already know. It was like having headlines read out from a newspaper. After a while I gathered that the speeches’ main theme related to “showing up to an island uninvited and taking pictures without asking for permission”. So, I ensured that I was happy to delete the few pictures I had taken and that I would never show up without an invitation, but in this case, I was generously there by the hands of two Tuvaluans. At one point the man referenced an article I had written and let me know that I was just a short-term guest without any deep knowledge of the country. Now I was wondering if he had read one of my entries to the blog and disagreed with my assessment of Tuvalu’s unsustainability? But then he mentioned something about “the team I had arrived with” and I realized that he didn’t really know who I was. Eventually I politely asked him if I in any way had offended him or if I had done something wrong to which he replied: “no”? At the end of it all (and the other two never entered the conversation) the mans mood seemed to have changed to the better and he added that I could keep my photos. Then he announced that it was time for us to leave. It was all a bit strange. Especially being lectured on culture and traditions from a man sitting on a chair (not on a woven mat), at a table, in a western style house. He wore a nice silverish wristwatch, half the food on the table was imported, he had reached the beach outside in a boat with an outboard motor, and he was from Nukufetau – not Funafuti…so how did he get ownership of a Funafuti islet? Little did I know that this man was Mr Afelee Falema Pita, former Permanent Representative to the United Nations (for six years) and Ambassador of Tuvalu to the United States of America. Likely one of Tuvalu’s most notable and accomplished men. I am happy I remained diplomatic. In my opinion Tuvaluan's are mostly heartwarming and kind people and I am sure you will have a delightful time on Mulitefala if you should ever make it there. I've heard that Mr Afelee's wife, Mrs Lita, is an absolute delight and I have no problem believing that having met two of their daughters.


Afterwards as we left, Captain Logo said he didn’t know I was going to take any photos. He also mentioned that he probably should have said that I shouldn’t take any photos on the island. It turns out Captain Logo and Mr Afelee Falema Pita are family. Of course they are. Who isn’t family in Tuvalu. As we returned under the night sky to Tala Moana Captain Logo said: “oh no – I forgot to show you the photo on the wall with Afelee and Barack Obama”. I was pretty tired that evening and got ready to go to bed around midnight. I went up on Tala Moana’s bridge to get some phone signal and message ultra-wifey goodnight. That’s when I noticed that some of the ship’s instruments were on. I didn’t think much of it other than it was odd. But minutes later I noticed that the crew was suiting up in work clothes. Tapualiki walked past me with a big smile and said: “medevac in Nui”. I thought he was joking. Nui was the only island we had left to visit in Tuvalu. But it turned out that we were heading out. At 10kts it should take 14hrs to reach Nui from Funafuti. It took us 18hrs.


Nui, Tuvalu.

It was dark when we arrived and I headed ashore with Tala Moana’s tender along with the two health professionals that had joined us from Funafuti. Boom!! Nine for nine!! This palagi (foreigner) has now been to every island in Tuvalu. What an honor. We were definitely that evening’s entertainment as many had shown up to watch “the show”. A pregnant woman had gone into labor and according to Tuvaluan law (I think) a woman’s first born cannot be a home birth. The health professionals went ahead to locate her and I figured I had at least 20-minutes to explore.


Nu'i Treg Chuch, Nui, Tuvalu. As per a vow: "The island of Nui forbids any form of religion other than LMS (London Missionary Society (EKT)) to be practiced or established in Nui. From now and forever more".

Nui is an outlier among Tuvaluan islands as the decedents are Gilbertese (today Kiribati) and Gilbertese is also the spoken language. Their traditions are slightly different from those of Tuvaluans. But at the end of the day, they are Tuvaluans although with a different background story.


Nui, Tuvalu. 

I ended up with an hour on the island which I mostly spent in the lit area near and around the beautiful church and by the landing on the beach. The Tuvalu Red Cross depot was near the church and the very first thing I took a photo of. At one point I went into the darkness further down the beach as I was looking for a graveyard I had seen on my map. I was hoping that I might come across a gravestone with the Kleis family name on it. But I found no gravestones. Just sand. Nui was hit hard by Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015 and that may have been the reason. It could have been wiped out. Or maybe it was falsely marked on the map. It would have been nice to make a daytime visit and one which lasted longer than an hour. I find Nui interesting and have also heard that they have a remarkably beautiful lagoon.


The good ship Tala Moana is like the other Tuvaluan ships I've been on absolutely infested with insects. Sometimes I wake up because they are crawling in my hair (whatever's left), on my back or on my arm. They are ANYWHERE you look. I clean my bed for bugs before going to sleep. I've seen them crawl all over my toothbrush, crawl into my tea, crawl across plates, cutlery you name it. It is amazing what you can get used to. On the up-side there are no mosquitos onboard :)

Back onboard Tala Moana we made good speed with the pregnant woman onboard - and a handful of her family. We returned in just 14-15hrs. It is remarkable though, that Tuvalu’s government is willing to cover the cost of sending an entire ship with crew and all on a two-day voyage to collect a pregnant woman during a “medevac” response. We were visiting the two other central islands (Vaitupu and Nukufetau) onboard Tala Moana just two weeks earlier and it would have been far less costly to have included Nui back then. In fact, MV Nivaga III made a stop at Nui between then and the “medevac”, as it collected students from the outer islands. So the pregnant woman could have reached Funafuti without any extra costs just a weeks’ time before we collected her. Oh – what do I know. I’m just a short-term guest without any deep knowledge of the country. Maybe it’s a cultural or traditional thing I don’t understand. Maybe pregnancies just last a few weeks in Tuvalu?


Yeah - we wait, and wait, and wait.

Back when I bought the first class return ticket from Tuvalu High Commission in Fiji, I was a bit uncomfortable about blowing the USD 20/day budget like that. It was nearly USD 500 for the return journey including meals. I was onboard for five days coming to Tuvalu which would average USD 50/day (return). At this point I think I have won the value back. Because I hold that return ticket, I have been living onboard the good ship Tala Moana since February 7th, when we were supposed to sail. Now we are in a waiting position. Who knows – maybe we will depart tomorrow, next week, go on a diesel delivery run, respond to another medevac or something else? It is unintentional that I have become one of histories most traveled people. I never knew that I would be motivating people in various ways or be a source for inspiration. I did not anticipate that we would have an impact on humanitarian work with this project. But I did think I would have a great adventure and become the first to reach every country completely without flying. The later remains to be seen. My goodness the mental strength it takes to stick with this after all these years. To think I once sat in a sandbox playing with toy cars completely oblivious to all of this. What can I say: people are just people.




I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross Energy / Geoop

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Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - looking forward to joining Swire's ship from Fiji

"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

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