Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tales from Tuvalu

So what is Tuvalu? It is one of the smallest independent nations in the world - fourth smallest by some accounts. It is a remote island nation made up of nine islands/groups (though the name Tuvalu means "cluster of eight") - five are atolls and four islands. The atolls have clusters of smaller islands within their lagoons. Tuvalu, pronounced too-VAH-loo, is not the hotspot tourist destination. In fact they only get about 1000 visitors a year and only 10% of those are said to be tourists – so we are definitely in a minority. Located relatively close to the equator at 8 degrees, 31 minutes south and 179 degrees.11 minutes east, it is a very warm location. The sun is hot!

Funafuti Atoll, where we are anchored, is the largest and most populated of the Tuvaluen groups and the government center. It is a small chain of islets 24 kilometers long by 18 km wide. The sheltered lagoon sits in the center and the Pacific Ocean crashes around the outside. Fongafale is a boomerang shaped island in the atoll and is a is a mere 12 km long and at its widest point is only 400 meters. It sits at 2.5 meters above sea level. That's less than 9 feet! At very high tides or in storms, the runway for the Funafuti International Airport can sit under water. In fact, the biggest fear for this small island nation is that it may simply disappear – be eaten by the rising sea level. It has slowly lost more and more of its land and where people used to be able to play volleyball and games on the sandy beaches – the beaches are barely wide enough to walk.

Like most of these Pacific island nations, their cultures were changed by the coming of Europeans and the missionaries. Great Britain governed the islands, then known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Tuvalu was part of the Ellice group). It claimed its independence 35 years ago but still retains Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state, represented by a governor general. The country is now structured much like the British government with a Prime Minister and parliament. The country is dependent on foreign aid and it seems that most people work for the government in some capacity. Unfortunately for Tuvalu, they sell (or trade for aid) much of their fishing rights to foreign countries.

World War II changed the islands dramatically. The Japanese bombed parts of the islands, the US built an airstrip along the length of the island (taking the most fertile land), and many people were moved off Fongafale to a smaller island settlement nearby. Though most have returned to Fongafale, the small settlement remains with about 30 families. After the war, many people moved off the islands to Fiji, Kiribati or Tonga.

Two flights a week land at the international airport – the US built airstrip. The airport is the place where all the action happens – when planes arrive or even when there is no airline action. You can walk across the runway and motorbikes race up and down it. Games are played on the runway and the islands main road runs right alongside.

We have enjoyed exploring the island and have seen the comings and goings of several flights. Yesterday, some "donors" (a large Japanese contingent) was feted with dancing, singing and drumming before they left on their flight. They had arrived a few days earlier and the island got all spruced up for them. We understand that one of the dignitaries was the Minister of Energy for Japan (though we think he actually left on a special flight the day before – this was a big week with three planes!). We got to watch the festivities and see the beautiful traditional dancing and costumes.
The people here are quite friendly when you get to know them and they do all remember your names. It is quite funny to walk into a restaurant and have people call you by name. The meteorological station here is across from the airport, and yesterday, we stopped in to meet the weather guy. We hope to get some good insight from him before we start our trek north in a few weeks.

The map you get at the "tourist bureau" (a desk in one of the offices in the government building), has the headline "Take your wants off and put your happiness on." It goes on to say, "One of the smallest and most remote nations in the world, this unspoiled corner of the Pacific offers a peaceful, and non-commercialized environment that is ideal for escaping the globalization." Now that's an interesting marketing approach!

So far, we like Tuvalu!

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