Funafuti, We Have a Problem
Just as the pilot of the Fiji Link AR-72 was about to touch down, the engines roared and the nose pitched up. It was a missed approach. As we circled back around the island for landing attempt number two, the flight attendant informed us that the go-around was due to a stray dog loose on the runway. The whole cabin chuckled. The fun had begun before I’d even arrived.
But what else was I expecting from a country whose capital literally spelled out the word “Fun.” Welcome to Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu—one of the planet’s least-visited nations, and country #94 on my list. Let the fun begin.
Tuvalu is tiny; a thin strip of land taking up just ten square miles in the middle of The Pacific. The only way in or out is a flight three times a week from Fiji Airways, and even that is dubbed as one of the most unreliable flight services in the world. I was actually a little surprised I’d even made it here on the first pass. I’d read a handful of stories from fellow travel bloggers who’d made multiple attempts to visit the island and failed. I even had a backup plan in case I didn’t make it. I didn’t even care if I got stranded in Tuvalu, I just wanted to make it in–but thankfully, the air travel gods had blessed me on this trip.
Funafuti International Airport was the first sign that I’d be living on island time. A small, sea-foam green painted structure, there were no conveyor belts at baggage claim, no cafés or gift shops; not even a P.A. system or monitors. Also missing were the x-ray machines and metal detectors, which I’m still not sure is more charming or alarming. But that wasn’t the biggest surprise at this airport—more on that later. I was stamped in by immigration and then headed outside to catch a ride to my hotel.
They Left The Light on for Me
L’s Lodge was only about a two-minute drive from the airport, and actually sat just a few hundred feet away from the runway itself. The definition of “simple,” the property was a big white concrete house—two storeys—and located in the middle of a residential neighborhood, on a dirt road among the locals’ houses and shacks. My room had no TV and was anything but fancy, but did boast a functioning AC unit, and most importantly, was clean. But I didn’t come to such a faraway and obscure land to be a homebody. I was ready to get out and explore the heck out of this island.
Wasting no time, I enthusiastically trotted out on foot, spotting a foreigner as soon as I hit the (only) main road. I asked him which way I should walk to sight-see and quickly discovered he’d been there just as long as I—he was on my flight. His name was Artur, from Portugal, and we had one more thing in common: he too was a “country counter.” After Tuvalu, Artur would just have four more nations to go: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. It was fun practicing my Portuguese with my new friend and we promised to link up for a cerveja later. For now, we both had some exploring to do as we went our separate ways.
Pour Out a Little Liquor
I spent that first afternoon walking the quirky island, soaking in all the local nuances with the curiosity of a small child. One of the first things that stood out was the above-ground graves located in the front yards of many houses. It became apparent that many people here bury their family members in front of their homes—something I’d never seen before. Some graves were simple, concrete boxes; others were ornate structures decorated with colorful themes and elaborate plaques. Some graves were even enclosed inside small structures and had the makings of very basic and humble mausoleums–what was lacking in marble and gold was made up for in flowers and colored tiles.
I stopped into the national library—which was smaller than most American elementary school libraries—really giving you a perspective of just how tiny Tuvalu is. It was the only library where I’ve had to remove my shoes before entering. Then, it was over to the post office to buy some postcards before stopping inside a couple of tiny markets to survey the inventory. I love seeing the different products grocery stores sell in other countries; in the case of Tuvalu, mostly imports from Australia and New Zealand. The Oreo Cookies I bought were made in Indonesia and I was delighted to find Cadbury Chocolates from the UK. I also tried some Kirk’s “Creaming” Soda. This certainly wouldn’t be the most nutritious vacation I’d ever have, but I hoped all the walking would help balance everything out.
Back to the Future
I guess this would be a good part of the story to tell you how much Tuvalu reminded me of what it must have been like living in the 1950s or earlier. I’ve always wanted to travel back in time, and this would be the closest I’d get. The merchandise in the stores was placed on homemade wooden shelves. Credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere and there isn’t even one ATM in the entire country. I don’t remember seeing one lighted sign on the island—they were all wooden, painted with the business’ name. Not one stoplight. No computers, no iPads. The only person walking around looking at their phone was me. Here was a country not phased by the Kardashians nor worried about wearing the latest-style of name brand shoes…half the people weren’t even wearing shoes. Yet they seemed ridiculously content and happy with life.
Can You Hear Me Now?
I think the WiFi on the island was straight out of the 1950s too. Of course I know that WiFi didn’t exist in the 50s, but if it did, it would probably be faster than Tuvalu’s current day service. It was bad, really bad. First, even the “method” of acquiring WiFi was very different. When I clicked on the “L’s Lodge” network, it prompted me for a username and PIN. I soon found out that I had to physically go to the island’s telecom office and actually purchase a data plan with cash to use any WiFi, anywhere on the island. Weird, right? But hey, when in Rome. An hour later I found myself in a very nondescript room, in the back of an unmarked office building, buying a $20 telecom card for possibly the worst internet service I’ve ever experienced in my life. But maybe it was a blessing in disguise–it kept me away from the phone enough to enjoy the island.
On with my walk; I had no destination, no map, no plan. And that felt so good! Most places would be a lot easier to get lost in, but the physical geography of Tuvalu makes that simply impossible. Pick a direction–north or south–that’s your only choice on this skinny strip of sand and palms. I just wandered…until the clouds came in and the water came down.
In The Rain
The surrounding gloom had finally showed its stuff, as I headed for cover to try and stay dry from a tremendous, and very sudden downpour. I found myself under the eaves, standing at the back entrance of the island’s main hospital. The heavy rain lasted close to an hour, and it was too much to try and do anything but wait, or face an absolute soaking, and I wasn’t in the mood for one that day. Though having to immediately halt my exploration was a little frustrating–along with not knowing how long this storm was going to last–I did find joy in watching some locals come in from the sea and bathe under the rain gutters, shampoo and everything. I had to grab a couple photos, the scene was too adorable not to.
Besides some heavy showers, it was a very productive first afternoon in Tuvalu. I headed over to the Funafuti Lagoon Hotel for dinner that night. The menu was a piece of paper with three items hand-written in pen. I had the chicken and rice before heading back to the lodge for bed. I’d have my one and only full day in Tuvalu the next day and I wanted to rest up so I’d be re-charged for a day of non-stop exploring.
I slept well and was up and at ’em that next morning for a day of adventure. I was really digging Tuvalu and I was excited to see what the day had in store, as I trotted off on foot to see more.
Gotta Make That Dough
Perhaps one of the coolest things to run into was the small Kaupule Bread shop. You have to understand, a country like Tuvalu has not one Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts nor McDonald’s. In fact, aside from Nauru, I’m not sure I’d ever been to any country that didn’t have even one chain restaurant–Tuvalu had not one–and I found that just so extremely interesting. There were no “real” gas stations either. I was especially intrigued thinking about the folks who were born in Tuvalu that would never leave the island their entire life. They’d never know what ordering at a drive-thru would feel like, or getting a toy in a Happy Meal, or ordering from the secret menu at Starbucks. Not that missing out on that stuff would be bad necessarily, it was just so weird to imagine that there are people on this earth who will never have those experiences; who will never know what those things are like. Almost every other country in world has been infiltrated by at least one American restaurant chain (usually at least a few), but not Tuvalu. It was untouched.
What made Kaupule Bread so charming was seeing the ladies pull up on scooters and motorbikes with their pans of fresh breads and cakes to sell that morning. I’m not 100% clear on how it all worked, but I’m guessing this was some sort of bread “consignment” arrangement, where residents baked the goods in their homes each morning and then brought them to Kaupule to sell. Whatever the case, the place was jumpin’ like a 7-11 at 8AM. Kids, old folks, everybody–would pop in for a chunk of carbs and be on their way. You had to remove your shoes before entering, which made it that more different. Shirts were not required.
As I walked North, the land really thinned out and now I could see ocean on each side of me, with the left being Tuvalu’s giant lagoon (the whole country forms a circle with water in the middle) and the South Pacific on my right. The water looked stunning, but what I saw next was straight out of a movie. I ran into a group of young kids going for a morning dip–a swim in that absolutely gorgeous water, and right next to a beached ship. With their permission, I ventured closer for some photos and asked about the boat. They told me it was basically “shipwrecked” when I asked if it was still in commission. The children also informed me that they’d be on their way to school soon; this was their pre-class swim. I couldn’t help but think what a neat life for a child. Sure, they were missing out on birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, Spotify, malls and music festivals–but they were living in the simple times my parents told me about–where people still connected one-on-one, everybody knew their neighbors, and you had endless, innocent fun with whatever was available.
The Case of the Mysterious Jeepney
Southeast Asian countries are known for their “interesting” and very different modes of transportation: like the tuk-tuk in Thailand and bajaj in Indonesia. These are all small, motorized versions of “the taxi.” The Philippines are home to Jeepneys, which are literally Jeeps that are extended–or stretched, like limousines–so more than a dozen passengers can climb in. You have to duck your head as you crouch over, facing the person across from you as you sit on a long upholstered bench. A little uncomfortable, yes; but very fun and super cheap. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a random Jeepney rotting on the beach in Tuvalu. I had to get closer for pictures.
She was beached, and by the inventory of parts that were still in tact (not stripped), I imagined this girl hadn’t been out of commission long. Still, by the looks of her, I’d say she was definitely done, and that made me sad. I’d think a Jeepney rolling up and down this atoll would look pretty rad, but most importantly serve a great purpose. But what had me stumped was, how the hell did it get here in the first place? I studied the markings on the car and noticed the many Philippines and “Manila” references. And since they don’t manufacture much in Tuvalu, it had to be an import. But what was its story? How was it brought here? And by who? And why? Was it someone’s dream to start Tuvalu’s first mass-transit system with said Jeepney? And more importantly (and sadly, really), what happened? Sure, I imagine the Jeepney broke down, but why let a beauty like this rot over a slipping transmission or blown gasket?
Upon my return home, I immediately did an online investigation to see what I could find out about this particular Jeepney and was able to find pictures of it from its glory days and a fellow blogger with photos after its death, but no info on how the Jeepney arrived in Tuvalu. I’m guessing it must be a great story. So if anyone in Tuvalu is reading this, please contact me with the info if you have it. I imagine it’s the story something a movie, or at least a short film is made of; a tale of a vision, dreams, hard work, success, then ultimate failure. “A man with nothing, risks everything, to feel something…” Or not.
As my walk continued, I found more abandoned and out-of-commission “stuff.” With every piece of rusted and decaying machinery, came bursts of curiosity and wonderment, as I tried to imagine these machines’ purposes in days gone by. The cost of these giant beasts–much less the price to get them to the island, must have been massive–leading me to believe they must have served some very important economic roles. But then why and when did those activities halt? These are stories I need to know.
Fun (and Not so Fun) Facts
Tuvalu is home to the top level internet domain extension .tv. So when you see web addresses that end in .tv, those extensions belong to and are leased from Tuvalu. Now your life will never be the same! There’s an interesting article on how the .tv extension contributes to Tuvalu’s economy, here.
And now for some sad news. Tuvalu is slowly disappearing into the ocean. Just two meters on average above sea-level, one study predicted that at the current rate the ocean is rising, the country could disappear in the next 30 to 50 years. The people are already making evacuation plans. You can see a handful of documentaries on the issue here.
Ramblin’ Tip: There are no ATMs in the entire country. Hard to believe I know, but zero! Credit cards also aren’t accepted anywhere, so do not show up without cash! Tuvalu uses Australian currency, so make sure to exchange at the airport in Fiji before leaving for Tuvalu. I didn’t bring enough Australian dollars (amateur move), but thankfully the national bank does have a money exchange, so I changed some US dollars. Since the only way to pay for things in Tuvalu is cash, bring extra, since you can’t fall back on ATMs or credit cards.
Love to Love You
Some countries leave little impression on me, and that’s not an insult, just an observation when nothing I run into strikes an emotional chord. Other times, I am so touched and moved by what I witness in some countries, it gets to me physically: I feel tingles and get warm inside. Such was the case in Tuvalu. I’ve seen 94 countries to date, and so far Tuvalu earns the title as most friendliest. I’ve never visited a country where almost every passing stranger either smiles, nods or says good morning/afternoon. I felt like I was in some strange Pacific Island version of Mayberry. And I loved it. From little kids, to senior citizens–I was greeted by almost everyone and it was rare to pass someone without at least being acknowledged. How nice that felt, and what a change from the fast-paced and impersonal lifestyle of living in a big city where no one knows your name.
I especially loved the kids’ turquoise school uniforms. They’d all wave to me from their bus, with smiles and giggles. I passed by Nauti Primary School and thought how awesome it must be to attend an elementary school that was literally right on the beach. How special is that? I enjoyed watching the children play, especially at recess, and seeing many of the parents show up with snacks for their children. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, both physically and socially. I had to force myself to move on–I didn’t want to be the creepy old guy watching kids through the fence–it was just nice to see real innocence in real time.
A fellow traveler, Vic, made a really cool video of Nauti Primary School, and you can see it HERE.
Ramblin’ on the Radio
My full-time job is a Program Director of two radio stations in California and host of an internationally syndicated radio show. I’ve been in the business since the age of 15 and continue to be fascinated with all things radio, especially those tiny stations in small countries. I could’t miss the chance to see Tuvalu’s lone AM/FM government operated radio station. Without an appointment, I popped in asking for a tour, and James was more than hospitable. He stopped what he was doing to welcome me and give me a tour of the Tuvalu Media Department and its studios.
After my radio station visit, it was more lackadaisical island strolling for me, as I hit the banks of lagoon for a long walk as the sun started to set.
Perhaps what I will remember Tuvalu most for is the special meeting place that the country has designated for their nightly get-togethers. Every day, about two hours before sunset, hundreds of Tuvaluans, young and old, meet on the runway. Yes, the runway…at the airport. Try and wrap your head around that because I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it for myself.
There are soccer matches, volleyball games, motorcycles, jogging, running, and mostly just casual meet ups and hang outs–up and down the 5,000 foot long runway at Funafuti International. No fences, no barriers, no signs, no guards, no security. The runway is just there–out in the open and inviting to anyone who wants to join in on this daily social gathering. Shoes and shirts not required.
One of the other bizarre things I noticed about this runway, is, besides not having any fencing, were the residential houses butted right up against the landing strip. House, runway, house. Just like that. Totally weird, but very cool; and normal for Tuvaluans, I suppose.
So what happens when a plane needs to land? Well I’m pretty sure most Tuvaluans know the airport’s flight schedule by heart: there are only three flights per week, to and from Fiji. They’re daytime arrivals and departures, and when it’s finally time to use the runway for its designated purpose, firetrucks roll onto the asphalt to blast their sirens to warn folks to skedaddle.
As expected, I received plenty of waves and smiles while walking the runway that last night in Tuvalu. I dodged a few flying soccer balls while snapping away with my iPhone, marveling at all around me. It’s the kind of scene you dream about in your sleep, then wake up shaking your head at the absurd ideas your mind had managed to conjure up. But this was real.
Probably most memorable, were the three kids that escorted me on the last half of my walk. Melei, Tavita and Mahi were curious boys with tons of questions about America; which was just fine, as I had even more questions about Tuvalu. I wanted to know what it was like to grow up on such a small island, how often they visited this runway, what school was like here, and if they had plans to ever leave. I showed them pictures of me and Bruno Mars on my phone, and they thought that was really cool. They did their best to understand what my blog and website were all about, why I had interest in their country, and what I was going to write about. I promised them all a shout-out on my website, and gave them my card. So here it is: Hey, Melei, Tavita and Mahi! Nice to meet you! Stay good!
Melei invited me to visit him when I returned and pointed to his house near the runway. I imagined I’d be back one day, maybe in 20 years, and would meet Melei as an adult. I wonder if he’ll remember me. Nice kids.
The next morning I awoke sad, knowing I’d be leaving in a few hours. I soaked up that last sunny morning with more walking, this time farther north. The road takes you into and through the country’s port. I visited the wharf just in time to see a naval ship, and then the rain returned. I’d already walked at least two miles, so expected a long, wet walk home. Thankfully a nice lady on a bike pulled over and offered me a ride back to the lodge, sparing me from a soaking and further cementing my belief that Tuvaluans are just the warmest people ever. I hopped on, and held on, smiling the whole way back. Thanks for the lift Fili!
I packed my things and settled my bill at L’s Lodge. Leaving Tuvalu was absolutely unique as well: it is one of the only countries (maybe the only) where after you get “stamped out” by immigration, you’re allowed to just walk right back in! I actually checked in for my flight and “exited” through immigration before returning back to the lodge to hang for a bit until the plane arrived. About 90 minutes later, I was back at the airport to hear the sirens blare and see my plane arrive. I watched what looked like the whole village see me and the other passengers off: strangers waving and smiling at me once more, as I waved back and boarded the plane. I’d only been in Tuvalu for 36 hours, but felt like I was leaving friends and family.
Don’t visit Tuvalu if you’re looking to vacation at a fancy resort with Piña Coladas and water sports. Don’t visit Tuvalu if you can’t live without all the comforts of home, like chain restaurants, fast WiFi and trendy apparel shops. Don’t visit Tuvalu if you’re looking to party at clubs, bars and Vegas-style pool parties.
Do visit Tuvalu if you’re interested in experiencing life like it used to be. Do visit Tuvalu if you’re okay forcing yourself to slow down, take long walks, and notice the little things. Do visit Tuvalu if you have an open mind and you’re inspired to see one of the most remote democracies to experience a lifestyle like nothing back home. And do visit Tuvalu if you’re ready to receive unrequited love from every man, woman and child you pass on the street.
Check out my podcast from Tuvalu: