Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tuvalu, the 'Sinking' Country


Kids playing water rugby on the runway.
The water is due to heavy rainfall, not rising ocean levels. More photos below.

I could feel it even before the plane landed. This country is one of a kind. And again, when leaving the aircraft. I have never seen a smaller terminal building. It was raining, but we still had to queue outside for passport control. There simply wasn't room enough for 25 people inside the building. Very few people visit Tuvalu, and there isn't too much infrastructure to accommodate tourists either. To me, that is a good thing. I prefer places less travelled. People are more genuine, more welcoming, and everything seems more real than what is the case in 'tourist hells' around the world. The friendliness experienced in Tuvalu is second to none, I wasn't even allowed to walk the 1,500 meters to my apartment if someone I knew passed on moped. They then stopped and insisted on driving me to the door. I will always remember what to me is the third last country to visit.

Frequently changing weather

The lagoon.
I have now been exploring Tuvalu's main island and capital Funafuti for the last two days. Yesterday it was raining. Big time. You know when you drive through heavy rain and your windshield wipers cannot keep up?  I was jogging through extreme Pacific rain, and my eyelids were like windshield wipers at full speed. They still couldn't keep up. I kept on jogging, but couldn't see anything clearly. Very refreshing though!

Today the sun is out. Although it will certainly rain for sure. The changes in weather are fast and
furious. But with the sun from the blue sky, the
The entrance of my flat. If you break a
window in Tuvalu, you don't throw it away.
You stitch it back up together.
Pacific stereotype is back. Except that it isn't really. This is Tuvalu, the first country to 'sink' should ocean levels rise. Of course, the country will not sink. It will be flooded. But the legend of Atlantis is strong, and in common language sinking sounds scarier, more dramatic and maybe more real. People here are worried, and they have good reason to be. The same applies to neighbouring Marshall Islands and Kiribati. 

'We are sinking!'

In Marshall Islands earlier this month, I got talking to an old guy in a bar. He asked me where I was from. 

- Norway.

- What? Nowhere?

- Nor-way, I said. Slowly but loudly. He still looked puzzled. 

- It's in Scandinavia. It's in Europe. Northern Europe. 

He didn't react instantly, but had a sip of his beer. Then he raised his voice. 

- We are sinking. We are sinking because of you! He lifted his finger and pointed at me. 

- Because of me? I looked around, securing exit options. 

- We are sinking because of pollution from Europe, he explained. 

The old guy was a little drunk, but there is no denying that such feelings are not unique. Countries here may sink, or flood, and it may very well be because of pollution primarily from Western countres. I will not enter the debate whether global warming is man made or not. I do dislike opportunists like Al Gore, taking credit for being the guy enlightening the rest of us about global warming. He may be right, partly right or wrong. He is still using his status as a former US vice president and presidential runner-up to make money. A lot of it. Without showing any genuinity, in my opinion. That still shouldn't stop us from doing our part. Earth Hour like initiatives might just help the people of Tuvalu and other Pacific islands be able to stay in their homes on their islands. Scientists do on unbiased terms seem to be agreeing that ocean levels will actually rise, regardless of the cause. 

And that makes the old guy in the bar and a lot of people on Pacific islands nervous. Where will their new homes be?

What to do

I was swimming off a pier when these kids came over.
We produced dive-bombs and swam out to one of the boats
in the background for more diving. Such a great time!
They came home latefor dinner. 
The seriousness left aside, what is there to do here? The lagoon is great for swimming, snorkelling and diving, just bring your own gear. There is one sand beach of any size and loads of rock beaches, so that is always an option. The water temperature is always very pleasant, so is the clarity of the water. Do also try to hitch a boat ride to other smaller islands. Just ask around, someone will be able to help you. And go or bike to either side of the island. There is more to see to the north, past the harbour. Where the atoll is on its narrowest you will get the sound of waves in stereo. A fantastic experience for anyone slightly interested in sound. And those who just enjoy waves.

'Reserve for Prime Minister.'
His car or moped, I dunno which is his.
There isn't a huge amount going on in terms of nightlife, at your first look and unless you dare going beyond the obvious choices in the center; The bar of Filamona Guesthouse and the bar of Vaiaku Lagi, the only hotel of the island. But dare venture a little further into the unknown, and you have Matagi Gali towards the eastern end of the runway (photo below), Lucky Set nearby Filamona and Pier One by the main harbour three kilometers outside the town center. And of course, as in any country, getting in touch with locals and ending up in a real house party always invites for the very best and most real experiences.

Foodwise, it was a little disappointing. Being in the middle of the Pacific, I would expect more fresh seafood, but that doesn't seem to be among the favourite Tuvalese dishes. These people sure like their meat! Fish were available some places though, but less fresh than in Marshall Islands. Do however not miss out on the pancakes filled with fresh coconuts and fish, they were fantastic! You can get them in Snackbar, the cafe of the airport terminal building. Enter through the entrance towards the bank.

Oh, the bank. You've got the black card? Am-Ex Gold? Visa Platinum? Emerald Super Duper Mega Mastercard Plus? It just won't matter. Tuvalu is one of the very few countries were cards are not accepted anywhere. Bring cash! You can change money in the bank, but cash is still king. Australian dollars are preferred. 

The country around the runway

Only two aircrafts use the runway every week.
Funafuti is the biggest island of Tuvalu, and also the capital. Its 2.4 square kilometers makes up 9% of the entire country, yet it is the home to half the population. Needless to say, there isn't much space left. But an airport is needed, of course. And one with a refreshing and positive name too! OK, so maybe Funafuti International Airport isn't all that unique, but the airport code will make you smile. FUN. You can't beat it, really. 

The central location of the runway means that almost everything can be seen from the 1,524 meter long runway. Which does not have a fence around it. After all, it is in use as a runway only
The end of the runway. 
twice a week. Both times by the only airline that services FUN, Air Pacific which flies from and to Suva, the capital of Fiji on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the time, people use it for just about anything. Jogging path, yoga spot, walking dogs, playground, sports fields, shortcuts or simply as a part of the road network.

There won't be a lot of tourists making use of the runway, though. The country only gets 1,200 visitors each year which makes is the 3rd least visited country in the world. When leaving by plane, remember that there is a departure tax of 30 Australian dollar, the currency being used (although some coins are from Tuvalu). There is a passenger ship running to Suva every now and then, but it rarely carries tourists. The trip usually takes 3 days, according to one of the mechanics I met in Suva.

I'll let the camera speak. All photos below (and above) were photographed from the runway or less than two minutes walk from it. Click on the photo for higher quality.


FUN.
Or Funafuti International Airport if you're not in a hurry.

Literally, a runway. FUN is one of the few airports
in the world where you can legally run on the runway.

Ex mode of transport.
Rumour has it that Matagi Gali Bar is still operational.
Despite the way it looks during daytime.
A house with a view. Only two flights a week,m though.
The national stadium. Little, you say? It can hold 1,500
spectators, over 14% of the country's population.
The USA would need a stadium capable
of seating 44.6 million people to match it.
Tuvalu Meteorological Service.
The power plant. 
The virtual connection to the world. 
Filamona Guesthouse.
The government (in the background)
Market place and rain shelter. 
The national bank. 
The fire and police station.
The place to go for breakfast or lunch. Yes, the van.
You can sit inside or outside. Their chocolate cake is to
kill for. 
The monument. 
The pig farms.
Curious pigs inside. 
The potential life saver. 
One of the many tiny shops.
Tuvalu Road. 




21 comments:

  1. Tuvalu really sounds like my kind of place. It's been on my travel "wish list" for almost 10 years now, but I guess I haven't made it enough of a priority. After finding your blog, though, I'm realizing that I really need to re-prioritize and get back to traveling to less visited places. Maybe I can make Tuvalu my 142nd last country to visit.

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  2. I think you should...Tuvalu is a must see, must experience!

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  3. Whoa! A jeepney in Tuvalu! I wonder how it got there.

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  4. Tuvalu gets a boost to its national economy because of the good fortune that came from its national internet designation: .TV

    An American company pays $10 Million a year to rent it and sell sites with the designation.

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    Replies
    1. And stamps - it distributes hundreds of its own first day covers around the world on a regular basis from a delightful Philatelic Bureau that is well worth a visit when next you are in Funafuti (the airport acronym of which is "FUN"!)

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  5. Stefan Kirschner31 March 2013 07:25

    Gunnar are you going to write a book about visiting all the countries? Do you really beat Maurizio Giuliano in visiting all the countries at the youngest age?

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  6. Hi Stefan,

    No, he visited all at the age of 29. I will be 37, and the youngest to have visited all countries on my spare-time (Giuliano and a few others have travelled to many countries profesionally, as part of their work).

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  7. Stefan Kirschner31 March 2013 07:49

    Yes he works for the UN. I didn't know they had a special category for spare time travelers. How about a book? Maybe you can compete now with Charles Veley although that would seem pretty hard!

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  8. Hehe...Veley has a lot of money.

    I am working on a book, hopefully due next year. No such category in Guinness Book of Records, but a little claim to fame, at least...

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  9. Stefan Kirschner31 March 2013 08:05

    By the way, how did you get a visa for Saudi Arabia?

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  10. I got a transit visa at their embassy in Oslo. Easy, it only took a few days. All I needed was my plane ticket, showing my onward journey.

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  11. Stefan Kirschner31 March 2013 08:44

    So how long was your stopover there?

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  12. Stefan Kirschner31 March 2013 16:55

    How exactly did you manage that? Did you have one flight with such a long stopover or was it two separate tickets? Thanks

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  13. Johnston Reid1 April 2013 01:59

    Is it true that there are no banks in Tuvalu? Just curious. I mean you can always try to bring in enough but what happens if you run out?

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  14. There is a bank, National Bank of Tuvalu:
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-CrbtHQwEuMc/UVI_sJzvHKI/AAAAAAAACzg/FXQ_HYU1nns/s320/tuvalu20.jpg

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  15. You left out one of the most interesting aspects to Tuvalu: they don't have the capacity to accept credit cards. Anywhere. Not even for cash advances at the National Bank. Not sure if there is another country in the world without any such facilities. Even in Kiritimati you can use them!

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    Replies
    1. You are right. Cash is definitely needed!

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  16. First of all great blog! But I am very curious about the Saudi Arabia transit visa as I am thinking about doing a round trip from Doha to Riyadh in June.. Did you have a round trip or two separate tickets? Did you have to show up at the embassy in Oslo? I have looked everywhere for information for Norwegian passport holders and would be grateful for any answer.

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    Replies
    1. Hello,

      I had to separate tickets, showed up at the embassy in Oslo and had my transit visa in hand 3 days later. Best of luck!

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  17. Thanks Garfors for your blog. i was looking to get help to visit Tuvalu. can you help me how to get visa from india.

    ReplyDelete