Tuvalu: Isolation Is As Much A Blessing & A Curse

Now in Apia, Samoa, into the 4th week of my Pacific trip.  Here's my Tuvalu travelogue.  Check out my blog at twcnomad.blogspot.com for my writings on Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Wallis & Futuna, Fiji and Kiribati which I visited the last few weeks.


Checked out of Air Trans Hotel at 1:30am and headed for Nadi Airport.  By 3:50am, we were on our way to Funafuti.  This time, the flight was smooth.  As we began our descent close to 6am, the necklace shaped atoll of Funafuti was in sight.  The islets were small indeed – much smaller than those of Kiribati’s Tarawa Atoll.  The largest islet of the atoll is Fongafale, on which the key administrative buildings of Funatfuti is located, is only 2.5 sq km.  At 12km long, this means that Fongafale is on average 208 meters wide. 
Indeed, apart from a 600m stretch where the airport is located, most of Fongafale is barely 100m wide - so narrow that one can see both the Pacific Ocean and the lagoon at the same time.  The “real capital” is located next to the airport at its widest stretch, where the 1.5m long runway cuts the “capital” into half.  Flights land here twice a week and when there are no flights, the runway turns into a highway, football field, sun-grazing haunt and family picnic grounds all rolled into one.  A Taiwanese aid-worker would later tell me about how he enjoyed lying on the runway in the evenings, observing the field of stars and cloudless sky, till sleepiness and dream world overwhelm him.

When a flight approaches Funafuti, a siren would warn passersby to get out of the runway.  A second siren would sound as the plane is sighted over the atoll, while fire engine and airport safety personnel chase off anyone would remain on the runway.  Sometimes, a third siren would ring.  Only then would the plane land.  I would learn that the first siren rang when our plane was near Funafuti Atoll on 6 July (before it turned back to Nadi) which then prompt some commotions when the plane did not land – some wondered what had happened to the plane… did it disappear in thin air?

Funafuti is one of those sleepy places where the occasional arrival of planes is a major event.  The whole town turns out to the airport just like people elsewhere in the world go to the movies.   As the plane ran on the runway, we saw hundreds of people by the outer perimeter of the airfield gawking at the landing of this giant mechanical flying bird, as though we were VIPs arriving to officiate on an important event. And yes, this was 6am in the morning when people elsewhere in the world would have preferred to squeeze extra minutes out before heading for work; yet the people of Funafuti, cosmopolitan capital of Tuvalu, would prefer to get up early to witness the arrival of a plane. 
Even foreigners were not immune to this favourite of local pursuits.  I saw many New Zealand soldiers – who arrived a few days ago for a few weeks of community work - staring in our direction by the runway.  A Taiwanese would tell me later: if you live on a tiny claustrophobic place like this with no cinemas, concert halls and malls, you too would crave for a breeze of fresh air from the world beyond.

The moment I got off the plane, the excitement of arrival in so remote a country overcame me.  After all, I almost did not make it here. I might have been stuck at Nadi for 40 hours but I was luckier than the three EU officials who failed to make it here even on their second attempt.  I let my camera get into command, taking in as much of the scene as I could.  The Taiwanese, too, were filming away.  The golden light of sunrise had lit up the small ramshackle tin-shed that was the terminal building and the crowds of Tuvaluans who stood by it to welcome the plane.  What a magical moment!  (and I hoped this visit to a location with airport code FUN really means it!)
Tuvaluan immigration was friendly and they commented it was a pity I could only do a day trip. I also bade farewell to the new Tuvaluan friends that I got to know while stranded at the transit hotel in Nadi.  I was to see some of them again in the afternoon when they came to the airport to send me off. 

Around the square just outside the tiny airport terminal building were some key buildings of this country.  In a anti-clockwise fashion: First, the two storey offices of the National Bank of Tuvalu, the only bank in the country. About the size of two shop units in Singapore’s Chinatown. I was told that they were able to exchange the Australian dollar (legal tender in Tuvalu) into the US dollar, that they fix the exchange rate once a month and more inexplicably, they often sell A$ at rates higher than US$!  Perhaps someone is doing some arbitrage here. 
Next is the police station followed by Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, the only hotel in the country.  The hotel was built by Taiwan, which has diplomatic relations with Tuvalu, as a gift to Tuvalu.  The Taiwanese call it “Lan Qi Bin Guan”, meaning the blue flag hotel in Chinese.  Maybe that’s what Vaiaku Lagi means in Tuvaluan.   I’m not sure when this hotel was built but it was already showing signs of decay and peeling paints. 

Right opposite the airport terminal building is the HQ of the “Central Government”, or at least this is how a Taiwanese described to me.  The prime minster’s office and all the ministries are here.  So is the post office.  It is also one of the few buildings in the country with air condition!  Later, I would drop by the tourist information office and lands and survey department within this building, though I could not find the topological maps I was searching for.  I also bumped into a Taiwanese technical advisor in one of the offices.  Oh, did I say that this building was also a gift from Taiwan?  Outside the building are a plaque commemorating the construction of the building  funded by Taiwan, and another plaque celebrating the “deep friendship” between Taiwan and Tuvalu, unveiled by Taiwan’s President Ma in early 2010 during his 4-hour visit.
In fact, a foreign consultant had told me that Tuvalu government gets half its revenue as aid from Taiwan.  Income tax only makes up 25% of the government revenue.  Fishing licenses and dot TV domain fees make up the bulk of the remaining.  These only help to maintain running cost of the government, which flows to the ordinary citizens in the form of civil service salaries and government subsidies. Unfortunately, many Tuvaluans no longer live on subsistence fishing and farming, but as civil servants supplying the nation with a modern education, healthcare and transportation infrastructure. 

Even the largest supermarket chain of Tuvalu is a government venture, which someone whispered to me was loss-making.  It is simply too costly to supply a tiny country of 8 islands, each separate from others by great distances.  Funafuti is 6 hours by boat from the nearest of the 8 island atolls, and the furthest is 3 days’ sailing time.  There is no domestic flight network and the government boat that connects the islands often breaks down.  A visit to the outer island can easily take 2 or 3 weeks. 
Furthermore, it is already prohibitively costly to ship goods to Tuvalu from elsewhere in the world.  Few ships would want to supply a tiny nation with 12,000 inhabitants.  Amir said that some of his company’s DHL parcels were even offloaded from Air Pacific flights to Tuvalu simply because there was no spare space on those flights.  Another expat told me that postcards posted by visitors in February would only be shipped out on my flight, i.e., a 5-month delay!
For development projects, foreign aid is critical.  In fact, Tuvalu’s airport was a Japanese gift; the Taiwanese technical aid team runs an experimental farm and supplies seeds to local farmers; Japan not only built the electricity generation plant but also fund the plant’s running costs.  In many small third world countries, foreign aid allows governments to pay bills and develop infrastructure.  Tuvalu is lucky that it is a sovereign nation with a seat at the United Nations.  Its UN seat allows it to be courted by Taiwan over its UN entry bid and by Japan over whaling rights.  It is highly unlikely that Tuvalu would enjoy many of the infrastructure it has today if it had remained a part of Kiribati.

Prior to independence, both Kiribati and Tuvalu were part of the British Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, but was split apart just before independence.  Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands, which are ethnically Micronesian, became Kiribati; whereas the mainly Polynesian Ellice Islands became Tuvalu.  Tuvalu accounted only slightly more than 10% of the combined population of Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and yet was allowed by the British to break away from Kiribati.  This was definitely not a frequent phenomenon. 
Across the old British Empire, many small ethnic groups or regions (such as Nagaland of India and the Shan States of Burma) were forced to be part of a greater ethnically different country at independence, despite aggressive local agitation.  Tuvalu would have become a very poor backwater of Kiribati if it was not independent.  I also heard a story that triggered off Tuvalu’s separation from Kiribati.  Apparently, Gilbertese (or iKiribati) politicians wanted to impose regional quotas on overseas scholarships based on population proportions of individual regions within the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony.  It was said that Tuvaluans were more hardworking in school and would have qualified for the entire annual allocation of scholarship awards if not for regional quotations that Gilbertese politicians sought.  It was this reason as well as ethnic differences that led to Ellice Islands’ secession as Tuvalu.
It also be noted that regionalism remains strong in Tuvalu.  Despite its minute size, each of the 8 islands has its own local council which is fiercely independent.  Tuvaluans think of themselves first as members of their clan or tribe, then island, and finally as Tuvaluans last.  A Tuvaluan, when meeting a stranger, would ask which island the latter came from. 

A few foreign expats commented that local politics in Tuvalu often revolve around highly localized issues.  Few politicians have the “helicopter view” to consider interests of the country at large.  Given the small population size, everybody knows everybody else.  Hence it is sometimes difficult for government officials to undertake difficult decisions, as every decision taken affects someone the official knows personally.  The positive feature of Tuvaluan politics is, however, that there is little corruption.  The country is too small and intimate for someone to lead a luxury life without others noticing.
Next is the Filamona Guesthouse with whom I had made reservations for a room.  Due to the rescheduling of flights, I would only be making a day trip to Tuvalu.  I dropped by there to greet the manager with whom I had corresponded.  She was kind enough to allow me to leave my luggage there while exploring the island during my short stay.  I returned the favour by having coffee and lunch there.  Interestingly, I was informed by another foreigner that the guesthouse is owned by the wife of the finance minister.

Stood between the airport terminal and Filamona is a traditional meeting house, or maneapa (similar in purpose and architecture style to the type found in Kiribati).  This particular maneapa also acts as the Parliament house.  What an open parliament building which is open to all and sundry!  No walls, no doors, no security guards!  I was also told the building is considered scared to the Tuvaluan nation.  No one is allowed to walk across it casually.  Neither is anyone allowed to lean against its pillars or sit on it in a less than dignified fashion.  This taboo is obviously not strictly enforced, as I noticed many locals sitting on its railings or leaning against the pillars across the day.

At Filamona, I chanced upon Eric Hsu, the friendly and humourous Third Secretary of the Taiwanese Embassy.  We had an interesting chat about life in Tuvalu, and he kindly offered to bring me around the island of Fongafale.  “The island is small”, he said, “it would not take me long to show you around.”  We drove to the southern end of the island, and then backtracked to go to its northern end.
On the whole, Tuvalu appeared to be better run and more orderly than Kiribati and Nauru.  Notwithstanding the huge rubbish dumps at both ends of Fongfale, the streets were much cleaner than Kiribati and Nauru.  The roads were also free of the many potholes that plagued Kiribati’s main thoroughfare through South Tarawa.  Tuvaluans, in general, also dressed better than iKiribati, many of whom walked around “downtown” barefoot and sometimes barechested. 

Fongafale, with its coconut and breadfruit trees-lined streets, looked like a small kampong (village in Malay).  Tuvaluans rode through the streets leisurely on their scooters, while many were seen lazing on their hammocks.  This is definitely a place that moves slowly.  Tuvalu makes Honiara and Suva look like New York and Hong Kong.  The only buzz were the groups of shirtless New Zealander soldiers who arrived days ago to repair bridges, renovate schools and carry out public works in general.  There were many locals sitting around watching the busy kiwis.
In recent years, Tuvalu has been receiving publicity as the country most likely to “sink” first due to global warming.  Most parts of the country are barely 5 meters above sea level.  Some have noticed that certain depressions in the Funafuti Atoll have now been filled with salt water which rises and falls according to the tide.  Others argue that this is not necessarily caused by global warming.  Atoll ground comprises coral rock which is porous, and hence salt water could penetrate and flow into depression therein.  A recent study by the University of Auckland actually concluded that the Funatfuti Atoll was actually growing instead of eroding, i.e., Tuvalu is rising, not sinking.
A Japanese study blamed the seepage and general coastal degradation to rise in population.  Funafuti had 200 inhabitants when the British first declared Ellice Islands a protectorate, but the atoll now has 5000 inhabitants.  Increased population and the lack of proper rubbish disposal and sewage systems have turned parts of the lagoon adjacent to densely populated Fongafale toxic with bacteria and dirt.

Many, especially those who actually live in Tuvalu, would consider inadequate and ineffective rubbish and waste treatment as well as lack of fresh water for a rapidly growing population greater issues than global warming for Tuvalu.  Many donor nations have experimented with different methods of waste disposal but none had so far worked for Tuvalu, either In terms of practicality or cost-efficiency.  Economies of scale simply does not apply to Tuvalu.  Solutions that work elsewhere are often too expensive for tiny Tuvalu.
In reality, most Tuvalans are hardly worried about the possibility of the nation sinking due to global warming.  Most of them are easygoing and believe that god would have a way out for them somehow.  A foreign expat even said there was no need for the Tuvaluans to move so far to Australia.  Even Fiji has significant empty land that could be used to resettle Tuvaluans.  In fact, there was the precedence of Bananba (or Ocean) Islanders from Kiribati settling on Rambi Island in Fiji, after the devastation of their island Nauru-style as a result of phosphate mining.

Eric also told me about the Taiwanese experimental farm in Tuvalu, which has succeeded in growing vegetables on Tuvalu’s nutrient-poor coral soil whereas many other countries had failed.  However, the challenge is now to persuade Tuvaluans to eat more vegetables.  Tuvaluans traditionally consume food and coconut for their meals, but got hooked onto canned corned meat introduced by American soldiers during WWII.  Like people in many other Polynesian countries, few Tuvaluans exercise and gluttony had become the order of the times.  In general, my observation in not just Tuvalu but also in Samoa, is that Polynesians are slim and fit while teenage but become aspiring sumo wrestlers after 25.
Despite some tokens of modernity, Tuvaluan society has remained in some ways a semi-barter economy.  Pigs, which are traditional symbols of wealth bred in almost every home, and coconuts are not for sale.  These are gifts of nature to be shared among family and community. And pigs are often kept to be fattened and slaughtered in weddings and feasts. Both pigs and coconuts are often used to barter for other goods, although some Indian and Chinese shops have begun to sell pigs and coconuts recently.

I dropped by the dilapidated Tuvalu Philatelic Bureau (next to the equally run-down National Library whose main signboard had collapsed), where one could purchase stamps and philatelic products issued in the last few decades.  I bought 7 postcards and a few souvenir sheets and first day covers.  The bureau staff also gave me quite a few items for free.  Tuvalu is a prolific issuer of stamps, most of which are issued only to collectors and not used as postage.  In fact, I was told I could not use the souvenir sheets as postage for my postcards, which is odd.
The International Law of the Sea, successfully negotiated in 1982, had a tremendous impact on small nations.  No longer is national sovereignty restricted to 12 nautical miles, but every country now has an economic exclusive zone of 200 nautical miles.  For tiny Pacific island states, this meant they can now profit from granting of fishing rights licenses to richer and better-equipped foreign fishing fleets.  Some of these countries are even trying to extend their EEZ by further defining their underwater continental shelf.

Before long, it was almost 2pm.  Crowds began to build up at the airport to watch the next arrival of a plane.  I checked in my luggage at the rather relaxed immigration and customs.  They have no x-ray machines and there is no security check at the airport.  One can walk in and out of the terminal building even after one’s passport has been stamped out of the country.
By now, I have been introduced to perhaps half the 16-strong Taiwanese community in Tuvalu – most of them embassy and technical aid personnel.  Many of them were at the airport to meet the Taiwanese ambassador who was flying in by the same plane I was to depart.  (I was to see the Tuvalu prime minister receiving the Taiwanese ambassador at the airport.)  I also bumped into a few Tuvaluans whom I had gotten to know while stranded in Nadi.  As I board the plane, my new friends waved me off.  I had thought I would be bored visiting Tuvalu.  As it turned out, a 3-day trip has been shortened to only 8 hours.  I have also gotten to know many interesting people who showered me with great hospitality. In fact, I wished I could have spent more time getting to know some of them better and listening to their stories.
Tuvalu is an interesting place indeed.  Isolation is a blessing as well as a curse.  The islands have remained an Eden of sorts, though that innocence is rapidly under stress from non-biodegradable rubbish and global warming.  My visits to Tuvalu and Kiribati have also shown the terrible diseconomies of scale that makes everything in these tiny island states costly, though the severe disadvantage is partially mitigated by international aid, which proves the usefulness and economic value embedded in a seat in the United Nations that only sovereign independent states enjoy.