When the idea of a field research trip to a Pacific island was floated, it cemented my idea to write my thesis around coral reef protection. The destination – Tuvalu. My friend, travel adviser at the time, and now owner of this blog told me it was the least visited nation in the world based on airline data. The fact that there are only two flights a week to and from the main hub of Funafuti (and they have to come through Fiji if coming from the south) told me I was heading somewhere special that few Westerners would ever experience.
Walking on this kind of unconsolidated coral rubble for hours leads to very swollen ankles and many cuts and scrapes
Firstly, it is important to note that my 2.5 weeks trip was for geographic research purposes so my take on Tuvalu travel and tourism is less in depth. We had two or three days where we didn’t venture out to the surrounding islands in which we were resting and programming instruments, recovering data and planning for the next trip across the lagoon. In this time we did also take a few walks around the island to get an idea of the lifestyle there.
This map shows Tuvalu’s location within the Pacific Ocean. I visited in February (the start of the wet season) for 2.5 weeks and it was one of the most eye-opening trips imaginable. I have written a top ten highlights of Tuvalu travel here. This post is a bit more down to the nitty gritty which will hopefully give realistic expectations and to reflect on the Tuvalu experience.
I had been to Fiji and New Caledonia, so I had a little experience with tropical climates. Tuvalu (particularly when doing hard work as opposed to lazing by the pool) was on the next level. Every morning, like clockwork came a torrential downpour around 7:30am for an hour or two. Sometimes it didn’t rain for the rest of the day. Sometimes it stuck around all day! But we went out to our study sites, rain or shine. The heat was immense, especially when combined with the extreme humidity. If you ever visit Tuvalu, a leisurely stroll should be the extent of your exercise. On the last day we walked to and from my study site (Fatato Island) at low tide (on Sundays, nobody works so we could not hire the tin boat to transport us). I just about collapsed from heat exhaustion on the walk back of the 10km round trip. Remember you need to drink at least 2-3 liters of water a day – ideally bottled which is unfortunate (waste wise) but necessary (health wise as Hepatitis A is a very real risk).
Funagongo’s Leeward Rim. One good reason to visit Tuvalu
At the time of this trip, I’d had minimal 3rd world/Eastern travel experience. As far as culture shocks go, this one was real. I was expecting Kiwi bach lifestyle, when in reality it was more akin to what I imagine slum/chanti towns to be like (without the excessive population). Even my supervisor who had researched throughout remote islands in the Pacific was surprised by how 3rd world it was. There were two accommodations of varying quality – sufficient but not totally comfortable (especially considering the first week, the air-con wasn’t working). I would fully recommend staying at the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel over the Filamona where we stayed.
A borrow pit where rubbish gets thrown into. Note the toddler clothing lovingly hung on the washing line…
The first culture shock came as we took a walk around the island the afternoon we arrived. Tuvalu does not have the friendly welcoming vibe of the commercial touristy spots of Fiji where the constant ‘Bulas’ are genuine. They are not particularly accustomed to tourists or westerners. The kids would call out “Parangi, Parangi” (Samoan for white folk). This is not at all offensive but a simple observation by the kids – they are not used to people that look different. Walking among the animals were a struggle to come to grips with. Cats and dogs that we are used to seeing as the most loved members of the family roam there with various deformities and open wounds. As harsh as it sounds, you don’t want to get too near these animals as a vet comes to the island to try and vaccinate against rabies and other diseases but it is still present.
Kids playing in the abandoned de-salination plant.
Another surprise (even to a Kiwi where our drinking culture could be viewed as unhealthy) was the behaviour surrounding alcohol. The thing to remember is, there is not a huge amount to do there. They don’t have movie theaters, shopping malls, or mini golf. A bunch of the men start drinking the $2 VBs (Victoria Bitters) around 1pm and go on into the night. One afternoon we couldn’t bring our boat in to the jetty at 5pm because a drunk man was hanging off the side and we would have banged into him. After calling the kids on the wharf to get him help, we went down to the next jetty. It became clear that this was not unusual behaviour.
I said one evening that if they removed alcohol from the islands they would solve three things. They would have less drunk behaviour, they would save money (as it is far from an affluent area), and they would reduce their pollution as rubbish is a huge issue for them. In my self rightenouness I thought I had found the solution to what I saw as their three largest problems as a nation. My supervisor who has extensive island knowledge asked me if I thought because people were poor they didn’t deserve a vice. It was a very thought provoking question for me. I know the same thing could be said for any country removing alcohol – Indonesia is currently considering it as an option. Their tourism would seriously suffer, but I would personally be more inclined to visit after hearing so many horror stories of alcohol tampering in SE Asia.
Please check out my list of Tuvalu highlights to understand the other side of the coin here. You might also like to check out:
Christianity is widespread in Tuvalu. I would guess they have more churches per head than possibly any other country. Sunday, no work gets done and you must be quiet if walking around while church services are on. I was surprised to see large, well-built churches surrounded by dirty shacks as homes. It was something I struggled with – seeing ornate graves while toddlers walked around borrow pits of rubbish. It was another aspect of their culture I had to learn to respect as it is so different from home.
Ornate gravesites fringe the entire populated islands and the largest of many churches on Fongafale
This was a shock I could get on board with instantly. The word primitive often has negative connotations, but a society that has been minimally impacted by development was so refreshing. To see a small civilization where fishing is the primary industry and family and religion are major focuses. A business man staying at the accommodation with us was there trying to set up importation of hair gels and the like. It was all I could do to stay polite and not tell him that they don’t need that crap here. They are already struggling to deal with waste and pollution. The things that clutter the western world aren’t necessary in Tuvalu. My intentions with theses thoughts were genuinely good. From our point of view, their land is so much more special without commercial crap but that’s only their decision to make.
If traveling to Tuvalu be prepared for cold showers with no temperature gauge. Be prepared to get sick in one way or another (even if you’re careful around food – the salad is washed with tap water, the door handles will have bacteria etc). Not a single member of our group of 8 had exclusively solid bowel movements. Be prepared to struggle if you are a vegetarian. I was the only strict vegetarian but the other girls struggled with the meat there as they were afraid the reef fish would contain Ciguatera, the chicken under cooked, and the pigs that were lined in pens alongside the runway outside our bedroom window didn’t improve the appeal of the pork. I ate a well-balanced diet of rice, salad, and muesli bars. We had arranged for curry wraps every day for lunch by a kind lady, but let me tell you, in 30 degree heat with tummy troubles – you will not want spicy curry for two weeks straight. Fruit was not the tropical buffet you think of on an island, we were lucky to find some oranges at the store one day and boy did they go down well.
Pig pens that line the runway. This is what you can expect in Tuvalu Travel
This was my least favourite observation. We went to a few islands (all uninhabited) within Funafuti Atoll and they were the most perfect, untouched lands you dream about. However, some of these were littered with ketchup containers and coke bottles that had clearly drifted here from around the Pacific Ocean as they didn’t have these brands in Filamona (the main island). Please recycle – wherever you are. Most council websites will have very easy to understand guidelines about what can be recycled and what happens to it. Here is the one for Aucklanders. A quick google search will take you to the guidelines for your city. Seeing firsthand, the negative impact our development and society has on those who are powerless to stop it really bought everything I had learned about marine pollution from the lecture slideshow to reality.
I realize this retrospective has a negative tone as it is hard to sugar-coat the realities of Filamona from my point of view. It was so eye-opening to see how another society lives and made me so appreciative for the things we take for granted like showers with temperature control, police, bread, and potable water.