Tuvalu, the Sinking Island
If you have heard of Tuvalu before, that’s awesome. I had no idea this country existed. Well, a lot of the island nations in the Pacific were a blur until I planned my trip. So here it was, my 145th UN country. It was difficult to organize my trip here and almost skipped it due to the high airfare, but I managed to get a pretty good price at $700 USD for a round trip ticket from Suva, Fiji. Just to let you know, there were only two flights per week, which were on Tuesdays and Thursdays from Suva on Fiji Airlines only. No other airlines flies to Tuvalu. I took the Tuesday morning flight out of Suva and my stay lasted only 50 hours in Tuvalu, but that was more than enough. Otherwise, I would have been stuck there for another week and with the high costs of housing and food, I would not have been able to afford it, unless I was able to couchsurf or do some kind of homestay with the locals. Besides, you don’t want to be spending more than two nights in Tuvalu as a tourists, unless you plan on visiting the other atolls, which were even more difficult to get to via the cargo ships. If you decided to stay in any of the other atolls, you never knew when the next ship will be on the island again. If you have lots of time, it’s worth a try.
Arrival in Funafuti
The flight out of Suva was completely full and there were around 80 people. As the captain called out the landing procedure, I saw torquoise and green ocean with narrow islands with palm and coconut trees. It was a beautiful setting and view. It looked charming from the sky as we landed on a narrow airstrip. Once we deplaned, we went straight to immigration, which was one small room where all of us were waiting in line.
Besides immigration was the customs room, where they asked a few questions and I was let out. I was one of the first to deplane so I waited outside. I noticed that I got out of customs without my checkin backpack. As I waited outside, more people from my plane got out and I wondered how we would get our bags.
About 10 minutes later, the bags were coming but we had to go back into customs to get our bags. It was not the most intelligent process, but this is due to change soon, since they were expanding the airport while I was there. Anyhow, I picked up my backpack and was picked up by a lady named Tuveka from L’s Lodge and we went to the lodge. The lodge was literally two minutes by car and we were driving parallel to the airport. I could see the airstrip about 3 meters from the road. How often do you get to drive right next to the airstrip? That was the first time in my life at least.
The lodge was a normal house with eight rooms. I got a room on the second floor and was happy to find air-conditioning and a ceiling fan. The room was not very spacious, but still had two beds, a closet, a mini-fridge, but most of all, very clean. Since my time was limited on the island, I went for a walk immediately to get lunch and to secure a scooter. The locals directed me to Blue Ocean Chinese restaurant for lunch and I had a plate of beef chop suey. I never knew what chop suey was so I asked the Chinese lady and it was just veggies with beef. The plate tasted pretty good, but still did not understand what chop suey was, but after googling a few days later, it was a name of a dish. Now I know.
Touring around the island
After lunch, I secured my scooter for $10 AUD and went from one end to the other. I started off by going west. In Funafuti, it was almost impossible to get lost. You have to be absolutely horrible in direction to actually get lost here since there was only one main street from one end to the other and a few side streets that branched off.
I headed to the end of the west side, where I had to get off the scooter and walked around 100 meters to get to the very tip. The tip was rocky with little vegetation. I saw the next island from where I stood, but the only way to get to the other part was either to swim 150 meters or take a boat. There were mainly rocks mixed with garbage and I did not waste my time swimming to the other side, mainly because there was no one around and who knows, there may be a shark!
I headed back to the scooter to hit the east side. I sped past the airport strip and got onto the main road going east. It was around a 20-minute leisurely ride with speed bumps every 250 meters or so. The street was lined with coconut trees, wooden houses, shacks, churches, graves, dogs, the odd chicken, you name it. I passed through a wharf which had many containers with a good amount of locals working there.
As I went further east, the beaches got better and better. The beaches actually had white sand and the side that faced the lagoon was calm with beautiful light blue colors, while the other side had waves crashing onto the sand.
At the most easterly end, there was an EU funded garbage dump. The dump closed at 5pm, but I had ample time to check out what was out there. I drove past the garbage site, which lasted for about 150 meters and the road kept going towards the end. The road had more stones and pebbles and the last 100 meters was all sand. I was getting stuck in the stand at times and did not want to go any further on my scooter. Also, there was not a single sole around there at that time, so I was reluctant in walking around that area.
I do not think any tourists goes that far and there will be no real point for anyone to venture into that territory. If looking for beaches, the area in front of the government building in the center was amazing.
The tour of the island was over for that day and I headed back to the lodge to relax. After a short nap, I went to the airport strip and was astonished to see an army of kids playing soccer and basketball on the runway and nearby grass. I got my sneakers and went out to play soccer. The last time I played was almost one year ago in Zambia with a few kids. The locals were friendly and they invited me to a game of 11 a side on the concrete airstrip and it was a lot of fun. I really missed playing soccer but my body was not going the right way as my mind was. I was horrible and could barely control the ball. It was a disastrous outing, but nevertheless, it was fun. The Tuvaluan boys were decent, but most of all, we had a good time. I was told that there were eight club teams on the island and I played with the first team squad.
I ended the evening by having dinner at 3Ts restaurant (another Chinese place) and went straight to bed.
I had the scooter for 24 hours and needed to return it at 13:30. I woke up early and went for a leisurely scooter ride towards the government buildings and other areas that I had missed. I went to the post office to look for some post cards, but they only had one kind with birds on it. I was expecting a post card with an aerial picture of the island or a local drinking coconuts.
I ended up not buying any postcards, since there was only one choice. After the post office, I went to the national library. I chatted with the two librarians and took a picture of them. We had a short conversation about life in Tuvalu and how simple it was. If you want to live like Robinson Crusoe, this was the perfect island.
There were a good amount of books and enough to read for a lifetime. Internet was super-duper expensive in Tuvalu (at least I won’t be able to afford it), TVs had very few channels and thus, reading was probably the best way to go.
I proceeded to the government building area and noticed a beautiful beach with white sand. There were benches facing towards the lagoon and a big Christmas tree.
It seemed like Christmas came early on the island, but it was only March. I walked into the government building and some parts of it were air-conditioned. So nice to be in aircon, since it was hot outside. It was the tallest building on the island with three floors. There was nothing to really do or see here, since I had no official or administrative work, so I proceeded to Funafuti Lagoon Hotel for lunch. A random local that I talked to told me that the hotel served local food and it was inexpensive. That sounded like a good combination for me.
I went to the hotel, but the menu looked pretty disappointing. They had only three dishes available for lunch and I ordered the chicken with veggies. It was nothing exciting, but the view out from the hotel towards the lagoon was beautiful. That view was worth having lunch. There was a group of six Korean fishermen at the table next to me and they were pretty loud and obnoxious. They started drinking early that afternoon.
After lunch, I headed for the crafts market next to the airport. Bear in mind, everything in Funafuti was close and can be walked. You do not have to rent a scooter. The airport was right across the government building and Funafuti Lagoon Hotel, so it took only 30 seconds to walk there.
The craft market sold a few necklaces and woven mats that were all hand made. Next to the craft market was a little snack shop that sold all the unhealthy options possible. Basically, they had pizzas, fried dough, cakes, candies, other sweets and fried chicken. Most of the people in there were probably XXL size or larger. A majority of the islanders were overweight, but I could see why. Their diet relied on starchy carbs with fish or meat with very little vegetables. There was plenty of fish in Tuvalu, but most meat products and vegetables were all imported from Australia or the nearby islands. With high cost for imported goods, I assumed the Tuvaluans stuck with the cheaper options.
During my tour of the Pacific, I noticed that most of the Pacific islanders did not seem to care what they were eating. This could be related to the lack of education on food choices or purchasing power or they just love the fried/sweet foods. I rarely saw people exercising on the islands, except for Fiji. The Fijians were very athletic and really into rugby.
I saw very few people walking on the street, only elementary school kids walking home from school. Otherwise, everyone was on a scooter. The scooter culture reminded me of Vietnam or Taiwan, but Funafuti atoll had a population of 4500, so the streets were pretty empty.
As I was heading back to the lodge that afternoon around 15:00, I found a lady selling home-cooked meals underneath a tree across the airport. I saw three Tuvaluans eating there and thus, I popped over. The menu for the day was Kokoda/Ota (raw fish with coconut cream) with three pieces of lamb.
I was not that hungry but wanted try the local cuisine. It was the best meal I had so far and the damage was only $6 a plate. I should have done a take away for dinner, since I ended up eating Chinese (yes, again) that evening.
After my second lunch, I went to the hotel and relaxed for a bit, got ready for my second soccer session. The soccer session was amazing again and it would have been so much fun to join a team there and play every day.
Nightlife was inexistent during the week (I can understand) and I went to bed early that evening to fly out the next day.
- Currency – Australian Dollars
- Money Exchange – There was a bank across the airport and only accepted USD, AUD, NZD, Fijian Dollars, Japanese Yen, and British Pounds.
- Internet – There were Wifi hotspots in some areas around town. Although, the price was ridiculous and I did not connect at all (too expensive for me). $5 – 100Mb, $10 – 250Mb, $20 – 600Mb.
- Language – Tuvaluan and most people understand English. If you ask a question and if it is yes, Tuvaluans will raise their eyebrow. They respond that way and so don’t think you are being ignored.
- Sports – Most kids play soccer at the airstrip and basketball was quite popular at the court next to the airstrip. There were numerous volleyball nets around the island, but I did not see anyone playing at all. I think eating and sleeping were the real national sport. 🙂
Where to stay
I rented a motorbike and went from one end to the other on the island. There were only a few places that had accommodation. The only hotel on the island was called Funafuti Lagoon Hotel. There were three other lodges/guesthouse type that were available for tourists and business travellers. You had to either choose from Esfham Lodge, Filamona Guesthouse and last but not least, L’s Lodge, where I stayed.
Where to eat
This is not a joke, but there were only three restaurants on the entire island! I ate at every single restaurant. Haha. Here is the list.
- Funafuti Lagoon Hotel restaurant – I ordered chicken with vegetables and it was very plain. The damage, only $8. The view was worth more than $8 though.
- 3Ts Restaurant – it was Chinese and had the usual plates available everywhere in the Pacific. They had beer and some other hard alcohol as well. I had pork with black bean sauce which had very little pork, oily and quite salty (not as bad as it sounds). I also had the chicken soup, which had a nice broth, but the noodles were not that great and very little chicken. The foreigners on the island recommended this place. Prices were around $7 to $10.
- Blue Ocean – it was Chinese and similar to 3Ts. I had the beef chop suey for lunch one day and chicken chop suey for dinner on another occasion. The taste was decent, but once again, very little meat (Meat was imported, so definitely expensive). I recommend not ordering the chicken, since the chicken was covered in skin and little meat. Prices were in quantities of $6, $8, and $10 portions.
- There were two other options on the island that I snacked on. One was the little outlet next to the airport. The store was adjacent to the craft market and had heavy carbs, fried chicken and sweets. There were no hot meals. The other option was across the airport exit, which was like an outdoor table and the lady sold local food for $6 a plate. She gave me a plate of raw fish with coconuts (the usual stuff available in the Pacific and tasted amazing) and three pieces of lamb for the price of $6, that was the best meal I had on the island.
- If you can, bring snacks and food from Fiji.
- When leaving the country, checkin starts at 9am and closes at 10:20 for the 12:20 flight to Fiji. Checkin early without your bags and get your boarding pass and then return to the hotel for breakfast. There was one small 15 square meter waiting area, which can only fit around 15 people so the other 65 will have to wait standing up. You do not want to be standing up and waiting.
- If you want to drink alcohol, there was beer available, but very little hard liquor. It will be best to purchase in Fiji prior to arrival.
- Water was relatively expensive (all imported) so try taking iodine tablets or boil water at the guesthouse. I saw a Fijian family doing that. I should have done that as well!
- Rent a motorbike.
- Bring a good book or a stack of movies on your PC if staying for a week.
- Make sure to go to the beach and do some snorkeling.
I visited in March 2017.