Thursday, October 06, 2005

Funafuti, Tuvalu

September 21 - October 6
Position: 08°30.94' S 179°11.57' E

Our passage from Savusavu, Fiji to Funafuti, Tuvalu must've been okay, because I don't really remember it much!  We made good time and there were a couple of squalls, but on the whole the four nights passed quickly and without much ado.  It was nice buddy boating with Island Sonata; always reassuring to see another set of sails nearby.  Not being able to slow down enough we arrived at the Funafuti atoll around four in the morning and had to heave-to outside the atoll while we waited for enough light to get us through the pass.

We already knew the two other boats that were there, and they provided us with lots of great information about the atoll and surrounding area.  The first thing we noticed was the dramatic increase in temperature!  Even the water temp was up, hovering around 87 degrees.

We were anchored near the main part of the atoll, Fongafale Islet.  The Islet is only 12 km long and between 10 and 400 m wide with well over 4,000 residents.  Our Lonely Planet Guide reported a density of about 1600 people per sq km on Funafuti!!!  The entire country totals only 26 sq km, making it one of the world's smallest countries.

Toddy:  Although known as Kiribati's local brew, it is also popular in Tuvalu; filling the niche of the kava drunk on other Pacific Islands.  Toddy is basically  fermented sap tapped from the coconut tree.

We spent our first two days in Funafuti relaxing and getting a feel for the town and area.  There are two main roads, running parallel for about 1.2 km before joining up on either side and then continuing along a single, narrow road.  Although there are three main markets, a bakery, and one restaurant, fresh food of any sort is practically nonexistent (it's an atoll after all!).  We did enjoy a few decent meals at the restaurant though.  It didn't take long before our favorite thing to do was visit the Government building.  An impressive three story, mostly glass building, hosting a variety of official offices ... but most importantly the building is air conditioned!  The people of Funafuti were quite friendly, although we noticed they tended to keep to themselves more so than the Fijians and other South Pacific Islander's we had visited.  It also seemed as though the local drink, Toddy, might be a bit of a problem here; we ran across many a drunk man at all hours of the day.   (Extracting Toddy pictured right)

The most activity seemed to occur in the early morning or late afternoon (outside the hours of the heat of the day); where we enjoyed watching the locals zoom around on their mopeds.  The other thing that stood out to us was their grave sites; most existing in the front of people's homes and extravagantly decorated with flowers, shells, fabrics, tinsel, and even flashing twinkle lights that glowed through the night!

On Friday (Sept 23rd) we rented bicycles (called pushbikes here) and road the entire length of Fongafale Islet along with MJ & John from Island Sonata.  While the flat paved roads made for easy riding, the blazing sun wore us out.  By the end of the day we were ready to collapse.  Along our bike tour we enjoyed the stunning turquoise waters of the lagoon along with the sounds of breaking waves coming from the ocean side of the atoll.   We looked for a few of the sites pointed out in our Lonely Planet Guide; finding the rusting Japanese fishing boat that was wrecked during Cyclone Bebe (1972) and the borrow pits (small man-made lagoons where coral material was extracted for the construction of the airstrip during WWII) -- now stinky with pigsty drainage.  Chris was determined to find David's Drill, a drill site from 1898, where Darwin's controversial theory on how atolls are formed was proven true (in 1835 Darwin proposed that coral atolls were built on slowly sinking volcanic rock, which at the same time was being built up by coral, whereas others believed that the reefs grew on underwater platforms that had been raised by volcanic action).  We looped and we circled and rode and rode without finding this 'famous' hole in the ground.  We received many strange looks as Chris continued to ask local after local (none of which had heard of the site of course).

Finally, three days later, we found it!  And oh how uneventful; a concrete base with a small hole in it, surrounded by weeds and bush!  Well, it was fun looking for it anyway!  On our bike trip we also discovered one of the huge problems on Tuvalu ... trash.  With their growing population, limited space, and trend away from subsistence agriculture towards a cash economy, their environmental issues are mounting.  A throw-away mind set still seems to exist, but the increasing dependence on imported packaged food is leaving them with an uncontrollable rubbish problem.  The north side of the road actually ends at a sea of trash that seems to run to infinity.  In addition, the rising sea levels due to global warming could eventually wipe out the entire atoll.  It's sad to see such deep environmental issues in such a lovely place.

Saturday we discovered a major downfall to the increased temperatures (besides sweating all the time); our refrigerator was running non-stop and sucking up all our battery power!  Lucky for us Chris had purchased two additional solar panels in Fiji.  We didn't have the proper materials for a permanent mount, but Chris saved the day with temporary mounts along our railings.  We also cut up some foam and lined the inside of the refrig for better insulation.  We are loving all our new found power; enjoying more movies and computer time!  That afternoon we went with the other yachties to watch Futi (Australian Football/Rugby).  Craig and Jijet from Kipona, both ex-navy, had hooked up with the visiting AU navy folks and they had invited everyone over.  Using sheets and tarps they had enclosed a little outdoor hut and hooked up a projector, using a white sheet as a screen.  It was the most unique 'football' party we'd ever been too!

Tuesday we motored to the South East anchorage off of Funafala Islet.  During WWII most of the villagers were relocated to Funafala for the duration of the war.  Most moved back afterwards, but there is still a small community of about 30 or so that live here.  The water colors in this area were truly amazing, although due to suspended algae & plankton the visibility wasn't real great.  We spent two nights; enjoying a walk along the outer reef, a bit of snorkeling, and a quick visit to the settlement.

Saturday, October 1st, was Tuvalu Independence Day.  We got up early to attend the 7am parade.  Which really didn't get going until 7:30 am (typical Island Time).  And which really wasn't a parade as we know it.    Five groups stood standing (at a somewhat weak attention) facing the large grandstands.  Next the prime minister 'inspected' the parade (basically walking around the various groups), and then the parade began ... the five groups marched along the outer edge of the field.  And that was about it.  So much for floats and fireworks!  The parade was followed by young children races and food & drinks.  Afterwards we returned to our boats to cool down, coming back in around one for the soccer tournaments.  By now the sun was burning full and sneaking its way into the grandstands.  There was nowhere to hide!  We watched all of the Division B game and then part of the Division A game before the sun did us in and we had to leave, seeking out shade.  Apparently these where huge matches; Funafuti was playing their neighboring atoll, Nukufetau.  The crowd was rowdy and the event was fun to watch.  We don't know how the players managed to not pass out running around in the heat of the day like that!

After a rest and cleanup, we came in for the evening festivities.  M.J. and I followed the location tradition and wore head leis.  We started with dinner out, and then crossed over to watch the dance performance that was taking place at the local meeting house (maneaba).  The dancing and chanting was a bit mellow, especially compared to the hip shaking dances of Tahiti, but fun to watch nonetheless.  We especially enjoyed watching some the crowd;  a few joined in, smiles proving the pure enjoyment received from these local dances.

When we first read in Lonely Planet that waiting for and watching planes land is a big thing "to do" in Funafuti, we laughed out loud.  But before long we were joining the rush of locals to watch the planes land and see who would be arriving next!  We're actually surprised planes still use the old airstrip at all; in its current state I'm not sure it would even be considered a good road in the states!  We laughed too when we thought of all the strict safety violations of the States that were being broken.  On approach a single fire track parks facing the runway and sounds its siren for a minute or two;  this is the cue to clear the runway if you happen to be playing or walking on it.  We stood less than a couple hundred feet from the runway as the plane touched down and barreled passed us.  There are no fences, security, or it seems general safety measures!

Besides visiting the government building to take advantage of the air conditioning, we were also continually checking on the status of their wireless internet installation.  We couldn't believe it when Chris first read that Funafuti had free wireless internet (think of all the emails & updates we could do!), but sure enough they are trying.  Of course who knows when it will actually work, everyday that we checked, we were told "tomorrow"!  It wasn't too much of a disappointment however, as there was more than one internet 'cafe' and they were air conditioned as well!  Chris worked a deal with one of the owners who allowed him to download large files for minimal cost ... Chris was working on his satellite photo collection which are great navigational tools (sometimes better than the outdated charts we own).  (You can check out some of these photos here ... they are really cool to see!)

On Monday (Oct 3rd) we enjoyed a terrific dinner with a fresh catch provided by Mike & Dana (Camira), who had just arrived the night before.  We topped it off with an awesome cheesecake dessert!

By Thursday we were ready to move on.  We departed Funafuti at four in the afternoon enjoying a leisurely [short] sail to Nukufetau.  We were quite surprised when we went to pull in our fishing line for the evening and discovered not one, but TWO yellow-finned tuna!  The excitement of the catch led to stupidity as Chris struggled with the second fish; while standing on our itty bitty transom step, at night, underway, WITHOUT A HARNESS!!!  Afterwards we severely chastised ourselves, and promised to never let that happen again.  We only kept one Tuna as they were quite large and we didn't have that much room in the frig.

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