Tuvalu: End of the World

The Tuvalu Series > Fongafale > Dot Tv > Fairy Tale > The End of the World

The Captain's adventures are not limited to Japan. Wherever there's news - and booze - there will be the Captain.

This week he journeys to the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu - said by scientists to be a prime candidate for obliteration due to sea-level rise. Over lunch, he discusses this doomsday scenario with some of the locals and uncovers a few of the subtleties of life on an island that on average is not much wider than an airport runway. Roll up your pant legs and join him before it is too late.

On the lunch menu of the restaurant inside the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel in Funafuti, Tuvalu, the choice for diners is chicken or fish, never anything else. Actually, it is the only choice anywhere since it is the only restaurant...in the entire country.

"We have never run out of beer or chicken. At any given time we might not have rice, fish, cereal, or water, but the beer and chicken are in continual supply," said an Aussie ex-pat, seated next to me at one of the half dozen tables.

Funafuti is one of the nine atolls that comprise Tuvalu. Like its sisters, Funafuti's most obvious feature upon arrival is that it is a tiny strip of land that could be missed with a blink. The 24 islets that make up the atoll curl around a central lagoon. The main islet of Fongafale contains the airstrip, somewhat of a civic center, and the government's operations. A motorbike ride from one end of Fongafale to the other does not require more than 30 minutes. The width of the mainland is so razor thin that the lagoon and ocean are usually readily visible from just about any location. Palm trees line the sand and coral shores of both the lagoon and ocean sides, and also mix with the huts and shelters that occupy much of the scarce open space. They also tend to dwarf all natural landforms due to the fact that the highest feature rises less than 15 feet above sea-level. It is for this reason that scientists predict all of Tuvalu will one day be washed over by the Pacific as a result of global warming.

Should this happen - though no evidence exists to show that it has started - it will be a slow, almost imperceptible phenomenon that will unfold over half a century or more. Equally slow is the pace of life. Free from traffic jams, high-rises, pollution, and other symptoms of industrialized economies, Tuvaluans live primarily a life of subsistence based on fishing and perhaps the making of handicrafts. For ex-pats and some locals, lunch at the hotel is the time to gather and reflect on living at the end of the world.

"Last week we had a little excitement," the Aussie continued. "You see the fellow outside there?" He pointed to a young, thin guy, standing and smoking near the hotelšs bay front. "Well, he tried to cash U.S. $47,000 in travelers checks at the bank. That being close to the entire circulation of currency in Tuvalu at any given time, the bank got a little suspicious. They called Citibank in Miami - where they were purportedly drawn from - and their authenticity was denied. He was subsequently arrested."

The story goes that he was posing as a Singaporean businessman in Tuvalu to establishing a joint venture business of some sort. It was a ruse. Though his only downfall was greed; the day before he managed to successfully cash $2,000 worth of the same phony checks.

"It was the first time our jail has been used for something other than public drunkenness in years," laughed the middle-aged Aussie. "He is now free on bail until his trial."

The use of 'free' was quickly taken to task by Tuvalu's People's Lawyer - generally, the primary legal counsel for the people of Tuvalu, as the name implies.

"In the end, this place polices itself," he interjected from his seat next to the Aussie. "Where's he going to go?"

Indeed, where?

Located about two hours by plane north of Fiji, its roughly 11,000 people live on a total land area of 26 square kilometers - only the Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru are smaller.

As the wind blows off the lagoon and through the restaurant's open doors, the main visible stirrings are made by a few fishermen out in boats. Behind the hotel is the island's most traveled intersection. Two motorbikes passing one another might be referred to as 'traffic.' Isolation is an understatement when describing Tuvalu, but fragile is as well.

Last month, Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana told Radio New Zealand that some of his 11,000 people wanted access to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji in the face of the rising sea levels. "Tuvaluans are seeking a place that they can permanently migrate to should the high tides eventually make our home uninhabitable," he said.

When I mentioned this at the table, a mid-60s Tuvaluan local sitting across from the Aussie said, "Well that makes for a good story, doesn't it?" He laughed and stroked his gray beard.

"No, it isn't true," he added."Tuvalu isn't in the process of being inundated. The ocean is at the same level as when I was a kid."

Not exactly a scientific analysis, but the dark-skinned and portly local continued, "I remember a few years ago the Prime Minister said in another international radio interview that sea-level rise was so bad that he had to go to work with his pant legs rolled up. When I asked him some time later if it were true, he said, "'No, but I thought it might get us some international assistance.'"

Tuvaluans used to rely on employment through the phosphate mines on nearby Nauru. But once they closed over a decade ago, the workers began returning home. With the food supply mainly being imported and water coming from roof catchments, the rising population - through natural growth in addition to the returnees - is stretching its resources. Adding to this difficulty are the massive garbage dumps that choke both ends of Funafuti and the collapse of the once thriving copra (dried coconut) market. Given these circumstances, international assistance is important to Tuvalu. Each year, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan provide various infrastructure, equipment, and training programs.

One of the doctors at Funafuti's one hospital changed the conversation to the possible introduction of a mortuary. He thought it was a bad idea.

"It would be too strenuous on the food supply," he explained.

I was puzzled. To me, logic would dictate that dead people would mean it would be necessary to supply less food, not more. I asked, "It would be what?"

"By the time all the deceased's relatives finally get to view the body, maybe 2 weeks will have passed," he explained. "During that time, any given relative will have stayed on Funafuti for 5 days. The island has to feed them the entire time. It is not possible. Even without the mortuary now, sometimes the more lavish funeral ceremonies put a strain on the food supply."

Indeed, this is something, I thought. If Darwin had ever made it to this atoll in his travels, he would have had to modify the title of that book of his to read Tuvaluans, End of Species.

Tourism, too, is a tenuous proposition.

"Yeah, we get some tourists," said an employee from the wharf, seated at the end of the table. "Like maybe 100 a year. But I might not have seen all of them so maybe there are a few more than that."

Attracting visitors is a tough sell. There are only two flights a week to Funafuti. Air Fiji flies from Suva twice a week with round trip tickets going for $500.

"We also sell international fishing licenses," he added. "That brings in maybe $1 million a year. We pay Australia a little bit to enforce the fishing zone and keep the rest."

Tuvalu also receives income from its postage stamps that it sells to international collectors and the '1-900' phone numbers that are routed through its international access code for use by phone sex operators.

"Most recently we rented out our Internet domain," he continued, "you know, .tv, to some American television promotion company in Pasadena. I think we got $12 million out that last month when a partner sold off a bunch of its shares. Then we get an additional $1 million every three months."

With my grilled tun a few more bites from being finished, I came to conclude: Tuvalu, the land that exists because it exists.

I then realized that I wasn't the only one to order the fish; everyone else at the table had as well.

"Everybody orders the fish - it's fresh," said the Aussie, cutting into what remained on his plate. "That is why we never run out of the chicken."

Coming next week: The Magic Circus of Samoa.

The Tuvalu Series > Fongafale > Dot Tv > Fairy Tale > The End of the World

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