So many people wrote to say that they enjoyed reading the ‘postcards’ about my adventures in Tuvalu in the middle of the Pacific, that I decided it was time to write another one.
Today I am at a bit of a loose end since I was not able to make it ‘up north’ to the office. Yesterday it blew up something of a storm and this morning I woke up early to the sound of torrential rain. Very unusual stuff…more like Queensland rain, with thunder and lightning, than the usual Tuvaluan downpour. Hmmmm, and the wet season is supposed to be over! Anyway I decided not to venture out on my Daelim 50cc with laptop in my backpack as the rain was still pelting down at 11. 30am and the roads (what roads?) by that time were flooded. So stay at home I did. Fortunately I was able to do some work as I had my laptop but, with most of the stuff being at the office, I found myself with time to write the next postcard. Another bonus was that I was able to go across to the coffee shop to watch the plane come in. This is a great source of entertainment and how the “Coconut Wireless“ operates, as the people embarking and disembarking give clues to not only the events happening in Tuvalu but also how Tuvalu is engaging on the world stage. The PM or Governor General leaving the island often signals Tuvaluan participation at the UN or other significant events.
So what have I been up to since the last set of adventures?
The first thing that springs to mind was the Kiribati Independence Day celebrations. One of my colleagues is the President of the Kiribati Women’s group and she invited me to their celebrations at the Nui Falekaupule. Nui is one of the islands in the Tuvalu group but many of the islanders have Gilbertese origins (same as Kiribati) and they speak Nui language (in addition to Tuvaluan), which is more Gilbertese. Hence the strong connection between the two groups. Many of the Tuvaluan men have married i-Kiribati women and when Tuvalu split from Kiribati and became independent some of them moved to Tuvalu. Each year the Kiribati Independence day is celebrated on 12 July by the women’s group. The food was plentiful and local and the dancing afterwards was a little different to the usual Tuvaluan dancing….more mechanical. The most unique was the sitting dancing (Te Bino) where the dancers put a pandanus mat over their laps and move from the waist upwards.
The next day I was invited to an important wedding. As I was supposed to be leaving on the boat for the southern islands that afternoon I decided not to go to the church part but turned up to the feast in the main island Falekaupule. Again, there was enough food to sink a battle ship and unfortunately (as you will see later) I decided to get stuck into the lobster. It seemed as though there were about 200 people at the feast and the most distinctive part was when the bride turned up in traditional dress. You could hear the group, women from the family and friends, coming from a few hundred metres away, singing and chanting. When they got to the entrance the grandmother made some sort of speech of welcome into the Falakaupule – I can’t understand most of what the people say in their speeches but they all seem to be hysterically funny!! I managed to avoid a cultural faux pas by not scoffing my offered birthday cake as soon as I received it as I was sitting next to a Tuvaluan friend who kindly instructed me. This was unlike some of the other palagis at the do who had to be given a second piece!. Once everyone has got their cake, the MC does some sort of speech, we wave the cake backwards and forwards over our head and then say ‘manuia’ (cheers or good health) before eating it in one bite (ha, ha!). Fortunately I had to leave for the boat after that so I missed the 2 hours of speeches but unfortunately also missed the fatele.
So I went racing off to the wharf to get on the Nivaga II for my trip to the southern islands of Nukulaelae and Nuilakita. The Nivaga II is the main cargo and passenger ship that does the round trip of the different island groups and also the Fiji trip more or less constantly. Before I left for the boat I was told that I was booked into a ‘first class’ cabin, but I arrived to be told that I was relegated to second class below decks. I checked out the cabin but decided that with no ventilation, I was sure to get sea sick, so off I went to ‘deck class’ where I secured myself a spot, spread my pandanus mat and settled in for the 7 hour journey. I thought it wasn’t too bad a trip but some of the locals were very sea sick and complaining about how rough it was. Anyway all was uneventful until 4 am in the morning (we had actually arrived at 11pm but moored offshore until daybreak) when I woke with very strong pains in my stomach. It turned out that I had food poisoning (probably from the wedding feast lobster) so I was lowered in the tender boat and taken ashore where I was whisked off to the ‘hospital’ (a small one room house!) and put on a drip. Instead of making the journey on to Nuilakita I had to stay in the hospital for 2 days and the Nivaga II was diverted back to pick me up. It was even announced on the radio so all the locals turned out at dawn to see me off. How to become instantly famous!
Back to the hospital stay though, and I had the entire island I think coming to visit. One of the elders ‘massaged’ my stomach (actually it was more like a placing of the hands and thought healing), and the pastor’s wife was massaging my feet. People were bringing me bananas, rice, chicken…basically trying to feed me up, which was the last thing I needed. Towards the end of the first day I was told that the one and only nurse had to go home to her family, and that I would not be allowed to stay alone during the night so the younger women from the village would have a sleep over on the floor next to my bed. By this time I was feeling a little better but really tired and really did not want sleep over guests. Despite my protests they were quite insistent – under NO circumstances could I be alone and so I had to contend with giggles and gossip all night. As it turns out, it wasn’t so much concern for my health but for the spirits and ghosts that come out after dark. It was quite an experience – but I survived!
The next weekend, after recovering from that episode and back on Funafuti, I went out on the boat to the Funafuti Conservation Area with a visitor (and now long-term friend!) from SPREP (the South Pacific Regional Environment Program) where we did some snorkelling and saw two reef sharks and a turtle. After the snorkelling we had a picnic on one of the islets and drank an improvised cocktail of fresh coconut and gin! Unfortunately, we ran out of petrol on the way back and found ourselves drifting offshore looking for a suitable place to borrow some more. We were rescued near the north of Fongafale and managed to get enough fuel to back to the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel for dinner.
Since I’ve been in Tuvalu I’ve managed to achieve invitations to three of the ‘big four’ events: a funeral, a 21st birthday party and a wedding, so I was quite pleased to be invited to the other one – a 1st birthday party. The 1st birthday is very important here as the infant mortality rate is very high and getting to be 1 year old is a big achievement. The little girl in question belongs to a palagi American who has been here for about 10 years and is married to a Tuvaluan woman. Once again the food was in great supply – 2 pigs and lobster (which I steered clear of this time!) – and the birthday cake trick was performed. Then we were then invited to “meet the birthday girl” (local code for ‘deliver your presents now!’).
Work-wise I have been very busy and now that the office is in reasonable working order I have managed to achieve most of the targets planned for this quarter. I’ve been spending a bit of time recently at the Nauti Primary School, observing classes and talking to the teachers about the project. Every time I go there someone seems to present me with a fou – the local flower headdress which I love wearing. Actually I’ve been having lessons on how to make my own. We have all the ingredients back in Queensland (pandanus leaves for the band which is plaited, frangipani, hibiscus etc) so I should be able to make them when I get back.
Unfortunately, my event of the year – an Italian night that I was organizing to be held at the navy compound – has had to be cancelled due to lack of food. One of the supply boats that was on its way here broke down in Fiji and had to be sent back to Brisbane with all the food still on board. We are now out of flour, rice, chicken, lamb, eggs, butter…in fact you name it, we’re out of it. So the Italian night will have to take place when I arrive back from Australia in September.
Well, that’s it again for the second postcard from Tuvalu.
BACKSTORY…After being a FIFO consultant for the Tuvalu Australia Education Support Project in 2000, I was asked to become the in-country Long Term Advisor for the Project. These are my postcards home describing my adventures!