Dec 28, 2020
IF YOU’RE REALLY SERIOUS ABOUT GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL, this lonely cluster of idyllic islands is the place to be. Lying in the middle of the South Pacific–midway between Australia and Hawaii–Tuvalu is one of the most far-flung nations on earth. It’s also among the hardest to reach, with the only connections being two notoriously unreliable weekly flights from not-so-close neighbor Fiji. There’s also a painfully slow four-day journey on a passenger/cargo boat, but that only comes around once every few months.
Indeed, the lucky few who make it here are a rare group of travelers. Last year barely 2,000 foreigners landed on these shores–and most of them were aid workers or technical personnel. Tuvalu is unfettered by mass tourism, its sandy palm-fringed beaches free from any seaside bars or kitesurfing outfits. Downtown at the sleepy capital Funafuti, there are no travel agencies, tourism information offices or money changers. In their place, one finds a seaside community of little eateries, mom-and-pop shops and government offices built around a barely-used, World War II-era airport. In the afternoon when the lone runway turns into a vast hangout space, it seems the whole island comes out to play.
The pleasures are elemental, the diversions simple in these parts. And despite the country being closed off to keep Covid-19 at bay (they have zero cases to date), life remains largely normal in Tuvalu. Here’s a glimpse of this hidden corner of the Pacific.
Located roughly 4,000 kilometers away from the nearest continent (Australia), the nation of Tuvalu is made up of nine windswept islands and coral atolls.
At the southernmost point of Tuvalu’s main island, Fongafale, the rough waves of the Pacific meet the placid waters of Te Namo Lagoon, on the western side. Because of the strong winds from the east, most seaside activities happen on the opposite shore.
Afternoon delights for these Tuvaluan kids consist of a simple rope swing on a palm tree. With no malls or moviehouses in these parts, the local diversions are simple but oh-so-satisfying.
A native outrigger canoe rests between fishing sorties at Te Namo Lagoon, on Funafuti’s western side. With hardly any sightseers visiting these isolated islands, tourism in Tuvalu remains a backyard industry.
Rush hour activity in “downtown” Funafuti is this local woman leisurely hanging her laundry by the sea. “Neighbors often come by at this hour to say hi,” she says. “We chat and watch the sunset together, then I cook dinner for the family.”
A vendor prepares funa-funa–deep-fried patties filled with strawberry jam–which she sells in front of her house every afternoon. Tuvalu’s financial system is basic, and travelers are advised to bring plenty of cash.
The country’s only road is a nine-kilometer trip from one end of Fongafale Island to the other. Tuvalu has a grand total of two taxis (really just cars with drivers) and one minibus that serve as public transport. The locals, though, prefer to get on their motorbikes.
Schoolgirls in their lavalava skirts take the easiest route home––via the barely used runway of the Funafuti International Airport.
During afternoons, the grounds of the Funafuti International Airport become a huge open-air hangout for the locals. Built by the American military back in World War II, the runway is easily the nation’s most visible piece of infrastructure.
A pair of kids fish for dinner close to sunset on the shore of Funafuti. Not surprisingly, the most common mealtime treat here is freshly grilled flying fish.
A cargo boat heads off to deliver supplies and passengers to Tuvalu’s eight other inhabited islands. The rest of the country is scattered over 26 square kilometers of ocean, and travel times between destinations take anywhere from half a day to a few days.