They say 1300 planes take off and land every day at Heathrow airport. Things in Tuvalu are slightly different. In theory there are supposed to be two planes a week which means at the gloriously named Funafuti international airport there are about 0.28 planes taking off and landing every day – not exactly a transport hub. That being said plane days in Funafuti cause a level of excitement which you would be hard to find at Heathrow or any of the World’s other major airports.
Plane days are an excuse to finish work for lunch early, catch up with friends, meet returning family members with hugs and smiles, and say goodbye to them with tears and beads. During my time in Tuvalu around 100 planes have landed and taken off again, and for the majority of them I have joined the locals and watched to see if any exciting people have arrived, and to say goodbye to good friends, some for a couple of weeks, and some unfortunately for much longer.
For the last few months in Tuvalu I have felt like a big fish in a small lagoon. Walking around Funafuti I recognise most people and most people recognise me, there are head nods, eyebrow raises and “talofas” all over the place. I know people’s names, I know where to get things, I understand some of nuisances which make day to day life here so interesting, and I have even started to understand the shipping schedule (sort of) – Tuvalu has started to feel like home, I have friends here, sports, hobbies, and a job which gives me the opportunity to really get involved with day to day life. Unfortunately as I stood in the maneapa and watched for the last time as the familiar red fire engine zoomed up and down the runway blaring the siren, I realised that today’s plane was actually my plane, and its arrival meant that it was time for me to leave. Immediately I felt like a very small fish indeed.
I had packed up my mats and souvenirs to be shipped home, I had given away my spear gun, I had been on my final camping trip, I had said most of my goodbyes, and I had spent the best part of 6 hours trying to cram everything else into my rucksack ready to set off, but I still felt uneasy as the second siren wailed across the usual groups of people who had come to watch what was for them just another plane day.
Standing in the maneapa and watching as the familiar Air Pacific plane screeched down the full length of the runway I was comforted by the fact I was surrounded by friendly faces, friendly faces from the Scouts, friendly faces from the Niutao rugby team, and friendly faces from my palagi friends who had all come to wish me luck on the next leg of my journey. As is tradition in Tuvalu, when someone you know and care about is leaving on a journey you decorate them with traditional beads made from seeds and sea shells, and as I walked around the maneapa I was humbled by the amount of people who saw it fit to present me with some beads. Each time one of the beautiful necklaces was draped round my neck the lump in my throat got bigger and higher, I felt my pockets for my sunglasses, not to protect me from the sun, but for the fact I was on the edge of balling my eyes out.
I hardly noticed the passengers getting off the plane, but only noticed them as the exited the terminal building, their Tuvalu adventure was just beginning, but mine, with the call of “pasesai pasesai” was almost over. Just time fora few more beads, some more heartfelt good byes, some firm handshakes, and some emotional embraces, before I was forced to don my sunglasses, and walk away whilst fighting back the tears, from all the people who had made my time on the island so special.
Walking out of the terminal building towards the plane it started to hit home that this was it, I was expected to get on that plane, and even with my modest fitness level, and the blazing sun, the short walk really wouldn’t take long. I tried to slow my walk down, everything all of sudden became very important, I looked over at the power station – did I have enough pictures of the power station? What if I didn’t?! It didn’t bare thinking about! I’d forever be trying to remember what the power station looked like, how could I not have taken a picture of this highlight of Tuvaluan culture to remind me of my time here?! And then I realised that it didn’t really look too dissimilar to other power stations around the world, and besides I’m sure somewhere amongst the thousands of photos I’d carefully backed up there would be a picture of the uninteresting white building. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to climb the thin metal steps towards the smiling Fijian air steward, I could feel the air conditioning pumping out of the plane, inviting me into its icy grasp, but I didn’t want to cross the threshold. For the last year of my life I had been living in the sweat box of Tuvalu, and anything else seemed uncomfortable and strange, so I lingered at the top of the steps and looked back towards the airport and the meeting house. Despite my vision being hindered by the bright sunlight, tear filled eyes, and quite frankly rubbish sunglasses, I saw my friends smiling and waving up at me, and I couldn’t help but smile. So many memories to call upon, so many stories to tell, each person adding in some way to my Tuvaluan experience, be it the Scouts, the bearded wonder, the Niutao rugby team, my awesome palagi friends, or the old man of Niutao whose conversation skills would wreak havoc in a donkey sanctuary.
I knew this was a big moment; this would be my final chance to make a statement, to give a lasting impression, to convey my thanks, appreciation and wonder at having spent a year in this amazing place. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried to convey appreciation and wonder in a hand gesture at distance, but it’s not easy, so I opted for an enthusiastic wave, a fist pump, and a double thumbs up to ensure I had all my bases covered. I took it all in, took a final breath of fresh Tuvaluan air, and then relented to the ticking clock and ducked inside the cabin.
Inside I couldn’t think clearly, the cabin was too small and my bags too big. The beads around my neck had begun to weigh me down, I couldn’t find my boarding pass stub to find where I was sitting, and the air con was more con than air, so the temperature inside the plane was rising rapidly, whilst my composure was falling at an equal rate. I shoved my bags in the overhead lockers as best as I could and eventually found my seat (after 2 failed attempts which is impressive considering the size of the plane). Luckily I found myself sat on the right hand side of the plane so I could wave a final goodbye to my friends as we taxied past the meeting house, and I would have the best view when we eventually took off and headed south towards Fiji. The engines kicked into life, the large propellers started to turn and the plane shuddered in protest as we began turning and making our way up the tiny runway, sight of so many touch rugby games. I waved at my friends one last time as we passed the Filamona guest house, I smiled as we past the Governor General’s house, and remembered the day he had given us quiche, and I felt a real pang of sadness as I spied the little yellow boat bobbing around on the lagoon, which had been the facilitator of so many weekend adventures. We reached the end of the runway and turned around to face the full 1.5km of take off space before the engines revved, and we started moving at a speed which I hadn’t even come close to since arriving. The buildings on my right hand side tore past in a nostalgic blur: the vegetable garden, the prison, the control tower/gym, TANGO, TuFHA, the power station, the met office, the works department all having added a memory to my experience, and finally as the wheels left the tarmac, we passed the national stadium home to so many memorable rugby and football matches for the Niutao Sharks – mate mo Niutao!
And so we left Tuvalu, banked right, and headed south towards Fiji giving those of us lucky enough to have a right side window seat an utterly spectacular view of the island I had become to call home. As the strips of turquoise and emerald sailed past, no longer were they nameless, generic, tropical beauties, instead, they now had names, they had a history, a future, they had individual features, and story to tell. There was Tepuka, sight of so many epic camps and fishing trips, further south there were the golden sands of Funafala home to only a handful of families living in the traditional style in an ever increasingly cosmopolitan capital, and lording over the most spectacular views in Funafuti. There was the uninhabited island which became home for 6 hours when bad weather forced us to tie the boat up and wait. There was the tiny channel which tested the nerve of even the bravest fisherman and their boating skills. In the middle of the lagoon there were the reefs of shark attack and spear fishing fame, there was the tree on the pacific side, which served as a shady reading cradle on those quiet Sunday afternoons, and at the far side of the lagoon, the sea weary Nivaga II was limping back into the lagoon through the channel towards the pearly white wharf glistening in the sun, after another trip to those mystical and magical outer islands.
I watched the perfect smears of colour on the otherwise monochromatic ocean through tear filled eyes until they had disappeared, and then I watched them some more until my eyes began to hurt, and then I watched some more. The cheery Pacific tunes pumping out of the inadequate sound system did little to break the melancholy of the situation. I longed for an iPod full of Coldplay and Radiohead in order to sufficiently wallow in my emotion – unfortunately my iPod could easily be mistaken for that of a 15 year old angst ridden girl, and so pseudo pop punk and power ballads had to suffice, and so tearing my eyes away from the vast Pacific I put my earphones in, closed my eyes, and tried to sleep so I could imagine myself back on those beautiful islands which will always have a place in my heart.
So to everyone who has made my time in Tuvalu such an amazing experience, Fakafetai lasi lasi it has been a true honour to be part of something so unique, and is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life – this blog post is dedicated to you – Tofa!
I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have taken the time to read my blogs, write comments and send me messages. It really means something to me to know that people are actually reading what I write, and if some people are to be believed are sometimes even enjoying it! Although my time in Tuvalu might be over, the adventures certainly won’t be stopping there. I still have plenty of blogs I want to write about Tuvalu, and rather than head straight back home, I’ve decided to make the most of being on this side of the world, and to take a more convoluted route home. I have really enjoyed writing this blog, and I hope to continue writing about the places I visit and the adventures I have along the way. So I hope that you will join me, humour me by continuing to read what I write, and hopefully will still enjoy reading it. Thanks again guys, and here’s to the next adventure – Cheers!
9th October 2012 Suva, Fiji.
© Andy Browning 2012