It is safe to say that before arriving in Tuvalu my experience of motorbikes was at best limited, and at worse shameful. Growing up, the only people I knew with anything resembling a motorbike were a few individuals at my school who insisted on driving their hilariously under-powered scooters into any conveniently placed ditch and hoping their shell suit trousers would prevent them leaving their spray tan on the tarmac, which considering their scooters had less power than your average toaster, was never really a risk.
This is not to say that I didn’t have an interest in bikes; I admired Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boardman riding their bikes ‘The Long Way Round’ and ‘The Long Way Down’ and I was drawn to the spirit of adventure from ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ as much as the next wannabe adventurer, it’s just that “finding myself” on the back of a motorbike in South-West Essex didn’t really hold the same appeal as the Andes or circumnavigating the globe, and so I thought it best to stick to my Ford Fiesta – at least then I could avoid the shell suit trousers and puffer jacket combination which seemed to pass as ‘biker gear’ in my part of the World.
It wasn’t until I was travelling through Africa that I really started to appreciate the sense of adventure you can get from a motorbike, and some of my fondest memories from that trip feature a burly motorbike rider, my slightly less burly friend Tommy, and myself all perched precariously onto a woefully unsuitable motorbike with our rucksacks, day packs, and any shopping the driver had decided to pick up crammed around us, as we negotiated busy city traffic and the dusty orange roads throughout the continent, which are renowned for being some of the worst roads in the world. By the time I had returned from Africa I had decided that I would one day learn how to ride a motorbike, I just didn’t realise at the time that I would be doing that in the South Pacific.
In Tuvalu, like in many other Pacific islands, motorbikes are a way of life; they are the run-arounds, the government vehicles, the police cars, the taxis, the delivery vehicles, and the vehicle of choice for little old ladies and boy racers alike. Families use them to go to church, and young guys use them to chat up girls, and couple use them to sneak away to the darker corners of the island after a trip to the nightclub. Men use them to carry their fishing rods, often looking just jousting knights on the road, and women drive along next to each other gossiping away with the other drivers and passengers at a steady 5mph. Some are scooters, some are huge cross-country trial bikes, some have baskets full of rice, pig food, tuna, or children, and some have been modified with Christmas lights and novelty horns. In a country of this size, the humble motorbike really is perfect, with lower import costs and lower fuelling costs than cars (which start rusting immediately upon arrival), and the advantage of being much more readily fixed than cars, which when your nearest spare part is thousands of miles away becomes quite important, it is clear why motorbikes are so popular.
With motorbikes being such an important part of Tuvaluan everyday life, and remembering a promise to myself to try to adopt as many cultural norms as posible, I decided it would be rude not to give them a go, but first things first; I needed to get a licence.
The Tuvaluan law states that tourists are allowed to ride a bike or drive a car using a foreign drivers licence for the first two weeks of their stay, before then needing to apply for a Tuvaluan one. As Tuvalu doesn’t really have many tourists, and the few that do come to visit leave long before the two week deadline is up, I was met with a few funny looks when I strolled into the police station to enquire about applying for a Tuvaluan drivers licence. After the initial confusion I was told to return with my UK drivers licence the next day for verification, and then I would be able to sit my Tuvaluan driving test!
I dutifully turned up at the police station the next day with my pink licence in hand; handing it over for inspection I was trying to pre-empt exactly what a Tuvaluan driving test would consist of – there weren’t any cars around, just a collection of bikes gently rusting in the sun, and it dawned on me that if the test had anything to do with actually driving a motorbike I would most definitely fail. After a few minutes of showing my exotic licence to everyone in the police station, the policeman began to tell me the process of getting a licence…
The next four hours of my life felt like an episode of the crystal maze if they had a 'Bureaucracy Zone'. First and foremost I had to take my “test” which took the form of a questionnaire from the police office processing me:
Police Officer: “Can you drive?”
Andy: “Erm…yes you’re holding my driver’s licence”
Police Officer: “Good”
Having officially passed my Tuvaluan driving test, I had to take a signed note from the police station to the government cashiers office, pay an admin fee, and then return back to the police station for another signature. This produced another piece of paper, and it was back to the government building for yet another counter signature, but by this stage everyone was on lunch, so I had to wait an hour before getting the final signature to take back to the police station, only for them to give me a receipt to take to the town hall to get my actual licence, which of course they couldn’t give me because they had lost the stamp needed to make it official. Fortunately when I returned the following day they had located the correct stamp and with a flourish of civil service flair I was handed a small piece of green card - my very own Tuvaluan driver’s licence declaring that:
Andrew J Browning is licensed to drive the under mentioned classes of motor vehicles:-
And then written in perfectly legible biro is one word which sums up the whole affair… “BUS”
Yep that’s right, I am now apparently the holder of a Tuvaluan driving licence which seems to allow me to exclusively drive buses, despite the fact that I have only seen four buses here, two of which have never moved, and the other two still surprise me that they can.
Buses aside, with my license in hand, it was time to tackle something on two wheels, so Jay and I headed to our local mechanics shop and asked if they had any rental bikes available. The man looked around at the various bikes and parts lying around and after what seemed like an unnecessarily long time, concluded that he did have one we could use, and pointed at a relatively clean looking bike which seemed to be new considering the lack of rust visible – on closer inspection the lack of rust was because most of the bike was made of plastic, and it was most definitely designed for someone considerably lighter than Jay and I. All was not lost though, it started first time, and it was red which we all know means it was fast – or at least faster than the blue alternative.
It is worth mentioning at this point, that Jay owns a motorbike, knows how to ride it, and is from the land of the world famous Isle of Man TT motorbike race, so is pretty comfortable on the back of a bike. I on the other hand have never owned a motorbike, have only tried to ride one once in a field in Uganda (It didn’t go well), and am from the land of Vajazzles and wannabe gangsters where people are much more at home in a Fiat Panda than on the back of a motorbike.
So jumping on the 50 cc (which I have subsequently decided in this case stands for ‘cheap crap’) beast, we headed to the relatively quiet North end of the island, next to the larger of the two rubbish dumps for me to practice. After arriving, Jay took the safety precaution of standing behind a nearby palm tree, whilst I took my place in the driver’s seat surveying as I did the multitude of complicated controls which now sat before me.
To be honest I have seen more complicated biscuit tins, but I wanted to see exactly what this baby could do, and after about 30 seconds of pressing buttons and pulling levers I had it sussed; as well as going forward and having two working brakes this wonderful example of engineering also had a horn, AND a light – it was clear I was dealing with a top of the range machine here.
It was time to see if I had what it took to be a biker, so I flicked up the kick stand, pressed the ignition button, and clicked the beast into first gear. After a few false starts, and a small wheel spin which kicked up enough gravel to justify Jay’s position behind the tree, I was surprised to find that I took to it like the aforementioned wannabe gangsters to a dodgy O’Neils, and soon found myself tearing up and down the small and relatively straight piece of road between the rubbish dump and causeway, a distance of at least 400m involving two speed bumps which I of course negotiated with the style and finesse that a pro motocross rider would be envious of.
There was no stopping me from that point on. For the rest of the day I cruised up and down the island humming Stephan Wolfe’s classic Born to be Wild and imagining I had a more respectable beard than I could realistically ever achieve. Even with Jay on the back I managed not to wobble too much, and after dropping him home I took off on my own motorbike journey of self discovery, the likes of which Ché Guevara would be proud.
My country wide tour of self discovery took me all the way from the Northern end of the island to the Southern end (which took all of 20 minutes), and saw me masterfully dodging chickens, rocks, sand, gravel, stray piglets, children and their paper aeroplanes. I felt alive, the wind rushing through my new Tuvaluan haircut, my shades on – in my head I was Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’, courageously tearing around the German countryside on a classic motorbike thwarting the perusing Nazis. In reality I was a slightly sun burnt, over excited palagi on a cheap, mostly plastic motorbike, with next to no engine, driving away from imaginary soldiers, when the only thing that was actually perusing me was a slightly larger gentleman carrying a bucket of chicken and a small child.
In the film, Steve McQueen, after being surrounded on both sides by the perusing soldiers, goes for broke and attempts and audacious leap over the barbed wire of the German/Swiss border in order to escape. It was almost time to return the bike, and so nipping round a few more corners I neared the mechanics – my own personal Switzerland. It was difficult to recreate Steve’s epic leap given the limited topography of Tuvalu, but the last corner before the mechanics was a large sweeping affair which I thought, in homage to Steve and escaping POW’s everywhere, I could, and should, take with some speed given my now professional biker status.
With a high pitched rev from the engine (which by this time I had decided had been stolen from a blender) I leaned into the corner and could practically smell the Swiss freedoms of secure banking and Toblerone. Unfortunately the laws of physics had other ideas, and just as Steve McQueen was landing in a crumpled heap amongst a maze of barbed wire somewhere in no mans land, I found myself skidding across the road, up a small bank, and ending up in a similar heap after crashing into the wire fence of the Tuvalu Electricity Company High Voltage Sub Station.
The game was up. The Germans were taking Steve McQueen back to Stalag Luft III to play with his baseball, and I had potentially knocked out the power to half of Funafuti. From my horizontal position amongst the wire I immediately saw my mistake and cursed the patch of loose gravel I had crossed on the inside of the corner. I untangled myself from the wire and lifted the bike from my left foot. Fortunately, being made of plastic and travelling at about 10mph the only damage sustained was a stray mud guard which clipped back into place, and a small chunk of missing skin on my foot which the kick stand had claimed as a trophy. The fence had seen better days though, and it seemed that I wasn’t the first person to become intimately acquainted with its wire. I propped it up as best I could, and replaced the ominous “DANGER” sign, and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a light on in the house next door. I hadn’t knocked out the power, the bike was okay, and I had survived my first motorbike accident – Lesson learned I got back on the bike and took it the last few meters to the mechanics avoiding anything that looked remotely like gravel.
Perhaps next time I should just stick to what it says on my licence and drive a bus instead…