By Michael Kew
"DUDES, LET'S SLEEP ON THE AIRSTRIP."
He is drunk and sunburnt. He may have ciguatera.
Elbows on knees, a pink Nico Manos is hunched forward, shirtless and sweating, on the edge of an old stained mattress. He’s Canadian. He wasn’t built for this. He’s North Atlantic in the South Pacific.
For 55 Australian dollars per night, this hotel has no fresh sheets nor running water nor air-conditioning nor reliable electricity. “No water anywhere in Tuvalu!” our hostess promised, with a sweep of her flabby arm, at check-in. She’d pointed at the chipped cement floor. “Except here.” She smiled a crooked smile. “This is why I put you in my flat—to ensure you have enough water every day. And it is very cool in the apartment because it is upstairs.”
But warm air rises and her upstairs flat is full of mosquitoes and fat, stagnant air, like a sauna but dirtier. Here on Funafuti Atoll, capital of the pretty nation of Tuvalu, we are her only guests, apt considering Tuvalu is Earth’s third least-visited country. It is also Earth’s fourth smallest—nine atolls totaling less than 10 square miles of land for 11,000 people across 500,000 square miles of ocean between Australia and Hawai’i.
Shunning the cramp of their stuffy fales (half of Funafuti homes host at least nine people), many doze on Funafuti International’s (airport code: FUN) tradewind-cooled tarmac. A few feet above sea level and hogging a large slice of Funafuti’s land, the strip is barely “international,” connected just twice weekly, on one airline, with Fiji. It’s so barely international that, nightly, several folks are out there on woven mats and pillows beside their parked motorbikes.
Early each morn and late afternoon, flanking harsh heat, the FUN strip is used for jogging and ball games—volleyball or soccer, usually. During the day it is a public thoroughfare. Lots of traffic, mostly all motorcycles and scooters. Large Polynesians and gaunt stray dogs. Pigs and fowl. Pebbles and windblown trash.
Yesterday afternoon, since Tuvalu is a Commonwealth constitutional monarchy, the strip was used as a practice zone for the police squad (Tuvalu has no military) march that on Saturday will honor the 87th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, reigning from randy old England, 9,462 miles out. But ol’ Liz can’t be that excited about Tuvalu since she’s only visited it once.
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen!
NIGHT FELL hours back and the moon is new, yet we can see the airstrip, backdropped with silhouettes of coco palms and pandanus and tin shacks. Sleep? Perhaps Manos’s is a valid pitch, even if it trailed eight cans of Pure Blonde lager and a paper plate stacked with rice and possibly poisoned parrotfish from the dim restaurant below.
“We need breeze,” Daniel Jones says calmly. “My chest is covered with mosquito zits.”
Hawaiian zen. Jones is perpetually calm. Lying on his bed, he stares at the cracked ceiling. He’s also sweating, but not from beer or ciguatera. He’d had the coconut crab with breadfruit. Two cans of Pure Blonde.
I too chose the coconut crab with breadfruit. Eight cans of Pure Blonde. “You guys have mats?”
Manos: “Yeah. Boardbags.”
Me: “Let’s go.”
Ten seconds later: rain on the roof.
Jones: “Let’s not.”
All rain in Tuvalu is a step toward goodness, even if the FUN sleepers are now uncomfortably wet and awake. We resign to suffer in this hot room. But locals suffer from chronic drought, hence our dry shower and stinky, unflushable toilet, full of piss. Most Tuvaluans, especially in the outer atolls, simply choose the free, no-maintenance option of crapping in the lagoon. We witnessed this each dawn while awaiting Eti, our boat driver.
Recently the government declared a state of emergency—lack of rain was causing contamination of groundwater supplies, and fresh water was rationed to 10 gallons per house per day. Drought plagued all of Tuvalu, particularly Funafuti, which from space looks like the side of a man’s head.
So rain is good, especially at night. Water tanks are refilled. The air smells clean. The grime smears and the dust dies. And with surf whoosh and rustling palms, it sounds like Oceania.
“Maybe we’ll get to shower tomorrow,” I say, clicking through the day’s surfing photos on my laptop. The waves weren’t great, but they could be. Maybe tomorrow.
“What’s wrong with this place?” Manos asks, scratching his forehead with his left pinky, squinting at my computer screen. “Why don’t they just build a big desalination plant?”
A small one exists but it produces half of what the atoll needs. And it often fails.
Jones: “Some reef-blasting equipment would be great, too, eh? Dynamite?”
Quite selfishly and myopically, in true surfer mode, our problem with Tuvalu is not its lack of fresh water but its small number of surf spots and their odd proclivity for not copping the same swell that all week has afforded well-overhead tubefests at Cloudbreak, 657 miles south of us.
It should all compute. The tradewind here blows offshore. Despite Tuvalu’s global position, the Tasman Sea is a reliable swell-kitchen, and the Mamanucas’ consistency is our planned panacea.
Previously unconsidered: Tuvalu’s surrounding bathymetry is much deeper than Fiji’s, quickly plunging to 6,500 feet and leading swell away from the atolls, allowing it to roam, freed from Melanesia, northeasterly across the open ocean, scurrying past Tuvalu, later to barrel away in Kiribati and along Hawaii’s south shores.
We also learned Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia are professional swell-blockers. We deduced the swell likely needed to be legit large to properly ignite Funafuti. Recall “Big Friday” during 2012’s Fiji Pro. That kind? Perhaps we’ll never know.
Tonight, via the slothful wi-fi of this hotel, we learn Cloudbreak has been pumping for days.
“If we leave tomorrow, I can catch this swell at Bowls,” Jones says half-jokingly. “Or at Cloudbreak.”
But today is Thursday. Saturday’s flight is canceled. Zilch till Tuesday.
Hopes dashed faster than Jones can poo in the lagoon.