Lost in FUN

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on August 27, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.

All photos by Jack Wheeler

Lost in FUNFunafuti, Tuvalu. Welcome to FUN.

As you know, airports around the world have a three-letter code in capital letters. Los Angeles, for example, is LAX, while Istanbul is IST. This place has the best airport code on earth: FUN.  I’m lost in it.

I’m not sure if what I’ve discovered here in one of the world’s smallest and unknown independent countries is a case of serendipity: finding something where you least expect it – or barendipity: not finding something where you most expect it.   

Whichever, it’s fascinating, revelatory, and absolutely hilarious. Get ready to have a really fun learning experience.

It wasn’t, however, fun for the folks here to get their country started. They had to persevere over incredible British vindictiveness, while maintaining a wonderful cheerfulness, rather than succumbing to anger and bitterness. They still have that positive attitude, they haven’t succumbed, and they are still getting screwed.

Tuvalu” (too-VAH-loo) means “eight standing together,” eight atolls with a Polynesian people speaking the same language and having a common culture. The Brits colonized them in the 1890s along with another group of islands inhabited by Micronesian people with a different language and culture. 

Naming Tuvalu after a Brit shipping merchant named Ellice, and the other group after a Brit sea captain named Gilbert, when combined it was the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Crown Colony (GEIC).

After World War II, the Brits designated Tarawa in the Gilberts as the capital. With four times as many Gilbertese than Tuvaluans (too-VAL-oo-uns, the latter were reduced to minority status. By the late 1960s, Tuvaluans couldn’t handle the discrimination any longer and began demanding a divorce. The Brits responded with threats and extortion.

The GEIC was paid for by a Crown Agent Account and the Brits said they would cut Tuvalu out of it completely, leaving them destitute. They would be left with one single trading and transport ship out of the GEIC fleet, and every island in the entire GEIC except the “Tuvalu 8” (many Tuvaluans lived on others) would be given to the Gilberts (they ended up with one more). 

On and on went the threats. The Tuvaluans told the Brits to shove them up their colonial noses.

They voted to separate from the Gilberts (subsequently renamed Kiribati) in 1974 and declared full sovereign independence in 1978. It took them 22 years to have their sovereignty recognized by the UN, becoming a UN Member State in 2000. 

One of the tiniest countries on the planet with a total population of barely more than 11,000 and a total land area of less than 10 square miles, it wasn’t given much of a chance of survival.

Over half the country, some 6,000, live here on skinny Funafuti, a strip of sand and coral between the ocean and lagoon (the remaining 5,000 are spread among the other smaller atolls):

Lost in FUNI’m here to understand why and how this place exists. I knew that Tuvalu was given the Internet Country Domain of .tv, and parlayed that into a $50 million deal with Verisign, which expires in 2021. Other than that, what’s going on here? 

Even though the Brits spitefully gave most of the entire GEIC ocean territory to the Gilberts, Tuvalu still has an Exclusive Economic Zone of some 400,000 square miles which contains very rich fishing grounds. It sells fishing rights to a number of countries including South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. Their boats are very well-monitored, and as they pay a lot of money, they eagerly report any outlaws, which they consider “fish-rustlers.” 

Tuvaluans have an excellent reputation worldwide as skilled sailors and seamen. The Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute rigorously teaches the skills necessary for employment in global merchant shipping. Over 15% of all Tuvaluan adult men are so employed now, maintaining their families and relatives with remittances.

As you may know, the Chicoms of China vie with Taiwan over getting small countries like Tuvalu to diplomatically recognize them. Tuvalu chose Taiwan, brushing aside the PRC – “they’re Communists!” is the explanation I kept hearing. As a result, Taiwan provides aid for a number of projects.

Tuvaluans have parlayed all this into their sovereign wealth fund called the Tuvalu Trust Fund, which is thoroughly monitored by Australia and New Zealand. Twice a year, a representative from each, trained IMF/World Bank economists, come here to scrupulously examine the Trust Fund accounts and books, with transparent access to all spending.

They are here now, and over a few VBs (Victoria Bitter from Australia is the beer of choice in Tuvalu), they explained to me how well the fund is doing. It’s now over $140 million – that’s for a country of 11,000 people – and growing, as the government can spend only the interest above inflation.

So the place is making a go of it. This is certainly no failed state. But Tuvaluans are still getting screwed.

The Oz-Kiwi ANZ bank, for example, operates a banking monopoly charging extortionate currency exchange rates and financial services fees – made possible by the Brits preventing Tuvalu being a part of the international banking system.

Thus, all transactions are in cash – Australian dollars only – no Visa or any other credit cards are permitted.

There’s only one way in the world to get here – unless you have your own yacht or private plane – and that’s on Fiji Airways from Suva, Fiji, three times a week at, again, extortionate prices. The monopoly is strangling the country.

Which is why I chartered a plane (the same King Air we visited Kanton Atoll last week in Idyllic Isolation) to get here.

Tourism is the world’s biggest business. Tuvalu has gorgeous beaches galore, the diving is fabulous, World War II shipwrecks are all over in shallow water. Yet there’s no PADI dive facility. There are no tourists. There’s one crummy hotel and a bunch of little homestays that are always full so you can’t get a room.

How can that be if there are no tourists? Because they’re filled with trust fund-baby do-gooders and bureaucratic ilk from various NGOs – all earnestly trying to “help” with subsidized boondoggles.

One of them I met is a South Korean creating a “renewable biomass” energy plant. And just what would be the source of renewable biomass on a coral atoll? Get ready for it… wood chips barged a thousand miles from Fiji. I swear I’m not making this up.

No one ever comes here trying to create free-market solutions and actual real businesses. All the do-gooders want to do is provide subsidies of various sorts paid for by their country’s taxpayers.

So now for the fun part – for the Tuvaluans think all of this is hilarious.

Tuvalu, you see, is a poster child for the Global Warming movement. Google “Tuvalu sinking” and you’ll get 176,000 hits. “Tuvalu global warming” will get 500,000 hits. The trust funders and professional international envirocrats here are intent on saving Tuvalu from being “washed away due to the effects of climate change.”

They put up signs all over Funafuti proclaiming their efforts:

Lost in FUNThe founder of Lonely Planet guidebooks, Tony Wheeler (no relation!) wrote a weepy book, Time and Tide (beautiful pictures, though) about Tuvalu, a country that’s “on the climate change front line” and will “soon be lost to global warming.”

The highest point on any atoll in Tuvalu is 15 feet above sea level, and the average is about 6. And the oceans are rising. Antarctica and Greenland are melting and the oceans are rising and innocent helpless countries like Tuvalu are going to drown because Western countries won’t stop Global Warming. 

The Tuvaluans, however, have a different perspective. They think it’s too funny for words.

It’s too funny because of this:

Lost in FUNI just took this picture. It’s the rusted remains of an American bulldozer used to build the Funafuti airstrip in 1942. It’s been here at this spot on the edge of the ocean shoreline (not the lagoon side) for 76 years. Obviously there’s been no sea rise for the last seven decades.

The most comprehensive study of sea levels is the SEAFRAME sensoring by Geosciences Australia of 12 Pacific Island nations since 1993. The chart for Tuvalu, as it is for all 10 in the South Pacific, is flat. (The Marshalls and the Carolines of Micronesia are in the North Pacific and are slightly elevated.)

Lost in FUNThe funniest aspect to this is that Tuvaluans know there’s been no sea level rise, but they are happy to stroke the NGO folks just the same.

David is 16, a bright high school student. He and a friend took me out in an outboard motorboat to a small reef island, a postcard paradise called Tepuka. If you’re going to be marooned on a Robinson Crusoe island, this will do:

Lost in FUN

Lost in FUNThey showed me an observation bunker built there by Americans during WWII to watch for Japanese ships. It’s still intact with coconut palms and pandanus trees growing on the roof. Far from being washed away, the tiny islet is stable and flourishing:

Lost in FUNWhen I pointed this out and asked David, “How is this still here over 70 years later with global warming and the sea level rising?” – he laughed. “Every Tuvaluan knows the ocean isn’t rising.  My grandfather, who is even older than you (thanks, David…), says it is crazy talk.”

“It really upsets my grandmother,” he added. “The graves of our families are very important to us. Many of them are next to the sea.”

Yes, I told him that I had seen many:

Lost in FUN“My grandmother gets angry and says, ‘Do you think we would bury our loved ones next to the ocean if we thought the sea was rising and would wash them away?’ She feels insulted by these foreigners who come here and seem to say that.”

Kids will usually tell you just what they think if you’ll let them. Adults are more cautious. But if you buy them enough VBs, they open up. I assured them that I wasn’t with any government or non-governmental (NGO) aid agency, I was just a visitor here to learn about Tuvalu. One oldtimer confided in me:

“So you want to know what’s really going on here, eh, Jack? Look, we live here, we’ve lived here for who knows how many centuries. The ocean is our home. It’s either just a few feet away when we’re on our islands, or we’re on it and in it, fishing. We know storms and king tides and cyclones, and we’d know if something was making the ocean higher. It’s the same, Jack, the ocean is not getting higher. It hasn’t for all our lives and our parents’ and grandparents’ lives.

“But… if white people want to come here and give us money because of some bulls**t theory of theirs, who are we to say no?”

We all belly-laughed so hard we almost cried. I, of course, ordered another round of VBs. Another elder spoke up:

“So we all nod and agree when the foreigners spout their theories and tell us it’s their fault the ocean is going to wash us away and they must give us lots of money to make up for it. The only Tuvaluans who believe this are the politicians who have to spout it back to keep the money coming. Even if you know something is BS, if you say you believe it often enough, you end up thinking the BS is real. But we don’t care about politicians much in Tuvalu.”

They were happy to confide in me as almost no one ever comes here just as a visitor or tourist. Tuvalu gets a few dozen tourists a year. Other than the occasional businessman (mostly from Taiwan, Korea, or Japan), and yachties sailing through, everyone else is with some government or quasi-government. As best as I could determine, right now, I and the handful of friends with me in our King Air are the only tourists in the entire country right now.

It’s easy to see why. There are only two places to stay, a small motel and another even smaller; neither have hot water. There’s no scuba diving or tourist facilities of any kind. You can rent a motorbike and traverse Funafuti’s only road – 8 miles from one end of the island to the other – in an hour.  

Yet Tuvalu has captivating charms. Tuvaluans are incredibly friendly, maybe the friendliest people I’ve ever met on the planet. Everyone of all ages has a smile for you, open, welcoming, generous, genuinely Christian nice. 

Tuvaluans believe in freedom, in “live and let live.” Religious freedom is abundant. While most belong to the Congregationalist Church of Tuvalu, there are also Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’i. 

They love to sing and dance, from their own traditional music to rock-and-roll. Last night we went to a great rock party, the band and singers were really tight, performing Creedence (Bad Moon Rising) to Maná (Mariposa Traicionera) to Tuvaluan traditional, with everyone so happy and dancing and laughing having so much fun.

There are no bars, other than at the two tiny motels and a cramped Chinese restaurant called 3T’s. No one uses cell phones, you go and find whomever you want to talk to on your motorbike. There’s one small internet café, some satellite dishes for Pacific Sky television, but most families don’t have a TV. 

They’d rather spend time with each other and friends, swim and fish in the lagoon, play volleyball at the end of the day, sing and dance at night. Tuvaluans are a very self-entertaining people.Consumer Resource Guide

They got kicked in the teeth by the spiteful Brits and rose above it. They cherish their freedom and sovereignty. They are happy, and happy to be who they are. How serendipitous to find such a people and place lost in the South Pacific.

What’s barendipitous is to discover the people who live in the poster-child country for global warming have such a different perspective on it than people who don’t. 

“We are a seafaring people,” I was informed. “We know how amazingly vast and enormous the ocean is. Human beings make just the thinnest skin on the planet. To think that us humans can change the level of the whole ocean is crazy in the head. What we don’t understand is why anyone would want to believe that.”

So now, here’s a quick look at Tuvalu and its wonderful people. If you ever come here, you’ll be made welcome.

Three friendly ladies:

Lost in FUNThree friendly kids:

Lost in FUNSmiles from young and old:

Lost in FUNThe favorite sport:

Lost in FUNDad bringing home dinner from his outrigger canoe in the lagoon:

Lost in FUNYou can grow most anything in your front yard (like lots of papayas):

Lost in FUNYou can also have your front yard be the family grave site:

Lost in FUNYou can simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the lagoon:

Lost in FUNAnd, of course, sunsets that take your breath away:

Lost in FUNThis marvelous little country with its inspiringly cheerful and wise people have a lesson for us in how to live. If you ever get the chance to learn it here in this lost Land of FUN, don’t pass it up.

Upcoming Wheeler Expeditions – click for details on each:

September 13-October 2:  Hidden Central Asia

Lost in FUN
October 8-October 18: Hidden Holy Land

Lost in FUN

November 3-November 10 & November 10-November 17: Himalaya Helicopter Expedition

Lost in FUNClick here to get advance notice of expeditions you can join & stunning photos of Once-in-a-Lifetime Adventures

Jack Wheeler is the founder of Wheeler Expeditions

This article was published in the Escape Artist Weekly Newsletter on August 27, 2018. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, please click here.