It’s not every day you have to Google a country you're about to visit to find out where in the world it is.
All I knew about Tuvalu before going there a couple of weeks ago was that, along with other low-lying island nations (come on down, Kiribati and the
Maldives), it's in danger of being one of the first places to be wiped off
the map by rising sea levels. (Tuvalu's prime minister was quite vocal about this at the Paris climate conference last month.)
|"Tuvalu" means "eight standing up"
(though there are now nine islands)
And that’s precisely why I wanted to go: to step off the map into un-tourist territory, and write about it.
So where is Tuvalu and what's it like? Two hours north of Fiji and just south of the Equator, tiny Tuvalu is made up of nine islands - well, three true islands and six coral atolls (rings of islands of various shapes and sizes).
|A tropical horizon of
cargo ships and fishing boats
There are no tour guides, organised activities or dive operators. Cruise ships don't stop there (thank goodness). Tourism is a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go, tag-along-with-the-locals deal, which makes for an authentic un-tourist experience.
|My "guide", Paufi,
and her little red bike
We rode the island's palm-lined roads, talking and feeling the cool breeze in our hair (I hadn't wanted to ride without a helmet, but no one wears one and there aren't any to rent, and at least everyone rides at a sedate 20kph).
carts towed by motorbikes
The closest thing to a tourist attraction was the Tuvalu Post office, where I perused special issue stamps created for every random occasion from the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Anderson to Charles and Diana's royal wedding.
In my pre-trip daydreams, I'd imagined Tuvalu to be a smaller, less developed version of the Maldives, a cluster of jewel-like islands minus the luxury resorts. The main island in Funafuti atoll, Fongafale, was disappointingly not like that: it's densely populated (about 5000 Tuvaluans live there) and polluted (James Michener, who wrote South Pacific, called it "a truly dismal island" when he was stationed there during WWII).
|A castaway islets in
Funafuti Conservation Area
At one motu, my boat driver found a turtle hatching - with two heads, dead. Biological anomaly or consequence of pollution, who can say? We saw adult green turtles in the water too. And two islands on their way to disappearing, not directly due to climate change, but perhaps indirectly: all their trees were knocked down by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, and without them the sand is washing back into the sea.
|Two-headed turtle hatchling
|Girls outside church
|Learning to weave with Lita,
owner of Afelita Island Resort
(Big thanks to the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, GTI Tourism and Tuvalu Tourism for organising my trip.)