A Sickly Stay in Funafuti

After ten days in Rotuma we left near sundown and sailed about 300 nm to Funafuti, the main island in Tuvalu, a small Polynesian nation of nine islands that has a total surface area of nine square miles and a total population of about 12,000.  Both nights of the passage were burdened with squalls, a common occurrence when the air temperature at night becomes cooler than the water temperature, and we had several moments of near crisis with winds shooting up to the forties, but we were also blessed with several wonderful interludes of peaceful moderate winds, the average being in the mid-twenties fairly constantly the entire route, all again on the beam, the best point of sail.

Funafuti is a large low-lying atoll about 14 nm in one dimension and 12 in the other with numerous islands, or motus, surrounding a sizeable lagoon whose depths allow for freighter traffic but whose shallows and passes offer many coral reefs for exploring.  Financially the locals depend on subsidies from Australia (the Aussie dollar is the currency here), fishing rights sold to Taiwan and South Korea, earnings from a trust fund that is worth about $150 million, and the licensing of their internet domain moniker  .tv – for the greater part of their public funds.  On the personal level, local wisdom has it that the ideal number of children here are two boys – one to stay here and work and assist the parents and one to move overseas and send back remittances – and two girls – one to marry locally and stay and assist the parents and the other daughter to marry well.

Half or over of the Tuvalu population lives in Funafuti as people leave the outer islands and move to the closest approximation of urban living available, offering a few restaurants and pubs and internet and cellphone connections and a movie theatre and a semblance of shopping and more education opportunities and all the government offices and the airport and the main freight terminal and the main hospital.  But it is a cash only economy – no credit cards – and overpopulation and pollution on the little available space in Funafuti are major problems.    

People were friendly and curious about us obvious foreigners;  they even stared at us, generally with smiles.  Crime, according to a policeman who was in the bed next to Glen in the men’s ward at the hospital (that story coming up), mostly consists of traffic violations, not from four-wheel vehicles so much but from the ubiquitous scooters that people negotiate the long narrow piece of land that constitutes Funafuti town.  We never saw a helmet – on the contrary, we instead saw many adults riding with one hand holding a baby and the other steering.  There were a ton of kids playing in the streets, generally poor quality housing and construction overall, even the government building and hospital in dire need of maintenance, and lots of accumulated trash.  Homes were both timber and block construction mostly with corrugated tin roofs and a few thatched ones and many had outside pallet-like platforms for sleeping, sort of like a stand-alone veranda without furniture, the churches were largely without pews and the locals sit cross-legged on the floor.  English of a fashion is spoken, but only haltingly.  The streets and the shoreline around Funafuti are all rubbish-ridden, some parts better than others.  There is a particularly poor quarter where some people live in huts over the lagoon which in that area is covered in trash.

Tuvalu is very, very third world.

Tuvalu has been the recipient of much foreign aid as developed countries open their wallets to the island nations threatened by climate change.  With the highest elevation here on Funafuti at less than five feet, any rise in ocean level spells serious trouble, even calamity, and has fostered a trend in tourism:  “See the island before it disappears!”  We ran into two Chinese students at an internet café who had travelled to Funafuti for that express purpose.

Japan or South Korea gave two longliner fishing boats to Tuvalu and built them a fish processing plant.  Although they caught fish, Tuvaluans claim they couldn’t market their fish, so simply abandoned both the ships and the plant, and along with several other pieces of apparently valuable machinery (a drill mill machine shop, for one) are now just rotting in the main industrial area.   Launches that tended the ships have been abandoned, too, and have filled with rain and waves and now the shiny tops of their outboard cowlings are barely above water but little else, victims of neglect not nature.  We heard also, but did not see, that some country had donated a giant desalinator plant for Funafuti, but did not provide maintenance which the locals were incapable of without training and oversight for a few years, and so the plant sits unused and rusting.  Millions of dollars have been wasted.

There are many locally built wooden motorboats that people use for fishing and collecting coconuts on the outlying motus, and there is even the occasional traditional canoe with an outrigger, some even with traditional claw sails, that locals use out in the lagoon to fish with.  Generally everyone uses outboard motors in Funafuti, however.

When we first anchored at Funafuti we were the only foreign boat, the ninth yacht to clear in this year according to their Immigration department, but within a couple of days another sailing catamaran (from Australia) arrived then left within a couple of days enroute to Hawaii.

The reefs at Funafuti town were not much and what existed was overfished, but we went to a couple of other places in the lagoon and found reefs that were better than anything we have seen so far this year with lots of branching antler-like corals, mostly whitish or cream-colored but some fluorescent purple and others bright orange, and other corals in the vague shape of lily pads but up to ten feet or so in diameter, although generally drab in color.  Fish were fairly abundant and we would have spearfished but were warned that ciguatera-poisoning is a problem to the point that two people, a 19-year-old and a 38-year-old, died of ciguatera this year.  A silver-tip shark followed me one day and repeatedly came fairly close, curious if I had a fish he might steal, I think.  

One weekend was the Queen’s Birthday celebration (Queen Elizabeth of the UK is also Queen of Tuvalu) and there was a parade-like ceremony on the airstrip in the queen’s honor.  There were about fifty girls and young women from the primary and high schools in uniform, about twenty young men who were students at the local maritime college, and about thirty young men who were of some police/military service and who had been well-trained in marching to the slow funeral-dirge pace of ceremonial British units but, with the exception of two young men who later flanked the prime minister as he gave an address, had evidently not been trained with real firearms as all their rifles were plastic! 

Prince William and his new bride, Kate, visited Funafuti last year and stayed the night at the Australian ambassador’s home.

Poor ol’ Glen!  The generally quite hardy fellow began suffering gastro-intestinal distress enroute from Rotuma and after a few days with no remission he picked through our boat’s medical stores and began a regimen of tablets that had no discernible effect so, after a week of his unremitting suffering, I finally prevailed on him to seek medical advice in Funafuti, and he went to the hospital and came back with three vials for specimens.  Such was the severity of his condition that it took him precious little time to produce the requisite samples, and then he hurried off with the dinghy to deliver them. 

As soon as he returned to Backbeat, he started feeling faint, then noticed he was bleeding on his arms, the blood oozing out from what looked like scratches or scrapes or rug burns.  It appeared to me like someone had used a rasp on him.  Earlier in the morning I had seen him wipe blood from a leg and heard him wonder aloud how he scraped himself.  After examining his arms and finding several bleeding areas, he turned his attention to his legs and found the same thing – rashy blotches that were oozing a thick, dark red blood.  Then suddenly he spit in his hand and it was bloody, too, and he further admitted that there had been blood in his stool as well.  And again he said he felt faint.  So John and he – I had just come back from snorkelling and was in my swimming trunks and wet  rushed back to the hospital, although ‘rush’ is not quite the correct term as it required a long dinghy ride that at low tide necessitated wending their way carefully through shallows and tall seaweed and the setting of a stern anchor to keep the dinghy from washing onto the rocky shore behind the hospital.

By the time of their arrival the hospital staff had examined at least one specimen and pronounced them full of parasites and the doctor, a local lady named Dr Tafou Fuiono, quickly examined Glen’s bleeding sores and said she thought he suffered not only from parasites in his gut, but also from – get this – dengue fever!  She told him he was being admitted and could expect to stay a couple of days, and would be administered IVs of some pesticide or something to kill the GI-tract bloodsuckers and an antibiotic to fight the dengue fever.  A diagnosis of dengue fever and intestinal parasites  not one or the other, but both simultaneously!

Later this diagnosis was changed, and the doctor claimed the first specimen had been contaminated by the lab, and that the other specimens taken throughout Glen’s stay at the hospital showed no parasites.

To employ the term ‘hospital’ to characterise the main medical facility in Tuvalu might well cause offense to some healthcare providers in the US I am friends with.  For one thing it is open-air, depending on ambient temperatures, natural breezes and ceiling fans for cooling.  Also the local sense of hygiene in the Funafuti hospital is also not what we in the US would consider of medical standards.  Walking from the dinghy just behind the hospital we saw not only a great deal of accumulated trash – all sorts of plastic and paper, tin and aluminium cans and all kinds of glassware – but even an open pit full of empty glass vials of medications, evidently ready for incineration.  Worse yet, on the side of the hospital we saw syringes lying on the ground near a bin where they evidently store all their used sharps in boxes.  And the cot in the examining room they placed Glen on had a dirty sheet with fluid on it!   A bed in the Glen’s ward had a ripped mattress with dried blood on the yellow foam rubber (see photo, below).  

Glen later said he saw in the lagoon where we landed the dinghy behind the hospital a youngish kid playing with a needle-less syringe like it was a water gun. 

Glen was placed in the men's ward which was filthy, the toilet facilities especially disgusting, no soap, no towels, not even lids on the toilets.  Nor on his cot did they even provide a pillow, but fortunately another patient, the policeman mentioned above, typically generous as the Polynesians are, gave him one of his, and it was hand-crocheted with a pretty multi-color floral design which seemed to be the standard among locals, several pillows I noticed among the other patients celebrating ‘Happy Birthday!’ in bright hand-stitched colors.  I estimate there were ten other patients in his ward, all quite curious about us white folk when we visited, at first staring then smiling when we acknowledged them. 

The hospital not only is populated by homo sapiens but also abundant other animal life.  Dogs and cats roam the halls – we noticed even new-born pups scratching away at fleas just outside Glen’s ward and were witness to a cat fight, evidently over a female in heat although as skinny as the poor things were, it well may have been over medical waste.  Dogs here, by the way, are all passive and quiet and sluggish and sheepish toward people, as if they have experienced regular human brutality.  Rats inhabit the hospital attic and roof and who knows where else and scurry about at night.  And ant colonies are especially prolific at the hospital – a person can stand still a moment and they will cover a foot. 

Glen said that one hot afternoon while lying in his cot bored and restless, sick of reading, he was observing ants on the floor and admiring how organized and industrious they were.  At some point he thoughtlessly flicked off a small scab from his arm and in a few minutes noticed that same scab ascending the wall next to his head, carried by a phalanx of ants on a major ant thoroughfare. 

Every evening the family members of the patients gathered and wives and children unfolded mats made locally of pandanus leaves and slept on the floor beside their men.  I saw a pack of about ten-year-old males running full speed in and out of the hospital, hooping and hollering, playing a form of keep-away.  In the mornings the mothers readied the kids for school, sent them on their way and then largely disappeared themselves.  Glen claimed the food brought him by the hospital to be quite good and substantial in quantity, largely chicken and taro root, but many families bring their own. 

Among the doctors at the hospital were one from Cuba, Dr Rico, as well as others from the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan.  The local doctor, Dr Fuiono who studied in New Zealand, was the busiest due to hometown popularity and was rather harried whenever I saw her.  Like the term ‘hospital’, the term ‘doctor’ may well be more liberally construed in these remote islands than in the US and other highly-developed countries because a local lady I chatted with claimed that their last Filipino doctor had moved to the States where he now works as a nurse.  Even though the facilities were poor, however, the hospital staff was kind and attentive.

After two nights – during one of which he tore out an IV that was poorly secured and had blood shooting out like a water sprinkler, and as a result almost passed out by the time he rallied help – and another half-day, Glen was finally released.  His bleeding and rashy sores healed up rather quickly and the diarrhea stopped.

It will take three weeks from date of sample to receive the results of blood and stool tests that were sent to Australia for lab analysis and on their receipt the doctor should develop a sounder diagnosis.

Dengue fever is not contagious and is spread solely by mosquitos.  Why only Glen and neither John nor I came down with that must be put down to luck – bad luck on his part. 

While we were in Tuvalu they were having the Tuvalu Games which pits island against island in sports such as soccer, rugby, basketball, volleyball, javelin throwing, and other sports, and we could hear from Backbeat the enthusiastic support offered by partisan crowds.  Much of the competition took place on the only runway (there are two flights a week).  I mentioned in my last message how community-minded and clan-oriented Polynesian traditional culture is.  Here in Tuvalu they certainly are both of those, but there is also another aspect of their culture that is unusual in fomenting community spirit:  they promote strong competition between artificially-created divisions within islands.  Each island has two ‘sides’ or teams that have their own colors and who compete against one another in sports but also in island-wide projects like roofing a church, or digging new taro pits, or celebrating Tuvalu Independence Day with feasts, or honouring visiting dignitaries.  It is thought such competition betters the community by encouraging each side to outperform the other, thereby pressuring all to excel.

The next country we plan to visit is Kiribati and I found a sailor’s blog from 2012 on the internet where he said that one can get permission from the Kiribati High Commission (embassy) in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to visit outer islands before checking in with Customs and Immigration, etc., in Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital, so during Glen’s convalescence I ducked off to Fiji for a few days (it’s a two and a half hour flight to Suva from Funafuti) in order to, among other things, try to get such permission.  Alas, Kiribati had replaced its High Commissioner in Fiji since that blog was written and the new one does not give out pre-clearance visas for the outer islands, so I failed in that regard (as I also did in buying an extension piece for the stainless steel mast of our wind generator), and now we will have to sail about 700 nm from Funafuti to Tarawa and not be able to break that passage up with stops in the dozen or so islands we pass in between.  Tuvalu is just as restrictive as Kiribati, and does not allow visits to outer islands either before or checking in or after clearing out with Customs and Immigration at Funafuti.  I had read a book, ‘Unity of Heart’, by some American sociologists about the island of Nanumea in Tuvalu and was quite eager to visit it, but since it is 250 nm NW of Funafuti a visit there would require a total of at least 500 nm extra, with the return to Funafuti being against prevailing winds, so we abandoned the idea.

The day after Glen’s last doctor’s appointment we left Funafuti, however, for a 60 nm trip to Nukufetau, a rectangular atoll with a big lagoon and an easily navigable pass into it.  The population there is 400-500.  I had gone to Tuvalu Immigration and Tuvalu Customs trying to get permission to check out in Funafuti and then stop in Nanumea for a few days on our way to Tarawa in Kiribati and had been refused, so in order to see at least one more island in Tuvalu besides the overcrowded and atypical ‘city’ of Funafuti, we determined to take about a 120 nm detour and visit Nukufetau. 

Not being overpopulated, Nukufetau was cleaner although even poorer than Funafuti.  Only a couple of boats we saw had outboards – the vast majority were traditional dugouts with outriggers and were rowed and sailed with blue-tarp claw sails.  There were a half dozen in the pass to the lagoon as we entered, fishing with the change of tide.  We anchored and then landed the dinghy on a beach and were quickly met by the paramount chief and the pastor of the local Church of Tuvalu, which is Congregationalist, and another gentleman, a shirtless Buddha-looking fellow but with a blue hardhat as if he were working at an industrial site.  All were about my age and had bad teeth.  I had with me a largish plastic container with about fifty children’s books as a gift (bought at a thrift shop in NZ), and I presented that to the men who were non-plussed about it, as if I were giving them a sack of sand, and I explained that I was a member of a Tuvalu discussion group online and had inquired what I could bring to outer islands and a woman suggested kids’ books, so I bought some, and that the books we brought were from pre-school to high school levels, all organized according to age by a dear friend of mine, a lady teacher knowledgeable about kiddie lit.  The pastor replied that they would review the books, as if we might be trying to pollute their youngsters’ minds or something, slip in a bit of naughty this or obscene that. 

While at the time I was a bit miffed at the reception of our weighty gift (I am certain that Backbeat picked up at least a tenth of a knot with unloading of the box of books, and look forward to giving away the second box) in retrospect I understand it all somewhat better now:  we might well have good intentions like the Australian government with the desalinating plant, but might accidentally present them with books inappropriate for their culture.

Regardless of what I considered not a warm welcome, although it was polite and not unfriendly, the chief gave us permission to use the lagoon as we wished subject to limitations in the Conservation Area which comprises about an eighth of the lagoon (Funafuti has one, too).  They called the local policeman to check our papers, asked about our travel plans (island peoples are fascinated with sailing the oceans), told us their lagoon was ciguatera-free, and invited us to church the next morning, among other things.

Our initial appraisal of the lagoon found it no better than Funafuti:  large swathes of bleached out coral rubble, nothing much healthy looking although here and there one could spot nice examples of both corals and sealife, including the ever present curious sharks.  Certainly nothing to write home about – yet I am writing this and sending it to you!  (You poor people, to have to put up with this blather.)

Church services the next morning was quite interesting.  Most of their young people from about 12 to 16 were either away at boarding school on another island or in Funafuti for the Tuvalu Games, so I suppose that church attendance was not normal, but rather full it seemed to me nevertheless, with about a hundred and fifty present, men sitting in the left half of pews outnumbering two to one the women sitting in the right ones, most local women home cooking the big Sunday meal.  The evening service at six is better attended by women we were told.  The church was the most substantial building on the island, masonry with 18-inch walls, thirty foot ceiling, a bell tower, and Gauguin-esque stained glass of brightly colored botanical forms without any obvious theological theme.  There were two choirs and each had its own choir director and performed two songs, all with quite competent harmonies between the men and the women.  The service lasted 45 minutes and both the main pastor and the newly ordained assistant pastor, about 35 years old, welcomed us in English, the rest of the service in Tuvaluan.

After the service we went for a walk in the village and found it shady and cool and quite clean compared to Funafuti, with well-tended gardens, freshly swept paths everywhere, even the hog pens in better condition than in Funafuti.  Most cooking areas are in an open-air and often thatched outbuilding. There are three big open-air assembly halls, one for each of the two sides or teams of the island, and one for everyone.  There are three canteens or small shops for rice, bottled gas and incidentals.  On our return to the dinghy, we encountered the assistant pastor who had come looking for us on behalf of the head pastor who invited us to lunch.  We followed the assistant pastor to the main pastor’s house and lunched with both men on raw and curried fish, taro unsweetened and taro sweetened, white rice, rahmen noodles, sausages, papaya, bottled water and canned cola.  Tuvaluans mostly eat with their fingers but they provided us with forks – small, flimsy plastic ones that Allsup’s might use with a frito pie.  And after the meal, the men smoked cigarettes.  The main pastor’s wife and a young woman sat at the table with us but did not eat, apparently eating with the young people after we finished and left, although the pastor’s wife did venture to offer a rare comment.  The young woman appeared to have been given the task of fanning flies away from the several bowls of food and said nothing.  A girl of about twelve appeared and the pastor abruptly spoke a couple of words to her and she closed the door and disappeared.  A sheepish but pony-tailed young man in his twenties ducked around a corner as unobtrusively as possible and vanished into what likely was the kitchen of the pastor’s manse.  We recognized him from the day before as the young man the pastor and the chief and the hardhat Buddha had sent to fetch the policeman to examine our papers.

Evidently their society is not only sexist, but ageist as well.

We were told that there are three clans on the island, that each has a chief, and that the paramount chief of the three is decided among all parties and is alternated periodically.  There is also an elected village council.  Some things are considered customary or relating to Tuvaluan culture and decided by the chiefs, while most things are considered administrative and decided by the government.

After I asked him about the books we had donated, the pastor informed us that they had been examined and were found non-objectionable, but still I never heard any gratitude for our gift, maybe they thinking that our gift was repaid with the meal and required no verbal thank you.

We anchored at a couple of different spots around the lagoon over the course of the next few days and I must say that the Nukufetau lagoon offers little other than impenetrable jungle on the motus or islands that dot the barrier reef as well as some barely distinguishable non-combat WWII ruins and a shipwreck.  Nukufetau offered perhaps the worst snorkelling I have ever done on an atoll anywhere – poor visibility and nothing but sand and rubble to see anyway other than by the main pass.  And to make one’s way across a motu from the lagoon to the barrier reef on the outside requires at least a machete, a couple of which we have, but I really wish we had a chainsaw or, better yet, a bulldozer.  Exaggerating, of course, as the motus are quite attractive with their tall coconut palms and rich vegetation, but they are so dense as to be impassable and steaming because of lack of breeze.

The weather really has not been too hot so far, and we are less than 500 nm from the equator, although in afternoons without a bit of wind, the interior of the boat can be stifling.  At anchor we have learned to erect a tarp over the trampoline between our bows where we often take siestas, cooling breeze coming up through and over the tramp.  It rains almost every day at least a little bit, and unfortunately every night, too, waking us in our berths as we get wet underneath open hatches, which we then shut and the interior gets stifling again, although we do have small noisy 12v fans and wet washcloths to alleviate the warmth somewhat. 

We are now underway to Kiribati, the capital Tarawa some five days away and to the North of the equator.  It will be Glen’s first crossing.

(June 2013)

                       John with Backbeat between two local boats at Funafuti

                Queen’s Birthday Celebration in Funafuti, troops with plastic rifles

                 Glen in Funafuti hospital, blood on wall behind, John at side

                                  Bed across from Glen at Funafuti hospital                                  

                                  Non-human inhabitant of Funafuti hospital

                               Meal on Nukufetau, Tuvalu, mostly fish, taro and rice

© R. Kelly Wright 2014