The best way to paint a picture of Tuvalu (pronounced tuːˈvɑːlu) is to imagine rewinding the clock. Rewind it to your childhood or a place and time in American history when no one locked their doors, any kid could walk the streets unsupervised (even as young as 4 or 5) and you can park your bike unlocked anywhere. Imagine a town too small to ever truly get lost, everyone knows pretty much everyone and you can wander up to houses on a Saturday night to listen to backyard music because everyone is welcome. Perhaps that scene has never actually existed in America but the idyllic idea of it has. Now imagine that community the size of 11,000 people, 3 - 6 feet above sea level and surrounded entirely by ocean. That is Tuvalu.
Over and over again, the people here describe life as simple and safe and easygoing. It’s why they love living on this island. As one community leader stated, “I’ve travelled the world and lived abroad in New Zealand but I don’t feel free in those places. Only in Tuvalu do I feel free. No one is stressing or haggling over too many rules or strict enforcement. It’s free and laidback here.” As Taonea, who runs the local dump and became my impromptu tour guide, emergency taxi and Kava club drinking buddy, put it, “my sister keeps asking me to come live with her in New Zealand but then I’d miss Tuvalu and I don’t want to miss Tuvalu.”
One of the places on the island that embodies the laid back nature of the island is the airport runway. There is no fence blocking it or keeping people out. In fact it might be the only airport runway in the world that turns into a giant park by day. When there are no flights, it’s a playground, soccer field, romantic stroll for couples, local hangout spot for teens, the best wifi spot on the island and by night it’s an outdoor sleeping spot when it’s too hot to sleep indoors.
Real estate is so limited that every area is precious, especially right in the middle of town. When it’s time for a plane to come, a few sirens go off, a local street is blocked by a fire truck but people can cross the runway even 10 minutes before the flight lands. It’s an event to watch the planes land and take off and even the dogs come. While watching a flight take off for Kiribati, a dog wandered onto the runway. I watched half expecting personnel to rush and scare the dog away but everyone simply waited for the dog to carry on and walk off, which it did a few minutes later.
Atoll nations (5 in total) are the lowest-lying countries in the world at only a few meters above sea level. And while they all share certain similarities in their topographies, they are also very unique in their land mass and culture. Tuvalu is made up of only 9 islands and it’s total land mass is just 10 square miles — much smaller than other atoll nations like Maldives, Marshall Islands and Kiribati. Funafuti is the most populous of the islands and you can bike end to end in a few hours.
Tuvalu is incredibly vulnerable to rising seas. A recent Guardian article stated that a local catch phrase for the island is “Tuvalu is sinking” and according to its government, two of its nine islands are on the verge of going under water.
As the former Tuvalu ambassador to the US and UN put it, “We are one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. To truly understand it, you have to visit and see for yourself.” Afelee Falema Pita’s home is on an islet and surrounded by water. But it’s also surrounded by his children and grandchildren as many family members live there with him and his wife.
The scene is a little surreal as a picture of him and President Obama hangs on his wall while he sits casually on hand-woven mats with an unbuttoned shirt, hanging with guests that come to stay in a bed and breakfast like atmosphere. We chatted about when he lived on another island in New York City for six years. He chuckled as he recounts finding out he’d be living on Roosevelt Island and thinking, “oh I’m used to living on islands.” Needless to say, he prefers his islet and being surrounded by family and the ocean that provides a huge backyard playground. “I believe in climate change and the science and that we must deal with it, but it’s not going to keep me from living my life.”
There is a peaceful and relaxed nature among the people here despite having the ocean knocking on their doors. Witnessing this island and its various scenes fills me with both joy and sadness, as this country deserves to continue being carefree and tranquil. They should be able to coexist peacefully with the ocean that surrounds them.
Lynn Englum has been writing and working on climate change and resilience issues for over a decade. She co-authored World Wildlife Fund's Climate Blog and her articles have appeared in various other news, journal and magazine outlets.