Arriving in Tuvalu for most people means touching down at the only airport of the country, the international airport of Funafuti atoll. Once on the ground, you are out of the tiny airport building before you know it, and then are right on the main street of town. After finding a hotel right next to the small platform and leaving my luggage there, I was curious to get to know it and hit the streets right away. Getting lost is impossible: there are two main streets parallel to each other, and parallel to the runway as well, which is where most of the activity of the town goes on. What struck me at once, was the laid back atmosphere. There are hardly any cars, most people either walk or ride their scooter - slowly, their are no honks to be heard; mostly laughter and talking.
One of the things that make Vaiaku such a relaxed place, is that there are no must-see sights. Just walking around, taking turns whenever you feel like it, stopping for a chat, is the main thing to do here. One of the first things that struck me, were the tombs right in the backyard of people; liberally decorated with flowers, and often photos of the deceased, they form an integral part of the household. Then, there are churches, there is a market, and the largest building of town, the three-story Government Building opposite the airport. On the eastern side of town, I saw David's drill, which is where drilling was done in the late 19th and early 20th century to prove Darwin't theory about the volcanic origin of Tuvalu, and atolls in general; a circular cement stone tops the over 1000ft/340m deep borehole in Tuvaluan soil. Nothing much is made out of it; if you wouldn't know where to find it, you would not notice. Looking for an old lighthouse along the runway, I finally assumed that a square white structure must have been it, even though it did not look like a lighthouse to me. The lack of sights made life very easy in a way: there was not much to miss here, and just the town itself to enjoy.
Later in the afternoon, I walked to the runway again, to find out that this is where social life revolves around in Vaiaku. The 1500m long stretch of asphalt becomes a playground for kids, a training field for young guys and girls practicing rugby, football and volleybal, runners, dogs which stray around, people just going for a stroll with their lover, kids, or friends. This is the only big open space of the island of Fongafale, and the runway is to its inhabitants what a big square would be in any town or city. I walked to the 21 number marker of the runway, on the eastern end, and walked all the way to the other side. As it gets darker, the runway transforms: the volleybal nets are rolled away, the afternoon strollers go home for dinner, and the runway sees a different audience. I passed people sitting in a circle, all with an oil lamp before them, talking - about what, I wondered. I nearly tripped over a couple lying near one of the big white stripes in the middle of the runway, and realized that this is probably the best meeting place for teenagers of the island, and wondered how much kissing and fondling was going on while I walked past in the dark. It seemed there were different sectors on the runway, with the darker one reserved for romance, a lighter one for social gatherings, another one as a playing field for dogs. With only two flights a week, it seemed very logical that the stretch of asphalt would mainly be used for those living in town. When a plane finally comes in, you can feel that Vaiaku comes to life. In the morning, a truck arrives dragging the tax-free shop behind him and parking it in front of the airport. Women with handicrafts fill the hall next to the airport, people flock to the airport to see off loved ones, or eagerly await the arrival of someone dear. Then, the firetrucks that were parked on the runway sound a siren, one of them drives to the far end, and by now, everyone is expected to have left the runway. After the plane has parked, the airport temporarily turns into the main hub of activity of Fongafale for an hour or so, until everyone settles into the normal, laid back routine again, and the runway is reclaimed by the community.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Vaiaku Town (Tuvalu). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Vaiaku Town. Read more about this site.