Yes, We Have No Bananas

Tuvalu is full of little stores. They all carry a few imported canned goods, and onions. The biggest one, the “supermarket” also has imported/refrigerated apples and oranges and a handful of other items. When we asked about a produce market, we were told, “Friday morning at 5am, near the end of the airstrip.” We were also told by a policeman at the airstrip, “Down the main road 150 meters. Open until 8am.” Having no fruit left on board, Bob and I got up at dawn and went for it.

Seeing no market in the 150 meter vicinity, we asked, and were told, “Across the runway, on the ocean side of the island.” And on the other side of the runway we got further pointers to a place where a couple dozen women were waiting with plastic baskets and tubs. Tables were spread out, mostly covered with seedlings. But also cucumbers and lettuce. Someone told us to put our name on the list (we were number 36) and they would call us by number. But not seeing any fruit, we asked, and were told the fruit was already gone. And when we asked specifically about bananas, the answer was, “I don’t think they have any bananas; they don’t have any banana trees…” Further questions led to a description of a market across the runway and down the road on the lagoon side, where we would see bananas hanging, and they also sell bread. Our spirits lifted, we crossed the runway again. (When an airplane is approaching, the fire engine blares its siren, and people stop crossing the runway.)

We asked several women sweeping in front of their houses. They all gave us puzzled looks, and the consensus was, “Maybe at the supermarket.” At this point we had walked in a big circle. But we knew where the ‘supermarket’ was, and thought maybe early Friday morning they had fresh produce. Not so. Asking there, we again got puzzled looks, and the clearest answer yet — “I don’t know.”

Feeling thoroughly thwarted, with no new ideas about where to try, we headed back to the dinghy. But we ducked into another store along the way. No bananas. Did you try at the supermarket? The gentleman tending the store was huge, and had a stammer making it difficult for him to get out a sentence, but he had a captivating smile. Bob told him how much I was wanting bananas, but nobody had them for sale, as we headed out the door. He said something unintelligible but commanding — perhaps “Wait!” in Tuvaluan. He raised up his massive self and padded out the back door. Probably gone to ask the woman of the house where to find bananas. But he was gone for a long time. We thought about leaving, but he was trying to help us, so we waited. And when he returned it was with a plate of bananas!!

Of course we offered to pay him. Of course he said no. I have a feeling the way my eyes lit up and the smile erupted on my face, he received his “payment.” In fact, he seemed to take enormous delight in having presented us with this gift. With a proliferation of thanks, we said goodbye and headed to the dinghy with a lighter step. It seems that you cannot buy bananas here in Tuvalu…

Tuvalu

Once again we were sailing too fast, with wind gusts into the mid 30’s. We hove to (set the sails/rudders so that the boat pretty much stayed put, drifting slowly sideways) for eight hours, so we wouldn’t arrive in the dark. It was easy getting through the pass into the lagoon of the atoll, and we anchored next to Drina and one other sailboat off of the town of Funafuti. When we cleared in with customs they told us we were the 8th yacht to come to Tuvalu this year.

The customs office is a long way from where we anchored, and after our experience at Wallis we assumed we would hitchhike to it. But it turns out to be not so easy here, because nearly everyone travels by motor scooter. There are a few cars, I think mostly for government officials. Nobody walks.

There are only 8 kilometers of road, and of course it is all flat. The highest point in the country is 15 feet above sea level, and we have yet to see such a high point. This is no different from the atolls in the Tuamotus. What is different is that these islands (nine of them; eight inhabited) comprise an entire country. There is no France (Tuamotus) or New Zealand (Tokelau) to provide infrastructure support and/or citizenship. With only ten square miles of land, Tuvalu is the 4th smallest country in the world. (The smallest is the Vatican.)

The anchorage here is very nice, as long as the trade winds blow as expected from the east or southeast. And they have been continuing to blow hard, with heavy rain squalls. Everything gets damp on the boat, but then at least once a day we get a long period of sunshine, and things dry out.

It may be the wind and rain, but people don’t seem to exude happiness like they do at many of the other South Pacific islands. But they don’t seem unhappy either. Many don’t smile at us, or even look at us. Maybe it is that they aren’t used to foreigners — once we wave and say Hello we usually get a big smile back. Especially from the youngsters!

There are no yacht services here. A handful of restaurants are hidden around the town. Almost no crafts are for sale. No tourists. No white ex-pats running businesses, except for little stores run by Chinese. This is not a playground for people from somewhere else. It is the home of 11,000 people. The homeland and culture of these people are directly threatened by climate change, weather patterns and sea level rise. That’s why the Blue Planet Odyssey is here, albeit with the limited presence of Drina and No Regrets.

Longitude 180

We are two days out from Wallis to Tuvalu. We’re sailing northwest, back toward the equator, and about to cross from 180 degrees west longitude to 180 degrees east longitude. Kind of like crossing the equator — fun to watch the chart plotter climb to 179 59.999W and then it will start counting down with 179 59.999E. You’d expect this crossing to also advance our date to the next day, but both Tonga and Wallis already use the advanced day. At least it will be less confusing to clearly be over the dateline and not be trying to figure out what day it is for us versus what day it is for other boats at other islands.

Last night we had an impressive show of lightning to the north, in the distance. The wind was blowing 20 and we were going directly downwind, surfing down waves — at one point we hit 15 knots. We were on track to achieve the elusive 200 mile day, and we decided to leave the big spinnaker up as it got dark. Always risky…

We tuned the settings on the autopilot earlier in the day. It’s been doing a much better job of keeping us on course, and thus keeping the spinnaker from collapsing. But it is still “on the edge” when waves are pushing us around. I find that I’m staring intently at the wind instruments, watching the boat yaw in the waves. As it comes close to where the spinnaker will collapse I find myself trying to WILL the boat to turn back. And then as it yaws in the other direction I am again trying to mentally/psychically bring it back on course. I’m busy trying to keep the lightning far away, too! This is tiring, and obviously ineffective. So I try to practice relaxing. “Wiggle my toes, and breathe.” Trust the universe. Respond when needed to actually steer back on course, but relax and enjoy the ride when the autopilot is doing the work. I do a pretty good job of this — relaxing and taking in the wonder of it all.

Two hours later it was suddenly blowing 30, and I was yelling, “All hands! Wake up!! We need to get the spinnaker down NOW!!!” The autopilot couldn’t keep the spinnaker from collapsing, so I began hand steering. Bill turns on our deck light so he and Bob can see the spinnaker lines, but that blinds me so all I can do is stare at the wind direction indicator and try to stay dead downwind. My fear was that the spinnaker would collapse and flog itself to shreds or ‘explode’ when it filled with wind again. Also on our minds was whether Bill and Bob would be able to pull the “sock” down (a sleeve that furls/contains the spinnaker) in a 30 knot wind — a question we had wondered about from time to time. Answer: one person is not enough (he gets lifted off the deck rather than the sock coming down), but two can do it. Good reason not to be single-handing…

Ten minutes later the squall had passed. But we were happy to let the 200 mile day go, and continue at a relaxing 6 or 7 knots under jib alone. The sky cleared; the stars were magnificent; the lightning to the distance continued unabated. What a place to be! We haven’t seen a ship or another sailboat at sea for weeks. Endless waves. Can you imagine the early explorers who had no chart, and never knew what lay just ahead, if anything? We know exactly where we are, thanks to the miracle of GPS, and I’m pretty sure our charts are complete and reasonably accurate. And still there is an overwhelming feeling of awe. Are we really rolling along from an island I had never heard of before this trip to another island I’d never heard of before this trip? Three odd ducks on a catamaran? Wave after wave welling up out of the blackness behind, raising our sterns, pushing us forward, and melting into the blackness ahead… Sailing through the eerie night toward foreboding flashes of distant lightning? Or is this all a vivid dream and I’ll be back in the office in the morning?