Saturday, January 17, 2015

Final preparations in Funafuti

“Fiji Airways have a new plane!”, Alex, our Beca liaison exclaimed as we shuffled out into the muggy air at Nadi airport. From her look of relief, I wonder what the plane she travelled on in October looked like? This is our second to last jump on the trip from Tauranga to Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu.

We make it to Suva with minimal incident. There is thick greenery below and mountains as far as I can see with a few four wheel drive tracks scrambling through it all. I wonder what the mountain biking is like in Fiji? Wet and muddy? The tractor towing our luggage trundles across the tarmac blowing black smoke and delivers our bags to a lazy-Suzan sized conveyor belt. Everyone scrambles to find their bags so they can be loaded straight back onto the plane we just jumped out of. Within 30min of landing we are in the air again.

After more than 2 hours of continuous blue ocean below, something light blue and then green appears. The outer ring of the Funafuti, Tuvaluan atoll. We are 1,000km north of Fiji surrounded by ocean. This is our last plane flight. It will be a boat from here.

Outer rim of Funafuti atoll from the plane

Funafuti is the most populated island of Tuvalu with just over 6,000 regular residents. There are two regular flights a week from Fiji. And it’s a big event. A siren sounds 30mins before the plane is due so that the volleyball nets and soccer goal posts can be moved off the runway. Everyone is out to greet new arrivals and farewell those going away to work or school (in Fiji and beyond). We are warmly greeted by Tuvalu’s MFAT representative, Mati Afelee and the Tuvaluan Electricity Corporation GM, Mafalu Lotolua.

The heat is noticeable but it’s probably only 31 degrees. The humidity is something else. We are all sweating after the 50m walk to the hotel and elated to find the air conditioners in our rooms blasting cold air (set at 17 degrees for the visitors). We progressively adjust the temperature setting up to 28 degrees over the next few days as there will be no such luxury on the outer islands. We need to acclimatize.

And it’s been a busy acclimatization period!

Shane has been fostering our network of important contacts. These are the people we are going to rely on for support over the next 5 months as we juggle people movements, shipments of equipment, access to port real-estate, customs and quarantine, food and fresh water supplies and cultural sensitivities with our fingers forever crossed that the internet will work today.

And Roger already has a “coconut man”! A friendly fellow at the end of the island who makes model houses and boats to sell at a craft stall when the plane comes in, but whose job this week is to climb trees and collect coconuts for Roger. I think Roger has made more friends so far than the rest of us combined!

Roger and friends playing with his new iPad

And there has been plenty of time to frantically scour the local shops for last minute forgotten items. But it’s not shopping as we know it. The shelves in the small stores are loaded with tinned and packaged goods, the freezers filled with suspicious packages of meat which may or may not be still frozen. Onions were the only “fresh” food available. We did find a hardware store which had a tarpaulin (for shade on site and to catch rainwater). And after traipsing through at least 6 stores I found a spare can opener to take with us on the boat tomorrow and an extra pair of sunglasses. If we are missing anything else on the outer islands, Funafuti is the closest source – a 3 week ferry delivery away.

Supplies available inside the local stores

But it’s not all networking and shopping sprees. We spent a day at the port trying to marry up our equipment lists and understanding of the shipping schedule with the crates and containers of PS gear which are sitting at the port. Despite the clutter and confusion, a missing (borrowed!) strap, and the fact that the fork-lift has been out of action all week because of a flat tyre, it all seems to function somehow. It impresses me that anything makes it to the end of the journey but it does.

Some of our equipment weathering the elements at Funafuti port

The boys spent yesterday making timber braces for shifting the batteries (each pallet weighing almost 1 tonne) and crates of panels. Experience from the Cooks left us with a number of damaged batteries which were crushed by the strops used to lift them from the open container onto the small lighters which are used to deliver them to shore. We will get to test out their handiwork on Monday.

We’ve also had some time to understand what other projects are underway at the moment and the context in which some of this aid work is taking place. There are 2 other solar projects happening – another funded by MFAT on the Government building and a UAE funded project next to the TEC building. Each has its own challenges – the steeply sloping 12m high rooftop of the Government building which requires everyone to operate on harnesses with edge protection, and the tidal water which keeps filling the footings next to the airport. We will have our own.

There is another solar project here on Funafuti which we explored on Thursday. In 2007, a Japanese project installed a system on the grandstand of the sports field. Containers were used in place of buildings to store the inverters. In a too short time, the containers have rusted shut, the cabling under the panels is hanging loose and some of the panels themselves are damaged. The containers were silent. As far as we can determine, the system is no longer operating. It is a reminder of how harsh the environment is but also demonstrates how key the maintenance schedule for our project will be.

The Japanese system constructed in 2007

There is another project underway to remediate the borrow pits – dug out by the Americans to construct the runway during World War II. Over the intervening years the pits have been treated as rubbish dumps with pig pens and peoples houses crowding in along the edges leaching effluent. When the tide rises, so does the level of the water in the pits leaving people clambering to stay out of the gunge. It will be an immense project to clean these up.

Borrow pits

Tomorrow afternoon we board the Komawai II, the PDL shipping vessel which arrived this morning with all our solar equipment for Vaitupu on board. It will be far less crowded than the ferry would have been (left this morning) and we will be able to leave 2 team members on board when we get to Vaitupu to help coordinate unloading. We are frantically trying to make or source fishing nets (hammocks) to sleep in tomorrow night. There are bunks in a container on board for us. But the crew seemed more than happy to relinquish these for the team? Could be that lying on a narrow bunk having your head constantly lolling from side to side and bumping against the wall or the rail isn’t recipe for good night’s sleep?

We are all anxious to begin. But just being here makes everything feel more possible than it did trying to make plans and anticipate events from New Zealand. From here on out, we must learn to work on island time.

 Every evening in Tuvalu


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