May 102016
 

Slept in a bit, and had one final walk around the town before getting ready to head to the airport. It was maybe a 90 second walk from my hotel to the terminal at Funafuti…the terminal which is huge:

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Went to the airport at 9:30 to check-in three hours before the flight as recommend, which was maybe a 90 second walk…if that. I was ticked off the list of passengers they had, they checked my bag, and I got to choose my seat from one of those sticker seatmaps. Then, I was asked to complete immigration…which took about 5 seconds. After immigration…we were free to go. Yes, we had technically left the country, but they didn’t care if we left the airport. To quote the immigration guy “small country, we can find you!” Hahaha, guess there’s not a big problem here with people getting stamped out of the country and then deciding not to leave…

My hotel had a 10a checkout policy, and I really didn’t want to wait around in the hot and sticky airport terminal for 2.5 hours. They offered 11a checkout for an extra 20 Australian dollars, and I was sold. Small price to pay for an hour of air conditioning!

Finally at 11, I walked over to the Hotel Filomena, which is right next to the terminal, and does a brisk business on its patio selling drinks to waiting passengers. Right beyond the patio fence, you see the runway:

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Plane arrived right on time, and we boarded about 20 minutes before scheduled takeoff. Quick boarding, and doors were closed 10 minutes early. Every seat was taken today, except the one next to me! Everything was going right this trip. It’s easier they said to take a full plane back to Fiji, since there are other diversion options near Suva.  However, if they get near Funafuti and can’t land, it requires going almost all the way back to Fiji!

Fiji Airways flight 280 – Operated by FijiLink
Funafuti, Tuvalu (FUN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 12:20, Arrive 14:50, Flight Time: 2:30
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,251,104

View just after takeoff of Funafuti Atoll. See the wide part on the “corner?” That’s where the airport and “city” of Funafuti are located:

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Full lunch offered, beef or chicken. Went with the beef, and it was surprisingly good!

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Landed in Suva right on time, and had a nearly three hour wait for my connection to Nadi. I decided since the Tuvalu jinx was now broken to hit the cafe in the Suva airport, and enjoy a slice of their now-famous chocolate cake. It was just as tasty as I remembered!

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Time actually passed rather quickly, and soon it was time to board the final leg.

Fiji Airways flight 18 – Operated by FijiLink
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Nadi, Fiji (NAN)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 18:30, Flight Time: 30 minutes
ATR 42-600, Registration DQ-FJY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,655
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,251,180

Boarding our ATR at twilight made for cool views of the plane:

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Nothing to say – very uneventful 30 minute flight. Sat next to a Fiji Airways employee and discussed the challenges they’ve had in the past and how they’re really working hard to overcome past problems. I have to say, my experience was night and day better compared to my previous attempt 18 months before, and it looks like Fiji Airways, formerly aka Air Hot Mess, might actually be improving!

Grabbed a taxi back to the Sheraton, where I had an incredibly honest driver who told me the fare was $25 when I asked him to confirm it was $30. It’s always nice getting honest taxi drivers!

The Sheraton, however, was a mess. The first room they gave me the AC didn’t work, and it took three visits from maintenance before they would admit it. All this time, I was also waiting for a room service menu in the room, since it didn’t have one, and it took them over an hour to bring it. Two hours after check-in, they finally agreed the AC would never work and reluctantly agreed to let me move rooms. The second room was perfect, and I have no idea why they were so reluctant.

Overall, this stay really left me with a sour taste in my mouth. There was no warmth or desire to help from the employees, and they acted as if they were being annoyed when you asked for things. To top it off, when I checked out it took 10 minutes of arguing about the rate despite me having a printed confirmation. Overall, while Fiji Airways seems to be well on the road to improvement the Sheraton is definitely going the other direction. Next time, I would definitely look elsewhere on Denarau.

I’d originally planned three nights in Fiji in case I had to try to go to Tuvalu a second or third try, but since I made it on the first I cut my stay in Fiji short and instead of heading directly to Hong Kong, I decided to head to Sydney for a couple days in between. Next up: Nadi to Sydney on the Fiji Airways A330.

May 092016
 

So, this was it. The whole reason for this trip – my second attempt at making it to Tuvalu. If it didn’t work out this time, I was faced with trying to make an immediate out and back on Thursday since the flight only goes twice a week. I’m not sure why I had such fear of this flight, but given how Fiji Airways behaved last time I tried to get there, I feel like the worry is justified.

I had arranged a cab with the Sheraton the night before, and of course when I got to the front desk to check out at 6am it was nowhere to be found. They did manage to scare one up around 615, however, and I was still at the airport nearly an hour before the flight. The Fiji Airways domestic terminal in Nadi is extremely small, so arriving 45 minutes before the flight is absolutely no problem at all – as long as nothing goes wrong! You can only get seat assignments at check-in, but let’s be honest on these little regional planes seats are the same anyways.

I saw we had the ATR72 this morning, which supposedly has two rows of “business class.” It’s the exact same seats as economy, and on domestic flights they’re the last to be given away. I had to ask really nicely and point out that I had booked business class on the onwards flight, and they reluctantly ended up giving me 1A.

Fiji Airways flight 7 – Operated by FijiLink
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 8:00, Flight Time: 30 minutes
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,267
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,249,792

Small bottle of water handed out to all passengers right before takeoff, and not much else to say for the 25 minute flight. I was the only one in the eight seats up front, and got to chat with the flight attendant a bit. Seems a typical day for this plane (and crew) on Tuesday and Thursday is go to Suva-Nadi-Suva-Funafuti-Suva. That was good news, since if you get on the plane out of Nadi apparently you know your plane has arrived to leave for Tuvalu too!

Upon arrival went back to the check-in counter, as they can’t do check-in for the Tuvalu flight from Nadi. Met the same agent that had worked there last time I tried this, and sure assured me the flight was just fine, and would be on time today. I was less optimistic given past performance, but hey, at least the plane and crew were there…

Fiji Airways flight 281 – Operated by FijiLink
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Funafuti, Tuvalu (FUN)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time: 2:35
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,923
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,250,488

Small bit of drama, however. It seemed that there was “quite some weather en route” so they were going to have to offload 18 passengers. Priority was given to business class and Tuvaluans returning home, so I have no idea how they chose which 18 would not be able to go. Despite that, boarding was on time, the door closed 10 minutes before departure time, and soon we were taxiing for takeoff! About 20 seats empty in coach and we were only four of eight in business, meaning I had an empty seat next to me.

Breakfast was offered – french toast or omelette. Nothing super fancy, but definite the fanciest I’ve ever had on a prop plane:

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Flight time was nearly 2.5 hour, and soon we had our first views of Funafuti Atoll and we were descending into my 192nd country visited! Of course deplaning was via the plane stairs (seriously, jetways in a country that only gets two flights a week?) and I was there! One room airport building, where agents were stamping passports on a card table:

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The plane that finally got me to Tuvalu:

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There was a van waiting from my hotel, the Hotel Vaiaku Lagi, said to really be the only hotel of any standards at all in Tuvalu – with a whole 16 rooms. I don’t know why we needed to take a van as the hotel is literally a 90 second walk from the terminal, but it is what it is! More on that when I leave…checked in, was assured I was (as requested when I booked) given the room with the absolute best air conditioning out of the 16. Super fancy 1.5 star room, complete with a vase of flowers:

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It was clean, moderately comfortable, and the AC was arctic. Overall, I was pleased. It wasn’t cheap at nearly $100 a night, but for being clean, cool, and safe I wasn’t about to complain. I checked out a couple of the guesthouses in town, and they were pretty grim. No way they even qualify as 0.5 stars….

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By the time I checked in, it was just after noon, and when I asked the desk agent for suggestions on places to see she laughed at me. Seems from about 12-4 is time for what they call “Pacific Exercise” in Tuvalu, where basically people lay around and hide from the fierce afternoon heat and humidity. I joined the other 15 guests in the hotel restaurant, where there were three lunch options: chicken chow mein, stir fried prawns, or ham and cheese sandwich. I decided the sandwich was safest, but ham apparently means Spam! Mmmm grilled spam and cheese:

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As it started to get reasonably cooler, I headed out to Tuvalu Telecom to buy a wifi access card. It took four trips back to get it to work, because even when you scratch off the code the number/password are pretty much illegible. Hooray for high-quality Chinese manufacturing. Eventually it worked, and it was just fast enough to read some emails and check facebook…kinda.

I decided then to head for a walk. Down the main road in Funafuti, which other than a three “block” stretch is all residential like this:

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Then, I headed over to the airport runway, which is the hub of social activity for about an hour before sunset. It’s the one time of day it’s not too hot to be outside, and since the runway is the biggest stretch of open land in the whole country it’s used for hanging out and recreation, and some families even SLEEP on the runway at night because there’s a reasonable breeze!

Kids playing football behind me on the runway:

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Back to the hotel, and again for dinner there were three choices. I went for the grilled tuna steak, and it was actually phenomenal…and hey, frozen veggies are better than none at all!

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Slept in a little bit, and headed out for a morning walk before it got too hot again. A block from my hotel, and next to the airport, was the central government building. I’d heard it was possible to just walk in, so I did. Security wasn’t a concept, and of all people I ended up meeting the Prime Minister! I was so surprised by actually meeting him I didn’t think to ask if I could take a picture, but I told him why I was in Tuvalu and he seemed super pleased and impressed with the story!

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Continued my walk down a residential road, and politics, Tuvalu-style:

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Tuvalu House, which I believe might be the residence of the Prime Minister?

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Next stop was the post office to buy stamps. Yes, they were able to sell them, but seemed completely uninterested in doing any work. I guess there’s not much call for stamps in Tuvalu. They had lots of commemorative ones, as well as post cards, so I bought some to send to family and friends. There’s not too much to do in Tuvalu, so writing postcards would be a nice diversion. Hundreds of commemorative stamps on sale all at face value. Some of the more interesting ones:

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The super-fancy Tuvalu Post office:

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Just down the street was the Tuvalu National Library and Archives. Please take off your flip flops when entering:

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Went back to my hotel and wrote postcards, then a walk back to the post office to mail them. They promised the would go on tomorrow’s flight…or maybe next week if the plane is full. We will see if they ever arrive!

Back to the hotel for lunch and Pacific Exercise. “Chili Chicken” was the lunch of the day, and it was reasonable. All the meals were between six and eight US dollars plus drinks, so extremely cheap, and reasonably large portions. Pacific Exercise takes lots of energy!

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After exercising (aka reading in a hammock and napping) I went for another walk. Tuvalu Telecom, where you go to buy wifi cards:

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Then on the other side of the runway, I found the Tuvalu Sports Ground, where a rugby game was in progress:

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For a little “real” exercise, I took a walk down the entire length of the runway:

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On the way back to the hotel, I passed the Development Bank of Tuvalu. Maybe I should apply for a job…

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Sunset from the coral “beach” behind my hotel:

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Another shot of the “beach” where land reclamation is underway. Considering the whole country is eight feet above sea level I’m not sure the point of doing reclamation when the whole country is projected to be underwater by 2050 thanks to climate change:

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Back to the hotel, where tonight’s dinner was “stir fry chicken.” Again, reasonable.

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With that, it was time to head to bed and pray my plane would arrive in the morning to take me home. Tuvalu was pretty much exactly what I expected, maybe even a slight bit smaller. You can see everything there is to “see” in a couple of hours, so bring plenty of things to read and plan on doing relaxing. It was actually quite nice to have the downtime without the pressure of having to be go go go and see things.

Two days was the perfect amount of time in Tuvalu – I think the only other option would be two or more weeks so you could try and get a boat to some of the outer islands (where there are no hotels) and spend some time seeing really authentic rural life and villages. Now, will the plane come back…