We sit under a tin roof where fresh laundry hangs from the ceiling. Atea is perched cross-legged with a dull, handleless knife in her hand––a faded blue towel wrapped where the handle once was––peeling the armor off of a pineapple.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are a delicacy in Tuvalu where even the hearty, local root crop, pulaca, has stunted growth in recent years due to ground water salination. Since the Australian government started monitoring the main harbor in Funafuti in 1993, sea levels have risen at a rate of 4mm per year. Down by the basketball court, you can see where the salt water bubbles up through the soil at high tide.
The pineapple in Atea’s hand came on the boat from Fiji that arrived yesterday bearing t-shirts and plastic Christmas decorations, motorbikes and tinned meat, packaged biscuits and flour.
Atea is eight months pregnant. The weight of her new child sits like a melon against her body. We are both twenty-two years old, she eight months older than I, though to see the different circumstances of our lives you need look no further than her one and a half year-old son who waddles around the house, eating everything.
“In your island, you can sleep outside?” Atea asks, slicing the peeled pineapple into thin disks.
“Not now. It’s too cold! Snow and ice.”
Her eyes widen. “Here we sleep outside when it is too hot. On the runway, too.” Atea gestures with her knife towards the airplane tarmac that sits less than a quarter mile away from the house, a central geographic feature on this long, crescent-shaped island.
Tuvalu is a nation composed of nine coral atolls, but only Funafuti has a functioning runway––the rest must be accessed by ship: the trusty, if rusty, Navaga II. Laden with supplies and family members, the Navaga II departs Funafuti’s wharf for the outer islands once a month. One of the outer islands is so small that only fifteen people live on it. Funafuti, the capital, houses 5000, about half of Tuavlu’s total population. It has the feel of a small town––after only three days of staying at an inn by the runway, people start recognizing me around town and a new friend, Alofa, welcomed me into her home after I expressed concern that I didn’t bring enough money with me to stay in the inn for the whole month. Tuvalu has no ATM machines, and the only option to obtain extra cash (if I wanted to eat for the last two weeks of my stay and avoid sleeping on the runway) would be to wire money from home. Tuvalu receives some 150 foreign visitors per year, and the information I could find online on the price of food and lodging is six years out of date.
I arrived in Tuvalu by passenger plane, a tiny vessel that carries some 30 passengers from Suva, Fiji, to Funafuti three times a week. When the runway is not in use, it turns into an all-purpose rugby, soccer, and volleyball pitch, a place for stray dogs to congregate in packs, and the ideal location for star-gazing on a clear night. A siren announces the arrival of the single plane on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday midmornings––everyone knows to get off the surface when that sound comes.
Rain begins to fall on top of the tin roof where I sit with Atea. The droplets increase in size and intensity, making percussive patterns above our heads. A steady stream of water spills into the gutter, which, in a perfect world, will transfer every precious drop into the plastic, navy-green water drum allocated to Atea’s family. In reality, the gutter is leaky in places, and she has placed various bowls and biscuit tins on the ground in places where the leaks are strongest. Not a drop can go to waste.
The wind changes in tune with the rain, and I welcome the sudden temperature drop. The sweat on the back of my shirt feels cool and light.
Mafa, Atea’s brother in law, comes to join us in the downpour. “This is a blessed day,” he sighs, gesturing his arms at the downpour. “We have rain.”
I nod. If I close my eyes, I can feel heft of the water drums filling, the whole island sighing with relief. It had been a week since the last rain, and supplies for bathing water were running low.
That night Mafa and I mount his red motorcycle to go for a ride to the wharf, the air crisp after the rain, everything washed afresh. With the wind in my face, it’s easy to forget that the daily temperatures top 90 degrees Fahrenheit before humidity. We loop pas the harbor with its promise of goods delivered from afar and drive back parallel to the runway where a group of Tuvaluans spiral a rugby ball between each other in the waning light.
And because there was rain, we can all take showers tonight, wash off the sweat of the day. Tuvalu blue––the sea mixed with sky––ought to be a color of its own in the crayon box.
What a gift: that cool wetness from above.