Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Brief Lesson in Very Alien Geography

Yesterday's flight from Honolulu to Sydney was a rare-ish daylight flight. It's quite unusual for us to get a 10 hour flight all in sunshine in this line of work. And it's also a rare opportunity to actually see what's out your window for an extended period.

Not that there's much to see, really. It's hard to wrap your head around the vastness of the world when one flies over nothing but empty blue water in every direction for hours on end--at 500 mph. We pass a couple small islands as we get closer to Australia, the largest being the nation of New Caledonia, which actually has a major airport on the other end of the island, some 170 miles distant from where we fly over.

But before we got to New Caledonia we passed directly over a small island. I had been reading about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, whose remains might possibly have been found on one of these little specs of coral sand out in the middle of the South Pacific, and so I payed attention to this particular island as we flew over. An interesting place, really, more like a long, pointy donut or maybe a couple islands with a protected lagoon between them and an obviously man-made channel leading from the sea into the lagoon.

And more surprising yet was that there appeared to be a small village on the island, a collection of houses and a couple streets arranged in a grid. After something like five or six hours of absolutely nothing along our route of flight, it's hard to overstate how isolated this place would seem to be--a microscopic speck in the middle of absolutely nowhere--and yet there appeared to be people living on it. I naturally wondered what it would be like to be born in such a place and live one's life out on this tiny speck of sand. I marked the location as we flew directly overhead: S0533.4 / E17608.9.

When I got to the hotel I attempted to locate the place on Google Maps, which did not like my formatting of the latitude / longitude address. I then tried Google Earth, which, while not allowing me to enter the location in the format of our FMS, did show the exact lat / lon of what my cursor was rolling over; and so I rolled in trial-and-error fashion until I found the nearest island. Voilá!

And as I zoomed in, there it was, strange shape, man-made channel, tiny residential grid and all. The place is called Nanumea, part of the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, which is comprised of a handful of island villages spread out over a 400 mile area. The Wikipedia pages are interesting. Tuvalu is said to be the third-least-populous nation on earth with a mere 10,700 citizens. Like so much in this part of the world, it appears there was an Allied presence here during the Second World War, but the place seems otherwise rather like one would expect of an isolated island paradise.

There are a few other web pages devoted to Nanumea, but the links explaining what daily life is like on the islands are unfinished. I'd love to know how they get fresh water and whether there is electricity (and if so, from where)? What does their diet consist of? There appears to be some kind of farming on the island--regular patterns of plants which do not look natural; is this part of the local diet? Are there any powered vehicles on the islands? Is there telephone service? Television? Radio? How does one deal with medical issues? How formalized is schooling? How often do people travel, and how is it done? (By small boat to another island where there are docking facilities?) I just think that life here would be so vastly different from what we understand, and I'm dying to know more.

Alas, when we stepped off the airplane we were in beautiful Sydney, which is comparatively like any big American city (except they talk funny and drive on the wrong side of the road). What are the odds that I would have gone through my whole life without ever even hearing about Nanumea?

(One of a collection of family photos taken by a visitor in the '70s.)


dbackdad said...

Bizarre. Nice detective work. I'd never heard of it.

wunelle said...

Sounds like the islanders survived the recent tsunami without much issue, but worries remain: