Sunday, December 23, 2012

Chapter 3: Are We There Yet? Please?

Saturday, December 22

Saturday morning began with some Mario on the Wii and some delicious quiche from the hands of our hostess. She brought us to the airport in plenty of time to make our 12:30 flight. Except that when walked in and pulled out our itinerary, the flight was scheduled for 11:55. And for two days earlier. The print-out from Fiji said the correct date (Saturday, Dec. 22) but our more recent printout from Brisbane said Dec. 20. You see, when we were in Brisbane a wonderfully helpful airport employee entered our updated itinerary officially into the system but accidentally put Dec. 20 (the date on our original itinerary from before we left the States) instead of Dec. 22 for this particular flight.

Now, remember how I said that the Fiji airport ticketing area was chaotic? That was nothing compared to the sight we beheld upon entering the ticketing area in the Port Moresby airport. There were about 10 counters at the front of the room, but there were no lines. Just a giant mob of people all trying to get to the front.

There was no way we'd be able to fight through the mob, straighten out our ticket discrepancy, and make it onto our flight by 11:55. So we tried the customer service window tucked in the back corner of the room, and with some persistence and long explanations, were able to get on an afternoon flight, and they were able to print our boarding passes. Though we still had to fight through the mob in order to check our luggage, we had boarding passes in hand and three extra hours to play with!

Oh, and while I was at the service desk, I met an Aussie guy whose flight had been delayed because the pilot was drunk. That bodes well. (At least they didn't let him/her fly drunk!)

We did manage to get through the mob, partially with the help of a security guard who, after our luggage was successfully checked, followed me and repeated in a low voice, "Now you owe me 30 kina" (roughly $15). I'd never had a bribe demanded of me, and I wasn't sure how to respond, so I lied and said I had no kina on me. He was persistent--but also trying not to make a scene and draw undue attention to his asking me for money--so he eventually did give up.

Then began the wait for our flight to Madang. I think it was between 12:30 and 1:00 when we made it through security and into the waiting area, and our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 3:00.

By this stage in the journey, our little introverted selves were so exhausted from constantly being around hordes of people--not to mention the physical exhaustion of jet lag and lack of sleep, as well as the emotional exhaustion of losing two days with our family, having our plans tossed in a blender, and having no control over the situation. We were SO ready to be done with airports!

This particular departure lounge (using the term loosely) does not rank high on the comfort and niceness spectrum. It's overly crowded, only somewhat air-conditioned, and not remotely clean. They do get points, though, for having a decent PA system in that part of the airport, and a woman who spoke announcements very clearly in both English and Tok Pisin.

Somewhere around 2:00 they said that Madang passengers should prepare to board soon.

Then our flight's departure time changed to 3:30.

Then they said it was delayed indefinitely.

Then they said 4:30.

I literally choked back tears when I heard over the PA system, "May I have your attention please. Passengers of flight PX 126 to Madang, your plane is now boarding."

The flight itself was blissfully short and uneventful, and we finally landed in Madang, 49 hours later than originally planned. It sure felt good to hug our parents and middle brother!

Total travel time from start to finish: 84 hours, or 3-1/2 days. I began on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. CST and arrived Friday 10:30 p.m. CST (5:30 p.m. Saturday PNG time).

Chapter 2: The One Where I Don't Know How to Set a Watch

Friday, December 21:

I don't normally wear a watch, since I almost always have my phone with me, and iPhones tend to be more accurate than cheap wristwatches from Walmart. But for this trip, when I knew I'd be wearing pocketless skirts most of the time and likely not connect my phone to a source of data that would tell it we were in a different time zone, I got a cheap Walmart wristwatch. But apparently I'm out of practice with reading and--more importantly--setting an analog watch, because it seems that when we touched down in Fiji and I set my watch to local time, I actually set it an hour off.

We left the hotel at 4:30 a.m. (or maybe 5:30--we're still not sure anymore) in order to check in around 5:15 for our 8:15 flight, recheck our luggage, and jump through the hoops for getting reimbursed for our $20 shuttle ride back to the airport.

After the indefinite limbo we were in Thursday, and with all the delays and  uncertainties, it felt unbelievably good to have boarding passes in our hands for a flight to Brisbane that morning! While we were in line for our boarding passes, I noticed that our flight had both Air Pacific and Qantas flight numbers, so I made a point of memorizing both numbers just in case.

Since we had ample time before our flight, we meandered through security and customs, purchased a chicken pie for breakfast, huge bottles of water (still dehydrated from the day before--we weren't sure if we could drink the hotel tap water), and a cappuccino. I had been wanting to find an outlet adapter so I could charge my iPhone and iPad, so we wandered through a few stores and leisurely bought an adapter (for under $2!), then wandered back up to the seating area surrounded by gates.

We still had a little over an hour before our flight, but one of us suggested we go ahead and head to our gate, just so we'd be there in plenty of time. We saw an entrance labelled with a gate range that included ours, but it led to four outdoor gates--the kind where passengers go through the security personnel then walk out onto the tarmac and up the stairs that have been rolled up to the plane. Translation: not the kind of gate where you camp out in a comfy leather chair for hours on end.

We glanced up at the list of flights in the gates beyond that exit and didn't see our flight FJ 921, so we started to walk away. As we were turning around, it registered with me that the screen had said QF 398, and I was pretty sure that was our Qantas flight number. We looked more carefully and, sure enough, it said QF 398 to Brisbane, departing at 8:15 . . . boarding now.

Huh. That's odd that they're boarding so early, but we might as well get on. So we handed our boarding passes to the gatekeeper and proceeded outside to where they had tables set up to search our bags the old-fashioned way, with eyes and hands instead of fancy x-ray machines. They pulled out our giant water bottles which we'd only begun to sip on, and said we couldn't take them on the plane. We'd just spent good money on them, so we asked if we could just drink them quickly before boarding the plane. The security guys gave us strange looks but didn't protest, though my guy reminded me multiple times that we could get water on the plane. Just to make sure the flight wasn't leaving early, I asked, "What time is the plane leaving?"

"In 45 minutes."

"Oh, we've got plenty of time, then!" So we kept sipping.

After about the third nervous suggestion that we could drink airplane water, we surrendered our bottles and headed toward the tarmac and our awaiting aircraft.

While we walked--still leisurely--to the airplane, someone alerted us, "Hurry! Your plane leaves in 5 minutes!" What?! Why is it leaving an hour early? Is my watch wrong? But we've been going by my watch all this time. And the security guys just told us we had 45 minutes. What if we hadn't happened past our gate when we did?

Looking back on the interaction, the bag search personnel must have said the plane leaves in 4 to 5 minutes rather than 45. They probably thought we were so ridiculous and arrogant to stand there sipping our water while our plane was mere minutes from departing!

Brisbane airport was gloriously uneventful. And clean. And air-conditioned. And efficient! We even had time to buy 20 minutes of internet. For this layover we checked and double-checked my watch against the clocks all over the airport, and camped out right at our gate.

From Brisbane, we flew to Port Moresby, PNG's capital, and met up with some of our parents' friends who live in Moresby and had agreed to house us for this unexpected overnight so we wouldn't have to figure out how to get to and pay for a hotel. Their six-year-old son is perhaps the most hospitable person I've ever met, and probably has more enthusiasm in his pinkie than I have in my whole body. He gave us the most detailed tour of a house I've ever experienced--even showing us such things as his vitamins he takes twice a day, each family member's bike helmet, the shovel stowed behind the front door, his bag of swim stuff, and the Christmas story book laying beneath the tree. We are so very grateful for this family's generous, warm hospitality and honestly don't know what we would have done without them.

Chapter 1: Off to a Bumpy Start

Note to self: Never, ever, ever again travel through a small island on a small airline the day after said island has been hit by a hurricane. Chaos will ensue. Travel plans will be scrambled.

On Tuesday I began the trek to the other side of the world to visit my parents in Papua New Guinea. I started the trip with a simple itinerary: fly to Dallas, then to LA, meet up with oldest brother, then fly together to Fiji, Brisbane, Port Moresby, and finally Madang. Simple enough, right? Only 36-ish hours in transit. Piece of cake!

That's what I thought until I went to get my boarding pass at LAX. While in line--a really loooonng line--a kind but frazzled-looking airline employee was making her way through the line to update people on the flight status. Apparently there had been a flight to Fiji scheduled for Monday night but, due to the hurricane hitting, it was delayed . . . until Tuesday night. So anyone who was supposed to be on Monday night's flight would get dibs on Tuesday's plane, and anyone who didn't make it onto Tuesday's plane (most likely us!) would get overnight accommodations and fly out of LA the following morning.

As my middle brother would say . . . loud noises!

I went through the line first, with Matthew about 30 minutes behind me in line. When I got to the front, there was no reasoning with the airline employee:
"That way to the hotel vouchers line."
"But we have four connecting flights, two of which are on an airline that won't let you connect it to another itinerary, so we'll probably lose those tickets entirely if we don't make tonight's flight."
"That way to the hotel vouchers." 
So I hopped back in line with Matthew.

Side note: When your parents live in another country and you don't have international service on your phone, it's really hard to talk to them when things happen like an airline telling you you'll be delayed 12 hours and miss your next four flights. There was a lot of frantic emailing from LAX.

When we got to the front of the line, we actually got ushered to a counter with a computered employee (I had just gotten the pre-sorting traffic director before) and handed her our passports. She looked at her screen and then, in a hushed voice said, "Okay, don't tell anyone, but I can get you on tonight's flight. You may not be seated together, but you can fly to Fiji tonight." We'll take it!!

With boarding passes in hand and our blood pressure down considerably, we proceeded through security and to our gate. When you pack 200 upset people into a tiny gate with very little seating, it gets a little chaotic. Then the plane was delayed. Then they moved us to a different gate, and the flight was delayed some more. Then they put us onto buses to take us to another building where the plane had pulled up. Then we finally boarded. Then we sat for  bit. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m., and we started taxiing  a little after midnight. Which ordinarily would be frustrating anyway, but we were scheduled to have only a three-hour layover in Fiji before catching our flight to Brisbane. Good bye, comfortable layover!

By this point, I was pretty ticked, so everything about the plane annoyed me: the headrests didn't have the adjustable "wings" to keep your head in place, there was only one choice for dinner, the blankets were really thin, the movie selections were meager. First world problems. One nice thing was that I was by the window so could lean against it to sleep a bit. And there was a lovely couple from Alaska beside me. And since I was by the window, I got to see some stunning cloudscapes and watch the sunrise over the Pacific on Wednesday-turned-Thursday morning (we crossed the International Date Line). It began as a thin, vibrant ribbon of red stretched across the vast, dark horizon. Gradually the colors turned more golden and spread higher into the lightening sky.

Thursday, December 20:
Roughly 10 hours later, we touched down at Nadi International Airport in Fiji, at 7:20 Thursday morning. Our flight to Brisbane was scheduled to leave at 8:15, so there was still a slim chance we could make it. Except that we had to stay in our seats while officials sprayed bug spray throughout the cabin. And it takes a long time to get off a plane when seated in row 51. And once we did get off the plane, we deplaned directly into another massive line of our fellow passengers. Fortunately Matthew had been seated near the front of the plane, so he was able to get to the post-deplaning counter pretty quickly . . . only to find out that our plane to Brisbane had already left.

More loud noises!

So we collected our luggage (slightly miraculous that both our bags made it to the same country on the same flight), went through immigration, and into yet another line to see what kind of magic Air Pacific could work for us and our flight itineraries.

Remember what I said earlier about mass chaos ensuing when traveling through a small country on a small airline a day or two after a hurricane has hit? Yeah, that's no exaggeration. It seemed like Air Pacific just couldn't catch up to the delays. They'd delay a flight, put the original passengers on the next flight, which would bump the people scheduled for that flight, setting off this huge, awful domino effect. And since Nadi is a relatively small airport, they simply didn't have enough aircraft present to catch up. Plus, it was hot and muggy. There was little to no air conditioning in that part of the airport. Add to that equation several hundred increasingly frustrated, tired, hungry, and dehydrated passengers who are all frantically trying get to or from a whole slew of countries.  So . . . mass chaos.

After an hour or so in line, we had new itineraries in hand, the promise of hotel and meal vouchers soon, and instructions on when to check in for the Brisbane flight the following morning. We were anxious to find some water (see dehydrated comments above) and internet so we could email our parents with our updates and to tell them not to pick us up that afternoon in Madang. But we were afraid to split up, and we were afraid to go far lest we miss the announcement to pick up our vouchers, and we didn't have any Fijian dollars. So we sat around for a couple more hours, trying to stay awake and alert enough to understand the quiet, unintelligible announcements issuing from the ceiling. A couple hours later we inserted ourselves back into the same line, asked again for hotel and meal vouchers vouchers, and this time received a green slip of paper--which might as well have been pure gold--in our grubby little hands, along with the promise that the taxi was on its way to take us to the hotel.

The hotel was actually a pretty fancy resort, complete with light fluttery curtains, a balcony off our room, a nice restaurant, swimming pools, and other amenities like a spa if we'd been willing and able to pay for it. The airline had included lunch and dinner in our voucher, so we headed down to the resort restaurant for lunch shortly after arriving. I had some chicken and prawn stir-fry with vegetables, a red curry sauce, and jasmine rice. It was outstanding! I was eyeing their fish and chips for dinner, but ended up skipping dinner because I was so tired. You know I'm tired when I turn down free fancy food!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cooking Tip: Non-Stick Spray

When spraying a pan with non-stick cooking spray, open your dishwasher and spray the pan over the open dishwasher door. That way, cooking spray residue will end up inside your dishwasher with your dirty dishes, rather than on your kitchen floor. Obviously don't do this if the dishes in your dishwasher are clean!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Roasted Cauliflower Risotto

Risotto has always intimidated me. Perhaps it's because people talk it up about it being hard to get just the right consistency. Perhaps it's because it requires a lot of hands-on time. Perhaps it's because it's one of the dishes that trips up the chefs on Hell's Kitchen and earns (well, maybe not earns, but prompts) screaming episodes from Gordon Ramsay.

But I've gotta tell you . . . it's really not that hard. True, it requires a lot of focused attention with a lot of constant stirring. But constant stirring isn't actually hard, is it? And as far as consistency goes, that's not that challenging either. Because, since you're adding the broth bit by bit anyway, you can just start sampling it when you think you're getting close to being done. Still a little crunchy? Okay, add another scoop of broth and try again when that's almost absorbed.

I made this recipe for Roasted Cauliflower Risotto during my many days off during Thanksgiving, since I was looking for more time-consuming recipes to make then. I started off really excited about the recipe, but then I started to second-guess whether cauliflower and chickpeas were worth the honor of being the stars in my first-even risotto attempt. They were. Cauliflower tastes much better roasted than raw or steamed, and the chickpeas provided the perfect . . . I don't know . . . chickpeaness? And, for how rich and creamy this tasted, the nutrition stats are really not bad!

Now that I've conquered this recipe and have a nearly-full bin of arborio rice, I think I'll be making risotto quite a bit. Little-known-fact: in my head, I usually pronounce risotto like Gordon Ramsay--ris-AH-tto rather than ris-OH-tto. It sounds more fancy that way.

I followed the recipe exactly from A Couple Cooks. I think they do a great job of describing the process in a thorough but not overwhelming way, and I don't think I can improve on their ingredients or instructions at all, so I'll just encourage you to hop over to their site for the recipe.