Sunday, December 23, 2012

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!

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