Once known as the Cannibal Islands because the natives had a taste for the pit-roasted flesh of their fallen enemies, the people, these days are warm and friendly, preferring pork (which I hear is similar in taste and texture to human) and locally caught fresh fish with home grown veggies.
On a tour of the Soso Village on Naviti Island, we were told that tourism is great for the country of Fiji because they really like the white meat. That, and the money from the tour goes directly to the villages we actually watched the guide hand it to the chief.
Village government is simple, the Chief is chosen by line of descent or is elected, depending on the village. This person speaks to the people through the Bodyguard who is actually the landowner of the village space, possibly the entire Island. The Chief’s job is to take care of the people, to make sure they are fed and cared for, to make sure they help each other and contribute. He is to make sure that the Village’s money is used to help the village to build and maintain houses, schools, churches, public areas. To feed the people (they do much farming and fishing) and keep them healthy. If a child is to go to college, the village works together to make it happen. The chief is to ensure this way of life works… However if the chief is found to be corrupt or lazy, doesn’t do good by the people, the people can petition the bodyguard for change and he will be replaced with someone who will care for the people as a chief should.
In this simplistic, ancient way of life, with a very clear chain of command, things (according to Sam, our tour guide who also happens to be a village bodyguard) run fairly smoothly. But on the Mainland, at the airport in Nadi (pronounces nahn-dee), things are not so simple. In fact, they’re a mess.
Mind you, being from the USA, I’m used to flying in and out of big airports; so small ones with less than ten gates tend to run really smoothly…. that is compared to airports like LAX or Heathrow… I mean, those places are cities within themselves.
Anyway.. getting back to Fiji…perhaps I should start at the beginning.
Brandon dropped me off at the Airport on Jan 27 so I could fly home to pack before traveling with my parents to Fiji and New Zealand for my little sister’s wedding. We decided it was alright for him to skip it since there will be a second wedding in July which I will be dragging him to.
Now, why wouldn’t he want to come to Kiwiland with me? Well, of course I wanted him to come! But basically, I’m in the wedding, so there’s not time to explore. Hence his current adventure in Columbia…
I pack up and head back to the airport the next day with Mom and Dad for 30+ hours of airport fun. This, we think, is the hard part:
Check in, wait 2 hours, board and fly on time 1 hour, Akron, Oh to Charlotte, NC (south east). US Airlines ( I will never understand why airlines insist on flying you in the opposite direction you want to go every time for the cheaper fare. I know, first world problems.)
Wait 3 hours, board and fly on time 5.5 hours Charlotte, NC to Las Angeles, Ca(west). American Airlines
Wait 3 more hours, flight is delayed half an hour, board and fly 11.5 hours LAX to Nadi, Fiji. ->Dad and I can hardly sleep… We should have taken Mom up on the sleeping pills before they kicked in for her. We finally doze off and are (feels like) immediately woken 2 hours before landing for a terrible in-flight breakfast.(all in flight breakfasts are terrible) Fiji Airways
BULA! We arrive in Fiji. We go through customs, get our bags… 1.5 hours.
We wait 20 minutes for a bus to ride about 40 minutes to Port Denaru, wait 1 hour to board the Yasawa Flyer then ride 3 hours to Botaira Resort, Naviti Island, Yasawa Island Group, Fiji. The boat ride was great, although the white meat (us) should have worn sunscreen for it. After a greeting sung by the staff, and a delicious fish lunch, I finally get to sleep for a few hours in a hammock in the shade. It’s New years eve, we’ve lost a day by crossing the International Dateline headed west, but we’ve made it!!!!
The Yasawa Islands are beautiful and lush, the beaches of white sand and colorful shells. The reefs are colorful and incredibly diverse, making for spectacular snorkeling and scuba diving, particularly during April-Oct when the Manta Rays are Cruising through the swift corridors between Islands.
I’d tell you all about it… but we’ve yet to get to the part about the smoking airplane.
Our 6 days in Paradise come to an end and once again we find ourselves at the tiny Nadi International Airport. There are winding queues leading to the check-in counters just like any other airport. We check in our luggage, receive our boarding passes and the information that there may be a short delay for minor repairs, no big deal. We head to security and customs, no line here, carry-ons go through the x-ray, passports are stamped, we head to the waiting area. With only 7 Gates, you may go upstairs to your gate only after boarding has begun. After half an hour of wandering the Duty Free and drooling over Fijian pearls. I settle down with my book, only 20 minutes till boarding, then 3 hours to New Zealand!
Or so we think… Buh bum BUUUMMMMMM!!! Yeah, I’m a dork.
“Attention Fiji Airways passengers, flight 417 to Auckland, NZ, your flight will be delayed 2 hours.(our original flight is at 10 pm) Sorry for the inconvenience, we will be issuing meal vouchers at the information desk.”
We’d already eaten and the cafe closed 20 minutes later so we spend the vouchers on drinks and snacks for later… $60Fj ($32US) is a lot of M&Ms! The lady in the cafe seemed to enjoy making sure we spent every cent.
Three hours go by, I’ve napped on a worn out padded bench, chatted with fellow passengers, memorized the duty free shop… Meanwhile a flight to Honolulu via Christmas Island (also Fiji Airways) has been informed it’s become a direct flight to Hawaii… This may seem nice, but 50 or so passengers were booked only to Christmas Island and there is only 1 flight a week to that destination. This is a foreboding sign regarding this airline….
FINALLY our flight is boarding. We find our seats at the back of the cabin. It is way too warm but we don’t think too much of it as we’re in Fiji and the AC will kick in once the plane is on. A toddler in the back row starts whining (I think) as loudly as she is able, her mother tries to quiet her with promises of seeing her gran soon. At this point we are all tired and frustrated, if not all out grumpy.
The plane finally backs away from the gate, and the AC finally starts to blow. But it’s still very warm and there’s an odd chemical smell beyond the normal light, jet fuel fumes. We taxi to the runway and the pilot revs the engines… then he revs them again… and again…and again… this is a little weird, but they’ve just done a minor repair so we don’t think much of it. Finally the plane revs up fully, then comes the feeling of being squished into ones seat just before moving forward and up… up…
We’ve been in the air for about 5 minutes, the fumes have gotten stronger and begun to smell of burning. Before we’ve even leveled out, the Captain comes over the PA system: “This is your captain speaking, I am aware that there are a bit of fumes in the cabin and that it’s uncomfortable at the moment. We had an air conditioner part changed this evening and it seems the mechanic spilled some of the fluids and missed a bit on cleanup. We are trying to clear the air back there hopefully it will be better in a short time. Sorry for the Inconvenience.”
Five more minutes go by, a dramatic Indian man is loudly coughing himself raw two rows back, I think he may make himself puke with the way he’s pushing. The toddler is still screaming, this is miserable. I’ve got my head on my lap, face in my pillow trying to breathe through it. At this point, it’s not unbearable, it’s merely not pleasant. The Plane has leveled out, it seems a bit soon…
The Captain again:” Attention Ladies and Gentlemen, I am aware that the fumes and smoke are not getting better. There is no fire and it’s not dangerous. But just to play it safe, we are going to turn around. On behalf of Fiji Airways I apologize for the inconvenience and we will make arrangements to get you to Auckland as soon as possible. We will be landing back at Nadi in approximately 10 minutes. Thank You. ”
We fly in circles for what feels like 15-20 minutes more, the lady across the aisle says she can see the fuel draining out of the engines… Creepy, but should the landing be rough, less is more when it comes to surviving explosions… I don’t repeat this thought out loud… Mom wouldn’t take my morbid sense of humor blended with common sense well on this one.
The landing is flawlessly smooth…. I hardly feel the wheels touch down. Home stretch.
That’s when it gets bad.
Evidently, the wind of flying was blowing a very large portion of the smoke away from the plane, because as soon as we’d landed the cabin filled with smoke. And, of course, before the doors are opened, the lights come on. EVERYBODY PANIC!!! When it was dark it was only possible to tell with sense of smell and taste that it was a bad situation… but once peoples’ eyes confirmed it… oh man, the drama goes through the roof. My Dad reminds a little boy who’s holding his breath to actually breathe, while Mom starts handing out mints. People complain that the masks never came down, but apparently you have to get up to 10,000 feet for them to even have the possibility of opening (a height to which we did not ascend). When the doors finally opened it was by far, the quickest disembarkation that I have ever seen.
We stand outside for a while breathing deeply the clean air before being ushered back into the customs/immigration room to sit for an hour or so like a bunch of bedraggled refugees. On the way, Some of my fellow passengers/refugees witness airport personnel yelling at our pilot for bringing us back because ” We don’t know what to do with all of these people!” His response was “Their lives were in danger, what did you want me to do, keep flying?” Thank you, Captain.
Halfway through our wait, all of the people meant for Christmas Island were herded through and past us. They had been trapped in the passenger waiting room for 2 hours already, waiting for the Airline to find them hotels. The Flight hosts bring water and blankets… They should have brought the beverage and meal carts, it was an international flight, after all. A nice lady lets me use her phone to contact my sister in NZ, then I show her little girl photos of baby sea turtles and hermit crabs for a while.
Eventually we are herded into line… I begin bleating like a sheep trying to lighten the mood. We wait and wait… eventually we are checked off the list and re-enter the country… or more accurately, we un-leave… confusing, I know, but they did not re-stamp our passports. As we walk to baggage claim, I comment to my dad about the satisfaction survey buttons being turned around facing the wall, an airline employee sheepishly smiles and ducks her head as she walks by, overhearing.
We get our luggage and return to waiting. As 2 women do all of the work of finding hundreds of passengers hotel rooms and another dozen or so stand around because it’s not their job. What feels like hours later, we are taken by van to a hotel that (to me) wasn’t so bad… but it was not up to Mom’s standard. But at least there were clean beds. (toilet seats too!)
Around 4:30 am the airlines call us to say we’ve been confirmed on the 1pm flight and they’ll call us with more information later.
As 11:30 am rolls around, we have some backpackers from the flight our hanging out with us because there’s a washer and dryer in the room. We still haven’t gotten a call from the airline, so Mom calls and is told to get to the airport quick to check in. We rush over to find, surprise! We are not, in fact, confirmed for the 1 O’clock flight. After mom chased down every manager she could find, and prefaced every conversation with, “I know it’s not YOUR fault, but can you help me?” She finally managed to nail down seat assignments for us for the evening flight as well as a hotel for the day across the street at Toka Toka. Far nicer than the other place, and wonderful food at the restaurant, Dad and I played on the water slide and the pool, we had lunch, a nap, and dinner, then made our way back to the airport.
An odd feeling, walking into the airport and know 80% of faces you see… especially when that airport is on the opposite side of the planet from home. We ask the security agents if they had missed us. Made bets with other passengers about whether we would actually leave Fiji this time. Dad and I have been humming Hotel California all day.
An Airbus had been brought in as we were not the only refugees trying to get to New Zealand. While a little late, we finally made it to Auckland with landing just bumpy enough to actually worry about luggage falling out on my head. Having missed our hotel reservation the night before the airline was obliged to put us up for another night. We finally had a decent nights sleep and a great breakfast the next morning when my sister and soon to be brother in law came to rescue us.
Hooray for happy endings! Maybe next time I’ll actually tell you more about Fiji than the airport.
It took me far too long to get this post published, life gets away from us, dragging time for the ride. I’ve thought much about this event and told the story countless times. almost as if it were a trip unto itself. Certainly, it was a memorable adventure. When the German airline incident happened recently it was brought back into stark reality for me. I have come to the following conclusion:
We must trust our Pilots. Seriously.
If we want to fly, to travel at speeds far beyond what comes natural, to take to the skies, and be eye-level with eagles. Too quickly people will say, “I’ll never fly again!” because they hear of freak happenings such as has happened to myself and my fellow lucky travelers above Fiji; or that of the unfortunate victims in Europe and other crashes. But millions of people fly every week without incident. Many of my fellow Air Fiji refugees said it themselves… but the next day, they were on the airbus too, because ultimately, going home was more important than fear.
We do trust out pilots. We don’t think about it, but we have inherent faith in the people controlling the vehicles we ride in, deep down belief in that person’s own will to live, and therefore want/need to take said vehicle safely to the allotted destination.
Consider this: If you truly believed that you were going to die because you got on that plane, or in that bus or car, or train, etc (statistically, far likelier to have fatal accidents on the road, btw) would you do it? Of course not. And so much more than merely most of the time, for most of us, every time, we’re completely safe in placing that trust.
My family and I among 100+ others placed our trust in a pilot, who in an emergency, with the plane full of smoke, over a remote tiny island in the south Pacific, brought us back to the ground safe. I will be ever grateful to that man, and I wish that I could remember his name, had shaken his hand… something. If anyone from Air Fiji reads this, forward a link to him for me please. He deserves to know how very greatly he is appreciated.