A travel series about my recent trip to Fiji and New Zealand.
Three hours before my flight, my room, and to a large extent, my brain, were in a state of chaos. Multiple things were vying for my attention. My wet laundry that was still spinning in the drier. My shiny new Osprey backpack, which I had purchased from REI specifically for this trip, that was lying open on my bed. A partially written work email that was breathing down my neck. My phone that was buzzing incessantly as family and friends wished me (“Safe travels!”), warned me (“7.8 earthquake in New Zealand!”) and yelled at me (“Yo man! Hurry up! We got a flight to catch!”)
That is how my trip started. With unplanned, disorganized, chaos. This unplanned, disorganized chaos would turn out to be a constant feature of our entire trip. We had absolutely no sketched out plans when we started out. The only things we had done so far were to book our flight tickets, get our visas, book a random place for a day so that we have an address to fill out in the immigration form, and borrow Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania from the SF Public Library. No plans around things to do, sights to see, or places to visit.
Not having an agenda felt incredible! There was no need to make stressful decisions — “This hotel is 10 dollars cheaper than the other, but the rooms look smaller. Which one should I pick?” No need for strategic thinking — “We shouldn’t party too hard on Monday night. That way, we can wake up early on Tuesday morning, so that we can catch the 8am bus, so that we can get to this location before noon, so that we can do a 4 hour hike before sunset”. No need for managing expectations — “I’ve booked this activity for $50, it may not be spectacular, but it may be worth it.” Decision-making? Strategic thinking? Managing expectations? Geez, that sounds an awful lot like my day job.
Our flight to Nadi, Fiji took us through the wonderful and messy airport at Los Angeles. The experience of waiting for our connecting flight at LAX turned out to be not as bad as I had initially thought. I think there were two contributing factors— First, the Tom Bradley international terminal had gotten a facelift since the last time I was here. The airport looked much cleaner now. Second, we got the chance to bide our time at one of the airport lounges. The latter probably was the bigger of the two contributing factors.
Airport lounges always seemed so exclusive to me. I had the impression that they were reserved for the fancy business types, the big spenders, the ones who wore Armani suits and Rolex watches. I mean, who else would be willing to spend a hundred dollars to sit in a sofa for a couple of hours? It felt like such a wasteful indulgence to a person like me who books flight tickets at sketchy websites to save a few dollars. But our entry to the KAL lounge at LAX was free. Thanks to the solid credit card rewards that one of my friends possessed. This was my first time lounging at an airport lounge. While I still saw some of those fancy business type people, there were also a ton of regular human beings there.
Our Fiji Airways aircraft had a welcoming feel about it. There was a soothing ukulele playing in the background. The plane was diffused with soft, ambient lighting. There was a pleasant floral scent lingering in the air. The TV in front of me had a picture of a white sandy beach with coconut palms in the background. The flight attendants wore blue, floral t-shirts and blouses with flowers tucked around their ears. I was impressed with the airline in terms of it’s comfort and hospitality. Turns out that they had been operational for more than 60 years, which is impressive given that Fiji became independent only in 1970. Browsing through their in-flight magazine, I learned that the airline was started by an Australian aviator named Harold Gatty (who at one point had set the record for the fastest circumnavigation around the globe) way back in 1951. The only thing I wasn’t impressed about was the fact that they ran out of vegetarian food. I spent the next 10 hours on the flight surviving on dinner rolls and butter.
“Are you going to Fiji for a holiday or just transiting through?” I asked the middle-aged lady sitting next to me after I helped her figure out where to plug her headphones (“where does this go in?”), how to navigate the in-flight entertainment interface (“will my credit card get charged if hit this button?”), and how to charge her phone (“oh my! I didn’t know I could pull the wire out from the plug”).
“I’m going on a scuba diving expedition,” she exclaimed, a tinge of excitement finally appearing in an otherwise tired voice. She was traveling from Pennsylvania with a group of 20 other divers to explore the reef around the Fijian archipelago. I later found out that it was her first long-distance flight and so far her experience wasn’t a pleasant one.
“When I reached DC, they told me that my flight was overbooked. They were going to put me on another flight to LA. And I said I can’t do that because I’m traveling with a group to Fiji,” she said. “Did you end up getting on the flight?” I asked. “Oh yes I did. I had to call their manager and yell at them,” she had a ‘that was the right thing to do’ look on her face.
I dozed off for a while until I woke up to an alarm beeping loudly somewhere in my vicinity. I half-opened my eyes to see the lady next to me in a state of panic. Unable to turn the alarm on her phone off, she took off her seatbelt and rushed to the bathroom. She came back a few minutes later apologizing to every person who was awake. Sweat was trickling down her forehead.
“How much do you think they’ll fine me?” she asked me. Judging by the puzzled look on my face, she continued, “They had asked me to switch off the phone when we took off, but I didn’t.” I told her that it would be okay and that it wasn’t a big deal as long as her phone was in airplane mode. “Oh my gosh! It’s not in airplane mode,” she panicked again. I put her phone on airplane mode and went back to sleep.
When I woke up later I noticed that we were flying right on top of the international date line. In any moment now, the time would flip from 3am on a Saturday morning to 3am on Sunday morning. It was a such a weird and exciting concept. For someone who gets excited by the time switch during Daylight Savings, this was the next level stuff!
The 180th meridian — simultaneously, the eastern-most and the western-most part of the globe. I remembered how in Around the World in 80 days, Phileas Fogg had won his bet because of this time quirk. While he thought that he had missed his deadline, he actually didn’t because he gained a day after crossing the International Date Line. I too felt like an adventuring Phileas Fogg. I wondered how it would feel like to live in a place where a step forward would take you in to the future and a step backward would take you in to the past. Then I remembered that the jagged nature of the date line was by design. It purposefully didn’t cut through land masses to avoid logistical nightmares.
“You do know that the date line concept is relative, right? For what it’s worth, if the British did not set these navigation standards this would just be any other longitude,” my friend remarked. All of a sudden, my excitement with the 180th meridian as well as my excitement around visiting the Greenwich Observatory last summer began to lose it’s value.
One thing that resonated with me during the entire flight was how vast the Pacific Ocean was. We had been flying at 500 miles an hour for the past 9 hours with nothing but water beneath us. Every now and again, a small landmass would float by — a tiny speck of green in a background of blue. The islands of the Pacific seemed like stars spread across the vastness of space. In a hour or so, I would set foot on one of these stars.