I was off on my travels again; this time to Fiji, one of my favourite places, the land where the Spanish concept of manana is considered far too hasty a philosophy.
The instructions said: "Pick up your ticket from the Air Pacific office at Auckland airport." I looked, but I couldnt find an Air Pacific office anywhere.
I went to the airport Help Desk. "Wheres the Air Pacific office, please?"
"There isnt one," said the Lady behind the desk. "United handles all Air Pacific bookings."
"Oh. OK wheres the United Airlines office then?"
"Just next door," she said. "Theyre closed."
I checked. The lights were off, the grille was down. Nobody home. The Help Desk Lady flipped through a book of words searching for alternatives. She was determined to Help me. As she turned the pages, a diagram caught my eye.
"Oh look," I said, pointing. "Air Pacific."
"Oh yes," said the Help Desk Lady, bewildered. "They have got an office here. I never knew that before."
We examined the page together and mapped out a route to the Air Pacific office. I followed it down the corridor, up the stairs, turn left. There was a door with Air Pacific written upon it in large, friendly letters. The door was locked. I pounded upon it. Nobody home.
I went back to the Help Desk Lady and reported my lack of success. "Oh, how embarrassing," she said. "However Im sure there will be somebody there soon."
The queue at the check in counter grew. People with Air Pacific tickets presented them and were duly checked in and assigned seats. They strolled off, flourishing their boarding passes proudly. An idea occurred to me perhaps I should ask a check-in person about my ticket. I joined the queue.
"Sorry," said the check-in person. "I work for Qantas. Youll have to wait for the Air Pacific people. Goodness knows where they are. I got called in at the last minute because nobody had turned up to check this flight in."
I trudged back to the Help Desk Lady. As I got there, the United Airlines office opened.
"Are you the Air Pacific agents?" I asked the Lady at the counter.
"I need to pick up a ticket."
"The office is down the corridor, up the stairs and turn left."
"I went there. Its locked. Theres nobody in."
She picked up the phone and dialled. Nobody answered.
"They havent arrived yet," she said. "Try again later."
People streamed past me, Air Pacific tickets clutched in their hands. They didnt know how lucky they were. The United Airlines Lady picked up the phone and dialled again. It rang, and rang and rang and rang. Finally the ringing woke someone. Annoyed, they answered the phone in order to shut it up.
"Hello, Sarah," said the United Airlines Lady. "Have you got a ticket for Mr Robson?"
She listened to a long explanation. "Theyll bring it down soon," she said to me.
As I waited, vast hordes of people checked themselves in to fly to Fiji. I was very jealous, and mildly worried that the aeroplane might run out of seats. There were an awful lot of people
Eventually Sarah appeared with an envelope. "Mr Robson?"
She gave me the envelope. I extracted my ticket and checked in. At last! I was going to Fiji.
The flight was uneventful and we landed at Nadi on time. I presented myself at the immigration desk with my passport and completed immigration form. The form had a spelling mistake on it in the customs declaration section, the word "tobacco" was spelt "tabacco". I decided not to comment on it in case they took umbrage.
The immigration officer was a trappist monk who was taking a correspondence course in telepathy.
"Hello," I said, proffering my documents.
He glared at me and picked the papers up. He typed some incantations into his computer and frowned at the screen. He stamped my passport and scribbled on it. He glared at me again (he hated me) and then gave me my passport back.
He said not a word. As I walked away, I could feel him remembering me so that he could hate me all over again when he got home.
I was staying at the Hotel Tokatoka which proudly proclaims itself to be both a hotel and a resort. This means that there is a large swimming pool with a restaurant and bar by the side of it. Swimmers can actually swim right up to the bar, order a drink and swim away with it to drink elsewhere. In the centre of the pool is a stage equipped with large amplifiers and every night the entertainment blasts out keeping weary travellers such as myself awake, and frightening the geckoes who live on the walls. (Every room in every hotel in Fiji has geckoes that run busily up and down the walls and across the ceilings. They live off mosquitoes and creepy-crawlies. Every tourist in Fiji loves the geckoes who live on the walls).
My bathroom had a full complement of small scurrying insects that were obviously unpalatable, for the geckoes who live on the walls ignored them completely. The insects looked terribly busy but remarkably inefficient as they scurried backwards and forwards repeatedly covering the same ground. I sprayed them with water but it made no difference they just altered their scurrying path slightly. So I sprayed them with the insect repellent Id brought with me. Repulsed, they went away. Faint shrieks from next door suggested they had found a new home. I wished theyd gone and inflicted the death of a thousand itches on the band in the centre of the pool. The water would have been no barrier at all. But such was not to be. I went to bed and fell asleep to the soothing rhythms of Twist and Shout played at a thousand decibels.
On my second night in Fiji, the entertainment changed for the better. This time it was provided by a cultural group from the Cook Islands. The band pounded the drums with a percussive intensity that was impossible to resist. All over the pool area people jogged in time. One small boy accompanied the band by beating on the table (and very good he was too). Eventually his parents stopped him from doing it and he spent the rest of the evening playing the drums silently in mid air.
Then the dancing girls came on. Each had long flowing hair intertwined with garlands of flowers. They wore grass skirts with belts of leaves resting snugly on their hips. They shimmied and shook to the rhythm of the drums, bouncing their bottoms to a drumming that suddenly seemed strangely erotic. Then the drumming intensified as the warriors arrived. They stamped their feet and screamed a challenge. They shook their weapons at us and the drums pounded out a never-ending, heart-racing, increasingly frenetic rhythm that rose and rose and rose to a crashing crescendo.
It was, quite simply, superb.
I quickly discovered that ordering a meal from the hotel restaurant or a drink from the hotel bar was an exercise in applied bureaucracy which involved much scribbling on pre-printed forms of monumental complexity.
The order is taken and solemnly written down. The exact date and time of the order is recorded to the minute in triplicate on a form with interleaved carbons.
"What is your room number, sir?"
"Ill pay cash."
A look of panic Ive just broken the system. "I must have your room number, sir."
This is recorded with great precision (probably to four decimal places, judging by the amount of time it takes to write the number down) and then the word "cash" is circled. The order is ferried off to the kitchen or the bar (whichever is the most appropriate) and sooner or later generally later the order arrives at my table. After I have eaten and/or drunk and it is time to pay, the fun starts again.
The first problem is finding my bill. There is much panic as all the myriad pieces of paper surrounding the till are examined minutely one by one; some of them are examined two or three times. None of them are mine. There follows much head scratching and discussion and all the pieces of paper are examined again. Triumph! One of them, generally the last one, proves to be mine. Obviously someone had sneaked it into the pile when none of us were looking. A calculator is produced, the total is checked twice and then written down. Again, the exact date and time is recorded (to the minute, naturally). I hand over some money and another panic ensues as it is discovered that the till is empty. Everyone rushes around madly and empties their pockets of loose change. They hunt frantically in drawers and cupboards, looking for the till float. Eventually it is found in the cutlery drawer. I am given my change together with the yellow bottom copy of the form complete with smudgy carbon hieroglyphs. I throw it away. The other two copies are carefully filed and presumably will later have their details transcribed into permanent ledgers, probably leather bound. In five hundred years time, long after I am dead, archivists of the future will experience indescribable intellectual thrills when they learn that I ordered a continental breakfast at 6:47am on July 16th 2002 and then paid $14.00 for it at 7:18am on the same day.
I was in Fiji to run a training course for Air Pacific. Every day I walked from my hotel to the airport where the training was to take place. It was about a ten minute stroll, but since the sun pounded down even in the early morning it was always an enormous relief to arrive in the air conditioned office.
Every morning I said, "Bula!" to the office staff and every morning they said, "Bula!" back to me.
The course attendees were all working on Fiji time and therefore I knew that the training would always start at least half an hour late. I used the extra time to check my email. However even the electrons in the wires were working on Fiji time. They all took a rest in the resistors and hung around the capacitors drinking kava with their friends and swapping lies. My internet connection was very s-l-o-w.
On Thursday I learned that there was an industrial dispute simmering. By that evening, tempers were rising. As I left, the manager said, "Theyre probably going to go on strike. Your flight home might be cancelled."
On Friday morning I said, "Bula!" to faces I didnt recognise. Everyone was on strike and the office was manned by an emergency skeleton staff of non-union members.
"Bula!" they said cheerfully back to me.
The manager told me that Air Pacific was desperately trying to hire planes from Qantas and Air New Zealand to handle their stranded passengers. "So you should be able to get home," he said. "But it might be a good idea to ring the flight people and confirm it."
All day as I ran my course I was conscious of a meeting going on in a room across the corridor. A government minister was meeting the strike leaders to discuss the situation. Quite apart from the economic consequences of the strike, the government was finding it politically embarrassing as well for they were hosting an international conference. The ACP (the initials stand for African, Caribbean and Pacific) is a loose UN-like confederation of nations. The delegates to the Fiji conference included many presidents and prime ministers. A strike of the national airline would not only leave the delegates stranded, it would leave the Fiji government with a lot of egg on its collective face; a situation they were anxious to avoid. Hence the minister, the meeting and the tired faces, for all involved had been talking throughout most of the night.
That evening I walked back to the hotel and rang the Air Pacific reservations office.
"Id like advice on what to do about my flight on Sunday, in view of the strike."
"Strike?" said the Air Pacific Lady. "What strike? Nobodys told me about any strike."
Since Id just left the almost deserted office where the ministerial meeting was still in progress, I was dubious about the accuracy of her information.
I turned on the television to see the news. The very first story was about the strike. I went down to the hotel desk to see if they had any information. They had a fax from Air Pacific. All Fridays flights were cancelled and the passengers had been re-booked on Air New Zealand and Qantas flights that had been diverted from their normal routes to make an unscheduled stop to pick up the extra people.
The next day being Saturday, I played tourist and went for an island cruise on the Seaspray, an 83 foot long two-masted sailing ship built in 1928 in Scotland. Her paint was flaking a little, but she was basically sound and very pretty indeed. The crew welcomed us on board.
"The bar will stay open all day. We have wine, champagne and Fiji beer. Help yourself whenever you like. Dont worry about the ship sinking. Youll all be fine remember, the more you drink, the better you float!"
As we sailed out to the islands, the crew played guitar and sang to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda":
Once a jolly Fiji man
Sat by the kava bowl
We spent most of the day on Mordriki island where Tom Hanks filmed Castaway. Its a small, uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere. All you can hear is the gentle sound of the shining blue sea. The sun bounces off each wavelet and they shimmer and sparkle like liquid diamonds as they hiss gently towards the shore. I sat on a rock and read a book. It was indescribably peaceful, indescribably beautiful. The Seaspray lay at anchor in the bay, sails furled. The beach was golden, the palm trees were full of coconuts.
When we got back on board the ship, one of the crew said: "The bar is open! Youve come back from Mordriki Island. If you cant remember the name, just think More Drinking!! Its easy!"
I arrived back at my hotel quite late in the evening. I rang Air Pacific, but nobody answered the phone. Presumably they were on strike. I went and asked at the hotel desk. The lady behind the counter showed me the fax they had received from Air Pacific the previous day.
"No, I said. This fax give details of yesterdays flights. My flight is tomorrow."
She rang a secret number and talked for about five minutes.
"Check in at 5.00am," she said. "Your flight will take off as scheduled at 7.00am."
I was astounded, and I didnt believe a word of it. However, having no choice in the matter, I reported to the airport next morning at the ungodly hour of 5.00am. To my astonishment, the check in desk was open. A large notice said:
Electronic or electrical devices can be used
to conceal bombs.
If you are carrying electronic or electrical devices in your luggage
you must declare them at the check in counter. If you do not declare them
and they are found in a spot check the airline may refuse to carry your
I presented my passport and ticket to the lady behind the check in counter.
"Ive got a hair dryer, a beard trimmer, a Palm Pilot and a mobile phone," I said.
She was dubious.
"And an electric toothbrush," I added.
"I think they might be all right," she said. "Dont use your mobile phone during the flight."
"Of course not," I said, shocked. The very idea!
She looked as if she didnt believe me. She checked me in and gave me my luggage receipt. I put my hand baggage through the X-Ray machine and went through the metal detector. It was turned up to an insanely high level of sensitivity and it screamed like a banshee when I walked through. I was descended upon by a beefy guard who waved his wand over me. It beeped warningly on my watch, my rings, my belt buckle, the zipper in my trousers, the gold chain around my neck and my medic-alert bracelet, none of which have ever given me a moments trouble at any other airport. He scrutinised all of them (except for the zipper in my trousers, of course) and then reluctantly waved me through.
I picked up my bag, but before I could walk off with it, another security person demanded to see inside it. She emptied the bag out and then picked each item up one by one and examined it suspiciously. My can of insect repellent was scrutinised closely. She took the top off and tried a practice squirt to make sure that it wasnt a bomb. My pen was dismantled completely in case it had a bomb inside. She scribbled with it on a piece of scrap paper to prove that it would write. She examined every key on my key ring and turned on both my mobile phone and my Palm Pilot to see if they would explode. She seemed vaguely disappointed when they didnt. She flipped through the pages in my book in case I had a bomb cunningly concealed in its hollowed out pages. She jammed everything back into my bag and rather bad temperedly let me go.
I consoled myself by spending lots of money in the duty free shop.
That was Fiji this time.