Nov 222014
 

Taxi driver was quite chatty, which I later learnt was because he was hoping to negotiate with me to be my driver for the entire time I was in the country. Decided to pass on his generous offer, and in no time was at my hotel, the King Solomon. Online reviews of all the hotels in Honiara were rather mixed, so I decided to go with this one since I was told it had the most local character, and met my three C requirements: clean, cool, and comfortable. Well, the lobby was certainly festive at least:

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Check-in was…interesting. No credit card asked for, no nothing, more of a here’s your key…enjoy. Um, ok. Unfortunately, the first room had broken AC and the second I tried was just marginally better. Decided to stick with the second, because the room was at least a bit larger. When I’d booked online, it was very unclear what the difference was between all the room categories, so I decided to book the cheapest one and hope for the best. It seemed based on the AC muck up I might have gotten upgraded, but it was hard to tell since the staff never wanted to say more than two or three words to me.

Spent my first afternoon just walking around central Honiara, and taking it all in. There really wasn’t too much to see it appeared, but it was one of those places where people watching was the highlight. Unfortunately, it was late Sunday afternoon so everything was closed, and that combined with the sweltering heat and humidity cut the afternoon short. I decided to decamp to the hotel pool, which seemed to be where all the local long-term expat residents congregate on Sunday afternoons and get absolutely trashed. I mean fall down drunk. It was a rather depressing example of expats behaving badly. I mean, I’m far from a teatotler but it always surprises me in some of the more developing countries just how much drinking / partying / smoking goes on in the expat community. Is it a case of “nothing else to do” or something else? Observations?

After pool time and a drink at the hotel bar, decided to stay in for dinner as I was advised nothing was open on Sunday evening really, and safety is a concern. Plus, I was told the food at the hotel was probably better than anything I’d find outside anyways. Seems some nights, the hotel does dinner and a performance. I was seated right next to the stage:

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The King Solomon restaurant. I sat down for nearly ten minutes before I realized the staff had no interest in waiting on me and if I wanted anything I was going to have to go up to the front counter and order. The choice was some meat and potatoes dish, or pizza. The pizza was recommended online as being pretty good, so I decided to go with that:

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Chicken satay pizza and a SB beer. Pretty darn tasty:

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Gee, I wonder where the hotel stole…I mean got…their napkins from…

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An observation on dinner..I was getting the impression that the Solomon Islands are kind of like Australia’s Thailand. There were two tables in the restaurant where groups of heavyset middle-aged Australian men (40s-50s) were having dinner with the Solomon Islander “girlfriends” who looked to be barely 20, if that. The poor girls were eating like they’d never seen food before, until in a few cases the men informed them they were done and going back to the room. Ugh. Honestly, it made me really uncomfortable and was rather depressing.

I ended up chatting briefly with an American guy who was having dinner alone, and he said that in many cases people come here for a few months for work, live at this hotel, meet local girls, and then end up staying for years in some cases. He said that the majority of the people at the hotel were long-term residents, several months minimum.

Onto more interesting topics, did I mention the hotel had a funicular for getting to the rooms? Awesome!

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Slept in slightly the next day before going diving. The visibility wasn’t all that great, but dove two different World War Two wrecks that were easy dives from shore. Both gradually sloped down to between 110 and 130 feet, and were really cool to see. The first wreck was the Hirokawa Maru, also known as Bonegi I. It’s a Japanese transport ship of 6860 tons with an overall length of 508 feet. The bottom sits at about 160 feet, although we didn’t go that far down.

The second dive was the wreck of the Kinugawa Maru, also know as Bonegi II. This was a 436 foot long transport ship as well, with part sitting just above the water line. The stern sits in about 90 feet of water, so was really easy to explore. Overall they were both great dives, and I’m bummed I forgot to charge my camera battery so didn’t manage to get any pictures.

After the dives, grabbed lunch at a local cafe which seemed to be where all the wives of the local expats hung out. It was seriously like a ladies who lunch convention.

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Back to the hotel, where I chilled out for the evening, had more pizza, and just relaxed since I was leaving rather early the next morning. The entrance to the hotel. Welkam!

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Posing with the goofy lobby statue:

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The next morning, settled the bill…which took nearly 30 minutes partly because the staff weren’t interested in moving quickly and partly because there were so many slips of paper to sort out and add up. Finally got things sorted, and it was off to the airport for a few relaxing days in Brisbane and Auckland before continuing with more island hopping!


Nov 202014
 

I seemed to remember the airport in Port Vila being rather small from my trip a few years ago, but Priority Pass also promised that there was a lounge, so I made plans to get there around two hours before flight time just in case Solomons Air  presented any problems.

Took nearly 30 minutes to check in due to a long line…I mean, based on the sign it was an incredibly busy airport today!

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Checked in, got the exit row, no problems about having two bags and likely being slightly overweight, and soon it was time for “pre-boarding metal detecting” whatever that is. I mean, it’s not like this has been going on for nearly fifty years now!

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Our plane was already here (from the night before it appeared) so that was a good sign!

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Found the lounge, which was a rather tiny room, with this impressive snack collection. Although the crisps were asking “BITE ME!” on the package, I resisted, having already bitten brekky back at the hotel.

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The lounge. Yes, this is all of it.

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It was still early. Too early for a beer. However, leave it to Kiwis to set a bad example. After I’d been there 15 minutes, a guy waiting for the New Zealand flight came in, plopped down next to me, and headed straight for the serve yourself bar…where he put away three rather large glasses of white wine in the span of 15 minutes. When he went for a fourth, I decided it wasn’t too early for a beer after all:

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More pidgin in their slogan “bia blong yumi” Bia, obviously, being beer, and yumi being self explanatory. Blong is a pidgin word that seems to appear everywhere. I ecountered it during  my first trip to Vanuatu when the then-Le Meridien gave me a sheet of helpful local phrases. One of them was “baskit blong titi.” Baskit being basket, titi being, well, breasts, and blong showing possession. They translated it as “coconut bra” which I guess made sense as a “basket for titis.” So Bia Blong Yumi is a way of saying Yumi is a quality that is owned by the beer. Got it? Good.

Boarded about 15 minutes late, but no biggie.

Solomons Airlines flight 703
Port Vila, Vanuatu (VLI) to Honiara, Solomon Islands (HIR)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 13:00, Flight Time 2 hours
Airbus A320, Registration H4-BUS (ex Air Canada) Manufactured 1992, Seat 15C

The flight was completely full today, but I had the exit row so no worries. I saw many of my new friends from the diversion to Espiritu Santo on this flight, and it was really showing the impact that cutting direct flights was having. Quick shot of the airport from my seat:

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Oh, look what we have in the in-flight magazine. An explanation of what’s going on!

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One hour forty minute flight, and the interior of the aircraft was absolutely spotless. Looking on line, I saw the plane was ancient and spent a previous life with Air Canada, but it had obviously been refurbished lately and was very well taken care of since then. If you didn’t know how old it was you’d have no clue.

“Meat sandwich” was the snack. I opted to stick with a SolBrew and the cookies. Scary mayonnaise and I don’t mix.

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Landed right on time, and immigration was a zoo. It was boiling hot in the immigration waiting area, and the lines were moving at Solomons speed. There was one person checking passport, and another half dozen or so standing around doing God knows what. “Supervising” would be my guess. Took over an hour to get through the passport line, and when I did the promised hotel transfer was of course no where to be found. No problem negotiating a taxi, and it was time to explore country #166 visited…Solomon Islands!


Nov 192014
 

By the time I finally got to my hotel, it was after 8pm already, and I was tired from a long day. Managed to resist ordering room service, and fortunately there was a “sports bar” across the street that TripAdvisor said served reasonable pizzas. They also had their own craft beer, which was surprisingly good:

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The upside of having two nights in Vanuatu is it meant another country I’d get the opportunity to dive in…however, that meant getting up early. Based on online reviews I paid a little extra for a “panorama view room” and it was well worth it in the morning to have a 270 degree+ view of the harbour. The Grand Hotel and Casino was well-located, and a good choice. Comfortable, cool, and clean, my three basic requirements as well as a decent location:

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…and THIS is how you get ants:

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Since I had the whole day and wasn’t flying until later the following day, I had the whole day to go diving. I chose Big Blue since they appeared to be the largest operator in Port Vila, and were willing to do a hotel pick-up. They changed the plan the day before, and said they’d send a boat to pick me up at the jetty next to my hotel. Cool! It was about 15 minutes late, but hey, island time!

First two dives were wreck dives, the first being the deepest dive I’ve ever done going straight down to 140 feet before gradually swimming up the wreck:

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It’s dark down at 140 feet…

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Continue reading »


Nov 182014
 

So, Vanuatu. I wasn’t planning on coming to Vanuatu. I was there nearly ten years ago, and had checked that one off the country visiting list. But, yet, somehow this blog entry features Vanuatu. If you’re going to guess this has something to do with Fiji Airways, of course, you’re correct!

About two weeks before the trip started, I called Fiji Airways to enquire about making a change to my reservation. I had originally booked Nadi-Suva-Tuvalu on a Tuesday (which went tits up as you saw in previous posts) and the Tuvalu-Suva on a Thursday, followed by Suva-Nadi on Friday morning so I could spend a night checking out Suva. Little did I know at the time all the drama that would revolve around Tuvalu.

However, Fiji Airways referred me to Expedia to make the change since I’d booked with them. Expedia tried, but couldn’t…and they couldn’t figure out why. I called Fiji Airways back to ask why Expedia couldn’t. They didn’t even want to tell me…but finally I convinced them that I wasn’t asking them to touch the reservation, just to look and see if they could figure out why Expedia might be having trouble. Oh yes, after Fiji you are scheduled to fly to Honiara, Solomon Islands. We no longer operate that flight due to a trade dispute with the Solomon Islands.

This was two weeks before the trip started, and I was going to have to completely replan the middle two weeks of the trip. It took me about two days to reconfigure things, then, I had to call Expedia to book. Needless to say, I will never book with Expedia again. It took a total of 24 calls to Expedia, over 11 hours of total call time. 6 times, I worked with an agent or was on hold for more than an hour, before getting “disconnected.” What a coincidence, just when the agent was getting frustrated they disconnected me.

I also spoke to a woman with an Indian accent who claimed her name was Bubbles. Bubbles was helpful, until she hung up on me. I also spoke to a woman claiming to be “Diana Ross.” She was less helpful. This went on and on. One unhelpful chap, after nearly 90 minutes on the phone told me if I wanted a refund, it was all or nothing. The full ticket with all my Fiji segments. After days of fighting, this seemed like my best option even if the rebooking would cost me nearly $500 more. I called back to do this…no, you can only cancel the flight which is no longer operating. Escalate, escalate, get Tier 3 report. She goes back to “pull the recording” to see if he really told me that was an option. Two days later, she calls back. “I have granted your full refund.” Oh phew. All rebooked via Fiji Airways website, and going from Fiji to Solomon Islands via Vanuatu now.

I figured at least being booked directly with Fiji Airways, if something further went wrong (little did I know how much would go wrong with Fiji Airways) they would be empowered to touch the reservation. Did I mention I’m still waiting on that Tuvalu refund? Hah!

Ok, so Vanuatu. That’s why I’m going to Vanuatu!

Oh, one little detail I forgot earlier. When the Tuvalu mess finally got canned, I asked about the duty free which customs was holding. Nope, they wouldn’t release it. That’s illegal. But wait, you’re going to Vanuatu tomorrow, right? We will arrange with customs to transport it in secure transport to the customs facility at Nadi where you can pick it up inside security before you head to Vanuatu.

Uh, right, the chance of that happening is…

So, check-in for my flight. Fiji Airways check-in is pleasant, she even waives the 4 kilos of overweight baggage. Security, passport check, and then ask the guy at the customs desk about the wine. He seems surprised. “No, no, no such thing is possible. Well, maybe possible. But no, no, that would never happen.” Yeah, pretty much my thought when they told me that in Suva. “But let me call arrivals customs” Whoah, it’s in Nadi, and Customs has it. One problem: it’s in arrivals. After security. It’s liquid. My bags are checked, and even if they weren’t I’m not putting two bottles of red wine in my bags.

The customs agent is amused. He wants to solve this. It’s a quest now. He escorts me through back corridors of the airport, dismisses lowly security staff with the waive of a hand, and soon we’re in the arrivals area. Back in Fiji. Remember, I’d already been stamped out of Fiji. No matter. Mr Sharma is on a mission. Look what we got:

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But we have a problem. We’re outside security. They won’t even let Mr Sharma past security with liquids. Never mind the fact it’s been in customs bonded control this whole time. Never mind the fact there’s a whole Duty Free store of liquids inside security, and if you can’t trust customs to bring them inside who can you trust. Oh, Mr Sharma knows who you can trust. Airline employees can go through security with any liquids they want. He finds a Fiji Airways agent outside security. Orders them to carry this through security for him. (Remember those questions you get about “have you packed your own bags?) The agent agrees, and says he’ll meet me on the other side of security. Mr. Sharma escorts me back out of Fiji, since I technically never left. Guess who’s on the other side? Yup, Fiji Airways agent with the Duty Free. It was a beautiful example of nonsensical bureaucratic security theatre. All’s well that ends well.

Well, not really. When I tried the wine later, it had gone off. Both bottles. Ugh. Hahahah.

Back to the flight. Parked on the tarmac was VP-BNZ a corporate jet belonging to Gazpromavia. Looks like some Russian oil billionaire was either relaxing in Fiji, or buying up a large part of Fiji. Hard to tell which.

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Boarding, surprisingly, was pretty much on time, and away we go to Port Vila.

Fiji Airways Flight 263
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Port Vila, Vanuatu (VLI)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time 2:30
Aerospatiale ATR 72, Registration DQ-FJZ Manufactured 2014, Seat 3D

We even got a snack and complimentary drinks. Had a can of Fiji Bitter, but the chicken sandwich smelled a bit off. I wasn’t going to risk it.

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About 15 minutes after scheduled landing, we still weren’t descending. I’ve flown enough that my Fiji-Airways-Drama-Dar was going off big time. Something was up. I went to corner the flight attendants. “Yes, do not tell the other passengers, but the Captain informs me we may divert the plane to Santo.” Um, where is Santo? What country is that? It seems it’s Vanuatu, and there’s bad weather in Port Vila. You must be kidding me…yay for more Fiji Airways drama. In thousands of flights only my third ever in flight diversion…figures it would be Fiji Airways.

15 minutes later, the Captain confirms. We’re going to Santo. The rest of the passengers appear completely unsurprised. They’ve clearly flown Drama Airways before. Oh, did I mention 2/3 of the passengers were from Solomon Islands and doing the same thing I was? Dear stupid diplomats, get your shit sorted. You’re inconveniencing the very people you’re supposed to be working for.

Landed in Santo, where at least there was a bit of a rainbow awaiting us:

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We sat on the plane for nearly an hour, slowly broiling in the tropical sun, until they finally let us off and into a waiting room. Some planes waiting around at Santo:

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Another hour or so later, the weather in Port Vila had “cleared enough that we can try” so walked back through the big puddles on the tarmac to the plane.

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Fiji Airways Flight 263
Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu (SON) to Port Vila, Vanuatu (VLI)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time 55 minutes
Aerospatiale ATR 72, Registration DQ-FJZ Manufactured 2014, Seat 3D

Flight was bumpy, very bumpy, but not terribly eventful. We finally made it to Vanuatu a few hours later than planned (all said and done, I suppose that’s not bad for Fiji Airways) where it was through immigration and off to the hotel. If I was going to spend two nights there, at least I was going to get some diving in!


Nov 172014
 

Up nice and early once again, for what was becoming the all-too-familiar routine of flying to Suva in order to catch the flight to Funafuti. No drama with the taxi, and left my bags in the room at the Sheraton since it was just going to be a day trip.

Got to Nadi, and chatted with the counter agent. Yes, he had my reservation, and yes, I was on the 8:45 flight to Funafuti. However, he was “unable” to see what time they had scheduled the second return flight for, so I had no idea how many hours I’d get to spend in Tuvalu. Anyways, I’d come all this distance, I was going to get there!

Fiji Airways Flight 7
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 8:00, Flight Time 30 minutes
Aerospatiale ATR 42-500, Registration DQ-PSB Manufactured 1997, Seat 6F

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Another packed flight to Suva, but right on time, and actually arrived a few minutes before schedule. No checked bags, so went straight out into arrivals and found the Air Fiji check-in desk to check in for the continuation to Funafuti.

Well…that’s funny…why is there nobody at the check in counter 45 minutes before the flight?

After a few minutes, an agent came out, and said…”oh, didn’t anybody call you? The flight has been delayed until 4pm today.” Um no, wait, surely there must be a misunderstanding. I’m on the first flight this morning, and I’ll be taking the later flight back. “Oh there is only one flight today. They combined both flights onto a bigger ATR-72 and it will be going at 4pm this afternoon.”

YOU. MUST. BE. KIDDING.

After all the times I called, all the assurances I’d received, nobody bothered to contact me and tell me the plans had changed. On top of assurances there would be two flights, on top of things seeming fine at check-in in Nadi, they had made this decision the night before. So many opportunities to let me know. But no, they had to fly me back to Suva first, and then tell me. Amazing. Well, it looked like I would have a 60 minute turnaround in Funafuti anyways, and the airport is so small that there was a good chance I could get my passport stamp, leave the airport for 15 minutes and see a bit of the town, then turn right around.

The other good news, is the ATR-72 would then come back and do the last Suva-Nadi flight late at night, so I could even get back to Nadi around midnight. Ugh. I guess it’s worth it.

Well, while you wait eight hours for your flight, may we provide you the Suva Special Delayed Passenger meal of chocolate cake and Diet Coke?

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After an hour of sitting and eating cake, decided to head up to the counter. With an 8 hour delay I figured they might spring for a hotel or something for me to rest at for a few hours. Got to the counter, where a group of Chinese tourists were entertaining themselves by stepping on the scale and seeing who weight more than their baggage. They were hugely entertained by this for some reason.

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Got to the counter to ask about a hotel. “Oh, there is some more news. The ATR pilots will not be rested enough, so will not be flying back to Nadi tonight. But don’t worry, whenever you land we will arrange a shared bus back to Nadi.” Um, what time are we expected back in Suva? “Around 11pm, maybe 11:30.” Isn’t it three hours back to Nadi? “Maybe 10 minutes less at that hour. So you’re telling me I get to wait here another 7 hours, you won’t pay for a hotel, then I get to fly to Tuvalu for a 15 minute stop, come back here, take the bus, and if I’m lucky I’ll be in bed by 3:30am when I just got up at 5am.

As I looked down to ponder my fate, the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen scurried by. I’d place it at around 4.5-5 cm in length. It summed up my feelings towards Fiji Airways perfectly at this point:

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Needless to say, I cut my losses. The Fiji-Tuvalu ticket alone was nearly $1000 (there are no through fares available) and it just felt like a waste. Purchased in advance it’s about $650, and who knows if I start planning another attempt a year out maybe I can even get it with miles.

I decided to say to hell with it, and head back to Nadi after being promised despite two Nadi-Suva roundtrips I would get a full refund.

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Fiji Airways Flight 10
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Nadi, Fiji (NAN)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 11:20, Flight Time 30 minutes
Aerospatiale ATR 42-500, Registration DQ-PSB Manufactured 1997, Seat 11F

I paged through the Fiji Airways magazine. The President of Fiji Link had a very nice article about how their new ATR would improve things including reliability. PSYCH! JUST KIDDING. Shaenaz will be getting a letter from me, telling me her staff are crazy friendly and do their best to help despite being given nothing to work with. They also need a huge course in communication. Maybe I’ll offer some consulting services in exchange for a trip to Tuvalu…

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Back to Nadi, where I went straight to the Fiji Airways ticketing office, and after about 30 minutes they had processed a full refund. Of course, there’s no sign of it on my credit card yet, but I have a refund number and a promise. I mean, Fiji Airways always keeps its promises so I have absolutely no doubt things will be just peachy…

Decided to cab it straight from the airport to Denarau Port, and grab lunch. At least I had a relaxing afternoon, and weather was great:

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Lunch was followed up by pool time, and another gorgeous Fiji sunset. One note to anyone booking SPG stays in Fiji: the views of sunset from the Westin are meh, but the Sheraton’s pool area has amazing sunsets:

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Another unexpected bonus was another dinner in Fiji. The incredibly friendly waitress at Chime Bar at the Sheraton shared with me a great Fijian restaurant at the Port, so I headed to Nandina Fijian to give it a try for dinner. How can a restaurant with a drink called the “Baby Maker’ be bad? It’s almost as promising as the “Naughty and Pregnant” I had in St Kitts this summer.

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Starter of Kokoda, a kind of FIjian ceviche of raw fish in coconut broth. It was absolutely amazing:

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Since I’ve bored everyone with a thousand sunsets, here’s a moonrise during dinner:

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Main course of octopus in a coconut curry broth. Absolutely amazing, with huge amounts of octopus:

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Trio of deserts, bananas in fijian rum, a chocolate cake, and vanilla ice cream. How could you go wrong!

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Up early the next morning to catch the flight to Vanuatu. Wait, Vanuatu? Why am I going to Vanuatu? I’ve already been there…I’m supposed to be going to the Solomon Islands.

Stay tuned for Chapter Three in the continuing saga of AIR MESS aka AIR MAYBE aka Air Pacific aka Air Pathetic aka Fiji Airways!

Walking to the check-out area, one last Fiji beach shot. The beach chapel at the Sheraton:

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Off to Nadi Airport!


Nov 152014
 

In order to boost my stay count with Starwood, I used my iPhone to book the two unexpected nights in Fiji one at the Westin and the second back at the Sheraton again. The properties are right next door to each other, so figured I would compare them. Caught a taxi to the Westin, where the bellman was nice enough to drive me over to the Sheraton to retrieve my bag of scuba gear I’d left there, and then checked in.

They were rather reluctant to upgrade, and offered an ocean-view or such standard room at first…but only with two double beds. I pushed a little harder, and the agent agreed to go consult her manager. I reminded her it was just one night, and I was staying to compare them to the Sheraton. I thought maybe a bit of friendly competition might help. Well..ended up with a “one time only” upgrade to a royal suite, which I guess isn’t usually available in the standard upgrade pool. Took the buggy to the room with my bags, and the buggy driver mentioned to me that both John Travolta and Mel Gibson had stayed in. SCORE!

Living area:

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Continue reading »


Nov 142014
 

A few weeks ago when I booked this ticket, there were two flights from Nadi to Suva that would connect to the Funafuti flight. One left at 6:30 and the other left at 7:30. The 7:30 gave only about one hour to connect in Suva, and not knowing how big that airport was I wasn’t willing to risk it. Remember, I’d heard Fiji Airways was a nightmare, so I figured sacrificing an hour of sleep to the travel Gods in order to ensure my flight was drama free was a small price to pay.

The night before, when I was on the Bula Bus headed to dinner, my phone rang. “Unknown Caller” was calling me, so I sent it to voicemail. Whee, $3 down the drain. I checked the message shortly after, and guess who? Fiji Airways. Seems my flight had been retimed from 7:30 to 7:00. Um, my flight leaves at 6:30? WTF. I opted to get to the airport at 5:30 in time for the 6:30 just in case.

Got to check-in, and my flight, flight 3 was nowhere to be found on the departure monitors. However, flight 7, the 7:30 departure was there, but with a time of 7:00. Yes, turns out they’d canceled one of the flights and consolidated everyone onto one plane halfway in between times. Ok, that’s not major drama. They only could check me in to Suva, but assured me the airport was small and I would have plenty of time to check in for my flight to Funafuti. Ok, fair enough.

Fiji Airways Flight 7
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 7:00, Arrive 7:30, Flight Time 30 minutes
Aerospatiale ATR 42-500, Registration DQ-PSB Manufactured 1997, Seat 12A

We boarded via a walk to the plane (finally) at 7:15, and ended up taking off at 7:30 for an 8:00 arrival. Flight time was a grand total of 22 minutes in the air, but due to clouds there was nothing to see. A small moist towel and bottle of water was passed out to each passenger on the completely full flight, and newspapers were offered as well. Rather impressive for just 22 minutes!

Waited about 10 minutes for my bag to come onto the baggage belt, but managed to check in by 8:05 for my 8:45 flight. Except it was no longer an 8:45 flight…it was now “expected” to leave at 10:30. Uh, ok. It would be the same plane that just brought us from Nadi, but it had to do another trip back to Nadi first. Bags were tagged, and despite the small delays, the bags were at least, um, “having fun.” (Yes, bad joke, deal with it!)

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With over two hours to kill now, and having not had breakfast, I went to the one cafe in the check-in area to get something to eat. It was rather tasty, and a grand total of about $4, most of which was the Diet Coke.

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About 9:45 they called everyone over the intercom, and told us to proceed through immigration and security. Shortly after that, we saw the plan arrive outside at about 10:00 and looked like we might actually get out of there by 10:30 or so. As a side note, I also purchased a couple bottles of wine in Duty Free, figuring there wouldn’t be too much to do during the evenings in Tuvalu, so wine and movies on the iPad would be a good way to pass some time. Make note of this detail, it will come back…

10:30 came, 10:30 went. The plane was still sitting there, as were we. At 11, an agent came over the intercom. There was a “technical situation” with the plane, and they hoped to depart now at approximately 12. Hmm…ok.  Around 11:45, we saw the crew get off the plane, get their bags, head towards the waiting area…see the angry mob, and then head another direction. At this point, I’d started chatting to an Australian couple who live in Tuvalu. We all agreed that the departure of the crew was likely not a good sign. They said there are three flights a week, or 12-13 a month, and maybe 1-2 times a month there’s serious drama with this flight. Ugh, ok.

Shortly after noon, the Fiji Airways agent walked into the departures lounge and announced she was sorry for the delay. They will be providing drinks and snacks shortly. One rather surley Australian guy demanded beer. She said she’d see what she could do. About 10 minutes later, she came back. “Your snacks, including your beer sir, will be here shortly. But unfortunately, once they arrive, you will need to go back through immigration. The flight is being canceled.” Uhhh, WHAT.

She “wasn’t sure” when we would be able to go to Tuvalu, as the next flight was in two days and it was completely sold out. Um, ok. But don’t worry she said, they will add a second flight. Maybe even tomorrow, but certainly in two days. No clue what time, but after you go through immigration and security they will take you to a hotel for the next couple of days. Several of the Tuvaluans on the flight actually cheered. I guess two days in Fiji with your hotel and meals paid was an unexpected bonus for them. (Later, the agent told me this is due to the fact the flight often cancels, and when it does the local working girls find out about it and do a brisk business proving “entertainment” at the hotel.)

We were informed that due to our duty free (remember those two bottles of wine?) being “illegal” customs would hold onto it until we left in a couple of days. I figured I’d never see it again – we didn’t get a receipt. I figured there would be a giant customs party that night. Checked my wine, back through immigration to have my departure stamp canceled, and to the check-in counter to see about getting that flight back to Nadi.

Rather than spend two nights in the No-Tell Motel, where you can check out any time you like (but you can never leave) I asked them to send me back to Nadi and I’d take care of my own accommodations. They resisted. I convinced them that me taking up an empty seat would cost Fiji Airways less than two nights hotel plus meals. They finally agreed. They promised they would e-mail or call me with the new flight time. I wrote down my e-mail and phone number.

In three days, I was headed to Vanuatu so going to Tuvalu in 2 days and coming back in 4 wouldn’t be an option. I told her if they did end up operating two flights that Thursday, and they were reasonably spaced out, I would go to Tuvalu for 4 or 5 hours, have lunch, then come right back. She thought this was crazy, but certainly doable. At least I got my bag back. I modified the bag tag accordingly:

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A few minutes later, I got a message from Fiji Airways:

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I was provided with a food voucher for the airport snack shop while I waited for my flight back to Nadi. Best thing about Fiji Airways, when they cancel your flight you get cake. Chocolate cake. Delicious chocolate cake!

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Back through security, and time to board my flight back to Nadi:

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Load was light, maybe 15 total passengers for this mid-afternoon flight.

Fiji Airways Flight 12
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Nadi, Fiji (NAN)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time 30 minutes
Aerospatiale ATR 42-600, Registration DQ-FJY Manufactured 1997, Seat 12A

Wow things were looking up, a brand new plane which had only been delivered to Fiji Airways just a month prior. Quick 24 minute flight, same water/towel/newspaper service as the way over to Suva, and we were back in Nadi. Bags showed up in just a couple minutes, and I decided to head to the Fiji Airways reservations office to make sure they understand my plans. Yes yes, they did. The agent in Nadi even called Suva, they promised to get in touch with me with the new details. Key words:

“Just show up at 6:30 on Thursday, come to Suva, and we will take care of you. You will get to spend a few hours in Tuvalu. We will make sure it happens.”

Famous last words.


Nov 132014
 

Mary’s driver drove me back to the airport after breakfast, again at no charge. Considering the drive was nearly an hour each way, and the room was only like $85, Mary’s is a fantastic value as a place to stay! I decided to leave for the airport three hours before the flight, based on the idea that the airport was tiny, however, Fiji Airways had a reputation. People had warned me before the trip that “the plane go when the plane go” or sometimes not at all. With only two flights a week to Kiribati, I wanted to make sure I was at the front of the queue in case anything went wrong.

Queue? Yes, this is the bustling Tarawa International Airport check-in desk:

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See the large coolers? Almost every one of my fellow passengers had at least one, some of them four or five. I asked a local, and she said they were all filled with fresh fish that people were bringing to Fiji either to sell or to give to family and friends. I wonder what the overweight baggage fees on that are…

The novel aspect of check-in was…the computers were down. So they had absolutely no way to verify who was on the flight. If you didn’t have something proving you were on that day’s flight, you weren’t going. Now, this was problematic, because there was absolutely no data roaming in Kiribati. My phone wouldn’t work, so I had to pray I could do something that would appease them. Lesson learnt: carry hard copies. Fortunately, the one thing I had printed out was the details on TripIt of my flights. It had a date, flight number, and eticket number, so that was good enough for them. For all they knew I could have canceled it, but I guess it was good enough…considering this flight goes for minimum of $600 one-way, they were really taking some chances!

Waiting for the plane to arrive. Hopefully.

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There were some cute signs/cards in the departures area made by local schoolchildren for World Teacher’s Day. Is it teacher’s or teachers? On another note, why were these posted in the airport? Mysteries that may never be solved….

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Fortunately, the plane not only showed up, but showed up on time!

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Nov 122014
 

My driver from Mary’s Motel showed up, and the car had ice cold air conditioning, which was nice giving the blazing mid-day sun in Kiribati. There is basically one road on Tarawa Atoll, and it runs the length of the atoll.  It’s dozens of miles long, but the Atoll is maybe 500 meters wide at its widest point:

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Kiribati is also, according to some sources I read online before the trip, the least visited country in the world. I wasn’t expecting anything to see/do, more just to walk around and take in how life goes on here.

My hotel was in Bairiki which is the country’s administrative centre, and you can see it’s a bit of a drive from the airport. It took almost an hour, and during the drive I got a lot of insight into the country from my driver. One cool fact is that the road is under construction (it was badly potholed, etc) and that should significantly improve travel options on the atoll. Was also cool to see several large signs from my employer as one of the key financiers of the new road. Hopefully it helps things!

At Mary’s, I played the usual (by now) South Pacific game of musical rooms until I found one that had reasonably functional air conditioning. Finally settled on this room:

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Pretty swanky, no? ;) It was clean, cool, and reasonably comfortable, and came with a few bonus creepy crawlies here and there, and a few lizards that I occasionally saw crawling on the walls. The towel origami made up for it though:

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View from the room into the parking lot:

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The “beach” just outside the motel:

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Here you can see the one road, and just how narrow the atoll is in many places:

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Nicer beach on the other side:

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The hotel driver offered to take me on a bit of a drive down around the Atoll, and we drove around for about 90 minutes before heading back. Unfortunately my phone was dead at this point, so didn’t manage to get any pictures. It was interesting to see how even in the most populous part of Kiribati life was still so rural and quiet. Many of the locals had pigs tied up in their yard, and the pigs were eating/drinking out of what appeared to be old coconut shells. There just wasn’t much going on, but that appears to be the pace of life in Kiribati.

After resting, I decided to go for a bit of a walk. I walked about an hour down the atoll towards the airport just seeing sites until I got way too hot. The “aministrative centre” of the entire country. Not a very busy place:

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Air Kiribati advertisement. They’re currently out of business (I believe) and most of these routes are now being operated by Fiji Airways (God help them – oops – foreshadowing) or Our Airline aka Nauru Airlines:

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Sunset just outside Mary’s. Love the vivid orange and red colours:

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Nov 102014
 

Hotel van, once again with the side door completely open (I found out the night before this was for “air conditioning reasons” and not because it was actually broken) dropped me at the airport, and there was nobody in sight. I prayed the flight was still operating. Got to the check-in counter, and there was nobody in site. This wasn’t a good sign:

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No need to worry, however, the flight was on-time, and was en route from Brisbane already. I was, however, the first person to check in 90 minutes before the flight time. The agent confirmed that only six passengers were getting on in Nauru. Um, how is this profitable?

After getting my boarding pass and checking my bags (exit row again, score!) it was upstairs to immigration. Note how dead the airport looks:

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Got to immigration, and there was only one small problem, as you can see in this picture:

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That’s right, the immigration person hadn’t showed up to work yet! Less than 90 minutes before flight time. Security was there, but they wouldn’t; let me through until I cleared immigration. They suggested I have a seat at the immigration officer’s desk while I wait. Hahah!

Immigration showed up about 1:15 before the flight, and clearing immigration and security took all of about two minutes. Then, it was to the incredibly crowded holding room:

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