Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Aground in the Abode of Love 8

                    “You can throw your luggage down
                     Lose your cool and stomp around
                     But there's nothin', nothin' you can do
                     Wipe away your girlfriend's tears
                     Go to the bar and have some beers
                     There ain't no way that bird's gettin' through”
                                          Jimmy Buffett, No Plane on Sunday

They sent a dump truck. We certainly hadn’t expected that. Robyn and I were back out at Fua’amotu International airport, on a day when the King had parked his bicycle. We were scheduled to leave Tongatapu, back to Fiji, on to Canada, into the blue again after the money’s gone. It was time for us to ‘get on with it,’ get on with the rest of our lives. But time, as it turned out, was holding us, and holding us back, after all.
No one saw it coming. From where we were, at the ticket counter, more importantly, nothing was leaving. Air Pacific, Fiji’s national airline, had just experienced a wildcat pilot’s strike, and we were aground in the Abode of Love.
The fat Flying Dutchman ahead of us in the queue hadn’t started there. He had pushed his way there, because of his obviously greater importance, relative to ours. He was an important businessman, he said, waving his obviously important arms around the solid head cube of muscle, on the other side of the desk. He needed to get out of Tonga, and he needed to get out today, and what was the solid head cube of muscle going to do about it. The solid head cube of muscle smiled. The fat Flying Dutchman wasn’t flying today. In fact, it wasn’t clear when any of us would fly. The strike could last several weeks. And the only place any of us were going, was the International Dateline. Not the dateline itself, the International Dateline Hotel. The fat Flying Dutchman was angry that he had just come from there. Robyn and I were delighted, that our trip had just been bumped into business class. It still might all be worth the price of the flight cancellation.
And that’s where the dump truck came onto the scene. The fat Flying Dutchman had already secured his taxi back to the Dateline, and he wasn’t in the mood to share his ride. Robyn and I may have been promoted to the best hotel in the country to wait out the flight delay, but no one had told Air Pacific that they owed us a deluxe way to get there. We piled our packs in the back of the dump truck, and roared the 35 kilometers back into and through the vowel-saturated streets of Nuku’alofa, to beat the fat Flying Dutchman, by a hair. It seems that his taxi driver was on a meter, and in no particular hurry, given the fact that there were no passengers at the airport from any incoming flight, whereas out dump truck driver had other places to go, and people to meet. Call it differential motivation. Of course this didn’t matter to the fat Flying Dutchman. He pushed his way in front of us again, at the Dateline Hotel reception, because of his obviously greater importance, relative to ours. He was an important businessman, he said, waving his obviously important arms around the solid head cube of muscle, on the other side of the desk. The solid head cube of muscle gave him back his room, but it wouldn’t be cleaned for several hours, as they hadn’t expected his return. From the look on the face of the solid head cube of muscle, no one was likely to be in a hurry to accommodate him, likely because of their recent experience with him, whereas Robyn and I were brand new appreciative faces, and our room was ready for us, because Air Pacific was paying.
“Up deah.” The solid head cube of muscle pointed. “Turd floah, tree-too-tree.” And we carried our own bags up the stairs.
What Air Pacific was paying for was not only the room, but the meals as well. Which was about to sound the death knell for Air Pacific. For on the menu, among more plebian business fare, was an item that, since my marriage to a beautiful New Zealander, I had come to appreciate as one of the four basic Kiwi food groups. Crayfish. Big, tender, succulent, delicious lemon and butter and sauvignon blanc-compatible crayfish. At the International Dateline Hotel, although crayfish was only listed on the lunch and dinner menus, our first discovery was that, as long as Air Pacific was paying, they would serve it for breakfast as well. Robyn and I ate big crayfish for breakfast at a table by the pool, next to the fat Flying Dutchman, whose breakfast was toast.
If the time in Greenwich was mean time, the time at the Dateline, on the opposite side of the world was not only kind, it was fabulous. Every day, Robyn and I would wake up and have crayfish for breakfast. We would swim in the pool, and lounge around the pool, until it was time for lunch. We had the crayfish. In the afternoon, we would swim in the pool, or lounge around the pool, until it was time for dinner. Then we would have the crayfish. And so it went for us, aground in the Abode of Love. Letting the days go by, letting the days go by, letting the days go by, once in a lifetime.
Every morning we would check in with the front desk staff, to see how the pilot strike was doing. Every day we would find out the pilot strike was going well. And we would retreat back to the seemingly unending pleasures of swimming and sunbathing and crayfish.
One morning we went to the Friendly Islands Marketing Cooperative, to look at their handicrafts. In a country that produced nothing but banana-shaped postage stamps, Protected Persons Passports, and expatriate Tongans, handicrafts were the biggest local business going. The bone and wood carving, weaving, and tapa cloth were finely done, but the baskets were truly amazing, and Robyn and I bought two, to take home. Which was exactly the problem because, after a week of indulgence at the International Dateline Hotel, we were still castaways, and not only becoming shipwrecks, but at risk of becoming truly amazing basket cases. I couldn’t swim another length, check out another beach towel, or look at another crayfish. In Polynesian, Tonga meant ‘south,’ where nothing and everything appeared to be headed. The only fun left was watching the fat Flying Dutchman decompensate slightly ahead of us.
And then, just when we thought we were marooned forever, the word came one evening that Air Pacific was sending a special charter flight next morning, to rescue us from paradise. At dinner we celebrated with crayfish. Next morning we bid farewell to the reception staff, and climbed into the back of our dump truck, for the return journey to the airport. Robyn had suggested that I dress up, ‘in case of an upgrade.’ I told her we didn’t stand a chance, but I was wrong. Beyond the ticket counter, beyond the duty free, was a ramp to business class, and a new beginning.
Things didn’t go too well for the Dateline, or the Abode of Love, after we left. Thirteen years after our salvation, the International Dateline Hotel was sold to the People’s Republic of China. Five new clocks appeared behind the front desk, the biggest one in the center showing Beijing time. The Chinese manager was unavailable, and spoke no English. The swimming pool was closed because of an outbreak of disease. It was apparently bought to introduce the Tongans to the concept of Chinese fishing rights, and anger.
In 2006 riots broke out in downtown Nuku’alofa, killing six people and destroying eighty per cent of the central business district.
Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga, a kingdom which had never been invaded, occupied, colonized, immigrated to, or invested in, which had no desire to look beyond its own archipelago of 176 islands scattered over 700,000 square kilometers of remote Southern Sea, was about to have its vowels replaced by glottal stops and palatal glides and alveolar sibilants and tones and retroflex consonants, and its pa’anga currency replaced by renminbi.
Back in the palangi sky-bursting Business Class, Robyn and I were seated across from the fat Flying Dutchman.
“How did you get up here?” He asked.
Almost unconsciously, from my daypack, I pulled out my translucent castaway from the deep, the most spectacular gigantic spotted cowrie.
“Where do you get that?” He asked.
“King.” I said.
We had the crayfish.

                            “No plane on Sunday
                             Maybe be one come Monday
                             Just a hopeless situation
                             Make the best of it's all you can do
                             'til they get through”
                                     Jimmy Buffett, No Plane on Sunday

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