Air New Zealand VIP Lounge, Honolulu International Airport, Hawai`i
I've never been in an airline VIP lounge before. It's nothing remarkable for busy jetsetters, I guess, but compared to the noise, crowds, and uncomfortable steel chairs that I'm used to experiencing at ol' Gate 13, it's still a dramatic improvement in comfort.
Wines, juices and sodas. Breads, fruits, chips and crackers. Every international newspaper and magazine under the sun, CNNi on the television in the corner, and most importantly, soft lighting and really big, poofy sofas and chairs.
Steve and Lacene are already passed out.
I, meanwhile, am on my third bag of honey roasted peanuts, and have read every technology article in the last three editions of the Wall Street Journal.
I can't believe it's almost 3 a.m. I definitely can't believe I arrived at the office at 10 p.m. to start packing up.
Jen was really sad to see me go, even if it is for just a week, but Katie seemed almost happy to wave bye-bye to me as I dragged my suitcase out the door. They're both definitely asleep now, nestled snugly in a suddenly uncrowded bed. I'm really going to miss that little toe up the nose in the middle of the night, or waking up in the morning to find Jen sleeping sitting up in bed...
Ah. Boarding in 15 minutes.
Welp, that was a fun little adventure in modern air travel.
Sunday, 1:11 p.m. HST
Fua'amotu International Airport, Tonga
Having crossed that pesky international dateline, it's already Monday morning, but for now it's easier me to pretend I'm still on Hawaii time. It's just too hard for me to wrap my brain around how an arbitrary line in the Pacific Ocean can cause 24 hours to suddenly disappear. Especially after what we just went through.
It was, by all accounts, a rough landing.
Now I'm a big, big chicken when it comes to flying, and every odd groan of an airplane's engines will invariably have me imagining the worst. Just a touch of turbulence, and I'll be digging my fingernails into my seat, plotting the quickest route out of the twisted heap of wreckage the airliner is about to become.
So when I staggered off the plane at the ambitiously named Fua'amotu International Airport, sprinting through the pouring rain to the single building that served as the international and domestic terminals, the food court, and the duty free shop, I figured my racing heartbeat and white knuckles were simply signs that I'm just a country bumpkin who hasn't yet learned the everyday quirks of air travel.
But when I got inside, shook myself off, and sat next to Steve, he said, "Now that's just a little more excitement than I need on an airplane."
And if Steve the epitome of a world traveler, probably ranked in the top 50 worldwide in miles flown calls something "exciting," I know I had good reason to be terrified.
Basically, we were coming into Tonga in the middle of a small storm. The last half hour of the flight in, the pilot bumped us along in the thick, low, gray clouds, occasionally dropping down just long enough to get a visual bearing on where he was before roaring back up into the blank nothingness. The islands that would momentarily appear below seemed so small, I was beginning to wonder if the pilot didn't know which one had the runway.
Slowly the distracted chatter in the passenger cabin died down. More and more heads were turned toward the windows. The flaps were grinding and bending into dozens of different positions, the engines alternately revving loudly and falling idle, and the plane shook and swayed. Frankly it felt like it was fishtailing. People started whispering. Kids were whimpering.
Finally and suddenly he dropped down for the final approach. Below, broad, flat, muddy fields appeared, dotted with tall palms, all of them bending in the wind. The flaps were curled all the way down, the landing gear churned into position...
And suddenly we were at full throttle.
The noise from the jet engines was deafening, as we abruptly launched upward. The whole plane shook and strained under the abrupt change in direction. Everyone held their breath, except for the children, who were now screaming. I was pressed back into my chair as we took off like a rocket.
Before we knew it, we were bobbing along back in the clouds.
"Sorry about that aborted landing folks," came the voice from the cockpit. "Conditions are pretty marginal right now, heavy rains and a crosswind of about 40 knots across the runway.
"We're going to give it another try, so I beg your patience as we come around again. Otherwise, we'll probably head north again and put down in Samoa."
And as soon as he said "another try," I knew that he was intent on landing, despite whatever combination of conditions forced him to bail out at the last minute the first time.
If the decision were put to a vote by all aboard, it was evident in the pale faces around me that diverting to Samoa would be the preferred option. But the pilot, a scrappy sounding fellow with that confidence-filled Australian accent, was sure he could do it.
So again we were lost in the clouds, making four slow turns for attempt number two. Half an hour later, the drama began to repeat itself.
Again the sounds of the straining engines and wing flaps, the bumps and sways and stomach churning drops, and the muddy plains below rushing up to greet us. It didn't feel like the weather had gotten much better in the fifteen minutes it took to come around.
But that critical final moment where the pilot could have changed his mind passed with a deafening silence, and everyone held their breath as the wet path of the runway came into view.
We hit the ground so hard, I was sure the tires would blow. Almost immediately the plane seemed to list to the right, and I could almost imagine the drama in the cockpit as the pilot strained to keep the plane going straight. Finally, after almost an eternity, the sound of the engines kicking into reverse, the solid shove of the brakes being applied.
The passengers erupted in cheers and applause.
I immediately opened a bottle of water and sucked the entire thing down in a single breath. I, frankly, wasn't sure whether the pilot deserved a hand or a boot to the head.
Don't get me wrong. The first 90 percent of the trip here was pleasant.
I slept through most of it, thanks in part to our 3 a.m. departure. More interestingly, though, was the fact that the person who sat down in the seat next to me recognized me almost immediately.
"Did you go to Washington?" she asked.
And I thought, Washington D.C.? Washington State University?
"Is your name Ryan?"
And a sudden, completely unexpected flash of recognition. Amazed, I asked, "You mean Washington Intermediate School?"
"Yeah, I remember you!"
I had to admit immediately that I didn't remember her.
And for the next hour or so, I got to know Sofolonia Kaulukukui all over again.
Back then and this was twelve years ago she was known as Sofo, but now she goes by Nia. She was a classmate of mine in Mrs. Tamanaha's English class.
She had amazing recall, remembering little details about the school and our fellow students that I'd completely forgotten. Mr. Oshiro, math instructor. Sung-Hwan Lee, once a good friend. Catherine Pimentel, destined for greatness.
And she absolutely remembered Nate. I was happy to inform her that we were still good friends, and that both of us are now only one-tenth as weird as we were back then.
"Nate was unusual," she said, in all seriousness, "but I just knew he was going to go places."
"He's in Portland," I said.
"Ah," she said.
There was a lot of catching up to do, but since we were both rather exhausted, we settled for the Cliff Notes version. I got to tell her about my family (including the requisite wallet photo display), my job, and basically what I'd been up to in the last decade.
She did the same, bringing us right back to the present, where she is a work-from-home craftsmaker doing brisk business in specialized handmade Hawaiian tapa-print goods. She explained how the tapa was imported from Tonga, and how her family would print Hawaiian versus the more common Tongan patterns on them. She explained how it's a tiny but lucrative market, and that she was pretty much the only manufacturer in Honolulu.
Ever see those fancy bound photo albums with traditional Hawaiian tapa covers? Chances are, she and her family made them.
I told her that I admire people who make a living doing something they truly enjoy, and I do. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm that lucky, or if I've just deluded myself into thinking so," I said with a shrug.
Before we both reclined our barely-reclinable chairs and passed out, and long before the landing from hell, we traded business cards. I just might be in the market for tapa products, and she was looking to take her first steps toward putting her business Paradise Marketing Associates on the web.
Monday, 9:51 p.m. NZT
Heritage Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand
I'm exhausted. This surprisingly comfy hotel bed is singing a very compelling siren's song. So I'll keep this short.
Our landing in New Zealand was considerably less colorful than the one in Tonga. As we descended from the thin, light clouds, the sky above was bright blue and the water below was a mesmerising swirl of turquoise and emerald green. There were dozens of tiny, pretty islands and shoals, and an obscene excess of pristine white-sand beaches.
I dare say it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen from the air. And that's tough for me to say, being a hardcore lover of Hawaii nei.
Things remained pleasant even on the ground. The airport was about as nice as a mid-sized airport could be, the people were extraordinarily friendly (Quipped David, "There's more 'Aloha Spirit' here than back home!"), and the air was cool and decidedly crisp. And don't forget that cool Down Under accent, which now surrounded us completely.
As we loaded everything up into a pair of trailer-towing vans and began the trek across the main island to Auckland, I couldn't help but imagining living here. Tony hit it right on the head when he said, "It's like Hawai`i, but in some alternate universe."
It really did remind us a little of home. Especially the climate and the mountains and hills. You even had the influcence of an indigenous culture in this case the Maori reflected in every aspect of New Zealand life, from the language ("Kia ora!") to the names of streets, towns and landmarks.
I must say, though, that the Maori seem to be held in considerably higher regard than Native Hawaiians at home. It isn't so much that the Maori are more assimilated as it is that the "newcomers" clearly had a more respectful appreciation for the region's original inhabitants.
But like in any Star Trek alternative universe, there were the little things that reminded us that we weren't in Honolulu anymore. There's the accent, for one, as well as the right-hand drive cars, the UK-modeled road signage in kilometers, and the intriguing model names they have for cars.
As we zipped along the expressway, we spotted Honda Quints and Ascots. There was the Nissan Sunny, Bluebird, and Fairlady. The Mitsubishi Eterna and Magna, and the Mazda Capella. The Australian made Holden, the Senator, the Laurel, and the Nubira. (Fiats were also in abundance, as were those cool Vespa mopeds.)
I expected to see a Ford Prefect any minute.
Our driver was a very animated fellow, aggressively pointing out all the sights (and cute girls), giving us a brief history of New Zealand, Kiwis, the Maori, and the rivalry with Australia.
"You've got that cool American accent," he kept saying, and Tony and I kept replying, "What accent?"
Eventually we got to our home away from home, The Heritage, once a famous department store and now one of the top hotels in the country. The staff was quick and generous with their time, and we quickly got most of our office set up on the conference level before nightfall.
When the sun did go down, most of my coworkers went to bed, but David, Charlie and I decided to wander the streets a bit.
We only remembered a little of what our van driver said about the city's layout: Queen Street was the main drag, Albert Street runs parallel, our hotel is on Hobson Street, and the up-and-coming America's Cup Village is all the way down the hill.
So we just went where our feet took us, with the city's main landmark the Sky City Tower reminding us generally where we came from. And even though I've never been to London, I couldn't help but remark how much Auckland reminded me of it.
Or at least, reminded me of what Hollywood says London looks like.
Narrow, hilly, rough streets. Lots of red brick buildings, dramatic church facades, marble and glass mixed with rich oak and iron. A pub on every corner, small shops and restaurants, people walking around in jeans and leather jackets.
We eventually ate a late dinner at a place called Tony's Steak and Seafood, a quaint little hole-in-the-wall tucked away on a side street that was highly recommended by our driver. The man said that New Zealanders love their meat, and he wasn't kidding. Just the words on the menu practically dripped with au jus. And tonight I had about the richest, most tender hunk of cow I've ever eaten.
By the menus I've seen at eateries all over Auckland, I know this city is probably not a favorite destination among traveling vegetarians. I also know that I will probably gain ten pounds on this trip.