After all, this wedding was part of the reason that we had timed our leave for this part of the year at all. We had been staying at the house where the couple would live for most of the week leading up to the wedding, but after the wedding we had set off for the Basingstoke Country Hotel. Their house was needed for other purposes that night. The Basingstoke Country Hotel is quite expensive, but is very well appointed. My only regret is that we were too tired to take advantage of any of its facilities. We spent the night there before going back to the house to collect all our bags, and then continued to Gatwick.
After checking in, we were met by our best man of some years standing, who relieved us of items we would not need in the tropics, including a pushchair, but chiefly our warm coats.
We were soon on board the flight, having not troubled ourselves with the lounge, based on previous experience at Gatwick. Our seats were upstairs on an airliner from Air New Zealand's new 747-400 fleet, and were certainly very comfortable, though I must say that it is harder to see out of the upstairs windows, and one loses something of the feeling of size that a 747 gives.
Flying to Los Angeles from London is tedious, as I mentioned before, as is any long flight. A video feature, two in-flight movies, two meals and still time to spare. I often try to find a music channel which appeals to my taste. Whoever I fly with, you always seem to be able to find He ain't heavy - he's my brother somewhere out there.
Eventually, arrival at Los Angeles, but not immigration. Instead, that most dreaded of inventions - the transit lounge. This one was much better than that in Lusaka, but spartan by American standards. At the far end, a bar serving snacks and drinks, taking nothing but United States currency. In the middle, a foreign exchange desk offering the worst dollar rates anybody had ever seen. I would expect a transit lounge to take anything, or at least to take credit cards. You can expect all you like, but you can't argue with fact.
For what were described as security reasons, transit passengers did not have access to the useful and comfortable Club Pacific lounge, which was a little disappointing.
Only a handful of people were transferring to the Papeete flight, leaving a lounge full of people continuing their journey elsewhere. We were taken to the gate by an ebullient American, who wandered through details about the flight to Tahiti, whether anybody had been there before, the length of the flight, did we know which artist was closely associated with the place and so forth. He was friendly enough but after a long flight I don't think anybody really welcomed the rap.
On board, the seats were in the same location, but it was a different 747-400. The cabin staff still look at us and ask my wife if she has flown with children before, and does she know how to use the children's safety belts? By this time we must have flown almost the equivalent of round the world with Air New Zealand alone!
For the record, the flight to Papeete lasts a further eight hours, and so we were very tired on arrival there. Thankfully, the ground staff were quite relaxed. Outside the airport, a group was welcoming us with traditional Polynesian dance. We ignored it, and found a taxi for the hotel. Next morning, we discovered that the layout of the Hyatt Kingsgate Tahiti in Papeete is very unusual, being as it were upside down, with the lobby at the top and the floors numbered downwards. It was a very good place, though expensive, like the rest of Tahiti. However, not so expensive as everybody would have you believe.
Next day, we were still tired, but found the time for a short trip up a mountain in a four-wheel drive. It was clear at the bottom, but cloudy by the time we reached the top. It had cleared again by the time we got down.
On this journey, we found we were struggling because our French was rather poor and our guide's English was poor too. A few minutes after we started, I noticed he had a brochure for one of the resorts in Vanuatu in the middle of the bus, and asked him how it came to be there. He explained that he had lived in Vanuatu for many years, and that one member of his family still ran one of the restaurants in Port Vila. We were able to converse for the rest of the journey quite successfully in Bislama, Vanuatu's national language, a pidgin English.
Bislama is a great cause of controversy in Vanuatu. Some argue that it is nothing more than a crippled form of English, and that the local people should be taught "proper" English instead. Undoubtedly, Bislama is a living language with a grammar and style of its own. Claims are made that if you can read and understand English, then you can read and understand Bislama. Such claims are false. Others accept it as a valid language and useful for enabling ni-Vanuatu to converse to others with whom they have no common island language. These people will sometimes argue that the language is useless outside Vanuatu. The fact is, Bislama, Pijin of the Solomon Islands and Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea are so closely related that speakers of one will generally understand speakers of the others. This extends the use of the language more widely. Furthermore, how many of the minority European languages are spoken outside their own borders? Do we hear pleas for the abolition of Dutch, Danish, Swedish and the like? In any case, here we were in French Polynesia, speaking Bislama to good effect.
The snack served between Papeete and Rarotonga sounded wonderful on the menu, but when it came to it, wasn't too good after all. It is only a short flight. There were just ten passengers in the business cabin, and we all disembarked at Rarotonga, to look around the Cook Islands transit area. This is open to the elements, but rather charming. What it is like in bad weather might well be another story. In this dry and open place, there were shops to investigate and places to sit.
An hour, and we were back on board, back in the sky on our way to Nadi, passing the dateline again. The story of Fiji continues much as it did the previous year, except that instead of changing pounds to get Fijian dollars, we changed Pacific francs which we had left over. This time we went on a day trip which took us to the Pacific Harbour complex.
After some consideration, we were issued with blank boarding passes, and told to sort it out at the gate. The solution that the man at the gate had was to write on some spare economy seat numbers. This didn't seem a good solution to me, so I raised it with the cabin staff, and we were shortly moved to row 1 at the front of the Business Class cabin.
Solair offers a service similar to that I understand many carriers give in First Class: proper crockery and service from a tray with real food on it. In practical terms, this isn't so lavish as it sounds, since people tend only to ask for the amount of food they want to eat.
Looking out over the blue Pacific, it seemed much different from the flight a year earlier. Not so much a feeling of apprehension as a feeling of the homecoming.
On entering the new terminal at Bauerfield, which had opened during our absence, there was a sense that this was indeed an airport terminal. Unfortunately, it did not have the same feel as the old terminal.
Melanesian traditions of timekeeping had not changed, however. Only one person had arrived to greet us, as everyone else had been told the flight would arrive at 10:40. As it turned out, it was fifteen minutes early on its actual scheduled arrival time of 9:40. Stories abound of families which failed to be reunited, or of visitors who were completely lost. I find both possibilities unlikely, but not impossible.
Now back in Port Vila, but our round the world trip might not yet have been quite complete. As a result of international restrictions, the round the world ticket we bought from Air New Zealand and Thai International was not allowed to start in Nadi. Therefore we bought a ticket starting in Auckland. We still had OPEN tickets good for travel from Nadi to Auckland in Business Class with Air New Zealand and it seemed a shame not to use them. In fact, we never did.