Monday, September 22, 2008

Traveling Trials

Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance: these are the three most important words when traveling in the Solomon Islands. Otherwise I become frustrated, enraged and demoralized. Every leg of my journey on domestic flights has been delayed sometimes by a few hours, but twice now by days at a time.

We arrive at the airport, check-in, and wait. Sometimes the plane comes, sometimes it doesn’t. If it comes, it may re-fuel and take passengers, or the crew may decide to shut down and the flight is cancelled.

Until when? This is the information most of us want.

“Mi no save,” is the airline attendant’s response (“I don’t know”). Call tomorrow. Sometimes the airlines personnel is too shy to come tell the passengers the bad news, so it is only after hours of waiting that a passenger sidles into the restricted area and learns the truth. Phone calls and personal visits to the airlines produce varying results. The airlines will often put out a time for the new departure, then immediately amend it. Sometimes the new time is earlier, other times it is later. What is often not explained is that they occasionally take passengers in order of precedence. If your flight was cancelled Saturday you get to fly on Monday. The Monday people must wait until Tuesday, or maybe Saturday because Tuesday they might not have a flight. But it also may be that they decide to honor today’s reservations and squeeze in the frustrated passengers from the earlier cancelled flights. Returning from Temotu, so many people were demanding to be allowed to fly the airlines decided yes, they could go, but none of their luggage. That would come another day. Maybe this week, maybe next week, depending on how much luggage the people on the next flight carried.

So it always pays to have plan B. Carry a book to read, something to eat. Leave on good terms because you might be returning home with your hosts again. Pack the bare minimum, preferably only take a small back pack or pouch so you can keep your stuff with you. Above all, don’t schedule things too tightly. Everybody needs a week or so of latitude. If you are making an international connection, start trying to get to Honiara a week early. Make open-ended room reservations.

Travel by ship is even more fraught. I’ve waited three days for a ship which was to return “tomorrow.” Brothers have waited two or three months in Honiara for ships going to the provinces. And if you are hoping to board a ship to town from a province, it may come or it may not come.

I have become a believer in competition. If there were another airline serving the same routes, I bet the service would be better. But one government airline, one government phone company leads to a Graham Greene kind of tropical bureaucratic tangle. I used to think his novels were so romantic. They still are, but it is different being the character in one versus reading about the poor hapless people caught in these situations.

I’ve complained. I’ve gotten angry. Nothing works: there are some things in life one has no control over. And every delay has held its own reward: conversations with fellow passengers, especially children. Maybe it is a chance to go for one more swim in the lagoon. Or I am rewarded with a heart-to-heart chat with a brother when every sort of conventional conversation has run dry, and we know everything there is too know about family, schooling, jobs, etc. We can finally talk about our hopes and fears. Sometimes I just “go native” and sit, watching all that is going on around. I think “wait” is an active verb for the Solomon Islanders. Much of life is spent waiting, and how you wait is very important. One doesn’t want to be so frenzied that the day is spoiled, or you hurt the people near you. Nobody in the waiting area has any more control over the situation.

And eventually you will get there. “Every some-ting come up for good” as they say here.

1 comment:

PaulMichael06 said...

"every delay has held its own reward"

Brother Clark:

I enjoyed your reflection on traveling in the Solomon Islands. I laughed and remembered small traveling fiascoes of my own. ...mostly within the U.S. and all within the Americas.

With more time, I hope to read more of your travel logs, both backward in time and any new entries you will make.

Pace e bene,
Paul Gregory
San Francisco, California