The Last Plane Home
“Tom, where’s the plane?”
Island time is a term which captures
the striking contrast of life on a
tropical island versus the hustle
of a place like Manhattan.
Unlike the clock ridden streets of
New York City, life on Tanna runs
on the sun, even at the airport.
But even when everything seems
to be going wrong, the island Gods
have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Last Minute Security
On the day of my scheduled departure, a colleague was scheduled to arrive on the morning flight. There are two flights which arrive daily on Tanna. The morning flight arrives around 11:00 am and the afternoon flight usually touches down around 2:30 pm. I say usually because the window of arrival slides over an hour in either direction. For most passengers Tanna is their last stop. There are no connecting international flights continuing on, so time is less important.
After David Gibbs, the alternative energy engineer arrived, he joined Graham and I for a late lunch in Margaret’s kitchen. Tom and Margaret Kapula run Hidden Treasures Bungalow where I stayed on Tanna. We had the usual fare: stewed beef, a cup of rice, maniaoc, taro, and a green vegetable that looked like a tiny melon but tasted like a water chestnut. All of the food comes from the garden behind the kitchen. Everything is home grown, chemical free, and absolutely delicious.
Plowing through our colorful plates of food, the three of us caught up on the last few weeks. David was just arriving from New York, via Sydney and Port Vila. I was headed back to New York in reverse order. The thirty hours of flying is exhausting. When you converse with someone shortly after arriving, your brain does not feel right. Words with more than three syllables disappear from your mind as you try to string together coherent sentences. David was doing quite well, much better than I had done weeks earlier.
We were expecting a farewell visit from Isso, who lives north in Middle Bush. Isso is the son of Chief Jack Kapum of the Naihnè, who live in Middle Bush. The night before, we bumped into Chief Jack returning from the Nakamal (a small hut where the men drink coconut shells of Kava every evening). He carried a log with burning embers on one side to light his way. We stopped the truck for a second. Chief Jack wanted to see me before we left. His son Isso said he would pick me up around 12 or 1 to say our goodbyes.
As we were finishing lunch and 2:00 pm came and went, we figured something had come up with Isso. He is a busy man and is the only person who works on a “Western Style” schedule. By that I mean, he is tortured by the clock. Graham and I could not decide if this was necessary or a self imposed masochism. Either way, Sunday was his only day off. I completely understood him taking it easy. When I return to Tanna, Isso will give me an update of what happened that Sunday as if it was yesterday. Time is elastic on an island. The two phrases which refer to the past are “the other day” and “last time.”
The Replacement Car
The only issue with Isso staying up in Middle Bush was that I had no ride to the airport. Tom’s brother, Lava, was in the middle of repairing his shocks. There were no tires on the car at present. This is a less than ideal situation, but typical of road bumps on Tanna. While you might imagine the car was off being filled with gas or having its spark plug changed, it was not expected that the entire underbelly of the pick up was in pieces.
But “No problem,” Tom said he arranged for another car.
The Tannese version of the Scoobie Doo’s Mystery Mobile arrived to hustle me to the airport at 3:10 pm for a 4:00 pm flight. My brain was saying, “Be there at least an hour before hand, just in case.” Two hours early to the Tanna airport is a bit much. By local standards and everyone’s assurances we could show up five minutes before the plane was scheduled to depart and I could just “walk on, no problem.” No problem is not a phrase reserved only for Jamacian Rastas, it is widely used throughout India, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and apparently also on Tanna. It is local code for “Relax western dude, we may or may not take care of this, but in the mean time lets not stress.” On Tanna, I went along with the “No Problem Mantra” and for the most part it was successful. Things have a strange way of working out on an island.
The bags were loaded into the Mystery Mobile and we raced off to the airport. The first indicator that something was wrong was the rare panicked look on Tom’s face. He assured me that the exhaust on the car was broken. In my non-automotive mind, this was easy enough to deduce from the piles of smoke filling the interior. If I did not make the flight at least I would be in a fuel-induced euphoric state.
We bounced down the long dusty road from the capital of Lenekal to the airport. Along the way, we added a fresh coat of dust to the scenes which marked our progress. There was the cow on the left I saw everyday, the thatched petrol hut where gas is dispensed by hand, the numerous hand dug speed pumps and the metal bridge with no guard rails over the dry river bed. At the fork in the road, we went left to the airport.
When we pulled up to the U-shaped driveway Tom asked me, “Where is the plane?” Judging from the vacant air field and obviously missing jet I concluded, the plane was not there. I had missed my flight back to Port Vila. Now what? Panic…why? Because my three morning flights, started in Port Vila at 7:00 am and the next flight from Tanna to Vila would not be until 11:00 am the next morning. This was an enormous kink in the return trip.
Tom concluded in charming island fashion, “The plane must have left.” My first instinct was to scream, “What would give you that idea?! Maybe the fact that the jet, which is bigger than the F-ing airport is nowhere to be seen? Is that what gave it away?” But in times of travel trouble the worst thing to do is have a screaming meltdown. They are best saved for New York City cabbies who enjoy the verbal sparing. This was not actually Tom’s fault. It was a comedy of small instances that converged on one departure flight. The unfortunate thing was it was my return flight. I was partial to blame for not being more insistent on leaving. Some items are worth pressing on an island, departure times are one of them.
A Last Ditch Effort
Off to the right of the airport were two prop planes. I could not tell if they were collecting dust or actually operational. Rural airports tend to have a plane graveyard of deceased vehicle.
It would be last ditch effort, but I asked Tom, “Can I fly in one of those?” He said, “Maybe…”
Security had packed up for the night. All seven of the airport staff were waiting outside for their rides home. We walked right out on to the tarmac and there was a leg sticking out of one plane. This was the “Leg of Hope.” Maybe this white man-leg might be able to get me to Port Vila tonight, connect me to the remaining flights, and essentially save me from hours of customer service calls and re-grouping.
The captain of the plane said he chartered four fellas from Port Vila to Tanna for the day. There was one seat left in the plane. First he needed to weigh my luggage. Looking very relieved Tom gave me a hand with the bags and we walked over to the scale.
Bag #1, ok, bag #2, ok, and bag #3, ok. Now he said for me to step on the scale. I could not help but think of the people who throw fits in Western airports about being searched. Weighing a passenger at JFK would probably set off a fire storm of law suits, but at this point, he could have told me to strip down naked and sing “Mary had a little Lamb,” and I would have done it with a smile.
The weights were carefully tallied (in pen on the captain’s forearm) and he confirmed “Yup, we can do it. We will leave once these other guys get back, oh and the flight costs 10,000 vatu (about $100 US dollars).” We were in business. This gave Tom and I a few minutes to sit back and enjoy the stress of the last hour. In the end it all worked out. I said my good byes to Tom. He offered to work on my refund through the local office, because technically the flight had left 30 minutes early. It was very sweet of him and represented the character of Tom Kapula. I really enjoyed my time with Tom and his wife Margaret at their place Hidden Treasures and look forward to returning later next year. Finally the missing travellers appeared and we were packed like sardines into this tiny plane.
The pilot said, “As long as the tail doesn’t hit the ground when we unblock we will be ok.” The blocks were removed and “CLUNK.” By my standards, I would say we hit the ground and probably broke something in the process. But he is the captain and he said everything was good. As the sun was starting to set over Tanna we were in the air. Looking down through the spider cracked window of the airplane, I was excited to have completed the trip, met some amazing people, drank enough Kava to never want to drink it again, and visited a country that I had never even heard of until a few months ago. Ahead in Port Vila, would be my first hot shower in weeks, the bustle of actual traffic, and after 30 more hours of flying, my life back in New York City.