Saturday, March 29, 2014

Unexpected Detour from 35,000 Feet to Paradise

Several hours after departing Sydney, flight AC34 began to bank and the captain's voice came on the tinny intercom, usually not a good sign so deep into a transoceanic flight. Passengers and crew had discovered an acrid, burning smell coming from one of the business class washrooms. Now that they mentioned it, I noticed the sharp, electrical odor. Our next stop was clearly not going to be Vancouver. The captain continued to say the closest airport that could handle a Boeing 777-233(LR) was Fiji, about an hour back along our route. As a frequent business traveller, I'm not typically fond of deviations from plan, but this had the element of novelty.

The detour to Fiji seemed interminable. I wasn't overly concerned in terms of safety, but when your ride is smoldering at 35,000 feet you don't have the consolation of terra firma. However, we landed at Nadi International Airport without further incident at 5:49 pm local time on June 16th, 2013.

A couple screen captures of AC34 landing in Nadi from Youtube. A short video can be found here, posted by BonnieBula. Don't expect any fireworks.

Once we were on the ground, the first option was for ground engineers to inspect electrical systems in the forward cabin and washroom. Passengers and crew stayed inside the plane in case a quick fix allowed us to get airborne. Local customs and immigration agents were probably not ready for a couple hundred unexpected and late-arriving international visitors as well.

While other technicians worked in the lavatory itself, a panel in front of the forward-most business class pod was removed on my (starboard) side of the aircraft, so a technician could access components adjacent to the washroom. Flight attendants had little to do but converse pleasantly with passengers. I mostly looked out of my window. The tropical sun was setting fast, and when would I ever see Fiji again?

If you had told me beforehand that I'd be looking at the airplane at this exact time from the outside, my first thought would be that couldn't be good.

After a couple hours, it eventually became obvious this was no short forensic exam, and all 263 passengers and 18 crew members had disembarked from the plane by 9 pm. Most travelers were shuffled to the "transit lounge," also known as the main terminal. I was happily eligible for the business class lounge, which was hastily re-opened after a short wait. Airport staff threw together a concoction of snacks and refreshments. The bar fridge was well stocked with "Fiji Water." Collectors of plastic water bottles can find that export lining store shelves and in landfills in North America, so I was more interested in the local beer. I tried a "Fiji Bitter."

Most people had to wait in the main terminal while... class had its privileges.

By this time, the crew's flight-time limitation had passed, and the airplane was declared grounded. Hotel arrangements were addressed while we waited, as the source of the burning smell had not been identified. Eventually, we were reunited with our luggage, then went through a makeshift immigration process. Instructions were to keep "date of departure" blank on the customs and immigration card, which I took as a potentially positive development. We were then distributed onto a parade of coaches, each destined for a different hotel.

Denarau "Island" is on the main Fijian island of Viti Levu and less than 10 kilometers west of Nadi International airport. But the bus ride to the hotel took over thirty minutes. In the dark of midnight I didn't get a clear sense of our destination after leaving the main road. Until the bus pulled up to the hotel, I didn't realize I'd be staying at one of the principal resort areas on Fiji. This was no budget motel. Westin Denarau Island Resort and Spa is in the style of an all inclusive.

A welcoming "Bula!" from the concierge and a glance at the open, spacious reception area affirmed this wouldn't be the standard make-do accommodation born from travel inconvenience. Only a portion of the plane's passengers were in tow, so I didn't wait long to check-in. Vouchers were presented for a complimentary breakfast and lunch the next day, with instructions to check at the desk periodically for a departure update. I briefly inspected my spacious suite, made a quick FaceTime call home to convey my bad luck to be imprisoned in paradise and went to bed. I wanted to maximize my daylight hours in Fiji.

My room at the Westin Denarau Island Resort and Spa.

I woke with the dawn, which comes suddenly in the tropics. Warm ocean breezes and palm trees promised for a day of suffering. My first stop was the hotel lobby. A message from Air Canada again instructed to check in periodically, but it sounded unlikely we'd head for the airport before late afternoon, around five o'clock. Since Denarau Island is a major tourist destination in Fiji, I could have tried any number of day trips or local excursions or explored the village of Nadi, the main port-of-entry by air into Fiji. But an unscheduled holiday deserved an unscheduled itinerary, I decided to spend the day relaxing.

Stepping on to my balcony in the morning, this is the first thing I saw.
I wasn't expecting yogurt with passion-fruit for breakfast.

Denarau Island is fundamentally a string of beachfront resorts, a marina and an 18-hole golf course. I made sure to e-mail pictures back home so the family was aware of my plight. Between meals at the Westin, I essentially wandered the beach or lounged by the pool. I left a lot of footprints in the volcanic sand and took lots of pictures. I've drunk extract of kava root before, and I was dubious about importation of anything producing a "mild euphoria" that tastes like muddy water at best. My only souvenirs were a few shells from the beach and a Fijian tapa shirt, though I was strongly tempted by a carved wooden lali (hollowed log drum) at a temporary stand set off of the resort lobby.

Looking towards the Nausori Highlands on Viti Levu.

The sand is volcanic, so I spent a lot of time thinking how unpleasant this spot must be every few millenia.

This made me think of water lilies I'd seen in Bali several years earlier.

Several times I wished I hadn't been so efficient with my packing for the business trip to Western Australia. A lack of undergarments meant a commando approach was necessary if I wanted to have enough whites for the trip back to Canada. And I didn't want to waste time in Fiji doing laundry.
I didn't have enough room in my luggage for this lali drum. My suitcase was already crammed full with chocolate, wine and olive oil from Western Australia. I settled for seashells and memories.

I saw only a few other people from AC34, and at times I wondered if the coach-class passengers didn't have it so good. We learned that following a comprehensive series of checks, engineers from New Zealand and the flight crew did a final systems check around 2 a.m. on June 17th, declaring the aircraft operable after disabling power to the washroom. After confirming my airport transfer and packing, I went back to the beach for one more look at my unexpected intersection with paradise. The shimmering interplay of sunlight and the castle-like, towering afternoon clouds was one I'd previously only ever seen in person in Bali or on the screen in "South Pacific." I understood then the mythical pull of Bali Hai.


The airport transfer was punctual, and I enjoyed seeing a little of the countryside and real-life Fiji in daylight. But once we arrived at the airport we were on "Fiji time." The 7 o'clock departure was pushed back a couple hours, and I wondered if a little kava was involved. Dribs of fellow travelers reunited from the Westin, Hilton and Tanoa International hotels, but this time we all waited in the main airport terminal. Our flight finally departed for Vancouver at 9.57 pm on June 17. The rest of the trip back to Toronto via Vancouver was uneventful, the best kind of flying, though the meal service had a distinctly island flavor. Passengers and crew shared a lot of memories and laughs.

Back where I expected to be for another 11 hours of flying to Vancouver.

62.5 hours into my journey back to Burlington, and I was finally in a car, on the way from the airport to home and family. I expected to spend the tail end of Father's Day with my wife and children in Ontario. I ended up on a beach in Fiji. Sometimes life's best memories are those you didn't plan.


Bill Mallett said...

So sorry for your inconvenience. We had a similar - something smells funny experience on a domestic flight that grounded us in New Orleans. We were barely able to grab a bite to eat (at our own expense) before everything closed up for the night and then spent several hours trying to sleep on the floor of the airport while our luggage was held hostage before being allowed to emabark for the remainder of our flight. I feel your pain :)

Michael Orobona said...

I must admit that I was hoping they needed to send another plane Bill - for safety of course. I had short-term visions of being stranded for a week on Fiji, and having to bring my laptop down to the beach to get work done.

Your New Orleans experience sounds more typical. We've all had those trips when we expect to land in Chicago but end up at a hotel in Des Moines with a sketchy itinerary.

Linda Bibb said...

What a great opportunity. I'd say you got a more memorable Father's Day than you'd expected. The foodie in me is wondering how the beer was, and of course I would love to hear if the hotel offered you any of the local cuisine.

Michael Orobona said...

Hi Linda,
The beer was an amber lager, more sweet and malty than bitter actually. It was cold, and I liked it! I think I had a second, which is rare for me.

Unfortunately, my only meals at the hotel were lunch and breakfast, which can be notoriously generic at all-inclusives. I don't remember the buffet particularly, besides a nice spread of fruit, which tells me there wasn't anything unique in the offering.

Thanks for reading and enjoy safe travels of your own!

Monique of Mo' Travels said...

Talk about making lemonade out of lemons! So wonderful!

Michael Orobona said...

Thank you Monique. It's funny, even bad memories eventually turn into good memories it seems. And this one started looking good the moment I heard "land in a Fiji" over the intercom. The funny thing is I was so tired when I got back to Toronto that I grabbed the wrong luggage, but that's another story...