I pushed my carry on bag into the overhead bin, sat down and buckled up. The chill of air conditioning cools my cheeks for the first time in a long time - except for the five minutes Roger and I spent shivering in the Digicell office last week. Did you know birds shiver?
Even this small propeller plane feels familiar. Clean, white overhead bins, plush grey seats, the little button to call the flight attendant. If I didn't look out the window to see the tropics, I could be in any regional commuter plane back in the US, but the leg room is better on Fiji Airways. The propellers begin to whir and within seconds we are airborne. We fly over the Boatyard and I wave.
The flight is an easy hour and a half, and before I know it, we land in Nadi. We take the stairs onto the runway, and we are offered umbrellas to cover us from the rain between the plane and the airport. We shuffle through customs and into a mall with duty free this, that or the other. First world makeup, alcohol, nicknacks and snacks.
It is summer here and the airport is filled with Fijian vacationers wearing shorts and frilly little sun dresses. But the air conditioning is on here, too, and it’s about 10 degrees cooler than the Boatyard, with a lot less humidity. Andrew and I are both freezing. We layer on long pants, jackets, socks and foot prisons (as my traveling cousin Claire would say)…ahem, shoes.
We wait our eight hour layover, then load onto a giant jet taking us from Fiji to LA. I barely make it through dinner before I fall asleep only to wake up eight hours later with only an hour and a half left before we land on American soil. I’m served breakfast and hot tea. I just crossed the Pacific Ocean with no seasickness, no rocking back and forth, no sail changes. My tea never defied gravity to fling itself from the cup into the air, onto my face, then back into the cup again. This flying thing makes some sense.
We disembark with a cheery disposition to wind our way through immigration and customs in the US. After waiting in several lines, we meet our first immigration official: a computer. A touch screen asks me to declare the items I’m bringing into the US, list the place(s) I visited, confirm I am not feeling ill, and the like. Then, it instructs me to place my passport into a reader screen and press it flat. When I do, the machine slowly moves downward, adjusting its height to place a glowing green panel and open lens of a camera at my eye level. “ShOOP”, the machine takes a picture of me and compares it to my passport. The screen instructs me to take my glasses off and we do it again. “ShOOP”.
“Please proceed.” I take my passport and proceed to another line of people organized by stanchions connected by those retractable belts. We haven’t seen this many people in one building for a very long time. We talk to a man behind bullet proof glass in a bullet proof vest, and he waves us on, bored with my declaration of seashells and vanilla pods.
We pick up our luggage and wait in two more lines. A grim faced man dressed in a grey suit leans forward, standing on his toes, trying to peer around the line of people in front of him to see how much longer he has to wait. He returns to tapping on his iPhone. We move forward an inch and he tugs his leather roller bag forward, then sighs. He peeps around the people again. When we get to the metal detectors, we remove shoes, belts, jewelry etc. etc. and he pushes around the tourist crowd to step through the scanner first. He stands with his legs apart, arms in the air, head cocked slightly with impatience. Andrew and I follow, feet apart, hands in the air…zip. We are scanned, patted down and pointed on our way.
The three of us end up at the computer boards instructing us to our terminal for connecting flights. The Fijian lady I sat next to in the plane joined us and scanned the screen, but she couldn’t quite find the right flight number. “Do you see American Flight 5678 on here? She asks.
“It’s Terminal B.” Mr. Suit says dryly. “American is terminal B, over there.” He points, then rolls up his bag and leaves.
I thought back on the number of island people who stopped whatever they were doing, picked us up and gave us a ride to a gas station out of their way. The people who didn’t just give us instructions somewhere, but walked us to our destination. The man wasn’t intentionally being rude, in fact, he thought he was helping, but knowing how helpful the Polynesian Island cultures tend to be, this was a cold welcome to giant LAX.
I followed her eyes to a sign hanging over the large hallway indicating Terminal B, Gates 1-156, then back at me. Together we looked at the screen. Indeed, her flight number is not displayed and does not give any indication which gate she should go to. Her flight is in a little over an hour and a half, and given how large LAX is, she doesn’t have that much time to wander around.
So, I suggested that we walk to Terminal B and speak with an American Airlines official. As we walked together, we chatted about where we have been this year and the fact that we are returning to explore Fiji in April. I know I would never have had the time to do this in my former life. I would have backed these flights up to each other as close as possible, and I would have had to hurry on. I would wave my hands, point in the direction she should go and wish her luck, just like Mr. Suit. In this moment, I realized what “Island Time” is about: keeping enough free time in your life to be able to divert course from what you were doing to spend time, attention or care on someone else - and be happy about it.
Americans decidedly do not run on Island time. I watch people run, jostle and shove through the crowd to get to their gates. The chirp, chirp of business shoes on tile echo sharply around me, with the background whir of rollerbag wheels. “I am important, I travel for business.” The grim set face, black suit and tie says. Our identities are wrapped up in the power, prestige and wealth grown from packing up our briefcases and heading off to work before sunrise. I remember. The pace isn’t bothering me, but I am seeing it in a different way for the first time. It limits our ability to connect with other humans more than we realize.
We get our Fijian friend settled into the right place, and we wish her happy travels. “I hope I will see you in Fiji in April!” She says, I smile and say “Me too!” We head off to find our gate. By this point, Andrew is frantic to find some sunflower seeds. If there is one thing he missed most, it is the sunflower seeds. He bops from one little airport shop to another, searching out sunflower seeds, original flavor preferably, but he would also accept dill. He is crestfallen as he discovers that no airport shop carries a single pack of sunflower seeds. “Look at all these nuts, but no sunflower seeds! The nut industry is running amok!” He settles down at our gate to wait out the remainder of our layover with no sunflower seeds.
By the time my mom picks us up at the airport in Salt Lake City, I feel like we never left. Everything is so familiar that I am waiting for my boss to call to discuss one thing or another about a case. We must have just flown in from Las Vegas to celebrate Thanksgiving, right? I have to squint through a dreamlike fog to see our trip in my mind. Did we really sail a quarter of the way around the world this year? I can’t touch it, it doesn’t seem real.