After our last trip and spending more time in different airports I realized we haven't written much about airports or flying here in Tonga.
Traveling here is a lot different than traveling in the US or other modern countries. Most local people take the ferries between islands, there's only one airline in the country so it's a monopoly and prices are much higher than they should be. It's cheaper to fly from the main island to Samoa, another country, than it is to fly from our island group of Ha'apai to the main island. But we'll see how local travel changes since the ferry went down a few weeks ago. We could already see some changes when we flew back to Ha'apai on Saturday. The flight was completely full and there was a TON of luggage and boxes being shipped up instead of shipping on the ferry.
From Ha'apai there are usually two flights a day, except on Sundays. There are three planes in Tonga, a big one that holds about 40 and has overhead compartments, a medium plane that holds 18 and you can't stand up in the aisle with one seat on each side, and a small plane that holds about 6 people. We usually end up on the medium plane, the big one only comes a couple of times a week. When you get to the airport here there's a little check-in counter and a waiting area with chairs. You check in by telling them your name and they check on their hand-written list, then hand write a ticket for you, no checking ID or anything like that. Every single time we've flown they've had my name wrong on their list, so after a few minutes of them looking over the list I end up looking then pointing to a name similar to mine. I've flown a couple times under Kate Alison, they changed my last name to a common palangi (white person) first name! Usually it's just letters that get mixed up.
Then they check your luggage, no security screening or anything. You can take anything on board with you. A lot of times people have boxes packed full of cooked food. Tongans usually travel in boxes taped shut and marked with their name instead of regular suitcases. And almost everytime we've flown out from Ha'apai people approach us asking us to carry a box or package to someone who's waiting for it at the main island airport. Nothing like the "don't leave your bags unattended or accept packages from strangers" back home in the airports. I think about three times we've carried random packages with us to give to people at the main island airport. One time they said it was a woven mat, another time it was some kind of tongan medicine, probably a plant, and another time we just had no idea what was in the box. But it's the easiest way to get something quickly to someone on the main island, and people are always willing to help out and carry something on the plane for someone else.
The planes are safe here, we've been assured and been told by another peace corps who was a former pilot and is now working with the ministry of aviation. But the ride is always interesting. The runway on our island runs from east to west, the entire length of the island so on each side it drops off to the ocean. Taking off, the pilot brings the plane to the very end of the runway on one side, then guns the engines while we sit in place. You can feel the plane bouncing beneath you, ready to go. Then they let go of the brakes and the plane darts forward, crazily moving side to side a little until it becomes airborn. It reminds me of those little wind-up toys where you role the wheels in place, then let go and it speeds forward. It think it's partly because the runway is short in Ha'apai and they need all the speed they can get to take off. It's funny watching the tourist's reactions though. Then once the plane is airborn, it starts making all sorts of noises. Sometimes the medium plane makes so much noise, and high-pitched, that I almost want to cover my ears. At the same time, the pilot or co-pilot comes on the intercom making announcements about our height or to have our seatbelts on or whatever, you can never hear them. The only plane that has flight attendents is the big plane.
Then landing on the main island, Tongatapu, is always turbulent and a rough landing. The way the winds come through where the airport is just always make it rougher. When we came back from Australia the winds were so strong that the plane was tilted at a huge angle, we thought we were circling high above, but then we hit the runway, almost while the plane was still tilted! I like landing in Ha'apai though. Before landing you can always see our village and a lot of the reefs. Then the plane comes in really low over the reef, it looks like you're going to land in the water then all of a sudden the runway and land appear at the last second. So that's what it's like to fly here.
The new group of volunteers is coming here soon, October 8th, so a lot of them should be getting invites soon. It's crazy that it was about a year ago now that we recieved our invitations! We'll be posting our recommended packing list soon on our blog, we're excited to have the new group here and we'll be seeing a lot of them here for training!