Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Island-hopping, United Airlines style

Alas, my Christmas vacation was drawing to a close. It was time to head back to the daily hustle and bustle back in the Philippines. However, instead of feeling sad because my vacation was over, I was actually looking forward to my flight home because I was taking United Airlines' "Island Hopper" route: 14 to 15 hours of flying through a 6900-km stretch of Pacific Ocean (from Honolulu to Guam) aboard a Boeing 737-800, with pit stops in the Republic of Marshall Islands and in the Federated States of Micronesia. What I didn't expect was the number of boarding passes I had to get before boarding the plane in San Francisco: I was carrying eight boarding passes!! I wasn't keen on the length of travel but I was stoked by the remoteness of the region I was going to reach through this flight.

My eight-stop island-hopping adventure started uneventfully in San Francisco. After a few hours, I landed in Honolulu (stop #1) only to realise that the airport was largely closed at the wee hours of the night. One of the graveyard-shift staff told me that it's safer for me to stay near the food court rather than my boarding gate because there were more people there. And the Starbucks there was open for passengers taking red-eye flights. A few hours (and no sleep) later, I was flying over the Pacific to Stop #2, the Majuro Atoll in the Republic of Marshall Islands.

The view of clouds was certainly pretty but I got tired (and groggy). So I slept part of the way while the passenger seated beside me kept reading. This was one of the rare moments when I was quite happy that the movie choices were limited in-flight... because I could sleep!

A few hours later, I was woken up by one of the most unique sights I've ever encountered: an airport tarmac as wide as the island itself. This was the Amata Kabua International Airport on the Majuro Atoll, Stop #2 in my island-hopping trip.  And it was picturesque! Just imagine landing right beside coral reefs and sandy beaches. The surf was crashing onto the airport's seawall as the plane taxied to the apron. The terminal's simplicity added to the charm of this atoll: It's a single-floor building with just the bare necessities: a snack bar, toilets, a souvenir stall, and a bank. 

While disembarking, I befriended people who were also in this island-hopping adventure. One of them last visited Majuro 30 years ago and was keen on taking pictures at the airport. Another one was en route to Pohnpei for work and wasn't interested in going down the plane at all.

After a few minutes of people-watching (stretching my legs after hours of sitting, more like it), we boarded the plane again to continue to our next stop (#3): Kwajalein Atoll. Once the plane was flying low enough, I could see that we were approaching a more sophisticated airport, with better facilities. We didn't disembark here though because it is a US Army garrison... and civilians were not supposed to loiter about. We weren't even allowed to take pictures! After a few minutes, it was time once again to be in the sky... off to stop #4! 

In contrast to cloudy Majuro and Kwajalein, we were met by rain as we entered the Federated States of Micronesia. Our first port of call was Kosrae International Airport (stop #4), which is located on a very narrow man-made island. It was so narrow that the airport was quite close, just across a narrow strip of water, to a ship port! The airport's terminal was under repair when I dropped in but offered good views of both the runway (including the apron) and the sea surrounding the airport. We even flew real low near an isle or exposed corals (not sure which)! It was quite exciting for me.

The pilot announced that the flight time to the Pohnpei International Airport (stop #5) was about 55 minutes. But he did warn us that the flight might be turbulent because of the weather. After all, Pohnpei is one of the wettest states in the world, True to the pilot's announcement, I saw nothing but clouds while we were en route to the island. A few minutes later, he announced that we couldn't land in Pohnpei because he couldn't see the airport. And we couldn't make a second attempt at landing because there was not enough gas in the plane... So we continued on to Chuuk... Good bye stop #5. 

Alas, Chuuk was also as invisible as Pohnpei was. Scrapping stop #6 then. The pilot announced that we were flying all the way to Guam (stop #7) already. Oh well, better safe than sorry, right? Plus, I got to glimpse some of the remotest places in Earth. What can I complain about, right?

Thirty-plus hours since I first boarded that plane in San Francisco, I landed in Manila. I was totally exhausted but I was finally home. It's the longest trip I've taken thus far but I will go for it again in a heartbeat.