Saturday, April 15, 2017

How Australia killed our dream honeymoon to Vanuatu

Daily Post - Elena and I got married on the second last day of 2015, just a few days before she began her MBA in January. We had met four years earlier, in London, at an expats meeting, and we’re now living in Paris where I work and where she would be studying.

Her imminent studies meant that we would have to hold off our honeymoon until she had finished a year later, for want of time as well as the finances. The MBA wasn’t going to pay for itself, after all.

We had dreamed of going to Vanuatu — a paradise land of turquoise waters, sunny beaches and fiery volcanoes. It always seemed so far-fetched, though; almost half a world away, it was just about the most remote place on earth from where we lived.

Late last year, as she was going to graduate in December, I had decided to make the dream a reality, and surprise her with the tickets that would be my Christmas, New Year’s, Graduation, 1-year Wedding Anniversary, and 5-year anniversary present to her.

For days I researched flight options, looking for the cheapest flights and also the least tiring. I had wanted to minimize the time spent in transit for each leg and also give us time to recover, which meant staying a night at a waypoint. In the end, I had settled on Paris to Singapore, via Abu Dhabi; Singapore to Brisbane; and finally, Brisbane to Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu. I checked visa requirements for every location and there were no issues for either myself, a dual Canadian and Polish passport holder or her, a Romanian passport holder.

For the next month until the travel day, we lived in gleeful anticipation, planning our itinerary and making a checklist of everything we wanted to see and do. We would start in Efate, checking out Vila, the Mele Cascades, exploring the north; then off to Tanna to see the formidable Mount Yasur, the hot springs and the blue holes; then Espiritu Santo for some great beaches and snorkeling; Ambrym, with its two volcanoes and lava lake; and if time permitted it, maybe a stop in Epi for a swim with a dugong before getting back to Port Vila and flying back.

But at Changi Airport in Singapore on the evening of January 31, those hopes were dashed. Unable to check in to our Qantas flight, we asked the staff for help. Do you have the relevant visas, the lady at the counter asks.

Schengen-zone nationals are eligible for a free eVisitor visa which they can apply for online. In fact, I didn’t even bring my Canadian passport as this process seemed easier (and cheaper). I had applied for mine a week earlier and had received the visa automatically. Elena had applied before me and still didn’t get hers. Border Australia’s website helpfully claimed that 90% of all applications were processed within 3 days. Something was up. We tried to explain that our flight would arrive at 7am the next day and our next flight would leave at 10, just three hours later, so we wouldn’t even leave the airport. This did not matter: not the same airline. They told us they would change our flights while instructing us to go to the Australian consulate to work the visa issue out. As the next flight from BNE to PVI wasn’t until four days later, this gave us a whole week. So I called the other airline and, for an extra fee of A$280 plus huge roaming, long distance costs (calling an AUS number from a French phone in SIN) I managed to change the last leg flight to keep the same transit times. We would lose four days in Vanuatu, but at least our honeymoon wasn’t dead – yet.

The next day, we arrived at the consulate where we’re promptly told to bugger off, as there is nothing they can do for us there. They give us a phone number to call and an email address to write to.

Still hurting from the long distance charges for changing the flights, we asked strangers on the street if we can borrow their phones to make a local call. Singaporeans are helpful, the opposite of the Australian bureaucracy. We managed to get through to an official and, after explaining our situation, she basically told us that she should have worn a longer dress (ok, she said we should have applied for the visa earlier – thanks!).

She tells us to go to APAC, a private company dealing with visa applications to Australia, to resolve our issues. APAC, unsurprisingly, can’t help us. They could – for a hefty charge – help us apply for another visa, but you can’t have more than one visa application active at a time and cancelling an existing visa application takes several days.

We also, during this time, sent off several pleading emails to the address we were given, never receiving a response, despite being informed that they reply to all requests within 48 hours. We also make numerous trips back to the airport. The stress of the experience caused my immune system to collapse: a cold I caught on my first day developed into bronchitis for which I now needed antibiotics. To add insult to injury, my health insurance policy covers Vanuatu, not Singapore.

The situation we’re in is straight out of a Kafka novel: stuck in Singapore where we were only planning to transit through with nobody from the Australian Border Force we can even talk to much less get help from.

By the time of our scheduled flight, we still can’t check in. The visa hasn’t arrived. Despondent, we asked for a refund for our flights as trying to change the tickets again no longer makes sense, neither financially, nor would we have enough time to properly enjoy Vanuatu. We’re told to email our request for which we can only hope of getting a partial refund, at best. At this point, we just wanted to cut our losses and go back home, forgetting we ever wished to go on this honeymoon. We can’t even do that without paying additional thousands. Ultimately, we decided to spend our remaining weeks in Malaysia, the country that salvaged our disastrous trip, but not before losing thousands of euros, a week of vacation, and incurring incalculable stress.

After this ordeal, we no longer have any wish to step foot on Australian soil now or in the future. It’s a shame, however, that a big bully like Australia can act as a gatekeeper keeping visitors away from places such as Vanuatu to which there is often no other direct access: Australia has not only deprived us of our dream honeymoon, but also Vanuatu of valuable tourism dollars.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Vanuatu Daily post - Passengers push plane

By Len Garae, Vanuaty Daily Post

Airports Vanuatu Limited with approval from the Council of Chiefs of Maewo and Landowners of Malolo Airfield should consider agreeing to harden the surface of the runway to stop planes from skidding on the wet grass.
In the latest incident last Friday morning, whether the pilot knew that the right side just before the end of the airstrip has no ditch or stones or tree trunks except bush vines and a garden of island cabbage is not clear, but I was sitting on the right of the cockpit as the Air Taxi plane touched down in the rain and skidded on the wet, slippery grass towards the end of the airstrip without stopping.
I glanced at the pilot with four stripes on her uniform as she calmly steered her plane into the clearing on the right and stopped the engines just as the propellers start chopping off the leaves of island cabbage. It was smooth.
The passengers, four strong young men from the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture (and myself) led by Manager of Research and Aquaculture, Sompert Gereva, volunteered to push the plane back to on to the runway.
The pilot thanked her passengers and entered her aircraft just as a Hilux truck drove down to the end of the airfield. “We were waiting at the terminal but we decided to come down to check on you guys when the plane failed to taxi back to the terminal,” the driver of the truck said with a smile.
He said just as well the pilot turned right because there is a ditch on the left side of the runway.
He agreed to put a rope on his vehicle in case it comes in handy in the future. “Whoever thought we would end up pushing a plane instead of a truck while we are up here on Maewo,” the passengers mused.
One by one they agreed it was their first time to push a plane.
The passengers waited at the terminal building until the pilot was safe in the air before they continued on the first leg of their mission to the Naone Elbow Bridge. The river which is sometimes referred to by new comers to Maewo as ‘Wai Lawua’ or Big Water, also boasts a number of waterfalls including most likely the most spectacular waterfall on Maewo.
The aquaculture specialists were on Maewo to join the Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forests, Fisheries and Biosecurity, Matai Seremaiah and his Acting Director General, Benjamin Shing, at the launch the first prawn farm to be hatched outside Port Vila at None Village.

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