What follows is the final installment of my recent travel adventures in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
We arrived in Dubai around 9:00 in the evening, after one last lazy day at sea. The sail-in was beautiful and very exotic, the city’s eclectic skyline aglow. I was brimming with gratitude for my recent adventures, new friendships, and a tad melancholy over my impending departure. The MS Columbus 2 had been sold to another company in 2013. She would be completing her final voyage in a few short days. This would be my last visit on this lovely little ship. I wanted to stay up for a while and bask in the excitement of our arrival in Dubai, but opted for bed, as I would be getting up around 3:00am for disembarkation.
I was scheduled to fly from Dubai to Doha (Qatar Airlines), where I would pick up my flight to the US, via Chicago, from Chicago on to Harrisburg. It would be record (for me) 14-hour flight from Doha to Chicago. I signed off the MS Columbus at 3:25 am, and disembarked the ship. It was raining torrentially, which is rather uncommon in this region. It was a good sign that the port agent was already waiting for me right at the cruise terminal exit. He drove me straight to the airport. I was hoping to take some funky sunrise photos of Dubai and its space age architecture, but it was still dark and pouring rain.
After I checked in and passed through immigration I could tell something was amiss. I reached my gate around 5:00 am, in plenty of time for my 6:00 am flight to find no signs of life – and dozens of people sleeping on the floor. I discovered in the ensuing hours that several flights out of Dubai had been cancelled to due severe weather conditions. The people sleeping on the floor had spent the night in the airport after their flights were cancelled.
There was no information posted anywhere about any flight cancellations, but obviously there had been several, resulting in this quandary. If I miss my connecting flight to Chicago, I will have to wait until tomorrow to catch another one. Where will I spend this evening…on the airport floor? This was the mish-mash racing through my head as I tore between the “assigned” gates and the transfer desk. I ran several times between the two, the occupants of each kiosk referring me back to the other. It slowly dawned on me that, as a woman travelling alone in this part of the world, I was for all intents and purposes, invisible.
It was in the midst of this mayhem that I met a lovely young Lebanese man named Simon. Simon had been waiting since 6pm the previous evening and was among the hundreds of passengers who had spent the night in the airport after their flights had been cancelled. He also needed to get to Doha to pick up a connecting flight to Beirut. He had seen the way I was being pushed aside and ignored by both airline employees and irate male passengers, who thought noting of cutting in front of me. He started doing my bidding for me, yelling at the gate and transfer desk agents in Arabic.
I was dumbfounded by what I was experiencing here – I witnessed several physical altercations over the next few hours: An irate male passenger reached over the desk at a gate agent and slapped his hand. The employed hit him back, and the passenger tried to climb over the desk and attack him. His companions pulled him back down while screaming in Arab at an ear-splitting decibel. Every time I snared the attention of an airline employee to explain my situation, someone else would elbow in and start talking over me about his own plight. Inevitably, the loudest and most aggressive individuals monopolized the overtaxed staff. It was an unending cacophony of 3rd world rants.
After the first fistfight, I shifted into panic mode. Clearly, I would not make my flight from Doha to Chicago, and I had serious doubts whether anyone would take assume responsibility for getting me the hell out of here! I emailed the travel agent in Hamburg, who had booked my itinerary. Germany is 2-hours behind the Emirates, so I would have to wait for an answer. In the meantime, Simon and I shuttled back and forth between the gates and the transfer desk trying to make some headway. My travel agent called me back around 11:15, Arab time. The timing was ideal because now there was an actual plane at a gate bound for Doha. He instructed me to get on this flight to Doha and go to the transfer desk upon arrival – they are obliged to rebook me and pay for a hotel. If I encountered further difficulty I was to call or email him.
I boarded this one hour “Five Star” flight to Doha. The caliber service Qatar Airways offers once you are on a plane that is in the air is outstanding indeed – but this was no consolation after the incompetence and lack of concern I experienced from their employees on the ground. When we landed I made a b-line for the transfer desk as instructed, where I waited in line for 5 hours along with the entire compliment of my flight, all of whom needed to be rebooked.
I am accustomed to traveling amongst international clientele. I know that culture and custom often dictate a sense of boundaries, personal space, hygiene, and decorum that is quite different from our own. However, what I witnessed in those subsequent hours defies superlatives! There were dozens of passengers from surrounding countries, cutting the line, and physically threatening the employees working the transfer desk. A group of men climbed over the desk and started manhandling and punching a male ticket agent and throwing punches, for which, they were rewarded by receiving preferential treatment.
Naturally, people who were politely waiting their turn amidst this mayhem were ignored. Eventually, the police were summoned and, instead of tazing and cuffing these men, kept trying to reason with them. Who could not be fascinated by this bizarre spectacle? I pulled out my cell phone and started filming (I know, slap me now!). I was busted and berated by a female transfer agent, who grabbed my phone and deleted the footage. “Don’t let the police see you doing that!” she scolded. Being my mouthy self, I responded, “So it’s acceptable that these men to jump the desk and assault airline employees and the police do nothing – but I will get in trouble for recording it?” She stared at me blankly. Yes, apparently, this was the case and she was trying to protect me. This place is Kryptonite to the sassy western woman!
After several hours of waiting, pleading, begging, staring, squatting, stretching, sighing, and sobbing, I reached the front of the line, the zenith, the apex of the pinnacle! AND, I was escorted to the Business Class lounge where I would wait for my new flight and hotel reservation. I gladly accepted this Final Hour attempt at customer service. At last they had me booked on a flight the next morning to Washington D.C. and then on to Harrisburg. The airline also paid for lodging for the night.
I was dropped at my hotel around 7:00 that evening. It looked quite nice at first glance. Dinner and breakfast were included in the price of the room. Whatever, I just wanted a coffee pot in the room for the early morning wake-up. The first thing I heard when I got off the elevator on my way to the room was a chorus of men singing loudly in Arabic. Then came the pervasive smell of cigarette smoke. I started to crack when I realized that my room was located just a few feet away from the source of this fracas. Both the noise and the smell followed me inside, when I closed the door. Nope, not tonight! My reserve of patience had been depleted by the day’s events -I returned to the lobby and insisted on a quiet room in a dedicated non-smoking area. I saw the flicker of resentment in the eyes of the female receptionist. I had no qualms about being perceived as some Western harpy. Whatever, just give the harpy a decent room!
I was re-assigned a spectacular room! It was a huge space, king size bed, marble floors, a fluffy prayer rug, and an adjoining sitting room with a view of Doha’s impressive skyline. Tina Fey is right: Bitches get stuff done! Had I not been here under such bizarre circumstances I might have enjoyed myself. The bathroom was immaculate and actually had an oversized tub with jet streams. I tried to run the tub, but the water pressure was so high, it caused the faucet to shoot off its bearing and smash against the opposite wall. @#$%$%!!!! This place is so aggressive!!!! I opted for a cat bath and crawled into bed.
I checked out the next morning around 4:00 am and made it to the airport before 5:00. From this point on, I had a normal travel day: I drank coffee and bummed around Duty-Free until I boarded the plane to D.C. It was a 12-hour flight, which did not faze me in the slightest. I was just so happy to be going home! At Washington Dulles, I picked up my luggage on the carousel, presented it at Customs and Immigration, and then re-checked it before boarding my flight to Harrisburg, PA. One hour later, I touched down at the Harrisburg’s Ma & Pa International Airport. My luggage did not. Whatever, I was HOME! I went to the lost luggage kiosk and filled out the paperwork. The young woman waiting on me looked at my tickets.
“Doha, where is that?’ she asked.
“The Middle East.” I replied.
“Is it nice?”
I have to make mention of the camaraderie that developed among the travelers affected by this logistical nightmare. There were 4 back-to-back cancelled flights, which disrupted the travel plans of 600+ passengers from all over the world. I spoke with people who were trying to get to Oslo, Cape Town, Beirut, Montreal, Cleveland, Bangkok, London, Geneva, and Chicago. Under duress, many of us let our guard down and actually bonded over the experience: laughing while waiting in the interminable line. We coached and nudged one another to beat it to the next available window before some heathen elbowed his way in. Most of us were given respite in the Business Class lounge while waiting to be re-booked. Simon and I gorged on the buffet and then dosed in chairs, leaning into each other. When he got up to use the restroom, he asked me to watch his belongings. He left his laptop, cell phone, passport, and backpack in my charge. I was touched by his innate trust after knowing me for just a few hours. The fellowship of being stranded forged some otherwise unlikely friendships, and made this travel debacle bearable, comical, and almost fun.