Back in economy class on Emirates airline, a pilot-in-training is sitting next to me. A young girl. What are the chances. It’s symbolic that my journey kicked off so memorably with my two pilot friends in Emirates Business Class on the flight over, and then weeks later, my trip has come full circle by sitting next to Daisy, a recent graduate of aviation school at Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie. You would think meeting a female pilot is rare, and it is — she was one of only four ladies in her class. Daisy, who had been visiting family in Hong Kong, wants to fly small planes. I told her about my flight to Dubai and my four new Emirates Business Class friends – pilots Gary and Mani, and Nofel. She loved the piloting spew stories – maybe someday she will make some of her own (stories, not puke). Our biz class group, now aptly called the 41,000ft Club, has been keeping in touch over email, trading worldly stories. A reunion has been suggested – in air or on land?
The flight was still of high standards — Emirates is truly where it’s at. Yummy food, socks and eye shade, wine with dinner … what a great flight. On my other side was a guy who kept getting up to drink, so half the time I had no seatmate. Daisy slept with her eyes half open though, which kept freaking me out. The flight attendant came by while she was sleeping once and asked her if she wanted a drink, and we both thought she was lying there awake. Funny – but oh so creepy.
How long had it been since I saw Reality Bites? I love those movies that never go out of style. Winona and Ethan in their heydays (Janeane Garofalo, where did you go, you were so good). It was appropriate to me as I settled in for a long flight back to reality, after a now-surreal trip that had me seeing things my eyes did not believe. Did reality bite? No it didn’t — even coming home to a snowstorm. But dipping out of the reality I know into other fantastical worlds every now and again is my kind of living.
Middle East: First footprint
As I stepped on to Middle Eastern ground for the first time in the wondrous Dubai airport, I already overstep. I guess I got way too close saying hello to the customs officer at the counter who was scanning my eyeballs. He motioned for me to get back. Way back. Apologizing, I quickly reeled in my hyper-happy demeanour. The loud speaker went off in a melodious Arabic prayer and I looked around, startled.
I texted my friend Bevan on the other side – whom I had travelled 12,000 kilometres to see after more than 10 years – to tell him I was through customs and someone was singing. “That’s the welcoming party I organized for you.” Ahh yes, there’s that dry wit. Some things never change.
TIP: Even though you are excited to reach your destination, never lose focus that you are on someone else's turf, and act according to the culture.
Zombies and airplane phone calls
Too stimulated to sleep as per usual on a plane, I went back to my seat and a paused Brad Pitt fighting off zombies. Now who’s seen World War Z? Was there an entire plane crash scene zapped from my version? Brad Pitt was on the plane, I got the feeling it was leading up to a crash, and then suddenly there was a momentary pause, and Brad Pitt is writhing on the ground, walking away from the plane. I get it, that’s not the type of scene you want to be watching while flying (because scary zombies is what you want to be watching) but man! That looked like it would have been an exciting scene.
Still can’t sleep. I am watching my second movie and it is so strangely interrupted by … a phone call. I look around and see a handset tucked behind my head. OK, yes, this is a phone. And I have a phone call! It’s Gary. The call is identified on my screen by his suite number. He laughs after I fumble the phone in my sleepless fog trying to figure out which way the phone went. “Hiya!,” he began, “just thought you would like your first phone call at 40,000 feet.”
Yes … I liked that very much.
TIP: Remember when choosing movies that plane-crash scenes, sex scenes and the real grisly parts have probably been censored – pick something else to watch so you don't miss out on the good bits.
Pilots everywhere on Emirates Air
Also at the fully stocked bar, full of nuts (including us) and fruit and tarts and Veuve, was Mani. Mani was also a pilot, and Mani commanded the room. His personality was big, he welcomed new friends continually to our social hour, even the poor blokes just trying to get to the loo. He made a target of Andres the bartender. He wore some serious bling. Mani regaled us with his incredible piloting stories too, and plenty of hilarious turbulence puking tales – like the big spenders who hired his private jet service. They rolled in with their attitudes, only to be reduced to trembling, green-faced crying baby-men when the ride got bumpy. Mani told us about the high rollers who left the plane carrying out full bags of vomit in each hand. There were many spew stories being traded back and forth between pilots, but they didn’t get old.
The best was Gary’s tale about him noticing a man puking in the air on his small plane, which was turned sideways due to bad weather. In an instant, Gary was able to nudge the plane so gravity would halt the mass of vomit in mid-air, only to shift the plane in a nano-second to disperse the lump on the man’s own shirt. “Only three drops hit the floor,” he said. Now that’s a pilot. It’s stories like these that kept us at the bar for hours.
Nofel was an inventor. He sold his invention for big bucks. He is on to more, devising a machine for outer space. I saw his prototype. The blueprints. This is real. What’s also real is he is a Bollywood singer with a movie coming out.
It’s amazing the people you meet mid-air.
TIP: The journey to Dubai was that much more special because of the people I met. Pause your movie and socialize. Everyone is en route to somewhere, and that in itself is a good story. I'm not sure if you should ask just anyone to try on their bling, however.
Business Class: Full of characters
Gary was my flight neighbour and was there at the start. He could see me drinking it all in and not missing a marbled inch. He briefed me on our little suites, and emphasized the bar in the back (which I ended up spending half my flight at). He told me about his experiences on other airlines and how Emirates was unparalleled. He would know. He only flies to get around.
Gary was a pilot. A bush pilot who flew planes of 10 to 20 passengers, and he lived well on his pilot’s salary. But he discovered his life’s mission was to offer himself up to those struggling in third-world countries, and now his home base is in the air, his life's belongings beneath, stowed on our flight. He loved his former life as a pilot, but it was his touching stories about helping out in the thick of unimaginable despair, in such countries as Sudan and the Philippines, which inspired the tears in his eyes. He regaled us with stories of his pilot life, including one intense close call on a flight, saying, “I was about as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.”
It was an emotional, life-changing event in Rwanda in 1994 that gave Gary the foresight to know that what he really wanted to do was to help others – he decided his mission in life was to travel the world and give relief to those in war-torn or Mother-Nature torn countries, those who had lost their health, their home, their family, and their will. He was now on his way to the Philippines, and then on to South Sudan. He had just returned from Sudan to Toronto two days before the ice storm hit. From temperatures in the 40s and 50s to our chilling minus 15s and 20s. Ouch.
“It’s moments like these,” as he surveys the Business Class cabin, “that you wonder what the poor folk are doing. And I said wait a minute, we are the poor folk. We just got lucky.”
It feels good to be lucky.
TIP: Make nice with your neighbours in Business Class. Gary and I have been keeping in touch as he saves lives in the Philippines and I don't know the last time I have met someone so interesting.
Emirates: Dinner is served
I peruse a noteworthy menu (menu!). Lamb cutlets with blah blah blah deliciousness and red Thai chicken curry sounded great but the fish sayadiah sounded just right – especially since I didn’t know what it was. It was a Middle Eastern dish, and that was how I wanted to kick off the gastro portion. Traipse to the unknown and eat the unknown. Yes I’m well aware it’s just halibut but all done up with cinnamon and Arabic spices – I am pumped. I have every confidence the chef du plane has done a proper job.
TIP: Yes definitely go for the fish. And eat as much of a country's local food as you can.
Emirates: Oh the posh
I am given a Bvlgari case with Bvlgari perfume, hand cream, face “emulsion,” and other goodies. Even a Bvlgari-scented wet nap. My bubbly is Veuve Clicquot – a-ha, that’s why it tasted so good.
I went back for seconds, as there was A BAR on my way to the loo. There were bar snacks that looked like the desserts you would see at a white tablecloth restaurant, and gorgeous mini sandwiches stacked on tiered plates.
I ate a chicken pesto sammy on a pretzel bun while I watched our bartender Andres pour my champagne cocktail daftly with brown sugar. He would not take the man beside me first who had gotten there before me. “Ladies always first,” he said to the man apologetically. Damn skippy. OK this business-class thing is really feeling good.
TIP: Take advantage of the bar. If not for the A-list snacks and free-flowing booze, the cool people will congregate there.
Business Class: And so it is true.
Emirates Business Class is just like they say. It is lavish, it is exclusive, and it is warm and friendly and really quite exciting. The washrooms alone are exciting. No more a tiny nook that gets dirtier by the hour, the loos in Emirates are roomy. They smell good. You can spread out in there. Take some time. Look in the full-length mirror. Almost forget you are flying. OK maybe not. But they are pretty nice. And of course they are marble, to match the rest of the cabin.
Leave it to me to start off by describing the washrooms.
My flight attendant Olga was very sweet. She detected the neophyte shine in my eyes so she took extra time to explain how to navigate my suite. Yes that should say suite, not seat (yeeeee!).
Cozying in to my suite with a glass of champagne and my trusty Toronto Star and my Gulf News (sweet!), I have a wealth of entertainment at my fingertips, with a big personal screen above my foot-rest cubby. Brand new movies … ahhh how am I ever going to want to sleep. Apparently I should though, because later a mattress is brought over and my seat becomes a bed. Noise-cancelling headphones, a blanket, pillow, and my mini bar with morning juice is at the ready.
TIP: Yes you want champagne. Look for Olga.
Dubai: And so it begins.
I thought my pre-journey had started out badly, with my luggage way too heavy and my airline limo 30 minutes late. Aren’t they always early? Here comes the stress. Doing my best to stymie the flow. It’s working. But still. Slight possibility I could be late.
But that wasn’t the true beginning. The beginning of my trip to Dubai, my somewhat last-minute journey to a faraway land that I thought would only be known to me through awe-inspiring photos and architectural citations, starts with a magical moment. And that moment was when I was handed an even better boarding pass – to fly Business Class on Emirates.
I am travelling to Dubai to visit a close friend who I hadn’t seen in more than 10 years. How many days had passed us by, so much life … it would be a wild catch-up. Leave it to the dreamer in me to think my airline limo was late for a reason. Here I was standing in the right place at the right time for a ticket agent to notice me lugging my overweight (but six kilos underweight for Emirates rules!) bags and dragging my coat on the floor. He asked my last name and went back to his counter, and next thing I know he is handing me a one-way ticket to Business Class. Note Business Class is uppercase, because it deserves it. So I had heard.
TIP: Look like a hot mess in line to check in and maybe someone will take pity on you. And always make time for your true friends, no matter how long it's been and far away they are.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver