Sunday, May 2, 2010

The day Emirates ruined Helena's mascara.

Emirates flight 725 from Dubai to Dar es Salaam begins with hassles; the aircraft is parked quite a distance away from the main terminal and we have to ride a bus to reach it. Funny no, you never have to do this when traveling to say, Europe or the Americas or somewhere exotic; just one of the things that make me go hmmmm. Then, there is a mix-up with my seat assignment although a tall, pretty face with impeccable makeup that goes with a name tag of Helena quickly, effortlessly resolves. We take off on time but when the seat arm reveals the folded entertainment screen, it is all scratched up. So very unlike Emirates, but we are going to Africa, so it makes me go hmmmm. I have flown from Zamboanga City to Manila in the Philippines then to Dubai and now am on my way to Dar; this has been almost 20 hours with stopovers, so I am sleep deprived and tired. I console myself I will sleep and do not need the screen anyway. Still, the whole affair makes me go hmmmm.

Food's not bad for economy although the service is wanting with banging of trays and the crew more interested in hurrying up everybody than having them enjoys a culinary experience Emirates brags so much about. Sleep afterward is fitful and as comfortable as any economy class will allow. When we begin initial descent about 5 hours from takeoff, the pilot comes on the intercom loud (but then, this could simply be my aging ears) and with a terrible accent tells us there is heavy rain and thunderstorms over Dar and to prepare for bumps on the way in. As I am seated in an exit row, Helena sits facing me all buckled up, pretty as a princess, the toils of 5 hours of serving and smiling unrevealed.

The pilot is right, the aircraft bumps and dances as we final descend towards Dar; the wheels are let loose and I see the grainy outline of runway from the screen in front of me. Just as I think I will feel the jar of tires on asphalt, the aircraft shudders, changes course and pulls up, up, up, gaining rapid altitude. As everybody scratches their heads in nervous bewilderment, the pilot comes alive and informs us he aborted landing because he saw a chopper hovering over the runway cleared for landing. Eh? Is Dar Air Traffic Control sleeping? How can a jumbo jet be cleared for landing when there is other traffic on an active runway, even by Tanzanian standards? This far-fetched excuse makes me go a nervous hmmm.

We go around and begin descent once more; it is totally dark outside, I cannot see a thing. The sour weather temperament outside is matched by my tense and nervous fellow travelers; even the toddler in middle bulkhead seat who has spent last 5 hours bawling off her voice coarse on and off is subdued at her mother’s bosoms. I strain to make out the runway on the screen but see nothing but dark gray and rain. Again, anticipating the jar of tires for landing, I brace myself but its repeat of the first attempt; the pilot reverses thrust, pulls up at the last second and we are airborne once more. The pilot apologizes; says he could not see the runway so aborted the landing. Strange, pilots in India land aircrafts all the time during monsoon months so this is new to me.

We circle once more, this time at a much lower altitude; the pilot says he has requested landing from the opposite direction as the visibility is much better that end. There is pin drop silence in the cabin, only the changing tone of the aircraft throttles and flapping of wing-flaps making any difference. When the wheels are released for this third time, I realize we have a good chance of touching down. Visibility is much better and I can clearly see the runway on the screen; I relax, others relax, Helena and I share a relieved smile. But I can sense an anomaly in the engines tone; call it a sixth sense or just experience from hundreds of take off touchdown experiences over the years. Then I realize the problem, the idiot is too fast! Now, I am no pilot but I can tell as an experienced traveller, the pilot is too bloody fast! I clearly see the stripes on the runway flying past; yes he is much too fast; I start reciting the sahaada. Sure enough, the thrust reverses once more and the aircraft takes such a steep vertical climb, I see, sense and feel terror in me and others around; Helena’s face could not be whiter and her lips a thin tight line. The miracles and flaws of makeup.

There is no word from the pilot for quite some time; I see faces with fear in deep prayer, trembling lips rapidly moving, inviting divine relief perhaps. Inordinate thoughts invade my rational thinking as I pray as well and wonder if I’ll ever see my daughter or family again. When the pilot does speak, he sounds frustrated, says sorry, he had to abort again but does not give reasons why. He says he called headquarters in Dubai; they want him to land in Dar so we’ll circle around for about an hour to see if the skies clear else we fly to Mombasa; an hour away, that’s all the fuel we have. I’d rather we go to Nairobi or Kilimanjaro, these weather systems tend to affect entire coastal areas and what happens if we can’t land in Mombasa as well? We’d have no fuel left!

There is a rush for washrooms as nervous bladders press for relief; I join this line. As we circle around, I chat with Helena about her flying experience. She is from Czech Republic and has been flying as cabin crew for 3 years and but has never been through 3 aborted landings. Why, she has never experienced an aborted landing ever; this fact depresses me further. I can see she is depressed, worried, it shows on her face; so it is I that assure and speak with confidence I do not feel. Then, after about 40 minutes, the wheels come down this forth time and we make textbook landing to tumultuous applause and even lauder clapping and whistling when we come to a full stop. Alas, Helena is too overwhelmed to celebrate; her face is a crumpled mess; fat white tears stream down her face smearing her mascara; she sobs and tries to stop damage to her perfect face at the same time, very unsuccessfully.

I am relieved; look forward to nyama ya kuchooma, Natasha chicken, muhoogo, khunaazi, madafu…..

1 comment:

Arif said...

amazing post Ali bhai. You should have been a journalist. Or at least a contributor to the New Yorker.