Cranky and groggy, I appear before the Etihad check-in counter at Mumbai International Airport at 2AM for my flight to Abu Dhabi, connecting to Dallas, TX. The middle-aged woman in a sari with a bulging midriff sharply draws breath through very white dentures and flashes them at me.
‘Sorry Sir, the flight is cancelled. Heavy fog in Abu Dhabi has closed the airport.’
I sober up real fast. Cancelled? Ya Allah!
‘Now just a minute, Ma’am,’ I start to argue... Vaapi! Nothing comes out of it except more sparkle from her teeth and a steady head wag. She cannot tell me when Etihad will be able to transport me back home but offer to put me up at a local hotel for the time being. I try to get a flight out of Mumbai all morning. Incredibly all flights, economy and business classes, in all airlines heading to the US via Europe are packed. I try for a seat via the Far East; same result. I am stuck! Not a bad thing actually, stuck in Mumbai, but I have a waiting daughter who starts school in a day.
After spending hours on the phone, Emirates comes through. They can upgrade a business class ticket to first class using my miles, the only cabin where seats are available; desperate, I grab the seat. Emirates may be pricey and arrogant at times, but you can’t beat their operational superiority in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Now, I have been upgraded to first class on Emirates before, but this one, on a brand new A380, is different. A treat, for sure.
An attractive Emirates stewardess, a brunette (from Bulgaria I later learn), flutters eyelids at me and escorts me to my seat, makes me comfortable and assures me she is at my service. My, my! When I return from visiting the washroom, there is a mini riot near the first row seat. Passengers and some cabin crew are crowded next to my seat, talking, giggling and clamoring for the attention of a passenger seated next to me, his face hidden from my view by the privacy partition. Probably some politician, I assume. I scowl at the crowd, hoping they’ll move, but my facial expressions seem far less important than my neighbor. Rumjana, the Bulgarian brunette, comes to my rescue and shoos away the crowds, who reluctantly leave, but not until their angry looks let me know what they think of me. I really do not care; I have over 23 hours of flying and stopover in Dubai and want to sleep, bas.
Alas, it is not to be. After takeoff, my neighbor accidently releases the privacy divider and reveals himself – Aamir Khan. Yup, him. The super-star of Bollywood. Seated right next to me. I do a double take and blink my eyes in (pleasant) surprise; he smiles.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ I say, ‘no wonder there was a hungama here.’
He laughs. He sounds exactly like he did in the 3 Idiots! He closes the divider between us and resumes watching laptop movies. Then come the crowds again, from business class as well, giggling teenagers, excited children and overdone grease-painted middle aged women; some men too, all wanting Aamir’s photograph. To his credit, the guy humors them all, excusing himself past me several times to walk to the gully and pose for mugs; I do not sleep.
Aamir Khan is big news in India and among the Asian diaspora in the West. All his recent movies have been sensible and family oriented, with a reasonable social message; blockbusters all. His most recent movie, PK, grossed the biggest intake in Bollywood history, an amount not to be sneezed at. I wish I could have talked to him, but being Aamir Khan has constraints on conversation with strangers. At Dubai immigration, crowds of fans eagerly eat him up, including immigration officers with silly smiles on their lips at the sight of the hero. We part ways with a simple goodbye wave from him.
Even the luxury of a first class Emirates A380 is lost on me at 2:30AM. I finally look forward to some sleep on the 13 plus hour flight from Dubai to New York. The stewardess, Anna, a Filipina this time, hovers over me like a moth near a candle, wanting to make sure I have everything I don’t need; I wave her away.
After a restful six-hour sleep, I wake up to the smell of food and Anna by my side, asking me if I had showered, or so I thought. Eh? What an odd question! Do I smell? Wondering if she had lost her mind and curtly wanting her buzz off, I realize she was asking me if I wanted to shower. Wow! I nodded sheepishly; that would be a first time experience.
The bathroom on an A380 is bigger than mine at home, with every conceivable bathroom amenity at my disposal, from soft fluffy towels to very pricey skin toners. Imagine, taking a hot shower at 39,000 feet in the air! What will they think of next? It is a treat nevertheless. My only anxiety is Anna insisting she stand right outside the door, just in case. When I tell her I do not need her there, that I know how to shower, she giggles, covering perfect set of teeth with her petite hand.
‘No Sir, I must be here, for you. Rules, you know?’ She giggles some more. ‘In case of turbulence or if cabin air decompresses.’
I am given forty minutes to complete the three S’s a man needs every morning for a successful, productive day.
‘Have a wonderful shower, Sir,’ singsongs Anna, then reminds me, with a serious look on her face. ‘Remember, I am right outside the door, just press the call button if you need anything.’
The remainder of the flight flies by with me splurging on a calorie busting prime beef rib eye steak and all the Godiva chocolates I can glutton, with Anna keeping a constant caregiving eye over me.
Money, money, money, it’s a rich mans world.