Our flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to Doha, Qatar took off about an hour late.
“We’re going to miss our connection,” I announced to my husband, Lala, about six times between take-off and the fish and potato dinner.
He tells me every day that I need to stop stressing so much.
I did my best to sleep as we flew over Africa.
About an hour before we landed, the captain apologized to anyone who had a connecting flight in Doha.
I showed a flight attendant our connection’s boarding passes.
“I know it’s out of your control, but can you tell me if there’s any way we could possibly make this flight?”
In my experience, attendants on international flights have a polite and steely reserve born of the long hours and a certain invulnerability that comes with in-flight service. You know and they know that no matter how much of a ruckus you raise, at 30,000 feet, there’s nothing they can do.
“I’m sorry, I have no control over this,” she replied. “I really cannot help you.”
“I understand that and I know you can’t make any guarantees,” I said. “I’m just asking whether, in your experience, Qatar Airways will ever hold a flight for a few moments so customers can make a connection.”
She was about to depart with a final murmured protestation of helplessness, but when the young Turkish gentleman to my husband’s right roused himself and realized that he was about to miss his own flight, she could not ignore all three of us.
She sighed. “If you arrive within an hour of your flight, yes, maybe, they will wait. If it is three, four hours, then no. They will not wait.” She hurried away.
We disembarked into a sunny, blustery, chilly morning on the Persian Gulf and clambered into a pair of large buses which disgorged us at the airport ten minutes later.
Lala and I rushed optimistically to the US departures area – our flight was scheduled for 8:05am, and we had entered the airport at 8:10am.
But the gate was deserted. A staffer shook her head and pointed to a counter, where a silent man took our boarding passes and pecked at a keyboard for about fifteen seconds.
“Eight oh five tomorrow,” he said, handing us a new pair of boarding passes. “Please follow me to the hotel desk.” He took off while we were still spluttering.
There were few things I didn’t know about Doha International Airport.
1) Qatar Airways is the only airline there.
2) They seem to have only one departure per city per day.
The speed and dexterity with which the airport delivered us and a large crew of disheveled internationals (including our Turkish pal) to a huge “Booked Hotel Accommodation for Transfer Passengers” desk should have worried us. Apparently, late flights and overnight delays are par for the course in Doha.
We were assigned an establishment known as the “Doha Grand Hotel” and given vouchers for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Perhaps I was tired from my flight, but for some reason the problem uppermost in my mind was that I had no deodorant for my upcoming day in Qatar.
Two information desks later and we were on a hotel shuttle.
Old Doha is a tan city. Businesses, offices, stores and hotels are all the same light, earthy shade. But the new Doha skyline, emerging on a small spit of land arching into the Persian Gulf, looks like a gaggle of vertiginous spaceships ready for lift-off. Most of the city is topped by a lattice of construction cranes.
Twenty minutes later, about fifteen of us trailed into the lobby of the Doha Grand Hotel, which was dotted with small leather chairs and smelled of cigarettes. We received a single key on a golden oval keychain, directions to take breakfast on the mezzanine, and notice of our 5:00am shuttle to the airport.
The notable features of our room were a perfectly egg-shaped toilet that sported a hanging nozzle (much like the one in your kitchen for rinsing large pots), an ancient box of a TV, an ashtray, springs poking aggressively beneath the thin mattress’s top, and a heavy smell of bath soap.
Mercifully, the Grand had wifi, so we immediately began to torture ourselves with scathing online reviews of the hotel from others who had been stranded by Qatar Airways.
There is nothing like a long flight to make you ravenous, so we stepped out of our room and wandered to the stairwell, where we met a shorts-wearing Afrikaner moving with unmistakable purpose.
“Breakfast?” he said.
It was an eclectic buffet: pita and paratha, olives, masala, scrambled eggs and French toast, fried onion rings, yogurt and small brown items identified only as “chicken balls.”
After breakfast, Lala took a nap while I bitterly canceled my Thursday meetings, called our New York taxi service, and Googled Qatar.
Qatar is a chubby little peninsula jutting off of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. Its currency is the riyal, worth about a third of a dollar, and it’s an emirate currently enjoying a massive boom in oil and gas production as well as US military contracts.
Having argued avidly with my husband for several days about the pronunciation of “Qatar,” I learned that you simply slap a “q” instead of a “g” onto “guitar.”
That afternoon, we turned about 35 dollars into 105 riyals and clambered into the taxi of an Indian man named Simon. We strolled along the turquoise Gulf on a graceful, palm-lined walkway knows as the Corniche.
Next, we explored the shopping center across the street from the hotel.
We appreciated the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.
Looking for deodorant, I paused in the cosmetics section.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, white Americans are sun-burning themselves into fatal cancers for the sake of darker skin.
That night, we talked global politics with three beefy Afrikaners who agreed that our host should’ve been known simply as the Doha Hotel.
The next morning, we arrived back at Doha International Airport at about 5:40am. There was a brief but unpleasant scene in security, as the screeners refused to let us pass but didn’t have enough English to explain the problem.
“Cancel! Cancel!” a woman in a burqa kept shrieking. “I have not enough English! Cancel! Cancel!”
Finally, they confiscated a small keepsake of Lala’s: an empty bullet casing made into a keychain that he had saved from a boys’ trip to the shooting range.
We arrived outside security for American destinations by about 6:30am. The sun rose.
A round of recorded announcements played on the PA system in English and Arabic. No smoking outside the designated areas. Unattended baggage will be confiscated by airport security. Doha International Airport is a silent airport.
I wasn’t sure what that last one meant.
At about seven o’clock, a crowd began to shuffle into the US security line and we tried to join them.
No, this was the flight to Washington, DC. The New York flight? someone asked.
Oh, that one is delayed for one hour.
We fell back, and established base camp on the linoleum floor about twenty feet from the US security entrance.
Others bound for New York still clustered hopefully at the entrance. A Qatar Airways staffer stepped in among them and spoke quietly. Lala happened to be passing by on his way back from the restroom, and reported that the airline was offering us a free breakfast in the cafeteria because of the delay.
It sure was lucky at least one of us had been within natural earshot of the information about the delay and breakfast.
Is that what a “silent airport” means?
At about 7:30, our flight disappeared completely from every information board.
I sought solace from the lady guarding the security entrance. “There will be an announcement at eight o’clock,” she said.
“By ‘announcement,’ do you mean you will whisper the information to the four people who happen to be standing right here?” I asked.
“Yes, madam,” she smiled.
I returned to base camp in time to catch a volley of rage at the adjacent counter, for a flight that I believe was going to Vienna.
“That’s what you said yesterday!” an elderly Afrikaner screamed at the man behind the desk, followed by a string of profanities involving a missed flight and insufficient instructions. Someone convinced him to go to the cafeteria and wait for more information there.
“We will tell you, sir,” the staffer insisted.
I decided to have a look at the cafeteria myself, leaving Lala to listen for the eight o’clock announcement, but I was sidetracked as I passed another camp, taking no chances with a position ten feet from the US entrance.
A Mumbai-born American girl sat next to a white American man in a black felt fedora, black scarf, black sweater, shiny black denim pants, and pointy black shoes, orbited by a young Indian gentleman who was showing off his grasp of the English language by cursing with every other sentence.
“…technical difficulties,” Black Hat was saying.
“Do you know something about the New York flight that I don’t?” I interrupted.
“They said it was delayed because of technical difficulties,” he replied.
“But the flight’s not even on the board at all,” I said.
The whole thing was looking more ominous than the walled-off basement of a former funeral parlor.
In the next half hour, two more camps appeared on either side of us. On our left was a middle-aged man and woman with a teenage boy and girl. The girl was wearing pajama pants and Birkenstocks, and the boy was in a sweater that reminded me of my grandfather. They called the adults by their first names, and settled into a hyper-literate trivia game punctuated by a lot of happy laughter.
They had been touring India and Sri Lanka for six weeks. This delay was nothing. One of their trains in India had been delayed twelve hours.
On my left was a young Asian woman who offered to share her international plug converter with us, so we could charge our sputtering iPad.
I would rue her generosity in the hours to come.
Suddenly, the adjacent counter erupted in shouts once more. The Afrikaner was back.
“Then why the hell did you tell me to go over there?” he raged. “I tell you what, I have had nothing but lies and misinformation from you people since yesterday!” This time the swearing lasted a good five minutes.
When he disappeared once again, we were disappointed. While his plight did not bode well for us, he had enlivened the morning considerably and we were grateful.
Eight o’clock came and went. Then nine. The man at the gate stood in imperturbable silence.
I noticed Black Hat rise from the masses, and, now accompanied by a lovely young black woman with long dreadlocks, hitch up his luggage and stroll in the direction of the “Oryx Lounge” with a nonchalant finality that I envied intensely.
I wanted to follow, but I worried that I would miss pertinent announcements.
Then, in perhaps the worst development of the morning so far, the US security gate was completely abandoned by all staffers.
“Vienna boarding,” whispered a man at the nearby counter. Fifteen minutes later, he strolled about twenty feet in either direction of the counter.
“Vienna last call,” he murmured at a volume that would delight the strictest librarian. “Vienna last call.”
At about ten o’clock, when I could see a few attendants return to the counters beside the US flights entrance, I stood up and announced a scouting expedition.
“I’ll go with you,” the matriarch of the family on our left announced, leaving a discussion on the exploits of John Winthrop and invasive plants of eastern North America.
We learned that despite the total lack of any information about our flight, boarding was scheduled for 12pm.
I had a vague sense that one day in the future, I might find the ensuing conversation humorous, and I surreptitiously recorded it with my iPod. It went like this:
Alaina: Did you make any kind of announcement that it was changed until now?
Attendant: They feel that it is a silent airport. They don’t make any announcements.
Sri Lanka vacationer: I saw that sign. I just thought that meant people had to be quiet talking.
Alaina: What’s the reason for a silent airport?
Attendant: They don’t want any announcements, it seems.
Alaina: So how do you know if your flight is delayed or if there’s a change?
Attendant: They make one announcement, to let the passengers know that it’s a silent airport.
A blaring PA announcement about designated smoking areas and unattended baggage completely drowned out the rest of the conversation.
I asked Lala to hold the fort while I figured out how to make a phone call to our taxi service in New York, delaying our pick-up yet again (Skype calls via our iPad only resulted in an irate receptionist saying “Hello? HELLO?” and slamming down the phone because he could not hear me).
As I passed Black Hat’s former companion, I noticed the Indian man had moved in and was now sharing the girl’s earbuds.
This is what all the public phones looked like.
I tried swiping my credit card to no avail.
I asked a man at the adjacent security desk how to use the phone.
He told me to buy a phone card for 30 riyals (about $10) at one of the upstairs cafeterias.
I spoke to three different cashiers before one told me to I must buy the phone card at the coffee shop downstairs.
I found an escalator and was immediately lost in a bright wasteland of toys and candy.
I found the coffee shop with the help of two different staffers.
The man at the counter told me that I must buy phone cards at the cafeteria upstairs.
“They sent me down to buy from you,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said. Then he told me that they were all out of phone cards, anyway. “Try back at the cafeteria upstairs in half an hour.”
“Well at least you got some exercise,” the man from the unflappable family on our left chuckled when I told the story.
The young woman on our right missed the epic telling completely – she had asked Lala to watch her baggage about an hour ago, and disappeared.
I suddenly realized that if Qatar Airways owed me anything, it was a free phone call to New York. I marched back to the US desk.
Could they give me a phone card? Could they direct me to a phone I could use?
“We cannot help you, madam,” two young women told me.
Being an American who was completely out of patience, I repeated all of my questions at a slightly higher volume.
They changed tactics: “We must wait for the senior,” they cried. Then, they asked me if I had tried the “Transfer Desk”: “it’s opposite Gate 11.”
Just then, a small African man dodged between us, heading for the nearest gate.
“Excuse me sir, where are you going?!” the attendants cried.
“Home!” he said.
“But where is your boarding pass?”
I suddenly remembered a short story by Stephen King that is about a ragged bunch of travelers in a mysterious train station they cannot seem to leave. They gradually realize that they are ghosts.
God, why do I read that stuff?
I walked away and followed a highly inauspicious sign announcing “Gates 9-11.”
I got in line at the Transfer Desk, and after waiting for about ten minutes with absolutely no movement, I began to feel that asking anyone else for help would transcend fruitlessness – surely it would be a kind of absurdity.
I realized that I had had nothing but a few handfuls of trail mix since yesterday. I ducked out of line and returned to camp. On the way, I got intelligence from a Qatari native flying back to his home in the US that our plane would be boarding in 30 minutes.
But God knows what that actually means in Doha.
Just to be safe, Lala and I agreed that we’d take turns at the cafeteria.
As I sat down by our bags with a couple of croissants and Lala departed, I wondered where our neighbor was. We must have looked trustworthy, because she’d left her bags at least ninety minutes ago.
As soon as I lost sight of Lala in the crowd, a man appeared at the US security gate.
“Boarding New York,” he muttered, like a fifth-grade boy who resents his role in the school recital.
But the result was electric – perhaps the hours of silent uncertainty had sharpened our ears. Everyone in a thirty-foot radius moved at once.
Lala had no way of knowing that our flight was boarding.
And what the hell was I going to do with this woman’s bags?
“Don’t worry, that line will take forever,” the family next door said contentedly. Then they celebrated with a plate of shawarmas and fries.
Perhaps after some type of divine warning, our free-spirited neighbor appeared in the crowd about five minutes after Lala did.
Have you ever been white-water rafting?
There might be calm stretches, but you never know what’s around the bend.
Such is US flight security in Doha. My nerves had settled by the time we reached the head of a long line and handed our passports to a security person. She separated us, sending Lala to a separate screening area for men.
And then, the rapids.
Baggage x-ray was staffed by about seven men who moved as if they were loading the last lifeboat of a sinking cruise-liner carrying every president on earth. One took my bag, sneakers, iPad, purse and jacket. Then he yanked my passport and boarding pass out of my hand, threw them into a plastic bucket and shoved it into the machine’s maw.
I stumbled through the metal detector and fell on the emerging buckets, which were flying into the crowd with the help of about four or five men. I snatched my belongings out of the chaos.
My heart fluttered with relief when I saw a US passport clasping a boarding pass. But when I opened it, it wasn’t my name. Another woman snatched it out of my hand. I scrambled among the nearby baskets like a mother grasping for a drowning child.
My passport was gone.
Perhaps it’s important to tell you that I have a bona fide anxiety disorder. I’m mostly free of visible compulsive behaviors, but if I have one, it’s that when traveling internationally, I check for my passport every two minutes.
I had never had an all-out public tantrum before.
Lala appeared at my elbow.
“My passport is gone,” I gasped.
“My passport and my boarding pass are gone. Someone took them and put them in a fucking bucket and now they’re gone.”
We searched the buckets – others were grabbing their coats out of my hands as I picked them up to search for my passport underneath.
“My passport is gone!” I shouted at the men working the line. “Excuse me, my passport is gone! It went into the machine, and it didn’t come out!”
No-one replied. None of them even made eye contact. They just kept shoving buckets of stuff at the crowd surging around us.
I approached the woman working the metal detector.
“My passport disappeared,” I shrieked. She looked away, nodded, turned me around with her hands, and pushed me back towards the machine.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? My passport is gone!”
She turned her back and continued directing more people through the metal detector.
I ran back to the men at the machine.
“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME. HEY! Do you understand what I am saying? Hello! MY PASSPORT AND MY BOARDING PASS ARE GONE!”
They gave no sign that they heard me.
Finally, a uniformed man, still refusing to meet my eyes, took my purse out of my hand and began to search through all the pockets. Panic began to drown me as the plastic baskets continued to clatter around us.
I re-searched all of my bags’ pockets again. That’s when I realized that my iPad was also missing.
Suddenly, among the turmoil, I glimpsed a black leather case lying in a security bucket. I flew to it and picked up my iPad.
My passport was hidden under it.
I nearly collapsed. As Lala patted my arm and I put my belongings back together, a burly uniformed man clapped a hand on my shoulder.
“Go now,” he said.
“Thank you, I am,” I answered.
“No. Now. You go now,” he said, pointing at my face. “You. GO.”
What would you guess the purpose was of hustling us through security so fast that we couldn’t even keep track of our own passports?
Apparently, it was to wait for another forty minutes in this line.
Black Hat and his companion were there, but I was not surprised to see that he was too cool to wait with the rest of us – they were watching the line comfortably from the chairs.
Finally, we passed yet another counter (where some kind of badge-flashing marshal was having a serious tête-à-tête with a young man) and traveled a long, slanting passage…into another bus.
“Maybe they are driving us to Dubai,” the elderly gentleman beside me sighed during the packed and rattling fifteen-minute ride across the tarmac.
Seven or eight hours later, somewhere over Europe, I pulled up the window shade (the flight crew kept us in the dark, like canaries with a towel over our cage) and had absolutely no idea if I was looking at dusk or dawn.
In an hour-long US citizens’ line at passport control in New York, Black Hat was smiling to himself. His pants were a bit more baggy than they’d been in Qatar, but he was otherwise no worse for wear. The family who’d camped next to us in Doha was still laughing out loud. The girl had put socks on under her Birkenstocks.
At baggage claim, Black Hat wrote something down on a scrap of paper, which he handed to the woman with the dreadlocks.
After leaving our family’s Johannesburg home early Tuesday evening, we stumbled into our Philadelphia apartment at midnight on Friday.
“Nothing bad ever happens to writers,” read a Facebook placard I noticed a few months ago. “It’s all material.”
What do you think?