A pre-dawn fog rose up to meet us as we descended into the Middle East. For a hot, dry climate the fog seemed unusual, eerie even, as it hung low to the ground and obscured any sign of an airport. There was a perfect stillness both inside and out – people still held by the lull of sleep – as we snaked along the tarmac. I sunk low in my seat and imagined the pilot leading us on a stealth mission into this unknown land.
It was hard to see anything much through the darkness and fog but the vast and expansive energy of the desert all around us was palpable. It seemed to dwarf the once titanic plane. And then all of a sudden the fog shifted to reveal Abu Dhabi airport. Cut against the blackness of the sky, and with its sleek, steely contours softened only by the glow of pale yellow light within, it looked like a giant desert caterpillar slumbering with one eye open.
Inside we reclined on plush, black armchairs (because fourteen hours of reclining on the plane wasn’t enough) and watched the rising sun colour yellow and golden the beads of condensation on the giant airport windows. I retrieved my neighbours phone from between the seats where it had fallen and she told me of the radical way she had just quit her life in South Africa to go and live with her daughter, her daughters wife and their five dogs, on an estate in the North of England. Her cheeks flushed pink as she spoke of the new life that awaited her. Her smile was contagious. She touched my arm, Do you want to see photos? It’s a beautiful, old estate. Even though I was being called to board I hung back and waited for the photos to load, painfully slow, on her little 90’s Nokia. I’m excited for you! I said, as I turned towards the gate. Her smile followed me out of sight.
We left the tarmac and climbed into the air. In the daylight the desert was now plain to see stretching in all directions. Besides small collections of squat, grey buildings the only other feature to mark the dusty yellow-brown sand was an endless looping road. From so high up, I imagined a giant bending down and drawing it with an index finger in the sand.
Gradually the landscape transformed from flat desert to complex and rugged terrain as we flew over Baghdad. Clusters of grey dwellings nestled between the mountain ridges: secretive and silent. Further along, our slow-motion glide over the swiss Alps took my breath away. The mountains were a dark green, almost black, rising up out of the low-hanging cloud. The deep shadows and chiseled ridges held a wonder and wildness and mystery that I could only guess at from 40,000 feet above. The Rhine river twisted its way through the valley. Turquoise-coloured lakes shone out from shadowy depths like dewdrops caught after rain and pale-coloured villages, like handfuls of tumble-washed stones, lay scattered through the ravines and clustered around the inlets of the river. Leaving the wilds of Switzerland behind we passed over the green-quilted patchwork of French land: neat and contained. Sometime after that we arrived in London.
I studied the lady at the service desk as she studied her computer screen.
‘What time did you say your flight was?’
‘We don’t seem to have a flight at that time.’ My first overseas trip was over before it began. She searched a little more, her brow furrowed. Then she gave a little laugh. ‘Oh, there it is.’
I coaxed my heart back into my chest.
She then compared the hard copy of my itinerary with the version on her screen.
‘There seems to be a problem with your booking.’ She twisted the computer screen around to show me but I’d suddenly lost the will to read. ‘Your flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi is not showing up on my screen.’
She spent a couple of moments explaining how this could’ve happened but her words washed over me.
‘All you have to do is -‘ I tuned back in again – ‘take your ticket over to the service desk where they’ll fix that up for you. Then bring it back to me and we’ll get you checked in. Could’ve been a bit scary, so it’s lucky you arrived -‘ she looked down at her watch – ‘three hours early.’
‘I have a lot of grey coverage for someone my age so I try to avoid any undue stress. It’s going well so far.’
I slung my bag on my back, adjusted my heart in my chest for the second time, and made for the service desk.
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