It’s a strange feeling. I have spent 44 years travelling for work. I’ve clocked up more than 5 million miles. In all that time I must have flown over or through various ports in the Middle East 100 times or more. But I have never once set foot there. Today’s journey is to Dubai. For a 4-day stay.
Today’s journey, which will see us land at midnight local time after 14.5 hours flying time in the giant Qantas A380 Airbus, will, if all is well, be met by a booked taxi service. If all goes to plan, we will be whisked into a new world of glittering excess and a modern hotel open for just six months, by someone we’ve never met, who only recognises us by our name on an email booking, likely displayed on an Arrivals iPad or other tablet.
The risks one takes and the faith we bring to bear on all these services ‘just happening’ is startling, really. The taxi in Sydney needs to arrive. The airline booking made online and confirmed has to actually have seats (Remember overbooking is the norm these days). The flight has to get there. Navigation has to lead us precisely to within a foot of the centre line of Dubai’s runway 13,000 kms away, only possible thanks to a geostationary satellite circling 33,000 km’s above the Earth. Passports and visas are expected to be issued without question, the taxi booked online from a previously unknown service provider needs to find us as we exit, and get us to our lodging safely. The booked venue, through third party Expedia, has to be there.
We take all these things quite for granted today.
My first overseas flight, in 1968, was in a South African Airways Boeing 707 via Isole de Sol in the Atlantic from London’s Heathrow, itself less than twenty years old back then. In those days SAA had to fly around Africa due to travel sanctions. I was 17. How my parents allowed me to fly to Africa alone I will never understand. At Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg as I walked down the plane steps, the distinctive smell of Brown coal pollution from Soweto’s township attacked the nostrils. I was met by an airline official and sent in a taxi to Johannesburg’s glorious old Langham hotel, where staff greeted one in Pith Helmets and starched white coats. It was a 24 hour layover, paid for by the airline, before the Douglas Dakota DC-3 connection to Maseru airport in Lesotho at 7.00am the next morning. I was to spend 3 months with my Uncle and Aunt at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in the Roma campus.
That journey, with the shuddering rivets bouncing on the wings, and the splashy landing on the grass strip in the Drakensburg mountain Protectorate was a real adventure. And, as today, on trust, there were my uncle and aunt to greet me. Airmail letters on flimsy Royal Mail areograms between Lesotho and London had made that all work!
Adventure it certainly was. Just as the next five weeks is sure to be. A more glamourous age? Certainly there were many fewer travellers. But the learning, the shared experiences, the insights into other cultures was as vital then as it is today. As I spend the next four days in the UAE, which has allowed for Western influence, limited alcohol consumption and some tolerance of unveiled women, I may better understand some of the complex mix of this very complicated Middle Eastern world. But I will do so in the knowledge that less than an hour’s flying time from Dubai are warfronts involving Iran, Iraq, IS, Palestinians, Israelis, Iranians and Syrians. The contrast in behaviours between those two situations could not be more extreme. Like travel itself, we trust all will be well.