South Africa’s 2nd largest city is very likely its most beautiful. Everyone loves Cape Town—iKapa to the Xhosa—and like all South African cities, it’s a mixture of light and darkness. Shanty townships ring the town in which tourists sample posh restaurants and browse the Victoria and Albert Waterfront shops. Situated on the western coast on the shoulder of the Cape Peninsula, the city covers a relatively narrow plate of land between the Atlantic and looming Table Mountain.
Getting There: every travel book has a “getting there” section, full of useful information such as distances and routes and conveyances. I wouldn’t recommend the method I ended up using.
Normally, our flights are booked by our efficient travel people. Mine was to begin in Seattle with travel via air to Amsterdam, then transfer to the flight for Cape Town. However, odds of a travel glitch ran against me that day and my Seattle flight was delayed 2 hours, meaning I would never make the Cape Town connection. A conversation with an airline employee did not offer help much. The next day’s flight was full. There were few to no options.
Despairing that I would never get to Cape Town in time for the first meeting, I recalled that some of my co-workers had traveled to Cape Town another way.
Dubai, capitol of its own Emirate of Dubai, and the biggest city in the United Arab Emirates, is a magical, lavish mirage in the middle of the desert. One of the many of the aspects of this city, I learned much later, was the fact that geographically, it is 173 nautical miles south of Iran. Had I stayed longer, and had some daylight, I might have been able to see it.
Delta airlines graciously booked my flight on Emirates Airlines, leaving later the same afternoon. Thus my adventure began.
The flight would take 14 hours. Compared to the Atlanta – Johannesburg jaunt of nearly 17 hours, this was nothing.
Yes, they really do wear this uniform, and the staff is uniformly female, slim, attractive, and wearing red lipstick work all night in those high heels. They do remove the hats and jackets, however. It seems probable that short hair is not allowed.
I have a strategy for long flights that seems to work well, keeping my required long-flight-gear under the seat ahead of me, always choosing an aisle seat (when seatmates have to go to the bathroom, I have to stand up and that’s a good thing for my circulation), and toting a variety of entertainment options. I don’t sleep well on airplanes. I envy those who do.
The food was good, the entertainment surprisingly diverse and they handed out little packet of eye-shades (essential!), mini toothbrush and paste, and hand wipes. Unlike Delta’s plastic bag, these were in a cute little zipped purse-like thing that I still use.
Another valuable feature of this airline—and any other than those based in the United States—is that the flight wasn’t full.
When we landed, it was early evening in Dubai. With a ten-hour time difference, my internal clock had spent 7 hours traveling, not 17 as my body had. It added up to the equivalent of working an evening shift and then pulling a double shift, and going all night.
I had an eight hour lay-over. Dubai International Airport, Concourse A, is a giant duty-free mall open 24-7, to service the 19 million passengers who may pass through every day. When I arrived, the place was virtually empty. I found a restaurant-bar and ordered a delicious pasta dish and a very-much-appreciated glass of wine. I then ordered an affagato which came not in a small coffee cup with an espresso shot poured over a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream, but as a milk-shake-size tumbler stuffed with ice cream and hot coffee.
As I strolled to look for a place to park myself and carry-on for a while, the call to prayer floated from the airport sound system. It must have been around sunset. I had to stop walking and listen to the haunting song, and I recorded it on my phone, wondering if this act would be considered a violation of Islamic law. (Play Call to Prayer below)
Finding a waiting section that was nearly empty and included sleeping chairs, I settled down, threw my air-plane shawl over my head, and slept.
An hour, maybe, later, I emerged from my cocoon to find myself surrounded by people with their baggage, speaking a dozen different languages. Night time at Concourse A had begun.
In Concourse A, one could purchase an entire wardrobe and a suitcase to pack it in. Accessories like watches, hats, shoes were plentiful. In a supermarket-sized food shop, I bought camel-milk chocolate bars for gifts.
And silk scarves, squares of embroidered fabrics, bracelets. Things that would easily fit into my suitcase. I also picked up an Emirates flight bag that I still use.
Wandering the mall for hours with me were hundreds of passengers. As the night wore on until boarding for my 4am flight to Cape Town, the place began to teem with folks on layovers. Wikipedia tells me that Concourse A includes two hotels, four and five-stars. Again, this was another interesting fact I learned later.
Concluding that my eight hours in the Dubai airport gave me a glimpse of glitz not experienced by me outside of Rodeo Drive, I appreciated it anyway. The oil-rich Emirates may spend their dirhams any way they please, building Emerald City Redux in the sand dunes. To see, smell, hear a place on the planet so alien from my own familiar American city was a gift I will never return for cash.
Nine hours to Cape Town. I would arrive after 34 hours of travel around 1pm local time. Beginning to fuss about transport to my hotel, I headed to a cash machine for taxi money. As I emerged from baggage claim, with sand paper eyes and ominous sore throat, I saw a sign that made me smile.
A dark suited man held a white placard with the name of my group on it in bold letters.
I was the only one to arrive on that Dubai flight. They had sent a car. How did they know?
In my hotel room with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Atlantic and the Waterfront, I crashed and woke up with a raging cold. But I could not believe that I had just dipped my toe into one of the many Middle Eastern pools of complex, mystifying life, bravely, confidently, all on my own.
Next week: Cape Town: Where I went and where I didn’t.