Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Travelogue part 3 (Dubai) - Immigration...

We landed well in advance of the scheduled arrival time. It was 5:30am local time (7am Indian time). Temperature was around 20 degrees Celsius - deserts are cold at night! Though we touched down on the runway, there was a considerable delay before the staircase was attached to the flight for us to get down. I took the chance to play another chess game but couldn't complete it. In the first class area, each seat was like a little cabin - not fully covered but designed such that you would feel alone in your seat and you could lie down fully flat like a bed.

We descended down the stairs from the flight onto the tarmac. There were a couple of airport buses waiting to take us to the airport. As the vehicle moved around, I realized how huge Dubai airport was - there were umpteen Emirates flights waiting on the runway, plenty of empty runway space, another airport terminal under construction and the entire place seemed humungous.

Most passengers took the escalator having the sign "connecting flight" while just four of us went to the "arrivals" area. The inside was just as huge as the outside - I took two lengthy escalators to reach the immigration area. Most officials were dressed in the traditional Thobe (also called a dishdasha - a lengthy loose fitting white robe). There were a lot more counters than in Chennai. The lady immigration officer in the first counter scrutinized my passport and visa document and said something that I couldn't follow. I asked her a couple of times and both times I couldn't figure out what she meant - she said something that sounded like "sca" or maybe it was "sta" or "station". It was hard to follow her accent and I didn't feel there was any point in me asking repeatedly. She then said "Go straight over there" - was something wrong with my documents? Or was something wrong with my passport? In a foreign land, you get a little jittery in such situations that involve immigration - you could get deported if the officers feel suspicious!

I went straight past 5 counters beyond which there were 10 unmanned counters. I asked another official, who was walking nearby, where I was supposed to go and he said "Just stand in the queue". He didn't listen to my story and repeated "go back in the queue". I stepped into another queue which moved slowly. And after half an hour when I reached the counter, the guy said, "Why haven't you done the eye scan?". Ah ha, now it made sense what the other lady said! "Go straight and right".

The official here was neatly dressed in a suit, seated beside a bionic eye at the eye scan counter. You had to look into the bionic eye and the bionic eye will take a picture of your eye for official records. The man put a stamp on the visa document and back I was at the immigration counter. This time it was another lady staff and she quizzed me about where I would be staying and the telphone number. And with that she handed me back with the passport and visa document - I was free to enter Dubai.

Next up I had to pick my checked-in baggage from the luggage conveyor belt which would keep moving in a circle till the belt was empty. Every airplane would dump their baggage on a separate conveyor belt for passengers to pick up. Sometimes when only a few baggage remained unclaimed, the staff would put the baggage on the floor and stop the conveyor belt. Surprisingly, even after such a long time the conveyor belt was moving and there were just 7 or 8 luggage left. I noticed that there were a couple of Indian girls as well who were delayed just like me. Unfortunately we never came within hearing distance to strike a conversation! The airport was huge - Terminal 3 is the single largest building in the world based on floor space.

My brother-in-law and family were waiting for me outside the terminal. The parking lot was also huge; spread over a couple of floors. Even the parking lot had changed – we never had parking meters back then. We drove home, which was near the airport on the Deira side, in a Pajero and I was amazed by the width of roads. It's been more than 11 years since I've been here but I don't think Dubai had such huge roads back then - now it was wide 5 lane roads instead of the regular 3 lane roads. The city used to be centered around two areas - Bur Dubai and Deira Dubai which were separated by the Dubai Creek. But now it appeared like the city was spread out on both sides beyond these areas.

We were soon at home and then drove to a bank near the Dubai clocktower - the clocktower on Deira side was still the same. It was around 30 degrees outside while every building, room and vehicle was air conditioned.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dubai Travelogue (2) - The flight...

Airline staff greeted me at various points along the lengthy boarding passageway. I picked up the Saturday edition of the Hindu newspaper from a neatly arranged stack - not bad, they were quick; they must have got it straight from the printing press - it was just 3am Saturday!

In the plane, it was a little amusing to see a few people fight for overhead baggage space. If everyone couldn't find space the air hostess will figure out some other space for the luggage. But a couple of people, probably unaware of this fact, struggled to squeeze their hand baggage in the top and even though they couldn't close the loft they left it in the same place. The air-hostess finally arrived on the scene and whisked the extra baggage to another area. I was glad that we didn't have to worry like we do in buses about our baggage! The air hosts (I just found that they are called flight stewards) were smart and fresh - not even the faintest sign of sleep in their eyes; they were probably quite accustomed to this night routine by now. I didn't notice any Indian stewards on the flight.

I was on an aisle seat with a couple of English ladies sitting beside me. This was a Boeing 777 and even the economy class had a personalized inflight entertainment system with games and movies. The only problem was that I was feeling sleepy! So many movies to watch, so many games to try out... sometimes we want to do so many things but our body just doesn't permit us; the mind is willing but the flesh is weak!

There was a slight delay in departure with all the air hostess closing the lofts, attending to mothers carrying babies (giving provisions to secure the babies), giving an orange drink and blankets to passengers. None of the babies cried - maybe they were frequent travellers! The two ladies near me went off to sleep almost immediately after the blankets were given. The customary procedure of an air-hostess showing how to use the life jacket and position of exits was missing - instead it was all shown on the entertainment tv and the big screen common tv present in each section. They also provided us with a breakfast menu that listed what the vegetarian and non vegetarian plate contained. With the fancy names on the non-vegetarian plate I opted for that.

When in the air, there were a few thoughts that popped up, "What if it crashed, what if we were struck by lightning". We conjure different scenarios in the mind, in each of which we would be the hero - but I don't know how in a water landing scenario I could be a hero without knowing swimming!

There were plenty of movies available - English, Hindi and Arabic. I tried watching the animation movie "Up" but the dialogues were in Arabic and French; when I finally figured out how to get it in English, I felt sleepy and took a walk to the back of the flight. The design at the back was a little weird and appeared very congested. They had obviously tried to cram in as many seats as they could. Each row had 9 seats divided in sets of 3. As the design of the plane converged, the number of seats were less at the back, with the last row having just two seats. At the back, I couldn't find the restroom and none of the stewards were present. After walking through the stewards' cabin a couple of times I noticed a thin door behind the last seat. The toilet was very small with just enough space for one person to squeeze through the door - optimum design! Hefty people would find it a challenge to get into the toilet and use it.

Almost all passengers had dozed off. On returning to my seat, I dug into the booklets and pamphlets that were kept in the pouch attached at the back of each seat. There was one with a couple of stickers that could be put on the seat - one read "Wake me up only for the meal" and the other read "Do not wake me up". Nice little innovation – usually in flights it was the steward who would take a call on whether to disturb your dream or not based on gut feeling. But I don't think anyone really saw these stickers because no one used it and it was buried in the pamphlet pouch. The non veg breakfast was some form of continental and indian breakfast dish made with half scrambled semi solid egg. Hidden in a layer on the lid was a single poori, which though thick tasted good. After the meal, I played a few chess games out of which I won a couple and lost the rest while playing against a "harder" computer opponent. The last game was the best; after 5 moves I dozed away and woke up 15 minutes later to lose the game! I drifted into a nice nap.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 1 (Dubai) - Another trip begins

It felt nice to be back here alone after a couple of years. I initially thought that there were so many people waiting to take a flight but then realized that it was all due to the amount of renovation happening in Chennai airport. Everyone other than the travelers were crowded around the entrance for international departures. With my school back pack, one suitcase and trolley I navigated through the crowd in search of a luggage trolley. I wheeled the trolley through the main gate security who inspected my ticket and passport. Earlier people could buy airport entry tickets and enter this area to bid adieu to passengers, but with the renovation in progress only passengers were permitted inside. Next was checkin baggage. After viewing my suitcase and trolley through an xray machine, the staff wrapped an Air-India tape around both luggage to indicate that security check was complete. To open the luggage you would need to cut the tape and then go through the security scan again. I went to the airline counter to drop my luggage and collect my boarding pass. Checkin luggage weighed only 20kgs; 10 kgs short of the allowed limit though I thought it might be closer to 25 when I checked at home.
Next up was crossing the immigration area - there were 6 immigration counters with 2 queues; I was led to the queue on the right. It was fun watching people of all ages and nationalities waiting in queue - cute little children and elderly people patiently awaiting their turn. Westerners mostly wore casuals and shorts while our folks were dressed in more formal attire. The officials were quite friendly. I realized the importance of being a diplomat - anyone with a diplomat passport would be given first preference at the counter; no queues for them. Unfortunately there was one lady diplomat who was misled into waiting in the queue and the official in my counter was feeling bad about it; "If only they had put a notice mentioning this...", he commented. After the immigration area I went up to the security clearance area where passengers are screened and cabin baggage is checked using an xray. On my way here, there was a duty free shop where team India's blue Sahara t-shirt was quite a hit among foreigners. I saw a family pick up a few of them.

After crossing the security clearance, I had more than 2 hours in hand; I slowly loitered wasting as much time as possible in the few shops in the area. But the shops were quite small and I couldn't stay for more than a few minutes in each of them. I learnt that Tamil magazines sold like hot cakes; none of the shops had any stock left! Pangs of hunger struck again but the prices were very high - Rs.60 for a samosa, Rs.20 for a small Lay's packet, Rs.100 for a veggie sandwich! Wow - must be because of airport tax! I slumped in one of the many sofas that were kept outside the departure terminals and began reading "the three musketeers" novel. Being well past midnight, I found it hard to read more than a couple of pages. "Stay awake, stay awake”. I tried to keep myself awake by watching other passengers and airline staff. As the departure time neared for other flights, pretty airline staff went around the seating area in search of passengers who hadn't yet boarded their flight. “Excuse me Maam, are you on Jet airways flight”. I guess they approached the seated passengers based on the tag on the hand baggage. During checkin, each airline provided tags to be fastened on the hand baggage - perhaps it was for this purpose. Maybe if I slept they would wake me up for the flight - or maybe they would not disturb me!

I kept walking around to stay awake, then bought a Lays packet and by the time I finished the packet I dozed off on the sofa for a couple of minutes. And again I walked around to the other end of the waiting area, watching other passengers board their flights. The public announcement system, which was used frequently by the airline staff, was unguarded with instructions on steps to use. “This is the final call for Lufathansa flight. Please board at gate number...”

Time just seemed to have come to a standstill! I went in and out of sleep a couple of times before someone announced, “First class passengers can board the flight to Dubai at Gate number...”. The crowd sensed that the gate was about to open even before the announcement was made because a huge queue had already formed in front of the gate. But there was no use; only first class and business class passengers were permitted to enter. Then they announced for economy class passengers from rows 41 to 46. I had to fight my way through the queue which had converted into a small crowd. I wonder why people lack patience when it comes to standing in a queue or in traffic. People see others behave in this fashion, fighting for a place as if it were a prized possession and they also enter the fray. I wish they would show the same amount of impatience elsewhere.