Here I was at the Lagos International Airport on this Sunday evening waiting to board a plane to Dubai. My flight was to leave at around eight at night, but I had been careful to arrive at the airport early because of the fear of missing my flight on account of the unpredictable Lagos traffic or due to possible check-in glitches at the airport. I had heard so many good things about my destination. I could already smell Dubai; I couldn’t wait to get there.
My Business Class ticket on Emirates Airline had been made possible by a timely windfall. It was a luxury I had not experienced for several years, and was at this time not sure anymore of what the ticket made me eligible for. I found to my delight that my ticket qualified me to bypass the long queue waiting at the check-in counter. I was chaperoned through check-in procedures in less than five minutes and sent off to the Business Lounge of Emirates Airline. I had three hours to wait before boarding, but this didn’t matter much to me. I had my iPad, free internet in the lounge, and not too far away from me were tables and shelves laden with free drinks, salads and tidbits. I also had the outline of a novel which I had planned to work on.
Time passed rather slowly; the lounge gradually filled up until there was only standing space. It also became quite noisy; the Business Class lounge didn’t appear to be for only the privileged anymore. I would later learn that the lounge also catered for Business Class passengers from other airlines as well as Economy Class travelers who had paid for the privilege of sitting in the lounge; for whatever their reason may be because the general departure lounge downstairs was in comparison less populated. My concentration destroyed, I resorted to observing the antics of the travelers around me to overcome boredom.
It was soon announced that my Emirates Airline flight would be leaving late. This got me a bit worried, but not without reason. Many years back, I had been in such a situation, a delayed British Airways flight. I had lost concentration and didn’t hear the announcements and consequently found my plane taking off without me. I resolved this time to remain attentive. My flight eventually boarded about thirty minutes late, and not until then could I relax.
My seat in the Business Class cabin looked very comfortable; it also looked very complicated. It had controls which I was not quite sure how they worked. I was piqued that the cabin crew didn’t offer to give any induction; but then it would naturally be assumed that those who regularly flew Business Class and First Class knew how things worked, wouldn’t it? After a while, and not willing to advertise my ignorance, I gave up trying. After the plane had safely taken off and the pilot had announced that it was safe to unbuckle seat belts, I settled for a position which had the backrest of my chair slightly tilted back and the leg rest slightly elevated
I ordinarily hate flying, primarily because I usually got nose bleeds and become deaf for days. This time I was doubly consternated to find that our flight route, according to the monitor before me, passed over Maiduguri. This was in the peak of terrorist activities in Northern Nigeria. “What if they shot down the plane with rockets or some other device?” a transient panic advised. Why was this ignorant pilot so unnecessarily endangering our lives by going in this direction? I looked around the roomy cabin hoping to find a companion who shared my worry, but I was surprised to find that some had even gone to sleep. How could anyone sleep at a time like this? The man sitting next to me emitted a loud snore in response. Not until we’d escaped to the safety of the Sahara Desert did my peace return. I shouldn’t have worried though; at the height we were flying, nobody on the ground would even know that a plane was passing overhead.
We arrived in Dubai International airport in the morning after about eight hours flying direct. I am told this is only possible with Emirates Airline and the minimum travel time with any other airline usually would be about eleven hours. Because Dubai time was three hours ahead of Nigeria time however, we arrived three hours further in time. What this meant essentially was that while our plane touched down at five in the morning Nigeria time, having been flying for eight hours after take-off at nine the previous night, the time at arrival here was already eight in the morning. So while the time on the arrival hall said eight, your body clock insists that it is only five yet.
We arrived into an opulently furnished airport, with a cavernous arrival hall which appeared embellished with gold, marble and more gold everywhere. It immediately suggested that you were near the forecourt of a very wealthy king. Passing through the immigration was easy and without any issue at all, even though I had come from a country which needed an entry visa. Some countries didn’t need to obtain a visa at all and some applied and receive a visa at arrival. Nevertheless, there was a bit of delay since this was my first visit, so my biometric data had to be freshly validated and a retina scan included. After the formalities had been concluded, the immigration personnel waved me in, and then I went in search of the luggage conveyor. Again due to the advantage conferred by my flight ticket status, getting my luggage was less difficult than it might otherwise have been. Off I went out of the exit gate and into the arrival lounge.
I had expected to meet my guide at the arrival hall. His name is Abass, a Nigerian who lived and worked in Dubai. He had facilitated my visa and I had also trusted him to book me a suitable hotel for the ten days duration of my sojourn. One of the main problems at hand was that I had never met Abass and had only seen his picture on the screen of my phone. I regretted that it might not be so easy to find him as I had thought; regardless that the arrival lounge was sparsely populated. I had also neglected to obtain a roaming arrangement with my phone service company before I left home, and therefore the little prepaid credit remaining on my phone had been quickly extinguished as it tried to automatically connect with one of the local services on a higher tariff. If only I had paid just five thousand Naira, which is about twenty five Dollars, into my Etisalat prepaid call account back home before leaving, my phone service could have seamlessly switched into the Etisalat network in Dubai, which is where the Etisalat headquarters is located. This would have permitted me to initiate and also receive phone calls at local home rate. I am told a similar roaming arrangement exists with most other telecommunication service companies all over the world though. Consequently because of this neglect, I had in my hands two useless phones from which I was unable to neither call my guide nor receive his call. My only hope remained that he would somehow find me. A borrowed phone from another Nigerian waiting in the lounge for relations, rescued me from my predicament and I found Abass, my guide, sitting in a bench about twenty feet away.
A taxi from the ranks outside took us away from the airport. The minimum charge from this location would have been thirty-five Dirham which is about ten Dollars, but I didn’t have to worry about that; Abass had money to pay. I found that he had booked me into a hotel called Al Arraf which was located in Deira district where we arrived not too long after. The hotel is located within a very busy market, and not really where I would have wished to stay, but this is my first visit to this country and I was willing to learn. Also, having travelled three hours forward in time, my body clock kept telling me I should still be in bed.
The Al Arraf is a three storey building on a narrow lot. The vertical sign hanging two storey high on the wall outside looked quite like it had been ripped off a Wild West salon. The small lobby contained two chairs and a small sofa. It looked an inexpensive no-frill accommodation, certainly not the Burj Al Arab. but nevertheless clean. The front desk manager was a bored looking, mustached fellow who looked Algerian or Egyptian. He quite efficiently assigned me a room, took my passport and instructed the concierge standing by to lead me up to my room. It was a well-ventilated double room with pastel wallpaper, one very wide window overlooking a side street, a working fridge, split-unit air-conditioner and a flat screen television hanging on a wall. The bathroom was as neat as the room. Not too bad, but for the daily rate I was being charged, I was convinced that I could obtain something better uptown. Every tourist traveling on a budget, seems always sure of this. The fact is that it may often be wise to make your own hotel booking which can these days be done on the internet and within a few minutes. If someone else local to your destination made the booking for you, there is a good chance that they would find you a place conveniently close to where they live and thus are familiar with, or they would find a place where the proprietor paid them a commission for bringing a new customer. I am sure both situations are the case here. My guide, Abass, lived not too far away from the hotel, and from the body talk I had observed at the lounge, it certainly looked like he was going to get a kickback from what I would eventually pay.
I needed to change some money because no shop here accepted payment in any other form than the national currency. Primarily I needed money to purchase a new SIM card for my phone and for a few other items. I had also along the way to the hotel, discovered a shop with shelves loaded with all imaginable sorts of edible nuts – walnuts, pecans, cashews, pine and many more; and I love nuts. With the assistance of my guide I located a change shop where I exchanged fifty dollars. A short walk took us to a phone shop at the Deira Hotel which seemed a favorite place for Nigerian merchants. Here Abass bought me a new du Telecom SIM card and also some call credits to go with it; again because his phone is on du Telecom. Along the way back we stopped at a small restaurant which looked like it was not yet really open for the day. It certainly was not yet open because the chairs were still stacked seat down upon the tables to facilitate the cleaning of the floor. The only occupant at this time was a burly Pakistani cook, who possibly was also the owner. He quite reluctantly took down the chairs from one table for us to take our seat. We ordered a plate of chicken biriyani each. The restaurant didn’t look very tidy, but I was too tired to care. It was now nearly noon. The weariness began to overcome me after I had eaten. I returned to my room, took a warm bath and slept for about five hours.
Waking up, I took a little walk around, never straying far from the hotel because navigation had never been one of the skills in which I had much proficiency. I was surely lodged within a market; actually I would say within a huge bazaar filled with Arab and Asian shops. It wasn’t a noisy market though, and nearly everyone looked utterly bored – both traders and purveyors. Abass returned around seven in the night to take me to a place where I could find a decent dinner. We went this time to the Al Kabab Al Afghan Restaurant located near Naif Police Station and about three hundred yards away from the Al Arraf. This was a very nice moderate size restaurant and it looked alien to the surrounding which consisted entirely of shops selling electronic items and every imaginable knick-knack. The Al Afghan had a tastefully arranged interior and also some sitting space outside. Inside were group tables and also a row of cubicles for those who preferred privacy while they dined. It is a moderately busy place and from the tables the even busier kitchen could be seen. Quite efficient and courteous, the waiters ushered us into our seats and handed us huge menu booklets, eighteen pages long.
Here nearly every meal came with a naan bread, a bowl of broth and a plate of shredded raw vegetables. All in all, you were bound to get a meal large enough to feed three adults. We ordered Afghan polaw with chicken; the polaw is really just rice prepared in an Afghan recipe. We got served the vegetables, broth and hot naan bread while waiting for the main meal. The bread was so good that you would be tempted to eat it all, only that doing this will destroy your appetite for the main meal you’d ordered. Indeed, I eventually asked for half of my polaw and chicken to be packed for taking out, promising myself to eat it later in the night. At the hotel I stashed the package in the fridge, and promptly forgot about it.
Switching on the television, I was disappointed that I couldn’t seem to find any available English channel but there were as I would eventually discover the next day. Actually, my brain was yet too benumbed by the jet lag to think properly. I had never cared for television anyway, and sleep came swiftly.