SV 554 RUH-DXB Y B777-200 seat 54L

Precisely the same flight as last time, only in the opposite direction, and the difference was night and day. Then, it was night and I sat in the aisle — now, it was day and I had a window seat, with amazing views out into the endless sand dunes below, a vast, endless expanse of reddish sand with occasional dunes and solitary roads. Dotted here and there, seemingly entirely at random, were perfect circles of lush green: farms in the middle of the desert, one of Saudi Arabia’s more harebrained attempts at diversification. (At one point, Saudi authorities had to issue a fatwa to declare the practice of feeding livestock with Saudi grain un-Islamic: at the time, all local production was bought by the government at around 8x the world price and sold for half it.)

The plane, too, seemed in slightly better shape, with a functional Airview program and two operational cameras. Lunch rolled around with much the same formula as last time, only this time with a rather tasty beef stew. Regrettably, I was foiled in my attempt to purchase two decks of Saudi Arabian Airlines playing cards, which would have been just the thing for a rousing game of strip poker on the weekend. Sigh.

The route from Riyadh to Dubai doesn’t follow the shortest route: instead, it heads a bit northeast, flying directly over Damman, before turning southeast and flying around Bahrain and Qatar, both visible in the distance, from the north. There was a fearsome tail wind of nearly 200 km/h pushing us along, but the time thus gained was lost at Dubai — we flew across the city and into the desert for a while before U-turning back and touching down on schedule.

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SV 559 DXB-RUH Y B777-200 seat 40C

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I stepped inside the door of my first Saudi Arabian Airlines plane, and I’m not quite sure if it matched those fuzzy expectations. A B777 is still a B777, even though this one was a little faded and scruffy on the edges. One of the stewards was equipped with a closely-cropped head combined with the long, scraggly beard of a devout Muslim, but there were also stewardesses flitted about, with dark blue veils hiding the hair but not the faces.

We pushed back on schedule and, after a monotone male baritone read out an invocation starting with a dual Allahu Akbar (which passed the taxiing time nicely, I might add), we bounced off into the sky. Meal service followed, with a bit of confusion as there was a special meal for seat 40C despite me not requesting one; on declining, I was offered the usual “chicken or beef”, and picked chicken. This got me a rather dry pilaf-type rice dish with chicken chunks, a lettuce and tomato salad, an industry-standard warm bread bun (there must be a giant factory somewhere that makes these for every single airline on the planet) and a cube of strawberry cake (probably from the aforementioned factory as well).

Seat pitch was pretty decent (36″?), although the layout was a weird 2-5-2 and, this being a two-hour flight, I had a little time to look around. Despite the claims of the inflight entertainment mag, there was no airshow flight route map, only a rather less exciting arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca (qiblah). The plane was supposed to be equipped with two cameras, but only the forward-pointing one worked, and it too was switched off. The first five channels were, predictably, “The Holy Quran”, “Islamic Programming” (Arabic and English versions) and “Your Guide to the Hajj” (Arabic/English), but the rest was devoted to Hollywood fare, including “Rush Hour 3”, which I’d watched on SQ. No on-demand options though, just looping videos, so I didn’t have the chance to check out how Saudi censors had treated the scene where the cop duo checks out the backstage of a Parisian burlesque show… so I stuck to the qiblah-o-rama, which allowed interesting mental gyrations as I tried to estimate the plane’s heading and direction in reference to not our destination, but a city some 500 km to the southeast. Fun for the whole Islamic family!

Try as I might, an aisle seat over the wing didn’t allow me to see much scenery as we descended. After a smooth touchdown into scraggly desert scenery, we rolled up to one of the gates of the still remarkably futuristic-looking King Khalid International Airport. What awaited me inside?

Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Dubai

The original plan had been just to do a simple transit in Dubai, but the flight I wanted on Tuesday was full — a good thing, in retrospect, as not only was Bush Jr and his security brouhaha in town, but unusually strong rains made sure that the city was completely and totally jammed. Wed was full too, so I booked Thursday — but on that day the connecting flight to Riyadh was full. Bizarrely, the earliest next flight out on SV or EK was at 4 PM the next day, 21 hours later (!), so there was no choice: I had to overnight. I shed a crocodile tear and rang up local resident F. who promised to take me out to his favorite shisha place.

The flight docked at the rather swanky-looking Terminal 1, but a lengthy sequence of escalators took me over to decrepit old T2 (opened — omg! — almost 10 years ago) for immigration. This time, the queues were mercifully brief, and after a solitary question (“Where are you staying?”) I was stamped in and invited to enjoy my stay. And here’s one thing where other countries should follow the UAE’s lead: absolutely no silly little immigration forms where you have to copy all the information that they can figure out anyway by scanning your passport.

Alas, the taxi scrum was rather longer and an hour from landing had passed by the time I got in the car. I’d opted for the brand new Four Points by Sheraton Downtown, a brand new hotel, and had misgivings about if the cabbie would know where it was… but he did, precisely, and earned a nice tip. The Four Points, incidentally, is the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at for a while: it’s brand new, squeaky clean, super modern, very comfortable, friendly and, by Dubai standards, affordable — my room cost 500 dirhams (~US$150), which, believe it or not, qualifies as a steal in Dubai these days. (I usually stay at Marriotts, but their cheapest property anywhere near the center, the Renaissance, wanted Dhs 1400.) But by the time I checked it, it was 11 PM local time and 4 AM my time, so F and I decided to put the shisha off until tomorrow and I hit the sack.

Morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a pleasant visit to the gym (equipped with a well-stacked Spanish fitness trainer) and a bracing dip in the icy pool (January in Dubai is pretty chilly) I hit the street and started walking towards Dubai Creek. The section of older Dubai along the way was distinctly unflashy, a warren of crumbling concrete, haphazard wiring, oversized signage and fragrant odours that bore more than a little resemblance to India, the home of most of the district’s inhabitants, with nary a thobe in sight. But by sheer coincidence (I had neither map, guidebook nor any idea of its existence), I ended up precisely in the quarter of Bastakia, the solitary chunk of old Dubai that has been expensively restored as a heritage project. It all looked a little too new and perfect to be true, a contrast highlighted by the solitary exhibit of something that was actually old: a remnant of Dubai’s city wall, now a low stretch of roped-off, nondescript rubble.

On the other side of Bastakia is the Creek. I’d had a mental image something along on lines of the Singapore River or Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, with precipitous skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and harried businessmen lining the edges, but no, the buildings were low-rise and nondescript, with few higher than five floors. Abra boats shuttled busily around to the market buildings on the other side, but my side of the river (which did have a pleasant promenade) was largely given over to a neverending procession of increasingly over-the-top river cruise ships of the buffet-and-bellydance variety, with blinking lights, Romanesque pillars and statues in excerably bad taste (now whose bright idea was it to celebrate Arab culture with a life-size bronze of a conquistador?).

Before long I had to return to the hotel and was just checking out when F and his uncle showed up. Once an IT geek like us, Uncle had ditched that career for the evidently rather more lucrative business of designing air conditioning systems, obviously a booming market in the neverending construction site of Dubai. An excellent Lebanese lunch at al-Hallab later, we retired to a nearby shisha shop for a few early afternoon puffs. I was in no hurry to depart, but my flight to Riyadh was, so around 90 minutes before the flight I had to interrupt the stream of Arab hospitality and start making worried noises. We eventually managed to find a taxi company to call, but their driver was permanently 5 minutes away from arriving, and with only an hour to go until flight departure we had to resort to flagging down a cab on the main road (where there aren’t allowed to stop). One kind soul risked a thousand-dirham fine to pick us up and jetted us off to the airport, where I said my hasty goodbyes, brutally cut my way through the security line and arrive at the check-in counter precisely and literally one (1) minute before it closed. The check-in guy even had to check with his manager if the flight was still open, but it was — “You’re the last passenger! So rush!”. Through immigration, though another security point, the endless corridor to the other terminal again, up and up and up and across and, under 20 min before to the departure, to the gate. Phew.

SQ494 SIN-DXB Y B777-300 seat 35H

The flight started off ominously: on all seat-back and cabin screens was a freeze frame from the SQ safety video, showing a little girl with an orange oxygen mask on her face and the caption: “Take care of yourself before attending to others.” Kiasu or what?

That aside, it was another day, another SQ 777 — SQ is the world’s biggest operator of the 777 and unsurprisingly it’s also by an overwhelming majority the most common plane I fly. Fortunately life is made marginally more interesting by the fact that SQ has no less than four variants of this. The pedestrian B777-200 is the workhorse of the regional fleet, with neither on-demand entertainment nor decent business seating. B777-300s like this are a step up, with decent entertainment but still no near-flat seats; it’s only the B777-200ER that introduces the Spacebed in biz, and the still rare B777-300ER (aka “77W” in SQ-ese), which I’ve yet to fly, was SQ’s star until the A380 crashed the party.

But today, something a little out of the ordinary happened. We taxied out from the gate and lined up for our turn to take off… and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually the captain came online: an indicator light for a punctured tire was lit. We taxied back to a safer position, waited for the mechanics to show up, and they eventually confirmed that, yes, a tire was indeed punctured. Nearly two hours after pushback, we arrived back the same gate we’d left from. They guessed 45 minutes to replace the tire, so I headed back to the lounge (T2 this time) for a quick bite and laptop recharge.

After barely 10 minutes in the lounge, it was time to try again, and this time we were off for real. I’d finished my first movie (an enjoyable if brainless Egyptian criminals-fall-in-love romp) by the time dinner rolled around. No Arabic catering here either, I’d had the same ayam rendang (chicken in dry curry) umpteen times before, but I’ve had worse.

And the flight continued. The lights went dark, I played with my laptop a bit, tried to sleep a bit, watched the barely entertaining Rush Hour 3, had a fairly bizarre “refreshment” of a croissant stuffed with salsa, tuna and yoghurt, had the lights go off again, and come back on only 30 minutes before landing. Soon we crossed over the northern tip of the UAE, flew past Dubai, executed a U-turn and came down for a landing, the Palm Jumeirah visible in the distance and the insane lit-up spike of Burj Dubai looking like a computer rendering error in the night-time sky.

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode أ

Ending up in Greece in the first place was a bit of a surprise to say the least, but consulting threw me another curveball at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. As I’d already finished what I set out to do, how about going to Abu Dhabi instead — today? Well, umm, err, why not?

So I spent the morning trying to figure out how to get there, booking flights and hotels and packing up and checking out two nights ahead of schedule. There were no sensible flight connections from Athens to Abu Dhabi, but I could take a direct flight to Dubai in the evening and cover the remaining 170 km by taxi. The travel agent offered a choice between Olympic, one of Europe’s worst airlines, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years with Greece flouting EU rules to subsidize it while unable to find a buyer; and Emirates, one of the world’s best airlines, with enough awards and devoted passengers to make Singapore Airlines quake. It didn’t take too long to decide. (And the Olympic flight, with a Kuwait stopover, would’ve taken longer.)

I took the train out to the airport (“next stop: Pallini”), checked in for my flight, gasped when I saw yet another passport queue of Olympic proportions but was relieved to find it fast-moving, and once through embarked on my perennial pre-flight entertainment ritual of “Find the Power Socket”. After my iPod was juiced up, they started boarding and, smiled in by Emirates stewardesses wearing as much makeup as the Singapore Girls but topped off with pillbox hats and poofy token veils, I navigated to my seat in this B777-300ER. (Incidentally, Emirates’ business class seats look absolutely amazing, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)

First impression: people flying Emirates don’t have just Louis Vuitton handbags, but Louis Vuitton luggage. Second impression: pretty tight seat pitch. Not unusually bad, but by no means generous, and reclining the seat makes it slide forward, reducing the pitch even more. The seat lottery had given me an end aisle, next to the toilets (d’oh), but with nobody behind. This was an advantage, because Emirates’ “ice” entertainment system uses a touchscreen, which means people poking at your headrest when they want to change the channel. (Well, the controller does have a dinky joypad as a substitute, but it’s, well, dinky.) That’s pretty much it as far as negatives go, as the system is otherwise amazing: 500 (!) channels of movies, TV programs and audio, with a nice big screen and a very responsive, high-res interface that slaughters poor old KrisWorld. The handset is in the seat in front, not by your side, which makes it oh so much easier to tweak volumes and channels, and stops you from pressing the wrong buttons by accident to boot. The only downside was that the selection loaded was so un-edgy it hurt: not a single movie I was particularly interested in seeing, no comedy that would qualify as even mildly racy, not even a single DJ mix. Well, at least they had “Best of Ayumi Hamasaki” and the latest by the Chemical Brothers — and there’s another feature that just sold me onto EK for my next long-haul flight: free power sockets for every other seat, even in economy!

Getting permission to leave Elefterios Venizelos took a while, but once in flight dinner, somewhat oddly called “lunch” despite being served at 7 PM, was served. This was pretty impressive: we were handed menus, and while this reduced to “lamb or fish?” when the service actually came around, the actual meal was a cut above the usual: a little plate of Greek mezze, a Greek salad (yay, feta!), and “Perch cooked in spetsiota sauce” which was, well, white fish in tomato sauce. It all looked great though, because — and I know this will sound stupid, but it’s true — the containers were all jauntily sail-shaped or triangular instead of square. Of such small touches is pizzazz made. Dessert was a honey-soaked pastry, the only Arabic-feeling thing on the menu (although the menu claimed that it, too, was Greek) and an on-your-pillow-in-good-hotels piece of chocolate. I was little disappointed/surprised not to have an Arab meal option, but it was still pretty impressive to have a menu so localized for a single destination, and overall it was definitely among the best economy meals I’ve had anywhere.

Dubai Airport is a giant construction site, and we were treated to a long bus journey from the plane with not one, but two stops: one for transiting passengers, the second for those terminating their journey in Dubai. Alas, midnight is peak hour at DXB and there was another long passport queue waiting, but at least this time I’d had the foresight to visit the loo first and 45 minutes passed fairly painlessly. My bag was waiting in the pile next to the conveyor belt, I grabbed a sliver of dirham from an ATM and headed to the taxi queue for my onward journey.

The next 150 km were almost hallucinatory. First lengthwise through the even more fast construction site of Dubai itself, past the towering spire of Burj Dubai, the billowing sail of the Burj al-Arab, the Chinese temples of the Ibn Battuta Mall, and kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of the elevated Dubai Metro track. Eventually, though, the buildings petered out and it was just a ten-lane highway slicing through the desert. An eerie tan light as the streetlamps were filtered through the sandy air, an occasional roar from the left lane as Emiratis speeded past in their tinted-window SUVs at 250 km/h, and at almost every intersection the bulbous, cephalopod figure of an oversized mosque, floodlit green and topped with red lights in the minarets staring out into the desert like eyes. Warning signs posted by the side of the road proclaimed: “Beware of road surprises”.

There are three Hiltons in Abu Dhabi, and the second one my driver took me to was the right one. (Later it turned out that, locationwise, I should’ve booked the first one after all.) After an effortless checkin, I crashed into an opulently huge bed at 3 AM, wondering what awaited me next morning.

Erratically Hellenic, yet Unexpectedly Arabic: Index

An index of a miniature odyssey through Greece (Athens, Hydra) and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi).

Detail of the Parthenon Greek salad (horiatiki)

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion α

Arrival in Athens

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion β

The quixotic quest for souvlaki

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion γ

It’s all Greek to me

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion δ

Capsules of Athens and Hydra

Causeway to Marina Mall Inside the Emirates Palace

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode أ

Emirates to Dubai and onward to Abu Dhabi

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode ﺏ

Abu Dhabi in general and during Ramadan in particular