Middle East Workers on a plane

Whenever I fly Emirates from London to Bangladesh, it makes for a fascinating experience.

London to Dubai leg is filled with Brits and foreign travellers surging to meet the sun they have saved up for, to enjoy and frolic in.  Dressed in sweatpants and leisure wear.  Material of choice is linen, cotton, t shirts.  Even the kids are quiet because airlines have figured out that by putting the headsets on seats, means instant plug and play.  All is serene, dreadfully quiet and with headphones on, the ambience is neutral.  At worst, bland.    Nothing shocking happens. The most is when someone gets uppity as they did on my flight the other day stating they refused their piece of luggage to be stored and shared with me in the over overhead cabin space. Reason? Their laptop might get crushed (?).

The only time you might see this holiday social group run amok, is when the doors close.  I  love watching empty seats.  How, as soon as the door is closed, and all passengers are onboard, it begins.  The  surreptitious and apologetic scrabbling to get  to an empty exit or double./triple seat in a row.  For that all important 'I'm gonna stretch out and get cosy."  I would point out now I am not criticising at all.  I am also guilty of scanning for empty seats feverishly.  After all I travel often now, alone.  And there is only so many times you can say 'excuse, me could I just..." as you hesitantly ask to be dislodged from the window seat where you have been stuck.

Point I am making is that today, air travel is thoroughly dull.  Same airports,  Same duty free.   Now everyone is in jeans and sneakers.  Nothing to watch.  Everyone seems to have adopted the invisible language of code that is air travel.  Hushed politeness.  Oh I miss the traditional costumes and hats and weird smelling luggage and languages.  The ones where people would mount their seats and try and squish in lardy smelling foul liquids.  Or you would argue with the passenger next to you insisting he move his jackfruit (no,not his personal body parts), to the baggage hold area.  Ahhh, those were the days.

But in 2013 some places still provide colour and charisma.  Where? Third world countries of course.  Oops of course, we mean Least Developed Countries of which there are over 40.   Their airports and the routes are an assault for the senses and enrich any trip.  Just take any flight leg taking swathes of locals to their capital city.  I did so, three times this year.

I joined the Bangladeshi Middle East Workers going via Emirates or Etihad to Bangladesh.  Dubai to Dhaka though is the best ever mixture of hoot and sadness for me.  As I watch hordes of young Bangladesh Middle East workers clamber onboard.  Those that are going from Dubai to Dhaka are often doing so either for a holiday or because most of them are being returned.  I can sense their worry as to how they will return home and earn a living.  Despite us thinking $50 a month is meagre, for s Dubai worker, this money can be a lifeline for rural families.  So on many of my fellow passenger's faces, I could spot apprehension, relief and what I sense is numbness.  It must seem quite good to abdicate feeding oneself too.  A sort of 8 hour haven where you can just stop worrying about your next meal and instead lose yourself in a movie.

When travelling alone, on this leg I often note how I am put as near the front as possible.  I thunk I know why as when I board a plane, often I do so with all my jangling bracelets and with my skinny jeans and western tops, I guess they just assume I will feel more comfortable if I am seated alone, rather than in the midst of a horde of Bangladeshi young men.   It can be quite intimidating standing for the toilet queue but soon, if you adopt a tough stare the looks will drop away.  After all, of course they will be staring at a dark skinned Indian looking woman travelling alone.  But what I have found is they are one of the most polite, lovely young men.  Always ready to help with cabin luggage.  And if I do catch them staring they will quickly look away in embarrassment.  At no point will they argue or dare to be sleazy.  And will admit when they are wrong or ignorant. When I noticed many still stay on their phones exchanging tender good byes and promises to pray Allah to help their families in their hour of need, after the plane has taken off and explained to them that these needed to be switched off as they can interfere with radio signals, I was greeted with thanks and murmurs of 'Oh, nobody told us, I never knew!.'

As we near Dhaka, I can sense their excitement.  I can hear the scuffling of jeans in seats.  The race is on to get out.  And as soon as the plane touched down they are off.  Like salmon leaping across waters, the young men jump out of seats, the seat belts resoundingly click clacking away one after the other.  It is almost as if an invisible starter gun went off somewhere in the distant that only young Bangladeshi men can hear. This is the time I learn to shrink back into my seat.  To allow your body parts to be contained within your seat as the men lean across, under or over you to drag out their cabin luggage from the overheard compartments while speaking into their mobile handsets to tell excited relatives on the other hand, they had landed safely and would be with them in 15 minutes.  While the cabin crew are waving frantically sit down, sit down, nobody is paying the slightest bit of attention.

As I get older, I am much more appreciative of my father's fellow countrymen to learn where they are coming from and going to.  I am saddened that Western influences are catching up and now I see t-shorts emblazoned with 'Wassup' to phrases from US sit coms.  I suppose this is inevitable.  Yet despite this Westernisation, there is still the village boy who is bewildered by travelling, given that many often have never left their hometown, let alone go abroad from their native country.

I also realised how many come from rural villages where their eating habits involve hands scooping rice. Often you will find that they ditch the cutlery and eat with their hands on the plane and rinse their hands in the bowl.  Much to the chagrin of cabin crew in airlines like Bangladesh Biman whose crew told me they are fed up and warn passengers to use the cutlery given.

I find it sad that before they leave their hometown, there is no orientation class to assist them with the rules and regulations of international travel.  I used to judge and be horrified and for years refused to go to Bangladesh.  But of course that was the silly, immature me who got fed up filling in immigration forms for fellow travellers after my father would insist his children would help.

Now when I see any Bangladeshi struggling with their lap tray, or staring at the video screen in sheer puzzlement, a little friendly instruction in Bengali from me erupts a shy smile of wonder and appreciation at me.  First for being a woman and talking at them (when they have been trained not ot look at any woman) and second because I can speak their language.  It is incredible when the mother tongue erupts because before I know it, I am asked where my hometown is.  And I have noticed the younger men are more polite than their older counterparts, the settled immigrants from abroad who insist on me telling them all about my personal life and why I am travelling alone.

I guess all this is moot now anyway.  Like I said, headsets are the taming beasts that strips away all interaction so that all you have left are the hurried entry into and departure from the airplanes.

Rather sad really. 

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