Last night I had the strangest dream. More precisely, it was the last dream of my sleep, because my alarm clock jolted me out of it early this morning.
I urgently needed to fly to Washington. I asked my travel agent (who knew about my accident and my challenges with sitting) to find the best and most reasonable ticket – regardless of stopovers; I could bear a 2-hour layover in New York, if it meant that I’d arrive imminently – even if D.C. is only a one-hour flight away from here. My agent called back soon after to tell me she’d found a ticket, with one stopover, and that I could leave within a few hours. I packed quickly, left to the airport and arrived with plenty of time to catch the flight.
The agent delivered the ticket to my house in person. But it wasn’t until I arrived at the airport that I actually opened the envelope: It wasn’t a ticket so much as a large, 8-1/2 x 11, sheet of paper, written entirely in Arabic. The only word printed in English was Etihad, the name of an airline that I knew operates in the Middle East. To say the least, I was shocked. Obviously, she’d brought me the wrong ticket…
I searched out the Etihad counter and asked the agent to tell me whom the ticket belonged to. She pronounced my name and confirmed that my ticket was for the upcoming flight. At that point, too bewildered to ask any more questions, I boarded the plane… where I encountered a sea of mostly men, all dressed in long flowing white robes (not the corporate types I’d expected to see at all). I soon learned that these groups of men and a few families were on their way to Jeddah, for the annual holy pilgrimage in Mecca. What was I doing on this airplane, headed to the Middle East?!
I was mortified, knowing that I was expected in Washington. But I was also in a lot of pain, and needed to get to my seat so that I could rest. I didn’t know whom to approach – since everyone was dressed identically, and almost all the robes were adorned with a name embroidered over the chest, eliminating the possibility of identifying crew members by their title.
A kindly older man in glasses and goatee approached me and, noticing my obvious dismay, asked in British-accented English if he could be of any help. I showed him my paper/ticket and asked if he would show me the way to my seat. I followed him a few steps further into the plane until we reached an opening in the rows. It was an unfamiliar sight, as if six or eight rows had been completely removed (or never built). I asked the man why there was so much empty space in this area, as I’d never seen anything like it in all my years of air travel. For prayer, he said. This is where the most devout passengers request space in order to conduct their prayers in-flight – facing Mecca.
And then, with a quick glance above the space and down to my paper/ticket still in his hands, he added: It seems that this is also your seat, so to speak. Pardon me? I asked, where is my seat? Well, he motioned to the overhead compartment positioned directly above the prayer space, it’s right up there.
Far from amused at his reply, I glanced quickly around and saw seated passengers looking at me, speaking in hushed tones to their neighbors, and, occasionally, I would catch a friendly smile. Ok, I thought, there’s probably a mistake, no need to worry.
The next thing I knew, my compassionate and helpful flowing-robed friend called over a couple of other flowing-robed men – stewards I soon understood. After reading through my paper/ticket, they spoke amongst themselves for a few minutes. Then the two stewards sprung into action, with hurried but well-practiced movements.
They unhooked latches here and there, pulled out step-ladders, slowly pulled down the overhead compartment until it morphed into something akin to a hanging bathtub or hammock. It was lowered, but only so far as it would still allow space for men to kneel in prayer below. The men attached the unit into the wall, stabilizing it against the inevitable sway of the plane in flight.
I watched in silence and utter amazement as one of the robed men pulled down a step ladder, offered to unburden me of the light pack I carried, and invited me to climb into my seat. I followed his instructions, watching his hands and face for guidance. Peering into the compartment, I noticed that it was covered in freshly-pressed sheets, a duvet blanket and fluffy pillow at the far end. There were cup-holders, a mesh side-pocket, a fold-out table against the far side and buttons for lights and movies (which I could watch from my perch). Plenty of room to sit up, if I so desired. But cozy enough to sleep comfortably. Fit for a queen.
I leaned over the side, thanked my elder guide and easily settled in – though somewhat uncomfortable at the prospect of flying in deluxe accommodations while those around me had to sit for the long flight…
Which suddenly brought me back to the shocking realization that I was en route not to Washington but to Jeddah! Wait a minute, I called back to the steward, I am scheduled to fly to Washington, not to the Middle East! He looked down at my ticket, smiled and, in the most assuring tone he could muster, replied: Yes, the ticket says your final destination is Washington, but with a stopover in Jedda. I do not know why… And with that, he handed back my ticket, wished me a good flight and left to attend to other passengers.
And that, my friends, is the moment I was rudely awakened by my alarm clock.
For the record: The Hajj would not my pilgrimage of choice in my waking life. But, oh.. what a detour.