My cold is really streaming now and I'm sitting here on a cloud of crumpled tissues. I'll try to soldier on to the end of this entry, but my nose is dripping onto the keyboard and each key I type responds with a little squelching sound. Anyway I'll keep going 'til either the laptop short-circuits, the story becomes unreadable due to finger-slippage, or I die.
The plan was to fly to Abu Dhabi from Riyadh via Bahrain: Karen left it too late to get direct flights (but if you ask her about it she'll try to convince you it was my fault)! Our journey began, therefore, at the hell-on-earth that is King Khalid International Airport. Normally I/we fly from here to UK on bmi which, being a quiet and punctual route, makes for a relatively straitforward airport experience. This time however, we're going Bahrain-Abu Dhabi with Gulf Air, and things are very different, in a bad way.
You know you've got a stressful time ahead when crowds of passengers pressed up against the main doors prevent you from even entering the terminal building. After a struggle we finally pushed our way inside - mainly by using our suitcase-laden trolley as a battering ram -- to be confronted by the enormity of the next challenge facing us: checking in. The check-in area was a seething mass of people all crammed together, the vast majority of which was made up of single Pakistani men all dressed alike and all carrying the same two odd items in addition to their luggage: each had a briefcase with a large sticker on the side (or was it parcel tape?) bearing some text in marker pen that I couldn't make out, and a plastic jerry can full of water. These puzzled me quite a bit; what was in those briefcases? Maybe that's just what they happen to choose for their carry-on baggage. And what's the water for? Do they get partcularly thirsty when travelling? I just asked Karen and she says it's Holy Water, but couldn't provide more detail. Maybe I'll look it up and if I do, maybe I'll let you know what I find out. Or maybe let's just leave it at that.
Separating us from our objective -- the check-in desk -- was a throng of smelly (B.O. with a capital "O!") male passengers in no discernable queue or any other kind of orderly arrangement, then a security checkpoint -- the same kind you always see at airports: X-Ray machine, metal detector etc. only here there's one before you check-in as well as after -- manned by Saudi guards who don't want to be there, don't care how long it takes you to get through, and in general just wish you would go away and let them enjoy their cigarettes and tap out their text messages in peace. And beyond the checkpoint, the final hurdle, another throng of similarly smelly, similarly unorganised male passengers all wearing the same type of robes and all carrying stickered briefcases and jerry cans of water.
This is turning into a rant about King Khalid Airport isn't it? Sorry.
We were standing there, feeling utterly helpless and wondering what to do next (give up and go home?) when our saviour appears, in the form of a little Indian man in green overalls.
"You want Gulf Air?" he asked, taking hold of my trolley.
"This way please" he replies.
"Er, hold on a minute. What are you going to do? Where are we going?"
"It's OK. This way, come!"
Now we know what's going on here: he's an airport porter -- there are dozens of them around all in the same green overalls, which in itself isn't helping the congestion problem -- and he wants my business. Karen and I are wary of being ripped off, but the alternative -- a reserved English family with a sense of fair play attempting to queue our way politely to the front so as not to push in and risk offending anybody -- was too stressful to contemplate, not to mention the fact that we would never get to the plane on time that way, so I told the man to lead on, and in the same breath turned to Karen and the children and ordered, "Here we go, stay close and don't get left behind!" as if I were Indiana Jones leading them through the Temple of Doom. The little man darts first left, then right, and I'm desperately trying to pick out some identifying mark on his overalls so that I don't lose him in the crowd and start following the wrong porter. We stick to him like glue as he pushes his way to the front, through the checkpoint, and on into the second crowd. Within about five minutes we are third in line (yes, by this time there is some semblance of a line) at the Gulf Air Business Class check-in desk. We're not flying business class but by this time I'm prepared for a fight, so just let him try and move me to another queue! It is at this point that we understand the reason for all the congestion: the check-in staff, like the guards, don't really want to be there, don't care how long it takes you to get through, and in general just wish you would go away and let them enjoy their cigarettes and tap out their text messages in peace. It takes our guy fifteen minutes of vacantly staring at an unseen (from our side) computer screen and tapping sporadically on the keyboard to check in the single passenger in front of me. My blood pressure's rising, my pulse is quickening, and I'm starting to feel faint from the cloud of B.O. I'm being forced to inhale. Finally it's our turn and the first thing we realise is that this particular check-in desk has no luggage scale, so although he can check us in we then need to check our bags at another desk. Our porter hears this and is on the case (sic) immediately, taking Karen in tow and pushing his way to the front of the next "queue" with our bags. I'm finally given four boarding cards by our sleepy agent and quickly pass them, baton-style, to the porter over a line of heads. As he and Karen check the bags I start to wonder how much all this queue-jumping assistance is going to cost me.
Ten minutes later we stumble back out through the checkpoint, minus our bags but plus our boarding cards, and it's time to bid the porter farewell.
"Thank you: how much?"
"100 Riyal" (with a smile)
This is about £15 quid and way more than I was expecting!
"No, too much. 40 Riyal!"
"No sir, is no good. Please give 80."
I look in my wallet and don't have anything smaller than a 100 Riyal note.
"Here, give me 50 back."
He takes a wad of cash out of his overalls, counts off four tens and holds them out, smiling. By this time I'm past caring, and I'm still high on armpit stench so I let it go. I've paid him the equivalent of £10 Sterling which is a bit of a rip-off but, on reflection, he has just saved us at least an hour of hellish waiting and jostling so, what the hell.
Immigration and the second security check are positively streamlined procedures by comparison, and pretty soon we're in the poor excuse for a departure lounge: a couple of refreshment stands and just one tiny duty free shop (remember, no alcohol here) which we have to walk to the next terminal to reach. After a quick browse around the shop we get to the gate, to read on the computer screens that our 17.20 departure to Bahrain is both leaving at 18.00 and on time! Not sure how they manage that. Our original departure time comes and goes and there's no plane a the gate yet. We saunter up to the airline representative -- a podgy twenty-something man with what I can only describe as a Bob-gone-wrong hairstyle, mobile phone-in-hand, and a now familiar vacant middle-distance stare -- and ask when the flight will be departing, as we have a connection to make.
The agent shrugs and says lazily, "Maybe... 6.30"
Maybe? "MAYBE??" <-- Karen's had about enough by now.
Another shrug tells us it's probably not worth pursuing, so we skulk back to our seats.
The flight finally starts boarding at 18.10 and we take our seats in Row 40 amid the aforementioned throng of smelly men. Oh No! It appears that we are one smelly man short! The crew are making final call after final call, and eventually the decision is taken to off-load his baggage before we can depart, so we end up sitting there stationery for an hour and twenty minutes, fretting about missing our connection. I ask the flight attendant about it and she tells me not to worry -- the Abu Dhabi flight we need to connect with is also delayed, so we should make it.
We land in Bahrain and leg it off the plane, along the jetty, down a long corridor and up a (non-working) escalator to find that we've missed the connection, which took off on time. Dejected, we trudge back down to the transit desk, where they put us on an Etihad flight leaving at 22.35, which would get us to Abu Dhabi around 12am and two hours later than planned. Upon reaching the gate we find that the Etihad flight is subject to a 90-minute delay, and will now be departing at 23.55.
We finally land in Abu Dhabi at around 1.30 am, and Joy! our hotel limo is actually there waiting for us! At last, something's gone right! We get to the hotel around 2am and check in, to be told we have been upgraded to a Royal Suite from the Diplomatic Suite we had booked. "Lovely!" we thought. We are taken to the Royal Suite: very nice indeed but with one major drawback -- it only has one bedroom. A further wait of around half an hour ensues while they find us another room: the Diplomatic Suite we had booked in the first place, and we all fall into bed at about three in the morning.
That's it: I can't go on. The rest of the story will have to wait 'til tomorrow. Stay tuned for part two while I go off to get some more tissues to mop the keyboard with.