Stranded in Doha

Article published in The News on Sunday, Apr 25, 2010

Beena Sarwar

Who would ever have thought that a volcano with an unpronounceable name, in Iceland of all places, would suddenly erupt and disrupt the world’s air traffic for days and days – nearly a week as I write this.

Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be among thousands if not millions of ‘volcanic ash zadgaan’ (affectees) stranded in various places around the world. I’ve had tidal wave nightmares (trapped between an approaching wall of water and a cliff – Paradise Point off the Karachi shore, to be precise) but a volcano thousands of miles away? Not on my horizon until now.

The bad news began trickling in on Thursday night as I packed for a four-day trip to Berlin to participate in a `Trialogue’ between Pakistani, Indian and Afghan delegates, organised by the German organisation Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). My mother, in the UK for a TESOL (teachers of English to speakers of other languages) conference, was due back Friday afternoon. We were to cross each other in the skies. Her flight was of course cancelled.
Fortunately she learnt about the airport shutdown well before her departure time. Also fortunately, she had made friends with a couple at the conference, from Manchester where her flight was to depart from. She ended up staying with them for a couple of days before packing a rucksack and going to visit relatives in London as it became clear that the airports weren’t going to open anytime soon.

She was fortunate she had those options. Millions of other stranded passengers did not, and have been camping out at various airports for days, paying exorbitant amounts for hotel rooms, or taking suddenly overcrowded ferries and trains to various destinations.

I set off for Karachi airport in the middle of the night assuming that this remote volcano would only affect the England airports. But Berlin was also closed, the Qatar Airways ground staff informed me. “We can book you only up to Frankfurt.” Ok. I could take a train from there. I took the chance.

By the time we landed in Doha, Frankfurt airport was closed too. FES had us traveling in business class, for which I was immensely grateful, especially as we ended up having to stay at the airport for several hours.

What did we ever do without laptops and wireless internet? Sitting in the plush Qatar Airways business class lounge, I sent an email to the organisers and the other Pakistani delegates whom I had expected to meet in transit in Doha. Within minutes, a reply came from Rahimullah Yusufzai, saying he was there too. I stood up and looked around. Sure enough, there he was, sitting in a corner with his laptop. He told me that the other two delegates hadn’t made it – one had a direct flight to Berlin and never left Lahore, the other had a senate meeting.

So there we were, stuck in Doha. The lounge was comfortable, but the uncertainty was not. Finally, a couple of hours later, some mixed relief: Frankfurt airport was unlikely to open, we were being transferred to the Doha Marriott.

We could get our luggage from the baggage claim belt. As other stranded passengers picked up their bags and left, it became apparent we were not going to be among them. More waiting. This time in the lost luggage office. The staff, miraculously calm, took our baggage claim tags several times, trying to locate our suitcases from various containers. Stranded passengers, even children, also remained calm. There was an air of resigned helplessness – everyone realised that this was one occasion that the airlines weren’t to blame.

In fact, they were incurring huge losses. Qatar Airways put up all their passengers in Doha’s best hotels. A group of young men informed us that because the regular rooms were full, some passengers ended up with luxurious presidential suites.

Doha seafront - on way from hotel to city centre, taken from the taxi window

View from my hotel window... suddenly being stranded wasn't so bad after all

By the time we got to the hotel on Friday afternoon (Rahimullah an hour after me as his suitcase stubbornly refused to be found earlier) we were dropping with exhaustion and lack of sleep after our overnight flight. Here’s the Facebook status I posted before taking a long nap: “Glad to be out of airport and in hotel. Though being stranded in Doha isn’t my idea of fun, things could be worse – and they are, for thousands of other stranded passengers. For all our pretensions to power over the elements, Man is puny before Nature.”

We still hoped that by the Saturday morning, flights to Europe would resume. The next flight back to Karachi was late night Saturday. The organisers stayed in touch on email providing the encouraging news that the Indians still expected to arrive following day (Saturday).

I phoned Qatar (remaining on hold for ages, who’s surprised?) to book us on the direct Doha-Berlin flight on Sunday that was listed as operating as scheduled on their website. Alas, said the agent when I finally got through, if I would just look at the Travel Advisory on the home page, that and all other flights, were listed as cancelled. It transpired he was Indian, attending my call from – wait for it, Muscat, Oman.

He suggested getting the organisers to cancel our flights and book us on new seats back home. “A good idea,” I said.

“Even though I’m Indian?” he asked.

“Even Indians can have good ideas,” I told him.

The organisers eventually had no choice but to cancel the meeting anyway. The Afghans had made it to Berlin via Brussels but the Indians could not make it either. We had no choice but to remain in the five-star comfort of the Doha Marriott (yes, it’s a hard life) until Saturday night, arriving early Sunday morning. Another all-nighter without sleep.

I thought I’d step out of the hotel for a bit of shopping. Lovely drive to the city centre (Doha pop. 1.6 million). Nightmare on the way back. A traffic jam that lasted TWO HOURS. Some accident, said the Sri Lankan driver. He generously stuck to the amount we had agreed upon when he finally dropped me off at the hotel, so I let him keep the change.

Sunday morning – home at last. As my father used to say whenever we came back from some aborted adventure or other: “Khair se buddhu ghar ko aiye” (the dumbos made it home safely)

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