It’s 1am at Dubai International Airport. That’s according to the clock on the cinema-sized screen of connecting flights, gate numbers and destinations. It could have been 2pm on a Tuesday and the human conveyor belts and fluorescent corridors would’ve looked exactly the same.
Each body is in a different time zone. Everyone is waiting — waiting to board, then waiting to fly, and then waiting to reach the time zone they’re flying to. Everyone is passing time until they’re somewhere else besides here.
All the corners of the earth are represented. Full-length caftans pass too short denim shorts and thick parkas are bundled up with in-the-way scarves and hoodies.
1am doesn’t have any meaning. It’s only important for its relation to the time that my own connecting flight boards. I do the travel math.
The plane leaves when the number is 04:00.
It starts boarding at number 03:20.
I board at Gate A23.
It takes 10 minutes to get to Gate A23.
It takes 10 more minutes to stop at the bathroom and fill my water bottle.
Therefore I have to start moving when the clock shows the number 03:00.
I have two hours. Two hours to eat, sit, read and be by myself. This thought makes me abnormally happy.
Layovers, flights, waiting times and boarding processions all form part of travel’s in between. It’s a space hated by most, wished away and suppressed, ignored and deemed irrelevant the moment it’s over. Yet this travel limbo is just as much part of a trip as the destination. It’s vital to your being there.
I relish these empty hours between Wi-Fi zones, countries and days. There are so many quirky treats to take advantage of. Where else will you arrive at a Burger King in the thick of night (sober) and be greeted with a cheerful ‘Good Morning!’ before indulging in takeout for breakfast? Where else is it completely acceptable to brush your teeth in a public bathroom or fall asleep in a chair surrounded by strangers? Wouldn’t the waiter or the person at the next table frown at you if you ordered a beer at 7am anywhere else than a plane or an airport in no man’s land?
These aren’t the only reasons I love packing my backpack for a nine-hour flight, followed by a six-hour layover, followed by another five-hour flight. I like the experience of being alone in transit.
It starts the moment I switch off my phone on the plane. I usually text ‘Ready for takeoff, chat to you when we’re there!’ long before it’s necessary. Consequently, I’m slightly saddened by the idea that Wi-Fi is following us into the clouds.
Once the plane takes off, I’m completely alone. I’m settled in the slightly cramped but also sort of comfortable me-space. I have a chair, an armrest, some legroom, a little table, a little cup holder and an area to stash my shoes and backpack. It’s all I really need.
I am exempt from answering texts, calls, emails and comments. I’m forced to be without my continuously scrollable feed. I don’t have to talk.
We take off. My customary travel indulgence, a National Geographic purchased at the airport is open and I glance out the window occasionally.
As soon as the plane reaches its cruising height and my in-air gin and tonic — another travel indulgence — arrives with its tiny plastic cup, tiny plastic stirrer and foreign words on the tin, I’m free. There is literally nothing I have to do except listen to music, read, watch something, write something or think something.
This is a precious pocket of time that will forever go unrecorded. No one will ask me what I did with those hours. I won’t be sharing the details of my thoughts, words, or the terrible music I occasionally listen to with anyone. This, right here, at 40 000 feet, is the ultimate version of alone time.
It is believed that people cry more easily when they’re on a plane. No extensive research has been done on the topic, but there are a few theories. One explains that, when we’re in a highly stressful situated, our brain doesn’t allow us much emotion until the situation is dealt with. Then we allow ourselves relief, which we usually acknowledge by going for a beer or talking to a friend. We’re distracted by other ways of unwinding so we don’t often cry.
Before we travel, our trip takes up a lot of our thoughts. Visa applications, bookings, itineraries, packing, sorting out the pets, sorting out the house, buying things we need — it all adds up. We check in, go through security, have a coffee, watch the clock and make it to the gate. When we flop into 31A and almost immediately switch off all potential distractions, we experience a type of emotional freedom — freedom to process in solitude.
I don’t generally mix my gin with tears, but I do indulge in the idea of emotional relief. I write about what’s on my mind, I allow myself to be truly immersed in a storyline and relearn how to read for a hours on end. I think the thoughts that I never have space to think because there is always another place to send them.
In an age overflowing with distractions, we need these pockets of undistracted solitude. We’re encouraged to switch off and let our brains reboot. I can’t help but feel that travel limbo is a brilliant enabler of emotionally indulgent and reflective solitude that we never have time for anymore.