You know I’ve been ruminating on it. But after 339 days, it’s finally time to leave Malaysia. We’re traveling to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a semi-live blog that I’ll update throughout the journey. I’ll edit in photos once I’m back on my laptop.
- 1 The Weeks Before Departure to Dubai
- 2 The Stupidest Problem
- 3 The Problem Increasing Its Stupidity (Anticipated, Yet Unanticipated Fuckery)
- 4 Packing, Planning, Preparing for Dubai
- 5 The Last of Johor Bahru
- 6 Final Prep for Dubai
- 7 Travel Day is Here
- 8 Dubai? Dubai.
The Weeks Before Departure to Dubai
On the evening of the start of ‘MCO 2.0’, Jonas and I were smoking shisha at Chimney Hookah Café in Johor Bahru (JB). We’d just made the most of our last day without stay-inside-order and we finished it off with a banger. One thing had been on my mind since the announcement of a two-week MCO: should we stay or should we go?
Though the tension was there in the visible exhalations from us and others at least two meters away, Jonas and I didn’t talk about it back then. But it was the only thing on my mind.
Over the course of a few days, I began to lobby in favor of leaving Malaysia. Jonas was okay with staying. Leaving sounded quite cumbersome, which in hindsight, it fucking is. I made a spreadsheet with information on places we could go to and a timeline of when we need to do what. We matched that with info about entry requirements. Then we looked for a local clinic in JB to do a COVID-19 PCR test. Jonas called a few local police stations to ask how to obtain the interstate travel permit. We also asked the owner of our favorite restaurant in Johor Bahru Life Ricette Desmond if he could print out our flight tickets for us once we booked them—he could and would.
Then we set our eyes on a destination and a departure date. But we didn’t book the flight—yet.
None of this was super complicated. The stupidest hurdle to our departure was a domestic problem.
The Stupidest Problem
We looked for three ways to travel from JB to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA): train, bus, and flight. The train website for the KTM trains was having a crisis; it showed us no trains from JB further than Gemas in the state of Negeri Sembilan. The bus would take us approximately six hours during the first two rounds of research. One website said it had a bus leaving from JB to KLIA every 15 minutes, which sounded too optimistic for a full-ass lockdown.
Then there’s the domestic flight: Malaysia Airlines said it had a flight from JB airport to KLIA, where we’d have a 13-hour layover. Not great, not terrible. And though I hate domestic flights that we could have easily overlanded, the stakes were too high here. We needed to make that flight out of Malaysia. We reasoned it would be best to travel within the same system (flights) instead of two different systems (buses and flights) since they coordinate. So on Friday the 22nd of January, we booked the flight from JB to KLIA and KLIA to DXB (Dubai International Airport).
With a high-five and a kiss, we lauded each other for finally biting the bullet. Still, I offered to pay for bus tickets to KLIA (€24) as well, just in case. Jonas said that would be silly.
The Problem Increasing Its Stupidity (Anticipated, Yet Unanticipated Fuckery)
Two hours later, Emirates airline canceled the JB to KLIA part of the flight and booked us on the next available JB to KLIA flight: two days after our flight from KLIA to Dubai. What the fuck? If it’s not going, you should cancel the first leg of the flight, pay that money back, or provide a viable alternative. What you absolutely shouldn’t do is book us on a flight that’s later than the second flight and be like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ your problem now.
What an asshole move.
So the rest of the day, Jonas spent time chatting with someone from Emirates to get the money back from the JB to KLIA flight. That’s some €60. They said they couldn’t do it without also canceling the KLIA to Dubai flight. Getting the money back from an airline takes
as we know from that time our flight from the Azores to Lisbon was delayed and delayed. Eventually, we decided to not fight this battle right now, but postpone it for a later moment, perhaps. We just needed to have a new PDF that said we’d only fly from KLIA to Dubai without the other stupid flight. Online chat person made that for us very quickly. We sent it over to Desmond for printing.
Phew, but that still didn’t solve the issue of traveling from JB to KLIA. I called a bus company to ask if the bus route on their website was real. We struggled to communicate, but we confirmed it exists and departs from Larkin Bus Terminal in JB. We booked those tickets online. There are so many buses departing after the timeslot we bought that it felt safe to assume there’d be another option in case ours doesn’t go.
Two hours later… We still had bus tickets. Their website said that there were 25 seats available out of 27. Thank fuck it’s done. Jonas and I did a markedly less-energetic high-five one more time.
He was so done.
I, however, started packing.
Packing, Planning, Preparing for Dubai
After booking a flight, I can’t really enjoy a place anymore. That’s why I tend to not book things with an exit-ticket and I tend to book it close to my departure; I don’t want to know when I’m leaving. Knowing a departure date looms in the back of my mind like a threatening thundercloud. After booking, it’s all about preparing to leave. And much of that can be packing.
I don’t hate packing. It’s a great opportunity to reduce the shit you carry around and review one’s backpack. But we lived in JB for nearly (nearly?) five months. That means we’ve collected a few items. It means we tucked away some items of our own in forgotten drawers. I knew it would be a multi-day endeavor.
We also needed to plan out our final days in terms of food, laundry, and missing items. We still had some food in the fridge, which we cooked up. My tea stash had to diminish, so I force-fed Jonas delicious cinnamon and mint teas twice a day. To finish the butter, we bought extra wine and cheese and bread.
I had ordered a few more items via Lazada that we had to pick up a few days in a row. Along with picking up delivery food, those were the short moments we’d leave the apartment during this lockdown. Also, we needed to think about when to do laundry for the last time with still giving it plenty of time to dry.
I churned out a bunch more blog posts or drafted them. We looked up which SIM card to buy in Dubai. I watched YouTube videos and read Wikipedia about the United Arab Emirates. I even had to finish reading a physical book. We picked up our printed plane tickets at Life Ricette and took a photo with Desmond for a testimonial. Jonas looked at the entry requirements every day to see if something had changed. Emirates stopped updating that on a daily basis starting the 24th of January, which made us very anxious. Is this bad? It’s probably bad, right?
To blow off steam, we played a lot of Eleven Table Tennis on Jonas’ VR headset. Though I only played at medium difficulty, it felt good to smash that ball at that mustachioed motherfucker of an AI. Or I would slap some mosquitoes.
Slowly, we became not simply emotionally ready to leave—but deadset on leaving. This was always hard whenever we had the bare minimum of social interaction with the kind bespectacled lady from Hock Kee Kopitiam, or one of the guys who run the minimart across the street. We wanted to support all JB businesses we love one last time, but it was too difficult. We even looked into receiving a delivery shisha from Chimney Hookah Cafe.
I emptied my closet and drawers and filled up my backpack. It’s almost time. My heart was racing every morning when waking up. Would the flight to Dubai be canceled today? Would the entry requirements become too tough?
Luckily, after a few days, Emirates picked up the habit again to tell us it was all good with minor changes that didn’t affect our journey.
The Last of Johor Bahru
The COVID-19 PCR Test
On Wednesday the 27th of January, we had an early morning appointment at Mediviron clinic. That’s where we’d do our COVID-19 PCR test. I hadn’t slept well. For those who haven’t taken one, there are three possible outcomes of this test: positive, negative, and inconclusive. We’d done everything to avoid testing positive, now we had to encourage them to make sure the test wouldn’t be inconclusive. They’d said that the results would come in after 48 hours.
We had to wake up at 7:00 to make it there at 8:00. Mornings aren’t my strong suit. Once we’d taken the Grab there, things went fast. We didn’t need to show ID, just confirm our names on the list of people that’d take a COVID-19 test at that clinic that morning, fill in a small questionnaire, and sign. Oh, and also pay: that will be RM 250, per person.
At the dispensary, we both received our COVID-19 test kits with our names and passport numbers on there. I was happy to see that there were two tubes in there for two different types of swabs. That means they’ll take samples from both my throat and my nose. A lady at the end of the hallway in full-pandemic warrior gear stood there waving us to hurry and come. It was so early my eyes weren’t even working yet, so I didn’t notice how many layers she actually had on, but Jonas said she wore multiple everything: gloves, masks, gowns, hair nets, etc. I decided I’d go first since Jonas was still messing with the stack of papers.
Things went fast after that.
Around the privacy curtain, there was a small corner with a small stool. I sat down on it and waited for her instructions to pull my mask down. Jonas and I’d watched a video of a guy getting a test the night before that wasn’t very reassuring. Based on that, I thought she’d go for the nose first, but she said “more down” to uncover my mouth for the throat swab. In she went, decisively. Gag reflex activated. And she twisted and turned the swab while I made khhh khhhhkhh khh sounds from choking on something—much like a certain king from a popular TV series.
When she was done with my throat, I had to cough a little and felt embarrassed by that, but there was no time to swallow away my tears from scratching a sensitive spot because there came the nose swab—which looked like a tiny feather. From a picture, I saw that people also tilted their heads back, but she told me to just keep my head straight. I wanted to put my head in the corner so I couldn’t move, but she already went into my right nostril and ohhohh, myy, lorrd, what the fuck.
She reached a sensory blind spot in my body. It scratched and hurt like a motherfucker and I teared up. She kept talking words that couldn’t soothe the absolute pain I was in. I didn’t hear a thing. My fight-or-flight response kicked in and I moved my head into that corner as the swab in her hand followed my head and went in deeper.
Then came the left nostril. By now, I was in a complete state of dissociation.
That was by far the longest minute of my life. I haven’t ever felt this level of fear.
When she was finally done, I didn’t feel relieved. My interior hurt. I felt invaded. And I thanked her as I put my mask back on, but there was another step she’d have to take before letting me out. She pulled out a spray bottle that looked medicinal and gestured I should put my chin up. I thought that meant it was some spray for my sore mouth and throat, so I opened up, but then she said “close your mouth please” before spraying disinfectant on my entire upper body in generous quantities. The fumes went directly to my eyes.
Finally, wet and confused, I stood up and stumbled back to the waiting area. While Jonas looked for the expression on my face of how it went, I couldn’t see with the tears in my eyes, so I hit my toes on the foot of the row of chairs real hard and just started crying. I tried to stop it and tell him it’s all good before he went in because I didn’t want his test to come back inconclusive. But he was already on his way to the booth when she called for him after changing her outer layer of gloves and spraying down the entire testing area with disinfectant. (Or so I’ve been told by a much more lucid Jonas.)
When he was done, he came out with the blood-shot eyes of a stoner but without the relaxed attitude. Though we have a friend who has taken eight (!) COVID-19 tests since last I asked, we won’t do this again unless the situation requires it. I wanted it to be no biggie, but it was a BIG biggie—bordering on traumatic. Oh, Dubai, the things we do for travel.
Obtaining The Interstate Travel Permit at Balai Polis Sentral
Next up on the busy Wednesday program was visiting the Balai Polis Sentral (central police station) in Johor Bahru’s city center. That’s where we had to show our bus ticket to KLIA and our flight ticket to Dubai to obtain a travel permit to travel outside our district and state. We had the benign plan to get banana cake at Hiap Joo afterward and pick up lunch at Flowers in the Window. Outside the Mediviron clinic, Jonas gave them a call first to ask if they’re open at this time of day. The person on the other end said they’re open 24/7 because they’re a police station.
We took another Grab to downtown and drove down the dead streets of JB under MCO. It was depressing. Jonas informed me that there’d probably be fewer people who’d speak English at the police station, based on the phone calls he’d made.
Once at the police station, we only saw a guy in uniform behind a lectern and a cleaning lady humming a pop song. The police guy approached us and asked us what we were here for. When he didn’t understand, he notified his colleagues in the main building that there were some people who wanted a thing. Out came a man with a very big gun that looked rather automatic and made me uNComFoRtABle. Jonas showed them the bus and plane tickets and I grabbed Google Translate. He managed to tell someone about going to the airport in Kuala Lumpur and another guy came out with the proper form.
That guy led us to a table and bench where we began to fill it in while he pointed at “nama” and “warganegara” with a burning cigarette squeezed between his fingers midway between the paper and Jonas’ hovering face, telling us what the Malay words mean. It felt more like Jonas was signing a forced confession than filling a form, so I grabbed Google Translate take over and improve accuracy. I also translated our answers into Malay for clarity. It was a crash course in Malay: Jonas is Jerman, we’re traveling by bas, and our destinasi is Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kuala Lumpur.
What we didn’t know is that the interstate travel permit requires passport copies. Jonas had one, but I didn’t. We tried to explain that there were no copyshops open right now, so we couldn’t get one. After a few minutes of discussion, they asked for our passports, the bus and plane tickets, and the completed form. They left and we were listening to the singing of the cleaning lady, who was really getting into it.
Five minutes later, cigarette guy returned with our passports and a neatly stapled collection of A4 papers. Jonas thanked him and went through it to see that they actually made a passport copy for us and attached it. That’s fantastic! We thanked them again and left.
Once outside, we looked at the clock: 9:02. The whole two bureaucratic things had taken us one hour to fulfill. Flowers in the Window doesn’t open till 10:00. What do?
Then we saw that we were on the wrong side of one of JB’s construction sites. We decided to go home instead and order Flowers in the Window by WhatsApp instead. For dinner, we feasted on Noodleface.
At 1:30 at night, I was still awake when Jonas woke up from his sound sleep. I asked him if he wanted to wait for the online check-in to open, which he’d said would be at 2:00. He said no, but set up his computer so I could do it a half-hour later. Then he saw that it would open at 1:45, so eventually, he waited and we dealt with it together. We don’t have any clue what to expect from this flight. Will there be empty seats for social distancing? Has everyone just booked the entire middle row of nearly everything? Why are so many seats occupied when online check-in just opened?
I didn’t sleep well, again.
Final Prep for Dubai
The throat pain from the COVID-19 test lasted for both of us for more hours than it took for the results to come in: after a mere 26 hours, we learned we’re both NEGATIVE. Being negative wasn’t a surprise, but we were so happy and relieved that the test was conclusive. The downside? The lab mistyped Jonas’ passport number, which is a problem. But since they over-delivered on their promise to send the results within 48 hours, there was also enough time to fix this error.
For lunch, we had Master Hsu noodles and bubble tea one last time. After that, we began packing and sorting through our many things. It’s laborious to reduce all this into our backpacks. I’m happy I started sorting through things immediately after booking the tickets.
So far, there were no signs of Emirates canceling our Dubai flight. Small yay. I still don’t want to jinx it.
For dinner, we wanted to order from Routine, but they were out of Hummus Party. I tried calling them to ask them if they’d really run out, but no one picked up. So we ordered our backup plan: Deja Vu. Meanwhile, Jonas also sent over to Desmond the corrected COVID-19 test results and our onward ticket from Dubai to Athens via Paris, booked for April. He also ordered our two meals we’d need to eat on our travel day to KLIA, but Desmond had run out of a few ingredients. To be fair, everything with the food had gone too smoothly up to this point. But we found some amazing replacements for the missing dishes. We ended up with one sambal rice cakes, one nasi lemak, and two curry rendang baked rice. It’s amazing.
Once we picked it up, he already had our last documents printed out for us. That was very unexpected and fast, and also meant that this would be goodbye. We chatted a little longer with Desmond and his massive worries for his business. I don’t think he knew we weren’t expats on a residency here, but stranded tourists. Jonas told him “once we leave, we can’t go back”, which holds true for as long as this pandemic lasts. Heading back up our condo felt so strange—and even a little wrong.
Travel Day is Here
So… it’s here. The 29th of January is our travel day to KLIA. A little past midnight, we should board our flight to Dubai. I’m a nervous wreck.
Oof, that’s what happens when you try to predict the future. It should have read: I’m a tired wreck. This is what really happened:
The Bus That Wasn’t
Jonas woke me up with his gentle touch that means trouble. My alarm hadn’t rung. I instinctively grabbed my phone to check the time while calmly rubbed my back to slowly wake me. I saw the time and Jonas said that there was a problem, but not a huge one. Having slept only two hours, my brain had never shut off completely. “So the bus got canceled” I stated and asked at the same time. “Yes, they sent a text. They wrote we can take an alternative bus at 10.00 or 16:30. “We take the 10.”
I rolled out of bed while Jonas opened some curtains. He said we had to leave the house around 9. That’s not a lot of time for still needing to finalize packing and take out the trash. But the thing that hurt most is that it would be too early to get one last coffee from Hock Keep Kopitiam downstairs. And I’d probably not have time to visit the 8th floor one more time to say goodbye to the pool and ping-pong table.
But we made it. We showered, packed, brushed teeth, packed some more, took out the trash, and packed everything we had. We visited the pool level and took some photos. Then we went back up to drink a joker instant coffee we still had around. One more trip to the bathroom. Didn’t forget anything. It’s a little past 9.00 but that’s okay because it’s only 5 minutes to Larkin Sentral bus station by Grab. I put on my backpacks and left to call an elevator. Jonas followed but realized in the elevator that he’d forgotten his planned face mask for the day. He grabbed a new one from his hand luggage and put it on, irritated that after nearly a year, this still didn’t feel like a habit somehow. I knew that today had nothing to do with habits.
Downstairs, there was only one familiar guard around. It felt weird to say goodbye, but also not to say goodbye. The Grab arrived and we put some luggage in the trunk. The rest we took to the back seat where we checked in on MySejahterah. He confirmed our destination and off we went, driving through parts of JB we’ve never seen before.
At the bus station, we had to check in on MySejahterah again, then we had to find the right place to turn our printed tickets into real tickets. We found seats, so I stayed with the luggage while Jonas did his bus thing. He returned to say that they wanted to see the police permit before giving a ticket and that there were also better seats. We moved to new seats and Jonas grabbed the documents to show to the ticket person. I stayed with the luggage again. A guy came by to try to sell me something and with five bags of Stuff next to me, I wasn’t feeling the offer whatever it was.
I anxiously waited for Jonas to return with the tickets, which he did some 15 minutes before the bus would depart. We donkeyed ourselves up again and went to the departures hall, which was super nice. But there was no time to enjoy it because we had to embark on our bus to Seremban and then KLIA. Though Jonas said we needed gate 7, there was no bus there. We asked again and then we’re sent to 14. A guy checked our tickets to see if it’s correct and then we squished our baggage in the hold before occupying our seats 5 and 6. Phew, we made it to this stage in the journey.
Buses will be buses. There was someone behind us who was playing some kind of game on her phone without headphones in. It would make this annoying sound every 30 seconds or so. I plugged in music.
We didn’t leave for quite a long time. And when we did, we first drove to the bus station in Skudai to pick up/drop off more people. We also made a refueling stop on the highway and it took forever before the bus was in bus mode, where you take a nap and then check the map again to see that you’re suddenly over halfway to Seremban.
During the pee stop, Jonas went out and ate part of the sambal rice cakes from Life Ricette. He says it’s delicious as ever even when it’s not hot. I thought we’d already established that when we took sambal rice cakes cold on a motocross adventure. Meanwhile, I avoided eating and drinking so I wouldn’t have to pee at a rest stop or bus station. I’m very afraid that they’ll leave without me but with all my stuff, which is not an irrational fear.
We drove past more and more palm oil plantations. The landscape became more rolling than before. Even if it’s the evil of monoculture, I still enjoy the amount of green here. A telecom tower peeks above the treetops here and there.
I check my map to see how much time it is before we arrive in Seremban. Some 26 minutes, says Google. I scroll Twitter for Gamestop memes. Then I check the map, where it says there are 8 minutes left. I go to Facebook to look at cats. Then I look on the map again: we’ve driven past Seremban at 14:09. Good? Good. On to KLIA.
But hey, I’d everyone here is going to the airport, did the entire bus take a COVID-19 test within the last 72 hours and tested negative? Sweet.
At KLIA Airport, Waiting for Hours
We arrived at the airport bus station at a neat 14:37. Though I wouldn’t have done it differently, it’s extremely to arrive at this time for a flight that leaves at 1:45 the next day. I don’t enjoy killing time, but we had to do it. First, we occupied some seats in the calm airport bus station. I ate the other half of the glorious sambal rice cakes and Jonas devoured half of the first curry rendang baked rice. I finished the latter off once he’d eaten halfway. This was my first meal of the day.
After food, we walked to the terminal. We first spent many hours in the arrivals terminal drinking our first complete coffee of the day, playing videogames, blogging, and playing table tennis in VR. It was empty and most businesses were closed. Even if they were open, that didn’t mean you could grab a seat at a table for more ergonomic laptop stuff. And there were no plugs in convenient locations.
We went up to the departure hall once to check out where we needed to drop off our backpacks. That place was even worse for killing time because there were fewer seats. Jonas asked the one lady at the baggage drop-off when we could surrender our backpacks. “Three hours before the flight,” she said cheerfully. Ah, that’s… at 22:45. Jesus.
We headed back downstairs to arrivals and found ourselves better seats in a dark corner. The crew of an Emirates plane walked by in their distinct attire—a good sign. I grabbed my laptop to do some blogging and charged my phone with my power bank. Jonas played some more Stardew Valley and called with his mom. The seats were good for stretching out, which I did in an attempt to nap. Didn’t work. I decided to switch over to comfy kayak shoes instead of my hiking boots. My shoes always beep when I walk through the metal detector anyway.
Finally, we were hungry again. This time we ravaged the nasi lemak sans papadom and the other curry rendang baked rice. These felt like appropriate last meals to eat before passing through immigration and officially leaving Malaysia. But I’m getting ahead of myself when I talk about getting through immigration. First, there’s of course baggage drop off and getting our boarding passes.
Boarding Pass, Malaysian Immigration, Waiting at the Gate, Boarding the Plane to Dubai?
At 23:10, we went upstairs to departures to drop off our bags. It was a different world with how busy it was. Luckily, the queue for people who’d already checked in online was very short. Most people seemed to use Dubai to connect to another flight, but not us. The guy behind the counter asked for our passports, negative COVID-19 PCR test, and onward tickets from Dubai. He hesitated for a moment and asked for more than just the booking reference and ticket number. We only had the former. He eventually figured it out with the booking reference and then decided to print out our boarding passes. Our backpacks were swallowed by the system and off we went to the next stage.
Next, we had to check out of Malaysia. The immigration people were a little annoyed when they saw that we were those MCO amnesty people who overstayed. That requires a different form, which they had to obtain elsewhere. We filled it in with the reason for overstaying given as “MCO” and that was that. Finally, after 339 days in Malaysia, we left. The original plan was to only stay in Malaysia for 42 days and then leave for Singapore.
They asked us to pull our masks down for a photo and we gave our fingerprints one last time to check against the biometric system. The sweet sound of passport stamps hitting the pages completed the procedure.
Now the only challenge left was entering into the UAE after a 7h20m flight to Dubai. The time difference with Malaysia is four hours and we’d arrive at 5:05 in Dubai local time. Our check-in at the hotel where we’ll stay the first week would be at 14:00, but we hoped to maybe check in earlier.
Post immigration, we went through a minor security area where they just scan your bags. Then we took the little train to the gates and then walked the final bit. I blogged a little more with the background noise of a crotchgoblin singing the song of its species. Jonas and I joked about placing a bet on how close the noisemaker would sit to us. My guess was behind my seat, kicking and screaming on the top of its lungs—like the flight from hell we took to arrive in Asia back in October 2019.
I packed up my laptop, brushed my teeth, and then went through the proper security check. While queuing, we finally saw one person who dressed up in a hazmat suit for the flight—you know, the kinds of pictures that news websites use about air travel during COVID-19. Good for him. Everyone wore face masks as mandated by the airport and the airline, but most people were still dressed rather casually. Some were armed with disinfectant bottles. Once again we had to pull down our masks to confirm it’s really us in the passports.
The Emirates crew of our flight wore surgical gowns, face masks, face shields, and gloves. Still, you could see their faces quite well. We found our seats on the left side of the plane. There was a young guy sitting in the window seat. I took my middle seat and Jonas the aisle. I’m not sure if he was uncomfortable with me sitting next to him or just felt a little stuck, but within minutes he asked if we’d like the window and middle seat and if he could take the aisle. I’m a fan of the window seat, even during a night flight, so I was down. Jonas was a little less happy with that, but we still had hope for more empty seats around our general area.
We taxied away from the gate at the promised 1:45. I spotted some of the airplanes that still fly abroad at the gates and the runway. They were familiar to me because for weeks – if not months – I’ve been tracking with FlightRadar24 which flights still actually leave and which you can still buy online but are horseshit. This is what I came up with, marked yellow are flights that leave every day of the week:
Up in the air, we soon got our first food: a sandwich. Jonas had told me that when he flew Emirates before, there’d constantly be food. When booking the flight, they asked us what kind of food we wanted aboard. In the realm of veggie foods, they offered Vegan Meal (VGML), Indian Vegetarian Meal (AVML), and Vegetarian Jain Meal (VJML). We decided to book the Jain meal because it would bypass the issue of learning what an airline’s interpretation of vegan food will be—and if it will have similarities to the BLML (bland meal). And it sounded heckin’ tasty. So when a flight attendant came to our row to ask which two people had the Jain meal, we were ready. It was a bell pepper sandwich which was indeed very yummy and not bland at all.
The flight attendant operating the drink cart came by. I got a glass of water like Jonas, but she asked me with a certain suspicion if I’d be interested in spirits or wine, saying “Just water?” as if I was her drinking buddy and had disappointed her. Jonas glanced over to my table with the sobering cup of water. “Do you have red wine?” I asked and she immediately started pouring a generous cup. I was very happy and I must say it was excellent service to be correctly profiled as an in-flight alcohol drinker. “You looked like you needed a glass of wine”, Jonas concluded. Dropping truth bombs here.
Over the Strait of Malacca, I saw the lights of towns on Sumatra’s east coast. Below us were the ships lying in wait to pass through the shallow squeeze. The screen showed us pass by Penang Island, which I’m sure the other side of the plane could see. We numbed our brains with screen time for a bit before reclining and catching some zzz’s. Our row mate got offered a new seat across the aisle, which was an improvement for everyone. I was wearing double masks, which was doable until it woke me up because the tight elastic bands hurt my ears.
All was good for a few hours of short naps mixed with looking down on Great and Little Nicobar and the Bay of Bengal until a sound-and-poop machine in business class decided to increase people’s interest in noise-canceling headphones. I really hope we’re on the precipice of a paradigm shift of what’s fucking acceptable to bring aboard sky-borne suffering vehicles.
I tried to go to sleep again but found myself staring out the window onto the irregular flashes of lightning clouds below us or the starry sky above the horizon before we flew over India. No matter how hateable flying is, I’m not bored. Last year was under stimulating, to say the least. I think it was tougher on me than I’ve admitted earlier. It feels like my brain is awakening from a slumber. But this entire journey is also borderline too much.
Jonas is pretty confident that Dubai will let us enter. I’m not. I really hope this wasn’t all for nothing and that we’re stuck at the airport and will need to book another flight out to an EU country. At least our COVID-19 test still isn’t that old upon arrival. But this expensive test also becomes more useless by the second.
Above India, I didn’t recognize anything. The in-flight map didn’t zoom enough to show which cities we were flying above. So I decided to sleep again. My nose and throat were hurting from the dry air and no amount of water could squash this thirst.
An unknowable time later, Emirates started waking everyone up with the gentle lights to feed us breakfast. We were flying above the Arabian Sea when Jonas and I received our Jain meals, which were epic. They reminded us of the food at Krishna Bhawan in Ipoh; there was idly, a gravy, and something that looked like very fine couscous, which I think might be khatta dhokla. It was really delicious and we’re 95% sure both Jain plane meals were vegan. Note to self: make flying less awful by getting the Jain meal.
After food, it was time to look out the window for Oman, which is a country I’m dying to go to. We flew past its capital Muscat and my mind carried me away to a world without a pandemic, in which we could probably travel overland from the United Arab Emirates to Oman. Travel has been a cruel mistress this past year.
Not much later, we landed at DXB. Most planes landing in Dubai had to make a 180° turn to arrive, which gave me a good view of how incredibly busy this airport is with landing planes. It was like a slow queue of planes following each other in a robotic fashion over the land reclamation projects in the Gulf below.
After landing, people immediately started behaving their usual way again by unbuckling and grabbing their shit despite the desperate calls from the cabin crew to stay seated. It still took a while before we could get off the plane. When it was finally time, people were very pushy and seemed to have forgotten about this whole pandemic thing. A bus took us to the terminal and there we soon separated from the transit passengers and the destination ones. It was kind of surreal that we were really entering another country after nearly a year of – happily – being semi-stuck.
A long hike through the airport brought us to a hall in which staff checked our negative PCR tests. It was a little bit of a bottleneck and probably a good place to catch covid since no one kept a healthy distance. I’m not 100% sure, but I’m also guessing that this was the place where a random sample of people would be selected for another PCR test. We walked through without issue to the next and most nerve-wracking stage.
Downstairs was a very shiny hall with the immigration booths. We entered the queue for foreign passports and saw that all immigration officers except for one lady in a faraway booth were men in traditional kandura with a ghutrah—an all-white ensemble with a black agal on top. By now it was like 5:30 in the morning and pretty much all of them were a bit moody. I don’t blame them.
Jonas and I went to separate booths. I had my passport and negative PCR test at the ready and handed them over to a guy who was visibly grumpy. Almost immediately, he handed back the COVID-19 test results and just focused on the passport. Like at immigration in Malaysia, I had to pull down my mask to snap a photo and give my fingerprints. Though I couldn’t look over the counter, I heard those gentle thuds of passport stamps and received my passport back.
I met up with Jonas again a little beyond the immigration booth and we both started looking for our entry stamps. Huh. We couldn’t find them? I clearly heard the sound of the stampiddy-stamp. I looked through Jonas’ passport and he looked through mine and still we couldn’t find it. Is this gaslighting? Arabic-speaking countries usually put the stamps in the back of the passport, but it wasn’t there. We also had no idea what to look for. I was slowly losing my mind.
Jonas gathered up the courage to ask one of the immigration officers, expecting more grumping, but this guy was apparently in a good mood. He found the stamp between his Brazil stamps. It’s oval and blue and apparently, they squeeze it in between very full pages – which is nice of them – and says ‘uAe’ with some Arabic writing near the top and the word ‘entry’. Mine was below my Cabo Verde visa extension and was unfortunately double-stamped: the two ovals overlapped a bit, making the whole thing pretty much illegible.
Oh well, I guess it won’t be a topic until our departure from the United Arab Emirates within 90 days from now.
But also: yay! We’re in! New country!
Waiting at DXB Airport
We grabbed our luggage from the carousel and repacked our backpacks. I grabbed some fresh clothes and visited the bathroom to get changed. Jonas got some cash out of an ATM and a small water bottle to quench our immediate thirst. We decided to grab one of those rolling luggage things to make our lives easier; our leg muscles have atrophied so much in 2020 that we probably can’t walk long distances with our backpacks on our backs without injuring ourselves. Let’s hope that Dubai is much more walkable than most Malaysian cities.
Then we went through customs to enter the arrivals hall, where we found the Virgin Mobile shop close-ish to the Starbucks. Jonas already knew exactly what kind of prepaid SIM card we needed for the United Arab Emirates. He bought two SIMs with the right amount of data and arranged that they immediately set it up with our phones. After that, we rolled our luggage away from the shop to make a call to our hotel for the first week in Dubai. We wanted to ask if we could check in a few hours earlier so we wouldn’t have to wait for seven more hours at the airport.
The answer was a clear no. There were no vacant rooms at 6:40 in the morning and we’d have to wait until 14:00 to check-in. Damn. In hindsight, we should have probably booked the previous night with it, but that would be quite a price to pay to bridge this seven-hour gap. So we rolled to Starbucks and got ourselves a giant coffee. They’d separated the seats at Starbucks with these plexiglass screens I haven’t seen a lot in Malaysia. I grabbed my laptop to blog some more and Jonas grabbed his MacBook but noticed his charger didn’t do its one job anymore. This was a problem that had been building up for years. So Jonas only had his phone to entertain him through these hours.
I couldn’t handle the boredom much anymore, so I made the couch at Starbucks a bed for a few short and ineffective naps. We eventually ate some food from Starbucks as well, which was quite nice because it involved halloumi. We spent hours like this, only abandoning our seat for walks to the bathroom and to fill up our water bottles.
Eventually, we decided to go to the hotel one-and-a-half hours early. They’d have a lobby there. Jonas called an Uber and a man in a literal suit drove us through a sunny Dubai to our hotel. We passed famous buildings such as the frame and already spotted the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building on earth – in all its spikiness from our highway.
Checking into Our Hotel in Dubai
At our hotel Golden Sands, there was a cute cat sitting in front of the door greeting the guests. Upon closer inspection, I saw it had an open wound from either a feline fight or man-made injury on its neck—the poor thing. The door had some funny installation with hand sanitizer and then a booth where something would be sprayed on top of you. We didn’t really understand how it works, but neither did anyone else who used the entrance.
Jonas went to the reception to notify them that we’d arrived about one hour and fifteen minutes early for our booking. We sat down in the lobby on a comfy couch.
About twenty minutes later, a receptionist came to us to tell us we could check in earlier. We got a free upgrade from a studio to a family room, which was nice. I kept sitting with our luggage until Jonas called me over because they needed someone to speak Russian. I was very tired and was like “What? What do you need me to say?”
The people at the other reception booth had been picked out for the random COVID-19 test at the airport. The rule is that you then need to stay in your room for 24 hours until your test results are in. My brain wasn’t ready for Russian, but I managed to quip out a “Вам нужен ждать в комнате…” to the guy until someone wisely grabbed Google Translate.
At 13:00, we received our room keys and went up to drop our luggage, shower, and most importantly: sleep.
Door-to-door this journey took us 32 hours.
Watercolor map credit on featured image: http://maps.stamen.com/watercolor