Sandra Tsing Loh doesn't like flying... at all.
I am a nervous flier. I mean nervous as in three-Bloody-Mary-nervous.
I hate turbulence over Denver. I hate flying Southwest to Oakland. I hate flying over water, which does limit your options. During every landing I’m convinced we’re going to crash. My mouth opens in a silent animal scream. Nobody, I mean nobody, beats me for white knuckles.
But sometimes you have to fly. And this was one of those times.
More, the women’s magazine, asked me to write a travel piece based on some childhood memories of living in the Middle East. And where better for a nervous flyer to fly... than to the Middle East! Especially since the US government had just issued travel warnings for - oh, you know - Lebanon, Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq.
But my sister and I were going to Egypt, which was not on the list. Despite that little bit of flag-burning in front of the US Embassy. And all those demonstrations. And, of course, we’d be flying to Egypt on… Egypt Air!
Waiting in the boarding area, I saw a group of bearded, bespectacled men right next to me. They took off their shoes and began bowing. Not to the left, toward Lufthansa, but to the right, I finally figured, toward Mecca.
Okay, I know this is really bad of me. I mean, I’m a good liberal and everything. But I looked at my sister and whispered, “Oh my God--I have a baaad feeling about this.”
“You’re flying Egypt Air to Cairo,” she hissed back. “You’re pretty likely to run into some Arab men. And they’re just praying before the flight. They’re not halfway into their second Bloody Mary!”
We stepped onto a Boeing 757 with Arabic lettering over the bathrooms. On 100 video screens flickered 100 mosques. As we began to taxi, the captain came on the staticky intercom... speaking Arabic. When he finished, there was a beat, then the English translation began: “This is your captain, Mohammed.”
To calm myself, I started playing airline Sudoku. “Welcome, Seat 36C,” it said, “Input your name!” To blend in, instead of “Sandra” I put “Sanwar,” so that when I started to move up the ranks no one would notice.
My fears were ridiculous, of course. Egypt Air to Cairo was one of the smoothest, pleasantest flights I have ever been on. The mostly Middle Eastern passengers were quiet and free of the loud public drunkenness I might have shown, if I had dared to order the usual three Bloody Marys.
Next week: 22 million people, no traffic lights.