Friday, 24 October 2008

The "Gateway to the strange" gets a facelift.

It's common opinion that "The Midwest" starts at the Lincoln Tunnel, South America begins in Miami and after the military action this summer in Georgia, Russia draws the border more or less where it wants to!

But the departure lounge for hell and its neighboring postcodes is undoubtedly Dubai Terminal 2.

This is where you come if you need a flight to the places most people are trying to avoid or leave. 

The departure board is one of the first clues. Destinations like Baghdad and Kabul sit prominently on the schedule along with city names that would send even the most seasoned of foreign correspondents diving for the atlas.

The Airlines to more everyday places like Tehran and Beijing aren't those you will have seen advertised on TV - even in their own countries.

Dubai Two is not like Dubai One. They share access to the runway but that's where the similarity ends. Geographically speaking its a manageable half hour cab ride between the two. In every other way it's a mission to Mars. 

You could consider it the "cousin in the attic" so to speak. A bit mad, utterly unpredictable but nevertheless imbued with a strange kind of gritty realism that made it infinitely more charming than its brash relative.

Almost like a distillation of the difference between travel and tourism.

Though by no means a frequent user of D2, I was regular enough to have come to appreciate its quirks. The departure hall was more like a bazaar than an airport; check-in mostly involved clustering round a beleaguered man at the baggage drop and making yourself heard above the other passengers. But somehow everyone seemed to get on the flight and there were astonishingly few fights. 

Before "clustering" though, you had to go find the guy who had your tickets. For some arcane reason it was not possible to buy the flight coupons in the UK and so your first task was to find and identify "Gozar the Keymaster" and hope that he registered some sort of recognition at the sound of your name. On one occasion we tracked down Mr Keymaster only for him to grimace slightly and inform us that, regrettably, he had left our tickets on his kitchen table before departing for work that morning.

A short phone-call ensued and forty minutes later we were all set. The crowded desk now deserted, we inquired whether we would still make the flight. "No problem," he replied. "The flight cannot go until I say so. You even have time for a coffee if you wish."

Once through the security cordon which was always admirably thorough one was not exactly spoilt for choice on the entertainment and shopping fronts. There was a small Costa concession where Charlie Alpha and I would invariably treat ourselves to a final frothy coffee. Also a duty free area of sorts, selling electronics with names and logos that were similar to well known brands but not.

This clean, spartan area with it's ample provision of standard airport seating was populated almost exclusively with characters straight form central casting at the Oliver Stone New World Order Conspiracy-Theory Academy of Stereotypes and Cliches. Jaded war corespondents, studiedly nodescript contractors, desperate families returning to their loved ones, fresh-faced and bewildered aid-workers on their first trip, SF soldiers who have no uniform but all wear the same thing anyway - everyone standing awkwardly and occasionally nodding the kind of acknowledgment that says ,"Yeah I know what you are fella and you know what I am. So shall we just leave out the talking and get on the damn plane!"

However on my most recent trip to Afghanistan I discovered, slightly to my disappointment that D2 has been made over. A building project has left it considerably smarter than it used to be. The check-in area is now discreetly screened from the entrance with it's modest seating bay and there is even a  Starbucks.

The polished marble floor and smartly organised check-in queues lack the charm of the Kafkaesque crush of  gesticulating passengers and piles of cardboard, plastic and  string that passed for luggage in time before the refurbishment. Changes have spread to the destinations served by D2. Some have hope, some have money and a few have both but the effect has been that the population of shady looking individuals is now augmented by business travelers and even holidaymakers.

The departure lounge has a sleeping area and shops that sell several things by recognisable companies. Nowadays, passengers converse and if you meet someone who says they are "involved in reconstruction" there is a good chance that they actually are!

But progress comes at a cost and although you are still more likely to be met by a cue of Bangladeshi construction workers than a limo, the frisson has been lost. 

The cousin has left the attic, taken her medication and gone to finishing school. Now she is way too much like to rest of the family!