Friday, September 2, 2011


This post has nothing to do with wine. It's all about the day I stopped trusting young Cypriot men returning from their summer holidays in Phuket sporting ridiculously-looking conical straw hats, balmy eyes and tattoos of reggae legends smoking doobies the size of Pafos bananas on their shaved calves. Please keep in mind that this is a fictionalized (but only very slightly) version of the events.

I've had some bad flights in my life but few were worse than Etihad's ETD093 from Abu Dhabi to Larnaca on Friday, August 26th. Last time I felt this queasy on a plane was back in 1998: I still owned a portable CD player, rarely needed a shave and hadn't yet discovered Pinot Noir. I was en route to Quito from Miami on an American Airlines flight that had to twice maneuver its way back to the airport through one of those budding Floridian thunderstorms thanks to a flaps malfunction. Suddenly a four-hour flight became a twenty-four hour nightmare and a vow on my part to never again fly on AA. Honestly, I'd rather attend AA meetings and shut down this blog than set foot on another one of their planes.

I've always been apprehensive about flying, maybe because I associate it to certain traumatic events of my childhood. I was eleven years old living through Colombia's darkest years when Pablo Escobar blew up Avianca flight 203 hoping he'd take out promising presidential candidate Cesar Gaviria. He was not on board but one hundred and seven people perished on that flight including the parents of a boy who attended my school. I remember that day just like I remember all of the previous years. The guerrillas seizing the Ministry of Justice and battling it out with the military—you still see bullet holes in the surrounding buildings' facades and on a gloomy day the main square feels haunted by the ghosts of the fallen. The assassination of the prominent Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla at the mercy of the trigger-happy fingers of handsomely-paid sicarios. The random bombs detonating in malls and out on the streets. Pick up a copy of Juan Gabriel Vasquez's stunning new novel, El ruido de las cosas al caer, and you might then begin to comprehend what this all means to me.

In any case, The Wife, Ph.D., and I boarded ETD093 in Abu Dhabi at around 9:25 a.m. after a thirteen-hour flight from Melbourne. For a change, I was looking forward to our return to The Rock because I desperately wanted to whet my lips with the bottles of 2010 Oakridge Chardonnay, 2010 Giant Steps Applejack Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2010 Innocent Bystander Cordon Cut Viognier stuffed in my suitcase. But twenty minutes into the flight—I had just decided on the chicken tandoori for lunch—the captain announced that, "due to technical issues and for the safety of the passengers," the flight would have to land in Doha, Qatar. My palms got sweaty. From across the aisle, The Wife, Ph.D., looked pale. Behind me, a woman, just a few seconds of turbulence removed from an out-and-out panic attack, wheezed. Even the flight attendants, who are trained to be bastions of confidence and calm in moments such as these, seemed on the verge of tears. For a few minutes, I resigned myself to death. But I remembered that if I had survived AA's incompetence thirteen years ago, then I'd be fine on what is considered to be one of the world's best airlines. The Wife, Ph.D., who had been paying attention to the commotion around us, briefly came to life and told me that she had overheard some Cypriot guys in the back talking about bombs and how it was all a ha-ha joke. One of the guys said that if this was a Cypriot airline with Cypriot crew members, the man-in-charge would have laughed it off and offered him a beer and a blanket. Another one mockingly practiced his statement for the Qatari authorities: "My friend, I am Cypriot, land of Aphrodite, tasty grilled ambelopoulia (blackcaps) and Trikkis Palace, I go to Thailand for holiday and slowly slowly I go back to Limassol." I just shook my head in disgust at the youth's arrogance and misguided sense of invincibility. Some seedy girl on our aisle, though, was convinced the turbines had gone kaput and that we were somehow gliding to safety like dry foliage in November or plunging straight into the Persian Gulf, an errant Scud missile of sorts. The Wife, Ph.D., went from pale to an unflattering shade of green.

As soon as we landed—in an isolated runway, acres of desert between us and the main terminal, several fire trucks on standby—the captain informed us about the bomb threat. The doors opened and a Qatari police officer, his hands waving frantically and sweat dousing his face, barked at us to quickly disembark without our personal belongings. We ran into a wall of heat and onto a large patch of sand and as far away as possible from the aircraft. If it exploded, I guess, the authorities wanted to prevent any loose wreckage from flapping us on the side of the head and decapitating knocking us unconscious. Rumor has it that one passenger, having little time to slip on his footwear, braved the mid-forties degree heat barefoot. Imagine, burn blisters and war stories as souvenirs. Marvelous. At the foot of the mobile escalator, a young Cypriot, who I had earlier spotted wearing a traditional conical Asian hat, was being handcuffed and tossed in the trunk of a white jeep, probably bound for a lengthy stint in a ruthless Middle Eastern prison and/or a hefty fine for disrupting our travel plans. A little bit later, the same police officers, now furious and beyond strict, escorted the main culprit's friends to whichever dingy interrogation room was going to be used to break them down.

The Qatari police and airport authorities must have mobilized at least one hundred people to deal with the perpetrators, crew members and passengers. Given the sense of urgency and unpredictable nature of a bomb threat, I was truly impressed by Qatari officials' efficient, responsible and respectful handling of the situation. They loaded us onto three buses and took us to a satellite terminal in the middle of nowhere where we were handed bottles of water and I was allowed to use a bathroom where I discretely wiped clean my slightly soiled underwear. The Wife, Ph.D., and I were lucky enough to receive a boxed lunch and, once the airplane was deemed safe, we were carted off to identify our luggage, pick up our carry-on bags and board the plane back to Abu Dhabi, where we would change air-crafts and relieve the nervous crew of their duties. As I lodged our hand luggage in the overhead compartment, I heard a Cypriot girl, also on her way back from Bong-kok with some of her friends, screaming at one of the exhausted flight attendants for having left her Toblerone chocolate bars out in the heat. Of course, the chocolates became ganache and went to waste, but, as I told The Wife, Ph.D., within earshot of the girl's friends, that "should be the least of her fucking worries." She bitched and moaned and demanded a full refund from the airline for its negligent treatment of edible produce under subhuman temperatures. Out of nowhere, the flight attendant snapped and threatened to knock her off the flight if she didn't drop the attitude. That's that, I thought, until one of the girl's friends told her not to worry—he had traveler's insurance and they'd better right all wrongs. Stay classy, Cyprus.

For a less...uhm...bombastic tale of the flight, click here.


Anonymous said...

Mateo this is damn good writing. Eddie Levisman.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi said...

Mil gracias, Eddie. I try hard. Hope you never have one of those flights!

Anonymous said...

i remember this. It was August 2011 and i am one of the four guys that you mention. It was a joke. We went to jail for the night. Lovely people in there. Most of them tourists from all corners of the world. It was a scary experience i might say. Did we mature after that? My stupid friend wouldnt say that he has a bomb in an airplane again but at the same time we think about this and laugh.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi said...

Glad to know you're fine and you've learned from the event. It really wasn't funny at the time. Now it makes for a good story, I guess. And how on earth did you come across this article? Cheers!

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