x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Flashbacks and fear on an ageing plane after a seven-country Asia trek

Around Asia On a flight from Beijing to Dubai, Effie-Michelle Metallidis notes that the interior of her Hainan Airlines plane "looks like a French boudoir with the faint undertones of Uzbek warlord".

A fisherman in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Around 1,600 people live in four floating villages within the bay. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National
A fisherman in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Around 1,600 people live in four floating villages within the bay. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National

And so it has come to this. I'm standing on the tarmac in Beijing watching ground staff change a tyre on a 20-year-old 747. Not just any 747 - the one that has to get me from China to Dubai. This is muy not bueno, as my friend Patty would say.

"No problem!" says one of the flight attendants enthusiastically, flashing his thumbs. I look at the small army of Chinese passengers waiting beside me. They all seemed jazzed up by the pre-boarding malfunction.

Cameras are whipped out; snap, snap, snap go the made-in-China Sonys. Maybe this is how the opening scene will start on National Geographic's "Aircrash Investigation". "Passengers took photos in front of the tyre," the narrator booms, "but little did they know it would be the photo-op of death."

After an extended wait, we board, the great heaving mass of men shoving themselves into the ailing metal tube as they shout at one another. Like Russian and Greek, Mandarin is one of those high-volume languages where I can never tell if someone is enraged or delighted, particularly when they're screaming. ("Oh, they're just talking," Patty would assure me of most conversations, but after an hour's wait to board a red-eye that may possibly crash land, I'm not so sure.)

I plod up the steps slowly. The interior of Hainan Airlines looks like a French boudoir with the faint undertones of Uzbek warlord. Golden dragons are embroidered onto the dark-red fabric seat covers; nicotine-stained walls are softened by low lights and a Kazakh businessman in a shiny silk suit lights up a cigarette as he gives me a once-over.

Suddenly, everything goes black. The whir of the engines dies and the cabin plunges into darkness as twilight descends on Beijing. Around me, phones light up, leading the way down the aisles. I'm going to die on this plane.

Pushing my way back towards first class, I shove the faint light of my mobile's LED screen into the face of a startled stewardess.

"What's wrong with the plane?" I ask. Her pale face stretches into a smile. "No problem! There is an issue with the airport electricity. But aircraft is fine."

"Are you trying to tell me," I shove the phone at her from another angle. "Are you trying to tell me that the international airport has no electricity but that this plane is fine?"

"Yes," she says brightly. "No problem."

Another 20 minutes pass in dark, humid silence before the lights flicker back on and the engines begin to hum. And in that time, a theatre of absurdity - otherwise known as my life for the past two months - flashes before my eyes.

There's Patty and I kayaking in the rain in Halong Bay, Vietnam, as we bellow out O Mio Bambino Caro. The jagged rocks echo with Italian opera as we dock on the beach and I fall into what Patty has told me is one of Vietnam's most polluted bays.

There's Patty, fingers mimicking the antennae of a cockroach, as she demonstrates how it felt to wake up next to one in Shanghai. "It was next to my face, Effie," she whispers, eyes wide. "Next to my face."

There's me climbing on top of cabinets and counters in our hotel room in Bali to assassinate mosquitoes as Patty looks on. "I think you've reached a new level of crazy, Effie." "Oh. OK," I say, huffing as I climb onto the granite countertop to smack a nice fat one. "So wait until you go to sleep tonight [smack], and there's no malaria-infested, [smack], blood-sucking parasite [smack] waiting for you, and then tell me I'm crazy [smack]. Tell me I'm not doing good work [smack]."

There's both of us hysterically spraying ourselves with Deet when we realise we're in the middle of a Thai jungle in Chiang Mai, and throwing back malaria pills.

There's Patty ziplining through kilometres of forest at 100 kph as she does Superman moves in an eco-adventure park called Flight of the Gibbon as a group of us chant: "SpiderPatty! SpiderPatty! Doing whatever a SpiderPatty does!"

There is me, singing "I'm dreaming of a dim-sum breakfast" to the tune of White Christmas as I sit on my luggage, zipping it shut, or belting out "we gonna rock down to electric guggulu!" (Electric Avenue) as I take my morning Ayurvedic pills. (Patty generally does hand motions and dances, unless she finds I cross the point of no return).

There are the flashbacks of gastronomical euphoria - the bowls of pho soup, the chewy glasses of boba, the coconut juices and the dragonfruit shakes - and the aftershocks of dining gone wrong: "Are you going to die, Effie?" Patty whispers as my lactose intolerance kicks in after I unknowingly drink a bowl of hot milk in Bangkok.

Lastly, but most pervasively, there is the transport. The 344kmph-bullet train of Shanghai to the 18-hour, feet-smelling, brokeback bus rides of Vietnam, the tuk-tuks of death in Cambodia and the pirate junks of Vietnam. And then there are the Soviet-era aircraft, one of which could very likely plunge me to my death in the near future. Which, after a delicious seven-country run with plenty of mass mosquitocide, would be quite fitting, I suppose.