x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

What would you do with six months off work?

When Emirates Airlines invited cabin crew to take unpaid leave, three flight attendants travelled around the world to fulfil their dreams.

Eva Safrankova and Warren Baughman stroll through Central Park in New York. The couple met during kite-surfing lessons in Florida, and married two weeks later in Costa Rica.
Eva Safrankova and Warren Baughman stroll through Central Park in New York. The couple met during kite-surfing lessons in Florida, and married two weeks later in Costa Rica.

Many people would use several months off from work to sit back, relax and maybe catch up on some long-unwatched DVD box sets.

But not everyone. When Emirates Airlines invited cabin crew members to apply for unpaid leave, ranging from one to six months, many of them took up the offer. For three flight attendants, the time off became a life-changing experience, leading to new career opportunities, new priorities and even new love. Eva Safrankova, 29, was eager to obtain a kite-surfing instruction certificate. With that in mind, she planned a trip to Miami, Florida, in November for two weeks of classes, and then to a popular surf spot in Costa Rica.

"It was just a break. I felt I wanted to be in nature, to be by myself," said Ms Safrankova, a Czech national. "After a couple of relationships that didn't work out, I was planning to finish my kite-surfing coaching, surf, and spend time in nature and not to even socialise with men." But things took a dramatic change of course during the fortnight's training when she met fellow student Warren Baughman, an American landscape architect.

"I had been to see a Tarot card reader in April or May and she predicted I would be married in two years' time," she said. "I didn't even have a boyfriend at the time and she described my future husband and all of it matches tall, blonde, hazel eyes, and his personality." The couple got on well and travelled a little around Florida. But when the course ended, it was time for Ms Safrankova to leave for Costa Rica.

"I had booked a hotel in a well-known surf spot, Bahia Salinas," she said. "He said he didn't want to let me go but I insisted I was leaving. I told him if he wanted to join me he was welcome. "When he told me he liked me, I told him I was definitely not interested in a long-distance relationship. I have done it before and it never works out. It is a lot of effort and it is financially exhausting.

"He said, 'OK I will probably have to marry you then,' but I thought he was joking." Two days later, he arrived in Costa Rica with an engagement ring hidden away. "I met him at the airport and we travelled to the north. It was very green, very natural and organic with little infrastructure, just farms," she said. The first night there, he proposed on a hill above the bay. "I didn't hesitate in saying yes," she said. "It felt right, natural."

The couple decided to marry immediately. They headed to the nearby town of Santa Cruz three days later to find a lawyer. "I was wearing shorts and I didn't have a camera so the only pictures we have of the ceremony are on the mobile phone," she said. The couple celebrated in "the little place where we stayed, run by an Italian guy who runs the kite-surfing school" before calling Ms Safrankova's mother in the Czech Republic to tell her the news. "She was a little surprised, but said, 'Whatever makes you happy'. She kind of did the same with my dad, so it runs in the family. "My brother didn't want to believe it but when he saw the pictures on Facebook he realised it was true. "My friends in Dubai were all very excited. They were surprised but I am very spontaneous in my life so they knew it was in my nature and wished me luck." Mr Baughman, 35, is back in Portland, Maine, where he has a landscaping business, and Ms Safrankova is keen to continue at Emirates, where she has worked for seven years. So for now, they maintain their long-distance relationship with daily texts, e-mails and phone calls, and they meet whenever Ms Safrankova is on stopovers in the States. "He has a good business; I don't want him to jeopardise that," she said.

Kristina Dow, a 30-year-old from Birmingham, England, has a long-held dream of a career in show business. Having been approved for a month's leave in July later extended to three months she packed her belongings and headed to Los Angeles, clutching a copy of a CD she recorded in Dubai. She found herself flat-sharing with the celebrity make-up artist Barbara Daly, who is responsible for enhancing the looks of royalty, supermodels and actors. Before long she was mixing with LA's glitterati. "Barbara basically introduced me to a lot of people and things kept happening," she said. She met the trumpet player and jazz singer Jack Sheldon at a party hosted by a friend who is the director of Entertainment Tonight. "My friend is a big jazz fan and said he would like to hear me sing with Jack," she said. She sang Fly Me To The Moon. "It was such an honour. Jack Sheldon has performed with people like Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin; there is a movie about his life." Ms Dow also performed an Alicia Keys song on Salvadorean Day in downtown LA in front of a crowd of about 500 after making contact with someone involved in the event on Facebook. Later, while helping out with a documentary being produced by a friend, she was introduced to an actor who put her in touch with the LA producer Duane DaRock Ramos. "I didn't realise who he was at the time, then I saw all of the plaques for his work with Jay-Z, Christina Aguilera, all these amazing artists," she said. "He gave me a track, I went away and learnt it, and then we recorded it. We were working on a second when I had to come home." Ms Dow, who now writes lyrics for some of DaRock's tracks during her free time, says 2010 is looking bright. "I have got Emirates to thank for so many things," she said. "The way it worked out was perfect. "I couldn't just leave Dubai and my job and move to LA. I had to go and do the ground work." She found herself flat-sharing with the celebrity make-up artist Barbara Daly, who is responsible for enhancing the looks of royalty, supermodels and actors. Before long she was mixing with LA's glitterati. "Barbara basically introduced me to a lot of people and things kept happening," she said. She met the trumpet player and jazz singer Jack Sheldon at a party hosted by a friend who is the director of Entertainment Tonight. "My friend is a big jazz fan and said he would like to hear me sing with Jack," she said. She sang Fly Me To The Moon. "It was such an honour. Jack Sheldon has performed with people like Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin; there is a movie about his life." Ms Dow also performed an Alicia Keys song on Salvadorean Day in downtown LA in front of a crowd of about 500 after making contact with someone involved in the event on Facebook. Later, while helping out with a documentary being produced by a friend, she was introduced to an actor who put her in touch with the LA producer Duane DaRock Ramos. "I didn't realise who he was at the time, then I saw all of the plaques for his work with Jay-Z, Christina Aguilera, all these amazing artists," she said. "He gave me a track, I went away and learnt it, and then we recorded it. We were working on a second when I had to come home."

Maria Conceicao applied for six months' leave to learn Spanish and travel, and then continue her work on the charity project she founded in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

"I must have been one of the first ones to apply," she said. "I wanted to do some travelling and some more charity work. I was so excited. "I was hoping to win the Emirates Woman humanitarian award, and I didn't want people to be put off thinking I had given up every second of my five years to The Dhaka Project, because that doesn't encourage others to come forward and do something. "I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to fulfil other goals and show people it is possible to do it all."

The 31-year-old Portuguese national began her sabbatical on July 1 with a trip to Cairo. From there, she took a three-week road trip across Jordan. "It was amazing," she said. "We stayed at cheap hotels, sharing rooms. It was hard because I felt I should be in Dhaka, but then I started to enjoy the freedom. I felt more relaxed and more productive." From there, recharged, she set off to Dhaka to begin The Catalyst project, supported by Emirates, aimed at getting parents of children at The Dhaka Project into work.

"It's basically a mini jobcentre for the parents," she said. "The problem we have at The Dhaka Project is that the children come to school but the moment the father is sick or cannot find work, they take the child out of school and send them to the garments factory. When the floods come the houses are destroyed and the families move and so the child is moved to another area and we lose them, sometimes after four years.

"The aim is to train the parents to get the best job they can get to break this cycle." Having rented a small building and enlisted the help of some local volunteers, the centre is now clean, freshly painted and operational. Local and volunteer teachers instruct 113 parents not only in vocational skills and the English language, but also in the importance of basic hygiene and CV and interview preparation.

With that project up and running, she headed to Ecuador, to stay with a local family and take a one-month Spanish course. "Charity work is very rewarding but it can also be very lonely," she said. "I have given every minute of my life for so long to the project and while I love it, socially, I have had to read some very unkind things posted online about my 'not having a life'. "Emirates' unpaid leave really gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, evaluate my work and also have some much-needed fun."

@Email:loatway@thenational.ae