It was time to go, anyway. Work was over and Ramadan*, with its month-long daytime closure of food outlets, was about to start. Plus, Catherine the Great was off on her annual leave back to the Philippines. Without her, life is not quite the same.
In my last post, I revealed why I was dreading the night flight home with the boys. My biggest worry was handling tantrums by myself in a confined space with everyone watching – and fights. My two fall out continually and, as we taxied to the runway, they started bickering over things outside the window. “MY airplane,” roared the little boy, as we trundled past a double-decker A380. “NO, it’s MINE,” retaliated his brother.
The crankiness was hardly surprising – we’d dragged them out of bed after just three hours’ sleep to set out on our 12-hour journey. Fairly confident they wouldn’t fight over clouds once up in the air, I set about trying to get LB’s seatbelt back on – and that’s when it started. The massive tantrum I’d been dreading.
His face turning a purplish colour, his limbs flailing and screaming “No” at the top of voice, he resisted all my efforts to buckle him up. “He has to wear his seat belt,” said a cabin girl peering at us. “I know,” I replied, thinking, “CAN’T YOU SEE I’M TRYING!” Then she took pity on us and brought over a seatbelt contraption that buckled to mine so he could sit on my lap for take-off. Not a good start, but we were off.
Once airborne, BB started asking if we were there yet. “No dear, another seven and a half hours.” With no concept of time, he asked the question another hundred times. An exhausted LB, meanwhile, was so close to sleep, but then a kids’ meal was thrust in front of him, his eyes lit up at the sight of the chocolate cookies and he tucked in. Confiscating them at this point would have detonated another tantrum, so, yes, I wimped out.
High on lack of sleep and excitement, BB stubbornly refused to put his seat back, despite everyone else immediately reclining theirs into our laps. Calculating that it would take another hour or so for the sugar rush to wear off and for BB to fall asleep in his bolt-upright position, we watched some TV, played a few rounds of Tray up/Tray down, Light on/ Light off and stared at the airplane’s painfully slow progress across the map.
Somewhere over Iraq, a feather-light sleep finally overcame them – BB using me as a pillow and LB flat out over his seat and mine. So not only was I unable to move for fear of rousing them, but I was left perched on half an economy seat … until the breakfast service more than four hours later.
As dawn broke somewhere over Eastern Europe, BB flung open his window shade and announced loudly and ecstatically to the nearby sleeping passengers, “It’s morning-time!” An urgent dash to the loo a little later woke his brother as BB pushed past, and I knew that was it, there would be no more sleeping on this flight. Just two bored, overtired boys.
When it was finally time to land, seatbelt tantrum part II unfolded. But this time, worse. LB unleashed such a furious outburst, it took all my strength to hold him down. Everyone glared. The stony-eyed 20-something couple in front could barely conceal their annoyance and even Smug Mother of two crayon-loving girls just across the aisle avoided catching my eye. BB found the whole situation incredible funny and started laughing until he got the hiccups.
On deplaning, BB made his way up the aisle hiccupping loudly. The boys ran along the moving walkways, racing each other in their excitement at being released and, in the baggage hall, had great fun putting their Lightening McQueen backpacks on the conveyor belt and watching them go round with the rest of the luggage.
I, meanwhile, hauled our suitcase off and attempted to lug the huge case, our carry-on luggage, my handbag and the boy’s bags, which by this point had been jettisoned, through customs. On seeing that I didn’t have a seventh arm to push the stroller, a lovely lady finally showed me some kindness and took charge of pushing LB.
People who help are usually of a similar type: they’re often grandmothers who adore their grandchildren and know how challenging travelling with kids can be. This lady had three grown-up boys and two grandsons. She told me she wanted to come and help on the plane but the seatbelt sign was on. With tiredness permeating every bone of my body, I wanted to hug her.
So we made it! Arriving makes it all worthwhile, and you quickly forget the pain and bad bits of the flight, a bit like childbirth really. Plus, I’m well aware it could have been so much worse: many of my friends in Dubai have to travel to the US with small kids and that can involve up to 16 hours on board – read Up in the Air Mama Style for a wonderful account.
Although I think the flight did go quicker than daytime flights, I’m not sure if I’d travel overnight again. The amount of sleep we got didn’t compensate for the fatigue and crankiness, a fair proportion of it mine. And because we arrived into Gatwick so early, there was the whole of the next day to get through as well – and, on an adrenaline-fuelled surge of excitement at being at their grandparents’, the boys resisted sleep all of that day, too!
*RAMADAN KAREEM (a greeting meaning ‘Ramadan is generous’)
So how can not having any food during daylight hours be considered generous? Despite not being in Dubai for Ramadan this year, I thought I’d say a few words about this month of abstinence as it is such an important spiritual experience for Muslims.
The start of Ramadan is confirmed by the sighting of the new moon (each year it’s about eleven days earlier) and Muslims observe this time of reflection and prayer by fasting from dawn until sunset. This means they don’t drink, eat, smoke or have sexual relations during daylight hours. It’s seen as a time of generosity as people give to the poor. Charity tents are erected for those who wish to donate to the needy and good will abounds.
The meal to break the fast is called ‘Iftar’ and many restaurants serve all-you-can-eat Iftar buffets at generous prices. Seeing famished fasters staring down at their food while waiting for the sunset call to prayer is a common sight. Ramadan’s generosity extends to the stores in the mall, with some great sales on at this time of year.
The word ‘Ramadan’ is derived from the Arabic root word ‘Ramida’ meaning ‘scorched heat’ or ‘parched thirst’. And anyone who fasts in this part of the world will fully understand those terms.
Many Muslims break their fast with dates and juice before their main meal, and gas stations offer free dates and water to travellers. If you’re on the roads at this time, beware: car accidents increase in the half hour before iftar as hungry fasters rush home to be with their families.
For expats, Ramadan is a time to show respect for the sentiments of participating Muslims. While not expected to practice Ramadan themselves, in the UAE it is illegal for adults to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours for the whole month (unless you’re elderly, ill, pregnant, nursing or menstruating, and even then, it’s better to be discreet). This extends to travelling in a car. Even chewing gum could be seen as an offence. Most cafes and restaurants are closed all day, although some have a closed-off area for serving non-fasters. Supermarkets remain open and hotels cater for tourists, but the city has a different feel about it. No music is allowed, many nightclubs are closed and there are no concerts or festivals.
So, during Ramadan, night becomes day, the malls are open until 1am, and kids are kept up until all hours. And it’s not just lifestyles that change – work life is different, too. Muslims will generally work fewer hours and not much gets done during Ramadan. Where I work, no advertising is expected in the magazine for the whole month, and eating or drinking at your desk is not permitted.
The last 10 days of the month are especially significant since it is believed that the Quran, the Holy Book of the Muslims, was first revealed to the Prophet during this time. Although the actual date is unknown, many Muslims believe it was the 27th night of the month, and many stay up praying all night.
As with the beginning of Ramadan, the end is confirmed when the moon-sighting committee spots the new moon and a public holiday – Eid al Fitr – follows, involving feasting and visiting family and friends – a celebration similar to Christmas or Thanksgiving.