My first flight as a newly graduated flight attendant just over two years ago was an evening turnaround to Jeddah during the Hajj, and almost to the day I found myself on this same flight but this time with much more observant eyes. My previous experience with Jeddah had my head full of nervous thoughts concentrating on following procedures we had been taught in training college, and not spilling drinks all over people! Take two and this time around I was certainly much more at ease with the situation - an aircraft overflowing with excess baggage, seating issues and ailing passengers, most of whom didn't speak English.
After boarding had finished and we began securing the cabin, I could not help but break into a smile of amusement when I looked down at an exit row to find four elderly ladies seated in front of their towering cascade of baggage, flashing me a line of beaming toothless smiles above their bags and blissfully unaware, reminding me that the majority of these passengers had most likely never set foot on a plane before this pilgrimage to Mecca.
Landing into Jeddah there was no mistaking the feeling of anticipation coming from the cabin. Everyone was champing at the bit to get to the next stage of their journey and not a moment too soon. Buses crowded the tarmac, flooding the evening with their flashing amber lights waiting for our passengers in their seamless white robes to make their way down the stairs, which proved to be no mean feat. Families and friends who had been seated separately were forming dozens of 'meet points' around the base of the stairs, and instructions from the crew (in English) to keep moving ahead went unnoticed until we sought help from a group of businessmen who had also been passengers, to act as our invaluable translators.
Assisting the older ladies down the stairs I started to think about how able bodied these people actually were, beyond their physical years. Unlike on our European flights where the list of wheelchair requests are usually as long as your arm, there was not a wheelchair in sight on this evening, contrary to the considerable age and ailments of our passengers. Aside from holding their hands and their (many) bags I began to wonder if in fact they needed any assistance at all judging from the speed at which they descended towards the buses. One lady in particular really struck me. Holding on to her slender arms, squiggled with veins and creases in her skin she could not wipe the smile from her face. Her eyes were sparkling like a person half her age and I could tell this was an expedition she had been waiting a very long time for. My colleague who was next to me, also helping an older lady down the stairs, looked over and commented at how happy everyone was while the lady I was with kept repeating something to me in her native tongue before bounding up the bus step into her seat like an excitable young girl. As I placed the bags down at her feet she cupped her hands on the sides of my face, grinning away and leaving me with some parting words which were unfortunately foreign to my Australian ears. Where were those translators when you needed them???!!
Eventually the flurry of activity drove away leaving us to prepare for round two, our return back to Dubai, which was as equally taxing, with the added challenge of storing their containers of holy water. Certainly never a dull day in this office!