Packed bags? Check. Tickets and visa? Check. An air of smugness that you are on your way to change the world whilst everyone else around you is on the way to irrevocably damage their skin in Marbella? Super check. You are finally on your way; so begins a life of dashing from one emergency to the next, travelling the world and channelling that effortless, celebrity ’12 hours plane fresh’ chic whilst doing so.
There is the preconception that jobs involving a lot of air travel are glamorous. They are, most definitely, not.
Unless you can swing yourself a UN job with an accompanying blue passport, the average humanitarian worker will accumulate an equal amount of stress in travelling to their new work destination as they do living in said location for an extended period. That’s because you’re not going where the world wants to go – unless you’re currently working on the refugee crisis in Greece, in which case, all other aid workers are jealous of you – you’re going to the field. There are no sun loungers in the field, and your cramped, smelly 12 hour flight will be the first step in making you realise that.
Firstly, you realise that there are airlines out there that you had never even heard of before. I recently had the joy of travelling with Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco, that well known luxury airline carrier… Prior to taking my flight, my humanitarian buddies prepped me by regaling their stories of their special experiences with the airline; being given used blankets full of someone else’s biscuit crumbs being just one of them. The flight itself was absolutely fine, but the meal had to be the worst airline meal I have ever encountered, even worse than when terrible turbulence meant my croissant ended up in my neighbour’s hair on an Air Brussels flight. When my ‘vegetarian option’ arrived – a vegetarian aid worker? I know, I’m a walking cliché – it consisted of three slices of carrot, three green beans, three slices of courgette and a bread roll. Sure, it can be tricky to get flavours right in pre-packaged food, but really, that is just pure laziness.
To make my experience all the more special, I came back from a toilet visit to find a knarled, dry, old lady’s foot perched on my arm rest. She seemingly thought it was ok to put her trotter through the gap in the seats to rub her fungus filled digits where my elbow should be perched. Barely disguising my horror, I asked her – politely – if she could move her foot. She did. By around 5 cm. There were two ways this was going to go: either I had to suck it up and share my seat with the foot, or I had to throw myself out of the plane. Instead, I opted to be honest, asking her if she could remove her foot completely as it made me feel uncomfortable. To my surprise, she smiled and took her foot away. So there are nice people in the world; or maybe people are only nice after they’ve marked your territory with their crusty feet. Possibly the same applies to armpits, drooling heads and excessive body mass, because all of these things have invaded my personal space on a plane at some point during my travels.
For all that grumbling, sometimes the impossible happens. You reach the gate and the attendant tells you that your seat has been changed and your new boarding pass has a single digit number. Ultimate score – the absolutely free upgrade. This has only ever happened to me once, and I’m not even sure how it happened; maybe the airline took pity on my 24-hours-travelled-so-far state, but whatever the reason, it. Was. Awesome. Yet, even there, I encountered a dilemma. This being the first time I had ever travelled business class, I wanted to rinse that experience for everything it was worth. Fully reclining chair? Yes please. Champagne with my meal. Damn right. Bradley Cooper as my in-flight entertainment? Don’t even ask; just bring him with the champagne. However, an overwhelming part of me felt like I had to behave as if I was born for business class: ‘Oh this is de rigeur dah-ling! One would never dream of flying any other way! Come on Bradley, be game!’ Needless to say I wasn’t fooling anyone; by the time I requested my 5th glass of champagne, everyone on the right side of the curtain had my card marked as a first timer.
The flight is just the start. When flying to Sierra Leone, my organisation sent me a 4 page (4 PAGE!) document on how to navigate Lungi airport without ending up in prison, in hospital or dumped somewhere in the sea. When arriving at Tacloban in the Philippines, the baggage carousel was typhoon-damaged and the replacement was a general scrum when the bags were unloaded. Airports in the field tend not to come with electricity, organisation or manners, another stark reminder that this is not Club Tropicana, and the drinks are most definitely not free (in fact, they’re probably banned).
But, budding aid worker, you made it; you have arrived and now the real work begins.