To dream, perchance to sleep

High-sheen ... Abu Dhabi airport.
High-sheen ... Abu Dhabi airport. 

SOMETIMES friends will tell me the details of their dreams. These are almost always less interesting than they think they are.

I have no such memories, though occasionally I will find myself stranded for long stretches in an airport. The comparison seems apt: airports are otherworldly places where events have no apparent connection to reality. Everything is a non sequitur. Dogs have inordinate amounts of power, for instance, able to point their finger (or paw) and have you banished into a small room straight from an Orwellian nightmare.

I recently flew from Johannesburg to Sydney, a marathon journey lasting more than 30 hours. Ten of these were spent in the surreal high-sheen of Abu Dhabi airport, a place that seems to emerge out of the sand like a mirage made entirely from money. That this temporary visit was bookended by periods of restless fever sleep only added to my sense of having dreamed it. A flight attendant woke me up; I stumbled around, Alice in Arabia; then another flight attendant handed me a small bottle with "drink me" written on the side (or "Gordon's gin" if you're being pedantic) and I fell asleep again.

Abu Dhabi airport does not sleep. It is past midnight when I float into its complex of glass hallways. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of people around, bleary-eyed and acting as though they've each been shot at close range with a stun gun. Men in white thawbs direct traffic, containing a chaos created by dozens of gates and multiple transit paths.

Here is my situation: stranded until 10am, I discover that the hotel airport is completely full. I could venture into the city to find an alternative but the passport processing line is alarmingly long. People are sitting on their bags. Despite acute fatigue, I vow to brave it out, finding a seat in the shopping court where a central pillar blooms into the ceiling like a bizarre mosaic flower. Lean back and you feel like an insect.

This is the only airport I have ever seen that features reclining chairs designed for sleep. There are vague shapes scattered around the mezzanine, huddling beneath flowing robes like bags of bones discarded haphazardly. I have no flowing robes to huddle beneath, though I will look, in an act of mania, for some in Burberry at half past three. Anybody who has ever spent an interminable length of time in transit will understand how this could happen. They will understand why, at around the same time, I could be found layering on cologne in the duty-free souk, creating a Frankenstein fragrance that surely made me smell as desperate as I felt.

By 5am I was attempting to learn Arabic by using translations on pharmaceutical items. By 8am, shoeless and crazed, I found myself standing outside an Islamic prayer room. "SLEEPING IN THE PRAYER ROOM IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED" read a sign above the door.

Dream on. "Sleep is my religion," I wanted to say.

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