For four years, I traveled around the globe visiting 70 countries as a cabin crew member with Emirates. Based in Dubai, every flight I embarked on was with a different crew so my day at work was always going to be a mystery since my colleagues were often strangers. Going to work was always unfamiliar territory—even before I landed in a new city!
Emirates was certainly glamorous. We turned heads walking through airports like a pack of intimidating, exotic animals. The famous red hat distinguished us from any other airline and I was always proud to be part of a community of mysterious world travelers.
Of course, there was the not-so-glamorous reality of being a cabin crew member. I was often awake for more than 24 hours, had a poor immune system from the pressurized cabin, and slept through my days off waking only to pee and eat a croissant.
Moreover, during my time in the sky, I was faced with the safety and security threats of flying that we hoped would only exist in training college. I handled medical cases at 38,000 feet, swung from curtains in the cabin as I clung for safety during severe turbulence, and prepared the cabin for a diversion to Vienna from Los Angeles after one of our engines failed. We were all OK though! We landed safely and after the issue was fixed, we got to fly the empty aircraft back to Dubai the next day which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I got to sit in the flight deck for takeoff and landing, watched movies in business class, then slept for the duration of the flight.
Subsequently, my experience at Emirates had many perks and many obstacles. I learned about patience, and that I have none! I learned how to administer first-aid, how to restrain, how to build a life raft, how to control a cabin of 500 hungry people, how to fight fire, how to fight sleep, how to do my makeup with no mirror, how to be a social butterfly, and how to not get lost in a new destination. My recollections are plentiful.
However, the experiences etched the most in my memory are the conversations with my colleagues on the jumpseat in the galley flying over oceans and mountains, and the pleasures we embarked on as a group on our layovers.
One particular multi-sector trip to Cebu-Clark in the Philippines is my absolute go-to memory when I think of my time at Emirates. After most flights, once we checked in to our hotel, many crew would drag their feet and suitcases straight to their rooms to sleep while others pushed themselves to stay awake and explore their new surroundings. But this trip was different.
After a nine-hour flight from Dubai, we landed in Cebu. The collective energy and giddiness among the crew were both contagious and palpable as it surged through the crew bus from the airport to the hotel. Each one of us built a bond with each other and without our uniforms, we looked like a group of best friends, not colleagues. The rarity of this meant all of us wanted to explore together—even the more seasoned crew whose energy was usually low from over 10 years of flying.
Everyone from the Captain and First Officer all the way down the chain of command to the most junior cabin crew wanted to go wild in Cebu! For five days, 17 Emirates crew flew from Dubai to Cebu to Clark and back to Dubai again embarking on all kinds of adventures along the way.
As we hopped out of the bus at the Radisson Blu hotel, the heat was heavy despite it being night and there was a distinct smell of fruit and trees. I loved it! The friendly staff greeted the herd of red hats and loud suitcases that came through the lobby, unintentionally drawing attention.
After explaining the hotel’s amenities and advising us of the time of our wake-up call the next day, the concierge checked us in and we hurried up to our room while agreeing on a time to meet again in the lobby. After a quick shower and checking our phones for messages, we all met back downstairs for dinner. When you meet crew after a flight, you have to be vigilant when searching for them in the lobby sans uniform because many of us look completely different. Hair is down, makeup is off, hidden tattoos are exposed, and septum piercings are pulled down from the nostrils. The real us are often hard to find.
We ate at the Feria restaurant in the hotel where they served a range of cuisines like local Filipino dishes, sushi, Indian, and Western food for pasta and burger lovers. Since I’m a vegetarian, I devoured a build-your-own pasta and inhaled a few local San Miguel beers. During dinner, we planned a trip for the next day and only two crew decided not to join us in order to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
After a decent rest, we arose at 4 am for the four-hour bus drive to Kawasan Falls with our energetic, local tour guide, and that’s when I really saw Cebu. Deep in the vegetation and local streets, I saw farmers, families, stray animals, workers, scooters, and tuk tuks galore. I heard birds I’d never heard before, listened to back and forths between locals, and passed many signs of the Christian faith that I didn’t know had been worshipped in Cebu for 500 years.
Eventually, we arrived at Kawasan Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in the Philippines, and embarked on a three-hour canyoneering trek through the jungle. Part of it included jumping off cliffs into the water which I was apprehensive about due to my fear of heights. However, to my surprise, I volunteered to be the first to jump 35 feet agreeing to put my colleagues’ fear at ease before my own!
Most of the crew jumped but two walked down a rocky slope to meet us at the bottom—one of whom was the First Officer who also had a fear of heights. The irony! But later, we came upon a small cliff that the FO agreed to jump off. We all cheered him on and I still remember how proud he looked afterward.
Then we came across a 50-foot waterfall that terrified us all. It was optional but our adrenaline levels were high so about 10 of us took the leap of faith. After trudging through rivers, jumping off waterfalls, and cascading down slides made from eroded rock, we ended the excursion by paddling under a heavy waterfall on a wooden raft. Many of us couldn’t handle the loud noise of this giant waterfall but nonetheless, we were in awe of Mother Nature’s powerful characteristics. Here I was with 14 strangers from 14 different countries, decked out in life jackets and helmets, volunteering for daredevil activities, and having the time of my life.
We were all worried that we wouldn’t make it back in time for our wake-up call since the bus ride was so long. We chatted about scandals we all heard of crew going on tours during layovers and not making it back to the hotel in time for pickup and they got fired so we were all hoping that our bus driver got us back in time for our flight to Clark.
After driving flat to the mat, we made it to the hotel with less than an hour to the wake-up call which gave us time to shower and get ready for the hour-long flight to Clark. At this point, it didn’t feel like I was going to work. It felt like hanging out with friends. We arrived at the Widus Hotel in Clark which resembled a Las Vegas resort with a huge casino adjacent to the lobby. As soon as we checked in, we met downstairs for dinner and drinks in Salt Restaurant. We sat at a long table to fit all the crew, and to other patrons, we must have looked like the most eclectic group of friends. We were of various ages from different countries with colorfully diverse accents speaking in aviation lingo.
On this trip, I learned so much about Filipino culture, customs, landscape, food, and humor. I drank fresh coconut water from a coconut that fell from a tree in front of me, visited the stunning Taoist temple in Cebu city, and chatted with locals to learn about their heritage. However, I experienced something else on this trip that wasn’t related to the destination. I met a version of myself that I wasn’t familiar with but that I liked—social, fun, daring, inquisitive, and adventurous. I also discovered the power of human connection and the vivacious energy that my team bounced off each other.
For many travelers, the somber beauty of traveling is missing the destination when you return home. While this is true for me too, it was the people that galvanized the excitement on layovers. Once the passengers disembarked the aircraft, we posed for a group photo not to post on Instagram, but to remember the faces of the people that made our travels that much more enjoyable.
We were strangers that morning in the briefing room in Dubai, but we became best friends by the afternoon as we flew over the Bay of Bengal. The sad unspoken truth between us all lingered as we knew that once we landed back in the U.A.E., we would never all be in the same room with each other again—and we never were. We would move on to the next flight with a different set of crew and new faces and do the same thing all over again.
Sophie Dunne is a writer, editor, and podcast host. She co-hosts shifting her experience | she. with her wife, Tiana, and is the author of Company Alone and reflect. When she’s not writing or traveling, Sophie is usually researching women in history and their stories that are often overlooked.