Heaven in duty-free purgatory

It always sounds like a good idea when planning a European holiday. Get the cheapest flight and spend the “savings” on sangria, sandals and summer sales.

But after the fifth hour of your eight-hour layover at Doha International Airport in Qatar you are ready to set up tent with your new Zara dresses and throw your handmade leather items at the announcement board for giving you a reality, as much as a status, check. Doh. Ha.

It is not the colour of your ticket but the airport lighting that really highlights your second-(economy) class status. When hours before you might be complimenting yourself on a holiday tan well done, you now wince at the pigmentation and sun damage that seems to be surfacing with every passing duty-free minute and mirror.

People in the upper classes do not have red eyes and dehydrated skin, which is rather surprising for all the Crystal they supposedly drink. They probably get served La Prairie Skin Caviar cream along with their Beluga starters or have lymph-drainage massage cushions built into their reclining leather seats. I still have callouses hidden under my leather uppers.

International transit is a game best viewed on CCTV footage; thousands of zombies roaming about under bright lighting, buying products and services that promise to make them feel human again. But you don’t.

A quick comparison of your duty-free spend versus your holiday spend, in relation to the time spent, will prove this to be true. Transit zombie is not a rational human being. Transit zombie throws money at the problem and doesn’t bother with currency calculations. Transit zombie wouldn’t recognise the person who, just days before, queued for two hours outside the Picasso Museum just to save €11. Everyone and their guidebook knows that Sunday afternoon means free entry.

I had all but come to terms with my fate when I stepped off the plane in Doha on my way to Johannesburg from Barcelona. I had eight hours to kill in small, bite-sized chunks. I knew I would spend the first four attempting to avoid the usual traps. I had packed some provisions and it was early evening when I arrived, so I was still awake to the dynamics of the greater game. But I also knew that, just as surely as insanity follows sleep deprivation and rampant shopping follows fluorescent lighting, I would soon be swiping my ­consumer’s plastic passport like a crazed outpatient.

The last camp of luxury
But then the idea found me. In the second hour of my declining rationality, I had taken a walk to keep the circulation flowing when my languid limbs took me past the luxury lounges — an oasis set aside for people who drink limited reserve and visit more exclusive ones. Through the small portals of glass I could make out the swirling of drinks, the lounging of limbs, like a series of impossible Picasso angles brought to life with soft amber lighting and my active imagination. My limited viewpoint offered stylised brochure images, to be sure, but perhaps also a magical portal into a mythical wonderland. Could I buy my way into this last camp of luxury?  

I must have summoned up some unusual courage or audacity to enter the room dressed in my hippie best, because somehow I found myself standing, like a straggly orphan, queuing to ask the impossible, expecting to hear the inevitable. But instead I was met with that beautiful capitalist reasoning — I could buy my way into privilege for $40 but after six hours the spell would wear off and I would turn back into a pumpkin, or some dehydrated vegetable equivalent. But not yet.

It is a common misconception among the non-reclining classes that all first-class luxuries are out of reach. Most of us drag our carry-ons past these capsuled lounges of luxury thinking them unreachable by our lowly currency. Most of us are just delighted to get sufficient bread and water on the aeroplane. A decent night’s sleep falls under urban myth or pharmaceutical wizardry.

But the pay-in lounges, like the Doha Oryx Lounge I was queuing for, have made luxury open to all travellers for a relatively small fee. Unlike the airline lounges, which have greater restrictions and often require a first- or business-class ticket to access, the pay-in lounges allow you to taste luxury for a few hours and usually offer a range of services, including buffet-style meals, unlimited beverages (including alcohol), wi-fi and computer work­ stations, showers and sometimes even sleeping rooms. So you can imagine my excitement when I handed over my nonaffiliated Visa and was granted the Oryx stamp of approval. I would have pinched myself, but my skin was too dehydrated.

From the moment the frosted doors sensed my presence and snapped to attention, I knew I would need to use my “indoor voice”. It seems money does talk, but only in those hushed tones reserved for libraries and good skinder. I guess it comes from never having to raise your voice for anything.

I wanted to shout when I heard there were hot showers, but instead I made the most of the lounge’s noise-reduction techniques (low lighting, soft carpeting) to steer my “wide load” as discreetly as my added flaps and straps would allow. And if I could have just manoeuvred my laptop bag and squeezed my yoga mat in one deft movement I might have even distanced myself from the stale, sweaty smell that had been following me since seat 36D went into its upright position.

Singing in the shower was invented for moments like these. The water managed to wash away any dirt, pigmentation and class distinction I was carrying. I went in an urchin, Julia Roberts on Sunset Boulevard, and I came out somewhere between Fourth and Fifth Avenue.

Beige bliss
With a new outlook and new lounge wear (leggings and my old top reversed), I suddenly knew how to amble through the lounge, nibble through the savoury and sweet sections of the buffet and even found myself ordering a glass of wine, without thinking how much it would, could, should cost me on the outside. Where was the outside anyway? With no announcement boards, numbered gates and signs, I was as lost as I could hope to be.

The change was massive. After hours of drinking in a sensory soup of constant announcements and sale items, bright lighting and even more intrusive outfits and accents, there really was nothing here for my senses to latch on to. Nothing in this place stood out. Everything was toned down. Even the patrons were dressed in the neutral tones and textures served up by the interior design. My dulled state of mind found its way to one of the secluded Phillip Starke-styled leather loungers, discreetly hidden behind slats of wood for people to catch 40 winks.

I clocked about 80 winks a minute, thanks to the sugar I had imbibed at the buffet. But I wouldn’t give up my sleeping booth for any amount of nodding passengers. This little cubicle was about as close to first class as I would ever come. There was leather beneath me and it actually arched the way my body rested instead of manipulating my spine into yoga poses I would never perfect. I had a plug. I had my own lamp. I had a stockpile of red wine and canapés, not the beer and bread of recent weeks. I had a passport to four more hours of pleasure.

I think it’s the most satisfying $40 I have spent in an airport, bar the ­earphones that saved me from stabbing my snoring neighbour with my plastic knife-spoon combo just recently. I’ve probably spent more money on overweight luggage.

So the next time you find yourself on the wrong side of the international date line and not making your way across the floor plan of an award-winning transit airport such as Singapore or Hong Kong, be sure to treat yourself to a few hours of pure heaven before you have to re-enter cheap transit hell.

How to do it locally:

Although you may need to be a card-carrying member of the elite club to get into one of FNB’s Slow airport lounges, your rand will gain you access to some local airport lounges, including the Bidvest premier lounges at OR Tambo, Cape Town, Durban, East London and George.

Expect to pay R248 for the international lounges and R149 for the domestic ones. For your buck you will have access to complimentary snacks, drinks, magazines, TV, wi-fi and hot showers. Domestic patrons can enjoy similar facilities, although some of the smaller lounges are more limited.

The Shongololo lounge at OR Tambo International, which won the Priority Pass award for the 2012 lounge of the year in Africa and the Middle East, has been praised for its “first-class ­atmosphere” and attentive ­hospitality team. The lounge offers all the usual first-class luxuries — TVs, free wi-fi, Apple iMac ­work­ stations and shower suites — and even a glass of chilled champagne to celebrate your arrival. It is well worth the R250. — Cat Pritchard

For a list of pay-in lounges around the world, go to sleepinginairports.net/airport-lounges

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