And here you finally have it, straight from this horse’s mouth.
I received endless emails, comments, tweets asking me what I was doing that allowed me to travel so much. I mostly didn’t reply because the company I worked for was very strict. So much as a simple Facebook status mentioning their name or your occupation is enough to seal your termination and be sent home. Naturally doing so on my blog would have resulted in the same fate, which is why I was so vague (I wasn’t trying to appear fancy). So here I am, finally divulging the details of what I did and what it’s really like to be cabin crew.
About fifteen years ago the thing to do was go and work in London “for two years” but stay for ten. We, however, are from the Become-Cabin-Crew or Teach-English-In-Korea generation. The jobs that promise you free, fully-furnished homes, the jobs that sort out your visas, banking and insurance, the jobs that pay you a tax-free salary about three times what you would most likely get back home, the jobs that allow you to travel.
I received so many emails and tweets asking me “What do you do for a living?” and saying “Your life is a dream!” In many ways, yes, and in many ways absolutely not. But I’ll start from the beginning.
Early in 2012 I was in a major rut while living in Cape Town. I was twenty-two years old, living with my parents and struggling to find stable work. I have a degree in Media and Writing, Film and Theatre from the University of Cape Town, yet I had just gone from working for a company that scammed me and then went bankrupt, to a six-month unpaid internship at a magazine. I had also just returned from a month abroad in the UK and Rome, and the travel and shopping bug had hit so hard, all I could think about was leaving my parents nest, seeing more of the world, saving money and buying things we didn’t have in South Africa. I also wanted a stable income and some solid experience to put on my CV. I wanted all of those things and I wanted them now.
Becoming cabin crew was the last thought that occurred to me. It was my cousin, Nabilah, who had been crew for two years, who suggested it. I was even making up excuses as to why I shouldn’t, but she had a strong answer for each one. She could give me sound, first-hand advice and as soon as she left my house that night I applied online to two airlines. I was really lucky to have her, as she could tell me the truth. So many young people apply for this job not knowing what they’re getting themselves into. Long story short, about three months later I was living in the desert in the Middle East, learning everything from how to deliver a baby to fighting fires, to making a Bloody Mary.
WHAT EVERYONE THINKS…
There are two types of this “everyone”. The “everyone” who thinks it’s all travel and young-money-cash-money-baby and good times, and the “everyone” who thinks it’s absolutely disgusting and that you’re going to be a “maid” on on a plane. Both are wrong with a dash of right, because it’s not that great but it’s really not that bad either. Besides, how many maids do you know who can afford Chanel?
“IT’S NOT A REAL JOB”
A saying one often hears. For me personally it’s true because the toughest part about this job was working so very hard at something I wasn’t passionate about. Others however genuinely enjoy customer service, or find the job a small price to pay for the perks they enjoy. I have also flown with many who are flying for about ten years and are the sole provider for 5+ people back home. For others, this is their dream, and their idea of having truly hit the big time. I set out to do it for one year, July 2012 – July 2013, to save money, experience living alone for the first time, see the world, shoot street style, visit all the fashion capitals, and blog as much as I possibly could, then return to South Africa in pursuit of a career better suited to me.
THE PROS WHILE YOU’RE THERE
A free home, free health insurance, free transport to and from work, free uniform, free travel, free staying in your own suite in five star hotels, a daily allowance in each country and huge discounts on everything from restaurants to resorts. Flash your crew ID at duty free and items become another 25% less. Your salary is something you will almost never make in South Africa (or anywhere), and tax-free means that whatever you make goes into your own pocket. With no expenses aside from food and entertainment – two variables entirely up to you – you’re able to save well for your future.
Being trained in trained in First Aid is a most useful life skill regardless of your occupation, and you will never believe the emotional and physical endurance you develop as an individual.
Furthermore, unlimited 90% off tickets with your airline as well as about fifty other airlines allow you to visit other countries on your off days, and ten more of these tickets to distribute amongst your immediate family. I really made use of this benefit and travelled about eight times in the last year alone on off-days and my leave. I went to Istanbul one day purely on a whim. I decided one night I would fly to my friends in Dubai in a few hours because a simple “how are you doing?” whatsapp conversation with one of them made me miss their company. I met up with Aisha and her family for three days on one of their trips abroad. The ability to throw yourself into the complete indulgence of your wanderlust is an indescribable feeling.
No two days at work are the same, and if someone particularly annoys you one day, with 8000+ crew, chances are high you will never have to fly with them or see them again. Your supervisor/boss for the day may be a complete jerk who reports you for serving someone juice without a tray (it happens), or they could be someone you end up having fun with and remains your friend for long after (it really happens).
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any other job that gives you this.
THE CONS WHILE YOU’RE THERE
Your life is your job. There are no public holidays, no weekends, no religious holidays. I spent my birthday alone in Kathmandu surrounded by monkeys, New Years Eve on a turnaround flight to Trivandrum and my first Eid lunch was Maggi Two-Minute noodles. You have very little time for yourself and your loved ones, and when you come across people who really annoy you, which is often, the most common thing to do is buy your feelings a present, or five, or fall asleep eating room service. It reminds you why you do what you do. It’s not really a challenge mentally, but it can be physically taxing and often you get to a city, sink into a deep sleep in the hotel, and fly back the next day as if you weren’t there at all.
You’re alone most of the time. Or it can feel that way as you aren’t flying with your friends in the airline. Sometimes you tag along with your crew and you really wish you hadn’t. You’re alone in a hotel room, which I really loved but many people find it depressing. Moving to another country is also quite an adjustment. I was lucky in that sense because I had my cousin, Nabilah, living in Doha with her husband, I had an old friend (now fiancé), Malick, living in Doha too, and made the most amazing friend in my training, Leonor. I had Nabilah and Malick to show me the local ropes and they took care of me and spoilt me often. Leonor was just the best and most empathetic person I could have met. Many people leave after a month even, and I think I may have too if I didn’t have these people as my safety net. I had something to come home to after work, but many aren’t as lucky.
People constantly test your patience, and you’re committed to allowing them to, whether it’s from the Company or the customer. You will visit some tedious places too, and experience many cross-cultural differences that cause far too many unnecessary conflicts.
And of course you will be away from your family and friends, any relationship is either partially or completely long-distance.
It is incredibly hard work. And with one’s body clock constantly changing due to flight times and different time zones, you are often not well-rested for your next flight, and could be on duty for anything between four hours to fourteen hours. I would often be completely nocturnal for months at a time.
IN A NUTSHELL, IT IS STILL BEST THE DECISION OF MY LIFE.
I have great respect for my ex-colleagues, all eight thousand of them, because of the way this job tests you physically and emotionally. From partying up a storm, feeding families back home, paying off old student loans to being clueless as to what one may want to do with one’s life, everyone had their reason.
I have met people and made friends from all over the world, learned from so many cultures, “classes” and languages. I’ve visited places and felt wealthier than a king when seeing the little they have, and been to other cities feeling dirt poor. I learned to see Cape Town for the gem that it is instead of looking at it as the city that stifled me. I was able to leave behind many local mentalities, but mind you, I adopted some new ones too, good and bad. I learned what hard work and discipline really is.
One year later, I’m home and ready to proceed with my “real life”. But, I can, very nostalgically say, I have visited approximately forty destinations. I’ve seen the ruins in Rome and Athens, been on the fastest roller coaster in the world in Abu Dhabi, snorkelled and tanned in the Maldives and Seychelles, and explored the many temples and shopping havens all over Asia. Aside from Paris and Seoul, I visited and shopped in every fashion and buying capital there is. I served people, I wore a uniform, ugly shoes, far too much red lipstick and lived in a dead city. In many ways I became more of a snob, and in others more patient. My blog had to take a backseat, I had breakdowns where I wanted my mommy, where I cursed my unhygienic Egyptian flatmate, and when I missed really important events back in Cape Town. But still, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.
While there is indeed no place like home, I truly believe the saying “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”. It’s an exceptional wealth unlike any other, that no one will ever be able to take from you.