- Posted February 6, 2011 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Revolution in Egypt
Journey to the Pyramids
- rachel8, CNN iReport producer
Journey to the Pyramids
Our flight from Istanbul landed at Cairo Airport in mid-afternoon on Friday, January 28. On arrival, we were to begin a ten day journey exploring the vast history and revered monuments in such cities as Abu Simbel, Edfu, Giza, and Luxor; a four-day cruise on the Nile River also awaited us.
We continued to the passport control area, and after paying the customary visa fee to the Egyptian government we walked toward the baggage area to meet our tour guide from Fly Well Travel, the company associated with Egypt Magic, the partner company we had booked our tour with back in the United States many months ago.
As we proceeded to the baggage claim area I noticed a man in a dark suit holding a sign with the words “Egypt Magic” printed in bold black letters. We approached him and introduced ourselves. He said his name was Mohamed and he would be our tour leader and main point of contact while we toured the region for the next ten days.
Then he said, “Unfortunately, I have some disappointing news for you. We had some unrest last night in downtown Cairo and the government has imposed a curfew that applies to everyone traveling on the roads this afternoon and evening.” He said we should collect our bags and go with him to the main waiting area in Terminal 3. The curfew was obligatory for all non-Egyptian persons arriving at the airport, but he intended to talk with the security personnel to find out if we could travel to our destination hotel in Giza which was about a 45 minute drive from the airport.
“No matter what, I will stay with you.” He said. For the next four, unnerving days, those words gave us a real appreciation for the dedication, loyalty, protectiveness and compassion that this man, whom we had only just met, gave to us.
By six o’clock it was clear we were not going to budge from Terminal 3. The Cairo police were not permitting non-nationals to leave the airport, and this was also the case at the other terminals at this large international airport. Other planes arrived and the terminal began to fill. Hundreds of seats were occupied, and now people started to camp on the floor areas along the walls, behind columns, etc. Families started to organize their luggage on the perimeter of “their” space in an effort to provide themselves some privacy from the crowds that started to grow.
Mohamed gave us the equivalent of $50 in Egyptian Pounds since none of the ATM machines were operating at the airport. We learned later that the government shut down the internet and discontinued all cell service until further notice. We were able to send some texts because cell service was intermittent, but we could not make any phone calls. We felt completely isolated from the outside world except for the reports we received from CNN on the one television at the airport.
This terminal has two levels: the lower level, where we were, is the arrival area and the constant activity distracted many people who attempted to get rest, or some sleep especially as the hours dragged on into the next morning. Flights landed until 5 o’clock in the morning. The two employees who operated the small convenience store on this level either collected money from the long line of customers, or refilled the bottled water case. The upper level of the terminal was more of a hub of activity. The only hot food in the entire terminal came from the Burger King on this level, and there was a constant queue until the last burger hit the grill. We were so impressed by the two or three employees who worked all night to feed people.
The cash registers overflowed, but the stocks of water and food finally ran out as the sun rose on Saturday morning.
Airport personnel did distribute some hot food brought in by a few airline carriers. These box meals only fed about 20 percent of the people in the entire terminal. A nearby hotel was allowed to bring some food in as well, but it did not go too far either.
A few people complained, but for the most part the crowds of people were quiet. Some gathered around the TV watching CNN that reported some property destruction and cars set afire in downtown Cairo as we sat and slept in Terminal 3.
We did talk to people around us who were mainly from England and Australia. There were also a few Asian tour groups who sat quietly waiting, like us, for the curfew to be lifted at 7’o clock in the morning.
le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza was our destination, and we thought, once we arrived we could get settled in, get some sleep and prepare for the rest of our journey in Egypt.
Early Saturday morning as the curfew was lifted, two of Mohamed’s colleagues – Hussein and Ahmed – arrived to escort us to the hotel in a small eight-passenger van. Another couple from Australia joined us. Mohamed explained that we needed to stop by another hotel to drop this couple off first since they were separated from their tour group under his direction. We hustled out of the airport to the tour bus parking area. Hussein our driver, and Mohamed, quickly loaded the luggage into the back of the van. “Pull the curtains closed over the windows,” Hussein said. We all looked at each other with uncertainty on our faces, but did exactly as we were told. We did not realize it at the time, but our first stop was a hotel in the heart of downtown Cairo, the scene of the previous nights’ unrest.
Traffic was sparse as we exited the airport and made our way to a highway leading into Cairo. Everything seemed normal until we saw the first tank about 5 miles outside of town parked along the highway. Then we saw a few others with soldiers standing beside them with rifles and automatic weapons cradled in their arms with fixed bayonets. Suddenly, we came upon a long column of tanks – at least 20 – parked on the highway in the lane next to us. We all felt intimidated by the sight of this awesome force because we knew why it was there. Other soldiers in personnel carriers were milling about near what seemed like an endless file of military vehicles.
The first burned out shell of a vehicle appeared on the side of the road as we entered the center of Cairo; then another and another. Soon other damaged cars, buses, and even tow trucks lined the side of a highway that soon looked like an urban combat zone. Bricks, large stones, and trash was everywhere. Hussein slowed considerably as he tried to dodge obstacles in the street and people standing in front of us. We were near the hotel to drop the Australian couple off when we first saw the smoke billowing from a nearby building. We turned a corner and in front of us stood the National Democratic Party Headquarters fully engulfed in flames. People were in a trance along the street just gazing at total destruction in the making. Hussein explained to us that Gamal Mubarak, the Egyptian President’s son has his offices in the building and it was set on fire during the night. Other NDP facilities were damaged in other cities as well.
We all felt very uncomfortable as we turned another corner and entered the hotel grounds. The first thing we experienced were two burned out cars in front of the hotel. We all looked at each other as if to say “What are we doing here?”
Mohamed reassured us not to be afraid. He told us during the previous day the police beat people and caused much hardship. The military was called in to restore order and it was the military, not the police that had a very good relationship with the people. We found out later that day many police abandoned their stations across Cairo and a number of small arms and weapons were stolen from these locations. The whereabouts of these guns were unknown at the time.
The remainder of the trip to our hotel in Giza was uneventful, but it was not the normal drive through the park. We saw trash in the streets; people living in what appeared to be small dwellings made out of whatever materials were available to them; and human poverty all around us. We thought for a moment and wondered why such a country with its resources and education could be in this state of helplessness. When we asked Mohamed about this he said that people are finally fed up with the leadership in the government and Mubarak. The younger people in the population (40% under 35 years of age) want change and an end to corruption.
Somehow we knew things were not going to get better as we motored to our hotel. We began to think and quietly talk about an alternative to our visit to Egypt.
Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel was a welcome sight when we arrived even though two tanks were parked near the entrance. The Three Great Pyramids are close by and the Cheops Pyramid, in particular, was almost a stone’s-throw away. The majesty of this monument brought us some comfort as we walked toward the lobby.
Inside we met Amr, the supervisor, of the tour staff and Ahmed, our tour leader. Together with Mohamed and Hussein, these men became our friends. They were Egyptians and concerned about how the image of their country would be tainted by these demonstrations. It was clear to us they were speaking from their hearts and deeply worried that people from around the world would judge all Egyptians by the acts of violence that occurred the previous day. We felt sad and empathetic and explained to them that we have experienced similar situations in our country as well.
Mohamed, Amr, and Ahmed talked with us more about the tour, but they were uncertain about the curfew situation for Saturday afternoon and Sunday. We decided to rest in the hotel for the remainder of Saturday since we did not get any sleep the night before at the airport. We would check with them later in the day since we were scheduled to begin our first tour of the Pyramids the next morning. We were also instructed not to leave the grounds of the hotel.
Mohamed again reassured us. “At least one of us will always be here at the hotel to provide you any assistance you need. We will not leave you alone.” As events unfolded during the next three days they all stayed with us. It was an opportunity for us to talk with them on a personal level. We talked about our families, our friends, our home, but most of all, ourselves as human beings from different countries and cultures experiencing a passage of time in history.
Later in the day we learned the Pyramids were closed to the public and the curfew was in effect beginning at 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 8 o’clock the next morning. The curfew meant that no one was allowed to travel anywhere.
The military was everywhere with its strongest presence in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Some cell service was restored, but it was intermittent. The internet was still completely shut down, and there were no indications it would be up and running anytime soon. Demonstrators were using Twitter and Facebook to communicate. It was reported by some news organizations that for the first time the social networks were being used to bring down a government.
Through texting we were able to set up an e-mail chain with family and friends. Our daughter Linnea in Los Angeles and Shelley’s sister Alison in Oregon received the texts from us and e-mailed our situation to a list of people. Later we found out this was very helpful to people who knew we were here, but could not communicate with us. Later that day we were able to call them on our cell phones, but people were not able to call us.
The day passed quickly and we were able to get some rest. The demonstrations continued in Tahrir Square on Saturday – The Day of Rage. More and more people showed up to demonstrate. As nightfall came we stayed in our room watching CNN. It was about 8 o’clock that night when we heard the first gun shots from automatic weapons near the hotel. We did feel safe, but our anxiety level, which was high anyway from the events of the day, rose to a stress plus level.
On Sunday morning we met with Amr and some of his staff to inform them that we wanted to change our plans and leave the country as soon as we were able. The Pyramids were still closed and it appeared that other tour sites on our itinerary were shutting down. It became clearer to us that the demonstrations would only get worse and there were no short term solutions to these country-wide problems. A few hours later Amr told us the earliest we could get back to the airport was Monday. Our rescheduled flight on EgyptAir was not until 10:40 at night, but we would have to leave the hotel before 3 o’clock that afternoon since the curfew would go into effect at that time.
Hussein would drive us and Ahmed would accompany us as well. We had an opportunity to talk with both men that day and we found out they both were in the Egyptian Army. Hussein, in his late fifties, retired as a colonel and he proudly showed us his military ID. He has four children – ages 29 to 4! Ahmed was an officer and completed his duty four months ago. He is studying Egyptology and plans to marry soon. Both men are sincerely dedicated to their work and enjoy leading tours in their country – a country and heritage that gives them a great deal of pride. They are deeply saddened by the recent events in Cairo and other cities in Egypt.
“Will you come back?” asked Ahmed. We said we would because we feel compassion for the people here and at some point Cairo will be a safe place to visit.
We learned that afternoon that prisoners had escaped from several prisons near Cairo. Again, small arms and weapons were missing from the arsenals and the police were nowhere to be found. The Egyptian military leaders then issued a strange order to the troops in the streets: the military would support neighborhood groups and help them protect their communities. In effect, citizens were given some policing authority, but they could not arrest people. They were, however, empowered to stop vehicles and search them. If “thieves and thugs” were discovered they were to be turned over to the Egyptian military for arrest.
We referred to them as neighborhood watch vigilante groups. Small groups of men began “patrolling” the nearby streets and loud voices and hollering could be heard outside of our room.
We were anxious to leave the next day for the airport. At 2:45 p.m. Hussein loaded our luggage in the van and another couple joined us from another tour group who were flying to Dubai about an hour earlier than our flight. Mohamed was already at the airport so Ahmed joined us for the drive to the airport. He had stayed at the hotel since we arrived there.
More demonstrators had assembled in Tahrir Square and were prepared to defy the curfew. The streets and highways were noticeably clear. Along the way we started to see some of the neighborhood groups setting up barriers at entrances to their communities. Many of them carried sticks, ball bats, and some had rifles – not a good sign we thought.
The airport was almost void of any traffic and quiet. We parked in the tour bus parking lot and walked to Terminal 3 with our luggage. The airport was not too busy and we were not quite sure, but that bothered us. We did not see the normal hustle and bustle of people going to gates and boarding flights. Mohamed approached us and said that many of the flights were canceled due to the curfew. Flight crews were having a hard time getting to the airport, or so we were told by the airline personnel. We felt in a catch-22 situation because our flight leaves every day at the same time for Bangkok and it was during the curfew! No one had a good answer. We decided to enter the ticket area and talk with an EgyptAir agent even though the departure board showed all flights canceled. All other carriers showed flights leaving on time.
The agent was no help at all. He said the flight may leave, but he would not know for sure until 9 o’ clock that evening. In the meantime, CNN reported that the U.S. Embassy was in the process of chartering some flights for Americans at the Cairo airport. We could not get through to the embassy, and in fact, the recorded message kept referring to information on the website. Great if the internet is working. There were also diplomatic representatives from other countries at the airport clearly identified with brightly colored vest-jackets and some locations displayed country flags. We counted at least seven countries, but no one from the U.S. We asked representatives from the UK, France, Germany, and Austria, for example, if there was a U.S. representative at the airport. In all cases the answer was no. This was outrageous. At this point, we were not only upset by the whole situation, but also really pissed off at our own government for its clear lack of communications with its citizens in a distressed foreign country!
At 9 o’clock the other couple was able to get on the Dubai flight even though the board read “canceled.” We were ready to leave the airport to drive back to the hotel when their flight was called to board. Mohamed raced them through the security area and was able to get them on board the flight. Unfortunately, our plight ended on a different note – we either had to go back to the hotel, or stay the night at the airport – again. Mohamed said we may be able to get a room at the Meridien Hotel near the airport. The curfew was in effect, but we left the airport anyway. Our van was clearly marked as a tourist vehicle and maybe the military would consider this as we passed through the check points. Our trump card was Hussein’s military ID card and it worked. We were not only let through the military check points, but the soldiers saluted us as we traveled through!
Then we came upon the first neighborhood watch group blockade near the Meridien Airport Hotel. The road was blocked by gates, large stones, and about twenty men. Hussein slowed down to a crawl as we approached and stopped. He rolled down his window and greeted a leader of the group as the others circled the van. The leader had his hand on a pistol in his pocket and kept it there the entire time he spoke with Hussein and Mohamed. The others were looking in the windows of the van and we started to feel a little uneasy. We could not understand the Arabic dialogue that was taking place, but it seemed to be a heated discussion until the leader of the group inspected Hussein’s military ID. The complexion of the conversation then changed. Ahmed explained that Arabic men engage in a conversation and seem to be arguing, but it is not the case at all. It is just the manner of the discussion – they just speak loudly to each other and oftentimes use gesture
to make their point. As it turned out, the leader was trying to tell Hussein the best way to get to the hotel and avoid more roadblocks. The others around the van were waving to us and gave us a thumbs’ up as we left.
It was a similar situation when we arrived at the Meridien Airport Hotel. The entrance was blocked by chains and trash cans. Some of the hotel staff were guarding the entrance against unwelcomed guests since there were reports of looting and vandalism. This time the leader wore a yellow construction hardhat and wielded a woodsman’s axe. We left the van at the entrance and walked into the hotel only to find out that it was booked for the night.
Now, the only alternative was the drive back to the Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza. We knew we had a long night ahead of us.
During the next two hours we passed through more than 40 neighborhood watch and military checkpoints. At several of these blockades men entered the van and searched under the seats. In all instances when we were stopped either the men entering the van or the others outside apologized to us for the inconvenience. Each time Hussein came to a stop he gently rolled down the window and greeted the leader in Arabic. After several of these stops we realized the people were only protecting their homes and neighborhood. It was not about us. Our stress level came down several notches. These people were polite to us and we felt more compassion and sorrow for them than any fear. There was only one occasion when we were detained for any period of time and it was near our hotel. A young Egyptian officer asked to see the inside of the van and he requested to see our passports. We were not sure what the issue was, but he inspected every page of both passports. Hussein became upset and said something to him in Arabic that caused the officer to stare at Hussein. After another minute he returned the passports and let us through the barricade. We did not ask what he said.
We arrived at the hotel almost 3 hours from the time we left the airport – it was midnight, and we knew we had to go back to the airport and try to fly out again the next morning.
Weapons fire was silent that night, but the tanks were ever present at the hotel. If the EgyptAir flight was canceled the next day then we would try to book a flight to Bangkok on another airline. Earlier that day, as a backup, Shelley’s sister Alison searched the internet for other flights leaving Cairo. She found a 3:00 p.m. flight on Qatar Airlines leaving from Terminal 1. We thought this would be our ace in the whole. We decided to wait until we reached the airport the next day to book the flight.
We went to breakfast early the next morning before our 7:30 a.m. departure from the hotel. There were only a handful of people at breakfast and the only groups in the lobby were the ones boarding buses to leave for the airport. It occurred to us that these demonstrations have seriously crippled the tourism industry in Egypt even at this early stage. The tourism industry makes up close to 11% of Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product. The entire economy of Egypt could cave if nobody showed up to tour the country, and from what we heard from the tour guides this scenario was quickly developing.
Hussein, Ahmed, Amr, and Mohamed were all there bright and early. Amr took care of some last minute details, and we said our goodbyes to him with hugs of gratitude. The drive into the airport was uneventful. Even though the curfew had been lifted there were a few neighborhood watch groups still stopping cars in some areas. We noticed younger men in their teens manning the barriers at some of these locations. There were a number of drivers honking their horns and hollering in Arabic that the curfew had been lifted. This was a situation the Egyptian military had created, and at this point there was no turning back.
When we arrived at the airport it was absolute mayhem. Lines of people stretched out of the entrances to Terminal 3. Mohamed bullied his way to one entrance and was able to get us through. Inside, there were more lines and people sleeping in almost every corner of the terminal. We went directly to the second level and again Mohamed was able to get us through the lines of people queued up into the security area. The departure board again read all EgyptAir flights were canceled. “Wait here and I will try to find out more information.” Mohamed said.
Meanwhile Hussein went over to some men who were sleeping across several of the benches and asked them to get up to make room for us. Grudgingly they moved and we were able to sit down. Ahmed was also roving around the terminal in an effort to find out any additional information on flights out of Cairo. We asked him to try to locate anyone from the U.S. Embassy. We also checked and could not find anyone from our embassy. We inquired with the German and UK diplomatic people at the terminal, but no one knew anything other than they “heard” the U.S. was evacuating American citizens on some charter flights, but they did not have any other information.
About an hour later Mohamed returned with the bad news: the EgyptAir flight to Bangkok was confirmed as canceled for the day. No other flights were available on this airline if we wanted to get out of Cairo. Our hearts sank. Mohamed said he had a colleague over at Terminal 1 and we asked him to check at the Qatar ticket counter to see if the flight at 3:00 p.m. still had some seats left. Twenty minutes later we had confirmation that seats were still available. He said we must get over to Terminal 1 ASAP. Hussein was waiting for us at the tour bus parking area. Ahmed loaded our bags and we all proceeded to the terminal. Traffic was gridlocked, but somehow Hussein found a way through in short order. We were within walking distance when traffic came to a standstill. We unloaded our luggage, said our tearful farewell to Ahmed and Hussein – for now, and quickly walked to Terminal 1 with Mohamed.
We were stunned as we approached the doors. It appeared that every person in Cairo was struggling to get out of town. This terminal has security at the entrance which means that all bags – carry-on and checked – must be
scanned. Again, Mohamed inched us toward the entrance through a side barricade and was able to convince a security guard to let us through. We went through the walk-through security scanner and Mohamed put our bags on the belt scanner behind us. We could not believe our eyes once we were inside. This terminal is much bigger than Terminal 3, or at least it appeared that way because almost every square foot – as far as one could see – was either occupied by a person or luggage. It was extremely difficult to navigate through this mass of humanity. That’s the only way we can describe it.
Mohamed located his colleague and we walked as fast as we could to the Qatar Airline ticket counter, which interestingly is inside of a series of office cubicles in the terminal. His coworker had secured a place in line for us near the front and within 15 minutes we were talking to the ticket agent. “Economy Class is completely sold out. We only have a few seats left in First Class.” She said. “We will take them,” we said, before she finished her sentence.
Then we thought the “what ifs.” What if the credit card doesn’t go through? What if the flight is canceled? What if we can’t get through passport control in time?
An hour later we laughed at the “what ifs.” The credit card did work. Granted, it was difficult going through passport control, but we made it, and no, the flight was not canceled.
As the wheels left the ground we held hands, looked at each other and smiled. Tears flowed. We were happy to be on our way to the next part of our journey to Thailand, but it was bitter sweet because we left behind a country we wanted to visit and know.
The real heart-breaker for us were the new friends we made in Egypt, but had to leave behind abruptly. As we said goodbye to Mohamed we felt like we were leaving a family member. In the four short days of our journey in and out of Egypt we will always remember Mohamed, Hussein, Ahmed, and Amr.
“No matter what I will stay with you.” And, they did.