Friday, February 4, 2011

Notes From An American Couple Stuck In Egypt....

Yesterday, Mr. Snooty's older brother wrote me about an email from some friends stuck in Cairo on vacation:

From: Frank
Sent: Monday, January 31, 2011 1:23 AM
To: undisclosed-recipients:
Subject: Chaos in Cairo

Dear Friends

We just arrived in Paris from Egypt, where we spent the last three weeks.  When the protests began Friday afternoon in Alexandria, we had a birds' eye view from the 4th floor of the Metropole Hotel, but we 
have little to add to what we heard about that on the news.   Rather 
than relaying what you've seen on TV, I want to tell you about a few things that we haven't seen in the news on CNN and BBC, mostly about the situation in Egypt for tourists.  Excuse the rough editing.

You've heard about the Internet being turned off and how that somewhat impeded the ability of the protestors to organize, but did you know that having no Internet also shut off all the ATM machines?  Or that hundreds of tourists who thought that had reservations at hotels found no rooms waiting because the hotels had no access to the internet to see the reservations?

When we left Alexandria on saturday to connect with our ticketed flight on Monday, all the banks and ATMs in the area were closed, and we had to use all but our last $300 to pay the hotel bill, since Visa and Mastercard were both down too.  Then the van to Cairo which had 
already been paid demanded another $100 a person for the trip.  Eek! 
By miracle we found a lone ATM at a rest area that honored a draw of 2000 LE ($400), so we arrived at our hotel with some money but none of the banks or ATMs we found after that were operating.  If our flight hadn't taken off we would have been homeless.

When we arrived at the Novotel at the Cairo the lobby was in chaos. 
Another miracle, they had our reservation.  I had the foresight to reserve a "no cancellation" room two days before they turned the Internet off, but the lobby was full of people of all nationalities who were not so lucky, and they remained there, sleeping on every horizontal surface through the night, even as the maids worked around the clock to clean rooms as people checked out.

Our hearts sank when we discovered that our Air France flight was indefinitely postponed and we heard from other Air France passengers whose flights had been cancelled and rescheduled three days later.  We made multiple attempts to call Air France, whose message referred us to the Internet, and to the U. S. Embassy whose switchboard was closed.  Consequently I made five trips to the airport during the night, a fifteen minute walk, and finally at 0300 AM the departure board finally listed our flight at 1530, or eight hours late.  My relief was tempered by disbelief.


We arrived at the airport four hours early and it wasn't enough. 
First, our shuttle became gridlocked a 1/2 mile from the terminal and as we walked all our bags toward the terminal we could see a massive mob outside the doors.  All these people were attempting to enter the one door that was open one person wide, while an equal number of people were trying to get out the same door.  I'm afraid Nancy and I were ruthless in pushing our way in the door.  By the time we got in, my T-shirt was soaking and it was hotter inside.  There we no police on site to direct traffic and chaos reigned.

Immediately inside a young man approached and offered to take us to a "no wait" line for 200 LE apiece ($50 each).  I declined and still wonder if it was a mistake.  Our problems from then on were abetted by men like him bucking the line and creating total grid lock at the scanning machines.  After a while of pushing and shoving our way through the crowd we came to a metal barrier which was supposed to funnel us toward the line but everybody was climbing the barrier and lifting or throwing their baggage over.  There wasn't much choice because in the throng of people trying to get to the ticket counters it was impossible to see where the authorized passage began. It was there we began to run into abandoned luggage.  Is it clear this wasn't a polite crowd?  There we times we feared we'd be crushed and Nancy and I were both toppled over more than once.  People with small children were particularly affected.

Being newcomers to the world of chaos, we had to learn fast how to move very, very steadily forward without giving up an inch.  At the front door, we had to "pooshy pooshy pooshy", the crowd chant for "push" along with several hundred other people, all being funneled into a door about three feet wide.  Don't forget, we had three bags with us!  If we'd become separated, I don't know what we would have done, but luckily (and that's all it was) that never happened.  At three points we encountered way way way too many people trying to move
forward:  at the front door, at the security gate, and finally at the Air France ticket counter.  At each point, there were all kinds of people caught in the crush -- grandmas and grandpas, parents with families, lots and lots of travelers from all over the world, businessmen -- you name it, they were caught up in it.  And of course there were the usual SOBs taking advantage of the situation -- Frank mentioned the men who, for 200 Egyptian pounds would get us through the security scanners fast, and others pushing brutally to get to the front (in grade school we called that "cutting in", but in this case there was no line to cut into) and seeming not to care if they knocked people over, including kids.  Too many people for anything as orderly as a line.  Several women suffered panic attacks, screaming and crying.  Several people fainted -- it was close in there, and both Frank and I felt woozy a couple of times, as did many of the people we talked to after we got on the plane.  On the other hand, there were several people who went out of their way to help:  The man who helped an entire family leave the area, lifting the children overhead and making people move back so the women could walk out, the same man who gave Frank a tissue to wipe his very sweaty head, a group of three young folks from South Korea who kept tabs on each other and on me (and I on them, as one of the young women was definitely on the verge of passing out, and so we all supported her until she was better), a Frenchman who, with Frank, managed to get enough order to get some bags through the security X ray machine by simply dominating the crowd with the force of his personality, etc., etc., etc.  Everyone cooperated to lift children overhead rather than run the risk of their getting pushed down by the line-cutter-inners.

We wondered several times why there were no police or other crowd-
control people there, but in retrospect I don't think they would have 
made a lot of difference; there were simply too many people, too 
agitated, in too small a space.  I can't imagine what a policeman 
could've done to maintain order short of closing the airport, and that 
would have been disastrous.

I imagine others found, as we did, that in this situation we formed 
informal coalitions with the people immediately around us and so we 
became a cohort of sorts that in an hour and a half fought our way up 
to the scanner.  There we stood for the next three and a half hours 
because the luggage scanner was jammed and every time it became 
unjammed, these darn "helpers for 200 Egyptian pounds jammed it again 
by refusing to let one bag go through at a time.  People around began 
a mantra, "one by one," but it didn't help.  Two oversized suitcases 
do a great job of jamming one of these machines if they are fed in 
askew, and it was never just one bag.  Making the problem worse, the 
density of crowd inside the cordoned area was forcing people onto the 
rollers for the luggage, so even if the scanner hadn't been jammed, 
there was nowhere for the luggage to go.

Finally, at the exact time our flight was scheduled to depart, someone 
came who knew how to operate the machine, and two men and I formed a 
team which pushed everyone back and fed the luggage into the machine, 
one at a time.  It was like playing football.  All this while there 
was a stream of people and baggage coming out of the gate we were 
trying to go in, and we could hear screaming inside the gate.  One 
man, his glasses askew on his face came out muttering, "It's dangerous 
in there."   We had to wonder if getting through would be worth it. 
But once we got through it only (!!!) took another hour to get to the 
Air France counter (one scale and desk) and from there things went 
better.  They even took us out of the security line to an office where 
our passports were stamped, looking soggy (i.e., sweaty) and tattered, 
and we were led through the protesting crowd to the final scanning 
machines where a thorough job was done of xraying our baggage.  We 
finally boarded our 0730 flight, rescheduled 1530, at 1800, and took 
off cheering at 1830.

I believe most of the people in the airport were ticketless and doomed 
to disappointment.

Here are two of the pictures we took from our balcony at the Metropole 
Hotel in Alexandria.

Below:  There was smoke all around the hotel but this was the only 
fire we could actually see.  In the morning we could see that there 
were three police vehicles burned down to their frames.   In the 
foreground are two of the government banners the crowd climbed up to 

We loved nearly all our vacation in Egypt and wish the people of Egypt 
the best.

Frank & Nancy.....

How scary is all that?


Mental P Mama said...

Horrifying. For everyone. And my daughter is scheduled to go to Alexandria soon...I am pulling the plug on that one if the school doesn't!

That Janie Girl said...

Oh, Lord, what a nightmare. I'm glad they're okay.

The Incredible Woody said...

How very scary!!

Bodaciousboomer said...

I'm glad your friend is finally safe. I've only been in a crush of people once; but lucky for me it was a happy crowd. Still it was scary at times.

TSannie said...

Wow...thank goodness your friends are safe - and their attitude toward the people of Egypt is refreshing.

Paxie said...

Good grief! I was about to panic just reading this. Thank God they are safe. I don't know if I would have made it.

I did like how they bonded's what we do :)

Staci said...

Snooty, I linked this on my blog. What a terrifying experience!

Tammy said...

I'm so glad they are ok. What a horrifying experience!

BJ Roan said...

How awful! I would have been scared to death. I'm glad they made it home okay.


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