Monday, February 21, 2011

Getting to Frankfurt

Cairo Airport, February 1, 2011

Around 7pm, I stood up and checked the departures board. While I waited for our flight to Dar es Salaam to come up on the screen, I took a quick look around. Everyone looked tired, bored and uncomfortable. We were lucky, I suppose, that we’d only been waiting at the airport for about 3 hours and our flight was meant to leave at 10.30pm. Some people had been there for days.

I looked back at the screen as our flight came up. Damn! It had been cancelled. My earlier optimism rapidly faded.

I walked back to where Jace and Stefan, our new-found Danish friend, were sitting.

“So... big surprise: our flight’s been cancelled.”

It really wasn’t a big surprise; Jace had been expecting this.

“I guess I’ll go talk to the embassy guys again then; see if we can get on that flight tomorrow.”

“I guess that’s what we’re doing: going to Frankfurt.”

As Jace walked off, my mind reeled. What the hell were we going to do in Frankfurt? We’d never planned on going to Europe, not really, not with the prices of things. I guess we’d just get there and figure out as quickly as possible how to get back down to Tanzania so we didn’t miss our planned Mt Kili climb and safari. Diving in Zanzibar would probably have to wait till after the safari.

Jace returned.

“She’s put us down for the flight tomorrow. We have to be at the Novotel by 9am for the briefing.”

A night in the airport. With all these people. Good thing we had secured a few seats. We organised “piquet duty” shared between Stefan, Jace and myself. I was lucky, I got the last shift: 5.10am-7.30am.

Sleep escaped me, for the most part. A group of angry passengers started yelling at 11pm and again at 5am. Outside, Egyptians were demonstrating against their president. Inside, Indonesians were demonstrating against Egypt Air. Fluorescent lights and the constant hum of people and floor cleaning machines meant that I could never really get deeper than heavy dozing. My earplugs, eye-mask, beret and pashmina were no match for the persistent intrusions of the populous airport. Fortunately for me, Jace very kindly allowed me to continue dozing through my piquet.

Cairo Airport and Novotel, February 2, 2011

We farewelled Stefan and wished him an uncancelled flight back home to Copenhagen. We were very glad later when we found out that he was one of the lucky ones to fly out that day, and with only a 30 minute delay.

At the Novotel, we were ushered into a pleasant conference room and asked to fill the chairs in an orderly fashion so that everyone could be processed in due time. We were the 3rd and 4th people to be processed. At times like these, having little luggage, speaking English and generally having your shit together has its benefits.

During the subsequent 3-plus hours, we were addressed several times by the patient embassy staff. Some of the potential evacuees in the room did not seem to be Australian. Several didn’t speak English. Many were families with small children that tried everyone’s patience. To the staff’s credit, they carried on doing what they had to do, and put up with stupid questions and loud children without ever snapping. I could not have been so tolerant.

Early on, an Australian reporter and a cameraman, I believe from channel 7, joined the throng and walked around interviewing several people. Most of the interviewees I overheard seemed calm and pleasant, but one man in particular sticks out in my memory.

He was having a good old whinge along the lines of, “We’ve been given no food. No one’s told us what’s going on. We’ve been waiting here for hours. It’s a disgrace.” A complete load of bullshit. He obviously decided that whinging was the only way he was going to get on TV. I hope he didn’t.

Everyone was finally processed and we were informed that we had to be ready at 1.15pm to get on the buses to Terminal 4.

At 1.10pm Jace and I had our packs on and were waiting for the signal to move.

Around 1.25pm we were told we could make our way outside and line up for the buses.

A couple of Egyptian-Australian Princesses in designer sunglasses and their Royal Mother pushed past us with their oversized suitcases. Princess Number 1 called out to the wandering camera-man, “I have something to say! I think it’s a disgrace!” He ignored her while I smirked and rolled my eyes.

“Is that all the luggage you’ve got?” asked a young embassy official, pointing passed the pissed-off princesses at my backpack.

“Sure is.”

“We’re travelling light,” chimed in Jace behind me. I could feel him smiling at the EAPs.

“Ok, you can get on the bus. Just put your packs on a seat or something.”

As I waited for the driver to get off the phone and move out of the stairway, another official asked, “Do you want lunch?”

“Uh, yeah sure. Thanks.”

The cameraman was back and filmed over the official’s shoulder as I got on the bus, clutching a lunch-pack the size of a cake box. That shot made it onto SkyNews back in Australia: my 15 seconds of fame.

On Sky News (thanks to Mr Chad for the photo)

Finally the bus took off to Terminal 4. I chatted to one of the officials and thanked her for all their hard work. It really was awesome that they had managed to put this whole evacuation together in a few short days, especially with no/limited internet access and mobile phones only coming back online that morning.

While I didn’t say it to the girl, I couldn’t believe the dickheads who were just standing around whinging about it. These staff members had been flown from all over Africa and the Middle East to support the 8 Cairo embassy staff and they’d barely slept more than 5 hours each in the last 2 days. The evacuees were getting a free flight to Frankfurt and potentially a free flight back to Australia from either there or London and some of them were still having a go? Seriously?! Now that is a disgrace. How totally un-Australian.

The bus arrived at Terminal 4. We had a bit of a wait on the grass outside as families with children and the elderly were allowed to check-in their bags and go through emigration first.

Suddenly someone cried out, “Look, the plane has landed! See, the Qantas plane is here!”

I quickly jumped up to get a view of the Flying Kangaroo before it disappeared behind the terminal building. I had to hold back tears of joy and relief. I have never been so happy to see a damn Qantas plane in all my life. We were finally getting out of this fucking country.

A short while later we were off the grass and lining up to check-in.

While we waited, another busload of evacuees arrived, including our favourite Royal Family. They tried to jump the queue and were firmly told in both English and Arabic by a lovely man in a black and white jumper that they had to go to the back of the line.

“We were just looking for our lunch,” muttered Princess Number 2 as she and her sister tried to peer round us to the pile of lunch-packs on the grass. No one was fooled.

Past emigration – no one cared about our expired visas – a tiny duty-free shop offered a last chance to get rid of some Egyptian pounds which were no doubt plummeting in value. Tempting as it was to use up all our cash on booze, we decided one 1L bottle each was enough. Later in Frankfurt, our last E£365 bought us just €45. We could’ve got nearly another 4 bottles of Absolut in Cairo for those pounds!

Jace joked with the two fabulous Qantas boys who allocated our seats in an attempt to get us upgraded to business or first class. No dice. 36 hours in the air and no hot showers or chance to shave meant that even these lovely lads weren’t falling for anything.

We settled into our economy seats with their personal TVs and revelled in the Australianness of it all. Watching Tomorrow, When the War Began and drinking a Cab Sav from SA over dinner made me seriously consider trying for one of the free flights back to Sydney. Would it really be giving up if the flight home was free?

Looking at the paperwork that Qantas and DFAT had us fill out, Jace asked the same question out loud. We looked at each other for a long moment, but then shook off the exhaustion and wine-induced homesickness. We were going to Germany. I had an aunt, my mother’s cousin, in Heidelberg, which vague memories told me wasn’t far from Frankfurt. It would be good to become re-acquainted after 14 years.

After a few short hours, the plane began its descent. For some reason known only to God and the Frankfurt airport authorities, we had to walk down the stairs and onto buses to get to the terminal.

It was 1°C outside and there was snow on the stairs, but we were in Frankfurt.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Frankfurt to Istanbul: The people have spoken

It has been nearly two weeks since we were evacuated from Cairo and we have now figured out how to get to Istanbul from Frankfurt. A big thank you goes out to everyone who participated in our online survey. Your responses have been hugely helpful in transforming us from bewildered evacuees back into motivated travellers who know where they are going.

38 people answered our survey. People seem to think that after our tense Egyptian experience we should take it easy, travel slowly and chill out alot.

Here are a few insights from our survey respondents:

Everyone has basically heard of all the countries we listed, except for Moldova. A third of people have never heard of Moldova. If I filled out the survey I would have bumped that number up a little. I hadn't heard of Moldova either.

The most visited country of the ones we listed was Italy, with a whopping 28 out of 38 people having been there. The next most visited countries, in descending order, were Germany, Austria, Greece, then Czech Republic.

The most frequently selected 'desirable destination' was Greece. After Greece, the most desirable countries to visit were Czech Republic, Austria and Croatia.

Multiple mentions were made suggesting we visit these specific places within these popular countries:

People think Greece is good because it has Delphi, and the Greek Islands. The Greek Islands seem to have an almost mythical status in people's minds when they are thinking about travel and tourism.

Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is popular because it has Prague. I don't think anyone who has ever been there disagrees- Prague is beautiful.

For those who have a clue about the place (thanks to you, dear respondents, that now includes us) Croatia includes two big names, and those are Split and Dubrovnic, two historically significant and photogenic towns along the Dalmatian coastline.

Yep, you guessed it. Austria is all about going to Vienna. If you get there on a Sunday you can hear the Boy's Choir there, or so I'm told.

Although they get fewer overall mentions, the people who suggested Italy and Slovenia were the most fanatical about advocating visits to those countries. It seems that Italy and Slovenia are places that some people really fall in love with.

Taking all this on board, we formed our travel plan. Alix and I have both already been to Prague on different trips, so we decided against going there again in favour of exploring new destinations. As some of you may know, we plan to spend a fair chunk of time in Istanbul, and it is so close to Greece we can easily skip back there if we want, so that is out, too.

So, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria it is! Go hard, or go home!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Help us get to Turkey!

Please take a few minutes to complete this short survey and help us plan our next move.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Newsflash: Chaos in Egypt

Alix' participation in national Egyptian 'Day of Rage'

Wanton acts of destruction...of bus tickets

Chaos in the capital forces Alix to respond affirmatively

This restaurant was the scene of intense dinner invitations

Political unrest and turmoil in Hurghada

Good way to beat the peak hour traffic- into submission

Is she just going to sleep through this entire revolution, or what?

Everyday heroes- Australian consular officials at Cairo airport got us out of Egypt and safely to Frankfurt inside of 18 hours. Absolute legends.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Egyptian Nightmare

“The initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Vladimir Nabokov, on the topic of his inspiration to write the novel ‘Lolita’

It is 5.40am and I lie awake in bed trying to spot a mosquito in the dim light. Forty minutes ago the first wails of the muezzin proclaimed that god was great in a blaringly loud, metallic keening that lanced into my ears and made me realise that my earplugs had fallen out during the night.

Now there is another sound, a kind of harsh jabbering sound, like two people viciously admonishing each other, and I interpret this as two men outside saying good morning.

In a sudden blare there comes another sound, this time a horrible electronic rhythm, like a dance music track created by a chimpanzee with a brain tumour. Thirty seconds later the sound is gone, but three minutes later it has started up again and then it stops as soon as it has begun. I learn later many times that this is the ringtone on the hotel assistant’s mobile phone, set at a volume necessary for it to be heard in the alley outside, a place I will have to venture to soon enough.

I get dressed quickly, my socks still slightly wet because they haven’t dried properly overnight, and stagger from the broken, faded tile flooring to the dirt alleyway outside.

It is late afternoon and the alleyway is in full swarm. To my right the tenement buildings loom three floors high, a chaos of electrical cabling connecting the buildings on either side of the street. The walls of the buildings gradually tone upwards from a solid greyish brown at the bottom through a filthy blackish grey, to a yellowish bile that stretches upwards. Thousands of grimy hands have been smeared over every surface within reach and higher up the cracking paint is a mockery of the idea of white.

A group of children has congregated in the middle of the alley and most of them have made a circle around a small girl who is standing helplessly in the middle of the ring with snot dripping from her nose. The other children are yelling at her gleefully and pointing their fingers at her, stabbing at the air in front of her and bringing their fingers down towards her face from up high in savage chopping motions. Overwhelmed, she simply stands still and cries, her mouth open and drooling in a wide ‘O’ shape and tears streaming down her cheeks. Off to the side of this group, the only child not joining in the circle of abuse is running around and around in a circle by himself, hitting himself on the head repeatedly with both hands.

To my left, the same buildings line the alleyway as it stretches towards a bustling intersection. The electric cables strung up high somehow avoid the sagging balconies on which every possible section of railing has hanging greyish coloured clothing. A boy in the street stabs his finger upwards towards a young girl and barks at her while she slowly and miserably collects clothes from the railing and deposits them into a basket on the balcony.

A smoky smell drifts from a shopfront where strings of the severed hooves of some kind of animal hang suspended from the ceiling. A man inside butchers a dirty animal and wipes his bloody hands on his apron. Next door to this shopfront several men wearing brown shirt dresses and sandals sit in faded plastic chairs sucking thick smoke from colourful hoses attached to tall water pipes. They watch impassively while a small girl in a dirty, once-pink dress stacks metal milk cans on the back of a utility truck, staggering under the weight of the cans which are almost as big as her.

I walk towards the intersection and the street traffic is a claustrophobic, tangled mess, everywhere people seem to deliberately obstruct my progress. A slim youth with a cigarette in his mouth cuts in front of me, reaches into his pocket to jangle some coins and yells at a shopkeeper. He turns his head and stares at me and I stare back. He realises he is blocking my path and with an enormous sigh to illustrate the great inconvenience I am causing he shifts his body to profile so I can smear myself past his baleful glare. A man wobbles towards me on a grey and clattering bicycle, riding straight at me and pulls up short, his sandals hitting the ground in the dirt to brake. He snorts through his nose and pulls his bike to the side before continuing on his way.

I want to walk faster than I am doing, but now I am stuck behind two enormous women. Draped from head to toe in black, only their eyes, hands and sandals stick out from their enormous frames, and rather than walking, they waddle like penguins, their bodies shifting from side to side so that they take up three times the space filled by their immense frames. Reality itself seems to bulge away from them, they displace the universe as they pass through it.

Noise stabs into my ears from every direction. Men yell at each other, women yell at shopkeepers. Men yell at donkeys and whips crack at malnourished horses pulling jangling coaches. Bells ring at pedestrians, dogs bark at other snarling dogs, women on balconies yell down at children as they lower buckets on ropes down to the street. Car horns, in short bursts, mid length blasts and lengthy harangues, assault anything and everything.

Mostly, though, teenage boys and adult men shout out at me. “Hey, where you from?” the interrogation begins. “Hey, I am talking to you, where you from?” it begins again. “Hey you, lucky man, you very beautiful wife,” it continues, the lips larger than life as they are licked lasciviously between remarks. “Where you go now?” the interrogation continues. “What you looking for? What you want? I can help you! Where you from? Where you go? Which hotel? You want calèche? You want felucca? You want souvenir? Very cheap! You know the price? You know how much? What’s your name? It’s very cheap, you want tax? You want tax? You want taxicab? You know the price? It’s very cheap.”

The faces that accompany these voices are wide with tobacco stained smiles, the bodies are hunched in deviousness and servility and the feet are angling closer and inwards, the space just in front of me threatened by a sandaled foot that darts away in each flashing moment  that my leg shifts forward in my stride. “Welcome to Luxor, welcome my friend, you are very welcome here.”

The manager of the hotel I am staying in appears in front of me, his girth blocking my progress. To the right up ahead I can see the intersection, it is marked by a six foot tall board of black metal on wheels. Behind the board is a soldier uniformed in black wearing a black beret. The buckle that, when fastened, secures his pistol in place hangs loose at his belt, which he has further loosened so he can tuck his black shirt into his black trousers with both hands. He clenches the belt that slings his sub-machinegun between his teeth to keep the weapon from falling into the dirt while he tucks his shirt in, the barrel of the weapon pointing up at his head, twirling gently as it hangs. Shirt tucked in, he transfers the sub-machinegun back into his hand, yawns, and begins swinging it back and forth to relieve his boredom.

The hotel manager has puffed himself up importantly, looking almost regal in an impressive headscarf he has piled up impressively on his large head. “The tour you went on yesterday, it was good? It was good, yes?” he inquires, by way of greeting. The tour was ok, I tell him, the tour guide was professional, but he rushed us through the tour, always telling us to hurry up, always short on time. But I understood, because the tour went to many places and those places were busy places and noisy places.

The hotel manager frowns and assures me that he will never use this tour guide again. This tour guide that rushes tourists through the tour sites is now fired, and he confirms this by yelling at his assistant to call this tour guide on his mobile phone with the horrible ring tone and tell him, right now, that he is fired. I begin to protest but the manager will not hear of it because this man is now fired and that is that. Satisfied, the manager leaves me to continue up the alley towards the intersection, where another black penguin woman is stepping blithely into the oncoming traffic, holding a baby in front of her head which blinds her frontal vision at the same time as it dares the oncoming traffic to kill the woman and her baby and suffer the consequences of guilty conscience.

“Hey mister, where you from?” The bored soldier in black calls out, smiling with tobacco stained teeth, his pistol still loose in its holster, the sub-machinegun still loose in his hand. “You smoke? You smoke cigarettes?” he calls out and I shake my head and next to me now he leans close so no one can hear and he holds out his palm and rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says, “Baksheesh.” I pretend not to hear him, but he sniffs the air and says he smells alcohol on my breath but I haven’t been drinking and Egyptian people don’t drink and therefore drinking is a problem. The palm is out again, and I am told that I am very welcome to drink here in Egypt because I am a foreigner and I am very welcome in Egypt and very welcome in Luxor.

It is mid-morning and I am at a ticket window. The ticket window is at the intersection and I stand in line and a woman that looks like a man yells at a man behind who a desk who shuffles pieces of paper and stares at a computer screen. There is a clock above the man’s head and the numbers on the clock are not numbers at all but they are meaningless squiggles and the clock has only one hand and it is moving slowly counter-clockwise. I stand in the queue for the ticket window and I am second in the line, and the clock hand has turned to where the 8 o’clock should be and the woman that looks like a man has left and the man is still shuffling the papers and staring at the computer screen but he hasn’t touched the keyboard and somehow I am still second in the line.

The soldier in black is next to me again, smiling with his bad teeth. He holds out his hand and gestures toward it with his sub-machinegun and I can see in his palm he holds a tiny toy train.

“This the train out of Luxor,” he smiles.

“I know,” I reply.