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.

1 comment:

  1. hi alix and jace I am enjoying following your travels I started while you were in Egypt - found you through conquerclub - glad you decided to continue. I liked the stuff about the EAP's, why do they never understand that demanding better treatment often obtains the opposite, or that they fill the roll of comic relief.
    Looking forward to your continued adventures.

    Niall (nebsmith)