Monday, January 31, 2011

Home again

We are next in line, taking off for a direct 14-hour flight to New York

Our wakeup call is at 4 am and after an excellent although somewhat abbreviated night’s sleep, we are off to the airport where we have a very nice breakfast in the business class club before leaving for home.

On the flight we have four to six hours sleep on aseat that stretches out to a flat bed. Not to overdo it about this wonderful seat, but it has two kinds of vibrating massages, and every imaginable configuration. It's an experience, after all of the cramped cheap seats we've experienced. There are a couple of nice movies and more wonderful food. The airline even provides silk pajamas, and the attendants are attentive and considerate.

The beautiful Persian Gulf
An oil tanker in the Gulf
As we approach New York, we agree we could stand more of this kind of travel. First class by accident but we can appreciate the value.

That became even more true on our arrival in New York. After going through customs and immigration, we went to return our single checked bag for our ongoing flight to Vermont. Delta had agreed not to charge us $400 for the flight for which we had already paid - they had told Astrid we would have to pay because we had missed yesterday's flight - no matter it was because THEY had cancelled our flight from Cairo.

Good to see New York
But the Delta clerk
wants $50 for our bag to go to Burlington. There is only one bag, we point out. OK, she concedes, $25. But there should be no charge, there is an allowance of one bag for person on international flights. Well, you didn't come in on Delta she says sulkily. No, we admit - and that is because Delta suspended ALL flights to Cairo. It would have been difficult to fly without a plane. Well, talk to Qatar, she says rudely. Qatar does not fly to Burlington. This continued for several minutes with Jim saying he would give her his 

credit card but also assuring her he would not end up paying that fee. Finally, curtly, she says she will "waive" the fee this time "but don't try that again!" No problem, we will NEVER fly Delta again, if there is any other choice, regardless of price.

BUT if we have the opportunity, we will fly Qatar anywhere! We had forgotten that flying could actually be fun.

Our flight to Burlington is uneventful and we are SO happy to see Astrid who was there to picked us up. It has been an unforgettable trip. We believe we have witnessed a Berlin Wall moment. Lars says he understands, but "you all weren't in Berlin!"

We are sorry to have caused anxiety for him and his sisters, and other family and friends. None the less, it was a wonderful trip and it was an honor to also be witness to the birth of New Egypt.

We are home again, happy to be here and looking forward to sleeping in
our own bed, some 40 hours after departing from the hotel in Alexandria

Looking forward, we know there will be setbacks and mistakes, but Egypt is an old, wise country and we have confidence that it will evolve into a strong vibrant 21st century nation. Are have heard from Samir and Dalia, that they are safe - and that they are optimistic about the future of their new nation. we are looking forward to our next visit.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Out of Egypt

If all goes well, we will be on our way home today. We plan to leave the hotel at 3 pm to go to the airport for an evening flight. But we are already packed and ready to leave quickly if needed.

We eat a good breakfast – it isn't clear when we will get to eat again, so we take along an orange and a banana as a snack. The sounds of demonstrations are already echoing through the streets of Alexandria.

After breakfast we have a call from American Express. The woman says she had to reach us before she left at the end of her shift because our flight has been moved up to 4 p.m. and she wanted to be certain we did not miss our flight. She also said we will have access to the lounge in Qatar that comes with the business class ticket. That's good news.

We call Dalia and agree to a 2 pm departure from the hotel. We groom about 10 a.m and put on our traveling clothes., figuring we are not going to see a bed or much else in the way of creature comforts, although a night in the first class lounge in Doha won't be that bad. We also pack a change of clothing in our carry-on, figuring we may be more comfortable if we change. Jim has washed that incredible Tilley's travel wear and, as usual, it is nicely dry by morning, fresh underwear and socks for both of us, along with a change of pants and shirts.

Although it is still hours before Dahlia is supposed to arrive, we pack everything. Still just a single checked bag, two small carry-ons and one small rolling case.we had brought an "opportunity bag" that could be used to pack an potential quantity of treasures bought from the famous bazaar in Cairo, but we won't be needing it this time!

Just as we are finishing dressing, we get a call from Samir saying he has advised Dalia to leave as soon as possible for the airport, even though it is six hours before our scheduled flight. Can we be ready in 15 minutes? Yes, we can. Soon thereafter Dalia calls – 30 minutes, she says – she must go to the police station to get permits to pass. We finish zipping up everything and say a last goodbye to the room that has been our refuge from the storm for three days. (Is that all? It seems much longer.)

We go down the quaint and charming elevator, to the darkened lobby and settle with the hotel.

We are whisked into the car and head for the airport with police permits. We drive directly to airport on largely deserted streets. There is some traffic and volunteers are directing traffic, cooperating with the military. Every major intersection has one or more tanks or APCs but the troops look relaxed as do the civilians around them.

TV coverage indicates 100 dead now. But it also documents a lot of cooperation between military and protestors. The BBC lead “violent protests” is clearly inaccurate. We know this first hand. Generally peaceful protests treated to violent response by the riot police, and restrained pushback by the protesters. We think we are seeing a bottom up, social media enabled, popular, peaceful revolution. The possibilities are very positive. Potentially we are witness to a wonderful change,. We are hopeful.

We express appreciation for the Army restraint, so far, and our hope that Mubarak does not order them to use force on the protestes. "He already did," Dalia tells us. "They refused." She seems very certain of that and is similarly confident that it will not change.

Dalia tells us Qatar Airways has switched to a larger plane, and scheduled an earlier flight.

As we approach the airport, the streets are blocked by six or eight tanks. Dalia speaks to the soldiers and we are allowed to approach a barricade.

We leave the car, pulling our bags, accompanied by Dalia. We walk towards the terminal thorough hundreds of people here with baggage, kids, everyone trying trying to get out. We go to a side building and sit while Dalia gets on her cell phone and checks on details. She returns with a scrap of paper with flight confirmation numbers written on it. We approach the terminal and we are not allowed to enter until a Qatar Airways representative scans those numbers and verifies we have a flight.

Here is where we say goodbye to Dalia - she's not allowed inside without a ticket. It occurs to us how dependent we have been on her translation, support, and problem solving skills. Now we are in the hands of Qutar Air, for better or worse. Dalia says she was leaving us to pray for the victims and to give blood and then to resume her neighborhood guard duties until she could get back to Cairo. We are honored and humbled to have met such patriots.(After we are safely home, we hear from Sahir, and he says Dalia is safe - but we don't hear from her for over two weeks. Finally, an e-mail. She had been in Tahir square for two weeks, bringing in the revolution) .

The airport terminal was chaotic

Now we are in terminal with our bags on our own. We work through crowds of people toward the baggage check and once there we are told Qatar Airways is waiting to accept all of their nationals first – even with a ticket, we are essentially on standby. We had a conversation with a young man who was guarding his neighborhood last night. They intercepted people who were bent on looting who turned out to be policemen.

There are also unverified stories that thousands of criminals were freed from prison and even armed by the police. Why? Spite and to keep people guarding their property instead of demonstrating. This shows that security people understood that the people on the streets are not the “poor” but responsible property owners.

The ticket agent, a young Egyptian man who says he has been working there for 48 hours non-stop, tells us we will be called. But we follow the advice of a would-be fellow passenger, a young Malaysian man, and stay very close, pressing forward every 10 minutes or so to again request to have our bag checked.

We ask if we are going to get on the plane. “Probably.” But huge groups keep coming, handing over handfuls of passports.

Outside there are hundreds of less fortunate people, without tickets but obviously hoping for a flight that will take them out of Egypt.

On the third or fourth attempt, after more than a hour of waiting in limbo, the clerk takes our bag and gives us boarding passes and we go through security. There are the usual forms to fill out and our bags are put through ordinary security checks. Somehow, manhandling the bags in the last frenzy has broken the retractable handle of our roll-on bag, and it will not compress into the bag. Jim has to break it off and he worries about injuring himself and being unable to take the flight. Finally it snaps off, with no injury, and he takes it over to some sympathetic security officials for disposal.

At 4 pm we are on the bus to the plane. Turkish, Qatar, and Air Libya seem to be the only carriers flying. Egypt Air had, we are told, suspended all flights. We are directed to the stairs at the front of the plane.

We climb the stairs and feel as though we have entered another dimension. At 4:50 we are wheels up after being pampered with refreshments and hot washcloths, with a sconce of fresh roses and orchids on the wall in front of us. First seat, First row. First class. Across the aisle are two Arabian princes in white robes who seem to know the flight attendants by name. We look out the window at the green productive Delta below, crisscrossed by canals. With a splendid grilled salmon dinner, we revel in drinking a 2002 Margaux, chateau Rauzan Gassies, 2nd Grand Cru. We follow that with Sauvignon Blanc with the meal. It is a “through the looking glass” experience.

All the tension, the uncertainly, our discomfort because of the announcements are in Arabic , the crowds of perhaps a thousand people trying to get flights – it was a "through the looking glass" experience. Beautiful perfectly groomed young flight attendants, the best airline seat imaginable – I think we both had tears in our eyes as we took off.

We cannot say we ever felt threatened, but we bless the luck that put us in Alexandria instead of in Cairo at the Talisman hotel a few blocks for Tahrir square. If we were still there, we night have been days away from exit, without fresh food and possibly exposed to some real danger.

We are surprised to enjoy the glimpse we catch of Doha. It is Disneyland pretty along the shore of the Persian Gulf, showcase skyscrapers, everything illuminated. Sort of a cross between Disneyland and Hong Kong.

We arrive about 9 p.m., are escorted by a very courteous Qatar Airways representative through immigration and rather than spending the night sitting in the lounge, we are installed in a glorious suite of the ultra modern Movenpick hotel, transportation included, all courtesy of Qatar Airways.

We go to bed, still pinching ourselves, although we know it will be a short night because we have an early morning flight. Relax, don't worry, we are told, they will give us a wakeup call and have a car and driver at the hotel to return us to the airport.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Need a "Plan C"

We wake shortly before the alarm goes off and start to do our stretches – we are expecting a long day of waiting followed by a long plane trip – 12+ hours.

But our stretches are interrupted by a phone call from Ingrid. It is midnight in Connecticut and it is good to hear her voice, but her news isn't that good. She said Lisa had tried to let us know via e-mail that our flight was cancelled.

Ingrid had tracked down the hotel from the name we had mentioned to Lisa because she realized we would not have received that message, having heard on the news that the Internet was still shut off. We are glad we had not left for Cairo Airport, only to arrive to find we had no flight.

We cannot say that we are terribly surprised by the news, but now need a plan C. Ingrid says a friend of hers who has a sister living in Cairo says we should try instead to fly out of Alexandria. Sergei (who came to the U.S as a refugee from the counterrevolution in Russia in 1990) seconds that. Get out as soon as possible, to anywhere possible. We give Ingrid our passport numbers, thinking it would be good for her to have that, and tell her we will let her know just as soon as we know what we are doing.

We try to call the American Embassy but are simply told to stay put – they do not even want to know our names or where we are.

We go upstairs for breakfast and wait for Dalia to arrive . Outside things look quiet (with tanks).

The Army is clearly here but aside from traffic control, they do not seem to be impeding the movements of civilians in any way. Mubarak made a speech last night, sacking the government but staying in office himself. It is the first time he has addressed the people since the protests began. Too little, too late.

At 7:15 Dalia comes to the restaurant and after getting her some tea for her poor creaky voice, we tell her what is happening. She says she will make some calls, and see what flights might be available from Alexandria.

How was Dalia’s night, we ask. She admits she is a bit shaken. On her way to her friend’s house yesterday evening she saw a security cop beating up an older woman. She intervened and it helped – they let the woman go. Dalia is assertive when she needs to be. She has a hobby of being a kick boxer – not exactly what you imagine when you meet a woman who wears a head covering! However, she had gotten a cold a couple of days ago, and yesterday she had pretty much lost her voice. We have this image of her in mind getting in this cop’s face and having her voice fail to convey her outrage. We think she was shaken up by thinking about the risk she took, but we are sure she would do it again too. She also tells us that she stood a three-hour shift last night with other volunteers (she was armed with only a kitchen knife) guarding the neighborhood where she was staying.

She is also concerned because she has not heard from Samir. He went out to the demonstration and has not been heard from since. Dalia had called Samir’s wife, but she had not heard from him either. Of course, the cell service was still not working, so everyone was hoping that was the reason for Samir's silence. Dalia told his wife that if she and the children felt unsafe, she should go to the home of Dalia’s mother.
We worry about Samir -he is a tall man with a confident, "leader" bearing, and we can imagine him being singled out by riot police.

We agree on a course of action. Dalia will try to find us a flight out of Alexandria and we will go through American Express and try as well.

We return to our room, Using the hotel's land line, we are able to call American Express concierege and explain our situation. The choices are limited, but in less than half an hour we get a confirmed flight for tomorrow evening, January 30th – via Qatar Airlines, to Doha, Qatar, and then direct from Doha to JFK. The only seats on that flight are business class - $2,000 each and worth every penny, Jim figures. This call was also interrupted by a limit on the length of phone calls (15 minutes), and fortunately American Express called us back to complete making the reservation.

It turned out that Dalia was unable to find any flight, and when we call to tell her that we do have a Plan C. she says, “Thank God.” Getting to the Alexandria airport will be much easier and more likely to be successful. American Express is great in this situation.

Our attitude is we never had any intention of going to the Gulf, or flying Qatar Airways, but it will do. To illustrate how chaotic this was, when Dalia checks with the Alexandria airport and Qatar Airways says they have no such flight, so we check to be sure of the airport – there are two from the city. Finally by using our confirmation number, she is able to confirm the flight from the Alexandria Airport. We make plans to leave the hotel at 3:30 tomorrow afternoon.

We resume watching BBC, which is reporting things are still hot in Cairo. At 11 am, we hear demonstrators here again, then we hear armored vehicles. They sound heavier and they turn out to be tanks.

Meanwhile still no word from Samir. Dalia said she has called his wife, but she was in tears, worried about him. Then around noon, the cell service resumes in a spotty manner. We are able to text the kids, intermittently. Still no Internet and have to keep manually shifting between carriers for texting. First one system works and then the other. Dalia calls to tell us the mobile phone service is working now.

Shortly thereafter we get a phone call from Samir. He is OK. Last night he said he was working with others until about 4 am guarding the Cairo Museum from hooligans who had broken in. Not protesters, he says. Maybe plain clothes police, maybe just petty criminals. Anyway he and others roust them from the building, frisk them and recover some things they have attempted to steal and then cordoned off the museum until the Army arrived to take over the job of protection. He sounds very happy that the Army is there. Stay safe, we tell him. He says he must go out again tonight .There are hooligans and others who would take advantage of the situation and he needs to join others to keep the protest on track – peaceful and purposeful. He says “we need to outnumber the criminals.” Wow!

We go up to the rooftop restaurant for lunch and watch the crowds swelling along the Corniche.

We hear repeated chanting coming and going. But we don’t hear the concussion of tear gas any more. To our amazement, relations between the Army and the demonstrators seem courteous, even cordial and we see demonstrators greeting soldiers with some show of enthusiasm.

Except for our time in the restaurant, for meals and tea, we stay in our room, keep our heads down and watch the news on television. The lobby of the hotel is dark, the drapes are shut, the doors are chained. The demonstrations just get louder and larger as the day progresses.

Protesters are marching below us. After prayers end (Coptic and Muslim, both) the crowds swell even more. Peaceful, even jovial. There are thousands of people on the streets, men and women, young and old, even families with small children.The hotel staff is mostly out on the rooftop balcony, watching with everyone else.

We return to our room to watch more BBC and CNN coverage. They are beginning to get the story right. On TV live in Cairo we are seeing cooperation between the military and the demonstrators. Troops make a containment line, converse with the leaders of the demonstration, and a second containment line forms inside the first, made up of the protestors. A Berlin Wall moment, says one commentator.

A 4 pm curfew is announced, and the Army asked people to stay in. By 4:08 we hear people demonstrating. Boom Boom,. Tear gas? what? A few minutes later two more, a bit more distant but still rattling our window. We are far from the center of city and thus far from the center of action. We have our balcony closed and shuttered, as Dalia instructed.

When we go up for dinner, again we watch the crowds swelling. Individual groups ebb and flow, all chanting slogans, “Mubarak must go” and the like. Completely peaceful. Police are now invisible, their threatening black-clad troops in full riot gear have vanished. The protesters swarm around the Army tanks and APCs, sometimes climbing on them, often cheering the soldiers whom they trust, in stark contrast to the police whom they loathe.

We are glad to see the restraint of the army, though are naively concerned about what happens when Mubarak orders them to fire to enforce curfew. State television reports the Army has issued warnings of “extreme danger” to anyone who violates curfew. That turns out to be the dying state, not the military that issued such a warning.

Later Dalia tells us that today Mubarak DID issue an order to fire, and the military ignored it. Instead the military seems in great sympathy with the protesters. Perhaps this is not universal but certainly the majority.

Random reports from people we speak with: The violence after dark seems to be police (not in uniform), This mostly does not take place during the day. Police have deliberately released criminals from jails to force people to return to their homes to protect their families and property. This may have backfired. Instead more people turn out, setting up neighborhood protection units.

The most disturbing thing is BBC's continuing reports that “Cairo is in flames.” Simply false. The building they repeatedly show burning is the ruling party headquarters. That WAS torched by the protesters and apparently the fire companies were not very interested in extinguishing the flames. It was still burning when we left Egypt on Sunday. There were some efforts to torch the Bureau of Interior Affairs, which houses several thousand bureaucrats who eat away the substance of ordinary Egyptians. Also burning are several police stations. We cannot find much fault with the protesters' targets.

Nonetheless we are glad not to be in Cairo. On Mubarak's orders, almost all shops are closed, the Talisman Hotel where we had been staying was only a few blocks from the party headquarters and Tahrir Square, and had no restaurant. Being stuck there for several days would have been miserable, and our chances of getting out of Egypt in a timely manner would have been much poorer. As chaotic as the airport at Alexandria was, Cairo is, from what we later hear from others, many times worse.

We have noticed things are quiet until after dark, when those with sinister purposes mingle with the crowds and attempt to cause disorder. The concussions and more distantly, gunfire, reflect this. By Sunday there had been some 100 deaths reported around the country. Some no doubt just ordinary crime in a country of 86 million. Some may be people taking advantage of the disorder to settle old scores. But some are victims of the protest violence, mostly perpetrated by police and their cronies. We feel deeply humbled to listen to the accounts these people tell – they are true patriots in every sense of the word.

BBC news is showing live pictures of masses of people mixing with tanks and personnel carriers. No rash action by the military . Indeed, pictures of tanks in motion with dozens of protesters riding them, clapping and cheering! There are also pictures of of the Army guarding the Egyptian Museum, bayonets in place.

We go to bed and sleep well. Nothing wakes us.

Friday, January 28, 2011

On to Alexandria

We are early to go to Alexandria. We have breakfast at the hotel, checkout of the Talisman and we are ready to go by 7:30 – and Dalia is there already.

When we get in the car, Dalia gives Eloise a bag from the Egyptian Museum – “Happy Birthday,” she says. It is a beautiful Bastet cat goddess statue! We are on our way a good half hour earlier than planned. All to the good.

We drive to Alexandria without incident. Driving north along the western edge of the Delta, we appreciate its highly productive agriculture including vineyards, and miles of offices of international high tech companies.

We also see whole towns of very expensive but unoccupied houses, built by the government on some theory or another, evidence of the corruption or at least mismanagement in the government, Dalia says.

The plan is to get to Alexandria early to tour the catacombs and a collection Greco-Roman monuments in the middle of the city, and finish there by noon. Demonstrations are planned after Friday prayers and all the rest of our Alexandria itinerary is along the coast on the Corniche where "nothing should happen.” En route Dalia receives a text message predicting an “enormous” demonstration in Alexandria.

We arrive at the catacombs around 10 am. They are called the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafu, which means mound of shards, recognizing the Roman custom of marking each anniversary of a loved one's death with a funerary feast. Once the feast ended, all of the dishes were smashed and pieces left in the chamber where the feast had been held.

These catacombs were reputedly discovered by accident when a donkey fell into a hole about 1900. Another story says as local man was quarrying for building stone when he broke into one of the chambers. At first it was thought this tomb complex dated to the second century AD. But recent studies have produced a new theory, that it may have originally been constructed as a tomb for Cleopatra. The chamber that may have been for her is pictured below.

Alexandria catacombs principal tomb

It also appears that there were two other tombs, one on either side of the chamber for Cleopatra, one for Mark Antony and one perhaps for Caesar. Cleopatra intended to be mummified in the ancient Egyptian tradition. If the inscriptions are to be believed, these tombs were built by Cleopatra as her final resting place. But there is no indication whether or not they were ever used as such.

An interesting feature is that the sarcophagi found here were made of one piece of stone – covers did not lift and instead the mummy was put in through the end, another device to fool tomb robbers.

After Cleopatra’s death, it is thought that Octavian essentially desecrated her tomb by opening the area up as a public burial place. Hundreds of tombs are carved into the rock, designed to hold coffins (for Christians), urns (for Roman pagans who believed in cremation) and mummies (for those who still followed the old Egyptian religion). It may have been used as burial place for several hundred years in the Roman era. The deepest levels are flooded and you walk around on planks above the water.

So we are about 150 steps under ground, examining the Cleopatra site and its side chambers, possibly representing both Caesar and Antony, when we are interrupted by loud shouting. It is the police ordering everyone to leave immediately. We rush up the steps quickly and our driver gets permission to pass a barricade to take us to our hotel.

We speed through narrow streets, between seven to ten story older buildings and get a fleeting glimpse of the ambiance of old Alexandria. We drive too fast among many pedestrians, hand carts, street vendors -we feel fortunate to arrive at the without incident - to reach the Windsor Palace, an elegant, charming place evoking another era. It first opened in 1906 and ts location right on the Mediterranean and beautiful harbor of Alexandria is stunning. Samir had chosen ths as an ideal place to spend the night for Eloise's birthday.

The Windsor Palace from the waterfront, an aspect of the hotel we never got to see in person

The main door facing the Corniche (the main road along the eastern harbor of Alexandria) was locked but they directed us to a side door. By about 1 pm we are checked in and are told everything - attractions, shops, restaurants have all been ordered closed. At reception desk we were told under no circumstances should we leave the hotel and we were directed to the 6th floor restaurant for all meals, rather than the ground level coffee shop where lunch is normally served.

Everything is changing very quickly. Cell phone and texting services are down, blocked by the government, the Internet is down by order of the government and suddenly we are out of touch with family, just as any news they are hearing is likely to be sort of scary. The last they knew we were on the way to Alexandria and we did not anticipate any trouble.

Dalia gives us contact information for her, a land line number. She plans to stay with a friend nearby who has a land line. All of our tourist plans are cancelled so we will miss seeing the sites along the Corniche, which include Fort Quait Bey, built on the site of the famous Alexandria lighthouse using stone that came from the lighthouse. We also miss visiting the supposed location of the famous Alexandria library - no trace remains and it may be the location is actually underwater off the Corniche. We had also intended to visit the new Alexandria library, which is planned to be one of the great libraries of the world. There is also a very well-preserved Roman theater, and dozens of other interesting places to see. Also cancelled is the special dinner that Samir and Dalia had planned for Eloise’s birthday at a waterfront seafood restaurant. (We will HAVE to go back!)

The initial plan Dalia has proposed is to leave Alexandria after any protests have died down and to travel at night, possibly leaving the hotel at 1 a.m. We would need a travel by permit at night back to Cairo, and would go directly to the airport for a flight scheduled to leave at 11 pm. It means we would end up staying at the airport for about 18 hours but the goal it to be at the airport in plenty of time for our scheduled flight home.

We promise not to leave the hotel, to not go out on our balcony, and to keep our heads down until Dalia calls us. We go up to our room and discover on the bed one of those printed messages you often see at nice hotels - "We hope your stay will be memorable..." Honestly, they did not have to make it this memorable! We leave off our luggage, and head up to the restaurant for lunch.

We are pleased to find it is a very nice restaurant on the roof six stories up with a splendid view of the great semicircular coastline of the Corniche. We are right across the street from the water’s edge an excellent view of Fort Quait Bey, which is on a breakwater that hooks around the outside of the harbor. We start to eat lunch on the patio of roof-top restaurant high above the street. But when the demonstrations heat up and the tear gas starts flying, we chicken out and go inside. The demonstrators are really peaceful, just marching and chanting. It certainly appears to us that the initiators of force are the police, not the protesters.

By about 1:30 p.m., and we are hearing explosions, probably tear gas, as well as the sharper sounds of gunshots. Several hundred people chanting and carrying signs march down the Corniche. We see tear gas. We hear repeated concussions, which prompts our retreat inside. (Others arrive and go outside to watch.) But we stay in the restaurant, watching the crowds on the Corniche. The picture below is taken through the plastic curtains that protect diners from the winds off the sea.

The crowds continue to grow, and the chanting become increasingly loudert, but remains peaceful. There are ocassional sharp reports,in the distance, probably closer to the center of the city. We never did learn what the smoke was but it is coming from downtown Alexandria. When we eventually left for the airport we saw a burned out police truck beside the highway - perhaps that was the origin of that smoke.

We go back to our room, listening and trying to imagine what’s going on.The sounds, shouts, ambulances, sirens, apparently larger and larger groups of people chanting and marching by – continue all afternoon, into the evening. We find continuing news on BBC. The signal is interrupted at least once a minute and it seems the government is trying to interfere with the TV broadcast too. Still no Internet, no cell phone or texting service. Land lines are working but overwhelmed with the volume of calls as people accustomed to using cell phones struggle to keep in touch.

About 4 p.m. the news broadcast reports that a curfew will be imposed beginning at 6 p.m. We anticipated that may make it impossible for us to travel at night. Soon thereafter Dalia calls and confirms that will stop us from night travel and she says to be ready at 7:30 am. She assures us she is OK, safe and says that she will take care of us.

At 6:15 we are called, please come to the front desk. The hotel wants to know when is our flight, and advises us there will be a curfew until 7 am when the Army will be in place.

It is clear there is nothing for us to do except keep our heads down. Having settled our plans for the night, we dress up for dinner and go to the rooftop restaurant for Eloise’s 65th birthday. It's a nice place to have a birthday dinner, even if not what was planned. There are dark curtains covering all the windows that look out over the city. Only the patio is still open and that faces the Mediterranean. And dinner is not being served out there.

We order a nice dinner (Jim gets grilled pigeon, an Egyptian specialty he had wanted to try anyway) and we share a bottle of Egyptian red wine which is quite nice (and not too sweet). But as we sit there there is a distant rumble that grows louder and loader, and everyone leaps up and goes out on the patio in time to see four sandy colored armored personnel carriers, rolling by on the coastline road.

Still we see no particular sign that either the Army or the curfew is having much impact on the protests, which continue far into the night. We hear gunfire, explosions, chanting and the sound of armored personnel carriers moving on the streets.

The wait staff which is, I assume, usually very attentive, is clearly very distracted, going out on the balcony to see what is happening. They also know they will be staying here all night and may be unable to communicate with their families, since many people use only cell phones.

Still the wait service is very nice and our waiter offers to take our picture.

Internet, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter – all continue to be suspended or blocked by the government. Land line phones are very busy, and it is hard to get an outside line. But finally after we return to our room following dinner, we manage to get a land line and after a of waiting, we reached Lisa. Fortunately once the connection was made by the hotel, she patiently held the line, hoping it might be us trying to call. The relief in her voice was palpable.

We tell her we are safe, in no immediate danger and that we planned to leave first thing in the morning for Cairo. We told her where we were staying and what our plans are – that we expect to leave about 7:30 in the morning. She says she is relieved to hear we are safe and secure, in the midst of what is now clearly a would-be revolution. She promises to let everyone else know and we say we will try to stay in touch in so far as we are able to. Jason, the veteran traveller and South African native, who has seen his share of troubles, reminds us to keep our passports on our person – "in your underwear," he suggests .We take his suggestions to heart.

We make sure everything is packed, our travel clothing laid out, and that we can be ready to leave on five minutes notice. We are glued to the television news through the evening but finally set the alarm for 5:30 am, and settle down to a nervous night of sleep, hearing bangs and booms, chants and other unfamiliar sounds continuing all through the night.

The curfew may be impacting us but does not seem to be affecting the demonstrations. The protests seemed to grow exponentially after the curfew. In the middle of the night, we hear a different, louder sound on the street - the ground seems to shake. Tanks, guesses Jim. In the morning the guess is proven correct- there are full battle tanks on the street. This is a new worry, because tanks have no moderate levels of force like tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets. If intimidation fails, there; are machine guns and tank cannon, and that would be horrible, unthinkable, against demonstrators. To say we are on edge would be an understatement, yet we have read that the army is trusted by the people (unlike the police).

What will tomorrow bring.