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.

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