Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that the State Department staff at the airport were doing one helluva job. I don't imagine that most or our embassies spend much time practicing for an evacuation of all Americans from their area. In spite of having to spend long hours on this job, deal with people like me and put up with a lot of unknowns and uncontrollables, they were pleasant, polite and, for the most part communicated very well. I thanked a lot of them personally for "being there to help us" as we passed by at the end. Anyone you see in a photo with a red shirt earned their pay this week!
Of course, things don't all go smoothly in a situation like this. The gentleman with the bullhorn doing most of the communicating advised us around mid-afternoon that there would be six flights, two each to Athens, Istanbul and Cyprus. No, we didn't get a choice. He expected that we would all be on a plane by the "end of the night" although we might have to spend some time on the turf. I wanted to know, "when does the night end." See what I mean about having to deal with people like me?
You get to meet a lot of people in this kind of situation. Kathy was very interesting. She is about our age, has been coming to Cairo for fifteen years and teaches an Internet class and is a pretty savvy tech person too. Although she has a local fiance, she had to leave because she couldn't teach her class with the Internet cut off. She voted for Obama. (You learn more than you need to know!) She confirmed to us that there were lots of gunshots in Maadi. She felt safe in her neighborhood because the bawaabs and others had formed those vigilante groups and were patrolling the streets with sticks and iron bars. She also reported that the gold stores at the Khan el-Khalili had been broken into and totally looted. Here is a shot of part of a gold store at the Khan from last year:
And, while we are looking at pictures, here is part of my neighborhood defense force tending their fire and preparing tea after manning the barricades for a night.
Note that it has been a cold night. Temperatures get down into the upper 50s overnight. The gentleman walking right to left is probably headed home from a different group. You can see two bars or clubs lying on the ground. (note to my fellow Vietnam veterans: I'm not sure that the Egyptian Army, in its mandatory service, teaches its soldiers much about effective perimeters or running a good LP/OP!)
And here is what our local barricades and roadblock/checkpoints look like: The photo on the left shows the barricade. It may not look effective, but the photo on the right shows the traffic forced into the center in a single lane. There are many, many such barricades around the city.
Imagine a teenager with a rifle on one side, and a man with a length of re-bar on the other side along with his 11 year-old son with a meat cleaver.
Here is how one local resident of Maadi described traveling past the barricades:
Going home to my family at night involved negotiating army checkpoints, squeezing past makeshift barricades and explaining myself to groups of men wielding any implement or pole that could make do as a weapon.Read this whole Reuters article for an interesting take on the vigilante groups.
UPDATE 2/20/11: Read this blog post for a fascinating description of the defense groups in the Almaza neighborhood of Cairo.
Well, sorry for the distraction. Back to the story at the airport.
Another lady in the crowd described her hotel as being on total lockdown. No one was allowed to leave their room, even for dinner. Room Service was the order of the day. She was able to witness both gunfire and the protesters.
A student at American University in Cairo (there were, perhaps, a dozen of these students in the crowd) from Dayton, Ohio told me of his two week stay at the beginning of the semester. He had seen a few shops in town but hadn't yet made it to the pyramids. AUC offered the opportunity to bail out with a full refund and most of the American students took it.
One couple had only arrived on Friday and saw nothing but the inside of their room.
Gradually our line moved forward. By around nine p.m. we were within about 60 passengers of the front. Then we had our first major faux pas. A bus pulled up and a load of people piled out. About half of the group looked very African with several of the women veiled to the max. We were told that they had to go in line ahead of us who had been waiting for about 7 or 8 hours. There was some mention of "Canadian" and refugee. Oh my. War came close to breaking out on the North American continent.
As we found out much, much, later, these were all American citizens. There were 60 of them. They had been sent to Terminal 1 six hours earlier to get on a Canadian Airlines flight to Frankfurt. Canadian Air wouldn't take them (probably had been stiffed for the bill by the State Department previously) and after much waiting were bussed back to our line. A simple "We screwed up earlier in the day and have to make it right..." would have explained it to everyone's satisfaction. As it was, most people though they were "fur-ners" and were very unhappy. My new best friend, Kathy was way past upset. "What in the hell is going on!" she said, more or less. I leaned over and whispered, "You voted for change and you just got change!" She laughed heartily. It turns out her son says that to her all the time.
I overheard the red shirts say that they were "well over" and would have to "bring in that other plane." This was really only a communications issue. Otherwise the red shirts were still doing a great job.
The new plane was apparently arranged and scheduled for a 1:00 a.m. departure. But as we were being assigned seats it appeared that there were quite a few more Americans than there were seats. State decided to prioritize women, children and "senior citizens." "What makes a senior?" "You'll have to self-select." Since the plane was now about half full, the AUC students (young whippersnappers!) were assigned seats and noisy elderly like me and my new best friend Kathy were not, this didn't go over well.
To keep the story reasonably short, Linda and I made it on. Kathy did not. The Steeler fans did. The whole "Canadian" group did. There were to be more flights the next day.
At about 1:30 we boarded an Egyptian Lotus Airlines Airbus 320 bound for Athens. We each were allowed one 44 pound checked bag and a carry-on. No bags were weighed. If you had two checked bags, go quietly through the bag check procedure twice and shut up. All very amusing after watching people with a portable scale and excess baggage shuffle, throw away and begin to wear lots of heavy clothing!
We took off about 2:00 a.m. It is around an hour and 45 minutes to Athens. As we prepared for landing, the head flight attendant thanked us for choosing Lotus Air. I thought that was pretty amusing. The captain said, "We are trained to fly airplanes, not to evacuate our country." I found that particularly sad. I hope that God will look after the Egyptian people. We were blessed with a wonderful homeland to return to.
The airport is fairly deserted at 3:45. Customs and immigration went very smoothly. Oh, yes. Those Promissory Notes. Upon arrival we were given a form to fill out that was a Promissory Note. About four pages of fine print. People who know me can imagine how that went over. But I was willing to bend. "What are we promising?" "To reimburse the State Department for the cost of your flight." "About how much will that be?" I asked. Now, picture your least favorite politician faced with a question they don't want to answer on a Sunday morning talk show. "We won't know for sure ... it depends ... the actual charges that we are billed for ..."
I finally got her to make a stab at it. Maybe around $300. Tune in later.
At around 5:00 am we arrived at the Athens Hilton. But that's another story.