[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
Anne Joseph, Lynn Meckler and Patti Schiller are good friends who like to travel the world together, but a recent sight-seeing tour to Egypt turned out to be much more exciting than they bargained for.
“We picked Egypt as a place we wanted to go,” Joseph said, “because we got a good deal on a tour, and it was warm in the winter.”
As they set out on their journey, they didn’t have any concerns about traveling to that part of the world, although when they arrived, Meckler explained, “we did have a prediction from a cabbie. He talked about what happened in Tunisia and said it would probably come there.”
“This was two weeks before [the demonstrations in Egypt] happened,” added Joseph. The cabbie postulated that if the protests in Tunisia were successful and the leader there was deposed, “there was so much angst and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak was so unpopular, it was bound to happen in Egypt as well.”
“We didn’t take him seriously,” Schiller noted.
“We weren’t really tuned in to the political situation in Egypt,” Meckler said, “but we had a really wonderful tour guide who talked about every aspect of Egyptian life from the situation of women to Islam and politics.”
In fact, their guide spoke freely. Schiller reported he said, “‘I hate Mubarak, like many of the young educated Egyptians, and we are not afraid.’ I was surprised he talked so freely about it.”
“But he said, ‘You can say anything you want,’” Joseph recalled, because the Egyptians do enjoy freedom of speech.
Continuing with their journey, the three women enjoyed many of the tourist spots. They saw the pyramids, took a boat ride down the Nile and saw intact 4,000-year-old paintings and carvings on a wall. They visited Ben Ezra Synagogue, a mosque and a Coptic church.
They had a wonderful time and found the people to be very warm, although they complained that it was very dirty. They also noted that they were accompanied wherever they went by an armed security guard. They also encountered the “usual hassles,” Joseph said. “Every place you go, there is someone with a hand out for baksheesh, and you have to haggle in the marketplace.
Another guide, a young woman, provided them insight into the life of an educated young woman in Egypt. “She’s a divorced woman, and she lives with her parents,” Joseph stated. Unmarried women are required to live with a member of their family.
“It was a lot worse than that,” Schiller added. “It was an arranged marriage. Her husband was one way before the marriage and then he changed completely, so she divorced him. Now, she is second-hand goods, 26 years old and not a virgin.”
This beautiful, educated young woman “has to live with her elderly parents,” Schiller continued, “and if they die, she would have to go live with her brother.” The guide told them she would rather die than live with her brother, but she would have no alternative.”
The unrest didn’t begin until the last few days of their trip. The disturbances began on Tuesday, and they arrived in Cairo on Wednesday. They were staying at a hotel that overlooked Tahrir Square, the Antiquities Museum and the October 6 Bridge.
On the first day of the protests, the three friends walked over the bridge, through the square and past the democratic headquarters building that was eventually burned down. “We never felt uncomfortable in the street,” Joseph said, “and there was no physical danger, even during the protest.”
“We saw groups running around, but we went out anyway. All of a sudden there was a phalanx of riot police in formation, just standing there,” Schiller said. The women walked by without making eye contact and headed back. Later, they watched from the 20th floor of their hotel.
At first what they saw were mostly small groups of people who had organized through the social media, and they were outnumbered by the security forces.
Things continued to escalate, and on Thursday, the Louisvillians decided they should cut their trip short and head for the airport. “They were calling for big activities” after Friday prayers, Meckler said, “so we decided to get out of town.”
Then things got hairy. On Friday, the women had a day room at the airport hotel where they were going to stay until their flight that night, but when communications were cut, they decided they’d better head to the airport.
The found that “our flight couldn’t get out that night because the flight crew couldn’t get out of Cairo because of the curfew,” Schiller recounted, “so no planes left Friday night. Because there was no internet, they couldn’t rebook us. They just told us to show up at seven in the morning, even though there was no guarantee we would get a flight.”
Their luck held that night, although it took them two hours to get transportation back to the hotel, and they found they still had a room at the hotel even though many others did not. Since the internet was down, the hotel staff never knew they had checked out.
Early Saturday morning, they returned to the airport, “and that was when it really got crazy,” Schiller said.
“There were still no communications,” Joseph said, “and it was a real mob scene.” There was a lot of shouting, and when a flight was announced, many people scurried to the appointed area whether or not they had tickets on that flight. There was a lot of confusion as the Delta announcements were made in English, and many people didn’t understand it.
Going through security was nightmarish. People pushed and shoved. Luggage was piled on the belts at the security checkpoints. It was knocked over and stacked up again.
“We were sticking together like glue,” Schiller said. “When our luggage got shoved off the line, we put it back. That was the scariest part – being shoved by a panicky crowd.
Finally, a Delta representative showed up with a handwritten manifest. “You had to wait for her to physically find your name and check you off,” Joseph said.
The Louisvillians found themselves aboard a plane sitting on the tarmac at 10:30 a.m. “Around 11:30, a pilot said we were waiting for a flight plan,” Meckler said. Without internet access, everything crawled along. The flight plan was 25 pages long, but at that time, the pilots had received only 4 pages. Finally, at 12:30, the plane took off on its 12-1/2 hour journey.
The pilot also told them the plane was full, and they were very lucky to be on board. For every passenger on the plane, they had left 200 behind. “That was Delta’s last flight out of Egypt,” Meckler said, noting “how lucky we were to get on the plane.”
“We did what we had to do,” Schiller said. At the time, “we didn’t know how bad it was or that we were on the last flight out.” They were also fortunate that they were on Delta. “Lufthansas abandoned everyone,” she continued. “They took their equipment and left the people there.”
They were also fortunate they were with the tour group they had chosen. “Some tour groups’ buses just dropped them off and said, ‘you’re on your own,’” Joseph said. “Ours did not.”
For Joseph, the scariest part was the lack of communication. “We had no idea if our husbands knew where we were, when we were getting out of Egypt or when we were getting back. … As it turns out, they knew more than we did.” Delta had been able to send their travel arrangements to their families by e-mail. The travelers didn’t get any information until they landed at JFK in New York.