A diary of sorts on our last few days in Egypt, begun on Saturday morning, January 29, 2011
The toughest part of being in the middle of a crisis in a foreign land is simply the inability to know what the future will bring. How do I answer the group’s questions: “what will happen to our flights?” “Will I get home when I’m supposed to?” “Why would Delta just cancel all their flights to Cairo?” “Should we be ready to leave on a moment’s notice?” “Why doesn’t Mubarak just go?”
Fair questions. I have asked them myself. But the answers are far from clear at this point. The only way to communicate with our tour managers is via the land-line, and while I get through to the hotel in which they are staying, I can’t find anyone sitting in their rooms. They are probably at breakfast or visiting with students. I’ll just be patient and keep sitting in my room by the phone.
We are not scheduled to depart our Cairo hotel until 12:30 this evening – our flight to Amsterdam is scheduled to take off at 4:10 a.m. The Ammann group was to leave today via Delta, just prior to midnight. I’m told that this flight is cancelled and people are working on how to rebook the group of 27 but I’ve not yet heard what the plans might be.
The last call I had was from Deanne in Chicago. This was around midnight last night. I know they are working on things, and I just have to be patient. Knowing Deanne, she’ll be up all night.
My phone just started beeping. Text messages from the past three days are filling up my inbox. This is good news. I write to Melinda and she writes back. Again, a good sign. Yet an hour later, texting is down again. The cell phone service is still up, however.
10:10 a.m., CNN is reporting that the protests have begun again at Al Tahrir Square. I was hoping that things had settled down. Yet the sun shines, and people move about their daily grind here in Dokki (the neighborhood in which our hotel is located, just across the river from downtown Cairo.) How strange this all is. At moments, exciting – at others, mildly concerning. Again, patience is the key. There’s nothing we can do but wait, and wait we shall.
We arrived for third stay in Cairo on Wednesday this week via a chartered flight from Aswan. We loved the four-day cruise, and really could have ended the tour there and flown back to the US. Yet when our tour was planned, we wanted to return to Cairo for a final concert and had selected the Concert Hall at the Mubarak Complex for our farewell event. WINGS (our local tour providers) had a full house planned for us, and the Center is a gorgeous place – right in the middle of the Cairo Police Academy which is located near the international airport. The complex is where President Mubarak entertains foreign leaders and is quite opulent.
Returning to Cairo would also allow the students to have the chance to be in the heart of the city (they were previously in Giza, near the Pyramids, and then spent a couple of days closer to, but not in the heart of Cairo). Their last three days would be fun ones – shopping, inexpensive restaurants, the Egyptian Museum nearby - not the most luxurious hotel in the world, but we’d heard that students loved staying there.
Luxury wasn’t at the top of any of our minds when we arrived in Cairo for these last three days. We had been hearing that demonstrations might be starting, and our first indication of that was when our buses were held at the airport by the Tourist Police. After about a 30 minute delay, our driver head out to deliver the “Friends” to their Dokki hotel. Although dusk turned to darkness during our drive into the city, it became apparent that there was a greater police presence than we had seen just last week. Traffic was almost impossible, and soon we knew why. Out our windows, we could see a long line of riot police heading down a street, no doubt toward Tahrir Square. The bus was immediately diverted by the Tourist Police accompanying us, and we headed out towards the Citadel (on the outside of the downtown area). For the next hour, we were led through traffic by a siren-wielding, flashing blue light police car. Impressive, yes, but did anyone move to let us through? No.
|From bus window. Blue lights are on police vehicle|
trying to lead us throught the mess of traffic
When we finally arrived at the hotel, we had been on the bus for nearly two hours and thirty minutes.
Strangely though, none of us on the bus was the least bit frightened.
The students avoided the demonstrations and arrived at their hotel without incident. But later that evening, they joined one another on the top floor to watch a protest march pass the area. “The vendors closed their gates, and things went dark. The crowd of 300 or so passed the hotel without incident, then the vendors opened their doors again and life returned to normal” I was told.
We met up with the students on Thursday as we toured the famous Museum of Islamic Art and the Abdeen Palace. Even more police presence was evident as we drove through the city, but things were “normal” or appeared to be so. Our visits were very interesting and we especially loved the Palace Museum. This was the former home of King Farouk, the last monarch of Egypt who was driven out of the country in the mid 50’s. Today, you walk the grounds, and can take in displays on military swords, famous documents of Egypt, and an amazing display of silver items which the King had used. We also were able to see the hundreds of expensive gifts given to President Mubarak by foreign countries.
|Police troop carriers lined the streets, but life went on.|
|Police were closing off streets leading to Tahrir Square|
|In the Abdeen Palace grounds, things were peaceful as can be.|
|The man of the hour/day/week.........|
|Friends group plus our amazing guides.......we're looking|
pretty darn happy......because we were!
12:20 p.m. (I just received a call from Hassan. He explains that our flight (KLM) is on schedule for tonight – make that early Sunday morning! That flight carries about 2/3 of our total group from Cairo to Amsterdam and then on to Minneapolis. The other 1/3 were to leave earlier than us, on a Delta flight to JFK. This flight has indeed been cancelled and the group has been rebooked on KLM but not until tomorrow night. One more day to work on the tans I guess………and they are safe. I’m sure some will be incensed about being inconvenienced, but I hope in hindsight they’ll understand how difficult this all is………..)
Al Jazera is showing a burning high rise across the river from us. I’m not sure it it’s a hotel or still the headquarters of the ruling party. That building has been on fire since last evening……… It’s fun to move between stations (CNN, BBC, and Al J) to get different opinions on what is happening. Ben and I agree that CNN is pretty sensational, BBC can get that way, but on par is pretty calm, and AL Jazera is best to watch –we have no idea what they are saying, but the video is good and fair. I’d like to switch to a movie, but I feel a responsibility to keep up on what’s happening……….
Seems to me my last post on the blog was Thursday night. I wanted to report that we were fine, that things might heat up on Friday, and that we’d put our students’ safety at the front of our minds. The word on the street was that things would heat up following noontime prayer on Friday. I actually slept well (Tylenol PM does wonders) but awoke early to catch up on any “new” news. I called Hassan at around 7 a.m. and woke him – a good sign, I thought – if he was sleeping, things were in good shape! He returned my call about an hour later and, after visiting with his office and his people on the ground, (in the midst of the protestors) we determined that it would be best to move the students out of the city core and to the relative safety of a hotel near the airport. (The Friends group would be fine where we were – no action is expected on this side of the river.) Hassan met with Bruce to see if he would concur; he did, and then WINGS went to work finding a place for them to be. I received a call during breakfast from the WINGS office – they could offer a move to the Iberotel, on the grounds of the airport, and best of all, it wouldn’t cost us any additional money. They only “problem” was that they had no double rooms, only rooms with King beds. “You could four students in one of those if you need to” I replied………a bed is a bed, and safety is safety. “Not necessary, Mr. Brad. Only two in a room.” HA. I was just trying to show my gratitude!
By 11:00, the students had packed up and were on their way to the outskirts of town.
Just in time.
The local police had been following the emails/texts of the organizers of these demonstrations and were poised at all “flashpoints” to hold back violence and control the crowds. Shortly after noon prayer (about 1:15), the action began. We saw video of people leaving the Mosques and heading into the streets to begin their protests. It wasn’t long before the demonstrations became more violent – at least
near the square and Egyptian Museum. From my vantage point on the 7th floor of this hotel, I can see the Four Seasons Hotel, the Sheraton, and a bit of the Hilton. The action is taking place between all of those, and from time to time I could see smoke and tear gas. There was even a moment in the early afternoon when people near our hotel pool were overcome by the tear gas – diluted, but still potent enough to affect us. Imagine, sitting by a pool while just a few blocks away, people are staging the largest display of civil disobedience since the time of the Pharaohs!
In the early afternoon, the sounds of people yelling wafted into my room. Ben called – “do you see the protestors coming?” “No – but get up here and we’ll watch it!” Ben joined me from his room on the first floor and, sure enough, a group of perhaps 150 or so streamed down our street – shouting, waving flags – but nothing the least bit worrisome. It was fun to see people come out on their balconies to watch – waving flags and screaming support. Wow. They must be trying to get from bridge to bridge, without having the police block them. Otherwise, why Dokki? Nothing here but us!
|View from my hotel room balcony. Nice, residential area.|
|Crowd begins to appear.......loudly chanting "Down with|
|Love this - people came out on balconies to cheer|
the demonstrators on.
The afternoon passed quickly. We all packed up – just in case the order came to “Leave in five minutes.”
(Why we thought that was a possibility is beyond me, but maybe it’s just human reaction to too much television?) In any event, I organized a group dinner at Pizza Hut (just a block down the street) for us to enjoy at 6:00 p.m. Unfortunately, at 4:30, the government imposed a city-wide curfew beginning at 6:00. Guess we will eat in the hotel. And go to bed early. What else is there to do? We ate in the Chinese restaurant and headed back up. I opened the door to my balcony and the whirling sound of military helicopters indicated things on the ground have changed again. Indeed, fires were burning, and things looked pretty bad on the television. A stiff breeze engulfed our neighborhood – one that I hadn’t experienced here before……….the winds of change perhaps? Let’s hope so.
As luck would have it, I fell asleep with my television on. Woke up to see Mubarak speaking to the nation. Seemed to make sense, but why doesn’t he just resign? What makes him think that he can continue to lead a people who want change, and are willing to give everything for it? Those who are not part of the marches/protests are hanging out the windows of their homes waving flags and supporting those who are on the streets. It’s amazing, really.
|Mubarak speaks to his nation. Flat Ole listens.|
Next time I awaken, I see President Obama. He’s speaking from the White House about the situation here. Could you just look into the camera ONCE, Mr. Obama? “Hello!!! I’m over HERE – in Cairo - look me in the face (n the camera) and reassure me that things will be ok.” In my heart I know that all will be well, but it would have been comforting to have seen him talk to ME – or at least in my direction, not to the teleprompters on either side of the podium. Sorry folks, that was not a political statement of any kind – just an honest reaction to what I saw. And what I wished, in this particular situation, to see. The power of television – he needs to use it better. Speech 101 – look at the people to whom you are speaking. J
Dawn finally breaks, and it’s still so very quiet outside. We are used to hearing people yelling, horns honking, movement and more. But today, it’s quiet. The curfew ends at 7, yet now, at 7:10, it’s still pretty quiet.
I meet up with Ron and Vee in the breakfast area. One by one the others arrive, and we talk about the night and what we might expect with the day. I’ve not yet talked to Hassan – I’ll check in with him in an hour or so. All I know is that we are fine – the kids are fine – and the streets in Cairo are quiet. “Are any of you frightened?” I ask? “Not at all” was the reply.
The day goes on, we are told to be ready at 11:30 p.m. to head to the airport – our flights are on schedule. A bit later, we learn that a curfew will be back in effect and we might leave earlier. Then, another call and we need to get to the lobby in an hour. If we can leave before the 4:00 curfew, we can get at least to the airport…….with the students………and we’ll be that much closer to the 4:10 a.m. flight. The Ammann group has had a delay (make that cancellation) as Delta has withdrawn from Cairo. They’ll leave on a KLM flight Sunday at midnight – a day later than planned. Today’s KLM flight still appears to be on schedule (make that tomorrow @ 4:10 a.m.). We’ll see.
We board the bus – Hassan asks us to draw the drapes ….. well that’s a bit scary. But we draw them and remain silent as we drive through this residential neighborhood toward the 6th of October Bridge. Holy cow – what we’ve been watching on the television is now right in front of us. About half way over the bridge, Hassan allows us to open the drapes and explains all the places the protestors have been. The Ruling Party headquarters building, directly out our window is still aflame and smoke billows from the windows. Right behind this building is the Egyptian Museum. We hear that ordinary people lined up around the Museum last night to protect it, and we see that some are still there today. Amazing. We drive over the bridge, and we’re atop the center of the action – it’s all happening below us, and we can see a few hundred people milling below. It’s quite calm actually…. Where we are, on the bridge, lots of cars have parked and their drivers are standing on the side of the bridge watching below. We had no problems getting through the area because of the curfew, and it reaffirmed our view that the protests really were occurring in a very small area of the downtown area.
We breeze our way to the airport in record time as so few cars are on the road. From time to time we see military tanks, but it didn’t seem like an overwhelming presence. As we approached the airport, cars were backed up for several blocks – four lanes trying to become one – and this was due to a security check. After navigating the checkpoint which was carefully watched by military officials, we were on the airport grounds and shortly thereafter in the lobby of the Iberotel Hotel. I see Bruce in the distance and grab him with a bear hug…..at last we are all together again – and it feels great to see everybody again. They all look as though they’ve been in resort mode for the last few days!
Let me tell you about Augie kids. The 17 of us enter a packed hotel lobby and learn a bit later than the KLM flight is now 11 hours late……..meaning that we will not leave until 2:00 p.m. tomorrow. There are absolutely NO rooms left at the hotel – people are literally sleeping in the lobby. Our kids join forces and within twenty minutes, they’ve moved together (a room of two becomes four –with only one King sized bed – and every “Friend” has a room for the night. These kids didn’t have to do this. We didn’t ASK them to do this. THEY did it.
As we got familiar with the hotel, we found that the students had been by the pool most of the day, and that they had found a gas station “mini-mart” not too far from the front door as well as a good place to call home cheaply at the “airport mall.” We also learned that they thought the ice cream in the lobby was the best in the world and that the food in all the restaurants was “out of this world.” Well, if you have to sit out a revolution, you might as well do it in a five star resort hotel, don’t you think? J
Then, Hassan comes to me with more news. The “Cleopatra” group will not have a connection out of here until Tuesday at the earliest. I sit on the information. No need to get people too worried about the delay at least until we know that it is completely true. Somewhere along here, we begin to lose, then retain the services of texting, email and more. Then, I find that if I head up to the business center, the internet is actually working – it is painfully slow – but working. My first thought is to get the blog out – we had not been able to “report” on our group for three days – and it was an error in judgment on my part.
I had been posting daily on this blog for three weeks, and I knew people (parents and friends) wanted to hear from us. I thought my reflections were honest and open – with the understanding that WE WERE SAFE and SOUND, so an honest “bird's eye view” of what our last three days were like might be helpful. Within a few minutes, President Oliver wrote and asked me to take it down. “You’ll make people even more anxious, and I know that’s not your intent.”
In all honesty, I wasn’t very happy to remove what I’d posted. We’d shared it with students and alumni before I even thought to post it and they felt that it was a good representation of what we were experiencing. We all felt it would be reassuring to those who were worried at home that we WERE all ok. In hindsight, I get it. We simply didn’t know how much this had blown up at home. I suppose I would have fed the fire – and that was NEVER our intent. NEVER. I had an opportunity to let the parents hear from US that we were fine, and I thought it wise to take it.
I’m able to get in touch with the campus a few hours later again and learn that a “Situation Room” of sorts must have been set up this weekend – I learn that our little band is on the national news, that people from various news organizations are trying to reach us to get on air. No one here really wants to talk – we’ve seen how the sensationalization of what’s taking place here, and we feel the Egyptian people are being portrayed in a negative way. With the news reporting that Cairo was “ablaze,” who would want to hear us say we are safe and happy? A text from Rob asks me to stay with the Cleopatra group so that I’m with the last folks out. Of course I will. We get a text off to Deanne to make that happen in Chicago. (I was with the last group out originally – the CLEO group was to have left several hours before my group in the initial travel plans. In my head, I still was last as always, but we’d best make it official. John and Ben can lead the first group out and safely home.)
Later, I get another landline call into Rob Oliver. He tells me that Sen. Thune is involved in getting Delta to work us a better solution to get us out of here. The Senator is involved? We MUST be big news. Back to the internet – there are 20 some people writing me, writing each other, sharing, questioning, reaffirming, and questioning some more. As luck would have it, all communication goes down again, then a few hours later, we get internet again. And a note that KELO wants to talk to me. Say what?
I check with campus – they say it’s ok to talk, so I wait for a call. 11:10 p.m. the reporter finally gets through. I hope I said the right things. Yes, there are big things happening here, but WE ARE FINE. She didn’t really want to hear that.
I sleep for an hour, the open email to see notes from “Fox and Friends,” NPR, CBS Morning Show and Matt Lauer (NBC TODAY). MATT LAUER wants to talk to ME? Are you kidding? Now way – I see the angle they are heading on the news, and I want no part of it. I sense that that the campus Situation Room is relieved that I’m not jumping for the chance at my ten minutes of fame. But I still can’t get how these folks are finding where I am. NBC even called my wife in Sioux Falls.
Its breakfast time in Cairo – wow, they really do put out a spread here. I see what the kids were talking about. The lucky King Tut and Sphinx groups were packing up to head to the airport.
|First groups to go home board our WINGS buses.|
|Those left behind wave the others goodbye......|
The flight was late of course, then later still. Finally, word came that it was time to load them up and head them off to the airport. I was not there………WINGS people encouraged me to stay with the rest of the group as word was that things were pretty chaotic at the airport. One more person trying to be helpful would probably not have been. So, we organize a send-off, wave, hug and cheer as the two buses leave the hotel, then walk back in to wait for two days.
Bruce calls a meeting of the group down by the pool and we meet up to talk through our plans for the rest of the day, answer questions, and break the “Tuesday” departure news. Amazingly, everybody handled this news like the champs they are. Sure, we were ALL sad, but determined to make our time count. Someone came up with a joke about me being Moses. “Can’t you lead us out of Egypt, Heegel?”
“Maybe you could part the swimming pool at least?” Humor works. We all felt better and agreed to meet for dinner (on Augie!) at 6:00 p.m.
During this time I had several cell calls from Hassan at the airport. He described to me a scene I couldn’t even imagine. It was, in his words, a “mob scene.” I asked him to call the minute the kids were on the plane and he did. We got that news back home where I knew they were anxiously awaiting word. Ben got a text out from the plane and that helped assure everyone too. When Hassan got back to the hotel, he shared part of the story with me……..I think it’s best to let those who were there fill you in on the details.
|Ryan's sketch of Moses (supposedly me?)|
leading his people out of Egypt.
Seems that it was just before dinner that my final text (my cell phone crashed) came through telling me that Delta had arranged with KLM to fly a larger plane to Cairo on Monday so that we all could get out then instead of Tuesday. GREAT NEWS. I shared it at dinner and squeals of delight filled the room. Ryan Marks in turn gives me a cartoon. It’s me, as Moses, leading my people out of Egypt (through the hotel swimming pool!) I will treasure this forever.
One more night in Cairo. One more night.
Sleep is highly overrated. I now had a connection in my sleeping room for my laptop and I could keep abreast of the Group One flight, have several conversations back home (including Skype) and yell at Ben Widemann on CNN. I’m getting a kick out of the people who are somehow reaching CNN and the BBC to tell them their stories – one lady reported her tour guide’s father was shot. Then he wasn’t really shot, and later yet he really wasn’t the tour guides father. But she was sure someone was shot. Absolutely sure. Puh-leeze, people. It’s almost funny.
Morning dawns – we meet the gang at breakfast. Bags out at 7, breakfast at 8 and we leave at 9. Sure enough, we are on our way. The airport seems quiet at first and we are glad we came so early. (Our flight is scheduled for 2:10 – much better than the gang last night!) We have little problem getting through the first security line, and then we gather to wait for the posting of our flight. There are people everywhere…….lined up for no reason in lines that have no meaning……..but rushing the ticketing areas to be sure they get out. In Cairo, there is a long bank of check in posts, but you never know where your flight will check in until they post it and the KLM sign appears above the desk. If you lined up in line 3 and you get posted at 35, you may never make it through the crowd to get there in time.
As luck would have it, I see KLM appear at the far end – I yell for the gang to move – and ask them to keep their manners in check……..they may need to really push through this crowd. And push we do. Shove. Push. Yell. MelaDee is manning the middle position. Bruce is closing the end. People try to block us – other s are staying in line at KLM even though they are not booked with them – they don’t want to give up their space “just in case”. It was a nuthouse. And all the nuts were loose.
We get lined up, I have a ticket agent ready to work with just us, grab my ticket and move to another position to help students through immigration (another mess) as they leave the ticket counter. Yet no one joins me. I wait, wait, and head back to the counter. Our WINGS helper is in a huge argument with the KLM folks – it seems they were letting other people sneak ahead of us (from the sides and wherever they could appear) and he would not have it. The argument escalated to the point that the police were called and I heard the words, “Then we will NOT deal with your group!!!” Luckily, I managed to get back there just in time to do “Augie nice” and apologize, calm, and resurrect the agents working our group. As it turned out most of our tickets were not in the KLM system correctly, and it took hours for us to get checked in. While we had to pay off the security folks to get us IN the airport in the first place, some kind words and cooler heads got us past this hump, and I truly am grateful for the professional work of the KLM staff in Cairo that day – they were working under extreme pressure and did their jobs well.
Let me mention that not all people fared as well as we did. Down about ten gates, fist fights broke out among groups of people – one that ended up looking like a bar fight as people jumped over the counter and took on the staff. Thank goodness we were far enough away from that mess.
Must admit that KLM 777-300 looked pretty darn good sitting in the sunshine on the runway as it waited for the last group of us. The relative calm was welcomed, and the flight attendants were smiling broadly as we boarded……..ahhhhhhhhhhhh, we ARE going to make it. And soon, the roar of the engines signaled our takeoff. As this giant plane lumbered into the afternoon sky, I thought for certain there would be loud shouts of joy and clapping………but there was silence. People looked out the windows at the sun shining on downtown Cairo. Some of us had tears in our eyes. But they weren’t necessarily tears of joy to be leaving.
Part of me is still in Cairo. I think parts of all of us are still there – with the people – the good and kind people of Egypt. With the woman dressed in a burka who offered me her Kentucky Fried Chicken bag in the elevator simply because I smiled at her and said, “My that smells good!” Or the two men in the “mini mart” near the airport who gave 2, 100 Egyptian pound notes to our students when they ran out of Egyptian currency to buy water ….”it’s only money and you need it” they said. Or Esam, our trusty bus driver who loved having his picture taken with “Flat Ole” and hugged us as he met us upon our return from Luxor.
Ahmed, Kahled and Walaa – the best tour guides in the world, who shared the love of their country while taking us through an amazing history lesson…and who shared with us in such deeply personal ways the story of their faith – and how it can be in harmony with ours……..the list goes on. Yes, part of us will always be in Egypt. And our collective prayers will always be with you.
Bruce, when you told me that the students didn’t want to go to China again, I was a bit sad. You, MelaDee and I had a good thing going there, and it met our requisites on a “GREAT” J-term tour for the Band. We knew we could fill all our senses – and from experience, we knew that student lives can be changed by those experiences. Yet the kids chose Egypt, and so we gave it our best shot. Little did we know………..
John, Mary, Ben – we have a bond now that not many people can claim. Thank you for being with us. We “get” that which the rest of the world just might not quite understand. I’m so glad you were part of this journey.
Augie students are simply the best. There’s something about a band kid too – something that, maybe due to their history of high school marching band or something – makes them different. They take direction. They listen. They move. They smile. I really admire these young people, far more than they will ever know.
I close this blog with the greatest appreciation to our colleagues at Augustana who spent countless hours the last few days worrying about us, and their “Situation Room” which must have rivaled that of the White House itself. Special thanks to DeAnne at Seminars International for five sleepless nights , two weeks of memorable days with us, and to you and Ron for one long year of planning, planning and planning. Thanks to the parents of our incredible students – I’m sorry we couldn’t convince you that we were fine and safe through these last days……..but do believe that your sons and daughters were troopers and have come home even better people that you sent off. Thank you, hundreds of you, from Facebook friends to our home churches and schools for having us in your prayers.
And finally, to my alumni/friends: Bruce and Mary, Ron and Nancy, Ben, Verlene, Ellen, Ron and Vee, Dianne and Linda, Dale and Nadine, John and Roberta, THANK YOU for being such great travelers and adventure seekers. We’re not too old to have fun, and to think, the students were wishing they could be on our bus! I’m sorry for the added excitement – it was not part of the trip you purchased, but I’ll never forget singing the Augustana Alma Mater with you at the most opportune moments! Where would you like to go next? J
Hudson Bay is below me. In a few hours, the last of us will arrive in Sioux Falls, and our story will be over. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Thank you, God, for bringing us home safely.
And God, please bless and hold the people of Egypt close to your heart.
Honey, I’m home. You've been the biggest trooper of all. I love you!