April 1, 2011 > Travel: Revolutionary Birthday - Egypt One Uprising at a Time
Travel: Revolutionary Birthday - Egypt One Uprising at a Time
By Denny Stein
CNN, BBC, ABC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera: hour after hour day after day, images of the historic uprising in Egypt filled TV screens around the world. In living rooms from California to Delaware, Cuba to Iraq, waves of protesters washed across the general consciousness, back and forth, in and out of Tahrir Square; the people, the police, and the army, pushing and pulling. In the midst of this tide of humanity were Lynn Barnett of Danville (formerly of Fremont), who had gone to the Middle East for her 70th birthday, and her sister-in-law, Stephanie Barnett who was turning 50 while traveling.
The Barnetts arrived in Cairo on January 23. Like the CIA and other government agencies, they hadn't a clue as to the historical significance of the protests happening in Egypt. "After all, there's always someone demonstrating somewhere in the world," said Lynn. Their hotel? The Ramses Hilton, 36 stories overlooking the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square. It was from a balcony at this same Hilton that news reporters such as Richard Engel and Brian Williams of NBC News broadcast confrontations of Egyptian army tanks trying to keep the protestors and pro-Mubarak forces apart.
Lynn and Stephanie started their vacation in a traditional fashion. They spent January 24th at Giza marveling at the pyramids, huge and ancient, still guarding the Egyptian desert. Smaller pyramids and the mammoth statue of Ramses II, at Memphis were explored. They lunched at the Cairo Museum, $10 for a hamburger and $6 French fries. Their hotel was luxurious, and there was only a faint hint of tear gas in the air.
On January 25, thousands of protestors marched into Tahrir Square. Carrying signs such as Down with Mubarak, Leave!, and Muslim + Christian = Egypt, protestors were unarmed, peaceful, but adamant. Lynn reported that the demonstrators were in earnest and "the police were out in force with their intimidating riot gear - horrible black uniforms and metal shields." The police would chase the crowd, then pull back, and the crowd would re-form.
From their room, Stephanie and Lynn had a front row seat to history. The hotel staff would not let them go out, and even stopped the taking of pictures, pulling Lynn and her camera back from the entrance with an admonishing, "Madam!" But the intrepid women did go out and speak to people in the vast crowd, amazed at the bravery of protestors. One man confessed, "They have seen our faces, they would shoot us dead but we want freedom." At first the crowd was only men, then gradually they were joined by women and children, whole families of protestors.
As tear gas became more intense, and the death toll multiplied, the two women decided it was time to leave Cairo. There was a train leaving Cairo for Luxor in the south. The morning of Wednesday, January 26, Lynn & Stephanie Barnett got into a taxi and headed for the nearby train station. Scared and hunkered down in the back seat, it took two hours of harrowing side-street driving, skirting army tanks and doubling back, to get to the station. Finally, they boarded an all-night train for Luxor. Lynn admits that next time she will take the more private and comfortable sleeper train, but this time they were grateful just to be out of Cairo. Only later did they realize that theirs was the last train to Luxor, an unusual but welcome birthday present for Lynn.
For a short time, Luxor was quieter than Cairo. They had leisure time to visit the Luxor Temple, "huge and incredible," and see the Avenue of Sphinxes, where 1000 giant ram-headed statues of the Sphinx line nearly three miles between the sacred cities of Luxor and Karnack. "Maybe," mused Lynn, "what people do without TV is build!" There were not a lot of tourists in Luxor, and Stephanie made "friends" with a guard at the Karnack Temple complex.
A little baksheesh opened a lot of doors. These were rooms, Lynn related, "...that had never seen the sun and whose colored reliefs were still vivid. Our guard took Stephanie's hand and began leading us around, unlocking gates and doors until we were on mental overload. He unlocked so many off limit places that he had to bribe another guard... We even saw the tools and plans of archeologists who were actively reconstructing the reliefs in various locked areas."
Three days in Luxor, filled with the sights of "the world's greatest open air museum" had not erased the fact that Egypt was in turmoil and they still needed to get out somehow. It became clear that "All the trains had been discontinued, the banks closed, the internet was down, no international phones were working, and no airlines were flying." In the midst of all these worrying circumstances, though, they were offered a felucca ride across the Nile to a banana plantation on a small island. Having tea in the green gardens set amongst remnants of ancient civilizations was a sharp contrast to the evening where "dinner included protestors, police, and tear gas."
Few in the States were aware that the Egyptian Revolution was not contained to Cairo and that all major cities had demonstrators clashing with police. With their sense of humor, and self-preservation, intact, the intrepid Barnett women decided they had had enough of the pesky protestors, the police nuisance, and indiscriminate tear gas. They hired a car to take them further south to Aswan.
The morning of January 30th a birthday balloon ride had been arranged, with just enough time to leave for Aswan. But the balloon ride adventure was canceled, the hired car had difficulty finding gas, Stephanie was threatened with arrest for photographing a tank, the sacred temples of Abu Simbel were off limits, in fact all the fabled sites of Egypt were closed... tight. All except the Temple at Edfu, sitting on a rise overlooking the broad river valley, preserved for centuries high above the Nile floodwaters. Here the current massive Temple of Horus dates back to 237 BC, but it is said that the first sanctuary, in prehistoric times, was a grass hut enclosing a statue of the falcon-headed god, son of Isis and Osiris.
Time in Egypt seems to be mythical, and the size of structures is legendary. It is a combination that makes the "civilized" traveler ponder the petty worries of daily life. But Lynn and Stephanie were not living their usual daily life and, in fact, life itself was a bit more iffy than they were used to.
Now stranded in Aswan, with no sightseeing possible, the time had come to leave Egypt. Assumptions that there would be US Embassy personnel in Luxor and Aswan proved to be mistaken. And at this point the destination was totally open, since trains and planes were not operating, automobiles needed gas, and even the boats that cross the Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula were suspended.
As Stephanie was declaring that she would take any form of transport except a camel across the desert, the phone rang in the hotel room. It was the proverbial cavalry to the rescue. American Embassy personnel had flown in, from the Sudan to Aswan, to evacuate civilians who wanted to get out. Interestingly, the tour groups had all gotten their people out of the country, but the Barnetts had been traveling on their own, without the resources of seasoned expedition companies. Lynn admitted it was one of those "duh" moments - no wonder there were no tourists in the bazaars and restaurants.
Embassy officials asked if they could leave the next day, so the ladies checked their calendars and declared they would be free to travel! Cautioned to stay in their hotel, there was no certain destination as yet; the possibilities included Athens, Istanbul or Cypress. Wait time was spent in the hotel lobby and turned into a children's party with the Egyptian kids who were also waiting to evacuate. Chador and burqa clothed mothers shyly watched as their offspring gathered around Stephanie and sang American nursery rhymes, joking and testing her Egyptian language skills.
But there is no free lunch, and negotiations for flights out of Egypt were handled by embassy personnel who insisted on getting blank promissory notes from each traveler. The bargaining went on and on until finally, the $100 flight was purchased for $700 each. They were on their way to Amman, Jordan. The evacuees were greeted by smiling American Embassy personnel with snacks and cash and hotel lists, and the feeling of relief was palpable, only to be outdone by the chance to take a shower and stretch out for a worry-free rest. Also in order were phone calls to home and perhaps, just perhaps, a few more Middle Eastern wonders to take in before final take-off.
In four days the two Barnett women managed to squeeze in the ancient Roman city of Jerash, built 2000 years ago during the time of Alexander the Great, tea by the Dead Sea overlooking the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, and finally the fabled rose-pink city of Petra where "for 7000 years people lived inside rooms carved into the mountains." Now one of the Seven Wonders of the World, fabulous Petra was the film location for Harrison Ford's movie, The Temple of Doom.
Lynn and Stephanie Barnett spent their last evening at happy hour, in the hotel bar in Amman. In Jordan almost everyone speaks English, quite well. Talking with the local Jordanians, sipping their Margaritas, Lynn and Stephanie both promised that this may have been their first adventure in the Middle East, but it would not be their last.