Thursday, February 3, 2011
A holiday for the books: 4 countries in 4 days and 5 currency changes...talk about extreme!
I'm safe! Got back into Uganda late Wednesday night and am back at my site. I have a LOT to share about the last 10 or so days, so...sorry in advance for how long this post is going to be. I've had a crazy week and a half but let's start from the beginning...
Egypt is absolutely gorgeous and is up on my list of my top vacations. The people are wonderful and are willing to help you out with just about anything. We were able to see everything we wanted to see before things got crazy and didn't run into any trouble until the end of the trip when we had to get back to Cairo/the airport. I ended up missing my entire India trip and seeing Dad, so bummed about that, but we were able to see an additional 2 countries after being evacuated!
Here's a (somewhat long) breakdown of the trip:
January 23 Sunday- Flew out of Uganda, arrived in Cairo around 2am and stayed at the wonderful Australian Hostel, where they even had free airport pick up
January 24 Monday- Woke up early to tour the pyramids and sphinx...on the back of a camel. I can't believe I saw the pyramids! They are even more spectacular than anything you see in textbooks. And yes, we probably spent a good 30 minutes doing various photo shoots and manipulating the pictures to look like we were holding the pyramids and such...photos to be uploaded soon. We had a fantastic driver arranged through the hostel who took us to the pyramids, on a papyrus tour, to eat local food called koshery (which is basically several different kinds of noodles all mixed up with a tomato based sauce, fried onion things, and this hot chile/lime dressing that you add on...DELICIOUS). Later that night we wandered the streets of Cairo for a bit and found a McDonald's. Not gonna lie, after a year+ without it, I indulged in a McFlurry and fries...totally worth it
January 25 Tuesday- woke up in the morning and hopped on bus to Mt. Sinai, we were the only women on bus and most of the passengers were Egyptian soldiers. It was definitely different. Driving through the Sinai peninsula I was able to see the Saharan desert, something I never thought I'd do. Again, pictures to be uploaded soon. When we finally got there (around 7pm), I was feeling a little sick (big surprise) so I turned in early.
January 26 Wednesday- We woke up at 2am and began our hike to see the surise on Mt. Sinai. I was feeling awful most of the way and had to keep stopping. Thank God there was an almost full moon, otherwise it would have been next to impossible to see where we were going. It was freezing cold and there was even snow along the way! When we got to the top, finally around 6am, it was more than worth it. I almost started crying because it was so beautiful. I was standing on top of Mt.Sinai in Egypt watching the sunrise! Not many people can say they've done that. After we hiked down we saw St. Catherine's monastery, home of the Burning Bush. Early that afternoon we took a car to Dehab, a city on the coast of the Red Sea. I just about ate my body weight in seafood, after going so long without it. It was fantastic! And so fresh, too!
January 27 Thursday- We went snorkeling in the Red Sea at Blue Hole, which was caused by a falling star. I'd never been snorkeling before, and it was a little intimidating at first, I didn't know what to do with my arms! After I got used the the breathing and started looking at the reef, it was so much fun! The fish were beautiful and it was awesome to be able to see them in their environment like that. We also got to watch some of the divers training and doing their free dives, that was pretty cool, too. We had seafood again for dinner (I honestly could have had it for breakfast and lunch as well...it was that good!) and we could see th coast of Saudi Arabia from the beach. Later that night we played BINGO at the hotel bar and ended up winning more than 100 Egyptian pounds worth of free drinks. A few rounds of tequila later (that's right, tequila...something Uganda is lacking) and we went dancing. We heard American music which actually made me miss home, I'm so used to hearing Ugandan music when we go out here.
January 28 Friday- We started hearing news of the riots and the internet connection went down all over the country. We decided to stay another day in Dehab instead of heading back to Cairo early. We got in touch with Peace Corps and they advisedus to try and book a flight to get us to Cairo. This was the plan until we realized we couldn't book tickets without the internet. We decided to take a bus the next day and enjoy our time in Dehab. So we went to the beach! It was so gorgeous, the water was incredibly clear and we snorkeled a bit. We had one last night of seafood on the coast before packing our things up and getting ready to head back to Cairo the next morning
January 29 Saturday-We weren't able to get in touch with PC and the US embassy in Cairo is a joke...they never answered their phone. We took bus to Cairo and got in around 8pm, when it was already dark. At this point, the internet had been down a few days and Al Jazeer was turned off (the only English news station) so we really didn't have an idea of what the situation was. As we're driving through Cairo, there are civilians lining the streets with anything they can find as weapons...I mean anything: whips, chains, knives, meat cleavers, canes, 2x4s, machetes, a blow torch, gold club, anything they could get their hands on. They had the streets barricaded and we drove through this for about 2 hours before the bus was finally able to stop. Not gonna lie, it was pretty intimidating, especially since we hadn't heard any news updates. It turns out they were protecting the street from looters. Which, even though it was scary, I think is pretty cool. Egyptians are some of the nicest and more accommodating people I have ever met and I wish the best for them. SO we finally get to the bus station and by now there is a group of Egyptian men who have kind of taken us under their wings. They escort us off the bus, tell us to keep our bags close by, not to talk to people, sit down away from the gates, etc. They were fantastic and they were working so hard to find a way to get us out of the bus station (about 11 or so by now and our flight leaves at 2:30am). They said we might have to stay at the bus station and catch a flight out in the morning. Not an option for us. We finally get a taxi and the group of men insist on taking down the driver's number and license plate. Then they called us every 5 minutes on the way to the airport to make sure we were ok! The whole time we were driving the inside light was on so the people outside could see we were Americans. Even though they meant us no harm and we were waved through each barricade, I still held my breath for most of the car ride. We finally made it to the airport to see hundreds of people inside. All flights were cancelled, nothing was going out. We found our terminal and Ethiopian airlines was closed so we camped out on the floor that night, amidst everyone else stranded in Cairo.
January 30 Sunday- Renee and I woke up and decided to explore the airport to get more info, there was no food or water and as far as we could tell all flights were still cancelled. Now more and more people were stuck at the airport and there were looters out in the parking lots, and a few creepers hanging around. We managed to find some couches and staked those out all day, sleeping on the floor sucked and it was freezing! The airport was pure chaos by now. There were way more people than it could handle and it was difficult to navigate through all the suitcases and human traffic. At one point someone on the other side of the gate started screaming at the top of their lungs and all these people just mobbed toward them. It was kind of scary. By now we'd been in touch with PC and Washington trying to figure things out. Our flight was rescheduled for Tuesday at 2:30am...after already being rescheduled 3 times. We had no idea when we were going to get a flight out so we tried to get on any flight we could, the embassy in Washington just wanted us out. Then we heard there would be an 11pm flight on a different airline so we packed up and went to check it out. Nope, flight was cancelled and now we lost out sleeping spot. The British embassy workers were all over the airport but the US embassy was nowhere to be seen. The British embassy was incredibly helpful and let us use their phones to call Washington, who insisted the embassy was there. They also told us they were evacuating all Americans the next morning at 11am from terminal 4...except there was no terminal 4! It was night by now and we were all exhausted, we just wanted to get home. We spent another night at the airport after having candy from the duty free shop for dinner and giving in to drinking from the tap since bottled water had been sold out all day.
January 31 Monday- Arwen and Elizabeth found gate 4, which turned out to be what the embassy was referring to. We show up and there a USAID.embassy workers already there to be evacuated. They were so nice (many of them RPCVS) and gave us food and water, it was the first real meal we had in 2 days! We were told 3 planes were being sent to evacuate everyone to either Cyprus, Istanbul, or Athens. The USAID people even let us call our families and PC from their phones, so we were finally able to relax a little. We found out all of PC Washington, Africa, and Uganda had been trying to get in touch with us. We were kind of a big deal! We played speed scrabble with them and just hung out until our plane showed up. 6 hours later, after some overbooking confusion, we finally find out we're going to Athens and begin to go through security. By now there had to be thousands of people at hall 4. The embassy arranged for 3 planes, nowhere near enough to evacuate the people that continued to show up by the bus load! What was even better was that, we each had only one bag because we were backpacking around, people would ask if we could check their bags because everyone was only allowed one checked bag. Some people showed up with 3 large suitcases and their dogs! Thank God PC has taught me how to pack light! We finally get on our flight and get a meal on the plane, I don't think I've ever appreciated airplane food that much! We got to Athens about 8 and were greeted by the embassy there, who was absolutely fantastic. They insisted we were government workers and therefore would be put up in the 5 star Sofitel across the street from the airport...all on government's dime! Thank you, PC! Now, you can imagine 5 PC volunteer girls being put up in a 5 star hotel after conserving water for a year, bucket bathing, and using a pit latrine. We were in Heaven! There were feather top beds, the shower was the kind that rains from the ceiling, we each had a white fluffy robe and slippers, and there was a light blocker you could put over the window to keep the sunlight out in the morning...
February 1 Tuesday- ...we didn't wake up until 10! We ended up getting a free day in Athens, since out flight didn't leave until the next day. There was the most amazing breakfast at the hotel: buffet with fruit, cereals, breads, yogurt, veggies, eggs, SMOOTHIES, etc. Describing it doesn't give it justice, but after eating candy for 2 days at the airport it was one of the best meals I've ever had! We explored the city a bit and were able to see the Acropolis, the temple of Zeus, and the Dionysius theater. Then we stumbled onto this wine tasting and ended up buying 2 bottles of wine. We had a fantastic Greek dinner before heading back to the hotel to have our wine by the pool. Being evacuated isn't all that bad!
February 2 Wednesday- Amazing breakfast round 2 (this time I brought my purse...). We had a morning flight to Istanbul that arrived in the early afternoon, so we were able to get visas and head into Istanbul before our flight out. In 6 hours time we were able to see mosques, bazaars, and the Turkish culture. It was so much fun! We got back to the airport and got on our flight to Uganda.
February 3 Thursday- We got in around 3am and PC was waiting with a vehicle to take us to a hotel in Kampala. They also came to pick us up in the morning to bring us into the office. Everyone was so happy to see us, my Education Program Manager even started crying! Our Country Director, Ted, had us in his office for about 2 hours retelling the story. I realized how amazing my PC staff here is, they worked so hard to make sure we got back safely and they couldn't wait to see us when we did get back. They even dubbed us the "Cairo 5" and sent out mass text messages to all volunteers in country updating them on our status. Don't worry guys, I am very well taken care of over here.
And that's it! I made it back to site and everyone here was so relieved to see me. PC had been in contact with them as well, so they knew I was safe. My students haven't returned yet, so my term is going to be a bit delayed. I have lots of ideas for projects that I'm ready to jump into, and I'll be writing about those soon. Elections are in 2 weeks, so keep us in your prayers that everything will go on without unrest.
Thanks for all your messages and concern, it truly meant a lot to me. Sorry to make you guys worry but I had the vacation of a lifetime and even got to witness the beginnings of a revolution in Egpyt. Definitely a trip for the books.
Love you all,