On arrival at the Cairo airport from JFK, we (the passengers) were taken by the standard jet-to-terminal bus.
I noticed on the tarmac a "Special" aircraft parked all by itself on the ramp and heavily guarded. I am fairly sure who operates this jet. Lots of pilots call them Caspers. A Casper is a jet or aircraft with NO tail numbers or markings what so ever. It shows up, and then it disappears......like the ghost. In this case, Casper was white.
The following day we were road blocked as three heavily armed SUV's sped down the street. Please note...there are NO OTHER SUV's like this in Cairo...at least I have not seen them. But you might find these same S.U.V.'s being used by folks who are "visiting" Iraq. I also noticed a C-130 Hercules taking off later...either from Cairo or Luxor. And I thought: now isn't that special?
The pink building to the right of the blaze is the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo
On my arrival at my hotel in Giza...I had a gut feeling that things would be happening soon.
I was lucky to have visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and gone down (up actually) the Nile to Karnak. Shortly afterwards, the museum was ransacked and so was Karnak, by thugs and thieves. These are some of the finest antiquities in the world.
I was told by two Egyptian guides that the Arab news - and, to some extent, CNN - were fanning the flames. I noticed that with all of CNN's verbiage, the reports did not match what I was seeing. I also saw that two of the BIG issues not being covered by the news were the drugs and guns flowing across Egypt's borders. Drug smugglers and weapon smugglers will jump on this free border access in a New York minute. My guides commented that this is a very bad thing for Egypt. They said several military border guards have been killed because of the lawless vacuum. These occurrences receive very little new coverage.
This brings me to the main reason I left Egypt: there is no law or order. You don't know the good guys from the bad. A camera is stolen: was it taken by a thug? a policeman? security? the military? The police have all but disappeared from the streets. Their absence is really striking. When I arrived in Cairo, I said to my guide Mohammed, "Your country has many, many police on the streets. "
Military tanks rumbled through the streets. Police "detention wagons" were set afire or smashed.
Cell phone and internet service were blocked. If you had any kind of emergency when you were away from the hotel, you had no way to communicate.
On my return to Cairo airport after a Nile cruise, I was elated to see my driver and guide waiting for me.
They picked me up in an old POS car...... POS, a.k.a.......Piece Of Shi#......in this case a vehicle that is not shiny with "tourist" written all over it), which could, perhaps, have attracted negative attention. The guide felt it was better than a tourist van. The driver did no less less than five 180's--going against traffic-- as he tried to find a way out of the gridlock.....which was caused by the protesters and thugs who had blocked the streets.
I kept a low profile in the back seat and we zig-zagged on glass-strewn streets ablaze with burning tires. My guide was constantly being engaged or engaging others in nearby cars. I guessed he was asking about street conditions. All the windows on police vehicles were smashed and the vehicles were set on fire. Different Ministries were burning. We either saw them in the distance or drove by them. Fire trucks were blocked or just not responding to the situation.
I saw a plain-clothes policeman (I am assuming he was a cop---as others like him came to his side) knock the holy crap out of a young man. He had caused a gridlock which kept an ambulance from passing. Once the lad was removed, the plain-clothes police took charge to get the ambulance--and us--moving.
The Cairo Sheraton was secured when we arrived and we had to pass through metal detecters. I had more confidence in these folks than than I did in the airport screeners.
Everything seemed iffy. No law and order....no police....thugs roaming the streets on motor bikes, carrying what I think was gas in igloo-type containers. I figured it was gas because people, hidden by shadows, filled up small containers that looked like bottles. I could see other people standing "look out." I watched this from my balcony on the 16th floor. I was able to take a picture of detention trucks being blown up; the explosion rocked the windows in my room.
I thought I'd get an even better look and took my cameras and tripod to the roof on the second floor. BAD idea. I lasted three minutes as the tear gas ate at my eyeballs. I retreated quickly and showered.
When I saw on CNN that DELTA had cancelled all flights, I picked up the land line phone in the room and called my wife. She insisted I get out of Dodge. She locked in tickets for Rome within minutes......and I am certainly grateful she did that. I did my own "drive by shootings"--with my camera--enroute to the airport. But I didn't want to do anything to cause anyone to stop the car I was in. And I was not about to walk the streets to get photos. We arrived at the airport. It is known for being totally screwed up in the best circumstances; you can imagine what it was like with the chaos going on. The Italians waiting in long lines got very animated.........I like these men and women...they really spoke their minds. I flew Alitalia. I was lucky to get out. There was total uncertainty, many folks stuck at the airport, and no tickets to be had.
I hope the tourists left in Egypt* will be okay. For the moment, it seems that way, but who can foresee the outcome of the riots? I am writing this from Rome, trying to absorb all that I saw in Egypt.
NOTE FROM AUTHOR: Connecting the timeline dots:
- Friday, January 21, 2011: Arrived in Cairo.
- Monday, January 24, 2011: Departed Cairo for Luxor to join a Nile River Cruise.The cruise took me as far as Aswan.
- Friday, January 28, 2011: Flew from Aswan to Abu Simbel for a two hour tour. Checked in again to fly Abu Simbel-Aswan-Cairo. All cell and internet service had been cut this day because the scheduled protest. Luckily, my Cairo Tour rep/guide showed up at the Cairo airport with his driver and his POS car...not the tourist van. He was to take me to the Cairo Sheraton, which is on the Nile. I was to have two more Cairo tour days, but all hell broke lose. Great efforts were made from the Cairo airport to take me to the Cairo Sheraton. My burning truck photos were this night.
Michael Wiggins is a retired airline pilot who has spent the better part of his life shuttling passengers around the globe.
*If you, or any travelers you know, are currently in Egypt, you might find this Evacuation Guide from our partners at WorldNomads.com helpful.