The last thing that occurred to me as I imagined my blog entries on my trip to Nepal was that the first title I would use would be The Airport. But airport is all the experience I’ve been getting so far, and after 4 days of leaving Cairo.
On Thursday night, November 11, 2010, I kissed my cat goodbye and walked out of the door with my backpack and duffle and headed to Alexandria. My flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, was to start from Alexandria, stop for 6 hours in Sharjah, UAE, then fly to Kathmandu. I was supposed to get there by the afternoon of Friday, November 12.
I met Amr and Caroline, two of the seven trekkers headed on the same trip, at the entrance to the Alexandria airport. There we were stopped outside the airport and told to wait until, well, until some time. They stopped us because there wasn’t yet room for us inside the airport. Other flights had to finish their check-in and boarding first for us to be able to go inside and take their places in the check-in and boarding cues.
The airport was a ground floor only facility in a building of four or five stories. The actual area designated for travelers is an averaged sized hall with compartments for specific areas. There was one waiting room incubated by dirty glass in old, broken aluminum frames, one dusty shop carved into existence by the same fashion, and a single desk on the side with one security official to stamp all our passports. There were no officials in any of the little glass cubicles stamping any passports. That single man was doing it for everyone.
The waiting area was jammed with people. I found a seat next to a woman sitting with her two little girls. Both girls were restless and kept fighting and arguing, and when they grew tired of each other they began to brush themselves against me. I don’t recall hearing any official announcements about our flight, or any flight. Soon news began to spread – like rumors and gossip – that our flight was indefinitely delayed because of the thick fog that resided over Alexandria. Our plane had in fact turned around and landed in Cairo. It was 2 am and there was no hope of the plane showing up any time before the day broke. No official in the airport had any clear answer. We accepted our fate and waited.
Waiting makes me watch the people around me. I’m hardly the type that can get herself busy in a book when there’s so much to be looking at. I began to focus on those two girls and their mother. What a life of hardship for so many Egyptian families, the women have to drag their children in the middle of the night to catch a flight and go to the father in another Arab country where he’s probably underpaid, but surely better paid than he would be if he were to stay in Egypt.
Soon, however, my sympathy turned into utter horror as I noticed lice in both girls’ hair! I impulsively began to cringe each time either one of their heads brushed against my clothes. I desperately looked around for other seats but there were none. And sitting on the sticky, smelly, stained floor was not yet an option for me.
Alarmed by my behavior, Caroline looked inquisitively at me. “The girls have lice in their hair. Lots of it!” I explained. She impulsively pulled her own hair to the opposite side and responded: “Really??”
The waiting continued. Soon a person carrying a large plastic bag called out for passengers on the Sharjah flight to present their boarding passes. For each boarding pass you get a packet of biscuits and a small juice carton. If your boarding pass says you’re on another flight then no biscuits or juice for you. The seen was shameful, with juice and biscuits flying over people’s heads and going to others. The little child next to me was unfortunate enough to not be going to Sharjah. The minute the man showed up all I could hear was her wails. “I want juice! I want juice!”
There was no way I would get my juice and sip on it while she watched and wailed. I took the biscuits and juice from him and handed them to her automatically.
Soon a distant sound of ululation came from the entrance to the hall. A large crowd entered the airport and in the midst of it a large white figure appeared. A bride in her wedding dress and a groom, surrounded by their happy family, were making their way into the airport to join the flight to a new life in Sharjah, still oblivious to the long hours of waiting they were yet to endure.
As the hours passed I eventually had to give up my seat to go to the bathroom. As always expected in most public facility bathrooms in Egypt, there is never soap or toilet paper, but there is always a lady sitting somewhere inside willing to give you some of the toilet paper roll she has in her hands for a tip. Being personally equipped with my own toilet paper and hand sanitizer gel, I didn’t notice that there were no women sitting anywhere for this purpose. Soon after I got inside a couple of them appeared and a tense conversation began.
“You forgot to clean the second toilet.”
“Well I just cleaned off the kid’s puke! So spare me! You know I can handle anything but puke!”
“Who else is to clean it?”
“Why of course! You just hang around all day and when there’s something to be done it’s me, the one who wipes puke off floors, who has to do it. I do nothing here but wipe puke. I’m the puke cleaning person around here!”
Almost puking myself, I barged out of the toilet, rinsed my hands, and resorted to using my hand sanitizer. I was not going to ask puke lady for any soap.
On my way out I discovered that outside the hall, only a few meters away across two junior policemen, there lay a haven of empty chairs waiting to be occupied, or so I thought. I flew, with as much speech as the crowd would allow me, to Amr and Caroline and told them about my discovery. We carried our backpacks and headed towards the chairs when we were stopped by a muscular official.
“Sorry, madam. You cannot go there,” he said firmly. I tried hard to dissociate this moment from the long history I’ve had with unjustifiable forbiddens the government had always bestowed upon me everywhere in the streets. “There happens to be five meters away, and it is only three empty chairs for me and my friends to sit on. There is no room here for anyone.”
“You have already stamped your passport so you cannot go past this [imaginary] line.”
Shock overrode me. My eyes probably began to bulge out at him. “If we don’t walk those few extra steps to sit on those chairs we will end up on our feet for as long as it takes for this fog to lift and our plane to arrive from Cairo. Given that we’re human beings, we need to sit down.”
His face suddenly went red. “For the way you have spoken to me now, you will not go sit on those chairs!”
Another classical example of an official abusing the only sense of control he has over anything, or anyone.
I don’t recall what else I said after this climatic statement was barfed at me. What I do remember is that all three of us ended up going to sit on the chairs, which made the little staff that the airport had go find some extra chairs and place them inside the waiting hall for us. That way we could sit down and still be within safe passport stamping domain.
Not for long, however. Soon there were new passengers allowed into the hall, after hours of waiting in the street, who needed to check in. So we were once again asked to leave our chairs to make room for them to stand in the check in line.
I stole a man’s seat as he went to ask around for any news on the flight. I placed my backpack in front of me, rested my feet on it, and dozed off until day broke. Having given up on any decent response from any of the airport staff, Amr tried phoning the Cairo airport to inquire about the flight.
A lazy voice answered on the other end of the line. “No. Call us in the afternoon.”
The fog began to lift near 10 am in the morning, but we were only able to board our flight at 2 PM. When it became known that it was time to board the flight people flocked towards the gate and pushed each other frantically, sending a wave of panic among the airport staff. Little voices of wisdom began to call out for decency among the crowds to allow an old man, barely able to stand up, to cross till the beginning of the crowd to be allowed first out and into the bus. Then suddenly some women began to call out immediately after the old man had passed. “Make room for the bride!”
The bride! I had almost forgotten about her. I looked in her direction and there was the groom, all sweaty, his hair messed up, his tie undone, and his shirt all wrinkled, trying to escort an intact bride in the middle of the crowd, followed by the weary, faded smiles of their mothers. I felt sorry for the faded joy of the whole family, yet the bride’s make up and veil had miraculously stayed on her for the full 13 hours in this wondrous place of hygienic horrors. That either stood in testimony for the craftsmanship of our hairdressers, or the family’s superb ability to preserve their bride somewhere in midair.
I was glad to finally get out of the place and breathe some fresh air. 13 hours in this chamber of a terminal were further highlighted by the suffocating passivity I saw in many people’s faces, by the bored routine-scarred faces of the staff who endured the place everyday to make a living, and most importantly by the utter humiliation we all felt for being kept in the dark for such long hours.
We landed in Sharjah to a whole new culture. The airport was sparkling clean and and there was a lot of individual space. All three flights to Kathmandu on that day had already departed so we were given hotel rooms to stay in.
A young Asian man showed me and Caroline to the room. He smiled at me and said, “You’re catching your flight to Kathmandu?”
“Yes! It’s our first visit to Nepal!”
“I’m from Nepal, you know?”
Awesome! I was still not even close to Nepal and there I was standing face to face with my first Nepalese. With a close look at his sharp features, the first question that jumped to my mind was ‘Are you a Sherpa?’ But I didn’t want to be the typical dumb tourist. To him it might have sounded like “You’re Arab! Do you have a camel??”
“So what is the most famous thing about Nepal?” He asked me with a beaming smile. “Buddhism!” I responded confidently.
“Well, there is also Everest?”
“Why yes of course!!” How could I miss THAT? Why on earth was I on this trip to begin with?
“But Everest has its own native name, right? What do you call it?”
That fell more comfortably on my ears.
Now for the fourth day in Kathmandu, sitting in the same spot in the airport, staring at the same faces, Sagarmatha is all that my mind calls out to me in the midst of the noise that surrounds us. It gets stronger with each repetitive announcement of a delay or cancellation of all flights heading to Lukla, where the trek to see Sagarmatha should begin.
No flights till now due to the heavy fog. Sagarmatha is closed.
#1 by Marwa Elnaggar on December 4, 2010 - 7:41 pm
Beautiful description of the horror that is Alex airport on a crowded day, Arwa. What a nightmare. Can’t wait to read part 2 :)
#2 by Marwa Elnaggar on December 4, 2010 - 7:42 pm
P.S. Pleeeeeease include the “pleased to announce the cancellation…” in one of your posts!
#3 by Arwa Mahmoud on December 4, 2010 - 7:51 pm
Great to hear your words on it, Marwa. Somehow this particular piece was hard labor for me. I don’t know why.
Oh and I sure will mention the “pleased to announce” bit in the next one! I won’t miss this!
#4 by Reem on December 4, 2010 - 8:07 pm
U are writing a Novel .. I am enjoying every word in it.. Great job Arwa, My favorite part was your discovery of the lice in the girls heads.. Feeling so sorry for the newly married couple..
#5 by Arwa Mahmoud on December 4, 2010 - 8:34 pm
Always enchanted to hear from you Reem :)
#6 by Shearin on December 5, 2010 - 6:58 am
Airports in Egypt never fail to charm even it’s own people…they’re alluring spaces reeking of nicotine, and sweat…to be completely fair, the old ones, or Alexandria’s landing strip. Your account was both terrifying and hilarious all at once. I loved your reference to the newly wed couple starting off their lives in the dingiest of spaces. You could seriously turn this experience into one of those movies where the whole thing takes place over the course of one day…I couldn’t stop laughing as I read on, all the while Ali asking me, “mommy what’s going on? why are you giggling like that…hey I want to read too!”
#7 by Arwa Mahmoud on December 5, 2010 - 7:57 am
If I were a fiction writer I wouldn’t have hesitated to write a short story of this! I have so much more detail I would have shared! Thanks for your lovely comment, Shearin :)
#8 by Aisha on December 5, 2010 - 3:58 pm