02 August 2007

August 2: Frankfurt to Cairo

The flight to Frankfurt was mostly without incident. After the first meal, I managed to sleep some until turbulence over Iceland woke me. Actually, I have no idea if it was Iceland…I just know it was somewhere in the middle of the trip. It was of short duration and I went back to sleep afterward.

However there was a bit of an incident just prior to landing. The fasten seatbelts sign had come on and we were approaching Frankfurt. They were showing a video about the Frankfurt airport processes…where passport control and baggage claim are located, how to navigate the airport, etc. And it occurred to me that I should collect my travel documents before getting off the plane, just to be prepared.

That’s when I couldn’t find my passport.

I knew I’d put it in the pocket of my pants after getting on the plane but it wasn’t there now. I double-checked all my pockets, the book I’d been reading, my carry-on bag (even though I hadn’t opened or even touched it the entire flight), the seat under me... It was nowhere to be found. The only thing I could think of was that it had fallen out of my pocket while I was sleeping and it was inside the workings of the seat.

The seat I had was a sort of business-class type plane seat…like a recliner, only motorized. I had no idea how to get inside the workings of it. The flight attendants were bustling about, preparing for landing, and I caught the attention of one as she went by. I explained that my passport was missing and I think it’s inside the seat.

She digs around the cushion (much as I already had) and, even though the seatbelt light is on, I get out of the seat so she can peel back the bottom cushion and check there. No go.

She goes to get a flashlight and a couple other attendants congregate to see to see what’s going on. Conversation flashes in German. The next thing I know there are about 5 flight attendants and the guy in the seat next to me crawling around on the floor with the flashlight trying to see if it’s in there and where.

At one point, the guy looks up at me and asks, “Is it a blue one?” and I say yes. He says, “It’s in there.” They fish around some more and eventually get it out. One of the flight attendants says, “One hundred dollars.” and everyone laughs but if I’d had it in cash right then, I’d have gladly paid! Instead, I thanked them all and got strapped in for landing.

I can’t even imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t looked for the passport until I’d gotten off the plane.

At Frankfurt, I started heading to my gate. En route, I heard an announcement about all passengers on the flight to Cairo needing to be in the boarding area. I checked my (Alan’s) watch and it looked like I had 45 minutes or so yet. But I didn’t really have any idea how far I was from the gate.

I checked a monitor to make sure the gate assignment hadn’t changed since I checked in (yesterday in Des Moines). It took me a minute to find the flight info. The flights were not listed alphabetically, as they are in the US. They’re listed by departure time. So I had to look at my ticket to see when I was supposed to depart to find the flight. Even if the flights had been alphabetical, I’d have had to hunt for the flight. Cairo was spelled with a K instead of a C.

The Cairo flight was completely uneventful. They served a meal and I wasn’t particularly hungry…I felt I had done nothing but eat since I left home…but I ate anyway since it was going to be 7:30 before I touched down in Cairo and it was easier to eat then than deal with finding food later. Besides, it was about 5pm that I had the dog in Chicago, after 9 when they served the first meal on the trans-Atlantic flight, 6 or so hours later that they served breakfast before landing and 3 or 4 hours after that that I had this meal.

So, let’s see that’s 5pm Wednesday to 7:30pm Thursday…26 hours, let’s call it…minus the 8 hour time change…that’s 4 meals in 18 hours…no snacks. Heck if I know whether it’s actually time to eat or not.

At the Cairo airport, I had no trouble finding my escort. There were a half dozen or so guys standing at the end of the jetway with signs showing various people’s names. But since they were all written in Arabic, I figured they couldn’t be for me.

Further on, there were dozens of guys lined up with name-bearing placards. I easily found the one that said “Mr Sue Hotovec” in big block letters. The guy welcomed me, shook my hand and apologized for the “Mr” on the sign. He just wrote the name he was given.

Hey, it’s not the first time I’ve been called “Mr. And I’ve many times been befuddled by foreign names, myself.

We headed toward immigration. He asked if I had bags to collect (I didn’t) and if I had my visa already (I did). Near immigration, he headed off to the side and asked me for my passport. Then he had me wait while he took my passport to a window and talked to the people on the other side of the glass. I couldn’t see who he was talking to, but there were a number of other people like him at the window and a number of other people like me, standing off to the side.

When he finished at the window he gestured to me to follow him and we went down this narrow aisle beside/behind the immigration lines. There were checkpoints along the way where he was obviously known to the people and he showed my passport and kept moving. I just followed him. The long, snaking immigration lines were just the other side of the low wall but I was skirting around them. It was like line-jumping, only perfectly legit.

He led me outside the airport and asked me to wait while he looked further up the line of cars and buses for my contact. He asked me if I knew Mohamed El Banna and I said I’d spoken with him on the phone but had never actually met him…so I wouldn’t recognize him by sight.

In just a minute or two a man comes up to us, calling my name. We make introductions and the disembodied voice on the phone has become incarnate. He’s tall and thin and not as dark and “Egyptian looking” as the other Egyptians I’ve met. But he’s very gracious and friendly and apologizes many times that he wasn’t there when I arrived. Both the guy who led me through the airport and El Banna were kind of thrown off by the fact that I didn’t have any checked luggage to wait for…I got through the process sooner than expected.

We took a shuttle to the parking lot where El Banna’s car is.

On the shuttle with us were several people I’m guessing were Arabian. The men were wearing long white robes and the same red-and-white head covering that Arafat always wore. There was also a woman in a full, black burkah…draped head to toe with only her glasses showing outside the black cloth.

Pretty much everyone else on the shuttle was wearing typical western style clothing. I had the only white face and was one of very few women. I noticed a couple of the people nearby, men, were looking at me while trying not to be obvious about it. Kind of like I was looking at the woman in the burkah, trying not to be obvious or rude about it.

We get to the parking lot and El Banna leads me to his car, parked away from the shuttle stop. As we walk, he talks about the schedule he’s prepared for my touring over the next few days and the training schedule for the following week. He wants me to feel comfortable and says that the Egyptian people are very friendly and I will always have someone from the office with me…to pick me up at the hotel, show me around, take me too/from the office.

While we’re talking and walking, I notice that practically every car in the lot has at least one caved-in side with scrapes running the full length of the car. Not just a few…almost every single one. When we get to El Banna’s car, it’s not caved in; it’s fairly new-looking.

We leave the parking lot and toward my hotel, still talking and planning the coming week. As we pull out into traffic, I understand why all the cars are caved in. The road may be marked for 2 lanes but, apparently, that’s just a suggestion. Cars squeeze into and out of lanes, missing other cars by, quite literally, an inch or two. If you want to change lanes, you don’t wait for an opening…you make one.

We arrive without incident at the Hotel Heliopolis…my home away from home for the next week-and-a-bit.