Over the last week or so the news has been filled with the civil unrest in Cairo and across Egypt. We have been bombarded with the usual media images of make shift hospitals and tales from locals on both sides of conflict.
What made this more poignant for me though was the fact one of my life long mates and fellow travellers Luke was currently on a working holiday visa teaching in Egypt, living in Cairo city centre. Luckily he’s back on UK soil now so I caught up with him to ask how it all went down in his eyes and if it’s altered his perception of travelling the middle east.
I would also like to take the opportunity now to apologise for the brief introduction to Luke, he’s been working on some articles for our relaunch as he’s travelled Europe, Africa and the middle east over the last 12 months – I’ll save his main bio for that!
So up until now how’s Egypt been treating you?
It’s such a good country to live in. It’s a real culture shock though – even after 7 months I still have days where I looks at things and it’s like “woah, I wasn’t expecting that”. Up until now I’ve felt really safe there though – the people are very inviting and friendly, even in the big cities.
I’m living in Cairo which is often described as the new york of Egypt. It’s so diverse and has heaps of history, I much prefer it to other capitals I’ve visited. Egypt has also provided me with a great base camp to explore alot of other places too – hopefully my guest posts will be up here soon!
What was the first sign that something was up?
We had an in cling on the situation due to the Egyptian news, but the first major sign was rather random. After a night out on the town our Canadian neighbour knocked on our door in the morning – she explained about what was happening and her family had everything packed and ready to go. This caught us pretty off guard and we were kind of confused – her reaction seemed a bit drastic, but after sticking the news on we realized things had gone quickly downhill. Tensions had been high since the stuff in Tunisia and I guess it slowly boiled over there too.
Did you get to Freedom Square to check it out?
Actually we did – it was on the first day of the protests. There was a couple hundred people there, it was still small and it was really peaceful and the noticeable difference from now was that there wasn’t any military presence either. It was pretty quiet. At this point there wasn’t any real issues and leaving the country wasn’t something we’d seriously considered.
What was the general atmosphere there?
The square was really friendly. Everyone was passing food around and chatting – it was very calm and controlled, just people expressing their anguish and making a stand I guess. No hint of what was to come.
So when the curfew kicked in did things change?
Definitely.When that kicked in all the locals began to get very territorial because that’s really when the lawlessness started and the police control seemed to disappear.
We’ve all scene the footage on the news of people defending their property form the looters – this all hyped up at all?
On the first night of it my mate Joe came running into the apartment shouting about guys with axes and weapons on the street! Our first though was that those guys were the people to worry about – but we soon figured they were actually just defending their property from the looters. That really put us into panic mode.
When did you decide to bail out?
As the days went on the whole curfew thing gave us almost cabin fever, and obviously we could see things going down hill pretty quick – we were only 20mins walk from the epi centre of it all.
I’ll never forget the second night – the girls were getting really scared at this point, and we were worried we might get targeted by looters – especially as westerners – so we decided to group into one apartment.
We shut all the curtains and all we could here in every direction was gun shots.
The streets were empty and quiet then tank started rolling past our window throughout the night, it was starting to get really hard to contain our concern and sleeping was an issue with the constant noise and unrest outside – and at that point we decided it was time to get out.
What about the lack of internet and phones – how did that affect everything?
That just added to the sense of panic really. We couldn’t contact each other, let alone home.
Our first issue was the fact we couldn’t get through to our mates to regroup before curfew – or communicate with work who were our main point of call with what we should do.
I felt really isolated when the internet and phones went down. It was nightmare to even try and find a way to get flights. The only contact that wasn’t cut off wer landlines – and only a few of my mates had them, so we grouped at theirs to tell everyone we were ok
Any issues getting back to the UK at all?
My parents got on it pretty soonish which was a massive help. I couldn’t do anything from my end due to the net and mobiles being down. It made me realise how much we rely on technology these days.
But even from the UK they had major issues – the flight websites were selling out as fast as they could locate tickets and after hours of trying they managed to get some for extortionate prices because that’s all that was left – ironically they had to buy a return!
Once i knew i was heading out I made my way to the airport.
That was the worst bit really, the whole communications line had broken down. It was chaos.
There was no order, and even the British Embassy personnel walking around couldn’t make sense of it. People were literally waving wads of cash at the girls behind the desks for flights.
Security was getting really corrupt too – the people who controlled entry to the actual terminal were deliberately holding up the crowds and making people buy their place in the que.
I managed to get in but it was still 20 hours after that i finally managed to get onto a plane.
Some of my mates weren’t so lucky though – a couple are still out there.
Will you be heading back anytime soon?
That completely depends on my job really.
There is a possibility that at the end of Feb i may go back, but i’m playing it by that really. I loved my job out there – I’ve met lots of great people and really enjoy where I live. Egypt has been really good to me up until this.
But I’ve also got alot of egyptian friends too – and speaking to them it seems I’ll never go back to the same Egypt I left. They tell me it will be a while before the whole thing settles down – and everyone is unsure if that’ll be for the better or worse.
What are your future travel plans if Egypt doesn’t pan out?
Without a doubt South East Asia. I’d been planning to head out there anyway – Asia is somewhere i haven’t been before and it really intrigues me. I was planning on leaving the Middle East at the end of my contract, even before this all kicked off.
It was a year stop gap to see if teaching abroad was a good options for me – seems it is and now I’ve just got to decide what order to travel in!
– Luke will be a regular guest poster on BackpackerBanter.com from in early April –