The Egypt Trade: long protesters, short tourists

This article was written on 14/02/11 but put on hold for publication on on 27/02/11.

Like a reverse commute while the rest of civilised (sane) society was conducting a mass exodus last week, we were making a beeline for the country currently most touted on the news for its chaos.

On checking in at The Four Seasons in Sharm el Sheikh, we were greeted by a prominently placed portrait of Mubarak in the hotel lobby. Barely a week later at checkout, it had been discretely removed and the wall seamlessly painted over without a trace. Notwithstanding the fact of his having allegedly retreated, since his newly unemployed status, from Cairo to his holiday retreat down the road in this very Red Sea resort.

It wasn’t a decision lightly taken to embark on this long-planned trip to a country now mobbed with civil unrest. Indeed it was with much trepidation and foolhardy trust in the foreign office advice (as well as BA’s resolute refusal to offer even a partial refund) that we set off rather reluctantly at the height of the protests.

In a sense of foreboding, Gatwick was eerily empty (we were the penultimate flight of the day) with a post armageddon atmosphere. We made it from taxi door, through departure gates, security and check-in in under 15 minutes and, no, we weren’t ushered through priority check-in. Note also we were walking at funereal pace to cater to the speed of the lowest common denominator of our party: a toddler towing a Trunki.

On boarding, it transpired that bar a portly man and his equally portly other half, we were the only travellers in our cabin. Like an empty restaurant, this has to ring alarm bells. On the positive side, we had limited audience for extending apologies after hours of crying from the overtired 9 month old.

Five bleary-eyed hours of pacing the aisles with the fretful 9 month old; the 2 year old sleeping like a seasoned pro-traveller replete with eye mask, we touched down in the country that felt as familiar as our own given the compulsive viewing of everything Egypt related on the BBC news over the past week. With the exception that all was quiet and calm. Bar the local cab drivers squabbling over the fresh batch of tourists, there wasn’t a riot in sight.

Echoing the capacity of the flight, the resort was equally as sparsely occupied. For the large part the pool was a private affair and it was with much indignant harumphing if on the odd occasion we had to share it with anyone else. The breakfast buffet was a bursting banquet enough to feed the biblical five thousand but in reality only needed to feed about fifty.

The Egyptian people were warm, welcoming and gracious. Service was affable, efficient and the epitome of the term ‘family friendly’. Our room was equipped with nappies, wipes, cot, baby bath, toddler step stool, bottle steriliser, bottles, bottle warmer, an array of baby toiletries, jars of baby food as well as a microwave to warm them up in. The suite even came complete with washing machine, tumble dryer and dishwasher but there is a line to be drawn at full-on domestic drudgery while on holiday.

There was also a kids club where the 2 year old made pasta necklaces and a huge cardboard rocket that she insisted we bring home on a seat of its own on the plane.

At one point I gazed longingly at a Russian family who had brought along their own maid to deal with their toddler. Now, if the hotel could provide one of those then I would most definitely make a return visit regardless of any revolution. At dinner one evening I did attempt to palm off the 9 month old onto the willing Maitre D but, unlike the 2 year old who worryingly accepts M&Ms from strangers, the 9 month old just clung to me limpet-like glowering. It seems he too has learnt the power of protestation.


We’re all going on a summer holiday

News on the latest media grapevines is that the credit crunch, if not over, is certainly getting less crunchy – things are smoothing over as it were. In chocolate terms, less Cadburys Crunchie and a touch more Galaxy. So it would appear then that the lid has been lifted for the reinstatement of the overseas summer holiday. Goodbye to stay-at-home chic. Who were we ever kidding anyway – Cornwall versus Caribbean? I know which one I’d rather make a beeline for.

The age old issue with packing up and jetting off at this time of the year is that, annoyingly, it coincides with precisely the time of year that every other family and their dog is embarking on the same game plan. Once the school holidays start, the flood gates are officially open. Gatwick airport becomes a purgatory on earth of package holiday makers: pasty white at departures; lobster red and blistering at arrivals.

So quite understandably, given we are yet to be bound by the constrains of national curriculums, we made it a point to time our trip to return just before the madding crowd was unleashed. And not a moment too soon; the day of our departure saw the pool area deluged with a slew of teenagers, keen to shake off the presence of terminally embarrassing parents. 

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable time was had by all parties of the household. Mr A and I even managed to pretend to be members of the civilised childless sect for a few hours a day, indulging in uninterrupted sunbathing and reading, while our one year old took her daily afternoon nap. The biggest downside of a good holiday though is the bump of reality wrought by the return.

Suddenly I have resumed sole ownership of nappy change again – a chore too readily shared if not shunted. Though not without relinquishing the task one last time on the return flight (which surely still counts as part of the holiday) – a shrewd move in light of Mr A’s struggle in the restricted confines of the inflight toilet-cum-baby change. It turns out our less-than-ladylike toddler firstly kicked her soiled nappy to the floor, spilling and scattering its contents to the floor. Then while her repulsed and red-faced father was trying to retrieve the offending matter from the toilet floor, she found a new challenge in trying to kick him in the head while still lying on the changing table. Needless to say, the holiday was officially over at this point for all of us.

Shanghai Blues

Call me a fool for not only entertaining the notion but embarking on the nightmare of flying solo with a 1 year old Baby-Bel on a 12 hour plane journey (followed inexorably, 5 days later, by an even longer 13 hour flight back). Mr A tells me it defies belief that I declined the offer of alcoholic beverages throughout the period of confinement – apparently he would have drunk the cabin dry in order to survive the ordeal.

I recall craving the numbing effects of a vat of wine only once – at the point when we took our seats and having barely clicked closed the seat belt, with Baby-Bel squirming and screaming reluctance at relinquishing her freedom, the occupant of our neighbouring seat had already summoned over cabin crew to demand a change of seat. Crimson-faced and unable to appease a deliberately delinquent equally red-faced Baby-Bel, it was tempting just to disembark and face the prospect of staying long term in Shanghai just to avoid the flight home. As it turned out, our neighbour took his preferred choice to downgrade a cabin class rather than sit alongside us.

Take off and landing aside, the flights though wrist-slashingly arduous, were actually not intolerable. Tears were remarkably few and fellow passengers (and even the pilot) commented on Baby-Bel’s good behaviour – gold stars all round. Providing 10 hours of uninterrupted entertainment for a small child in a confined space is a task few I know would voluntarily choose to undertake. But the few hours when she slept allowed me the privilege to at least pretend to be like all the others around me – transfixed by a small flickering screen of questionable picture quality, while wrapped in a statically charged polyester blanket, eating food that would on land be deemed unfit for the family dog.

Notwithstanding the drama and trauma of what some have described as self inflicted torture, I am wondering if indeed I don’t prefer that turbulence to my current surrounding state of calm. I have realised that life is not worth living without a challenge, adventure, seeing and being. It has been so long – too long – that the default easy option of habitual comfort and fear of rocking the ritualised baby routine has morphed into lazy listlessness. So much so that blindness to the beyond had set in and settled.   

The mini adventure Baby-Bel and I embarked on was worth every tedious airborne minute. Because that is the other thing that dawned on me as I stared blankly at my flickering screen and prodded at my dodgy tray of airline delicacies with a plastic fork: life is meaningless without people we love. The world is a big place – as I’m sure Francis Drake would attest to. Family and friends are scattered too far. To those in Shanghai – you know who you are – we wish you were closer. We miss you.