The Egypt Trade: long protesters, short tourists

This article was written on 14/02/11 but put on hold for publication on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/02/27/the-egypt-trade-long-protesters-short-tourists/ 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.

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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.