It must be said that our last three weeks have been characterised by the extraordinary generosity of our friends.
We arrived in Frankfurt, having been evacuated from Egypt by the Australian Government. We made a b-line for the train station and got on an overnight train to Berlin. Dressed for the warm Egyptian climate, we found snow on the train tracks. We were certainly not supposed to be here.
In Berlin and were greeted by our good friend who had spent the previous night clashing with the police over a forced eviction of a Squat – something we found quite comforting having come from the unrest in Egypt.
However, we were made to feel particularly safe, secure and welcome by our squat-eviction-fighting-friend who put us up without a fuss.
We spent the next week in Berlin pottering around, taking it very easy and basically eating a lot. We never walked anywhere without a traveller (0.80 €!) and our destination was, for the most part, a restaurant.
To understand Berlin is to understand the 20th Century. It has been the focal point of Fascism and Communism, was the key aggressor in both the First and Second World Wars, as well as a key battle ground during the Cold War. Germany is now the focal point of European capitalism but Berlin still suffers from very high unemployment levels.
We spent a day doing the free Brewers Walking Tour which was fabulous, but probably the highlight for me was our last day where we visited the Sowjetisches Ehrenmal (Soviet War Memorial) at Treptower Park.
It’s an incredible monument to the Soviet soldiers that lost their lives in one of the Second World Wars decisive battles, the ‘Battle of Berlin’, where the Red Army lost an estimated 20,000 soldiers but effectively ended the European war. The centre piece is a massive statue of a Soviet Soldier carrying a sword in one hand, a rescued/liberated child in the other, as he stomps on a swastika. The whole area is lined with empty sarcophagi, each with a quote from Stalin on the side in both Russian and German.
Devoid of subtly, full of grandeur and glorification, yet somber and awe-inspiring.
The next stop was Old London Town where the generosity continued. We stayed with another friend who lives with 3 others – all of whom A and I instantly adored. We were made to feel right at home and there was absolutely no fuss about us occupying their living room for just shy of two weeks.
On our second night in town we caught up with another good friend for dinner who offered to lend us his motorbike for a couple of days. We gratefully accepted his offer and hooned off down the A23 to Stonehenge. That night, Valentine’s Day, was spent in a rather cold and wind swept Brighton where we had a lovely meal and spent the next day wondering around before taking a really beautiful back road home to London.
The next week and a bit was spent wondering around London, visiting markets, seeing a few sites and catching-up with the various people we know in London.
One particularly enjoyable afternoon we met up with my uncle, who also happens to be a priest currently on sabbatical for a year in London. Fittingly, he took us to see Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery along with the graves of the more recently departed, Malcolm McLaren (whose grave reads ‘Malcolm Was Here’) and Douglas Adams (taken from us far too early) – two figures dear to my heart.
We’ll be back in London, to live for a year or so, in just a few months. This visit served as a great little taste for what is to come. I’d been there before but A had not but I think we both have a feeling that we’re going to like living there.
But for now, we’ve retreated to Toulouse in Southern France.
Before the ‘wild’ excitement of Egypt, we were in Kenya with my family.
Given what has happened in the mean time, it seems like an eternity ago, but I can’t help feeling it deserves at least a small mention on this blog.
After a lovely time in Tanzania, we got on a bus and headed up to Mombassa.
Tanzania is one of the African success stories. It has a reasonably stable government, strong economic growth and doesn’t seem to have suffered from the same levels of corruption that other African nations have. Kenya is not one of these success stories (although it is considerably better than many).
The wealth disparity between the two countries is immediately obvious when you cross the boarder. You go from a reasonably well maintained bitchumen road to a terribly corrugated and pot-holed dirt road… which the bus driver didn’t seem to feel the need to slow down for at all.
When we finally arrived in Mombassa, it felt like we had finally got to a city that was really alive, particularly when you compare it to Dar Es Salaam. Lots of noise, traffic and energy.
So we spent a couple of days exploring Mombassa, wandering around the beautiful old town and even spending an afternoon at a Bowling Alley where I cracked 100 for the first time, racking up a nice personal best of 120 (lame, I know, but I’ve never been much good at bowling).
Then it was up to Lamu, the town and island off the northern coast of Kenya.
As you step off the boat (which in our case bore a striking resemblance to a shower) you are greeted with people saying ‘welcome to paradise’. I couldn’t help feeling that it would be more apt to say ‘welcome to Donkey Land’.
The streets in Lamu are all very narrow corridors so cars are right out of the question. Instead, everyone has a Donkey or two who do the grunt work around the place.
We stayed in a beautiful 300 year old mansion which we had all to ourselves as well as our own private cook who was happy to cook anything for you but we largely left to his own devices. The result was a huge plate of fresh swahili style seafood every night. And every night after dinner, I’d waddle off to bed nursing a very full stomach and suffering from seafood reflux. Note to self: never overeat lobster.
But the lasting memory of Lamu is the Donkeys, whose honk and wheeze could be heard all through the night. Every time the call to prayer went out it would trigger the Donkeys who would all compete with it for volume and attention.
In fact, right outside our bedroom window was a particularly vocal Donkey who spent most of his day in a fairly small enclosure and was going stark raving mad. I took the liberty of recording him for you so you can get an idea of what it was like: Donkey
… all night long.
After our Lamu adventure it was time to head back to Mombassa for our last few nights with my family. The next two nights we stayed at one of Mombassa’s finest hotels where we spent most of the day by the pool. It was a suitably relaxing and luxurious end to our time with my family who we eventually said a teary goodbye to. They were off to get on a bus back down to Dar Es Salaam in order to fly home and we moved to more modest accommodation in the old town where we spent a couple more nights.
To be honest we probably didn’t need those extra few days but and most of the time was spent in our hotel room trying to escape the heat and watching an entire series of True Blood. But we did get out for a few nice walks. On one occasion we came across a chai wallah on the water front so we sat down with the locals to enjoy a cup of tea with them. When one asked why I wasn’t having any I patted my stomach and said that I wasn’t feeling well.
‘The Mombassa Express?’ Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Well, I’m currently sitting on a flight from Cairo to Frankfurt which was chartered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade after 8 days of civil unrest in Egypt. It certainly isn’t where I’d expected to be a week ago.
Yes, I’m afraid the ‘witnessing a revolution’ phase of our trip has finally run its course and it’s time to try and get on with being a tourist again.
Last Friday (28th Jan) we left Cairo for Alexandria. There wasn’t really any plan, we just thought we’d see if Alexandria was a little quieter than Cairo and would therefore be safer to see a few sites. How wrong we were. Egypt’s ‘second city’ turned out to be a flash point for this significant moment in Egypt’s history.
That day, further protests were planned to take place following the morning prayer which usually finishes around 12:30 or 1. We got to Alexandria nice and early to avoid any trouble, checked into our hotel and went off to find something to eat.
When we arrived the place was very quiet so we ended up walking quite a way along the foreshore before finding a fancier restaurant which seemed to be the only one open in town.
After some fine dining with a beautiful view over the harbour, we walked out onto the street. Immediately our eyes started watering and our mouth and nose started to burn. Tear gas. This wasn’t going to be a quiet trip to Alexandria.
We decided the only thing we could really do was get into a cab and try to get back to the hotel avoiding the protests. The cab driver took the long way around but we kept running into groups of protesters and having to change course. Our driver eventually gave up trying to and told us it was impossible for him to drive us back to the hotel which was two short blocks from the main protest area so we would have to walk the last few ourselves. We got out of the car, only to have every passing Egyptian tell us not to go in the direction of our hotel – great.
We eventually made it back with a few long pauses to let the protesters march by. Eventually we made it up to our room where we bunkered down, running out onto the balcony every time we heard the protests go past. It was really starting to get serious.
Initially, everyone was keeping the more rogue protesters in line but this was less and less effective throughout the day. Increasingly the groups of protesters were carrying large sticks and baseball bats and had taken to breaking things as they went. As the day wore on police riot shields and helmets started appearing in the crowds – trophies from their clashes with the police.
At one stage a group went past carrying a body above their heads. We didn’t need a reminder of the seriousness of the situation, but there it was.
As the afternoon wore on, huge black plumes of smoke appeared throughout the city and we started noticing small pieces of ash floating through the air. Some of the streetlights came on early as the sky darkened with smoke. The next morning the streets contained the burnt shells of the cars that had fed the fires.
As we sat down to eat dinner that first night in the hotel restaurant we rushed to the window when we heard a terrible scraping noise coming down the street, getting louder and louder. It was the sound of a tank’s caterpillar tyres on the asphalt. The military had been deployed.
The police had just disappeared although we got conflicting reports as to whether they had been instructed to do so by the government or if they had done so of their own volition. What ever the case, nearly every police station in the country had been set on fire and then looted for weapons and tear gas.
Surprisingly, most people in Egypt seemed to think that military intervention was a good thing and they are well respected. The same cannot be said of the police who are almost universally despised.
The protests continued the next day – Saturday – and on an even bigger scale, but this time the mood was celebratory. Before the protests started we went for a walk to see some of the sites in Alexandria (all of which were closed along with nearly every shop) and buy train tickets back to Cairo for the following day.
On the way back to our hotel we passed a coffee shop with CNN playing on their TV. Some locals changed the channel to an Arabic station shortly after, but CNN was on long enough for us to learn that the President, Mubarak, had appointed a new Prime Minister and totally reshuffled his ministry. Whilst it fell well short of what the protesters wanted, it was clear evidence that for the first time in this dictator’s 31 year reign, he was having to pay attention to the concerns of Egyptians.
The scenes on the street that day were really moving. Huge crowds – tens of thousands of people living under an oppressive dictatorship – all chanting, dancing and hugging in the streets. Many of them signalling to us to come down and join them (an offer we politely refused).
It really struck me how open everyone was about their displeasure with Murbarak. Everyone took the time to tell us how they had had enough of him and it was time for change – something I certainly didn’t hear last time I was in Egypt. In fact, it’s illegal to criticise the government. Many were apologetic that it has interrupted our holiday – they are all so hospitable – but all were genuinely pleased to hear that we supported their protests.
Later that afternoon a group gathered around a car with speakers on the roof, when the Call-to-Prayer went out. The group stopped, formed lines facing Mecca, and prayed. They then stood up, sang the National Anthem (or some presumably nationalistic song), and continued with their marching and chanting. Yet another moving scene.
As the tanks rolled down the street on the second day, they were met with cheers from the crowd. A few days later the military would make it clear that they were on the side of the protesters by announcing that they would not use force against any peaceful protesters which meant that hundreds of thousands later turned out on the streets of Cairo.
On that second night in Alexandria men stood guard at each intersection, armed with bats and sticks. It was quite intimidating however we later learned that they were just good citizens preventing looters from running riot.
We didn’t realise until that night that the bottom floor of our hotel was a Military Hospital which also happened to be where the military were taking people for interrogation. We made the mistake of thinking we’d be able to go out for dinner only to pass a particularly horrifying scene. When we got outside we were told that a curfew was in place and it wasn’t safe for us to be outside. In any case, nothing was open. So back past the interrogation we go. Ho hum.
We arrived back in Cairo the next day – Sunday – to find tanks at every major intersection, the burnt shells of police trucks and the city almost completely closed for business. Back at the hotel, we flicked on the telly to find every station was now broadcasting the state television station which included an English language version. Al Jazeera had been banned and it’s journalists kicked out of the country which was, interestingly enough, one of the news items on the Government’s propaganda channel.
Moreover the internet had simply been turned off for the past three days and mobile phones were only working intermittently.
Later that day, at about 4pm, two Mig Fighter Jets circled the city at very low altitude for about half an hour. It was deafening and the building shook.
So we phoned home and got a flight booked to Amman, Jordan. The flight was cancelled (as were most flights because the airlines couldn’t get enough staff together with the curfew in place). However that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We learnt later that day the King of Jordan sacked the countries entire government following widespread protests.
We arrived at the airport at 2:30 pm that day – Monday – because the curfew was in place from 3 pm to 8 am and our flight was at 8:30 am on the Tuesday which we would not have been able to get to if we left in the morning. Once our flight was cancelled we registered with Australian Consular Officials to get on the chartered flight scheduled to leave on the Wednesday and where I find myself now.
Many of the Reuters reports on the situation in Egypt I’ve read are running the following paragraph:
Egypt’s population of 80 million is growing by 2 percent a year. About 60 percent of the population — and 90 percent of the unemployed — are under 30 years old. About 40 percent live on less than $2 a day, and a third are illiterate.
It’s an appalling situation that Mubarak has let Egypt get into and the West must take some responsibility for its ongoing support of this dictatorship. These are the kind of statistics that damn a country for a generation. They are also the sort of statistics that set the stage for a government to be over thrown.
Politically, a really interesting facet of these protests is that there isn’t really any viable opposition party or movement as such. There isn’t one group organising these protests – it is a genuine grass roots outpouring – and it remains to be seen who will fill the political void in Egypt.
Mubarak actively outlawed opposition parties in Egypt which has left the country poltically bankrupt. The importance of opposition voices is hard to overestimate when considering the long term future of any nation-state. The only really viable opposition party in Egypt is the long-since-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood who have been linked to terrorist attacks (usually targeting tourists) and who do not enjoy widespread support but will surely benefit from these developments and Mubaraks opposition to pluralism. A pluralism the West seems only willing to support when it is convenient.
On reflection, elements of what I have seen over the past week, such as people taking the initiative and putting their bodies on the line to maintain peace (and undoubtedly, their own livelihoods), is evidence of the desire Egyptians have for control of their own destiny. They are ready to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the future of their country which is precisely what they have done with these protests. Inshallah.