Photo: Me, Rosaline, and Sherif at the Cairo airport
After nearly 11 months of travel, it finally happened – I finally reached the end of my rope. Thanks to Egypt Air and Royal Air Maroc Airlines – I nearly had a nervous breakdown that was colossal. I actually had visions of me ending up in a Moroccan jail, arrested by the airport police in Casablanca. This incident actually happened over a week ago – but it was such a sour, terrible experience that I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it until now. I had to step away and collect my thoughts a bit first…so here’s my story of 2 shitty airlines, an inept airport hotel, non-existent customer service, living in the same clothes for 3 days, shedding many tears, making 2 great friends, and experiencing the largest cultural difference that I have faced yet – this is the story of how I got from Morocco to Egypt.
I left Marrakech bound for a flight to Cairo Egypt. I was to arrive in Cairo on Sunday morning early which was perfect as my tour that I was to meet up with started on Sunday night. The Egypt tour group was to meet for dinner that night at our hotel and then early the next morning we were touring around Cairo – I was finally going to be able to see the Pyramids! I had booked my air ticket through Royal Air Maroc who flew me from Marrakech to Casablanca. I had a 4 hour layover in the Casablanca airport and then hopped an overnight flight from Casablanca to Cairo on a Royal Air Maroc flight operated by Egypt Air. Thankfully my bags had been checked through to Cairo so I didn’t have to lug anything around other than my carry-on which included my laptop, camera, passport holder and a book or two. I worked on catching up on my writing while sitting around at the airport, and I worked at spending my remaining dirhams since I wasn’t expecting to be back in Morocco anytime soon! In fact – I was rather proud of myself for spending every last dirham I had at the little café on 3 bottles of water, gum, and M&M’s. In fact, I was actually short by one dirham and the nice boy behind the counter at the café just let it ride. Perfect! I was ready to go to Egypt!
I boarded the plane, excited to have some downtime to simply listen to music and read and sleep. The plane wasn’t full so I had my whole row to myself…a great perk for an overnight flight! Things were looking great! We taxied out to the runway, and you could hear a weird noise – but I had my itunes on listening to the Digital Photography Show Podcast – perfectly happy in my geeky photography world. It appeared that we turned the corner and were about ready to take off down the runway – but we stopped instead. Little did I know that this signified the beginning of the end. We sat for about 10 minutes with the weird noise still ringing throughout the aircraft. Then the crew/captain came on the loudspeaker and said something in Arabic, and then repeated it in French. I wasn’t really too concerned as I watched the reactions of the passengers around me – they all seemed a little annoyed, but they just stayed seated and kept on reading – I decided that I would follow their lead. About an hour later, I was starting to get annoyed and restless. We still hadn’t moved and it was now 1AM and I was getting tired. Soon we had another announcement – in Arabic and French and now everyone around me wasn’t ok…in fact – they seemed rather upset and started to get up and get their items out of the overhead. I still didn’t know what was going on – but I followed the crowd and removed my items and followed people off the plane in a sleepy haze. There were airport buses waiting for us and everyone got in a bus and were bussed back to the terminal. Obviously – this flight wasn’t going anywhere tonight…crap. It wasn’t the end of the world as I had an extra day in Cairo anyway before my tour started – so if I made it there later in the day – no problem. I liked my new laid back attitude…3rd world countries make you patient…and I felt like I had successfully stripped my high strung NY attitude and achieved patience successfully in Morocco. However, since I was tired, I was mildly annoyed with the whole situation. As I got off the bus and followed the rest of the passengers back to the terminal I was rather fed up with the fact that I really had no idea what was going on. I was worried that I was going to be sleeping on the airport floor; and let me tell you, there’s nothing in the Casablanca airport besides one (yes one) electrical plugs, a few worthless shops, and smokers (you can smoke all over Morocco). The prospect of sleeping in the airport was not a good thought.
As we re-entered the terminal, there were some men passing out arrival/departure customs cards….now wait a minute…I was really confused now. I decided to start using my vocal chords at this point. As the guy handed me the card, I asked him if he spoke English. He motioned me over to the side to wait (for someone who spoke English to come talk to me presumably). I got fed up with waiting while everyone on the plane passed me, and finally butted in again and asked him if he could explain to me what was going one and why were they giving us customs cards again. He told me to follow everyone and that someone from the airline would be out to talk to us. He also mentioned something about sending us to a hotel. So I kept on following the crowd to customs, loosing my patience slowly. I filled out the card and we all queued up again and they basically voided our previous Morocco departure stamp in our passport and admitted us back into the country as if we never left. By this time it was now about 1:45AM, and my annoyance and sleepiness level increased another notch. I finally found someone again and whiningly asked them what was going on. They told me to wait and someone would explain. Apparently the whininess of my English attracted some other English speakers because we all started to gather together…all 4 of us. We expressed confusion about the whole situation – no one knew what was going on, but everyone thought we were being sent to a hotel. As we were all commiserating together, one of the Australian women next to me, Rosaline, said something about the fact that her tour started tomorrow and she was worried about missing it. I said – “yeah, me too.” As we continued this miserable exchange, we came to realize that we were actually both booked on the same tour in Egypt with Intrepid! It was really a weird coincidence that we had both been in Morocco touring and now we were both heading to Egypt on the same day to start the same tour. Hell, we were probably slotted to be roommates in Egypt for all we knew – and here we met in the Casablanca airport at 2AM! We did introductions and stayed together as we followed the crowd back out to the departure area and out of the airport to 2 big buses. Since we were talking, I don’t think that I was really thinking to much about what was really happening and that no one from the airline seemed to be present – instead, I just followed the crowd and talked to Rosaline about her Morocco trip. I have no idea who was leading us out to the buses, an airport employee of some sort, but no airline representative was to be seen – this should have been my first red flag…but I was tired, and missed this first clue. Maybe my dream of working as a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ private detective was really a little too lofty for me. I obviously wasn’t paying close attention.
Rosaline and I stayed by each other’s sides because we both needed to get to Cairo for the same reasons, and we both spoke English! We sat on one of the buses for a long time – another 20 minutes passed and the crowd really started to get cranky. No one was telling us any more than the fact that we were going to a hotel. At this point I also realized that I didn’t have my luggage…shit. Sure, I had my carry-on’s, but my luggage had been checked and was on the plane. When you are a world nomad like myself – your suitcase becomes the only thing you are responsible for – it is your life, your home, your identify sort of like a homeless person with their shopping cart. You lose that shopping cart and you are really screwed. Annoyance turned up one more notch. The thought of not having my suitcase by my side that night made me really, really jumpy. As the crowd was getting rowdy on the bus, Rosaline and I started to get a bit more worried as we still had no idea why we were on the bus, where we were going, when we were coming back, if we’d every see our luggage again, or who was paying for our hotel. People were yelling around us in Arabic; we made the comment to each other that we didn’t understand what was going on. The worst is that you don’t know what happening and you don’t know if that’s due to the language barrier or if it’s because no one is providing any info to anyone. You start to assume that it’s the language barrier and believe that everyone else knows what’s going on. However, this lovely young Arabic man in the seat ahead of us turned around and explained to us in perfect English that we were being taken to a hotel and that no one had provided any additional information at this time. Rosaline and I thanked him and then looked at each other and mouthed that we needed to keep this translator around…we knew that he would be invaluable in this crazy escalating situation. Finally at 3AM the buses started moving and we went about 7 minutes to the Atlas Airport Hotel…my cell for the next 2 days.
As we entered the hotel, I knew this was not going to be a good situation – there were about 40 very angry people and 1 man at the front desk. The check-in procedure was painful – pulling teeth without novacane would have been more fun. Everyone attacked this man behind the counter for a room. Yelled at him, and crowded around. Even though I was dead tired – I didn’t feel like getting caught up in the craziness – instead I was pre-occupied with making a mental list of what items I had with me in my carry-on bags and what was in my luggage that was not with me. I think I was going through all of the worst-case scenarios in my head – what if I never saw my luggage again, etc. The only real necessity that I was missing for the night was a toothbrush and toothpaste – so it wasn’t the end of the world – in fact, I had my really important, expensive things with me – camera, lenses, laptop, ipod, cell phone, and passport/travel wallet. I even had a breath freshener spray…so the lack of a toothbrush wasn’t a big deal. However at that time I also realized that I had no Moroccan money anymore as I had gotten rid of it all. I wasn’t too thrilled about that – but I had assumed that the airline would take care of us and tomorrow we would leave sometime, no problem.
Rosaline, Sherif (our translator), and I sat in the lobby of the Atlas Airport Hotel while about 40 people duked it out at the front desk yelling and screaming at each other. I had found my inner-peace again, or maybe I was just exhausted, but I just sat there and waited – for another hour. Soon the line died down and I got up and eventually they gave us all keys to our own rooms, and we went to bed around 4:30AM…exhausted. I was mildly concerned that I really had no idea when we were leaving tomorrow but the front desk said they would call us in the morning with the information. Mind you…this was just the hotel staff telling us that – no airline representative was ever present – yet because we are human – we want to believe in people, so I fooled myself into thinking that the hotel staff must know what they are talking about. I’m sure that we’ll leave sometime tomorrow on another flight. Worst case scenario, we will be put on tomorrow night’s nightly flight to Cairo and I will be one day late. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t the end of the world either. If I was delayed exactly one day, that would mean that I would arrive in the early morning on Monday and I would hook up with my tour group on day one. The tour was scheduled to go see the Pyramids that first morning – the whole reason I was coming to Egypt – so I didn’t want to miss that! I fell asleep, a little uneasy with the whole situation, but exhaustion took over.
The next morning I awoke early, at 7:30 – due to the mild stress of the situation no doubt. I took a shower, tried to brush my teeth with my finger and my Listerine spray, and waited until 8AM to call the front desk to see what was going on. I had somehow thought that the front desk would for sure have some information for us by now. The airline should have a new plan and I wanted to know what it was so that I could go about making the necessary phone calls to Intrepid, my tour company, and let them know what was going on. I called the front desk, told them that I arrived last night on the late, cancelled flight and asked for an update. For the first time of many, they said “Sorry, Miss, we have not heard from the airline.” I was taken aback by this a bit, and asked when they expected to hear from them. They said that they should know more by 9AM. Ok, that’s wasn’t too far off, so I decided to ask the next big question on my mind…”will you be feeding us breakfast?”
Rosaline, Sherif, and I met in the lobby at 8:30, received our breakfast vouchers at the front desk and had breakfast. We got to know each other a little better over bread and butter (the typical breakfast in Morocco). Sherif was 21 years old, from Cairo. He was a tennis player – ranked 3rd in Egypt – and he had been in Morocco for a tournament. He had actually traveled all over the world playing tennis, which explains his flawless English skills. He told us about Cairo as we mentally started our tour through his information. After breakfast we went back out to the front desk and asked about the status of the cancelled flight and when we would be leaving. We got the same answer, “We have not heard from the airline.” I was visibly disappointed and Sherif stepped in and talked to them in Arabic. He didn’t get any further with the conversation unfortunately – but they told us that we should just be patient and the airline would call them when we were supposed to go.
I decided to stay calm, and do the next best thing – I asked them about internet access as I had seen a wireless router on the wall of the lobby. They had free internet…the one redeeming factor of the whole situation. I knew that if I could get online, I could get information. The web is my friend, and it ended up being my savior. I checked email, did some writing, while Rosaline and Sherif went back to bed. Sure, the hotel was very nice – just like your typical airport hotel – good, clean rooms, bad food, swimming pool, bar. However – we didn’t have our luggage, and I had no Moroccan money with me – so the pool just taunted us, as well as the bar. Noon came around, my teeth were getting really icky now, and I was getting more and more concerned about the fact that we hadn’t heard any info. I went to the front desk again…still no info, but they gave me a lunch voucher. The 3 of us went to lunch again and now all we talked about was what was happening, or not happening with our flight. Sherif had talked to his parents in Cairo, and they said that the Egypt Air office at the Cairo airport said that the flight was delayed and that it would be leaving Casablanca shortly…ha. We went back to the front desk after lunch, well fed, but more annoyed than ever, and was much more forceful when asking for information. They kept on reassuring me that they had been calling the airport but they had no further information about our flight, they ensured us that they would contact us when they had any info.
Is your skin crawling yet….because this is when my skin started to crawl.