Through the Hajj and Beyond

I'm back home and wanted to share some of my non-Cairo adventures:

My trip to Wales started at 4:35 a.m. when the expeditor we had hired was scheduled to pick me up. I dutifully was packed and ready, but not necessarily pert and chatty, and waiting for him outside by the guard shack. Even as I stood there in the dark at 4:30 a.m., I could feel the sweat start to gather.

The ride to the airport was wonderfully uneventful and expeditious – there was very little traffic on the roads. The airport is located out past City Starts Mall, but even so my driver made it to the first airport sign in about 20 minutes. It took another 10 minutes to wind our way through the construction rubble and I was definitely grateful that we had not attempted this on our own as there were no signs anywhere. Luckily he obviously knew where he was going. Finally we pulled up to the airport and I was immediately surprised to see how busy it was.

At this point I was handed off to the airport-expeditor who wound me through the throngs, through security (which all passengers are funneled through before even getting to the ticket desks), and up to some random ticket desk where my bag was checked, my boarding ticket printed, and I was handed off to yet another expeditor person. This one took my passport and ticket up to the passport window and told me to wait just beyond it. He got my passport stamped, handed everything to me, and the two expeditors wished me well, only after apologizing for the masses of people and telling me that it was always like this during “The Hajj.”

Oh, right. The Hajj. In addition to fasting and feasting, Ramadan is also the time that Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. So at 5:30 in the morning it was me and hundreds (thousands?) of devout Muslims crowded into the Cairo airport. Aside from the obvious, it was easy to tell us apart. Muslims traveling to Mecca wear all white, and it doesn’t seem to matter what manner of clothing, just as long as it’s white. I saw beautiful white linens, white scarves, white gallibayas, and even white towels (in a range of distress, I might add) held up by large safety pins. They all carried a small bag and many of the women walked around the airport with it balanced on their head (I still find this delightfully fascinating and so impressive).

I walked through the airport, past the duty-free shops selling perfume and chocolates and toys (no liquor); past seats filled to overflowing with the white-clad just waiting around; past those who overflowed sitting, lying and sleeping on the hard, cold, (not to mention, less-than spit-spot clean) airport floor. I got to my gate, which was located at the end in a circular area, with six gates spaced around a central food-court. Here also the people were piled about. I managed to find a chair and settled in.

I attempted to read, but I was in that early-morning haze and kept getting distracted by the activities around me. There was a lot of bustling about, wandering, chatting, talking, mingling, and after about ten minutes those who were mingling started to rouse those who were sleeping (some on the floor, some stretched out on chairs). As the sleepers awoke and joined the minglers, the noise levels increased. Everyone seemed excited and eager and very happy, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in an airport so noisy – thinking about it, unless you’re a rowdy group of teenagers, there seems to be this reverential attitude for airports, you don’t yell, scream, or even talk loudly. Not so in my surrounding area. This hive of activity only increased as the boarding process began. I swear I heard women making the high-pitched ululation cry. At this same time, a man came up to me and asked if I was on the British Air flight to London (how did he guess?), and told me that it had switched gates. Another woman near me also got up and started walking around the circle to the new gate, but she stopped and suggested we try the other way as this was blocked by a teeming throng of overly-excited Mecca-bound white-clothed pilgrimagers, so I agreed and followed her the other way.

We chose seats near our new gate and a few others soon joined us. We were in direct view of the boarding meleé to Mecca. The woman near me laughed a little and said, “Look at the poor guard, holding his hands up trying to get everyone to calm down.” I have to admit, I didn’t really find anything amusing. It was a bit like being on the sidelines of a riot boiling up to full strength. (NOTE: The concept of lining up or queuing or just plain mob courtesy isn’t really adhered to in Egypt. Even in grocery stores, people will try to shove in front of you. I don’t think it’s done with ill-intent, I just think in a city of 20 million people, waiting your turn seems like an eternity, so whether you’re driving, walking, shopping, or boarding a train, plane or camel, you shove to the front. I have managed to embrace the art of human Frogger, but I sincerely hope I never embrace the shove-ahead method (I find standing your ground takes an equal amount of fortitude and is less rude).)

The flight to Mecca boarded without bloodshed and suddenly the airport din diminished to normalcy. There were only a few people milling about, however the piles of trash that were left behind were astronomical. I watched with great Jane-Goodall-like interest at the trash collecting methods that were being employed. The cleaner would approach a pile of water bottles and pick up just a few, then would move on to the next pile, all the while skipping over trash along the way. It was mystifying. I was sitting next to a plant and it took four separate visits for all of the debris in the plant to be collected (and the cleaners had large garbage bags, brooms, rolling carts, etc., so they were amply prepared). At one point, an airport official (recognized because he was wearing a tie) told the cleaners to clean up the area around the gate, so the woman came promptly over to where we were sitting, the one area with people I might add, and started sweeping up under our seats, causing us all to lift our legs up and swing them around wildly, dragging our carry-ons from side to side. At one point she inadvertently swept the broom across the top of my foot and I had immediate visions of scabies, typhoid or rheumatic fever leeching into my skin.

The boarding of our flight was far less exciting than that to Mecca, but we had a lot of Brits heading home and let’s be honest, unless it’s a football match, Brits are just so damn polite (it’s lovely). The flight itself was excellent (I’m becoming quite a fan of British Air). I found myself at one point looking out the window to see all the way down to a body of water and land approaching. Checking my personal TV screen I could watch our progress and saw that we were just flying over the Adriatic Sea into Italy (ahh, Venice, I shall see you soon if my plans come to be…). I watched as we flew directly over the Alps, seeing lakes of deep blue between vast green mountains and snow-capped peaks, across Zurich and France and onto the coast of the English Channel. The clouds were almost non-existent so I could see boats (granted, probably very large ones) on the Channel, smaller planes flying below us, and then finally the coast of England. We flew over the south-east coast, but I still found myself peering into the west to see if I could catch a glimpse of Weymouth where my mother grew up. I like to believe that I could see it.

Arriving at Heathrow was like walking into a newly-opened hospital. Everything was quiet and oh-so-clean. I got through customs in a flash, retrieved my bag, and was out in airport central within minutes. It was beautiful! There were huge windows looking out into bright clean air, lovely trees, periodic sun (it is England), and it was cool, quite cool in fact. My mother had forewarned me to bring wet-weather shoes and a sweatshirt – and as mothers tend to be, she was right.

The plan was to get a bus/coach to Newport in Wales. Mom had pre-purchased ithe ticket for me so I was supposed to be able to just plug in my confirmation code and print out a ticket. Always sounds so easy, doesn’t it? The machine wouldn’t acknowledge me, so I had the man help me. He printed the ticket, and told me where I could go to pick it up. I had about an hour to wait so I called Mom to verify I’d arrived, then wandered off to get a spot of lunch (lovely Marks & Spencers (M&S) with their food to go shops). I ate my lunch then wandered over to the bus stops to wait for my coach (like a Greyhound). A woman in a reflective vest came up to me and asked to see my ticket (you’d never think an electric yellow reflective vest would command authority, but it really does). She looked at my ticket and told me I’d missed the bus. I was 15 minutes early! She said that my ticket was actually for a different pick-up point, so I needed to get there to catch my bus. No one told me! But there was another bus in 30 minutes so I’d just have to switch my ticket. I stomped back to the bus counter and expressed my sincere displeasure at the mix-up. They were semi-apologetic, however tried, unsuccessfully, to point out that I should have seen on the ticket where it said Central Station, not Terminal 5. I counter-pointed out that the dippy man had not only circled the time, indicating when I needed to catch the bus, but also wrote down the bus stop number where I should catch it, not at Central Station. Then they had the audacity to try to charge me an additional £5! Oh no, not having that! I think in an effort to just get rid of the demanding American, they gave in and just printed the new ticket.

The coach ride was pleasant enough. I sat next to a very nice elderly lady who was also heading to Newport. We chatted a little, she’d been visiting her cousin for the day outside of London and was heading home, and like me, had missed the earlier coach. She was very sweet, but had rather pungent breath, and there’s nothing like having a conversation with someone less than a foot away whose breath reminds you of skunks, to make you less-than-chatty.

The scenery was lovely though. The green was oh-so-green! Rolling green hills, bordered with dark green shrubs and trees, creating nature’s patchwork. With intermittent fluffy white spots of happy sheep (fat and woolly), or grazing cattle or meandering horses wearing their cold-weather blankets. Flashing back to the poor sheep, cows and horses I’d left in Cairo, I actually smiled at these sights, instead of feeling heartbroken.

I did get a glimpse of one bunny, and was utterly delighted, but kept my cool so as to not frighten or worry my fellow coach passengers. But he was a wonderful brown cottontail, sitting up perfectly, big ears up giving the perfect bunny profile. Thank you – wildlife spotting has been achieved.