Friday, June 18, 2010

Cairo: April 10-12, 2010

All material including photographs are ©2010 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

It was a gray morning, colder than usual for Los Angeles. The weatherman said it was going to rain the next week, so I was glad to be leaving town. I finally crawled out from under the covers at 11 and took a long, hot shower. I was leaving for Cairo at 9:30 p.m. that night and taking it as easy as possible before the coming ordeal. I'd gotten a great price ($2,300) for my flights and 10 nights in Cairo, but I had to pay in time with a 14-hour layover at JFK.

Lynda picked me up at 4 p.m. and dropped me off on the southeast side of Union Station, where I could catch the Flyaway bus to LAX.

Travel Info: During the day, the bus runs every 30 minutes on the hour. Late at night, they reduce the schedule to every hour. More information is available at: or call 1-866-435-952.

I just missed the 5 o'clock bus, so I had to wait until 5:30. I found the Flyaway kiosk, purchased a ticket for $7, and sat down to wait. A baggage attendant came over and asked how many bags I was checking and what airline I was going on. I said Delta and just the one.

The bus pulled up at 5:20. All four of the waiting passengers, including myself, queued up. We were quizzed one more time as to which bags belonged to whom and what airline we were using. A baggage handler positioned the bags for easy offloading and we were allowed to climb aboard.

The driver adjusted his seat and swung the door closed. The emblemless white behemoth pulled away from the curb, circled the plaza, and exited onto the city streets. We accelerated up the on-ramp to the Hollywood freeway, heading west. In a mile or so the bus merged onto the Harbor freeway south, and using the bus's size the driver inched his way across all four lanes of heavy traffic with unspoken intimidation. Once in the fast lane we settled back for the hour-long journey.

It was still a couple of hours until sunset but the towers of downtown were glistening with a smog-enhanced golden hue. The light bounced from the glass and steel structures onto the roadways filled with Los Angeles's over-abundance of motor vehicles. The golden glow seemed to lessen some of the harshness that was part of the nightly Angeleno's dance of trying to get somewhere.

It wasn't more than 20 minutes until we transitioned onto the 105 west. As we neared the airport, traffic slowed and the driver nudged his way into the right lane. The bus swung north onto Sepulveda Boulevard, staying in the right lane, which in a mile or so transitions into the entrance to the airport. We'd made it in just over 45 minutes.

Delta is in LAX's Terminal 5 and by the time we'd hit it, I was the only one left on the bus. I tipped the driver a buck for pulling my bag out of the luggage compartment, then hefted across the pick-up lane into the terminal. It had been a couple of years since I'd traveled on a domestic carrier, and things had changed. Inside were a lot of check-in electronic kiosks and a counter for "Bag Drop Off." I wasn't sure what to do, but I got into the bag line because there was a human being at the other end.

When I got to the front I handed the agent my passport and a print-out of my Delta itinerary, telling her I wasn't sure I was in the right place. She looked at my documents and assured me that I was. During the check-in process, she became concerned that I didn't have a current Egyptian visa, but I assured her that I could purchase one upon arrival. She was still apprehensive and had to check with a supervisor. 15 minutes later everything was straightened out and I checked my one bag and got my boarding pass to New York's JFK. They couldn't issue the boarding pass for JFK to Cairo because of my "god-awful" layover: Delta hadn't finalized the gates yet. I'd have to get my next boarding pass at JFK. I told her that I was thinking about buying a day pass at the Delta lounge so I'd have somewhere to stay during the layover; she thought that was a great idea and told me that agents in the lounge could issue the boarding pass for the second half of my trip.

I was ahead of the evening rush, so security was a breeze. I took off my metal items and outer jacket and walked through the check point while they inspected my computer and cameras. After redressing and repacking my bags, I moved down to the south end of the terminal where Gate 54A is located.

The light there was a little dim. After adjusting the ISO on my 5D to 6400, I snapped off a few shots of the gate and the amenities that were available. The 5D was low on battery power and conveniently there was a complimentary Samsung charging station at the gate entrance, so I got out the charger, loaded the battery, and plugged it in.

After an hour I was getting restless and the charging indicator had barely moved, so I unplugged everything and headed up the ramp to get some dinner. I had a Mac Snack Wrap and a small Diet Coke. I returned to the gate and the charging station.

Delta pushed the flight back a quarter hour to 9:45. By the time they called for boarding, the waiting area was brimming over with anxiety.

When my section was called, I presented my boarding pass and moved down the airway onto the 737. Once on board, I crossed over to the right side of the plane and headed toward the tail, looking for 39D. Just as I about to sit, a male flight attendant asked if I'd mind changing seats with a lady who wanted to be with her family. I said it was fine with me as long as it was an aisle seat. I moved to 43E and got both my bags up in the overhead bins. I put both bottles of water I had purchased in the seat pocket in front of me and sat back, ready to face the next six hours.

We got to Kennedy a little before 6 a.m. on April 11. My flight to Cairo wasn't scheduled to leave until 9:45 p.m. that night.

After exiting the plane, I stopped at the first counter that had an available agent and asked for directions to the Delta lounge. He told me to go around the corner and take the elevator up to the fourth floor.

Travel Tip: If you use a Delta American Express credit card to purchase a Delta Lounge Day Pass, they cut the price from 50 bucks down to 25. Not a bad savings, and you have a secure place to spend 14 hours with free drinks and a few questionable snacks.

When I got to the lounge, I handed the agent my itinerary print-out and credit card. He also asked to see my boarding pass. I explained that Delta LA hadn't issued me one because of the length of my layover here at JFK. He punched a bunch of stuff into the computer and stared at the screen for a while, then finally said not to worry, just to come back to the desk after 6 p.m., when the gate should be finalized and they could print out my boarding pass for the next segment of my journey.

The lounge had just opened for the day and only had a couple of other patrons. I found an unoccupied computer desk, piled up all my stuff next to it, unzipped my MacBook out of its neoprene sleeve, and hooked up to the internet. I checked messages. Finding that I didn't have any, I then used the outlets at the desk as a charging station, filling up the computer and extra camera batteries. I pulled out my Canon 1DS Mark III and started shooting pictures of the lounge while it was still relatively empty. After shooting several different views of JFK through the lounge windows, I put the camera down and ordered a Diet Coke, grabbed a raisin bagel, and returned to the desk I'd appropriated. Dozing on and off, I moved in and out of a Westernized zen state for the next 11 hours. Thank God I have a few movies on my computer and iPod. The Watchmen were getting a workout.

At 6:30 I went up and got my boarding pass. My flight was leaving out of JFK's Terminal 3, Gate 14. That was only one floor down and a couple of gates away. I head down at 7 and stopped at Burger King to grab a Whopper Jr. Combo for dinner. I also made a pit-stop at one of the many sundries stores to get a couple of extra bottles of water. Flying always dehydrates me, and I just can't get enough water out of the flight attendants, so I always try to bring some along. That is, when Homeland Security will let you.

It took forever for 8:45 to roll around and boarding to begin. Once the flight was called it was very hard to keep order during the boarding process. The overriding Egyptian philosophy of life is to make your own way. That's the way they drive and that's the way they board planes. I was in seat 39F, which isn't a good seat because there is emergency equipment in the overhead bin, so I had to find another space for my camera bag and computer.

The plane was packed again, not one empty seat. My seatmate arrived just before they closed the doors. A retired doctor from Kentucky, he was going to Cairo to participate in a bridge tournament. He participated in tournaments a couple of times a year which allowed him to play with and against people from around the world. The last games were held in Croatia and he was eager to see how the Egyptian style of play would compare. We had one attendant who from her accent was from Australia or New Zealand, who dubbed us her favorite passengers. She was just being kind to a couple of old codgers.

At least on international flights they still provide meals, which aren't the best but they give you something to look forward to on these interminably long flights. There were three unhappy babies within three rows of my seat who cried most of the way, making it impossible to sleep, for most everyone.

After eleven hours of passive torture we landed in Cairo. It was just after 3 p.m. on April 12, 2010. It was a bright, sunny day as we deplaned. At this international airport your plane parks on the tarmac and you are bused to the terminal.

The first thing you need to do upon arrival is to purchase a visa at one of the banks just inside the terminal. A 30-day tourist visa costs $15. I plunked down a hundred dollar bill and asked for a visa and my change in Egyptian pounds. The conversion rate was 5.5 Egyptian pounds to one U.S. dollar. Which means that after I paid for the visa, I got back 467 pounds in change.

Delta hadn't been given arrival cards for this flight, so I had to hunt around in the passport control area to find one and then fill it out before I could get in the passport control line.

Travel Tip: When the form asks for occupation I always put down "artist." If you put down something like photographer, filmmaker, or reporter, you will have to go through an extra screening to make sure that you aren't on the undesirable list.

After that control, it was on to the baggage area. I grabbed one of the free baggage carts and stood around waiting for the conveyer belt to disgorge the contents of the plane's belly. My bag had been on the ground for 14 hours at JFK and that's never a good thing. I am always worried that one of the baggage handlers will have enough time to go through my stuff. As time passed and I didn't see my bag, I began to get worried, but on the last round it showed up and I heaved it off the belt and onto the cart and headed for the exit. The official patted my bag and asked what the hard spot was. I replied it was a tripod and he passed me on. There are always a few limo shills at the exits. One of them asked where I was going and what I thought it should cost. I said the Hilton Residence on the Nile Corniche and it should cost 90 pounds (under 20 dollars). He agreed, and escorted me out to a line of Mercedes. I made sure that the driver understood where we were going, then let the shill open the rear door for me. I used to ride in the passenger seat, but I found that it makes a lot of the drivers uncomfortable, so now I just get in back and act like a big wig.

It's about an hour's ride from the airport to downtown. It's not that far, but the traffic here is some of the worst in the world.

Travel Tip: When you stop at a red light, you need to keep the windows rolled up, otherwise the exhaust fumes will be overpowering.

The Hilton World Trade Center Residence is hidden away. The address is on the Nile Corniche, but it's on the back side of the trade center surrounded by a high wall, which makes it hard to spot. We got there after a couple of tries, a little after 5 p.m. The limo driver congratulated himself on finding the place, and I handed over a hundred-pound note and congratulated him on his navigational skills. Things in the lobby were pretty lax; I even had to carry my own bags inside, which never would have happened in the old days at the Nile Hilton.

I gave them my passport and said that I had a reservation. The desk clerk said that they had my prepaid reservation and that they had upgraded me to a two-bedroom suite on the 19th floor. This place is a really nice place, but it is 25 years old and just a bit shabby in spots. It's that Cairo patina, a rundown decadence that can be very endearing. The desk clerk called for a bell boy, who took me and my bags up to the 19th floor.

The bell boy open the door to the suite, and I was flabbergasted. The place was giant! It consisted of a living room with flat-screen, dining area, kitchen, office, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large balcony. I tipped the bell man (five pounds) and closed the door.

Once I was by myself, I noticed that there was a very loud noise coming from a utility closet in the kitchen. It was almost as loud as the skyscraper construction site next door, and proved to roar day and night. It was an enclosed unit, with a single entrance to the bedroom and bath. The unit had another large flat-screen and a giant room safe, large enough to fit my computer and extra camera gear.

I washed my face and hands and opened the windows. I needed to stay awake until 8 p.m., when I'd take a Xanax and go to bed hoping my circadian clock would adjust.

To the south of my bedroom window they are building a new skyscraper, with all the inherent noise that that entails. I left the window open to help stimulate my senses, hoping I could stay awake until my bedtime.

I ordered room service at 6:30, my usual spaghetti and a Diet Coke, except they only carried Pepsi products, so I had to settle for a Diet Pepsi. It came 30 minutes later and I scarfed it down, then showered, took a Xanax along with my blood pressure medicine, locked all the doors, and got into bed.