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Caught in the Middle: SK couple ride out Egyptian revolution in their hotel room
McCormick Woods residents Robb and Jean Osborn were expecting their visit to Cairo, Egypt, during February to be as pleasant and uneventful as a previous vacation there a year earlier.
But that was before revolution broke out in the country and the couple — along with others on the same tour — were forced to spend a harrowing five days holed up in their hotel riding out the storm.
“If we thought there was serious unrest in Egypt, I don’t think we would have gone,” Jean Osborn said. “Our tour company obviously didn’t think it would be a big deal, either, because they didn’t cancel the tour.”
And sure enough, the first part of the excursion went according to schedule. The Osborns and their tour group got to Egypt on a Wednesday, did some sightseeing and sampled the local cuisine.
On Friday morning they visited the catacombs, but that was their final scheduled activity before riots forced them back into their hotel.
“I remember seeing big, black police vans with riot gear as we went back to the hotel,” Jean Osborn said, “and I remember thinking, ‘That doesn’t look good.’ We didn’t step outside again for five days.”
Protesters surged up and down streets on both sides of their hotel.
“We had a suite looking out over the Mediterranean,” said Robb Osborn, “and there was a six-lane highway between the hotel and the beach.”
If the Osborns looked almost straight down, about nine stories, from their room, they could see protesters, tanks and armored personnel carriers making their way along the road, called the Corniche.
“The first day, we saw a wave of people coming down the streets chanting,” Jean Osborn said.
At one point, people on the street-side of the hotel heard shots and saw someone being carried away, she said, apparently wounded.
At first, the police were fighting with the rioters, Jean Osborn said.
“When the army came in, they pulled the police off the streets. That wasn’t totally good.”
Groups of young men with sticks moved into the area and acted as vigilante police officers, trying to protect their neighborhoods.
“They would stop cars and check everybody,” Jean Osborn said.
“The security at the hotel was like going through an airport,” said Robb Osborn. “That was just the security for the hotel. I think they always have that.”
Jean Osborn said she liked the hotel they stayed in, the Maritim Jolie Ville.
“It was an older hotel that had been nicely renovated,” she said. “I think probably, in the middle of the summer, you’d pay a fortune to be there.”
While the Osborns were trapped inside, they “kind of perfected the art of passing time,” said Jean Osborn. “Our tour guides gave us lectures, we played cards, talked, read and made many new friends.”
Communication with the outside world was somewhat limited, but the tour group watched CNN, the BBC and English Al Jazeera and “kept well-apprised of what was going on,” Jean Osborn said.
They didn’t, however, have Internet access, and they didn’t have cell phone service for the first 24 hours of the protest.
“The tour company said they would pay for us to use the hotel’s land line, so we could call our family and let them know that we were all right,” she said.
“Being with a group of 48 well-traveled people helped keep our spirits up,” Jean Osborn said.
“You could name some obscure country, and there would be more than a few people who had traveled there. So they were used to some ‘inconveniences’ associated with traveling.”
Some in the group had been to more than 100 countries, and the Osborns have been to more than 65.
The group thought that they’d get to the airport by Tuesday, but police prevented them at the last second.
“They said it was not safe,” Jean wrote in a letter to her neighbors. “Very disappointing.”
They safely got to Old Alexandria Airport at 9:30 a.m. the next day, though.
The airport was “dirty, crowded, chaotic and hot,” Jean Osborn said, and “no one knew when the plane was coming for sure.”
“We were lucky because we could stay with the buses outside,” she said. “It was a beautiful day, and, like some old airports, it had gardens and palm trees.”
Robb and Jean walked around near tanks outside, which left the tourists alone.
The Osborns’ airplane didn’t leave until around 6 p.m. that night, and they tried to stay near the buses rather than in the airport, while they waited for it to arrive.
“It was just chaos in there,” Robb Osborn said. “You didn’t know where to go. The tour guides, who spoke Arabic, weren’t allowed to go there with us.”
But some may have had trouble getting to the airport, as well.
“We heard of people, at the airport, saying a taxi would take them a little way, and then stop and demand $100,” Jean Osborn said. “We were lucky that we had tour buses and drivers.”
The Osborns took a shuttle out to the chartered 737 for their group.
They breathed a sigh of relief when the door closed behind them. But it re-opened shortly thereafter.
“They said there were taxes that had to be paid, and we didn’t know who would pay them,” said Jean Osborn.
“I thought, ‘Someone’s going to have to physically drag me off of this plane, because I’m not getting off,’”Jean Osborn said.
But eventually the impasse was resolved and the plane took off for Leonardo DaVinci Airport, in Rome.
The tour company picked them up at the airport and took them to a hotel in Rome.
“It was 10 p.m., and they fixed us a hot pasta meal,” Robb Osborn recalled.
And from there, it took several more flights before they made it home.
“Once we got to JFK (Airport in New York), I knew we were going to get home,” Jean Osborn said. “If I had to rent a car and drive, I knew we were going to get home.”
She said that the journey made her appreciate the United States more than she had before.
“About one-quarter to one-third of the people aboard were being evacuated from Egypt,” Jean Osborn said. “When we took off, and when we landed, everyone was applauding.”
The Osborns went on a cruise down the Nile river about a year ago and enjoyed it.
Jean Osborn said she’d still recommend Egypt as a travel destination ‚Äî once the political unrest has died down.
But her husband said he’d pass on the experience.
“I don’t think we’re going to the Middle East again,” he said. “I just don’t think I want to risk it.”
Besides, they’ve already seen all of Egypt’s major attractions.
“Last year, in June, we went on a seven-night Nile river cruise, and we’ve already seen Cairo,” said Robb Osborn.
But the travel company, Overseas Adventure Travel, lived up to its name.
“It was a little more ‘adventure’ than we planned on,” Jean Osborn said, “but it turned out fine.”