More than 48 hours had passed since Heather Narynski landed in the Cairo International Airport for what was supposed to be a three-hour layover, and the mood was getting tense.
“The local Egyptians were getting really frustrated,” remembers Narynski, who works as a geotechnical engineer in the Ministry of Transportation’s Nelson office. “People were all trying to race to get into the Egypt Air office, which was all barred off. People tried to climb through the bars, and were getting really angry.”
Two days earlier, trying to make her initial flight at the coastal Sharm el Sheikh International Airport, she’d been swept up in a mob rushing toward an airport door and chipped a front tooth. The trip had not improved from there.
The Cairo airport had run out of food, and for more than six hours run out of water as well. Other travelers had clearly been waiting even longer than her. And as a single female traveling alone, sleep was nearly impossible.
“At one point I just realized I was completely powerless,” she remembers. “I consider myself to be a decision maker and able to get through these processes. But I realized I had just no way of basic survival. Nothing.”
As Narynski walked out of the airport a few hours before the country’s new government-imposed 3 p.m. curfew dropped, a security guard tried to stop her.
“There’s nothing for me here,” she told him, before hailing a taxi and heading into the heart of the city.
LIFE IN PARADISE
Narynski had been in Egypt for nearly three weeks when the civil uprising that would lead to the resignation of longtime president Hosni Mubarak began. She’d originally intended to spend January in Sudan, visiting a family she befriended on a previous trip. However, she cut that portion of her trip short, after friends and family asked her to avoid the country during a southern referendum on secession set barely a week after her arrival.
A frequent traveller with an interest in the Middle East, she opted to spend the rest of her vacation studying Arabic in the small town of Dahab on the country’s southeastern shore.
As thousands of protesters massed in Cairo and other major cities, the Egyptian government shut down the internet and disabled text messaging across the country. The move was a red flag for Narynski, but with little information trickling into the town, she says it was difficult to gauge what was happening outside Dahab’s borders.
“I was right on the beach and life was great. So we don’t have internet, but it’s still paradise and you can eat fresh seafood every day while studying Arabic,” she says.
“You hear stories and stuff through the locals, but it’s hard to tell what’s right or correct, because no one really knows what’s going on and there’s no communication lines.”
In retrospect, her pre-booked flight home couldn’t have come at a worse time. Had she known what was waiting for her in Cairo, Narynski says she might simply have waited out the storm on the coast, enjoying a few more days on the beach.
IN THE HOT ZONE
The taxi from the airport would only take her so far into the city. When the driver dropped her off, Narynski still had a two kilometre walk ahead of her to reach the Canadian embassy.
“There were tanks everywhere. You’re literally touching them. You’re right in between them moving through,” she remembers. “There were jets flying overhead, a lot of army choppers, and very close—just slightly above my head... There were still remnants of burning buildings and burning cars. I think I passed about three cars burned to almost nothing.”
When she finally reached the embassy, she felt relieved. But it wouldn’t last long. Once inside, she learned the Canadian government was massing citizens for an evacuation flight later that day. She was going to have to head back to the airport.
It was then that one of her travel habits paid off. When she’s on the road, Narynski likes to talk to and make friends with local people, and on her flight to Cairo she’d done just that with a former Canadian immigrant named Haythm.
When they’d parted at the Cairo airport two days earlier, he’d tried to convince her to come stay with his family until the turmoil subsided. And when she called from the embassy, he agreed to get her back to the airport in time to leave the country.
“He was out after curfew. He could have been shot just for doing that, and he had to borrow somebody’s vehicle to come get me,” she says.
“He almost ran out of gas before we got to the airport, and he was trying to get to a gas station. The gas station was so full... so he drove me anyway to the airport. My guess is he didn’t make it back. Somewhere along the way, he would have run out of gas.”
Since her return to Nelson, Narynski has checked in with Haythm and his family—who made it through the conflict safely—but how he was able to get back to the city from the airport remains a mystery to her.
“When we parted I was in tears. I told him I’d never had someone do something like that for me,” she says.
“The first time I was in Egypt, I always said I’d never go back. It was actually one of the countries I least liked... he made up for everything. Every single person that cheated me, every person that was dishonest, just with his kind gestures.”
THE BEST MEAL
Back at the airport, the chaos had not subsided. Narynski headed for Terminal Three, where staff at the embassy told her the evacuation flight was taking place, but no one seemed to have heard of it.
She would spend the next several hours moving from terminal to terminal, running into other lost Canadians along the way—an elderly couple, vacationers coming off guided tours, a lawyer from Montreal.
“And we’ve all been told different information at this point by the embassy about which terminal it is,” she adds.
Another set of directions led them to Terminal One, where the Americans were massing their evacuation. Woozy from days without sleep and no food except a few apples given to her by the other Canadians, Narynski says she was about to give up when the group looked out and saw an Air Canada plan touch down on the runway.
“And Air Canada doesn’t fly into Cairo,” she says. “So you know it’s a flight that’s coming to take you away. The maple leaf on the tail and yes, we’re rescued. Everyone was cheering.”
Unfortunately, it was a plane she wouldn’t get to take. It would be several more hours before the group learned that the rest of the Canadian evacuees were being shuttled over from another terminal, and by the time they made it to the right location it was already on its way out of the country.
In the end, Narynski and her small band of stragglers shared a privately chartered flight out of the country with a handful of other lost Canadians and Australians. Though the plane was meant for more than 200, it only had about 40 passengers.
For Narynski, however, the greatest relief would come halfway through another long layover—this one in Amman, Jordan—when officials treated evacuees to in-flight dinners.
“I was over the moon,” she remembers. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to eat a plane meal in my life.”
FIVE DAYS LATER
From beginning to end, Narynski’s trip back to Nelson took five days. And though she walked into the thick of the Egyptian revolution, it’s the long days of waiting and powerlessness that have haunted her most.
Though she slept for 18 hours straight on her arrival, for the next few nights she found herself waking up, certain she was still in Cairo, and still at the airport.
“Every time it was always going back to being in the airport. Never did I go back to being in the heart of it all, where I was seeing the guns,” she says.
“Even though I might have been in a greater threat being where I was, exposing myself to the hot zone, I was actually being active. I was making a change for myself.”