It’s a great time to be stranded out there in the world. It’s almost impossible to be completely on your own in such a situation. Throughout my journey I was able to keep in touch with friends, family, and other stranded people, mainly through connecting to the Internet on my mobile phone. When I needed to make a quick phone call, I was always able to no matter where I was because I had my mobile phone on roaming.
Twitter was a God-send to me. Bharat got to calling me “Twitterer”, he saw me using it so often. I used Twitter for a variety of things. Before I decided to take the leap and make my journey back to Cairo over the European continent, I used Twitter to follow the latest updates by Heathrow Airport, Eurocontrol, and fellow Twitterers. By doing this, I kept up-to-date on the latest developments on the volcano eruptions and the reactions of airports and governments to them.
I also used Twitter to keep in touch with friends and fellow Tweeps. I asked for their opinions on what I should do and got lots of valuable feedback. When I eventually made my decision to leave London by land, fellow Tweeps, many of whom I have never met, helped out by sending me links to websites I could use to make train and plane reservations. They brainstormed with me on which routes I should take. While I was standing in the train station in Paris trying to decide where to go in Europe and what to do afterwards, friends on Twitter started getting in touch with travel agents to find suitable flights that could get me home.
Someone sent me a link to a Facebook group, When Volcanoes Erupt: A Survival Guide for Stranded Travelers, that was specially made for people stranded all over Europe because of the volcano. The group helped people get in touch with each other to pool resources and find company.
During my journey, I signed into Twitter and Facebook regularly to update people following me on my progress. It was comforting to know there were so many people out there urging me along and wishing me luck. I never felt alone.
Because of the Internet, Abdallah was able to email his travel agent in Canada to ask her to find flights for me. She was in turn able to find me a flight and send me the ticket by email. I was able to pay for my ticket over the phone.
Vodafone, my mobile service provider, called me up in the middle of my journey to tell me my Internet charges had reached 1000 Egyptian Pounds. They wanted to make sure I was aware my phone bill was piling up. I explained my situation. The man was very helpful. Although no decisions had been made as yet, when I returned to Cairo I could call them up and check to see if there was a possibility for a discount as a result of my exceptional circumstances. I also called Vodafone a couple of times to get phone numbers of Egyptian embassies. They were always very helpful.
I was disappointed, however, when I called up the Egyptian Embassy in London a couple of times to ask if they could help. Both times I was told there was nothing they could do. The second time I called I was in St Pancras Train Station in London on my way to Paris. I asked a woman at the Egyptian Consulate if they had any plans to help Egyptians get back home. They had none. I was told they had embassy staff trying to get home who were unable to. I asked if they did not even have vans that could transport Egyptians from one place in Europe to another. They had nothing. At the end of the conversation I asked them for two things: the phone number of the Egyptian Consulate in Paris in case I needed anything, and to take my name and mobile number so that I knew I had officially informed my embassy who I was, how to get hold of me, and what I was about to do. I gave the embassy lady my name and my phone number. “Is there any other information you feel I should give you,” I asked her. She said no. She didn’t ask for my Egyptian ID number or my passport number. And the message I was getting was none of that really mattered anyway.
I was also very disappointed when I called up Thomas Cook in Cairo while I was at Paris’ train station trying to find a way back to Egypt. I was desperate for help. I needed a plane ticket out of Europe to know where to head within Europe. I explained my situation to the person at Thomas Cook and said all I needed was for her to get me a flight and I’d send a family member to the office to pay for it. She seemed to look in her system for a few moments and told me there was nothing. I gave her options: check flights out of Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, and Milan. Check AlItalia, Iberia, EgyptAir, and indirect flights on other airlines. Her answer was, “I see them all in front of me. I see nothing.” Of course, I know there is no such thing as seeing all possible flights out of all European cities at the click of one button. The woman was lying to me. I asked her a final question: are you aware how I can reach Egypt by sea? She had no idea. Thomas Cook only made plane ticket reservations. I ended the phone conversation then and there. In the end, it was a travel agent in Canada of all places that found me a way out of Europe and back to Cairo. Zohra, you saved my life!
What angered me more was that I read while I was still in Italy that Egyptian travel agencies were helping out Europeans stranded in Egypt and unable to go back home. The European tourists’ costs of staying extra days in Egypt were being covered by the travel agencies, the news story read. So Egyptian travel agencies were able to go the extra mile for Europeans, but were unable to provide a little help for a stranded Egyptian woman all alone in Europe. That made me very angry.
In all fairness, I got a phone call from the Egyptian Consulate in London today. The woman I had spoken with wanted to make sure I was all right. “Have you found a way out of Europe?” she asked. I told her I was at home in Cairo safe and sound. Her phone call made a world of difference to me. But her initiative was a personal one. The fact remained that the Egyptian Embassy had no plans to help Egyptians out of Europe. The woman from the Embassy explained that all they really could do was help Egyptians who needed a Schengen visa get one. That allowed them to at least leave the UK and find means of travel from other European countries. I was one of the lucky few who already had a valid one-year multiple entry Schengen. Beyond that, there was nothing they could have done for me, she explained.
I still feel very lucky. Not much will change in Egypt for awhile. The lack of help I got from the Egyptian Consulate in London and Thomas Cook Egypt is part of a general state of corruption and inefficiency we have in our country. But what has changed on the larger world scene somewhat compensates for this at the individual level. With a few clicks, I had access to so much information and resources that with a bit of innovation I could solve my own problems without having to depend on the help of Egyptians.
For my safe return home, I am especially thankful to Giovanni of Italy, Abdallah of Canada/Tanzania, and Bharat of India. I know very little of their backgrounds or their personal stories. What I do know is they are all very decent people and I hope the best for them in their journeys through life.
And to my fellow Tweeps and Facebook friends, I bow down in reverence and gratitude for keeping me company on my long journey, urging me on, and giving me help. Thank you.