A Fort Frances bush pilot said he feels honoured to have witnessed history after an ordinary vacation to Egypt ended up with him caught in the midst of an uprising that has leapt onto the world stage.
“It will be stories to tell my great-grandchildren—hopefully I’ll live that long,” reflected Tristan Hutton, who had travelled to Egypt on Jan. 20 to visit his sister, who was posted at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo.
But he ended up being amongst the first Canadians evacuated as the country was wracked by protests against the government of president Hosni Mubarak.
“I’ve been kind of a little worried for my sister,” admitted Hutton, though noting she was due to be back in Canada yesterday.
“Hopefully the situation can be resolved, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be an easy sell,” he remarked.
“You don’t get rid of a despot like that for 30 years in a couple of weeks.
“There’s going to be lots of fighting, a lot more people are going to die, it’s unfortunate,” Hutton added, noting that in the short time he was in the country, he met a lot of nice, friendly people.
“You hope it will be a better place for them after all this is done—that’s kind of where my heart is right now.”
Hutton stressed he was never caught up in a protest, opting instead to take a “fly on the wall” approach as events unfolded, and not even taking photos.
Upon first arriving in Egypt, he witnessed a few protests but they weren’t severe, he explained. So he spent his first week doing “the tourist thing,” such as visiting the pyramids and other sites.
This included heading to Luxor on the Thursday evening before the Friday afternoon (Jan. 28) when “everything blew up” in Cairo.
“When we got back to Cairo late [Saturday] evening, it was in lockdown,” Hutton recalled, noting a curfew was in place, their hotel locked down so no one could get in and out, and the army encircling the airport to create a buffer zone between it and potential protestors.
Driving through the streets of Cairo, they were met with barricades at all the intersections, created from cars parked sideways, fires built in the middle of the streets, and bricks or toppled over lamp posts, he described.
They were manned by 10-20 people young and old—armed with baseball bats, golf clubs, machetes, and even a few AK-47s and sawed-off shotguns.
“We thought we were going to get jostled and beaten and hit and all that, but it soon appeared clear to us who these people were,” Hutton recounted, explaining these barricades had been set up by people in these neighbourhoods to protect themselves from bandits and looters who had come into the streets since the police presence had “completely melted away.”
At each barricade, their Canadian passports proved they weren’t at threat, Hutton said, so they were allowed to pass until they were able to reach the Maadi suburb, where many of the Canadian Embassy personnel resided (and where they stayed overnight).
The following morning (Jan. 30), they made their way to the embassy. By then, many of the barricades had been taken down, with Hutton describing the morning as “serene” and quiet—even compared to normal traffic the city sees.
At the embassy, it was decided his sister would be among the evacuees. But at this point, the federal government didn’t deem the situation dire enough to warrant the evacuation of travelling citizens like himself—so Hutton was on his own to make travel plans.
Thankfully, he was able to phone home using the embassy’s secure line, at which time he learned that Delta Airlines had cancelled all flights out of Cairo, including his originally-scheduled return flight.
With a cancelled flight and violence breaking out in parts of Egypt, it was at this moment Hutton decided to “Get the hell out of Dodge” before the situation became any worse and leaving wasn’t possible.
Back home in Fort Frances, Hutton’s wife, Penny, was able to book him out of Cairo on an Air France flight to Paris the next day, with connecting flights to Minneapolis and then International Falls.
But faced with the curfew, as well as a 7:30 a.m. departure time, Hutton decided the only thing to do was pack his bags, fill his backpack with fruit, water bottles, granola bars, and toilet paper, and head to the airport a day early and stay there overnight.
“It was pandemonium,” Hutton said about the airport. “It was wall-to-wall, bumper-to-bumper traffic all over the place, shoulder-to-shoulder people with suitcases, women and children, pushing and shoving.”
To even get into the airport, there were baggage screening posts and policemen manning the doors alongside baggage handlers—and it was getting frantic, Hutton said.
“What was starting to happen was the cops were starting to ask for money in order to let you go by, asking for bribes here and there,” he remarked, adding he ended up bribing them to get him and his bags through—not just the front door but the various checkpoints afterwards.
He finally arrived at the area where he thought the Air France flight would be leaving from and settled into for the night—watching the pandemonium as successive flights departed.
Then at 2 a.m., Hutton learned his flight had been cancelled.
“I kind of got this sinking feeling in my stomach—what do I do from there?” he admitted, noting it was the middle of night, a curfew was in effect, and there were no phones or Internet access.
He decided he somehow would have to muster his way onto another flight as there were still Spanish, Italian, and Czech airlines flying out.
“[Then] at 8 a.m., a nice, flat Canadian accent came on the intercom and said all Canadian citizens meet at the British Airways ticket office in the airport,” Hutton recalled.
By this time, the airport’s floors were dirty, the airport’s food and water supplies had run out, and the toilets were a mess and overflowing.
Making his way through the crowd, Hutton arrived at this new location alongside 20 other Canadians and was informed by a Canadian Embassy official that Ottawa had decided to evacuate Canadian citizens out of Cairo by chartering an Air Canada flight.
From there, they moved to another terminal—actually the arrival level of the airport since it wasn’t as crowded because no flights were flying into Egypt.
There they stayed—growing to about 40 in number—until 1 p.m., when they were ushered to another location and met with another 30-40 fellow citizens.
They learned the government had chartered an aircraft to fly them to Frankfurt, Germany, and that each of them would have to pay $400 to cover the costs.
“The rest of the day was spent basically processing us because they had to verify our documents, had to get us to sign an agreement and a contract, and manually set up a passenger manifest,” Hutton explained, noting this all had to be written out by hand due to the lack of the usual technology being available.
All the Canadians then were put on a chartered bus back to Terminal 1 where the international flights were taking off from—only to sit out on the grass, away from all the chaos, while Canadian officials negotiated for airplane landing rights needed and to get the Canadians onto the plane.
“It involved even the Canadian Embassy officials bribing local officials to help us here and there,” Hutton said.
“I saw a few times a guy slip money into hands,” he recalled.
“Every time we had to go through any checkpoint or luggage verification, we had to bribe somebody or slip somebody some money to make sure our bags got through, and this lasted until we were ready to go.
At 8 p.m. Hutton said police showed up demanding a $2,000 final bribe, adding the passengers “dove through our pockets” and came up with the money.
Despite the demands for money, Hutton said he doesn’t begrudge those who were using the uprising to extort money from people like himself who were trying to leave the country.
“A lot of these people are very poor, they don’t make a lot of money at all,” he reasoned. “And when a situation seems to be crumbling around them, they suddenly see, ‘Okay, this is my opportunity to make some extra dollars because I don’t know if I’m going to have a job tomorrow, I don’t know if I’m going to have any money coming in, or if I’ll be paid at all.’
“‘So I’m going to try and get some money here so I can do something for the next little while if things go to hell, I’ve got family to feed.’”
If the Egyptian economy grinds to a halt, Hutton said it’s not going to be local currency that matters but foreign ones like Canadian and American dollars alongside bartering.
After this final bribe of $2,000, they were allowed to board the airplane and took off at 8:30 p.m., landing in Frankfurt at 2 a.m.—enough time for him to insist Delta put him on a connecting flight to Paris so he could catch his already paid for flight to Minneapolis and home.
“I’d been up for about 60 hours so I was pretty much comatose,” Hutton said about what he felt when he finally landed in International Falls.
“I was glad to be home [but] at no real time did I feel that I was in imminent danger or threatened in that sense,” he stressed.
“It was just ‘Finally, this long trip was at an end. It was get home, have a rest, hug my kids.’
“I kind of felt privileged,” Hutton added. “I mean, how many times in your life do you get to basically witness history like that?
“It’s an event that happens fairly often in the world, like every few years there’s an uprising somewhere, but for you to actually be able to witness it, to talk to the people, to be in the streets with people, not very many people get to do that.”
Hutton said he felt honoured to have been able to witness the struggle for a people desperate to get rid of a dictator who’s been there for 30 years, and try to set straight a lot of injustices and try to create a better society for themselves.
“[And I] do hope that the end result will be something that’s better than the past,” he remarked.