Tourism during a (Suez) crisis
Keeping the Peace
By Tom Lessard
With Rita away in the sunny Dominican Republic, I was reminded of my trip to the Middle East when I was 19. There I was in January 1957, debarking from an aircraft carrier in Port Said, Egypt and embarking on a new experience. We boarded trucks to travel down the Suez Canal during the crisis that had started months earlier. We were headed to Ismailia and the junction of the Sweet Water Canal, which runs to Cairo and the Nile River.
About 30 miles along the Sweet Water is the village of Abu Sueir, which has an air force base. This is where we spent the first couple months of our tour. What was left of the Egyptian army had a unit station on the air base, and we camped on the other side of a fenced-in area.
One night when I was on fire picket, I happened to come to a gate along the fence line that separated our camp from that of the Egyptian air base. As I turned the corner to check the other side, I startled an Egyptian sentry, who lowered his rifle – with bayonet fixed – and walked right into me, stabbing me in the stomach. Luckily, I was wearing my great coat because it stopped most of the thrust and I suffered only a slight wound. I was able to continue my patrol, and when I passed my tent, I stopped for a few minutes to clean the wound and put a bandage on it before continuing the duty. The potential for an international incident meant there was no way I was about to report that goof-up.
This mission was where we were introduced to Stella. The beer, that is, in quart bottles. They came in wooden cases like the old Coca-Cola ones, and sat outside in the heat with no coolers to chill them. The beer was skunky, but because it was all we could get, we had to put up with it. It took about a week or so to get accustomed to it, but by then it started to taste pretty good.
Our opportunity at playing tourist saw us take a bus tour to Cairo. Driving by bus along the canal and seeing the way people lived was like stepping back in time to the days of the Pharaohs. The Egyptians used the canal to wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth using their fingers. We passed a prison with the chain gangs working outside. We also saw 15 men pulling a dhow (a single-masted sailboat) up the river. The dhows are loaded off freighters in the Suez Canal at Ismailia. These men walked along the bank pulling the dhow to Cairo – against the current.
When we reached Cairo, as we stepped off the bus we were met by a woman trying to sell us her baby for about $0.50; she said should couldn’t afford to feed the baby and herself. We sure didn’t need a baby, so we all chipped in and gave her some money to buy what she needed and went on our way.
Because of the war, Cairo was very quiet. Very few people or vehicles were about, nor were boats traveling down the river.
As all tourists do, we went for a camel ride around the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, and watched a man run up and down the pyramid. These monuments are amazing pieces of construction. The blocks are so immense, it makes you wonder how people could move them and place them into position. I realize it took years and incredible manpower, but it’s still hard to fathom.
Our next tour was to Mount Sinai. We traveled south on the Sinai desert by Jeep, stopping at small oases to rest and refresh ourselves. There is a lot of history at Mount Sinai, where Moses was said to have received the Ten Commandments. It is a very hot and dry area in the desert, and leaves me pondering how the Jews survived all their years wandering here. We were met by monks who gave us a choice of going up the side of the mountain by basket or making the long climb to the monastery itself.Being in good physical condition, most of us chose to climb while a few of the older (and obese) men rode the basket. This mode of transportation involves a basket secured by a long rope attached to a pulley situated at an opening in the monastery wall and operated by monks inside. It was pulled up and brought inside so that intruders couldn’t use it when raiding.
Children in Crediton recently celebrated another Christian tradition, with the annual Easter egg hunt held Saturday. Seven hundred eggs were strewn across the ball diamond and park areas. Some of the eggs had papers with numbers on them inside. If you found one of these, each represented a correspondingly numbered prize. Every child received a hot dog and other treats, and super weather meant a great turnout.