Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Journal Excerpt: Three Hours in Alexandria, Egypt

Twenty years ago, I was a young man in the U.S. Navy, stationed aboard the USS Orion, which was a 50 year old submarine tender (supply ship) homeported in La Maddalena, Sardinia. Each summer, it would go out to sea for a month with a few liberty ports. I had checked aboard in September 1991 and was looking forward to my first underway in the Mediterranean Sea. The liberty ports scheduled that summer included Cartagena, Spain (which I hated); Corfu, Greece (which was fun, but not a place I'd care to see again); and the final liberty port: Alexandria, Egypt, which I was most excited to see.

Back in 1981, the U.S. Air Force sent my dad to Egypt for a training exercise. We were living on Hill Air Force Base in Clearfield / Layton, Utah at the time and my sister was just a baby. The training exercise lasted for several months. When dad returned, I was excited to hear all about his experiences in this enchanted land and to get all these cool Egyptian souvenirs (statues, brass pyramids, Arab headdress). It also gave birth to a dream that one day, I would see the Great Pyramids for myself one day.

One aspect of my dad's visit to Egypt did influence my art. The base clinic had an art contest for elementary school about something dealing with dental. I had the inspiration to draw "Braces Come to Egypt" (my brother had braces at the time, I'd get mine shortly later). I drew braces on the Pyramids, camels, and even turned the Nile River into the Smile River. My art won! I wish I still had the drawing, but I don't know what happened to it. What I won was a trip to the clinic and a special dinner, where I had to tell a group of adults in the audience how I was inspired to create this drawing. I simply mentioned that the idea came to me when I thought about my dad's trip to Egypt and my brother getting braces. The drawing wasn't great, I'm pretty certain of that, so I suspect that it was my clever originality that helped me win, rather than my artistic talent.

So, in remembrance of this significant event of finally being able to see Egypt for myself, I wanted to feature what I wrote in my journal at the time. The name of my journal was: The Age of Discovery in Autonomy (Journal Volume XXIX). The most significant thing about this port visit was that I only had 3 hours in Alexandria. I had gotten off the ship at 9 p.m. and shopped for a bunch of things in the three hours before returning to the ship at midnight. The following day, I was signed up for the bus tour to Cairo and the Pyramids at Giza. However, due to the heavy waves and the fear that the liberty boats would capsize in the choppy waters of the Mediterranean (if I remember correctly, it took about 45 minutes to get from our ship to fleet landing), the Captain cancelled the port visit and it killed morale on the ship for the remainder of the underway. It was one of the most depressed times I ever experienced. We were so close and yet, so far away. Later that summer, I saw that MWR was offering trips to Egypt and I was tempted to go, but after getting all excited to seeing the Pyramids and having it yanked away, I never gained an interest in seeing Egypt again. Also later that summer, there were news reports of Islamic radicals shooting Western tourists and even a stated goal of wanting to completely destroy the Pyramids (which would be a stupid thing to do, as it would kill tourism in Egypt forever)...so I've never really regained my enthusiasm or desire to see Egypt. Even now, whether or not I ever see the Pyramids before I pass into the spiritual realm, there are many more places I want to see first.

Anyhow, the journal excerpt is below the picture of the beautiful Pyramids.

1992 June 26 * Friday

"Can you smell it?" asked Coleman.

"Smell what?" I asked.

"Its the motherland!"

I laughed. The sun was baring down on us and it did feel hotter than it did yesterday. Still no sign of land.

We got word that we didn't have permission to anchor out in the harbour. If we didn't get it by sunset, then we would cancel the port visit. More than that, Friday is the Muslim holy day and they might not grant us permission. So we sailed in circles and I got anxious. I really wanted to see Egypt -- it would be bad if we cancelled now. Bad for morale anyway.

About 1600 [hours] or so, we got word that we could anchor out. Yes! I was relieved. It took awhile, however to get the ship ready for liberty. They brought along a trash barge and a barge to get to the liberty boats.

I took a couple pictures of the Alexandria skyline -- all highrise buildings. The sky was a brownish colour - a sign of pollution. The liberty boats were cheap looking rafts really, bobbing up and down on the water. It looked unsafe to me and Alexandria was a good deal away. The waves were somewhat rough and those "toy boats" look as if they could capsize easily. I remember hearing about a liberty boat capsizing in Haifa, killing all (or nearly all) who was on it (during the Gulf War).

Apparently, the officers didn't think so either. So they brought out all of the life vests and started lading them onto the liberty boats. It was about 1900 or 2000 [hours] when they called "LIBERTY CALL." I left the ship at 2030 [hours] with Dan Stamate, who has been to Egypt last year. We waited an hour in the liberty line. When we set foot on Egyptian soil (a new continent for me) at 2100 [hours], I was relieved. It was reality for me. The first thing I did was get Egyptian pounds...about $250 worth. It was a wait of 15 minutes or so. Stamate and I then went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and ate supper.

Afterwards, we walked toward the hoopla. Before crossing the street from the fleet landing area, 2 Egyptians came to meet us and offered to be our guides. Stamate was reluctant, but I thought one would be useful in order to find some things I'm looking for. They want to bring us to a store that sells gold. Stamate agrees and we follow them. One of the guides looks like the bad Colombian "butcher" in the film Romancing The Stone and speaks English well. The other didn't speak much at all.

The gold store is full of other Americans and their guides. I didn't come to buy gold, so I asked where I could buy Egyptian clothes. At one store, I bought a robe. I saw a cool looking vest that they wanted $30 for. I said it was too much. The store owner used his hands to feel the vest -- indicating quality. I still said it was too much and offered $15. They laughed at me for making a ridiculous proposal. I turned and left and said, "Maybe tomorrow." The store owner accepted $15. I got the last laugh.

Walking around Alexandria at night was interesting. There were cars driving all over the place. And the amount of trash was unbelievable! There were trash heaps all over the place, in the middle of the street even. Once, while trying to cross the street, I nearly got run over by a taxi. The guide warned me to get out of the way and then cussed at the driver for me. "Fuck you!" he yelled. Stamate and I looked at each other in disbelief. Strange, I tell ya!

The guides took us from store to store. Stamate didn't buy anything. I bought a headdress, some slippers, 3 tapes of Egyptian pop music, a prayer carpet (for $25 -- my best purchase), and a few other items. The guides kept wanting to take us to the same gold store. They must get a big commission there or something. I wasn't interested in gold. I couldn't get a Kartouche for less than $30 so I decided not to get one, in case I see a bunch of things I want to get to send to people (those statues).

There were people all over the place and I wasn't really culture-shocked. Alexandria is much more Westernized than I thought it would be. Many people wore Western clothes--including the ladies. All the ladies I saw wore long sleeve shirts and pants. Some wore more traditional wear. A bit of them covered their heads, but not many covered their faces. There were plenty of beautiful women. I was impressed.

The guides wanted to take us all over. They asked if we wanted to buy clothes--but I passed. I told them that I wanted distinctly Egyptian souvenirs only. They took us to a shop that sold Western clothes. While walking down one street, a boy of about 7 or 8 years old asked if I wanted to buy Papyrus with Egyptian paintings on them.

I said, "Banana leaves!"

"No banana leaves!" the boy said as he crumpled the Papyrus up. I bought 3 for $3. They are banana leaves. I just wanted the Egyptian paintings. They will look nice in a frame. Papyrus is expensive. There's no way it would cost $3 for 3. I made the kid happy.

On our way back to fleet landing, a teenage boy with brass Egyptian statues came up to me and said, "I sell you for good price." He offered a set of 7 for $35. I didn't like 2 of them. We negotiated and my final offer was 5 statues for $15. He took it. What a deal I got!

At fleet landing, our guides wanted money for taking us around. Stamate said no, since they received a commission on everything I bought in a store. We told them tomorrow. They had that word--with good reason. We caught the midnight lbierty boat to the ship. I was amazed with the 3 hours of pure bliss in Alexandria. I felt like a celebrity with people swarming me to buy something. Its a great feeling. I spent about $120 tonight and I have a lot to show for it.

The waves were rough and as we got to the ship, it was dangerous to jump off the liberty boat onto the barge. One CPO yelled at me for jumping too soon. I made it safely aboard, and tried to go to sleep--excited to see the Pyramids finally. Tomorrow is the big day. A childhood dream come true.

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