My Egypt Adventure and Transit of the Suez Canal – Part Four: The Suez Canal

Part Four:  The Suez Canal

Our transit of the Suez Canal began at 0100 hours (1:00 a.m.).  By daybreak, the convoy was well underway and I had the opportunity to see the sights on both sides of the canal.

From my newsletter of November 1990:

“After Cairo I got an opportunity to transit the Suez Canal on a merchant ship.  This was a fascinating experience primarily because of the importance of the role of the Suez Canal in world commerce and its role in history.  It is the only fast way to get between Europe and the Middle East/Far East by sea.  On one side is the Sinai Desert and the other side is developed land, much of which is used by the Egyptian military.  During the transit I saw many remnants of the Egypt-Israel wars, including blown up and abandoned buildings, abandoned airbases and abandoned vehicles. 

“Ships transiting the canal are formed into convoys and are guided and controlled by the Egyptians from the time they arrive in Port Said (the Mediterranean entrance to the canal also known as “Port Marlboro”) to the time they are released at Port Suez (at the top of the Gulf of Suez).  These people include immigration, health, customs and canal officials, vendors, agents and their assistants, electricians (for the canal floodlight) and mooring laborers (the “boatmen”).  They can hold up or expedite a canal transit at will.  Additionally, when the ship is moored in Port Said awaiting transit, “bumboats” containing vendors selling souvenirs surround the ship, trying to get on board.

“For the ship’s master, the object is to get through the canal as quickly as possible.  And, one of the best means of getting expeditiously through the transit is to prevent the occurrence of any reason to delay the transit.  This is accomplished by giving the canal officials and others a “present”, which is usually a carton of Marlboro cigarettes (in the red box).  The giving of “presents” is usually preceded by someone saying, “Do you have my present, Captain?” There is a saying among those who have transited the canal:  “Give ’em a carton of Marlboros and things move fast”. Otherwise a document may be lost, or something could be “discovered” wrong with the ship that could slow down the transit.

“On the ship I was on, the Suez Canal Authority suggested that the ship’s trim was not in line with canal standards.  The problem was resolved when the master passed out the cartons of Marlboros (the Egyptians want only Marlboros, reds, in the box; anything else, especially Kools, would make them unhappy).  On my ship, the master gave out a total of about thirty cartons, which is about average.  Why all the cigarettes?  Cigarettes, especially Marlboros, are like currency.  And incomes of some of these people (especially laborers and vendors) are so low that selling cigarettes to Marlboro-hungry Egyptians is a lucrative source of income.  (While in Cairo, it seemed everyone who was smoking was smoking Marlboros (reds, in the box).)  Just before we got underway, a crewman on the pilot boat bringing the Suez pilot was yelling at our ship, “Captain, Captain, seegarets pleeze, seegarets for food!”

Besides cigarettes the Egyptians usually manage to get American-made toiletries and similar goods from the masters of the ships transiting the canal.  In addition, interestingly enough, the canal pilot can also get a special “present” of a bottle of liquor, usually top end.  Ships that regularly transit the canal have a bonded storage containing these goods.  It is also interesting to note that the cigarettes given out are marked “For shipboard use only” on the box.

The canal is only wide enough for one-way traffic.  At Great Bitter Lake, about two-thirds the way down, both the southbound and northbound convoys rendezvous.  Once the southbound convoy has exited the canal, the northbound proceeds on to Port Said. The southbound convoy proceeds to, and ends at, Port Suez, where the Egyptian pilot and the boatmen disembark the ship. The ships in the convoy then break up, heading into the Gulf of Suez and eventually the Red Sea.

Below:  Views from the bridge of the Ashley Lykes.

Suez-10-eb     Suez-5-eb

Below:  Sinai (east) side of the canal.  “Road to Nowhere” in left picture; military facility in the right.  Note the Mosque, lower left corner.

Suez-6-eb     Suez-8-eb

Below:  West side of the canal.  Left picture shows crater created by a blast.  Note the unfinished structures in the right picture.

Suez-11     Suez-4

Below:  Contrast the east side (left) and west side (right) of the canal.  Note the Mosque in left picture.

Suez-3     Suez-2

Below:  Goods on display for sale brought on board by the boatmen (left).  On the right, the Suez pilot.

Suez-boatmen goods     Suez-pilot

Below:  Ships at anchor awaiting the southbound convoy in Great Bitter Lake (left).  At right, a Mosque in Port Suez.

Great Bitter Lake anchorage-2     Port Suez-5

Below:  The convoy breaking up as it enters the Gulf of Suez (left).  At right is a map of the canal.

Port Suez-2     Suez_canal_map

From my newsletter:

“A few more observations about life in Egypt:  Traffic is not regulated as in the States.  Signals are only advisory.  During rush hour (which seems to be all day), traffic police try to control the cars, with mild success – sometimes the cars obey.  Additionally, it is not unusual to see mule drawn carts in the middle of city streets.

“I also got the impression that drivers, when given driving lessons, were taught first on the use of the horn, and how to get the most out of it.  Horns were heard at all hours, even when there was no need for them.  The message given by a horn is “get out of the way”.  And when someone does not get out of the way an accident results.  And when an accident occurs, it is not resolved in the usual way by exchanging insurance company names.  Not in Egypt.  First fault has to be determined.  And this is accomplished by shouting matches between the two parties involved.  But it is not only two people shouting to each other.  The shouting is so loud, a crowd gathers, picks sides, and joins the debate.  I actually witnessed this in an accident between a bus and a taxicab.  To their credit, the passengers did not get involved, just the drivers and the onlookers.” 

I found visiting Cairo and transiting the Suez Canal a fascinating and most memorable experience; something to be remembered for a long time.  I do not think much has changed vis-a-vis the Suez Canal transit based on recent Google searches.  However, I did observe, and this is back in 1990, that Egypt’s history was pivotal in the development of the world’s civilizations.  The country is rich in resources and tradition, and should be a great place to visit.  However, things need to be fixed, and while not commenting on the current political situation, I do hope it is resolved soon, so that Egypt can eventually become economically and politically healthy and people can visit and enjoy what Egypt has to offer.

End of Part Four

End of my Egypt Adventure

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My Egypt Adventure and Transit of the Suez Canal – Part One: Cairo

Part One:  Cairo

With Egypt being the news recently, I started recalling my experience there in November, 1990.  At the time, I was serving as Officer-in-Charge of a Naval Liaison Officer Detachment based in Bahrain in support of Operation Desert Shield.  The detachment briefed masters of merchant ships transiting through the Persian Gulf to Saudi Arabian ports with military cargo. These ships were part of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command that provides strategic sealift in support of military operations.  The ships were activated from a reserve force of cargo vessels or were under contract from civilian shipping companies.  As most of these ships originated in the United States, the transit to Saudi Arabia included passage through the Suez Canal.

During a lull in operations in late November, 1990, I managed to take some time to experience the Suez Canal transit.  I had heard so many stories about the transit from ships’ masters that I felt it useful to see for myself what it was all about.  I arranged transit aboard the S.S. Ashley Lykes, a C-Class break bulk cargo ship operated by Lykes Lines bound for Saudi Arabia from the US.

Suez-Ashley Lykes-1

S.S. Ashley Lykes

And so began my Egypt Adventure.

The plan was to fly to Cairo, meet the ship in Port Said, a port on the Mediterranean Sea that serves as the northern entry point to the Suez Canal, and ride the ship through the canal, the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf to its destination port in Saudi Arabia.  On the scheduled date, I left Bahrain on Gulf Air for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on the first leg of my trip.

Below is a description of my flight to Cairo taken from a monthly newsletter I wrote during Operation Desert Shield:       

“I left Bahrain on a Gulf Air flight to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where I transferred to Egyptair to Cairo.  The flight to Dhahran was ten minutes at an altitude of 2500 feet.  No drinks on this flight – the flight attendants did not even get up from their jump seats.  Upon arrival in Dhahran I learned about changing planes in Saudi Arabia.  It is not like the States.

“I was met by an airport representative who seemed to know all about my itinerary who took me to (where else) the Immigration Hall.  At the time it was Prayer Time, and the “Call to Prayer” was being broadcast over the loudspeakers for the benefit of those waiting in the immigration lines.  Since I was not entering the country I bypassed that line but did have to wait for an immigration officer to inspect my passport and make a copy of every page.  

“After my passport was duly photocopied I had to clear customs, where the customs inspector searched for articles forbidden in Saudi Arabia, such as alcoholic beverages, non-Muslim religious materials, certain types of books, magazines and videotapes, etc.  From there I was escorted to the departure lounge, where the airport representative checked me in [for my next flight].  Finally, I was on my own.” 

The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Cairo on schedule.   While waiting in the immigration line at Cairo Airport, I was approached by a young woman in what appeared to be a uniform who inquired about the reason for my visit, which I said was business.  She asked if I would have time for sightseeing and I replied yes.  She said her company would like to give me information about sights to see and offered to escort me through immigration, which meant I went straight to the head of the line and through, after which I was escorted to an office that appeared to be that of a company providing tours to visitors.  I got the full briefing about what to see in Cairo.  Thinking that was it, I was surprised (really should not have been, though) when I was informed that the company was to be my tour guide for my stay in Cairo.   Dumbfounded, I said fine, and was given various options.  I elected the cheapest, a group tour of the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids.  As I had two full days to myself, I opted for the second day to do the tour, which I shall call the “Grand Tour”.  I was asked to pay in advance – US Dollars were gratefully accepted – and a pickup time was set.

By the time I checked into my hotel, the Semiramis Intercontinental, I was ready for a drink, which I partook in the hotel lounge.

Cairo-Semiramis

Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel

Below:  Views from my hotel room of the Nile River.  The Cairo Tower is on the far right in the picture on the left.  Note the air pollution in the picture on the right.

Cairo - View from Semiramis       Cairo-Skyline-Nile-4

The next day I set off on a long walk around the city and its surrounding neighborhoods.  Again, from my newsletter:

“Cairo is a huge city, population about 14,000,000.  I stayed at the Semiramis Hotel, which was right on the Nile River.  The city appears to be on the verge of either greatness or a downfall.  From a distance the skyline looks impressive:  lots of large commercial buildings along the Nile.  However many are not totally occupied; in fact some are not even fully constructed (sic).  There must be an unwritten regulation in Egypt:  “Thou shalt not finish construction of a building”.  There are buildings on which construction had been halted in order to start construction on new buildings adjacent to them.  This scene was not only in Cairo, but also in other areas of Egypt as well.

Below:  Additional views of Cairo and the Nile.

Cairo-Skyline-Nile-2    Cairo-Skyline-Nile

          Cairo-Nile-1     Cairo-Downtown-3  

“Egypt is full of contrasts:  Modern high-rises (albeit some incomplete) abutting shantytowns of rundown shops (many of which for some reason, were selling automobile parts, especially wheels and tires).”

Below:  A couple of neighborhoods just outside Cairo.  Note the tire shop in the left picture.

Neigborhood-1       Neighborhood-3

The walk around Cairo took nearly all day.  I am glad I took that walk because it allowed me to see sides of Cairo that the normal tourist would not see.  There seemed to be people and cars everywhere and the air pollution was most noticeable.  But the sights that struck me most was the seemingly unfinished state of the city.  It looked as if whatever prosperity existed was pulled out from under.  I estimated that it would take an economic miracle for enough money to be generated to actually finish those unfinished buildings sitting abandoned and in some cases falling into disrepair.

In Part Two:  The Grand Tour and the Pyramids.  Watch this Space!

End of Part One