Imagine that you have just had your 17th birthday, You had run away from home to join the Army and to seek your first really big and true adventure. You are on an airplane that has just passed the point of no return on its way to the Siani Desert where your teenage years are to be left way behind and you will become a man.
I had just graduated from the Canadian Army, Soldier Apprentice Plan and my first posting as a full fledged Canadian soldier was to the Gaza Strip as a member of the United Nations Emergency force. It is 1960, I am 17 years old, full of piss and vinegar and eager to take on whatever fate has in store for me.
As fortune would have it, I arrived at the 56 Infantry Workshop which was a desert army camp that would serve as my home for the next year, late on a Thursday afternoon. As luck would have it we had arrived just in time to take advantage of transport laid on for guys with a weekend pass to Cairo. Our commander felt that we might as well be given weekend passes as well, to have some fun then be ready at the beginning of the week to start off with all gears on go. Needless to say I was absolutely delighted at the prospect. I had always wanted to see Egypt from the time I saw my first pictures of the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Now it was about to happen.
As a soldier in the United Nations Emergency Force, Canadian Contingent, I had many opportunities to see some fascinating parts of the world. The first of these was the weekend I was about to spend in Cairo, one of the most incredible cities in the world. Cairo is said to be the nicest city in all of Africa and particularly Egypt of which it is the Capital.
It is December as my eyes devoured every visual treat that lay before me that weekend, not the kind of December we would know at home in Canada where I am from. The weather is very dry but most pleasant as cool breezes waft over the city. I would learn that the sky is almost always clear over Cairo and the desert for that matter. We had left Gaza, in Palestine for Cairo on the morning of December 3rd, it was 1960. Members of all the national contingent forces that made up the Emergency Force had climbed onto three busses and it was a very happy group of soldiers that crossed the Siani that day.
Remember now, I wrote this story December 3rd, 1960, that is a lot of years ago. The Cairo that I describe to you in this tale is from that time and it was certainly quite different back then.
One of the first things I noticed as we entered the city that evening was the wonderful blend of old and modern in the buildings. Many parts of the city gave off the same visual magic that it must have had in the days of Pharaoh. On the streets, camels, donkeys, carts, goats and even chickens vied with the automobile traffic for space filling the air with the most unusual symphony of sounds you have ever heard. The roadways are evenly and very nicely paved in the main areas at least, and everywhere you look palm trees dance like some sensuous group of natures most talented artists in a light breeze coming in off the desert.
We drove deep into the heart of the city with an escort of boats of all sizes and shapes on the Nile, a river with a name that has stirred ones adventurous heart for as long as human kind can remember. The murky water winds its way along side our buses, right into the very soul and core of the city.
I was stirred by the constant blaring of vehicle horns that seemed to serve only to add to the noise, the camels and other members of the menagerie of street animals appeared to care less about the audio madness around them. I chuckled at the scene as we pulled up with a sudden halt in front of a building and a sign which read "Capsis Palace Hotel". The Capsis was to be our leave center hotel and our home while we were in Cairo for the weekend. The hotel was about eight stories, done in a gray-black stone and was shaded from the light of the distinctive street lamps by the palm trees all around it.
Cairo like any other city in the world has changed much since that night. While they can still be found here and there one does not encounter too many animals on the main city streets anymore, filled now with never ending streams of the familiar black and white taxis and other cars and trucks.
Getting off the bus in front of the Capsis Palace was like stepping into another world and since I had just arrived in Egypt the day before I had not even had the time to adjust to the culture change. The Capsis was what we called the leave center hotel because rooms and meals were provided there for us free at the expense of the United Nations Emergency Force. One of the perks of serving in a danger zone.
As I stepped off the bus, my foot had not even hit the ground when I was literally assaulted by hordes of vendors and shoe shine boys. They all wanted to do something, anything for money. Their assault was bothersome but friendly and this was something I never saw at home. In a strange way it made me feel quite important. Also there to meet us was a Provost Lt. with a word about the customs and do's and don'ts while in Cairo. A Provost Marshal is the about the same as an MP in the US Forces. It didn't take long to get the point across and we were all, to a man anxious to get out and on the town for an exciting evening. I found myself being pushed up the front stairs of the hotel and into the lobby. Some of the boys had already been assigned to their rooms and leaping up the stairs after their disappearing bags.
The lobby of the Capsis Palace seemed quite large for the size impression I had gotten upon arrival outside of the hotel. Couches and easy chairs like something out of a Charlie Chan movie were everyplace and the lighting was very dim. At the front there were several large glass windows in a row overlooking the street. The dining room complete with bar was all part of the lobby. The floors hid themselves beneath bright oriental rugs casting a dim reflection of a sea of color and designs at the eye. The walls were laden with hanging rugs and the windows with great, heavy looking drapes like one might expect to see in a funeral parlor.
A young Arab Bellboy approached me with a key to room, number 812 and before I could ask any questions at all, my suitcase was whisked from under my nose by the young man in an Alladin type garb. Like all the others before me I set out in hot pursuit of the little chap so as not to lose either him or my suitcase. The pages of my travel smarts began to fill that night.
We took the one available elevator which was about the size of a coffin and noisy as hell to the eighth floor where we stepped out into a dark hallway which was like something right out of a Dracula Movie. A quick right turn and up several steps and there was the door to my room. I gave my young companion what I learned was a much larger tip than I should have but I was not yet familiar with the dollar value exchange. The big, black door with the gold lettering and unusual design work that confronted me was not all that inviting but with a little intrigue in me I opened it. This is what I saw.
The room itself, happily was not all that bad even though it was small and certainly far from being first class. It had the highest ceiling I ever saw. The contents were simple but warm and relatively appealing. There was a single bed, a foot rug, a dresser, one easy and one not so easy chair, a floor lamp, mirror, sink and a tiny closet. The call of nature had to be answered three doors down the hall in a small, dimly lit cubby hole style setting. It didn't say much for privacy. One thing I could say was that the price was not in excess of the worth of the room. It was obvious that the Un was not paying top prices for this one but then we were just ordinary soldiers. The officers had gone on to another spot, of course.
The room's one window was high but not large and it offered a magnificent view of laundry hanging lazily in the breeze on the balcony opposite to my window. It did not exactly live up to the exciting fact that I was now in Egypt, a lifetime dream come true. I think my attitude and views on the importance of accommodation when one travels was set in place that night because I decided that this rather lack luster setting did not lend itself to the ultimate success of an incredible travel adventure. This was my chance to live like someone I wasn't and I just had to do it right. I picked up my suitcase and headed out to find my imaginary Sultan's Palace.
As soon as I stepped outside the hotel I was once again in the sea of people selling, begging and in some cases offering to even buy anything that I wanted to sell. A nimble taxi driver swept in with his black and white cab and with a few sharp words in Arabic dispersed the people around me and he ushered me into his taxi and quickly drove away.
When you are seventeen years old, half a world away from home and have your first steady pay check be it ever so small, nothing is too good for you, at least in your own mind so I asked my driver to take me to the nicest hotel in Cairo. If it was going to be too expensive, I would worry about that later. We rounded the giant monument in the main square of El Tahir, passed the beautiful Cairo Museum and there in front of us was a sign that read " The Nile Hilton." I knew as soon as I saw it, this was for me. My first trip in Cairo traffic had been a stimulating experience. To people who drove in Cairo the most important part of the car was the horn and they all blew them constantly and at the same time, it made for quite the sound. Everyone drove like there was no tomorrow and today's drive was the last.
We pulled up under a canopy on the Nile side of the Hotel where an elegantly dressed doorman opened the cab door for me and took my bag. I moved to pay the driver but he pleaded that I hire him as my personal driver for the entire weekend and he would be there for me 24 hours a day, grabbing an hours sleep here and there in the car. Since he was asking for no more than a few dollars, how could I refuse. This was unreal, it made me feel like a millionaire. I stepped out of the car and Mahmoud my new, personal driver parked to await my pleasure. I stepped onto the marble walk and a great glass door with Egyptian designs etched into the glass opened to admit me into another world. I could never go back to the Capsis Palace after this.
On the right side I saw a café called "The Ibis" named for a small bird that one encounters on the Nile shores. Even though it was a café and not a main dining room I could see it was first class all the way. The waitresses could all have been Hollywood stars and the décor was strangely modern in the setting of one of the most fascinating histories in the world.
I moved on to the registration desk to get the bad news on how much all this was going to cost because for UN troops, The Capsis Palace was provided, this would be on me. What really amazed me was that the room cost almost nothing in comparison to hotels back home. The money in Egypt is in pounds and piastres, the room cost 12 pounds or about 30.00, I was delighted.
A impeccably dressed bellboy was called to take my bag and this time it was not a race to follow him. He led me to one of three elevators which we took to the eleventh floor. My room was on the Nile side of the hotel and the effect when I opened the door was not at all like the Capsis Palace. The room was beautiful.
The first thing that struck my eye was the big, glass sliding door at the far side of the room. From here on the eleventh floor one could see a majestic panorama of the city of Cairo spreading out as far as the eye could see. The Nile River formed a dirty brown ribbon of marine traffic below. This was the river that was once a liquid carpet for royalty a prime domain for the reigning pharaoh. A far cry from my view of hanging laundry at the Capsis Palace. With this view there was no doubt, I was truly living an adventure that very, very few teenagers could ever dream of.
The room itself was very large and comfortable and most important for my young ego, luxurious. Now I really had something to write home about. People on the streets far below scurried like ants through the Unbelievable traffic. It seemed like a game of automotive roulette.
A carpet, soft enough to sleep on covered the entire floor. Two large beds were separated by a cabinet sized hi fi with music floating out of it that was suitable for this delightful setting. God, I am in wonderland. I had always dreamed of seeing Egypt and I was just seventeen years old and I was actually here. I had to be, there it was right outside the window and in the distance, the ultimate proof, I could see the pyramids, The Pyramids of Egypt and the Giza Plateau, there they were right in front of my still disbelieving eyes.
My mind snapped back to the room, large, bright and decorated in a beautiful Egyptian motif. The walls were a tranquil, light blue and the drapes that covered one entire wall when closed were richly thick and gaily colored with designs of Ancient Egypt all over them. I had a writing desk and an extra table to match, four easy chairs and a closet the size of one entire wall. Even the bathroom was attractive with a gigantic floor to ceiling mirror, a shower and what I believed to be two toilet bowls. What was this, community seats, this I had never seen before. I was soon to find that one was able to attack. All this is what greeted me when I went into my room at the Nile Hilton. I had gone from being a buck private at the Capsis Palace to a Pharoah in my time, I was extatic. Boy if my friends could see me now.
I gave the bellboy who had led me to this paradise a very good tip, he promised to be forever at my beck and call and left. I was alone and I was in Egypt and I was seventeen, could all this really be true?
I quickly changed from my uniform into my civilian dress consisting of my blue blazer with my corps crest on the pocket, gray trousers, white shirt and unit tie. I was all set to go just as soon as I brushed my hair. As I was doing so that second toilet bowl caught my interest, what the hell was it for I wondered. I saw a step on treadle on the base and as I looked directly into it I stepped on the damn thing. Well I got hit in the puss with a stream of water almost strong enough to knock me off my feet. A second ago I was dressed to kill now I was a drowned rat and that is how I first learned about a bide.
I changed, keeping well away from that nasty bowl then made my way down to the Ibis Café for a bite to eat. The evening was really coming on and I wanted to see as much of Cairo as my few days would allow.
Dinner in the Ibis was just as nice as the rest of the hotel and I drank lots of fresh milk because fresh milk was rare for us on the desert. I also had a steak that cost just a quarter of what I would have paid at home just a few days ago. It was most enjoyable all the way around. The very pretty young ladies waiting on me with their charming accents added a pleasant touch of welcome to the overall atmosphere.
I soon found myself on the street, on the side of the hotel facing El Tahier Square and the regal Cairo Museum. The sun had long gone and the lights of the city began to shine and shimmer like jewels in the night. Cars sped by like low flying missiles and they never slowed down at all for pedestrians. I began to understand why people in Cairo walk with a certain dance like bounce in their step, it's from trying to keep out of the way of cars and everywhere, horns, horns, horns.
Everywhere I looked there was an incredible blend of the ancient, the old, the current and a hint of the future too. I was surrounded by people in both Arab and Western Garb, cars by the thousands, camels, donkeys, goats and chickens.
Theatres could be seen here and there offering to show some of the same movies that I could have expected to see back home and of course those that were purely Arabic. Many restaurants and clubs began right at the sidewalk filled with people sipping mint tea and taking in the night. Strange I had not seen any of my comrades yet in my travels. I picked a club from which I could hear the Arabic music I would grow to love.
The club was called the Sherezade, it was up two flights of stairs, at the door, an old woman stooped over a table was selling tickets and I noticed that she seemed to be able to respond to any language confronting her. In fact I would learn very quickly that even the kids on the streets could speak several languages and every one was a master salesman. ?She sold me a ticket for a pound, about two dollars and fifty cents in my money. As she handed the ticket to me she said, "Welcome Canadian" I was amazed.
They seemed to know without ever making a mistake just exactly what nationality a person was. I liked to think that they liked the Canadians Best. I was led to a table and seat close to the stage as though I were someone special, I guess those who had gone before me had built up a reputation as big spenders. I noticed that some of the guys had made it here before me and I was relieved to know that some of my own were around, I was after all just seventeen.
The music to which the belly dancers twist and turn is unique and fascinating and the several ladies dancing to it on the stage were taking full advantage of its mystical qualities. Before a waiter could take our orders a number of very pretty ladies moved over to our table and snuggled in beside of us, one girl on each side of a man. The deal was that we had to buy them drinks or they would leave. As incentive they freely offered a bit of leg and some delightful cleavage, more than enough to make a seventeen year old like me stiffen up in certain places. Wow, I had to be dreaming, it sure was not like this at home. My friends and I ordered Stella Beer, the most common brand in Egypt except for Danish Touborg. The girls ordered champagne. We all agreed to pay for our own two girls who kept us interested with roaming fingers and an ongoing game of touchy feely going on under the table.
Even with all the action going on around me I became enamored with a young lady on stage who was engaged in something called "The Bell Dance" she stole my heart and everything else man, I was in love. It was a great show and she was in several of the numbers. I mentioned my undying love spurred by the champagne to the waiter, he smiled and went about his job. For some reason unknown to me I had become very popular to the ladies that night and when I saw the little dancer that I had fallen for coming over to me, my heart skipped a beat. She couldn't speak too much English other than to ask for a drink and offer her services… she moved in beside me and the champagne really started to flow. As a seventeen year old, non drinker who never had much luck with girls this was heaven. Then at some point in the evening everything went black and the doors on my memory bank slammed shut.
When I came to, I don't know how long later I slowly discovered that I was back in my room at the Nile Hilton and there by my side was Tasha my little dancer, she was rubbing my forehead with a wet cloth, it felt so good but oh my head. I asked her how I had gotten back and she said that it was normal practice to throw the drunk soldiers into the roadway outside the club and forget them but she had taken a liking to me so she had her friends bring me home and she came over to look after me until I was ok. I thanked her profusely, the lesson I learned that night may well have been very unfortunate and expensive, thanks to Tasha and her friends, it was not.
Morning came on with still another surprise. I felt a tiny hand give me a little shake. My sleepy eyes opened just a slit to allow me to form a misty vision of a pretty face of still another girl, God, there are girls everywhere I thought to myself. I was certain that I must be dreaming as I allowed my mind to drift back into the comfortable world of sleep. My return to sleep was short lived because as I would discover, this was no dream.
The little hand that had shaken me was definitely there and so indeed was the girl at the end of the arm. I sprang to a conscious state with a start because I was not in the habit of sleeping in pajamas nor was I in the habit of waking up, to the touch of a strange girl or a familiar one for that matter. She smiled pleasantly then walked over to the window, opened the closed drapes and slid open the glass doors. Rays of brilliant sunlight flooded the room along with the sounds and smells of the mega metropolis called Cairo. "It's noon sir", she said "would you not like to get up so I can make up the room."
"I am so sorry" I said and indeed I was because I had just thrown away a whole half a day in one of the world's most exciting places, I was an idiot. The young lady left the room to let me get dressed which I did quickly. A pair of light trousers and golf shirt would do for this day. Cameras and other articles plainly marking me as a tourist hung heavily about my neck.
Down to the Ibis Café for lunch which was truly great, a large salad, more milk and ice cream sundae. MMMM MMMMM.
As I stepped out onto the walkway outside the hotel I spotted Don Richardson one of my pals from the camp. We agreed to explore together. Don looked like my brother except for the huge mustache and the bald head. Don had gotten in later than me last night and had the same idea as me that brought him as well to the Nile Hilton, he had a room several floors under me on the square side of the hotel. He had gone straight to bed though. Smart boy I thought to myself. I told Don about my night and he laughed almost until his sides slipped.
"Let's get a cab and go see the pyramids" I said. "Fine with me" he replied. "Effendi, effendi" I heard the voice calling to me and lo and behold it was my driver from last night. He had waited there at the hotel all night and all morning for me because I had paid him for the weekend, I had actually forgotten about it but Mahmoud sure didn't. Don and I all laden with cameras must have looked like quite a pair as we stepped into the car.
Mahmoud agreed most eagerly with our idea to visit the pyramids. The mid day sun was shining with a vengeance as it does every day in Cairo. During our drive to the pyramids, Mahmoud gave us a running commentary on everything we were passing, he turned out to be a great choice for a driver for many a reason and in fact Mahmoud was to be my personal driver every time I came to Cairo for the weekend that year, he became a good friend.
Don did most of the talking on the way to Giza and the pyramids as I was busy drinking in all the sights, I had just recently become all caught up in photography. I felt so very proud to be a member of the United Nations Emergency force and really believed in the job we were given to do. I was most anxious to get started. I wondered how many opportunities I would have to write about my experiences, writing was always something that I really loved to do and I was very glad that I was keeping this journal of all my experiences and this was just the beginning.
As we drove along, the sky was clear and a shiny blue. Palm trees that lined the streets swayed in a sensuous, rhythmic dance in the desert breezes. The usual camels, donkeys and goats both in front and behind us, some even managed to pass us as traffic snarled. I was thrilled, I asked where the pyramids were and before Mahmoud could answer my question, they loomed out from behind the branches and huge leaves of a stand of palm trees along the way. Can you imagine yourself going down a street In Cairo, the very heart of the history of the world and seeing all these things? I am sure you would be as excited as I was. Don did not seem to be as much in awe about everything as I was but then he had been around a lot more in life and could afford to be somewhat blasé.
We went around a corner, up a steep hill and the base of the largest pyramid "Cheops" came into view. I was amazed at the overpowering size of this structure that to this day I had seen only in books at school. Now here they were, for real and right in front of me. To give you an idea of size just place a pea on the floor beside your fridge and that would be about what we were like in size relation to it. It was very sandy in color and made up of thousands of individual stone blocks. The building of the pyramids has been one of the greatest mysteries of all time in our world.
We could see that there were many camels for hire around the base of the pyramids and we decided it would beat walking in the noonday sun. Mahmoud set out to find a nice shady spot to park and we took off to hire a couple of camels.
As I soon found out however, riding a camel is definitely not better than walking particularly if you have just had any one of the three main meals of the day. If you did, that meal would wind up on the sands of the Siani. The camel rocked back and forth, sideways and up and down and all at the same time and besides he kept looking back at me as though I should be the one carrying him up the great hill beside the pyramids. Finally I felt sorry for him and got off and you know, a camel always appears to have a smile on its face. Could be he was just laughing at me. Every once in awhile the air would be filled with the anguished screams of a woman trying desperately to hold onto the reins of a camel and the hem of her skirt at the same time.
Tourists from all over the world wandered like a sea of picture hungry creatures as they clicked their cameras like machine guns. It would seem that a camera is a required piece of garb for any tourist. Some had several cameras as would I in years to come but there was no way for me to know that yet.
The pyramids are one thing but the undisputed master of the Giza site is the sphinx. It's stone eyes have seen the sunrise and sunset of every day in over a thousand lifetimes before our turn on this incredible planet. Excavations could still be seen at the base of this majestic crouching monument, a strong indication that all the treasures of the past had not yet been found on the Giza Plateau. I remember standing between the paws of the sphinx with Don and telling him, because in my mind I could see it, that underneath the sphinx there was a giant chamber filled with all kinds of things and information that would one day change the world.
With the pyramids falling behind our car as we moved on we headed for our next point of interest the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. It stood on top of yet another hill and was one of the most luxurious places I have ever seen. The walls were of translucent alabaster, light passed through like magical golden rods. Before we could enter we had to take off our shoes and give them to two Arab attendants who in turn gave us a sort of slipper to wear as a sign of respect to Mohammed. It was funny to see the big slippers on our feet. In the huge courtyard of the mosque there stood a massive fountain where worshipers cleansed their feet before entering the mosque. The Arabs always enter barefoot.
Once inside I could see that there were no chairs as Moslems worship on their feet and kneeling. The floor was covered with a rich red carpet and the very high ceiling was made up of several beautiful, hand painted domes. The alabaster allowed light to shine through and on to the rugs and gilded woodwork. Both Don and I lay6 flat on our backs on the floor to get some good slide images of the domes, anything for a picture, and here there were a million to be taken.
Outside there was a big garden area with emerald green grass and more stately palm trees dancing slowly in the desert breezes.
On the way back from the Mohamed Ali Mosque Mahmoud asked us if we wanted to see the Mosque of Sultan Hassen but it was already well after supper and we were really all touristed out.
After a brief rest Don and I decided to go out to another club even though the beds looked very appealing. One could hardly sleep on one's first Saturday night in Cairo. We met in the lobby gathered up Mahmoud and set out for the Parroquette Club.
We told Mahmoud that he could be our driver whenever we came to Cairo which we both knew would be many, many times over our full year of service in the area. The Parroquette Club was larger than the Sheherazade and had a much bigger show. Some of the dances were unbelievable they took so much energy to do and could those girls ever shake. Some of the male tourists appeared to be enjoying it too much and I actually saw a woman lead her lusting husband out by the ear. I was glad that I was in the Army and having so much fun. We took lots of great pictures in the club and watched the show until the wee hours of the morning. Then at about 3 am we dragged ourselves back to our rooms and slumberland. I was in much better shape however because I had stayed well away from the drinking. Anyway we had spent most of our money in the adventure that took place the night before.
I couldn't sleep late on Sunday because it was back to our desert camp. I said so long to my Hilton Paradise and headed back to the Capsis Palace where I picked up my other bag and the rest of the gang. Some of them wondered where we had been, we all had our own treasure chest of memories to draw from.
Cairo had been good to me, very good. To have been given this kind of experience as soon as we arrived at our posting was an unbelievable break. I had felt very welcomed by both Cairo and her wonderful people. I had seen things that I never dared to dream I would see in my lifetime and I was just seventeen to boot. As the bus pulled away from the Capsis Palace and along the teaming city streets to the desert highway that would take us back to our camp I vowed to return again as soon as humanly possible and I knew full well where I would stay. This was not just a weekend, it was an adventure highlight of my life and I gave a silent thank you to Cairo for a really great time.
This story was written by me when I was just seventeen years old about my first real adventure when I spent a weekend in Cairo. The photographs were taken during various successive trips.
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