Friday, January 28, 2011

Back in the day - Middleboro Jones visited Cairo, Egypt....a beautiful city that welcomed me as a brother

Back almost 10 years ago, I found myself in Cairo, Egypt on a training mission with CENTCOM. It was a unique opportunity as we were planning on being there for three months and the idea of experiencing life in Cairo was a great benefit to serving in the US Navy. Cairo and Egypt as a whole fascinated me, especially as it was the land of the Pyramids and the Pharaohs.

I got the orders and reported to McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL. No info on what was going to happen or what the schedule would be - " You'll find out when you get there..." was what I was told. I reported on time and met up with an Air Force Tech Sgt. who would get me up to speed on our mission. His Boss in this unified command was a Marine Major, who took one look at me and stated, "What the HELL am I going to do with you ?? They sent me a damned Navy guy." I explained that I was selected as I was a Storekeeper, something critical to the mission and the advance team which was where I was assigned. The Major picked up the phone, dialed a supply person on the base and directed him to get me some DCUs as I needed "proper" uniforms if I was going to be part of the team.

I got the DCUs and got name tags sewn for them at a place just outside the base. That day they let me know I was heading to Egypt on Friday. This was Monday and that was only 4 days away. I called home and let the NAVWIFE that I would be OUTCONUS a lot faster than we could have imagined.

We flew out and arrived via commercial jet suffering from the usual bout of jetlag, which is always worse when you fly west to east. Accommodations was at the Hotel Marriott Cairo Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino, which is located in the middle of downtown in the Zamalek district, right on the Nile river. I was amazed at all the FIATS that were there, specifically Fiat 128s which was a foreign car I drove while in college.

We worked out of the hotel there and were setting up the advance party which was responsible for getting the exercise set up and underway. The first day I was there, my boss sent me to the Pyramids. I asked why as we had lots of work to do. He said, " Things will get busy, I won't have time to let you go & see them. Go now while things are starting up and you'll get to see them."

I went to the Pyramids that day and also saw the Sphinx. The Pyramids are awesome but the Sphinx rocks. The Sphinx is in a compound all by itself and swept clean. the Giza plateau where the Pyramids are located are dusty and dirty.....The Pyramids are impressive in size but the Sphinx r-o-c-k-s. He is something to see. Of course, no one will tell you that the city of Giza sits right on top of the Pyramids along the Giza river and the smell off the river could knock a buzzard off a gut wagon. Seriously. Sanitation was not a high priority in Giza.

Lots more to tell but the key to this tale was we were on the ground in Cairo on September 11th, 2001. I was in the stationary district picking up office supplies from a guy named Mageary who operated a office supply store....He ran a good shop with hard working staff who were able to put our order together. I was waiting outside the store while the Marine who was with me was inside getting the bill translated. The Marine was a lance Cpl. from California but had been born in Jordan and understood Arabic perfectly. Our van was parked three blocks up the street.

The Army type who was with us came down the street and told me, " They hit the World Trade Center. We got to get back to the Ops Center." I sent him into Mageary's to get the Marine. I planted myself against the wall as I could see people were starting to get the news. The Marine came out, we started down the street through the sea of humanity. We got to the van and I ordered the driver to get us back to the hotel. No stops.

It took us 45 minutes to make it there and Egyptian military was already placing protective guard around the hotel as there was 85 of us staying there along with many other foreign tourists. We got back to the Ops Center just in time to see the towers fall. Our Commanding officer stated, "We are at war - do your jobs." Life got very busy as all of us were trying to see what we could do to help and waiting for more word on what had really happened.

I was one of the few people who had been given a US embassy ID, which would allow me to go into the Embassy to pick up documents and pouches. I spent the next week going to & from the embassy for the command and trying to keep busy. One of the staff was an Egyptian woman who saw me the after that attack and threw herself on the floor in front of me, begging for my forgiveness. I asked her to get up and that she had nothing to be ashamed of.....she was not to blame. She cried and stated, " You will blame us all..." I found myself humbled by her concern and tried to tell it was not her fault.

I saw many others at the hotel who knew we were Americans and treated us with great dignity. We were treated with kindness and concern for our welfare. We tried to make the best of it but after three weeks, they pulled us out and we went back home.

I remember more adventures like walking the streets with my Marine Lance Cpl. to hunt down Cuban Cigars, and exploring parts of the city far from the tourist areas. I found the Egyptian people to be warm and great conversationalists. I enjoyed their company and was hopeful to return one day to see the city again.

I shared all this (and could have gone on for quite a bit more) because of what is happening today there in Cairo. It saddens me to see all the trouble although I understand their frustration as they have a very very low standard of living....It is a great place to visit and I hope the trouble eases as 80% of their economy comes from Tourism.....sadly, the unrest will likely on drive people away from a place that I found to be very hospitable and enchanting. It is a shame as Mubarek was a bit of a hardliner, but that was a necessary quality in that area of the world.

On day, I hope to return to Cairo.....As I was leaving, the staff at the hotel wished me well and one worker said, " We will see you again....Inshalla.."

May Egypt return to being a tourist destination and may the people not shrug off one hardliner for a series of other more sinister ones. If it were to become like Iran, it would be a terrible loss for the people and all who would one day hope to visit to the city of the Pharoahs.

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