A call came in June of 1994 while I was away, inquiring whether I would be interested in participating in a conference in Cairo during Christmas week. Betty took the call and did not discourage the caller, who identified himself as being connected with my former employer. She wrote the name but was unsure of the spelling; he was to call back at a later date. A few days later, I received a call from a man named Mohammed in Calgary (Canada) regarding the conference. He had no connection with my former employer, but offered the same invitation. Betty thought Christmas week in Cairo would be a welcome change from our usual surroundings of home and family, so I was interested. The sponsor would pay my air fare and hotel accommodations. Some of the mystery was removed after Mohammed faxed me a copy of their call for papers identifying the sponsoring organization and theme of the conference. He needed a commitment for me to apply for funding.
Weeks went by without hearing further, and we almost forgot about it. While on a seminar trip in England in October, we mentioned the invitation to old friends at dinner. Arie had run a business in Israel for many years, and was familiar with practices in the Middle East. He advised us not to give up hope, that gears turned slowly in Egypt, and we would hear from them yet. Shortly after our return, Mohammed called to report that he had obtained funding and needed the title of my paper for publication in their program. He called again to direct me to book flights through EgyptAir, which flies non-stop from New York to Cairo.
After some negotiations with the airline, we booked departure for Christmas Day at 11:00 P.M., returning on New Year's Eve at 1:30 A.M.–there were no other flights available in that time frame. Some people had said that we ought ot stay longer, but having traveled so much recently, we accepted it as long enough.
We celebrated Christmas with the family on Christmas Eve, exchanging presents before going to bed. Christmas Day, we brought our elderly neighbor to Mass and came home to finish packing. We had to fly a commuter plane from Boston to JFK airport, at a time when commuter airlines were in trouble. The FAA had grounded ATR turboprops after a crash believed to have been caused by icing. TWA substituted a DASH turboprop for our flight, which arrived at JFK without incident. After a lousy Christmas dinner in a cafeteria, we went to the departure gate where we waited to board. At that point, Betty discovered she had taken an almost empty bottle of her heart medicine rather than the full one.
Our very long and crowded flight arrived in Cairo the following afternoon. We had been told we could obtain a visa upon arrival (which formality hardly qualifies as a visa at all–a landing card would be as effective). Upon disembarkation, we looked anxiously for some indication of where we could apply for a visa, and discovered a man carrying a sign with my name on it. He conveyed us to the money-changers where we bought visa stamps for $2 each. We then proceeded through immigration. I became anxious about our luggage after overhearing a message over an attendant's phone about some "bags not delivered by TWA," which was our previous carrier. We breathed a sigh of relief when they appeared on the conveyor shortly after our arrival.
Our guide whisked us through customs and out to the parking lot where a driver waited to take us to the Marriott, the largest hotel in Cairo. Traffic was so thick that a two-lane road was carrying three lanes of vehicles. On the way we passed a huge statue of Ramses II. When I inquired who it was, the driver identified it as a reproduction of the original in Luxor. Would we like to see the original? When I asked how far it was to Luxor, the driver replied, "Only 45 minutes." He was trying to get us to book a tour there, and failed to mention that it was 45 minutes by air!
Being very tired, we had a room-service pizza and went to bed. Shortly after I had fallen asleep, the phone rang–it was our driver wanting us to book a tour for the following day. Since my presentation was not until the day after, we booked a tour to the pyramids. We only slept half the night due to jet lag, but were at the hotel entrance at the appointed time of 8:30 A.M., ready for the tour. There was only one other person in our tour group, which explained the high cost of $65 per person. But in a place like Cairo, foreigners are virtually captive to their environs, and offers of guidance are readily accepted.
Traffic in Cairo is awful most of the time, and the tortuous route we took to Giza passed through some narrow streets choked with pushcarts, cars, people, and trash. Although the pyramids can be seen from any high point in Cairo, the drive there can take up to two hours.
Our first stop was at the ruins of Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom dating back to 2700 B.C. A prophesy by Jeremias (46:19) that "...Memphis shall be made desolate, and shall be forsaken and uninhabited," indeed has been fulfilled, for there remains only a few ruins. There lies a statue of Ramses II now on his back, about 40 feet long. Another artifact there is an alabaster Sphinx 14 feet high and 25 feet long, and a sarcaphogas of Amen-hotep. We had expected to see all these relics in a desert background, but in fact, the surroundings were quite green.
Our next stop was at the six-step pyramid of Sakkarah (Saqqara), the oldest of the pyramids, which is near Memphis, but in the desert–the transformation from green to desert is quite sharp. This is the funerary pyramid of Zoser (Djoser), founder of the third dynasty. Each of its steps is constructed of uniform rows of stones, but the stones themselves are not uniform–not cut into blocks as in later pyramids, but rounded and spilling at the corners. Nearby is a complex of ruins, parts of which are being restored. Limestone blocks are being cut with copper tools like those believed to have been used in the original work, and polished by hand. The area is also honeycombed with buried tombs, some of which are open for inspection. Their walls are covered with carvings and paintings depicting scenes of ancient Egypt, and hieroglyphics identifying people and events. Tour guides are able to interpret some of them. We even obtained a copy of a hieroglyphic alphabet showing 24 symbols and their corresponding letter or sound in the Roman alphabet. If you bring a camera into this complex of ruins, you must pay an additional fee.
We stopped for lunch at a vine-covered restaurant where two girls in traditional dress were baking pita bread in an old stone oven. The bread swells as round as a ball in the heat of the oven, then flattens as it cools, leaving the center as a pocket that can be filled when cut open. After taking their picture, I left a tip, which they accepted but offered a bread in return. Our lunch consisted of typical Mideast fare, with dips of hummus, eggplant, and other pastes, and tasty kabobs; the local beer was quite good.
The afternoon was spent at Giza (Gizeh) visiting the great pyramids and the Sphynx. The tallest of the three great pyramids is Cheops, originally 146 meters high (479 ft), now truncated to 137 meters. Its original facing of cut limestone has been completely removed and used for mosques and other buildings over the centuries. The present surface consists of rectangular blocks laid in tiers of 5-6 ft. Signs warn against climbing them, in Arabic and English. The next pyramid, of Chephren (Kefren) is the same height as the present summit of Cheops. It alone has some of the original facing remaining in about the last hundred feet near the top.
Next is the smaller pyramid of Mycerinus (Mykerinus), 66 meters high, with three tiny pyramids of the queens adjacent. Our guide selected this for entry, explaining that being the smallest of the three, we would have to travel less to reach the center, and that the interiors were not that different. We entered via a wooden ramp, as the portal was well above grade level. The floor of the passage sloped steeply downward, requiring boards with cleats to be laid on the stone to avoid slipping. There was less than five feet of headroom, so that we had to walk bent over, and the passage was also narrow. It was well-lighted, with a handrail, and a guide helped us through. Eventually, we reached a sharp right turn, continuing to a central burial chamber, where at last we could straighten up. The walls were bare, flat rock, but the immensity of the space was impressive. Feeling claustrophobic, we were anxious to leave, scrambling back up the sloping corridor to daylight. On reaching the entrance, we were panting more from anxiety that from the effort of the climb back up.
The two-hour ride back through Cairo's steaming streets added to our fatigue, so we elected to have dinner from room-service rather than having to dress and go out, even though it was our 36th wedding anniversary. While we were waiting for dinner, however, Betty's heart began racing, apparently the result of not taking her prescription. We called the hotel doctor, explaining the problem. He told us that her medicine was available over the counter, and we had only to bring the empty container to the bell captain, and he could obtain its replacement at a nearby pharmacy. Within half an hour, we had the medicine and the crisis was averted.
My paper was delivered to the conference the next morning. It dealt with the decline of technical education specifically in my field, but also in general, in my own lifetime. I admonished the teachers in the audience to strive for the truth rather than political correctness, quoting Paul: "For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but following their own desires will surround themselves with teachers who will tickle their ears. They will stop listening to truth and wander off to fables." (2 Tim. 4:3). Civilizations fall as well as rise (which should not surprise anyone in Egypt), and more than any other group, teachers are responsible for that fall or that rise.
That evening, we joined the conference for a dinner cruise on the Nile. Most of the members were from Arab countries, with women identified by scarfs covering their hair–some black, some colorful–and no makeup. The buffet contained a wide variety of meats, and the wine flowed. Entertainment included a belly dancer.
December is a pleasantly cool, dry month in Egypt. We thought about going for a stroll about the city next day, but didn't get far. Within a block of the hotel, while skirting around broken pavement and piles of debris, we were hounded by beggars, and taxi drivers offering private tours. We declined and returned to the hotel, in favor of a trip to the Egyptian Museum. It is impossible to see everything there, and after several hours in any museum, I become saturated. The history of Egypt is so extensive, and the artifacts from the different periods so varied, that only a sampling is possible in a day. The exhibit of artifacts from King Tut's tomb alone is worth a day's time.
We also visited an early Christian church, supposedly on the site where Mary and Joseph took Jesus during their flight from Herod, and a mosque set on the height of the city. During our ride back to the hotel, we passed an ancient Roman aqueduct supported by magnificent arches. Our guide mentioned that the aqueduct was mostly intact, damaged only here and there by Napoleon's army. I replied that it wasn't only Napoleon who had damaged Cairo. (The city is awash in filth and rubble from countless generations of people who don't care much about their surroundings.) There was no doubt that she understood my meaning. Cairo joins Calcutta as cities I could not bring myself to walk about. We were glad to leave. Shortly afterwards, a busload of tourists were killed by gunmen in Luxor.
REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA
My first trip to South Africa was in September of 1983, a time when pressure was increasing at home to divest in the South African economy and stop doing business with organizations having branches there, as a protest against apartheid. My second trip was in June of 1994, after the general election of April when Nelson Mandela became president. The violence that had led up to the election fortunately ended when it was over, or I would not have gone.
A brief history of the country is in order to help explain its unusual situation among nations. Cape Town was first settled in 1652 by the Dutch as a provisioning depot for its ships trading with the East Indies. The Dutch East India Company declined in the eighteenth century. The British took over the colony in 1806 to protect their shipping lanes to India. Many of the Dutch settlers, being an independent lot, migrated to the interior with their cattle; they were known as Boers, literally Dutch peasants. In the meantime, the British began opening missions among the natives; one of the missioners was David Livingstone, who became a famous explorer.
The Boers and British had different attitudes toward the natives, and still do. The British were resolved to stop the slave trade in 1832, and their missioners attempted to educate and civilize the blacks, although actual conversions were rare. The Boers preferred to leave them alone, and were upset when the British used converted blacks to help with the teaching. The friction between the Boers and British eventually erupted into the Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century, won by the British. Yet before long, the Boers had managed to place themselves in positions of power in government, while the British were more interested in commerce and controlled most of the country's wealth. The official languages are English and Afrikaans (based on 17th century Dutch), although the black majority speak Sichuana and its many dialects.
In 1983, I flew PanAm from New York. We left in the late afternoon, flew into the night, and stopped to refuel the following morning in Liberia on the west coast of Africa, at a place called Roberts Field. You can find it on a world map, but it is not a thriving metropolis. Roberts Field is just a clearing in a vast green savannah, with a landing strip and a few Quonset huts. Pity the crews that have to lie over there between flights. My return flight form Johannesburg was on South African Airways, which refuels on Ilha do Sal in the Cape Verde Islands, a much more interesting place. In 1994, I flew SAA from New York and was stranded there for 24 hours (as described elsewhere in the book).
It was spring in Johannesburg in September of 1983, as proclaimed by the jacaranda trees in full bloom. They are tall, elm-shaped, covered with an umbrella of purple blossoms. A drought that had persisted for months did not appear to dim the blossoms, but its effects were very noticeable when I visited a game reserve that weekend. My hotel, on the outskirts in Sandtown, was a comfortable old place, having the largest thatched roof of any building in the world.
Segregation in South Africa was nothing like I remembered from the time I spent in Georgia and Florida in my youth. There were three racial classifications: white, black, and colored, the latter including Asians and Indians. While there were not the obvious "White Only" signs I remembered in restaurants and other public facilities in the south, segregation was enforced. Blacks could not live in Johannesburg, for example, even if they worked there. Once when a group of us working on a project at an oil refinery went to lunch at a nearby restaurant, one of the refinery engineers, an Indian, couldn't join us. I was told that coloreds were not allowed to eat with whites in the Orange Free State, although it was permitted in the Transvaal, just over the state line.
There was much concern at the time of the rising tide of communism infiltrating across the border from Mozambique. Security at critical installations like refineries was high, with armed patrols in jeeps making regular rounds about the perimeters. They even used double fencing, with the ten-foot space between the fences patrolled by ostriches, claimed to be very effective deterrents and low cost. There were very real fears of the tragedy that befell Rhodesia. When its government was taken over by the black majority, the white landowners lost most of their rights, most evacuating the country with only what they could carry. A most beautiful and prosperous nation began to deteriorate as soon as its name was changed to Zimbabwe.
Fortunately, that hasn't happened to South Africa. On my second trip to Johannesburg, the doubts and fears were largely over. There were blacks attending the conference where I spoke, and a black government official talked about plans to increase participation in industry and academics. The hallmarks of a liberal government administration were much in evidence.
Hluhluwe Game Reserve
The great game reserve in South Africa is Kruger National Park, on the Mozambique border. There was not time during my visit to go there, so I was invited for the weekend to Hluhluwe (pronounced Sha-shluey). While tiny in comparison to Kruger, I felt I was in the limitless wilds of Africa as it appeared to early explorers. The residences were rondeveld huts: circular walls with conical thatched roofs, the traditional dwellings of the region. While furnished as well as any modern hotel room, they were not air-conditioned. Yet in the heat of the season, and it was very hot, they were still comfortable.
After dinner in the central dining hall, I was fascinated by a huge white rhinoceros rolling in the mud not a stone's throw away. There were no fences as in a zoo. But the white rhino is not considered dangerous, at least not as dangerous as the black rhino, which is much rarer. I awoke at dawn to the sound of a herd of impala dashing past my window. Even more startling was the visitor at my door when I headed out to breakfast–a seven-foot ostrich peering down at me. He was just curious and wandered off a minute later.
The trees were green with the new growth of spring, but water holes were almost dry and the air was thick with dust. Most of the trees' foliage was distributed horizontally, perhaps due to the smaller animals grazing on the lower branches, and the giraffes grazing on the top. For their survival, all the trees seemed to bear thorns. On a walk into the bush we discovered an ostrich nest bearing one huge egg, and tunnels of ant lions, which dig conical traps for ants to fall into. Later, we took a ride in a Volkswagen van with the top removed for viewing. We saw a rhino close up, a few springbok, and herds of zebra and wildebeasts. On our last day in the park, we drove around exploring the fringes, where we found a few baboons, some gnus, and a pair of eighteen-foot-tall giraffes looking down at us puny humans.
Durban is a modern city situated on the east coast facing an open expanse of ocean. The beaches are marvelous, and in 1983, segregated into white, black, and colored. When I returned in 1994, the fences and signs were gone, all the beach open to everyone. From my hotel, I could see far out into the blue, watching ships proceeding up and down the coast, and surfers plying the waves closer to shore.
Shortly after checking into the hotel on my first visit, I was startled by a loud whistling sound emanating from somewhere in my room. When it persisted, I realized it must be the telephone, and answered it. This was the first time that I had heard a telephone ring in any other way besides a bell. Soon electronic telephone ringing became commonplace, but it was a little surprising to find South Africa at the forefront of this technology.
Lectures at the local university and plant visits took most of my time in Durban, leaving me very little chance to explore. Following my first visit, I returned to Johannesburg, but the next trip took me to Cape Town, where I had not been before.
Cape Town is situated at the head of a peninsula which is the Cape of Good Hope. The city has as a backdrop, Table Mountain, a flat massif about 3000 feet high–the setting is spectacular when viewed from across the bay. Being the oldest colonial settlement in the country, there are many historical features, and some of the old waterfront buildings are being preserved as hotels and shops. It is also a prominent government center, where most of the officials from the capitol of Pretoria adjourn to conduct business during the heat of the summer. In early July, the weather was dry and crisp, but not cold. There seems always to be a breeze, and in fact violent winds are common.
South of the city, the cape narrows, finally coming to the rocky promontory known as Cape Point. Here the land ends on a headland surmounted by a lighthouse. Waves crash on the rocks from two directions, as the ocean stretches in an unbroken tide all the way to Antarctica. This is one of the "ends of the earth." From the point, however, one can see land due east across False Bay. The Cape of Good Hope is not the most southern point of Africa, for nearly 100 miles farther east, Cape Agulhas protrudes another 30 miles more to the south in a gentle curve.
The next day, my host drove us north to the old Dutch village of Tulbagh, where he and his father owned houses. On the way, we passed a snow-capped range about 4000 feet above sea level. I was told that the snow was not common, but occasional during the winter. The village was restored to its original appearance around 1740, with a Dutch Reformed church and vicarage at the end of the main street. The street was lined with whitewashed and thatched-roofed bungalows, all original, all restored strictly according to standards intended to keep that appearance. Aloe plants blooming in the gardens supplied the only clue that we were not in a remote Austrian village. A local restaurant in the same decor served wine grown in the region and favorite traditional dishes. We returned to Cape Town over a rugged mountain pass reminiscent of Colorado, where daisies bloomed among the rocks.
My flight home was non-stop from Cape Town to Miami, arriving on July 4th.