At 7:00 we are ready to go on shore and sit down in the Chief Officers office to get our shore passes. These are a document issued by local immigration allowing sailors to go on shore for a specific time without passport /visa. The company agent tells us because of Ramadan the immigration office opened only at 9:00! Furthermore due to the heightened security awareness in the city, no taxis are allowed inside the port and no port shuttle service is provided. Mohammed, the short fat-bellied watchman in his mid-fifties, standing at the gangway to check who is coming onto the ship, is our contact with the port. He has three mobile phones and is supposed to help with any communications regarding transportation, security, suppliers as well as the company representatives. Unfortunately we find him sleeping in a corner in the early morning! Anyhow, all kinds of people from the company enter the ship, promise to help us, promise it will take only a few more minutes, but knowing the ME culture, no surprise not much happens. At 12:30 someone (apparently from the ships company, but we still do not really know) finally picks us up, drops us of at a ramshackle immigration office next to the cruise ship quay, where we collect the papers and drove us to down town. We have lunch in the Beirut Souk, which is a luxurious mall in the Christian part of town. Here nothing reminds us of Ramadan. Women are opulently dressed in fashionable summer clothing, man wear fancy business suites. We drink ‘Almaza’ Lebanese beer at lunch, check our e-mails, upload this blog posting and Skype with the family.
Walking around down town we see a few bullet-pocked buildings reminding us of the many civil wars, but all other buildings are either newly renovated or still being new constructed. Heavenly armed military check points and many other different looking uniformed security people seem to keep the peace.
We buy some sweets, toiletries and as many English news magazines and newspapers as we can before the driver picks us up. This time he brought his ‘friend’. When we pass the army check point at the port, another guy with an army uniform jumps next to us on the backseat, taking a ride with us. Here we are, sitting with three strange guys in a car in this notorious city!
Back on the ship there is a reek of sewage. A worker stands on top of the containers stacked 18 meters above the upper deck, wearing no fall protection nor hardhat, while the gantries are hauling right above his head! A squashed container stands on the quay as a result of an accident just a few weeks ago. Does this port say anything about the city?
The next morning we leave with a five hours delay. Six hours shore leave at Beirut is simply too short, too stressful!!
Ten miles off Port Said, as the sun burns off the morning fog, a convoy of 19 ships is formed to enter the 110 miles long canal. The Suez Canal is too narrow for free two-way traffic, so ships pass in convoys. We are number 18 in between two similar gigantic container ships.
After the pilot, two mooring crew and an electrician board the ship, we navigate silently with a speed of ten knots. The Sinai is barren with occasionally an oasis, but it’s west bank is green.
We pass the container terminal in Port Said, small fishing boats throwing out their nets, rusty ferries crossing, signal towers as part of the canal navigation system, a rail swing bridge not used anymore. At El-Qantara we pass underneath a 70-metre high road suspension bridge. On the west bank there are dusty villages dominated by minarets, small factories, palm tree plantations and a dilapidated passenger train running parallel to the canal. Its banks are military area and we see watch towers every kilometre, small army camps, army pontoons on specially build quays and military helicopters patrolling the skies.
A monument commemorates the scene of a major crossing by the Egyptian army into Israeli-occupied Sinai in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. Dredging is continuing on the new by-pass over half the total length of the canal, to be inaugurated in August.
Hoping to see any camels or untouched desert, we are disappointed: every inch of its banks is manmade.
In the Great Bitter Lake we are lucky not have to wait for a northern bound convoy, taking us to Suez in less than 11 hours.
We enter the Gulf of Suez before dusk and its water is like a mirror, only to be rippled by the wakes of the ships in our convoy. A surreal view indeed after a fascinating day! It was a long day and Francien and I are both tired.
Next morning there is a security briefing by our captain. All on board must put any alcohol, magazines, photographs and other (according to strict Islamic laws) prohibited materials inside the bonded storage room to avoid penalties when Saudi Arabian immigration officers will inspect the ship after we arrive in Jeddah.
At the crack of dawn we enter the port of Jeddah. I do receive FM radio again and hear Koran recitals and other religious programs: welcome back where we left only four months ago! Nobody is allowed to go ashore, so we watch 2900 containers being (un-)loaded, go to the gym and read some books. A very relaxing day. For the first time since we left Rotterdam we have to keep the windows off our cabin closed and let the air-conditioning do its work: Outside it is 42 0C.
Day 18: we left Jeddah before sunrise and are now heading to the Gulf of Aden.