If you truly wish to find someone who travels, there are two points on the globe you have but to sit and wait, sooner or later your man will come there: the docks of London and Port Sa’id.’
A lot’s changed since Kipling’s day, but until the post WWII dawn of cheap commercial air travel, boat travel through Suez was Europe’s gateway to the Orient, the Pacific Ocean, and western America.
My own closest association with Suez is the image of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, trekking across the Sinai to return to Cairo, played, of course, by Peter O’Toole. Lawrence and his companion stumble across the Suez Canal and know they’ve made it when they see a boat’s stack sailing along a dune.
The real world Suez Canal is impressive. Straight as a bolt, the canal divides the cultivated gardens of the west bank from the sere expanse of the Sinai Desert. As we sail nearly due south, the right bank teems with activity. The canal is perhaps 400 meters wide and bordered on the west bank by a companion fresh water irrigation canal. The embankment between the two has a paved military road punctuated intermittently by little clusters of army encampment.
At first I thought the military outposts were motels or cafes. They are gayly, if oddly, painted in puce trimmed with red and green. Then I noticed that each has a tower and checkpoint. Bored soldiers with rifles wander in the dust around the fenced perimeter. In between the west bank outposts, there are smaller, lonely stations on the right bank. I feel sorry for the kids occupying them. They are connected by a dirt road and surrounded by landscape as dry and empty as the moon. The only interruption is the occasional broken concrete ruin or crater leftover from the Seven Day War.
At one fort on the west bank the parade ground features a basketball court. American culture on the edge of the Sinai Desert – what next?
Back on the west bank beyond the military fortification are a civilian railroad line, then acres of green farms deriving life from the irrigation canal. I see no farm machinery and occasional clutches of workers hand tending their crops. Dividing the farms is a parallel, four lane highway busy with trucks and automobile traffic all honking enthusiastically as they overtake one another.
The only traffic on the canal other than merchant ships is gunboats of the Egyptian Navy and little flat bottomed civilian boats. These latter fascinate me. The resemble large, decked pirogues. Some are lateen rigged for sailing, but most appear to be rowed by sculling a single oar or tugged along by workers with ropes looped over their shoulder running along the edge of the canal. These pulled boats are most common near Port Sa’id and I speculate they bring farm produce to market. Although I looked carefully, I confess I could not identify any of them transporting anything but people.
The fortified border of the canal is depressing, like the border between Mexico and the U.S. There are miles of wall and fencing. Photography is prohibited, but I sneak a couple of shots. Then the gunboat in our wake moves forward, reminding me that I’m here at sufferance. I could lose more than my iPhone.