April 17: "We will play the news of the bombing in five minutes." This portentous message boomed over World Discoverer's intercom as she serenely sailed over a calm Red Sea toward Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
"What bombing?" We were participants on the last of a series of Society Expeditions' Halley's comet cruises, Project Arabia. The original itinerary had been published ages ago, before the Achille Lauro hijacking and before the burning of the tourist hotels in Cairo.
We had been scheduled to board our ship at Aden where we would have been the first tourists in decades. But internal strife struck Aden and made headlines throughout the world. So we boarded at Al Hudaydah, North Yemen, after a four-day land tour.
Project Arabia was ill-fated from the beginning. Only 62 of us possibly foolhardy travelers had signed up in spite of unsettling news; World Discoverer normally carries 140.
Broadcast of Bombing
The BBC broadcast announced the U.S. bombing of Libya. Here we were on a small cruise ship in the middle of the Red Sea surrounded by Arab nations. Kadafi had announced open season on Americans. We seemed a superb target for terror. The alien that had previously so fascinated us suddenly became deadly.
Cruise director Jac Elofsson told us that the situation would be closely monitored by Society Expeditions in Seattle. "Don't worry," he said, "the Saudis are our friends. For now, we will continue as planned."
Days later, Jac told me that after the broadcast he and the captain had discussed the possibility of turning and running from the Red Sea to safety in the Seychelles islands.
Next morning at 7 a.m. we docked at Jiddah. The next evening after spending a day and night at Taif, we reembarked. We were the first tourist group to spend a night in Saudi Arabia.
Society Expeditions is good at arranging such things. While there, we had bought the two English-language papers whose headlines denounced our bombing, and we had seen an appalling evening TV program showing horribly mutilated children. But no one seemed to hold it against American tourists. All the Saudis we met were utterly charming.
Two days later we stopped for what was to have been a full day of beachcombing and snorkeling at Sharm el Sheikh on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, but clearing into Egypt killed half that day. The Egyptians, though, were friendly; the delay was caused by the system, not the people.
We sailed to Aqaba, and when entering the harbor could see four countries at once: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt. Most of us did not seriously discuss fears but one young woman missed her 5-year-old son and husband and left us at Aqaba, saying: "When I get home I'm going to be on a high for the rest of my life, just being alive."
Long Bus Trip
We had a five-hour bus trip from Aqaba to Petra and back and then returned by boat to Sharm el Sheikh, and the next day spent seven hours on a bus to visit St. Catherine's Monastery.
The mountainous Sinai Desert is wild and lonely. Many commented and more thought that two bus loads of tourists in this forbidding land provided splendid targets if anyone wished to kidnap, maim or kill us. "They would never run these buses if there was any danger," summed up feelings.
After St. Catherine's we sailed for Suez.
April 22, 10 a.m.: An announcement at the conclusion of the first lecture: "Would passengers please remain in the lecture hall, and would those still in their rooms come up if able to walk." (The sea had been rough the previous night.) Cruise director Elofsson read us a telex from T. C. Swartz, president of Society Expeditions, urging that we passengers not leave the ship at Port Said as scheduled, but stay aboard and go to Venice.
"However, please be advised that should you disembark in Port Said, you do so at your own risk and we assume no responsibility whatsoever for your safety."
Torrents of Questions
Questions, torrents of questions. Emily, our graduate student Egyptian expert, said she was getting off in Egypt anyway and would still be happy to lead the extension. The extension was a four-day Society-sponsored excursion deep into Egypt that was scheduled to start at the end of our trip.
4:20 p.m.: Further clarification. The hotels, meals and excursions--everything promised for Cairo--would all be there if anyone wished to go. But the extension was definitely canceled. Passengers still wishing to disembark in Egypt must sign a release to Society.
We anchored in Suez shortly before sunset to wait until morning when we would transit the canal in convoy. Lateen-rigged sailboats clustered tight about World Discoverer, and an array of leather hassocks, beaten brass platters and urns were offered to us by robed merchants who climbed their boats' masts to display their wares.
Not many of us were in the mood to buy. That night at dinner, I sat with a couple who had originally signed up for the extension. An excited Emily came by. She had three for the extension and would be willing to run it for six. Interested?