2 December 2002

Cyprus # 6. A Holiday

OldEric says :-) I'm not sure how this holiday came about, even after long thought my memory is still a little hazy. But the following is as I remember. A notice was promulgated that forces personnel could apply for leave to be taken in Lebanon under forces direction and interested personnel could apply. The cost would be nominal only and we would be flown by RAF transport. I applied. How the selection process occurred, I don't remember .... names in a hat probably. Anyway I was selected.

Our party of about ten Army and RAF personnel flew from Nicosia to Beirut airport. We were the guinea pig party and a young army officer was sent along to prepare a report on the success or failure of the holiday exercise. On arriving at Beirut we were whisked up to the cool of the mountains to an area called Bois de Boulogne and to stay at a hotel there, I do not remember the name of the hotel and to make it more difficult to find out by a memory jog, the accommodation was in an annex to the hotel.

Down in Beirut the temperature was hot but up here the air was cool. There was no terrorism as such in Lebanon in 1957 although Palestinian refugees did exist. Up here in the hills ancient history was all around and even at my young age the sense of the stillness of time impressed me greatly. Just below the annex was a valley with its steep sides terraced, a remnant of biblical times. A pathway led down to the bottom and ruins of an old monastery existed. The sides of the opposite wall of the valley were terraced also, as was most of the country up here in the hills.

One morning there was a bus provided to take us to the ruins of Baalbek, a trip I missed. My stomach was a little delicate for the long journey, the result of a trip down to Beirut and a little celebrating the previous evening. In those days Baalbek was a name only to me, I did not realise what I was to miss. Later in the day I went for a stroll down a pathway from the annex and met a young Lebanese and we talked for some time. He was studying at the American University of Beirut and his subject was Electronics so we had something in common. I occasionally think of this short chance encounter and sometimes I wonder how his life unfolded over time.

I think we made two or three trips down to Beirut. The first trip down we enquired of some young men, a suitable place to eat, they were American University of Beirut students also and they directed us to a suitable place where many students ate. We ordered kebabs and they smelt delicious, the only trouble was trying to eat them. The meat was like chewing rubber and I found the only way to consume the pieces was to try and tear the pieces into smaller pieces and swallow.

On our second trip down to Beirut by taxi, the driver took a wrong turn in the city and we landed in the middle of a Palestinian area and our taxi driver came to a dead stop in the middle of the road realizing his mistake. The taxi was surrounded by people waving fists and banging on the sides of the vehicle and trying to get into the taxi. The taxi driver froze. I remember grabbing him the neck and shoulder and shouting "get into reverse and drive", the exact words. The other three had locked the doors and the taxi shot backwards and when we were clear we looked each other with a look of relief. The taxi driver was the most relieved of all, I think.

In our hotel annex were prosperous, mainly Syrian families who came down to into Lebanon to escape the summer heat. Here we were introduced to the Middle Eastern habit of the appreciation of a good meal, a series of good loud burps. We were also introduced to the Hookah water pipe at first hand. After dinner the Middle Eastern families wives and children retired and the water pipe was brought in and light it was then passed around from one to another. We sat at separate tables from the Syrians but close, and our education of the world was extended a little further.

I think we all enjoyed our holiday, we even had been to the Casino and watched the tables. Too expensive for us poor servicemen. We returned to Cyprus and we all went our separate ways.

Were there further holidays for servicemen in Lebanon? I don’t know.

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