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The Grand Journey
When I was fifteen my Dad accepted a job at Nouasseur Air force Base in Morocco. At the time we were living in Guam in the Mariana Islands. The trip from Guam to Morocco was a great experience. I’ll tell you about it.
My dad was in the civil service employed by the Air Force. When his new position became available he made arrangements with the Air Force to move us from Guam to Morocco.
We flew on Military Air Transport Service (MATS) planes. These were four engine constellations usually under contract with a civilian carrier such as Flying Tiger Airlines. Most people making the trip would have flown from Guam to Wake Island to Hawaii to Travis Air Force base in California, a trip of 30 hours, then across the states and over to Europe and down to Morocco. The whole trip might take 5 or 6 days with over night layovers.
But my dad learned that it was possible to fly from Guam across Asia to Europe and into Morocco. He felt that would be much more interesting and he elected to take this route. My understanding is that we were the first civilian family to take this route since World War II and the last.
The year was 1959. Our first destination was Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. Once we were there, my parents went about getting us the necessary visas for the upcoming countries. This took a week, during which time we were able to see some of the countryside and go into Manila. I remember being fascinated by houses on stilts and the general sense of activity. At the Officer’s Club one day there was a flurry of excitement when a young rising star in the Philippine Senate, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, joined the group. This was before he rose to power. I remember her as petite and quite pretty.
My memory of Manila was a busy bustling city of low rise buildings.
Our first destination after we had visas in hand was Saigon, Vietnam. This was several years after the conclusion of the French Indochina war and right before what we know as the Vietnam War began. All was peaceful and seemingly prosperous when we were there.
The only incident I recall was over a taxi bill. My dad piled us all into a cab, my mother, brother, sister, myself and dad. The driver turned on the meter and pulled away from the curb when he was struck in a fender bender by another vehicle. We had gone about 8 feet. He insisted my dad pay the meter. Dad grumbled about that for days.
We were in Saigon several days which gave us a chance to see some of the city. When we flew out on our way to India I was struck by the beauty of the countryside. It was all little plots of agricultural land.
Our flight to India was suddenly cut short. We were diverted to Bangkok Thailand. Apparently the flight plan had us flying through Burmese air space (now Myanmar), but the plane for which there was clearance had been shot down the week before. No go.
So we had an unexpected overnight stay in Bangkok. My mother took the opportunity to expose us to some semblance of culture. We spent the evening watching traditional Siamese dance. Not the most exciting thing for a teenager, but from my perspective now, I’m glad to have had the experience.
The following morning we flew on to India, going wide of the Burmese air space. We stopped to refuel in Calcutta and continued onto New Delhi, where we stayed two weeks. After India we were to travel through Pakistan. Getting a visa was difficult, lots of red tape and bureaucratic delay. The Indians and the Pakistanis went out of their way to make life difficult for each other and anyone who attempted to deal with them both. Thus we were held up two weeks in the process.
But it was a great time. We stayed in a grand hotel. It had seen better days, but it was still majestic. And, it was very formal. At dinner all the waiters wore white gloves, a hold over from British colonial times. I had never seen that before. The only problem was the gloves were filthy. I don’t think they got the concept.
One day while walking in the gardens of the hotel I was approached by a small man in a turban. He said he was a fortune-teller and for a few rupees he would tell me my fortune. I was a kid. He told me something that caught my attention, something I could not imagine he could know. What it was is lost in the vagaries of time, but at the time it was very interesting. I gave him some rupees. He told me enough more to whet my interest and then he stopped and asked for more rupees. I paid. He told more and then stopped. This went on until all my money was gone. Then he said for $20 he would tell me the name of my girlfriend; if he was wrong, he would pay me all my money back.
“Now how could he know my girlfriend’s name? He has just met me. I have never seen him before”, I thought.
So I agreed, confident on the return of my money. He directed me to write my girlfriend’s name on a piece of paper (“Dee”) and then he handed me a piece of paper on which was written “Dee”.
How he did that I have never known. But I do know I gave him an IOU for $20 and spent much of the two weeks sneaking around the hotel afraid to run into him again.
We spent the two weeks seeing as much of the country as possible. We went to Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, palaces, ancient ruins and of course the Taj Mahal. If you saw the movie Slum Dog Millionaire you will remember the crowds of people at Taj Mahal. As you can see in the photograph there were no crowds fifty years ago.
Even at the Red Fort of New Delhi there were few people. But most of those we saw were poor. The country has come a long way since then.
Finally my parents obtained the necessary visas to pass through Pakistan, which is what we did. Pass through. If I remember we just refueled and flew on to a military base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. We were there five days. Why? Because in those days there was only one flight a week to Europe. Much of that time I spent in bed with the worst cramps and stomach ailment I have ever experienced. Some reminder of India or Pakistan.
We did get out to see a nearby town. It was pretty desolate and when my mother got out of the car the shops closed up. She was wearing a dress that showed her legs below the knee which they found immodest. And she had blue eyes which is to say the “evil eye”.
Thus far our trip had taken nearly a month and we were about half way to our destination. My dad got to thinking he might lose the job if he did not get there soon, so he booked commercial flights and we did the rest of the trip in three days. The one memorable part of that trip was flying AirFrance in a commercial jet. That was the first year commercial jets were in service, I believe. The experience was superior to that which we have today.
For the most part the MATS travel was similar to commercial travel. Most of the planes were equipped for passengers. There was one flight where we sat on benches with our backs against the fuselage and no windows. On the wall opposite me was a dotted yellow line and a message which read “Cut here for emergency exit”. But that was an exception. The meals were box lunches with military rations, some better than others.
It is my understanding that, because of the difficulty with obtaining visas through many countries and the relative lack of support facilities, the regulations changed after our trip and civilian families with children were sent back through the United States and then on to their foreign destination.
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More to come
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