by Julie Bielman
I came into the CH2M HILL fold in1972. I’d never been around engineers, let alone civil ones, but after I met Ken, I found their discussions about clients, proposals, projects, staffing, etc., somewhat fascinating. Too modest to blow his own horn, it was a year before I learned Ken was Regional Manager of CH2M HILL’s Denver office. I still wasn’t sure what that meant or entailed.
In 1978 Ken took over as Regional Manager in Atlanta. On a Monday morning, Ken called from CH2M HILL. “Honey, we have a problem. Harvey Brown’s secretary has just had emergency surgery. I hope you don’t mind but I volunteered you to fill in for her for a couple of months.” I began work the next day. Mr. Brown was the Director of the Consulting Engineers Council of Georgia (CECG). Ken was on the board. It was three months before the secretary returned to work. On my last day at the CECG, Ken called. “Honey, let’s go out for a special dinner tonight.” Vaguely aware he was more chatty than usual, we were somewhere between our Caesar salads and spaghetti carbonara when he cooed, “Honey, how would you like to move to Alexandria?” “Sure,” I said, not missing a bite let alone wondering if he was referring to Alexandria, Virginia…Louisiana…Kentucky…or wherever. Then he explained, “Julie…I’m talking about Alexandria, Egypt.” WOW! My heart skipped a beat as my brain went into overdrive thinking about all the details that would have to be worked out before we left.
The red-tape involved in taking on an overseas assignment is time-consuming. Both the Egyptian government and Metcalf & Eddy, the Boston-based firm that CH2M HILL was collaborating with on the project, had to okay Ken’s assignment on the project. CH2M HILL furnished us guidelines to aid in our move. They were invaluable. The “Newcomers Guide to Alexandria” published by the American Women’s Club of Alexandria was another great resource. The Guide also gave the common Arabic phrases for polite greetings; the Arabic names of fruits and vegetables; and words for numbers. Probably the most useful information in it, however, was the chapter on Health and Safety that gave detailed instructions on boiling and filtering of drinking water and how to clean fruits and vegetables in a Clorox solution.
We were soon on our way to Cairo. Our welcoming scene from the plane was a huge sandstorm which we had to fly through before landing–a dismal and scary experience! Inside the terminal we were met by Colonel Yousef, WWCG’s official “meeter and greeter.” He quickly cut through the red tape of Customs, gathered our bags, and ushered us out of the airport and into a waiting car for a wild ride to the Ramses Hilton.
We arrived at the WWCG Guest House just minutes before one of the five, daily Calls to Prayer was broadcast by the numerous mosques around the city. My ears were aching–not uncommon when I fly–and the sudden, metallic blare of the loud speakers went right through my head. After that first night, however, the Calls–though they might awaken me–didn’t particularly bother either one of us. In fact, I got in a habit of using that time for reflection and prayers of my own.
Evenings, if Ken was free and not too tired, he started showing me the city–downtown by tram or around our Roushdi area on foot. The state of disrepair of the city’s buildings, streets and sidewalks–along which heaps of garbage emitted their rotten odors–was appalling. Battle-scarred, pathetically-skinny cats nosed through them during the day. Packs of nearly wild dogs did the same at night. Flies were everywhere. The constant beeping of car horns was incessant. Cars parked on the sidewalks; people walked in the streets. It was mind-boggling…a magnitude worse than I expected. One evening a few days after we arrived we decided to go to a restaurant on the Cornishe bordering the Mediterranean. We were admiring the gorgeous aqua and turquoise colors of the sea and watching the men and children playing on the beach and in the water when suddenly our noses were assaulted by the sickening stench of sewage. “Where on earth is it coming from?” I gasped as we hurried our steps. “That’s one of the reasons we’re here. Raw sewage is being dumped into the sea without benefit of proper treatment.” He was quiet for a moment; then said apologetically, “Well, honey, I didn’t promise you a rose garden.”
Perhaps by some Egyptian standards our flat might have been considered clean enough, but by mine/ours, it was filthy. The windows had been left open–or blown open –during the same kamseen that had greeted our arrival in Cairo leaving miniature sand dunes on the floor; on the garish, threadbare furniture; in the folds of the heavy, dark drapes; and on the mattress and pillows–which someone had been using! The white tiles on the kitchen walls were streaked and splattered with an accumulation of food; the floor tiles were sticky with grime, and cockroaches skittered around everywhere. Ken’s biggest gripe was that the switch plates and chandeliers bit us every time we touched them.
One of the neat things WWCG did for all of the “new” wives arriving in Alex was to give them an orientation session. It included our being taken to the stores we would likely be using and introducing us to the salespeople, most of whom spoke pretty good English. Mona, a delightful Egyptian gal, helped me through the hoops. She took me to the souk, fabric store, drug store, and the one-and-only, spotlessly-clean, pork store. The last place we went was to a department store–similar to one of our dime stores–only with little, if any, organization. I left with enough supplies to clean a villa. Ken took down the chandeliers, I cleaned them up, and he rewired them. After nearly two months of cleaning, the flat sparkled. Then I got smart and hired a maid!
It seemed someone on the project was always ill from food- or water-related causes. Most of the time they were the younger ones who were determined to get used to the water and drank from the tap. Ken and I never became ill from my home cooking, probably because I followed the sterilization guidelines so religiously. We did, however, each suffer a bout of debilitating Pharaoh’s Revenge after eating in restaurants. Mine occurred because I forgot and ate a couple of bites of green salad before remembering it was verboten. Ken’s misery was from eating a bad fish–a VERY bad fish!
My favorite fabric store in Alex carried lovely cottons and silks, even nicer than the ones that disappeared from our shipment, so I also made a few cool, but demure blouses and dresses. I would’ve made more but the last time I shopped there, as I was tugging out a bolt of silk from a tight bin, I got pinched. I let out a startled yelp and whirled around to see the clerk’s back disappear. I thought, My gosh! I’m old enough to be his mother and I’m dressed properly so why did he do that? Other wives had complained of being pinched, but I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. I looked around for my good friend, Gertrude Claussen, but didn’t find her and thinking the clerk wouldn’t dare repeat that stunt, I again tried to dislodge the bolt of silk. “OUCH!” It happened again. Hearing me, Gertrude came bustling over to me from the other side of the store. I’ll never forget the smug Cheshire-grin on the clerk’s face as we walked out. He was a dead ringer for Omar Sharif! We never traded there again.
Two years after arriving in Alex, I was just beginning to organize and pack the things we wanted to ship back to the States when Ken came home, in an obvious state of excitement. He was breathless from hurrying the mile home from his office. (He would’ve called but our phone seldom worked.) “Honey,” says he, “How would you like to live in Amman, Jordan, for six months?”
I liked Amman. It was more European and everything was cleaner than in Egypt–no stinking garbage heaps and few flies. The restaurant food in Jordan was delicious, especially the Lebanese cuisine, and we could eat even the salads and fish without becoming ill. The prices were high, though, double of that in Egypt. Cooking in our flat was a pain. The refrigerator, sink, and two-burner stove were low to the floor and so tiny it required almost daily shopping. As we had done in Alex, on Ken and Cheryl’s days off we toured the country. Petra, Aquaba, Gerash, and the Dead Sea areas were our favorites. If they were in Amman, we took Randy Hoffman and Grover Jones of the Portland CH2M HILL office with us.
Decisions to accompany Ken on six-week stints in Cyprus and Dubai were even more exciting than being asked if I’d go to Egypt and Jordan. In Cyprus, Ken was the only CH2M HILLer on the project. The project office was located in the capital city of Nicosia which straddled the “green line” separating the Turkish and Cypriot sides of the island. We lived, however, in a hotel-apartment complex in the delightful coastal city of Larnaca. With only our breakfast and my lunch to fix, it was the neatest vacation I ever had.
Dubai, the second largest of the seven Arab Emirates, is a beautiful and vibrant place with the most interesting architecture and diverse group of people (East Indian, Asian, Filipino, Iranian, Egyptian, etc.) we’d seen in any city. Nofal Kasrawi (Portland, OR), a former professor of architecture and planning, was manager of the Dubai project. Fortunately for me, his lovely wife, Carmen, also an architect–and an artist–joined him while I was there. Having spent time there before, she was acquainted with the city and graciously took me shopping and touring.
One weekend, Nofal, Carmen, and Georges Habib, a Lebanese from Beirut but now of Paris, France–an architect/planner on the project–rented a car and toured five of the other Emirates. Georges acted as our driver and it didn’t take long to realize he couldn’t talk without both hands waving in the air–actions that caused us to scream a few times. It didn’t faze him. Talk about nerve wracking! Nofal, bless him, tried to keep our minds occupied by his fascinating commentary about the area’s history, religion, economics, and architecture.
The one exception to my enthusiasm about living in a foreign country was a possible assignment in Bangladesh. Ken had gone there on a week-long business development trip and returned home with an English language copy of the daily paper he’d picked up at the airport. My enthusiasm waned as I read the ho-hum, business-as-usual articles. “BENGALS EAT EIGHT” was the biggest headline. Another article tallied the loss of life through drowning and snakebite during the monsoon/flood season. The fact that temperatures had finally dropped into the 100-degree range with a matching humidity index didn’t cheer me, either. Though our lifestyle would’ve been one of safety and comfort by comparison, I must admit I was relieved when CH2M HILL didn’t get that job!
I kept my promise to keep our relatives apprised of our experiences. We sent 1,027 journal-like letters home, some with pictures in them, taken by Ken. I had no idea anyone was keeping their letters until we returned to Corvallis in 1984 and several relatives gave me their packets, suggesting the letters be compiled into a book and they wanted a copy. Ken and I got a big kick re-reading the letters as I typed them into the computer. We had been to so many interesting places, met such an array of people, and had so many neat experiences we had forgotten some of them. I completed the books in 1999 in time to give as part of our family Christmas presents. Perhaps in fifty years they will find them interesting. If history repeats itself, some of the countries we’ve been in will have different names by then.
You know, if we weren’t a few years past our prime, I’d be willing to pack my bags for another stint. Our daily lives weren’t always easy or fun in the Mid East, but without exception, our lives were always interesting. I thank CH2M HILL–and my hubby–for the opportunity to have those experiences.