It's time again for a wrap up of the events of late. I realize in advance that everyone is reading (or should be) and enjoying Farrah's blog and that I cannot compete with it. If you're not, here's a shameless plug: http://farrahway.
About three weeks ago, we pulled into Subic Bay in the Philippines for a week long bi-lateral exercise. Essentially it was a chance for the Philippine armed forces and the Marines and sailors from the MEU to train together, interact and build on the relations that the countries share. It occurred at three different sites throughout the country and the one at which I participated was in the Crow River Valley, approximately three hours on a bus north of where the ship pulled into Subic.
The entire experience was an interesting immersion into what happens when the modern US military and the Third World collide. Even the bus ride to the site was an interesting dichotomy of a coach bus with wi-fi driving through rice paddies and shanty towns while honking at every motorbike with sidecar attachment carrying entire families to get out of the way. We disembarked the buses to find our home for the week: a tent city of large white vinyl tents, the likes of which you would expect to find at a wedding, situated inside of a sand berm with concertina wire around it.
While a fair amount of the berm and wire bit was force protection from any possible threat (militant Islamist groups like Abu Sayyaf are known to operate in the Philippines), the majority of it was dedicated to keeping the locals from stealing all of our belongings. The reasoning behind that is that an entire village of squatters has popped up in the valley that subsists primarily with their water buffalo and goats, making charcoal from the surrounding jungle and doing odd jobs for the military when they aren't taking anything that isn't bolted down.
The valley is home to an Air Force range complex that hosts two different annual training exercises with the American military, so when we arrived, an additional temporary village popped up next door with another wave of locals erecting about 20 different booths to sell predominantly food but also t-shirts and other trinkets to try and earn a living off the American visitors. While many of the Marines either supplemented the Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) or replaced them entirely with the local fare of barbecue chicken or pork, rice, fried bananas and small lumpia eggrolls from the booths, we were all rolling the dice. I made it out unscathed but a large number of Marines suffered various gastro-intestinal issues after consuming the local cuisine. It was also interesting to note that the Marines will by and large do anything to not eat another MRE but the locals would trade for them and gladly eat them over anything they would prepare.
Besides the local Philippine population, which would regularly shutdown training as they snuck onto the range to pick up spent brass shells, steal the car tires set out for gunnery targets or conduct their regularly scheduled transit up the valley to Mt Pinatubo everyday from , we also had to contend with the weather. While it was well known to the meteorological folks, but apparently looked over at the command level, it was the end of the monsoon and typhoon season for the Philippines and we were located in a valley. The quartering party that went out a few days before our arrival to help set up reported that at one point there were 5-6 inches of standing water in the area where we were going to live. While the downpours were limited to about 30 minutes every few hours, it was sufficient to leave water everywhere, which resulted in vehicles getting stuck in the mud as they traversed the valley and generally everyone being wet for a good portion of the time.
After the resounding success of the Philippines, we got back onboard and underway with the idea in our minds that in just over a week we would be spending some hard earned money and liberty in wonderful Bali. Yet, as we tend to joke around here, if you don't like the news you just heard, wait 10 minutes and it will change. A few days prior to our scheduled arrival in Bali, the ship's captain informed everyone that due to some corruption uncovered between a particular officer in the Navy and the contracting company that provides services to the ship once it pulls in, Bali was off the table. The story we later heard was that a Navy commander had been arrested for funneling ships toward particular ports with lax oversight so that the contractors could overcharge the military and that he could get a cut. Long story short, Singapore became our new destination.
After postponing our arrival an additional day due to awaiting diplomatic clearances, and delaying most of the next sitting at anchor about a mile from our mooring while waiting for an available tug, we finally arrived for what was now two and half days off. On that first day, in what Farrah will probably recognize as my jinxed travel bug, it took us 4 hours from when we first stood in line to get off the ship to when we finally sat down for dinner at . We had to stand in line to get off the ship. We had to wait for a bus to take us to customs and then wait to get through customs. We stood in line and then got on another bus that took us on a 30 minute ride to the train station. Once we arrived, we waited in line to get cash from an atm and purchase train tickets. After waiting in line for the train, which by the time we loaded was jammed with rush hour passengers, we then proceeded to change over to three other train lines before arriving at our destination station. From there, it was just a short 20 minute walk to dinner. Easy enough, right?
Singapore, sometimes called Singabore by travel magazines, was basically the equivalent of any upscale American city. There were large shopping malls that extended a couple of stories both above and below ground with all the big designer names, skyrise buildings in the financial district, both a Chinatown and Little India for ethnic districts and a Starbucks every three or four blocks. By and large, most of what we did in the short time we did there could have been found or done in the States. While we were briefed before arriving to expect a heavy police presence and were warned that people get fined heavily for simple infractions such as chewing gum on mass transit or littering, I saw two policemen the entire time. Perhaps the mere reputation of effective enforcement is enough of a deterrent.
By and large, we travelled via the train. While not the most direct means, it was fairly inexpensive (about 3-4 dollars to get you around for a day) and easy to use. The signs and loudspeaker voices, in a demonstration of the blend of cultures in Singapore, were in English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Being a former colony of the Crown, the English is heavy with what Americans would see as British-isms: passengers are told to "mind the platform gap" and "give way to alighting passengers." There is also a heavy dose of government propaganda to create the peer pressure required to maintain the order for which the city is famous. Every train car had a sign stating that "94% of those surveyed would give up their seat to someone who needs it more...won't you?" There were also signs depicting penguins standing in a row demonstrating how to line up and wait at the station that claimed "98% believe things go smoother when you queue up and wait."
The few times we didn't take the train, we had rather eventful cab rides. Our first attempt at going somewhere obviously didn't translate well in the driver's mind; he dropped us off on the opposite side of the city. That one was only a $9 fare so it wasn't like he took us for a ride. Once we discovered the error, we found another cab and enjoyed probably the most informative and descriptive cab driver in the entire city. Through his broken English, he even offered up a number of jokes like "Singapore is a fine place. They fine for everything. Throw paper on ground, $150. Spit on ground, $300!" Our final cab driver later that evening was encouraged by one of the passengers that a good tip awaited if he helped us make it back in time for our curfew and decided to attempt to break the land speed record while driving in any and all lanes, including the one with oncoming traffic. While I had the good fortune of sitting in the front seat for the extra space, it turned into a front row seat to taking a few years off my life as I computed the mental math of converting kilometers per hour back into miles per hour and then trying in horror to forget the answer.
In between the comings and goings, we did a fair amount of exploring. The Chinatown area was the most interesting and closest thing to anything outside the normal. Chinatown was a bit of a misnomer anyway. There were a large number of Chinese shops and merchants but in addition to a Buddhist temple, there was a Hindu temple and Muslim mosque all within a few block radius. As I mentioned earlier with the languages on the train, Singapore's status as a shipping crossroads has created a blend of a number of cultures. Between the Chinese shops that featured trinkets, food and all sorts of herbal remedies, there were numerous tailors and suit shops staffed by overbearing Indian men who felt it was an entirely viable sales pitch to shout at you from either side of the street or attempt to shake your hand so they could forcibly drag you into their store (which we learned the hard way the first time).
Most of the nights we ate dinner at a strip of Western bars and restaurants called Clarke Quay. While you may scratch your head and ask yourself why we would go to Singapore to eat Western food, there are two primary reasons. First, the aforementioned stomach difficulties that many experienced eating the local cuisine in the Philippines were still fresh in our minds. Secondly, it was nice to eat "normal" food that was just better than most of the food that we regularly eat on the ship. One of the nights we went to a high-end steakhouse and I had a delicious ribeye that the menu claimed was from American cattle fattened on corn for 210 days and then aged before being flown in from Nebraska. Whether it had or had not, the steak, accompanied by mashed potatoes and a pint of Stella Artois, was better than 95% of the meals I'll eat on the ship or anywhere else along the way so I was very satisfied.
After our few days of freedom, it was back on the chain gang and back to the routine of shipboard life. We transited through the Strait of Malacca after departing Singapore, which was pretty cool to see during the day. It's essentially one of the most common ways for shipping traffic to go from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific or vice versa, so there was a significant amount of ships of all varieties - oil tankers, cargo ships, a cruise ship or two and of course us. Now we're rocking and rolling (literally) in the Indian Ocean and headed for the Middle East and the heart of our deployment. While we'll be getting off the boat again in a few weeks for training, it sounds like the next time we'll have any liberty is around Christmas. But as I said earlier, that could change at a moment's notice so we're all taking that with a grain of salt.
Well that's about it for now. ...