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Monday, August 16, 2010

Stinky fruit ... but a good time (fourth in a series)

Read part 5 ...

Read part 3 ...

Read part 2 ...

Read part 1 ...

I have some wonderful, new tales from the high seas aboard the USNS MERCY. I promise it's worth it.

Our four-day stop in Singapore was a much-needed respite from the daily grind of shipboard life. After finishing two grueling mission sites in Vietnam and Cambodia, a soft hotel bed, no reveille in the morning, and the opportunity to get some real food were all welcome departures from our routine.

The highlight of the trip was meeting up with two of the Singaporean ophthalmologists who had worked with us in Vietnam. They treated a small group of us to dinner at one of their favorite local restaurants. We enjoyed the Singaporean specials of peppered crab and chili poached fish-- both dishes were spicy enough that I was sweating from every pore on my body. Always willing to try new foods, I made the grave mistake of agreeing to eat durian for dessert.

Because of the pungent odor, durian is not allowed in taxis or subways. Our Singaporean friends cracked them open and dug right in, literally. After watching the proper technique for scooping the squishy yellow pulp from its bed, I lifted a section out and stuffed it in my mouth - big mistake. The texture and flavor combined to overload my taste buds and sent me into a tailspin of gagging and retching. The Singapore guys were on the floor laughing out loud.

Singapore is a bustling city and our time there passed all too quickly. Before I knew it, we were all back on the ship and heading for Indonesia.

Heading south from Singapore, we crossed the equator and the ship's usual routine was interrupted as we participated in the time-honored naval tradition of the "Crossing the Line" ceremony. This involves the uninitiated "pollywogs" (see what this is in the previous link) having to prove their seaworthiness to the "trusted shellbacks" through a series of physical and mental challenges. Having gone through as a pollywog in 2008, I can definitely say it is better to participate as a trusty shellback. My directorate did win the Pollywog Talent Show with an inspiring cover of the Village People's "In the Navy."

As a senior shellback, my role this year was as the Royal Surgeon and personal advisor to Neptunus Rex. Essentially, I got to sit in a lawn chair right up front and watch the festivities directly in front of me. The good-natured fun concluded with a "steel beach" picnic on the flight deck to welcome over 700 new shellbacks to the fold. It was about at this juncture that our “special project” for Darwin, Australia was hatched (more on this later).

Our arrival in Indonesia was much heralded as the current model of these Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief missions was originally borne out of the MERCY's disaster relief efforts after the tsunamis of 2005. This year marked the first time that MERCY had returned to Indonesia since 2006 and we received an overwhelmingly warm and generous reception. Our area of operation was the central Moluccas islands, which are famous for the spice trade. At any of the open-air markets one could find fresh pepper, nutmeg, or cloves. The local cuisine was richly invested with these spices and the dishes found in the local restaurants were a treat to the palate.

Indonesia is largely a dry country, and a good bottle of wine with which to enjoy a meal was not easily found. We visited three islands during our month in Indonesia, the corresponding cities were - Tobelo, Jailolo, and Ambon. Each had its own unique beauty and there was an active volcano spewing ash into the sky as we lay at anchor off Jailolo. I immediately knew this would be a great stop.

In 2008, I had met Indonesian Colonel Arie Zakaria, a well-trained orthopedic surgeon who spent a month on MERCY with us. Colonel Zakaria was back again this year, and this time with his own Indonesia hospital-ship - a converted Korean amphibious assault ship complete with hyperbaric chamber and landing craft. The inside of the ship looked remarkably similar to MERCY even to the point of being painted the same horrible 1950s lime green color down the passageways. Arie is a bit of a mover and shaker in the world of Indonesian politics and he arranged for five of us to come over and visit his ship on the day that the president of Indonesia was going to be there.

The MERCY's stop in Ambon was part of a large disaster relief training mission and also an opportunity for their leader to present an award to us for the ships role in the tsunami relief efforts of 2005. In any event, I found myself face-to-face with the Indonesian president in the operating room lounge aboard the Indonesian Hospital ship. He was extremely gracious and invited all of us to take photos with him. What a great time!

Tune in tomorrow for an enthralling story on the “special project” I mentioned earlier. You won’t regret it!

--CDR Trent Douglas 95M, director, surgical services, USNS Mercy

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