Saturday, May 23, 2009

Liberty Call!! Liberty Call!!

Nothing brings joy to the heart of a Sailor like those time-honored words: Liberty Call, Liberty Call! That is of course, unless your the Executive Officer!

"You mean we're going to turn 900 of these fun-deprived swabbies loose on a city with all kinds of 'fun' at your fingertips, and I'm the one who has to make sure they all behave and come back saftely? Are you nuts!?"

First of all, it's not all that easy getting 900 people ashore all at once when you need to check them out, provide them with briefing materials, make them sign some papers, log them into a spreadsheet, and then get them on a boat that will take them to shore! But after about three hours, we had most people gone.

Our first night in town, we had a "Mil to Mil" reception where members of our crew met with members of the Colombian military for a time of socialization and cultural sharing. That was fun and as always, it's nice to meet and greet with other military professionals. The Life Ring below was hand-painted on the COMFORT and given as a gift to the Colombian Military.

On Thursday, I got a chance to go check out one of the hotels where many of our people were staying, the Hilton in Cartagena. It was a beautiful hotel with very nice amenities, and as I watched our people unwind a little and enjoy themselves, I was tremendously proud of the way they carried themselves and monitored their behavior. Before I knew it, I even started to relax a little!

I had eaten lunch earlier in the day at the Hard Rock Cafe where I enjoyed my son's favorite meal: a great chicken sandwich! I had the opportunity to walk around the old walled city for ahile, and I had been able to do a little shopping in town for some souveniers. The best part of the whole day was that I was able to get a new battery for my watch! My watch had died our last day in Antigua Barbuda and it had driven me nuts for the better part of a week not having a working watch!

So now it was dinner time and it was time to enjoy some of the local delicasies. So we ate at the Hilton! I know, some of you are saying to yourself, how adventuresome! But it really was good local food. I had a seafood medley of Lobster, Shrimp, and Squid in a delicious local sauce with fried plantains and a nice glass of wine. OK, two glasses of wine.

I had been out all day with two of the Chiefs from our ROS crew (the guys who work on the ship with me all the time, not just for deployment): Senior Chief Clark and Chief Bone. We were joined early in the day by Chief Frith who is a member of the Public Affairs detachment on the ship, but she had to meet some other shipmates before dinner, so we dropped her off and went on. By the time we were done with dinner, we were all pretty tuckered out, so we headed back to the ship for an early evening.

On Friday, I got up bright and early, got all my gear together and went diving! The last time I was diving was in Italy, so I was really looking forward to this dive trip! And, I was not disappointed. There were six of us on the trip: Two Navy doctors (including a surgeon), an Emergency Medicine specialist from Project Hope, an Operating Room Nurse from the ship, and a Nurse from Latter Day Saints ministries who is serving on COMFORT, and me. In other words, just in case anything went wrong, I was covered!! So Debbie, I was thinkin' about you!

Our trip started with a 50 minute high-speed boat ride to a string of islands off the coast, probably about 30 miles from where the ship was anchored. When we arrived at the base camp, we were invited inside, given some fresh-squeezed fruit juice, asked to fill out some paperwork, and shown were we would be able to relax between dives and where we would be having lunch after our second dive.

Then we went back to the pier, put our gear together, got on the boat, and headed out to sea. It was only about five or ten minutes to our first dive site. Our dive was a drift dive, so three staff members from the dive center led the way with one in front, one in the middle, and one bringing up the rear. It was a large coral reef with the depth ranging from 30 to about 80 feet. The coral was very nice and while there weren't a lot of big fish, there were lots of little ones.

The water was beautifully warm and very clear with visibility ranging from 60 to over 100 feet. We drifted along exploring the reef for about 45 minutes and when we surfaced, the boat simply came to where we were and picked us up.

We went back to the dive center for some relaxing time and more fruit juice while the dive operator changed all of our tanks. It was nice to relax a little in the house, but before we new it, it was time to head out again!

This time, we dove on a reef wall, with the reef starting at about 20 feet from the surface, and the wall disappearing into oblivion about 100 feet below us. Again the corals were very nice, and we did see a couple of nice size fish, but most of them were aquarium size. Another great 45 minute dive and it was time to head in for lunch.

Lunch consisted of a whole fried Red Snapper, a wonderful rice dish, a small green salad, more fruit juice, ending with a candy desert. It was fabulous!

After lunch we had a chance to swim in their pool for a little bit, take a few pictures for posterity, and it was time to head home. Another 50 minute high-speed boat ride and we were back at the Mighty USNS COMFORT. Thirty minutes to drop off our gear, clean the sand out of our ears, and we were off to town for our last dinner ashore.

We went to a restaurant called "Olla Cartagena" or something like that. It had been recommended by one of our local drivers from the day before. Oh, My, Goodness! Was it ever good! I started by ordering Calamari for the table, and it came with a sauce that our waiter was sure to mention was hot. Now for those of you who know me, you know that "hot" is a relative term, and most of the time, what other people describe as hot, doesn't generally meet my definition of hot. Well this waiter was right! It was with out a doubt the hottest sauce I have ever been served in a restaurant. It was goooooood! The next course was some Lobster Bisque, with huge chunks of lobster meat, followed by Filet Mignon. It wasn't like you usually see Filet Mignon, it almost looked like the meat had been butterflied. It was not very thick, but did cover most of the plate. It was covered with some kind of sauce with mushrooms in it. I wasn't sure what to expect, because in the words of Pepper Lewis in The Cowboy Way, "I'm pretty particular about my steak! Just knock his horns off, wipe his nasty ass, and chunk it down here on my plate!" Well, I was not disappointed! It was probably one of the best steaks I have ever had. What a great dinner!

So now the tired, fed, relaxed, XO has to come back to the ship and find out if everyone made it back onboard. When we had been in Miami, we were pierside and liberty expired onboard at Midnight. It took until 3:15 in the morning to account for everybody and to make the report to the Ship's Master and the Commodore that everyone was present and accounted for.

In Cartagena, liberty expired last night at 9:00pm at the Boat Landing Zone. It's nearly a 30 minute boat ride from the BLZ to the ship. But even with that, I was given the word at 10:15 last night that all of our people were back aboard and accounted for! An awesome job by all the members of the Section 5 duty crew, and all the Departmental muster Petty Officers who did a great job mustering all hands in a timely fashion!

So I guess I don't need to worry about things in liberty ports any more! Well, we'll see!

So that was Cartagena. This morning we weighed anchor and set sail for Colon, Panama where we will arrive tomorrow morning. Colon should be exciting since this is the first port where we'll actually be pierside throughout the mission. No riding boats or helicopters to get ashore in the morning!

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