Fear and Loathing in Singapore

By  Steve Van Der Werff, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) Public Affairs

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Editor’s Note: This December we celebrate Global Health. As a global leader in health care, Navy Medicine effectively accomplishes its mission with our global partners using effective communication. With that said, below is an old school sea story to illustrate what can happen when there’s a communication breakdown. It includes a group of fast talking, slang speaking American Sailors on liberty, and a well-intended Singapore cabbie; yeah, there’s going to be a communication hiccup or two along the way.

After way too many days out on the Indian Ocean on board USS Carl Vinson the ship pulled into Singapore for some well-deserved liberty.

It was 1990 and I was on my first six-month WESTPAC. I had a dire need for some R&R. I and two other shipmates decided to hit port together. We decided that we wouldn’t do ourselves justice if we didn’t make a pilgrimage to Raffles Hotel, home to the original “Singapore Sling.” We felt it our duty to quench our thirst with a few.

I was with Stevo and “The Ghoul.” We made a colorful trio. Stevo, who I’m quite sure, suffered a brain embolism after being dropped on his head at birth and “The Ghoul” functioned, considerably well for having been raised on the dark side of the moon. We hailed a taxi. Our driver spoke broken English. His name was Ho. “To the Raffles,” I hollered. “I’ve a terrible thirst and would hate to disrupt your morning by having a cow smack dab on your front seat if you don’t deliver us quick.”

He replied, “Raffles no good.” “What do you mean no good?” “No good, you see.” “All right, but get us there before I put you in a paralyzer grip. The Ghoul may start gnawing on your dashboard. He’s a very sick boy.” Ho burned rubber.

As we pulled alongside this monument to British colonialism we discovered that the hotel founded by Sir Raffles, founder of Singapore, protector of the crown and keeper of the right to keep third world countries British, was closed for two years for restoration. “Now what,” We jabbered excitedly about where we should go. I asked Ho for suggestions. He answered with “Ju Gardens.” We hadn’t heard of the place. I asked for more information. “Can we eat and drink?” He nodded, explaining that there were Thai girls and beer. Upon hearing this Ghoul honed in like a guided missile destroyer with high-frequency radar. His beaming eyes displayed the glassy look of carnal knowledge. Enthusiastically repeating, “That’s it, Thai girls and beer, we gotta go.” I gave him a quick elbow shot to the jaw to refrain him from foaming any further on my sleeve. Beads of sweat had formed on Ho’s head, in anticipation of Ghoul’s howling at the moon. Our dance hall Romeo was suddenly in an advanced state of heat. Stevo sat passively smoking his umpteenth smoke, with not a care in the world.

On the other hand, I had anticipated the plush environs of a world-class hotel, existing off a steady diet of iced Slings; not swilling watered down beer in some juke joint filled with a detachment of bare third world beauties. I wasn’t necessarily a choir boy, but I also wasn’t ethically corrupt either.  I wasn’t too keen on the idea of socializing with every outcast society had to offer, from heavily armed Indonesian Pirates, sparsely bearded Mekong Delta catfish rustlers, to arm pit braiding Mongolian Yak Handlers. The Ghoul hungered with anticipation. His eyes pleaded mercifully. His tongue hung out in a twisted pretzel knot. Ho waited for a decision.

“Is this place a run-down dive? I asked. “No, no, Ju Gardens nice… eat, drink, Thai girls, beer,” he swore. “All right then,” I agreed. We drove through the city. We were soon out of the city, heading toward jungle. “Hey, I think our little buddy is taking us out for a hundred smacks cab fare,” said “The Ghoul”. I interrogated our enterprising friend. “Hey Ho; my frisky friend thinks you’re out to dust a couple of unsuspecting squids for a magic carpet ride. I kinda suspect the same. What’s the story, Jack?” “I bring Ju Gardens, I take…much money, no.” “All right Ho, keep your panties on, “I said.

We passed a sign encouraging a visit to the Singapore Zoo. No, it couldn’t be. “I think this pop tart is taking us to the zoo, whined a smoke ensconced Stevo.” Like a hot-blistered chili pepper, I hurled a barrage of fact-finding questions, especially when we exited off the ramp to the zoo. We reacted like a kennel of man eating Dingo’s with ants crawling down our spines, wailing that the no good son of a gun had brought us to the zoo, and what fools we had been to have taken his word. Ho’s eyes bulged with fear. The hairs on his neck bristled. Never before had he witnessed the freakish sight of American Sailors in the full grips of an all-out hissy fit. Stevo had shoved a full pack of Marlboro cigarettes into his mouth and was attempting to smoke them. The Ghoul had an American flag draped around himself and was dousing himself with lighter fluid and I gnawed on the Armor-All laden dashboard savoring its tranquil affect.

Ho shrieked, “I say Ju Garden, you say yes. I BRING!” “Yeah, but what about the Thai girls and beer?” whimpered “The Ghoul”. “Yes, and monkeys and elephants,” replied a hopeful Ho. “We don’t want monkeys and elephants,” groaned Stevo. Then it struck me that Ho had not been saying Thai girls and beer, but “tigers and bears”, and we had been acting like “Americas Most Wanted”, sending U.S. – Singapore relations back into the dark ages. I couldn’t believe what stooges we were. I let out a blood curdling scream. They looked at me not sure of what to make of my mad display.

I shouted, “Tigers and bears, you demented pack of rat-poisoned feebes. Quit your crying. We’ve been acting worse than a convention of Shriners in the grips of an ether binge.” “Huh?” answered Stevo and the Ghoul. “Tigers and bears you dim wits; not Thai girls and beer,” their faces showed that they still didn’t comprehend. Ho’s face, however, was one big crocodile smile. The sweat on his brow evaporated quickly. He spoke fast and furious. “Good, good. You see, you see. You like, eat, drink, fun, fun.”

“Aw, shut your pie hole and bring us to the zoo before I body slam you through a windshield,” I sighed. Ho dumped us and peeled rubber, speeding off into our collective memory. After our visit to the zoo we brought back a wealth of knowledge about Komodo Dragons and that looking up while in the bird aviary isn’t a good idea.

Word has it that “The Ghoul” was last seen in an episode of MTV’s Wild Boys, snorting powdered hot curry in Mumbai and Stevo is currently a cigarette tester for a major tobacco company, while simultaneously leading a guerrilla anti-smoking campaign. As for me, Ho recently friend-ed me on Facebook.