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Ever Heard of Diego Garcia?
Introduction to Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia (DG) is synonymous to isolation. This is a small tropical island located in the middle of the Indian Ocean within the Chagos Archipelago. It is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The nearest large land mass is the southern peninsula of India which is nearly a thousand miles away.
Horseshoe shaped island: Inhabited but Isolated
How to Get There
There is only two ways to set foot on this isolated island and I am not talking about by boat or by plane. At any given moment throughout the year, there could be between 3000 to 5000 inhabitants on the island. Most inhabitants are from the US and British military (residing primarily on Naval Support Facility) and there are about a thousand civilian contract workers, normally from the Philippines and Mauritious.
During times of war, there could be military personnel from other countries attached to the island. For instance, during the War on Terror campaigns in Afghanistan and the Iraqi Freedom campaigns in Iraq, there were some Japanese, Australians, and Koreans using the islands' military resources.
If I haven't been clear enough, the two ways to get to the island is to be in the military or to be a contract worker to handle the hotel services like cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and running the shops.
This isle has a history of controversy. Political issues ranging from imperialism, secret military activities, relocation, and conservation have force this little island to now and then be put in the spotlight of world news.
Diego Garcia was touched and held by imperialistic countries throughout its history. It was discovered uninhabited by the Portuguese and Spanish in 1544. It was then taken over by the French and was occupied by the French and Mauritians during the turn of the 18th century. It was used for marooning lepers, had slave labour camps, and had a few coal and oil stations. After the Treaty of Paris in 1814, DG was turned over to the United Kingdom.
In 1966, the British purchased the Chagos Archipelagos, including Diego Garcia, from the Mauritians for 3 million pounds and renamed the archipelagos, British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). During this time the US and the UK made a strategic agreement to hold concurrent military facilities. This agreement would last for 50 years (until 2016) and the US can opt to extend the cohabitation for another 20 years (until 2036) but must agree by December 2014. (Update: Both countries did agree to extend till 2036.)
All local inhabitants, known as Ilois or Chagossian, of the island were relocated to nearby Mauritius In 1971 to meet the requirements of the agreement between the two superpowers in order for the US to build a military base on DG. The relocation of about 1200 local inhabitants were told to be compensated for being exiled. The exiled inhabitants and their families have been fighting to get back to their home island ever since and is still in current litigation. (Update: The British upheld the expel decision and the native Chagossian cannot go back to their island. The US will not give up the strategic location of it's military presence.)
In a calculated move in 2009, the UK proposed that the BIOT be considered as a marine reserve. This was proposed in order to prevent the Ilois to repossessed the island. The proposal would have to be set up in such a way that it would not restrict the use of the island by the military but would make it virtually impossible for the former inhabitants to reclaim the island.
My Trip to Diego Garcia
Disclaimer: I won't state my opinion on the controversies. I'm not here to get political. I just wanted to explain the context of the island and my experience with it.
Aside from the controversies, I really enjoyed my visit to Diego Garcia. How did I get to this very exclusive, isolated island? I don't know if you read my profile, but I use to be in the US Navy. In 2004 to 2008 I was stationed on a sub-tender called the Frank Cable (AS-40) on Guam. Now the whole reason sub-tenders exist is to tend to submarines, hence the name.
In 2007, I was on what they call a fly-away team to repair a submarine that was stranded in DG. A fly-away team is a small group of people consisting of specific needed skills to repair vital equipment. The Frank Cable could not go to DG so they sent us, a team of 4 sailors, to repair the stranded sub. Most sailors will fight over fly-aways because it takes you away from your regular duty (which is another way of saying a much needed break) and the military will pay your way for this break including meals, transportation and lodging. This time around, no one wanted to go to DG. All everyone talked about was how DG was boring mainly because of the isolation. People told me, "There is nothing to do on the island."
I didn't really have a choice since I was one of the sailors on the bottom of the totem pole but I didn't mind going because I never been there and wanted to see if for myself and the itinerary stated I was going to have a layover in my favorite stomping grounds of Singapore for a few days going to and leaving from Diego Garcia. So my thought was, if DG was a bust, I could still enjoy Singapore.
My overnight stay in Singapore before departing for DG was pretty fun. There are miniature communities of most Asian ethnicities in Singapore. I scoped out Little India and China Town. Good times were had.
The next morning I flew out from an Air Force base in a Military Airbus. This airbus was modified to carry cargo in the front half of the plane and passengers in the back half. It even offered airline services and a meal. Maybe it was the hangover but I swear the steak I had on that plane was the best steak I had ever eaten in my life. In the Navy, I was use to eating rubbery beef but this steak, so tender and juicy, melted in my mouth with every bite. Once we touchdown on DG and passed through security, we checked into our lodging and it was a decent size room. We each had a spacious room and it felt like living in our own apartment. This was going to be our home for the next five days. We turned in early to get a good head start on troubleshooting the submarine we were going to fix in the morning.
The leader of our group, woke up early ahead of the rest of us and checked in with the submarine and he gave us the bad news. The sailors on the submarine manage to fix the equipment we were sent to fix on their own. I didn't find this news bad at all but now we were stuck on this "desolate" island for the next four days with nothing to do.
Since we didn't have to work and there was no way of leaving this tropical isle, we had to find things to do. What do sailors do best? They drink to the foam. We all split up do did our own thing.
They have internet on the island believe or not but I remember on my visit there in 2007, the internet was extremely slow. It was slower than dial up and I didn't know that was possible. They had a library with internet but it was nearly impossible to use the computers there because the contract workers would hog it all day. I didn't complain because these guys had terrible work conditions that they had to deal with (long hours and low wages). If they wanted to unwind on the internet and catch up on what was going back at their home country, I totally understood.
During the day, I would walk all day and see if there was something to look at on the island, thinking I could beach hop. I could not. It was physically impossible because of the heat. The water seemed inviting but it was definitely swim at your own risk.
After the attempt of beach hopping, I was very fatigue from the heat and needed to hydrate, the sailor way. I found a bar tended by a Filipino guy named Ron. I chewed the fat with Ron and found out he has been working at DG for almost 9 years. He held this job to support his wife and two children back in the Philippines. He is allowed to go home for two weeks every year to visit his family. He told me he gets paid 2 dollars and hour with free lodging and meals (I don't know if he was exaggerating) but I was buzzing and inclined to believed him. Even if the wages seemed meager, he was better off at DG than the Philippines because in the Philippines, if he could even find a job there, he would have earned 10,000 pesos a month (equivalent to 200 dollars). Working 12 hours a day for 2 dollars an hour 6 days a week ($2 X 12 X 6) comes out to $144 per week ($576 plus tips a month). In the Philippines that's close to 30,000 pesos a month and ask any Filipino working in the Philippines and they would agree that is a pretty outstanding monthly salary (doesn't change the fact that it still sucks). Ron was a good guy, easy to talk to and I felt a little ashamed that I was basically on paid vacation drinking cervezas for only $0.50 a piece. I drank $5 worth and gave him a $20 tip just because Ron became my homey.
The second day was pretty much the same as the first. I walked around the base some more and found the gym. After I got my diesel on, I met up with my fly-away crew and we all went bowling. There was only three lanes but that didn't take away from how awesome I was at bowling. We played like five games and I won them all and it only cost us less than $3 and they also served $0.50 beers. It killed a good two hours and we all made plans to do something together the next day.
The leader of our crew found out we could go deep sea fishing for only $40 dollars a head. That would be the most money I spent on anything at DG. We all went back to our rooms to make sure we woke up early enough to make our morning boat for deep sea fishing.
We all made it to the docks for our deep sea boat around 8:00AM. Our navigator was Bill and the handler was Cal, both Filipinos. They were as salty as us Navy sailors but they didn't talk much, most likely because of the language barrier.
I've never been deep sea fishing before and Bill and Cal made sure we wouldn't have a boring trip. They guided us to all the good spots and even pointed out some dolphins swimming with us. It was a very memorable four hour event. We could have drank some brewskis if we wanted to but even I don't like drinking during the morning.
After four hours of fishing, we were beat. The guides made sure we all caught a fish. It was an astonishing moment for each of us. I've never caught a big fish before. I've only caught some carps and catfish when I was a youth so catching a skipjack tuna was a heart pounding experience.
Once the fishing trip was over, the guides told us there were some men on the shore that could descale and fillet the fish. We just had to tip them. The two men on the shore were Mauritians and they were very skilled in there craft. They filleted and sliced them up perfect for sashimi and grilling. Our four fish was plenty enough for dinner. We bought some soy sauce, lemon, wasabi and a case of Heinekens. It was a good night to get drunk, fat, and merry.
This was the last day in DG. During the day, I did my routine: went sightseeing, worked out at the gym, and tried to get on the information superhighway. I was glad that I got to see this hard to reach island. I was thinking to myself, that I could stay here for as long as they would allow me and I wouldn't mind.
For some reason there was a party going on later that night and we were invited. There was a going away party for one of the people, a British woman, stationed there voluntarily for two years. She was flying out the next day on the same flight with us. After her going away party, the party relocated to the night bash at the local club. There was a live band that was contracted from the Philippines and they help all of us to party the night away. Our last night was a very good time.
Diego Garcia was great for me. It was my type of island. It wasn't pack; It felt like like a hideaway. I got a free vacation out of it, a much needed break from the normal hectic days of a US Navy sailor. I felt I could stay in this island forever. I can see why the Ilois wanted to return.
We flew back to Singapore on a C-130. It was a cargo plane but not as nice as the Airbus. As you can see in the video, we had to find our own seats. Some of us were so tired that we were willing to lay on the floor.
I heard a rumor that if you wanted to get stationed in DG after your year tour was up, you would have to go through a psychological evaluation to make sure you haven't gone island crazy (similar to cabin fever). If that's the truth, what does that say about me? What does that say about the woman who volunteered to do an extra year? What does it say about Ron, the bartender, who has been there over 9 years and possibly still there? I can say this about myself, there was something about that island that attracted me to it like a siren's song. Maybe I would have gone crazy if I stayed there more than 5 days, I know my fly away team did after just 2 days. Me? I enjoyed the once in a lifetime experience that this fly-away gave me.
© 2014 Ken