ABERDEEN, Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong -- When Marines and Sailors offload in foreign ports for well-earned liberty, many service members venture into an unfamiliar environment with little more than curiosity and Google. But in some ports, there are groups standing by to guide them.
Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and Sailors of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) were given a cultural experience by local residents as part of the Meals in the Home Program here, Sept. 20.
The program, sponsored by the American Women’s Association of Hong Kong, aims to provide a home-like environment for Marines and Sailors from ships entering Hong Kong for liberty. While there are no specific guidelines for hosting, the families who volunteer provide a range of activities from a home-cooked meal to half-day nature hikes through the scenic mountains.
“I think it’s important to provide the Marines and Sailors a chance to do something interesting here,” said Marybeth Coffer, an MIH hostess and a member of the AWA. “For me personally, I like to mix it up and do something different each time.”
Marybeth, with her husband Jim, hosted 10 Marines and Sailors for a day that began with a scenic bus tour to the Stanley Market. A long ride in the top of a double-decker bus allowed the service members to see parts of the island they typically wouldn’t on their own before stopping at an open-air market for souvenir shopping.
“I never would have gotten that far out on my own,” said Lance Cpl. Ronald P. Cassidy, a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear defense specialist for the 31st MEU. “Stanley Market was an awesome place.”
At the market, the service members spent hours perusing shop stalls and bartering with vendors over a wide variety of items. Some shops offered popular clothing, footwear, sunglasses and electronics. Others offered items unique to Hong Kong and China. Hand-carved stamps in Chinese script, hand-painted canvas art and hand-made jade jewelry were some of the more popular souvenirs.
When their hands were full of shopping bags and every vendor had been seen, the group boarded the double-decker bus for another scenic ride to their evening activity.
The group stopped in the warehouse district to attend Todini Caffe Limited, an Italian cooking school. The service members, the Coffers and a few of their friends from the AWA spent the evening under the tutelage of Chef Marco Todini, executive chef Stefano Todini, and pizza chef Emanuele Todini.
The first hour was taken entirely by conversation and sampling the array of freshly made foods awaiting the guests. Sliced salami, diced pizzas and freshly baked breads were complimented by soft drinks, local beer and wine as the group got to know one another.
When the class started with learning how to make noodles, the Marines and Sailors found themselves surrounded in flour and humor.
“It was very informal, like, ‘here have some flour and let me show you what we got going on here,’” said Cassidy, a native of Huntsville, Ala. “I liked it - it made for a more personal experience.”
The class made enough noodles to create a family-sized pasta with tomato sauce. The dish was served with other pasta, salads, soup, breads and desserts to complete the dinner for all in attendance.
The group sat around long tables enjoying the fruits of their labors - but enjoying Todinis’ labors a little more - for hours as they shared stories. By the end of the evening, both hosts and hosted were expressing their gratitude.
“I would never have experienced those parts of Hong Kong without (Marybeth and Jim) and this program,” said Lance Cpl. Carlos Santos, an avionics technician for AV-8B II Harrier jets, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st MEU, and a native of Denver, Colo.
The Stanley Market/Italian cooking day was one of dozens of options offered to the service members over the few days spent in Hong Kong. More than 100 Marines and Sailors signed up to conduct hikes, take tours, and go shopping alongside local families.
The liberty port was a scheduled stop on the 31st MEU’s regularly scheduled Fall Patrol. The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region and the only continuously forward-deployed MEU.