Monday, November 26, 2012

That Time I Dug Up a Stranger's Yard; or, Tread Lightly

They don't call kids today "digital natives" for nothing. My newly 7 y/o figured out how to turn on locator services for my iPad (why? why not!), so now the Apple Store thinks I'm in Jamaica and no matter how many times I turn it off, restart the iPad, etc., I am now and forever in Jamaica.

At least according to Apple. 

What this means, until he figures out how to fix it, is that I can't download apps because "this app is not available in Jamaica." Thank you, Apple. Thank you, 7 year old. 

CUTEST little plant ever---an ornamental miniature pineapple. Grows from a long stem coming out of a spiky, aloe-like plant. You can eat them, but it's a whole lotta work for a little bit of nothing.

One of my very favorite things to do on earth is garden. I can have a terrible, rotten, no good, very bad day, and an hour digging dirt and pulling weeds makes me forget all about it. I was more stressed out and saddened by having to get rid of all my plants---some which were cuttings from family plants, others I've had for over 10 years (and one I've had since college)---than I was about getting rid of furniture, cars, appliances, etc. So when I arrived and saw all the beautiful native species, and then my sad little neglected yard, I was pumped about getting my hands dirty and making it pretty.

But, alas, the NEX doesn't sell plants. And the nursery, like many other things here, was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. It's usually open every other Saturday and the plants are native (and FREE!!!), but there are so few choices that I feel guilty taking anything at all.

I did kinda sorta run into a huge plumeria at my work with a large pair of scissors. Took a cutting, let it dry, put it in a pot, and we'll see. Who knows what will happen, since the biggest, baddest, meanest looking toad dug a hole and has taken up with the plumeria. Yep, they are cohabitating now in a very crowded pot. And I'm not real interested in taking it back.

A little problem solving never hurt anyone, and up for the challenge, I found plants, plants, and more plants---mostly thanks to a little Gitmo ingenuity which includes---what else?---recycling. What comes around definitely goes around in this place.

We have this thing here called "the roster." It's an email list and a way for people to get word out about items  and services for sale/barter and a place to inquire about such things. Think of it as Craigslist/Freecycle combined. Need piano lessons? Have lots of clothes your kids have outgrown? Want a petsitter while you jet away to Puerto Rico for the weekend? You can advertise it on the roster. About a week ago, someone leaving the island (and there is always someone leaving) advertised plants for sale.The roster is a real necessity in a constantly shifting place like Gitmo.

And that is how I got several succulents that are, one week later, doing great on my screened in back porch and my back door step. I even got a large pencil cactus---I had to abandon 2 nice sized ones in Texas, so that made me very happy. The plants were well-loved and well taken care of, and the next day I got a really sweet email thanking me for taking the plants because they know I will take good care of them. I could tell it pained the lady as much as it had pained me to give away her plants, so I was genuinely touched by her gratitude.

But that's not the cool part of the story.

As I was picking plants out from their back porch, the couple said, rather casually, "If you really like plants, we have two very large ones you are welcome to dig up out of our yard. We already know the guy moving in after us, and he's not a gardener."

I thought it was odd that someone I barely know is telling me to dig up trees out of a yard they don't own, but hey, when I recounted the story at work and three people at the same time shouted over each other, "Wait! Where do they live? Can I go with you? PLEASE," I knew that I was on to something.

Yep, when someone with a green thumb moves out, other people (sometimes strangers) go to their yard and dig up their plants. And not just things out of flower beds---we are talking small trees from the middle of people's yards.

So their offer has been gnawing at me, and I finally gave them a call to ask if they were serious. "Yes! Bring a shovel! If we aren't home, the gate is open." The fact my 14 y/o didn't even bat an eye when I said, "I'm going to the place that lends stuff to get a wheelbarrow and shovel, and then we are going to the house of some people I just met, and we are going to dig up their plants" speaks volumes about his expectations for weirdness with his mother.

So we packed up our shovels and rakes and implements of destruction, including a huge wheelbarrow with "Government Property" stamped on it that a rather large Jamaican working at Self-Service and I could barely lift together and fit in Pearl. The 14 y/o was a trooper---he helped heave and ho---not a small feat, since his hands were blistered from kayaking the bay that morning---until ultimately, the plant guy couldn't sit on his couch and watch Sunday football anymore while we tried to dig up his rocky backyard, and he came out to help.

Times like this, I'm happy that the speed limit is only 25 mph. 

Not only did he do most of the digging, he also gave us some gardening tools, several clay pots, a beautiful conch shell, and some fish.

That would be frozen fish. It's the second time since I've been here that someone has handed me a bag of fish. And one night this week, that will be supper.

The big plants/small trees are beautiful.  One is a plantain that actually produces fruit, and now sits outside my dining room window, and the other is a coral tree, which is in a perfect spot in the middle of the front yard.
Gitmo booty: sea glass and give away plants

As I was leaving the plant guy's house, he said, "You come here with nothing, you leave with nothing. Make sure you give everything you can away when you leave the island. It's the Gitmo way. And it's just stuff---you can't take it with you when you die."

That was just what I need to hear before our express shipment and our household goods get here---I'm hoping to pare down even more and prepare for a lifetime of treading lightly and leaving (almost) everything---starting with plants, of course---as we globetrot.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Back in Black; or, Hello, Nasty!

The buzzards are back!
Perched on the lamp post, right across from my house, sit the 2 buzzards I grew to like and miss and now see again every single morning. They stretch their wings, hang out, leave, and come back every day now.

I take it as a good sign that they don't follow me as I run around the 'hood

Stranger flying things include the scary animal that was flitting spastically around in my office. I seem to have many strange encounters with wildlife at work. Cute little curly tailed lizards love the tree outside the door. Then there was the fat hutia incident---and it was probably so fat because it eats the cute lizards. There is a HUGE iguana that lives on the grounds and is always near the parking lot. Then there was this thing. . . I opened my office door, and something large and black buzzed my head. Being from Texas, I'm thinking, "bat!"

But upon further investigation, it was just a moth. A big, mutant, black moth, the size of a mouse pad.
Of course, my son had gotten someone to help catch the bat, and by the time the man had pulled the entire book case away from my office wall, we had an audience. I'm really hoping everyone has forgotten about it over the weekend. I don't want to get a ribbing over the bat that was a moth.

He just looks like your average 7 y/o playing with the neighbor's cat. . . 

H used to spend so much time in the bathtub as a toddler, prune skin was the norm around bedtime. He would splash, flip, put his head under the water, blow bubbles, splash, and flip over again.
"Son, WHAT are you doing?"
"I'm practicing my merman moves."
As you all know, if you have mermaids, you MUST have mermans.

We spent the weekend in the water. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent snorkeling and swimming at Girl Scout Beach. We saw trigger fish, damsels, butterfly fish, tangs, and other amazing reef fish. There are brain corals bigger than a car. Sea fans that are 4 feet across. This would be after a cat 2 hurricane. Amazing what has survived, and I can imagine it was even more spectacular before Sandy.

The oldest kid is out snorkeling like crazy. We take turns going out with him, and he's really good at pointing out fish (and knows what they are). He's becoming a stronger swimmer every day. I love hanging out with him while swimming, and he is definitely his happiest in the water.

The youngest is, quite simply, a merman.

He takes a deep breath, dives down 5 or 6 feet, stays until he gets the shell or piece of sea glass he wants, and pops up like a cork.

Craziest thing I've ever seen.

I'm happy those bathtub training sessions paid off. I'm checking every morning for a fin or at least webbed feet.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Close Rodent Encounters of the Third (World) Kind; or, Forget Rats, We Own the Pearl of Guantanamo Bay

The start of the week was a sad one. My husband and I found out that one of our favorite people, Dr. Karen Austin, professor of Spanish at USM, had passed away. She was a great teacher, and we were lucky enough to become friends with her over our years in Hattiesburg. A few days prior, we were talking about how we really needed to look her up because she would get a kick out of us living here. Then I read in her obit that she was planning a family trip to Cuba. She's been on my mind all week, and when I had some nice quiet time at the beach today I thought about her. I think she would be thrilled we are here. And even though our paths wouldn't have crossed during her trip here, I know she would have loved Cuba.

My husband and I met at USM while studying abroad. (We would end up in Karen's classes together much later). Sometimes, at random moments, he will say, "You remember that time in Mexico that you almost petted a rat?"

While living and studying in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a group of us would go out to eat around 9 pm every night (standard dinner time there) and then go out for entertainment. Some nights it was dancing at a club, other nights it was listening to live bands. Most nights (okay, every night), it involved some libations. Perhaps it was the mariachi music, perhaps it was the yarda (or three) I had consumed. Or perhaps it is the fact my eyes will never be better than 20/40 with corrective lens. I saw a really fat cat, went to pet it, and realized right before I touched it that it was, in fact, a rat. A huge, disgusting, well-feed, really fat zocalo rat. I still have nightmares about that thing.

So today I had a zocolo rat flashback of sorts. We were running an errand at my work, when the kids and I heard a stirring in the landscape next to the door. Then I heard a big yelp, and then I saw it: the biggest, fattest, most disturbingly and freakishly large rodent ever. And it was headed straight for the husband who, as my children will attest, jumped right over that fat sucker. All while managing to keep on his flip-flops, mind you. That takes talent. Lousiana nutrias and Mexican zocalo rats ain't got nothing on Cuban Hutias. Affectionately known as "Banana Rats," these things are at least 20 times larger than a common rat. (They are called Banana Rats not because they eat bananas, but because their poop is huge and looks like little clusters of bananas). The thing waddled, its butt was so big.  It scurried into the water sewage drain, and hopefully it won't be waiting for me when I'm back to work on Tuesday morning. They are supposedly nocturnal, but who knows now that we've had a close rodent encounter of the third kind, and in the broad daylight.

By the way, to tell you the quality of life in the rest of Cuba, hutias are endangered species everywhere on the island but Guantanamo Bay. Same with boas and iguanas. That's because sadly, when you don't have enough food for you or your family, you will kill and eat just about anything.

Hutia pictures here: National Geographic (story on Guantanamo Bay wildlife)

On a whole different topic, we have been looking for a car since we got here. You don't have a car dealership or even a lemon lot on Gitmo---instead, you have to depend on word-of-mouth or people advertising their cars in the local paper. Ads go like this:  "92 Geo Metro, 180K miles. AC screams along with the radio. $5000 OBO." First, I'm not sure what that screaming is all about (that line was actually in an ad), and second, FIVE THOUSAND CLAMS for a hoopty ride? These are what are called "Gitmo Specials," and they are every where. Cars barely making it down the road, driven by their 5th or 6th or 20th owner, and getting by on a wing and a prayer.

So you can imagine our excitement when we found out about a government car auction taking place right here in Gitmo.There were busses, backhoes, tanker trucks, trailers, an old ambulance, and other perplexing items people seemed to want. There were several cute little electric cars (GEMs) and small Cushman micro-busses for sale. And then, there was the one and only REAL car at the entire auction---a 2002 Chevy Blazer.

Back in the day, almost 20 years ago, after Mexico (and fat rats) and Karen Austin's classes, I ended up marrying a guy with a Blazer. And five years later, we brought our first baby home from the hospital in that same car.

For sentimental and practical reasons, I was really happy when my wonderful husband won the Blazer. He was out in hot sun for several hours (and got a little sunburned), but he got the car. Not one but two people  (I'd say strangers, but seriously, there are so such things as strangers in a place like Gitmo) came up to us and said, "Wow, he got the pearl of the auction!"

And that is what we have. I wanted to name it Fidel, number one boy voted for N. Fidel, but Pearl won out.

Here's a picture of Pearl in front of our casa:

And for a nicer view, here are some pictures from yesterday's island adventures. It was Pearl's maiden voyage and this is where she took us. We really got crazy on the one stretch of road that goes up to 35 mph (fastest speed limit on Gitmo!) and she did fine. Yep, it's really that pretty here.

Pearl did great on her first mini-roadtrip.

The water is an amazing shade of blue here.

Can you see the lighthouse? Happy trails from Gitmo! 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; or, Let's Do the Time Warp Again

Sometimes, I feel like I'm gonna party like it's 1999.

At least technology-wise. 

We have wireless at home, but we can't use it with voice over IP, so no Skype, Facetime, etc from home. We can use the free wireless at the library, coffeeshops, bowling alley, etc., but it doesn't work with my iPad 2 because of some compatibility issue. 

We have DSL for internet, so no high-speed stuff. Just to post a blog takes over an hour, because the internet constantly goes in and out. From 7 pm to 10 pm (or 1900 to 2200 hours), you can barely get on, and forget about any social networking sites during that time period. 

There is "high speed" internet available through the cable company, but there is a waiting list. I signed up and inquired about how long it would take, and the clerk just laughed and laughed. And laughed some more. I took that as a bad sign. 

No wireless at either school, either, and the internet is wonky there, as well. 

We also have power outtages. It's not unusual to come home and all the clocks are blinking. 

You can have a cell phone here, but only island-to-island. And by "island," I only mean GTMO. GTMO is NOT Cuba, by the way. I mean the 45 square miles that is GTMO. (More about how Guantanamo Bay is NOT Cuba for another blog). If you do have a cell phone, it cannot have a camera. Sprint has been great---they let military service members and anyone serving them overseas keep their phone numbers and phones, and they will reconnect us (without an extra charge) when we return for summer vacation. 

We have to use a land line to call back to the states. It's 50 cents to connect, and 9 cents a minute. At least that's much cheaper when I called Rick in S. Korea in the 90s ($8 to connect, around $2 a minute). We can't use Skype or Magic Jack to call from here, so that's the best price. It is what it is. 

Gas? The only gas station's pump broke a while back (before I got here in Oct), and it has not been fixed yet. For a while, you had to go to the station at the motor pool. At over $4 a gallon, you have no choice but wait (I waited an hour) to get gas from the only pump for civilian cars on base. There is now a tanker truck next to the outdoor theatre that has gas, so it's a bit easier.  But it's still expensive. And it's only available a few hours a day. 

I finally got my first piece of mail that wasn't a local bill. My mom sent H a birthday package and it took 2 weeks and a day to get here (Priority Mail). I have to have Christmas cards in the mail by Monday if they are going to get to the US on time. Needless to say, there will be no Christmas cards this year. 

U.S. Mail comes to my workplace since there aren't enough boxes at the PO for everyone, and as far as I can tell, there are only 2-3 days a week we get mail. It depends on whether or not a plane comes in that day. 

Speaking of planes, there are six flights a month: every Saturday, and every other Tuesday.  Those are military flights, which is what most people here take. There are flights on another airline to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, or Ft Lauderdale every week, so there are a few more getaway options. 

Daily, I feel like I'm back in the 1990s. I've been in a time warp. It can be summed in the bumper sticker on one of my neighbor's cars: "GTMO---You Can't Make This Sh*t Up." 

True that. 

Now, here's the thing. 

Last night, hubby and I went to the movie theatre. It's at the Lyceum, which is an open air theatre with movie seats (waterproof, of course), bleachers, or areas to bring your own chairs. The movie was a first-run movie (James Bond on opening night), and it was FREE, just like all movies. We're sitting here amongst contractors, Jamaican and Filipino workers, military personnel, civilians, all laughing together, oohing and aahing together, under the stars. There was a light breeze, it was perfect weather, and we kept looking at each other and saying, "Can you believe this?" We used to go to the drive-in movie theatre in Shelton, WA, and this was up there with that experience---but better, because we were under the stars instead of in our cars. Best movie experience ever. 

Every day starts with the Star Spangled Banner played over a PA system base-wide (Reveille). You stop everything until its over. People stop their cars, too. Same at sundown, when they play music as they are taking down the flag (Retreat). By the way, the Star Spangled Banner has the same effect on me as Amazing Grace and Taps---I tear up every time I hear it. It's some crazy Pavlovian response. So I get to tear up every day. Oh, and the movie starts with everyone standing at attention for it, as well. 

Men outnumber women here 5-1. I get "yes ma'am"-ed at least 5 times a day, never have to open a door for myself, and I like that. I was raised in MS. I'm a feminist and yes, I can open a door for myself (and I always open a door for other people---men and women---too). But I like men with manners. We call it "good home training" where I come from. My guys have been raised the same way, but it's nice that they see it in action daily here. 

Jamaicans and Filipinos are contracted to work many manual labor and hourly jobs here. They are the clerks at the fast food restaurants, the phone company, the cable company. They bag your groceries, cut your hair, pump your gas. They are the groundskeepers/landscapers all over the island. They work in almost every building. There is a very good Jamaican restaurant (The Jerk House) as a result of the influx of Jamaicans. Nothing like being greated by someone taking your order who shakes your hand, introduces himself, and says, "How can I help you sista?" and "How can I help you, brotha?" in that wonderful Jamaican accent. We are talking REAL Jamaican food with Scotch Bonnet peppers, not the U.S. version. Still spicy, but so, so much better. The Filipinos don't have their own restaurant (drat!), but you can get lumpia in the freezer section. They are the hardest working people on the island. I love to hear Tagalog or Jamaican pidgen in the grocery store, NEX, library, or businesses. It's like music every where you go. 

There's a saying on tee shirts here that's so true: "It's on the Barge." The barge from the US comes on Tuesdays, and every Tuesday is like Christmas up in the Commissary/NEX. You never know what they are going to get that week. If your mail/packages/car/household goods (that would be military lingo for all your stuff you are moving from the US) haven't made it, try again next Tuesday. The part to fix to one gas pump? It's on the barge. Your household goods you've been waiting for since August? They're on the barge. People laugh about it. It's a test in patience, and it's what bonds people here together---the ridiculousness of waiting a week for bacon. 

You can't make this sh*t up. 

Since living here, we've all spent a whole lot less time online and a whole lot more time playing cards. We can go to the beach 365 days of the year (and unlike parts of the U.S., you can here swim year-round). I'm looking forward to getting a tan again. I'm loving seeing my kids at my work every day. My neighbors mow my yard, lend me a car, and don't expect anything but a "thank you" in return (and when they say that they do it for all new people, they really mean it---everyone here has stories about someone doing the same for them). 

I'm loving life here. Much more to write about---the kids are finally in school, H had a birthday, we lost someone we both love back in the U.S., and we got a Gitmo Special! But the sun is calling, and two more beaches opened today, so even though the internet is actually working at this minute,  that will just have to wait.

Headed to the beach! And yes, that's a lighthouse in the distance. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cabin fever; or, If Idle Hands are the Devil's Workshop, We are Now in Hell

We heard this before we got here, and it's true: Gitmo is a great place to live, if you are an outdoors person.

One of our neighbors, now retired, told me an awesome saying from his days here with the Navy---at Guantanamo, you are either a chunk, a drunk, or a hunk. And believe me, you have every opportunity here to be a hunk, even if you are one or both of the first two when you arrive.

There are great roads for biking or jogging. Beaches for swimming and beachcombing. Water to kayak or sail. Trails to hike. Skate park. Basketball courts. Dozens of (shaded) playgrounds. A 5K almost every weekend. A golf course.

Which is all great. . . until you have a hurricane that messes everything up. Thanks to Sandy, the beaches have been closed to swimming and diving. The marina is closed for boat rentals. And since none of our things have gotten here yet, we don't have bikes (and I stupidly left my running shoes out of my suitcase, so they will be here in 6-8 weeks).

And it's been raining, so the (free!!!) outdoor movie has been a bust, as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, we officially have cabin fever.

It's one thing when it's just me, and I'm stuck indoors with a book. It's another with two kids who have been promised the beach since we started packing for the move, and a husband who has been cooped up with said kids for 3 weeks now.

We have been blessed with two kids who, at dinner time, have to have their names called out the front door so they'll come in to eat. Most afternoons, they are riding bikes, skateboarding, kicking or hitting a ball. I have been panicking since they landed because I knew they had very few options for activities due to the wacky weather.

We've been in the NEX 2-3 times a day since the kids got here. We ran into a colleague who is also dying of boredom. His two young kids, along with our youngest, entertained themselves for a while looking at birthday cards.

Yes, they were THAT bored.

Thank god for card games, even if I am a horrible loser.

THEN---the sun came out today, Cable beach opened for swimming, and we are no longer stir crazy.

Fighting the tide on coral and rocks is bloody business---I'm rather scraped up and I'll wear beach shoes from now on. But I got to swim in the ocean! And the kids have done that less than 10 times in their lives (less than 5 for the youngest), so I'm so happy that it was worth the wait. I am still limping from a nasty bump to my knee (bony knees + fast current + sharp coral = ouch!), but we finally got to go to the beach! And I now feel like we really live here.

Look at the farmer's tan on that skinny boy! 

And if you don't believe it was worth the wait. . . here are some pictures the hubby took today. :)

Friday, November 2, 2012

1 bomb + 2 boys + 3 days; or, Hail, hail, the gang's all here

October 30, the day before the guys made it in, we had yet another little distraction. An unexploded ordnance was found on the beach at the ferry landing, so it was announced that we'd be taking u-boats instead of the ferry to and from the airport on the leeward side of the bay to the landing on the windward side.

This caused me much stress, as although I'm not 100% sure what an unexploded ordnance is, I'm relatively positive that it's fancy Navy talk for some sort of bomb. Or explosive. Or something probably dangerous.

Ended up it was inert, and I am much relieved. Not just for safety reasons, but because I really thought we were going to be taking a German sub across the bay. "U boat" is more fancy Navy talk for a utility boat.

Additionally, the Goat Locker, found on all Navy bases, is also not an actual locker, or a place for goats. Ask an active duty sailor or veteran if you don't know what it is.

Home, finally! 

The boys were here just in time for Halloween, Gitmo style. There were dozens of kids walking around the neighborhood, dressed in fancy store-bought get-ups, cute homemade creations, and everything in between. We got more trick-or-treaters in one night than we had the entire ten years we lived in Texas, and we ran out of candy before the official lights-out. That's what happens when you go from living in a neighborhood mostly full of empty nesters and senior citizens to one chock full of families. Our little zombie had as much fun passing out candy as he did trick or treating. It's crazy being the newbie and everyone says, "Welcome to the island!" as soon as you walk up to their door. It's like Cheers. Everyone knows your name. Well, except they all aren't drinking.(And your name isn't Norm).  

Insert generic Gitmo picture here.

I'm hesitant to post any pictures of the area until I'm sure what I can post. Usually I'm all "question authority!" "fight the man!" (unless it's my children, and in that case, they should love and mind authority and the (wo)man). But there are legitimate security concerns, and therefore restrictions on photography, so it's a no-brainer until I know for sure. In the meanwhile, here is a generic picture of some generic hills on the base. Does this look like what you pictured Cuba looking like? It's a lot like the California desert, or western Texas. Cacti, brush, and when there hasn't been a torrential downpour thanks to a hurricane, it's rather brown. We are either steppe or desert climate. Not what I pictured for Cuba.

And yet, just a short distance down the road, you'll find beaches and beautiful blue water. There's usually a wide dichotomy between beach and desert climates---but yet they come together to create this place. It is weird. And it is beautiful.

If you are, indeed, Jonesing for more Gitmo pics, there is a facebook page with lots of pictures and info about here---Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A couple of beaches are FINALLY open tomorrow for beachcombing. Still no swimming or shore diving---we're still cleaning up from Sandy. Kids are so disappointed in not being able to go to the beach, I'm thinking a day of beachcombing beats a day of NEX trips and cartoons any day.