Thursday, February 21, 2013

A few of my favorite things; or, the Doubloon Stomp

For the second time in the almost 4 months since we moved here, we've had a nice little market where anyone can sell homemade items. There are wooden cut out plaques of Cuba; there are really, really good nature photographs; there are tee shirts with snarky/funny sayings; there is even a beekeeper on Gitmo (seriously!) who sells local honey. And I know where you are thinking this is going. . . shell art, right?

This never gets old.
But I'm not here to talk to you about shell art. I'm not adverse to a little shell art; however, I am more impressed by sea glass, that somehow addictive and obsessive hobby of so many GTMO residents. People here take the naturally tumbled and glazed pieces of garbage glass and fashion them into pretty necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Anything that can be bedazzled and festooned---stepping stones, keychains, barrettes---are decorated with sea glass and sold.

Combing beaches for the perfect piece of a rare color (yellow, purple, red, or cobalt blue) is something I can spend hours doing.

How did the glass get here? Like all stories associated with this place, especially since we are the U.S.'s oldest overseas base, the legend has a life of its own. Did it come from a bar that once sat above a cliff, where sailors would throw their beer and wine bottles into the ocean? Did it drift here from Jamaica and other parts of Cuba? (One day, I will get pictures of the huge hole in the coral shore of Coral Beach that is full of shoes---hundreds of single flip flops, dress shoes, slippers, you name it---that have supposedly floated in from other parts of Cuba and Jamaica). Or what about the less romantic (but probably more probable) explanation that the thousands of pieces of glass are a byproduct of lots of garbage dumped in the bay? Much of the glass is very old---you can find entire antique bottles if you know where to look, some with imprints of long-gone Cuban breweries from the early or pre-Castro days.

After Hurricane Sandy, some of the beaches were so strewn with pieces of glass, you had to carefully watch your step. Not that you can go barefoot on our beaches; thanks to the tiny rocks and pieces of coral, our beaches always require swim shoes. We aren't the sugar sand, white beaches of Destin, Florida or the Mayan Riviera. We are the rough and wild beaches of Cuba. And I never give up an opportunity to find sea glass while I'm there.

Step lightly---I mean literally, not metaphorically.

In addition to beach combing (and a little diving), we celebrated Mardi Gras this past weekend, Gitmo style.

And no, there was not a parade like Christmas. But there was a festival for kids and families and it was still entertaining. It had some authentic touches, too, here and there. My favorite part was the Cajun band that made my day, my February, and my 2013 thus far and caused me to pause---and then sing and dance like nobody's watchin'---when I heard this opening stanza:
Down in New Orleans
Where the blues was born
It takes a cool cat
To blow a horn
On LaSalle and Rampart Street
The combo's there with a mambo beat

Alright, my NOLA loving, Mardi Gras partying friends, I know you know the chorus to this one. I couldn't believe it---it looks like Cuba, the weather says it's Cuba, but there is a band from Louisiana (including an accordion player, mais oui) on stage singing "Mardi Gras Mambo." Oh, happy day!

The youngest asked me to stop singing and dancing because I was embarrassing him (really, what's the point of having kids if you can't embarrass them in public?), and then he had a great day, too, because he got his face painted. As we were walking up to the festival, he said, "This is going to be the day I've been waiting for my whole life----I get to get my face painted!"

I don't know where this child gets his flair for the dramatic. Really. Hmmmm.

Doubloons. Sea glass. These are a few of my favorite things.

Much earlier in the morning, before the festival, we went to the beach.  As I was trying my best not to be pushed down by some rather violent waves, I came to a realization about Mardi Gras and sea glass. I would see a coveted and rare color or a near-perfect, smooth and tumbled piece, and then a wave would take it away before I could get to it. I finally decided to use a technique I first learned as a child at Mardi Gras---the doubloon stomp.

If you only know of Mardi Gras with stupid, drunken guys screaming at stupid, flashing girls, or people puking in gutters, you unfortunately don't know my Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras of my childhood had guys riding on horses---if you were pretty enough, they would stop and for a peck on the check, give you a single, long-stemmed rose. Does anyone else remember this? I don't think any parades do this anymore.

Cops had horses, too.  I have a vivid memory of two cops on horses, picking up an especially inebriated and sassy guy between them and riding him off to the drunk tank. His feet never touched the ground. Awesome.

My Mardi Gras had the mighty Indians in their one-of-a-kind costumes, and the Brass Bands with wailing horns ("Do Watcha' Wanna, Mardi Gras Morning," etc), and the NOLA area high school bands performing their renditions of R & B hits with dance line girls and majorettes that could shake what their mamas gave them. And some.

And the "throw me somethin', mister" and you learned real quick---if you want beads, you grab high. Better yet, you got you a ladder at Schwegmann's---that's where you used to go, before they all closed, to "make groceries"---with a box nailed to the top. You put your younguns in the box, and then you pimped your kids for beads. The guys and gals on the floats would just hand the beads gently to the babes in the boxes---no need to scream or grab.

I was never a bead girl. I was all about the doubloons. Cheap metal coins with parade names, logos, and pictures on them are what I collected. Today, I have a fancy crystal canister full of them. It just takes one time, and then you learn---if you don't want parade goers smooshing your phalanges, leaving them filthy and bleeding, you stomp first, and after the crowd disperses, you grab.

I've put my childhood lessons to good use. I see sea glass I want, I dig my toes in and cover it with my foot (and hopefully remember my beach shoes or flip flops), and then grab it once the wave has dissolved. I still don't have as much success with sea glass as I did with doubloons---but some Mardi Gras muscle memory (stomp, then grab) has come in handy.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running; or, Suffering is Optional

I have a love/hate relationship with running. 
Actually, it's more of a hate/hate relationship. 

I have a hard time with pacing myself---I almost always, without fail, start out way too fast and end up having to catch my breath (asthma doesn't help). I'm slow. I'm lazy. I have old lady bunions that hurt. 

But I also like to do nothing but think about my (mildly asthmatic) breathing, and count steps, and check my time as I go. It's sort of like meditation. 

I see how people are addicted to it. 

And that's why I also love it, although I really hate it, too. It's so hard. How can a sport requiring nothing more than 2 feet and a good pair of lungs be so difficult??? 

I have finally done a first here---I've joined a runner's group of sorts. If you like running, Gitmo is the place to be---I counted 26 people running in the few miles to and from the NEX one day. It can be 6 am or 11 pm and you'll see five or more people running on base. My "runner's group" is actually just a group of ladies from my neighborhood, and when motivated to keep up with the leader of the pack, I have managed to run faster the last 2 nights than most of the 2-3 years I've been running. 

"Pain in inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you're running and you think, 'Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore. The 'hurt' part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself." ---Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

So I am a big---huge, actually---fan of books with non-linear timelines, quirky characters, multiple storylines, and exotic locations. My favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have recommended it to dozens of people. I can count on 2 fingers the number of people who liked it---but those two people felt like I did when I finished it the first time---it was a spiritual experience and the final scene delivered a full blow to the gut. I also feel this way about most of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's books, especially my favorite, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles. Man, it blew me away. 

So when I heard he had written a book about his experiences as a marathoner---he's a hard core runner---and it owes much of its title to yet another book I love by the late, great Raymond Carver, I had to get it. 

Except, I haven't gotten it yet. It's not at the library here, so I'm mulling over getting it to read on the iPad or bringing yet another paper book into the house. (The floor boards are straining. The bookshelves are crammed. Confession---I have at least one---maybe more, but I ain't telling---boxes of books in storage. STILL. I know, I need help). 

But that quote---"pain in inevitable. Suffering is optional"---it's so true. It's the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. The way he applies it to the act of running makes so much sense, and I get it---I wish my mind-over-matter just worked a little more efficiently. And so it goes with life, too. 

It is hard not to wallow in self-pity when things aren't going my way. 

I've stayed in jobs (and probably relationships) waaaay longer than I should because I was paralyzed by despair AND too afraid that change would make things even worse. 

I have learned through running that I am not as stubborn as I thought. I really want to go up a hill, but I can't make my legs keep going some of the time. It's frustrating. Why do I start walking? What switches in my brain to make me stop? 

I also found that if I chew gum, put my hair in a bun (ponytail swinging really messes up my groove), and never, ever look down, I do better. 

And it's the silly things that get you through life, too. 

My heart really hurts today because my former school lost a precious kid. He was a senior, with a great smile and a mature way about him. He was a regular in the library, and it was very easy to fall into conversation with him and forget that he was just a kid. He loved books---especially zombie books. What's not to love about a kid who loves zombies? 

Last night he took his life, and I'm sad to think that he didn't learn the lesson that "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." 

So it goes. 

Well, this is the most depressing thing I've written in a while. It started with running and ended with an unrelated tragedy. Talk about a strange tangent. 

So here are some Gitmo firsts from the last week plus, and small reasons to celebrate: 

1)I did finally get to see the Bay from a boat this week. The oldest kid and his English class took a boat cruise to a cay while wearing togas, read letters they wrote in character, enjoyed Greek food, and after putting their letters in bottles, threw them out at Romance Cove. The book was The Odyssey, of course! This was their class odyssey, and quite a brilliant plan. He'll remember That Time I Wore a Toga on a Boat in Cuba for the rest of his life. 

2) The youngest and I have become regulars at the Arts and Crafts Shop---we are now masters of ceramic painting (and hopefully, I'll learn some pottery while I'm here---there are wheels, an extruder, that thing that rolls clay out, and something that looks like an air brush machine for painting pottery. In case you haven't guessed, no, I have no clue how to actually use any of that equipment to throw a pot). And you know just what we need---more (ceramic) trinkets for the house! I'm still purging! I promise! The boy actually said, "You know mom, we can always sell this stuff in a yard sale." That's my child! 

3)Ummm, we sorta had a small earthquake Friday. Or maybe just aftershocks from elsewhere. Two of the four of us felt it (I didn't), and there is absolutely nothing in the news about it, but we know enough people to verify that 50% of our household is not completely delusional and insane. Nobody and nothing was hurt so---another reason to celebrate! 

4) FIRST DIVE IN NINE YEARS! It went well, despite some lingering asthma (yes, that again) causing me to have problems at first. I rarely get asthma, and only when my allergies turn into a severe upper respiratory infection---but when I do get it, it is hell to shake off. It will be a few more months before I'm breathing normally again---and yes, I am taking medicine for it every single day. 
I love my dive buddy---he's been with me for over 20 years. I'm so happy that the fun (and funny) guy I took lessons with as a grad student is still by my side. I am thankful that he is still a wanderer and traveler and adventurer. We didn't take Cheese Wiz and hot dogs to feed the eels like we did on one of our first dives together, but we did manage to see some amazing corals and fish. The comments in the dive logs from our '92-93, '04, and now Cuban experiences are hilarious to read. I guess we are on a 9 year cycle---wonder  where we'll be diving together in 2022? 

post script: There is a possibility that Todd's death was an accident (and what a horrendous accident it was). My understanding is that the evidence is inconclusive. I would like to think that he had a change of heart and it was an accident; whatever happens does not stop that an incredible, bright young man has been taken from this world. See? I'm a downer again. Sorry about that. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Parts Don't Make a Whole; or, Non Sequitur

I came to a sudden realization after some recent discussions about our school system's high-stakes testing: we get our funding from the federal government, not state governments, so No Child Left Behind does not apply to DoDDS schools. Take that, Bush and Obama!

Yes, there are standards (and we are moving to Common Core soon---you teacher folks know what I'm talkin' 'bout). I just don't see teachers in this system having to forgo weeks of classroom instruction so they can do benchmarks---practice tests ad nauseum---like they do in most state systems.

Private schools, which get their funding from private organizations, foundations, individual donors and/or tuition fees, also do not follow No Child Left Behind.

Additionally, not following No Child Left Behind means you do not measure AYP. For you non-educators, that's the AdequateYearly Progress your school must show. If 90% of your public school population exceeds expectations for math this year, that's not good enough next year---95% must exceed to be acceptable. Also, in case you zoned out in the 2000s, Bush said students, even those with very low IQs but not the very few who get a waiver (usually the very, very, very low IQ kids), and those with major behavior and learning disabilities, and those non-English speakers with more than 3 years in the country but no real grasp of English, should all be at 100% on all tests, by next year. ¿Cómo se dice delusional? 

Now you know why, if you look closely enough, most teachers have mysterious marks on our foreheads---it's from banging our heads against the wall.

Another interesting tidbit I've learned: if you are not on military orders (such as private contractors), but you want your kid to go to a DoD school, the government will charge you tuition. It's around $20,000-25,000 a year.

To come to GTMO (and any international military base) with orders to work, such as government civilian personnel, you have to have a physical. If you are over 40, that includes an EKG. Your physical is sent off to someone at the hospital who reviews it and your fate is in that person's hands---you can be refused entry for medical reasons. (Wearing dental braces is a reason excluding you from working and/or living here---civilians don't have a dentist here, so an orthodontist? Surely you jest). You also have to have proof of insurance to live here---it costs tens of thousands to medivac you off island in case of an emergency requiring anything other than routine ER care. Even though we are an American military base and you never set foot on Cuba, you have to have a passport to live here (and depending on your job, a government issue, maroon passport).

If you are visiting someone on the island, you have to have a tourist passport, proof of insurance, and lots and lots of paperwork signed from the base commander giving you permission to stay here. You have to stay in a private home. This ain't Club Med---you aren't coming to town and staying in a hotel. We really don't have a hotel here. Even the press stays in tents.


We are living in a very exclusive gated community.


We are sending our children to a moderately expensive private school.

So now I need to know: have we become the 1%?

I feel an existential crisis coming on. (Also, if I don't believe in logical fallacies, do they still exist?)

We finally got a piece of the pie.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

More to love; or, Don't Feed the Iguanas

More things I love about Gitmo, in pictures:

1. I can cut my hair and it doesn't look worse than anyone else's.

It's about what works in the humidity and heat. People here aren't total slobs, but we aren't the land of high maintenance women with big Tex-ass hair, that's for sure.  I'm not even sure if you can buy hairspray at the NEX. 

2. You can't necessarily buy bread, BUT you can get lots of great international food.

Curry ketchup, Bulgogi marinade, Lumpia, and Ritter Sport, just to name a few things. 

Also, many items to cause one to either scratch one's head or giggle: 

It's cock flavored soup---and "spicy!!"

3. No more impulse buying at the checkout.

It's Feb 1, and the Christmas cookie issue is FINALLY here! And just like that, all that money I used to spend on magazines at the checkout is tucked away in my pocketbook (and more money for Jamaican jerk and Red Stripe).  

4. I have hummingbirds that live in a bougainvillea outside my office. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a juvenile being feed by a parent. They just hang out on branches, and when you are least expecting it, they buzz your head.

We also have what we thought was a large aloe plant in the backyard. The husband was grilling, got a small burn, and I decided I would come to the rescue with aloe. 

Except it wasn't aloe. I still don't know what it is, but it smells AWFUL. 

A few weeks ago, it got this tall branches shooting out of the top of it, and then strange looking flowers on it, and then---guess what? The hummingbirds in the backyard love them. So glad for the ugly not-really-an-aloe plant. 

5. Also, this:

A character in my favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is associated with butterflies: “It was then that she realized that the yellow butterflies preceded the appearances of Mauricio Babilonia.” I feel like Mauricio myself, except I always see white butterflies (and hopefully won't come to such a tragic end---he is, after all, in a Garcí­a Márquez novel).

They are everywhere---clusters of 5, 10, 15, flying through the bougainvillea, the cacti, in the garden, on the side of the road, and unfortunately, often into my windshield. If you can't see the ones above, it's because they are, also, incredibly difficult to capture with a camera. If there such thing as butterfly season, it must be right now, because they seemingly arrived in the thousands overnight. 

6. You get so used to seeing huge Cuban rock iguanas everywhere, you almost step on them. No small feat, since they are humongous.

"Iggy" is the unofficial mascot of the elementary school, and is often seen in the parking lot, on the playgrounds, or hanging out next to the road. I think it's a female, and she's pretty chill---it just ignores you and eats grass all day long.

Then you have this guy who hangs out at the NEX. I'm sure he probably has a nickname, too (as do the ones who hang out at the bowling alley), and he is pretty much the Chuck Norris of the iguana world. He's big, he's obviously gotten in some scraps because he's lost and regrown a large part of his tail, and he is very brazen in his begging. He is one of the reasons there are "DO NOT FEED THE IGUANAS" signs posted every where.

I'd say those tiles are about 8" across, to give you some perspective. I'd also say this guy hasn't missed many meals. 

If I ever run out of things to write about, I will change this to a blog about the different iguanas of Gitmo and their personalities.

7. The other thing I can always find enough to write about are the Gitmo Specials that abound---if I took a picture of each and described all the various makes and models, including homemade paint jobs, pieced together parts, and questionable brakes on more than a few, I would have at least 2 years worth of material.

I got lucky and got a two-fer with this shot. Notice the red/purple swirled hatchback driving down the road. The combo of crazy paint job and multiple rust spots gives it the appearance, at first glance, of a car that's been set on fire---and somehow survived. And this van. . . hope they don't get a flat.

The Gitmo Special is a perfect symbol of this place---a little old and dated, a little forgotten, a little neglected, but for a few, very well loved.