Sunday, March 31, 2013

Porches; or, Feral Children Unite!

A rite of passage for all Mississippians (even those displaced---or as my life has often been, misplaced) is to plant tomatoes. We love our tomatoes. Upon the death of my beloved grandfather, who was a produce broker in the town nicknamed the "Tomatopolis of the World," my sister pointed out that his way of showing he cared for people was to pick out the perfect tomato for them. Tomato sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise---that's what Mississippians call The Perfect Lunch.

I remember growing my first tomato. We lived in Washington, and in a flower bed next to the back door my sad little plant suddenly shot up and produced one---and only one---perfect, bright red tomato. I called my dad and mom, excited about my bounty. "And now," my dad said, "you know why Daddy has been so excited all these years about farming."

For me, it's more about the success than the actual food. I get a rush when the first shoot comes out of the ground, and then the first bloom, and then the first sign of a real tomato. Did I mention I don't even really like uncooked tomatoes?

I love the little bit of gardening I'm doing here. I've become a gatherer of seeds and pods and so far have grown hibiscus and corals trees from them. I've gotten ornamental and real pineapples and aloe starts, and recently, some seeds for a peach double hibiscus. Some of you are glazing over at the description of gardening, but to me, it's exciting stuff; not only that, but our screened in back porch is the perfect place to start plants that are sheltered from too much sun (and hungry banana rats).

Not only is it a great place for a plant nursery of sorts, but the porch is the perfect place to get bread dough to rise. Never mind that my bread making attempts have been abysmal at best thus far;  I'm not giving up. I will conquer the homemade bread loaf! We will probably be here for 2 more years, so I have time to get it right before we leave. Either that, or we will finally get a regular shipment of bread again (meaning anything other than whole wheat hotdog buns). 

And that tree I dug up out of a random stranger's yard when we first arrived?  I love it---it's our own Truffula Tree (I told you Seuss has infiltrated my brain) and going strong.

Here are some signs that the kids are, perhaps, finally settling down and adjusting to this place better than expected:

1. They automatically spray down with bug spray before going to the movies, the playground, or just out in the yard to kick the soccer ball, and they now remind me to put on sunscreen. 

2. They know schoolmates and neighbors by their house number---even if they don't always know or remember their names.

3. Observed from a distance, while walking to the playground to call the kids in at dusk: the retreat music played over the base-wide PA system and our kids, who were the only two at the playground, jumped off their swings, stood at attention, and put their hands over their hearts.

4. Tuesday afternoons they ask if we can see what new stuff has come in at the NEX from the barge.

5. Kids talk, and now most the neighborhood kids know about Rodney and ask to see him. And our kids are more than happy to oblige.

6. Kid #1 is wearing a wrist watch. When was the last time you saw a teenager wear a watch? And it is analog. With no cell phone service here, you have to actually use a watch if you want to know the time. 

They also have learned the sad lesson that friends come and go constantly when you live on a military base. Neither has moved around enough to know this (and the oldest has very few memories of living near a military community). My husband moved something like 14 times before he graduated high school. My oldest can count on 2 fingers, and his younger brother, 1 the number of places they have lived before we moved here. 

The kids have a tremendous amount of freedom here. There are multiple trade-offs to living in this place, but you can't put a monetary value on knowing your neighbors and being able to let your grade school-aged kid go to a park by himself. The oldest can navigate this place with great accuracy using the memorized bus schedule.

Why is it that our moms weren't afraid to let us be away from home from sun-up to sun-down, riding our bikes all over town (sometimes without shoes, always without helmets), no way to get in touch with us other than tracking us down through neighbors, but our generation is terrified of letting go and letting our kids live like we did? Our kids, who have bike helmets and cells phones (some that are being tracked by parents) are in turn afraid to venture more than a few blocks from the house.

I don't buy the argument that the world has suddenly become a big, bad place that is too dangerous for children.  I think somehow we'll fallen victim to a collective amnesia that the world was Mayberry-safe when we were little and we buy the media hype that kidnappers and molesters are around every corner, waiting to pounce on our precious children. I don't think it's any better or worse than when we were kids; one difference is we tend to judge those parents who let their kids live as we did in the 70s and 80s. It's different here; people don't neglect their kids, but it's okay to let your seven year old venture across the neighborhood alone, call you when he gets where he needs to be, and venture home alone when it starts to get dark. It took a while to not panic---the kids don't have cell phones! What if something happens??---to realize that the worse thing that can happen is I shelter them and make them prisoners in their own home. 

And speaking of moms and dads and feral children---guess which grown up feral child gets to see her parents this very weekend? Things have worked out and the countdown is on! I'm telling the biggest iguanas and banana rats that it's showtime, come this weekend. We all have a big dose of island fever (as in, I can't wait to get away from this island, even for a few days) and Spring Break and a visit from the grandparents can't come soon enough! 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Hotel California; or, Firsts, Lasts, and In-Betweens

The past few weeks have been frustrating, with the hurry-up-and-wait mentality of someone (DoD? Congress? DoDEA? I don't even know whom to be frustrated with) about furloughs. We get emails basically saying, brace yourself, letters are coming soon, and then we get another saying, we jumped the gun, it's going to be a few days/another week/another 2 weeks before we know something. 

You know, there is this saying about poop and a pot, and it really applies to this situation. 

And now. . . 

Some more firsts here in Gitmo: 

1) I ran my first chipped 5K! There are hills, and then there are Gitmo hills. Dear lord. We ran from the downtown Lyceum to Girl Scout Beach and back. I realize that this means absolutely nothing to 99% of you, so I'm going to pretend that I have posted a map and you are amazed at the route I have taken. As my husband has reminded me, I really don't want to be the one who gets in trouble for posting a map of this place online, so use your imagination and be impressed.

Texas Hill Country hills ain't got nothing on Cuban hills. There were some VERY steep ones there and back, and all I can say is, when I get back to flat Texas, I will be able to fly. Or at least run five or so miles without passing out. 

2. Some of you ask about my kids, and honestly, I feel that this isn't the place to talk about them. That especially goes for my teenager. If he wanted you all up in his business, he would have his own blog thing. 

But I am in constant awe of him and how he is NOT like I was at that age. This kid left his only home he really remembers of 9 years to come here---a real leap of faith, not that he had much choice. He went from a large group of life-long friends to being one of about 50 highschoolers, and one of only 10 or so students in his grade. Yes, ten. Like 1-0. He's had to take some classes online to get everything he wanted on his schedule (not that easy, especially with The World's Slowest Internet). 

Got a few days? You can download that file---
actual screenshot from our house.

He wanted to continue tennis, so he is one of four kids who play on the team. That means tennis tournament season is him, his three teammates---and lots of lots of grownups. Yes, when you are a teen here and participate in sports, it means you play either individual or group matchups, depending on the sport, with JTF, active duty, civilian, foreign national, DoD adults, and/or their spouses. It's crazy watching your kid play in a match against someone much older and experienced in the game. He made it to the second round before being eliminated, and I'm SO proud of him. There is absolutely, positively NO WAY I could have played adults in a competitive match at his age. First, they would have slaughtered me (and he definitely held his own), and second, I would have chickened out. So kudos to my kid. 

Also, he is thisclose to being SCUBA certified. I was scared to death at 22 of getting certified. I'm so happy he's a much gutsier and braver kid than I ever was. 

But that's the joy of having kids, sometimes----they aren't like you were at their age. Thank God. 

3. Pearl the Blazer has a new companion: 

We hasve looked at Jeeps several times over the years, and now we are living in the best place on earth to have one. The stars aligned and we found the right one at the right time for the right price. People call our stretch of road "Jeep Row." There are at least 10 on our street. 

We haven't named her---or him----yet. Suggestions? Anyone? 

4. I ate these:

Two sea snail shells, a snail foot, and a dime for size comparison

Sea snails, picked from the ocean, grilled in their own juices and eaten right there on the beach. 

And I KNOW some of you eat clams, escargot, or (raw) oysters, so don't even pretend to stick your nose in the air. A mollusk is a mollusk is a mollusk. 

And they weren't that bad. 

5. Today I climbed a tree for the first time since I was 12 or so with our youngest. It was one of the strangely twisted, gargantuan, and beautiful banyans in our neighborhood. You know what? It was fun. I need to get out and climb more trees. I really forgot how much I loved doing that as a kid. 

And lasts. . . or one last. . . 

I try not to take too much of the rumor mill seriously, but when I heard a few months back that our one and only commercial airline was leaving the island, right after my parents had bought tickets from said airline, I panicked a little. They called IBC and were assured that it was not going out of business. 

Well, IBC is leaving the island. Their last day here? The day before my parents were scheduled to fly in. 

"Disappointed" is a word I use when I forget to catch the latest episode of a show I like, or realize I can't cook something I want because I'm missing one ingredient. I'm really not sure what the word or phrase is I want to use. "Pissed off?" Not really that. . . I am angry, but also disenchanted that they were sold something and guaranteed they could use it when, in fact, it is void and null. And there's that possibility the airline knew it when they sold the tickets to them. It's complicated when there were other stops and hotels and cities along their path here. Cross your fingers this sorts itself out and they can get on what is now one of only SIX flights a month to this place. So it's my last time to take rumors so lightly. 

As my pal Beth says, "You are living in Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." 

I'm going to submit that as my entry to the (Un)Official Gitmo Tourist Slogan contest (especially since "It's On the Barge" isn't so funny anymore). 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Catching the Ferry; or, Is this the way to Hades?

In Greek mythology, the newly dead wait at the shores of the River Styx for Charon the ferryman to transport them to Hades. Once the souls get there, they are reborn and gain another body. The Greeks placed a coin in the mouth of their dead before burial so they could pay the ferryman to ensure safe passage to the other side.

The ferry requires no money---like lots of things here, it's free. 

I couldn't help but think about that story and reflect on my other ferry trips this weekend as I was taking my third voyage across the Bay.

I think I'd taken a ferry over the Mississippi River at some point as a young child---I'm not sure exactly where or when---but the first trip I really remember was to see my cousins in Fernandina Beach, FL, which is on Amelia Island. Then there have been ferry trips across to New Orleans; the Bremerton, WA ferry into Seattle; the San Juan, WA islands trips; the ferry to Victoria, British Columbia; the ferry across the Rhine to Rüdesheim, Germany. The first Guantánamo ferry trip last October, however, was about a new beginning, a solo (at first) adventure, and I won't lie---it was really scary.

I was absolutely worried about what I'd find. It's one thing when you jump up and make a life-changing plan on your own; it's another when you have school-aged children and a spouse you are dragging along, for better or worse. The first ferry trip over was beautiful---I got to see the ocean, the bay, the mountains of Cuba, the things I can't photograph (the "golfballs," the windmills), beaches, all in one shot. Two of my colleagues met me at the airport and we had a great talk while traveling the Bay to my new home. Hearing  about their own paths to Cuba and their adventures in the system made me really feel like I've made a good decision. The light breeze, the smell of salty air, the bright sun---as the ferry slowly crawled toward the windward side, and I found myself much calmer when I got to Ferry Landing.

Hills, the Bay leading to the ocean---that's our Cuba

A couple of weeks later, I took the trip back to Leeward to pick up my three fellas---and sat with a group of young guys whose unit was leaving after a year here. They were sad to go---a couple were at the verge of tears---and as they took dozens of pictures and frantically waved goodbye to their Gitmo friends, I wondered, "Is this how I will feel when I finally take my final ferry trip across the Bay?"

This weekend, I had another great adventure---I went with a group of ladies to Leeward  for the night. We took the 1630 ferry, caught a bus to a hotel, ate at the Leeward Galley, then went back to the hotel and played Bunco (most stupid game ever invented---absolutely no skill involved---it's all about the company you keep, and this group is extremely fun), had a great time, and took the 10 am ferry back to Windward the next morning. It's what people here do to get away---they take the ferry to spend the night away from the main part of the base, because at least you don't run into the same people at the same stores around the same time of day as you always do. I've said it before---this place is like Groundhog Day. Sometimes it's nice to have a little change, especially when it's hard to get away from furlough talk and complaints about the internet and lack of bread and everything else here. If you can't beat them. . . run away for a weekend.

When I was packing to move here, we cleaned out our safe deposit box and I decided I would take one of my Morgan dollars from my Papaw with me, and it ended up as a good luck charm of sorts, stashed away in the lining of my purse throughout the trip. Every Christmas for several years, he gave the grandkids each a coin of some sort. I have a little stack of them---some are worth a bit of money, some are not, but they are all priceless and precious to me, as they are probably the only thing I have with his handwriting on them. I'm not really sure what I believe about fate and destiny, but I can say without a doubt that he influenced several people in my family, including myself, to become teachers. Education brought my family out of the fields and poverty to all over the state of Mississippi and beyond, working as teachers, coaches, librarians, principals, superintendents. I have always felt like teaching was my destiny, brought about by his influence and example. 

But this isn't a story about education (nothing makes me rant more than public education in our country), it's all about our crazy journey---and the fact that I took a coin across the Bay on a ferry to start a new life of sorts, well, maybe that's a little bit of destiny, as well. At least I didn't carry it in my mouth. Let's just hope in the end I don't think this place is Hades. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hoarders, Unite!, or, Speculation and Conjecture

The thing about being in a small community, whether a small town or a small military base (and we are both), people tend to feed off each other's energies and gossip can fuel hysteria.

A few months back I wrote about how the ridiculousness of waiting a week for bacon to arrive on the barge is what unites people here in Gitmo.

Waiting for the barge to bring groceries, clothes, cleaning supplies, gardening supplies, not to mention household goods and automobiles, is a sport of sorts here. People actually post on the roster or facebook page when coveted items (block cheese! bread!) show up at the Commissary. So in light of the recent horrific news that the barge had 22 containers that fell into the Atlantic and are unable to be salvaged, the irony of the famous Gitmo saying "It's on the Barge" hasn't been lost on anyone. At first, it was kind of preposterous---seriously, how can so many containers fall off a barge? Then it got scary. How many people have been waiting for their household goods for months, and now they are chewing their nails to the quick, waiting to see if all their worldly belongings have been destroyed? The news has been slow as to what exactly was on the barge. Again, more gossip, more hysteria.

In the haste of moving here in less than a month, we brought things that, in hindsight, should have been left with family members back in the States. As I have been busy in the never-ending quest to downsize and simplify, simplify, simplify, I have not been able to part with sentimental items. I would be crushed if I lost my favorite stuffed animal from childhood, or a necklace my grandparents gave me for college graduation, or the portrait on my dresser of my grandfather and five of his brothers in Newhebron in the early 1900s,  posing in their best clothes (some of them barefooted)---it's proof of roots, as my mom likes to say.  All those items and more are part of who I am, and remind me of people and places I miss. I can't imagine the agony those folks feel, waiting for news about their own sentimental things.

In yet another case of gossip-fed hysteria, I wish I could say that panic didn't set in for me when I realized how dire the situation is if we don't get any shipments of groceries, dry goods, clothes, and everything else, but I found myself joining dozens of other people, grabbing toilet paper, eggs, bottled water, and other necessities that we may go weeks without seeing. Usually we are a civilized lot---you see 2 cartons of eggs left, you take one. This time, people were going for it---I saw people with several boxes of cereal, cases of beer, multiple bags of dog food, etc. I wish I could say the community has faith that the Commissary will pull through and has enough items in reserve in case of a shortage, but the weekly empty shelves here tell another story.

And yet MORE news. . .

I have several people asking me weekly now about the sequestration and furloughs.

Am I going to be furloughed? Maybe. Probably. Most definitely. Not a chance.

It depends on who you ask, what's happened with Congress that day (stop laughing), and what kind of mood everyone is in.

Add the speculation and conjecture about furloughs to the gossip mill. So many of us here are government employees of one type or another, and thought of going 22 days without pay is not fun for anyone. And misery loves company, so you have to avoid the glass-half-empty folks while managing to keep your head out of the sand.  (How is that for mixing metaphors?)

It is what it is. So it goes. I'm just going to keep on running (hate it! HATE it!) and hopefully let the stress melt away.

Speaking of running---the youngest and I did a Dr. Seuss 1 mile Run Fun at the North Gate last weekend. The North Gate is the point where a select few Cubans who were allowed to continue working here used to enter US territory after the fence (and embargoes) became the norm. The last 2 Cubans retired in December to much fanfare---they were celebrities here of sorts---and it is now just another relic of the Cold War. We ran on the fence line and I couldn't help but wonder what the heck the Cuban guards only yards away in their guard towers thought about us in our Dr. Seuss costumes. I wonder if Cubans know about Dr. Seuss. Hopefully, that's not on the banned reading list or considered dirty American propaganda---although who knows. I have to say, after reading Dr. Seuss books to several classes all week, I feel like I've been through a government run brainwashing program. (I have to contain myself and not scream lines such as, "I do not like them on a boat! I do not like them with a goat!" at random moments. I need a Dr. Seuss de-tox, Sam-I-Am).

I am also signed up for a 5K this weekend. Woot! Cross your fingers that I don't fall into the Bay or whatever. I really don't even know where it is. Nobody does. We are bused from the Downtown Lyceum to the super-secret route, which will be revealed on race day.

Expect the unexpected---and make sure you tell everyone about it. Welcome to Gitmo!

Postscript: just read from an official source (yes, really) that the containers on the barge had NO personal goods (yay!), but did contain items bound for the NEX/Commissary (boo!). So no regrets for hoarding!!! 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Of Banana Rats and Men; or, Big, Dumb, and Slow

I, of the wonky eye (okay, strabismus), acute myopia, and severe astigmatism, have had a lifetime of eye issues (lots of physical therapy for the wonky eye, coke-bottom glasses since I was six, contact lens since I was eleven, a new and stronger prescription every single year, and the ability to only see 20/40 with corrective lens).

I'm telling you this so you won't think that unlike that one time in Mexico, I was not drinking when I almost petted a rodent this week.

I was running--- I still hate it, by the way---and saw a chunky, grey cat I had never seen moving  near my neighbor's car. The cat, of course, was not a cat---it was a big, dumb, and slow hutia---what we here call a banana rat.

They are not disgusting, beady-eyed little creatures like your typical roof rat or sewer rat. They are actually more like a nutria, and are about the size of large possum, with, well, what I would only describe as sweet eyes. The combo of  big brown eyes, whiskers, funky little toes, and weird tail works---they are really cute. And I have never been around a wild animal that is so freakishly calm around humans as the hutia---people here hand feed them fries and other unhealthy things.

Dear god, I think I have fallen in love with a banana rat. Make that the entire species of them.

I try to do good Samaritan deeds when I can, but this was a first: calling my neighbor and saying, "Um, yeah, you have a banana rat under your car." Part of being a big, dumb, and slow animal apparently means you just sort of mosey along when a hysterical and sweaty woman waves her arms as you and hisses "Shooooo!" The poor thing moved like pond water. This is probably why I see them as vulture buffet on the side of the road almost every morning.

We are going to have to get chicken wire for under our car, because they eat wiring and insulation and hoses. I wish the big, dumb, slow animals would not get so close to the neighborhood cars, because eventually, someone will call in the exterminator. Nobody is allowed to own a gun at Gitmo---nobody, that is, except the guy whose job is the kill the banana rats. They destroy cars. They destroy trees and landscaping. They leave huge, banana shaped poo everywhere. And since we have an abundance of them here, the exterminator keeps busy. I'm hoping one day I don't see them in the neighborhood anymore because they have decided to mosey on towards Cuba-Cuba (not to be confused with America-Cuba) and not because they have, indeed, been exterminated.

The youngest has wanted for weeks to see one up close and personal, so several nights in a row, we tiptoed across the street, where there are no houses but wilderness (and occasionally, wild animals) but no such luck. One night, he got very animated and said, "Look mama, that's the most incredible thing ever!"

No banana rat---it was the stars. The stars at night are big and bright---very little light pollution means the night sky is a wondrous sight every single night.

Beauty is everywhere here in Cuba. It's that swarm of butterflies surrounding your moving car, the bright red hibiscus attracting hummingbirds, the juvenile spotted drum (a big deal!) we saw while diving last weekend.

It's the salt flats and beyond those, the mountains of Cuba that I see out my front door every morning.

I always did try to find beauty in nature back in Texas---I stumbled upon a blooming gardenia  when we first moved into our house, and I burst into tears---they remind me so much of my Granny and I hadn't smelled one in decades until then. There are irises and heirloom oxblood lilies that popped up every fall and spring---I got great joy out of something as simple as a bulb or tuber I knew would come back and multiply, year after year.

But there, I was too busy to really notice the less-than obvious.

Like the stars---it sounds silly, but I can't remember the night sky in Texas. When you leave your house at 7 am and get home at 6 pm, well, there really isn't time to do much but start cooking before you completely collapse.

And since my work hours are much more reasonable and unlike Texas, jive more with the rest of the educational world---that is, school districts don't set school hours according to football practice---I actually get home during daylight and can play soccer (that would be REAL football) or hang out at the park with the kids.

Fewer tv stations, internet speed that rivals the days of dial-up and no cell phone means I have read more books since mid-October than in a typical year. And I have always read at least one book a month.

Having to buy every thing, from underwear to frozen chicken to batteries to cookies to picture hangers to soap in the one and ONLY store, which is only five miles or so from the house, means shopping takes less time than ever. Having three varieties of yogurt instead of twenty makes it simple. Less choice, more time for other things---like finding recipes that use less ingredients.

And come sundown, I have time to search for banana rats. And stars. Both which make for a very happy little boy, and if mama is happy---well, you know how the rest goes.

The title of this homemade video by some tourist---"tree rat drinking beer"---is a little disappointing. They are so big and awesome, I really expected to see one pitching back a frosty stein.