Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cheap Sunglasses; or, New Reality > Old Reality

Imagine, if you will, that you are swept out of your little town (or big city) and are plopped down on a small military base. You can travel about 20 square miles, can never, ever leave the base, and have ONE shop for everything. You see your neighbors and coworkers EVERYWHERE you go.

And that's just the beginning of the weirdness.

This has been my life the last 9 months, and going back for only 10 days to the US was a crazy experience, including being blindsided by as little culture shock along the way.

Here are a few things I found, well, different than I remembered.

Cell phones

It took me a full day to figure out how to use my cell phone again. It's been out of commission since the day I landed in Cuba. I've never been very adept at using one to begin with, and find them a complete intrusion in my life---thus the reason I seldom had it handy when we were living back in the US.

Nine months of living in a society without cellphones has been blissful, I'm not going to lie. If my teenager needs me, he picks up a (free) payphone and calls home. My husband and I call each other at work or write each other notes to communicate. No more texting! So it's been a shock coming from somewhere where few people have phones (they only can call on base, so most people don't bother), to coming back to a place where everyone has a phone. I honestly forgot how crazy people are when they talk (scream!!!) on their phones in public, discussing WAY too personal things for everyone to hear, and doing it everywhere. One cell phone etiquette question lingering after our trip is, for the love of all that's good in the world, WHY do people talk on the phone while taking care of their personal business in a public restroom? I kind of forgot (blocked out?) that people actually do that.

I did see more signs that said things like "Take your personal calls outside the building" and "No talking on cell phones while checking out." Granted, one of these signs was in a liquor store on State Street in Jackson, MS, where you had to give your order to a clerk encased in a wire mesh cage (Siri sucks), but still. . . Being a salesclerk is a thankless job, and in addition to waiting for people to do things like pull their sweaty money wad out of their bras (some of my dad's wonderful customers would do this), you shouldn't have to listen to people's loud, obnoxious conversations because they have no manners. So kudos for those stores that are posting signs. 

I hope it's working. 


The South is green. 

I don't mean this in a crunchy-granola-hippie kind of way. 

Quite literally, it's green---grassy, leafy, verdant. One of the first things one of the kids I did, upon getting to our hotel in Florida, was slip off our flip-flops and walk in grass barefooted. 

Right now, there is NO green grass in Cuba. It's brown dirt and matted, dried grass. 

In fact, if you golf here, you have to bring a small piece of turf unless you want to hit off rocks and dirt. The greens are green---but they are tiny.

I forgot about kudzu. Kudzu covers houses, trees, telephone poles and wires, mailboxes, and abandoned cars. Also, there are mushrooms. Mushrooms! My parents' yard in Mississippi is so lush, it's full of mushrooms. 

(Before you trek to their house to see for yourself, they aren't those type of mushrooms, FYI). 

I forgot how much I love the whirring sound of cicadas. Cicadas sound like the south to me. It's comforting in a strange way. I miss them. 

I don't miss squirrels (thanks to Rodney), but the kids did have fun seeing them for the first time in months. Same with several types of birds. And the hummingbirds and vultures here aren't noisy like Mississippi mockingbirds. 

It was, quite simply, sensory overload. And wonderful. Even if we did get sick and tired of all the rain (it rained almost daily---more in 10 days than in almost 10 months here), it was nice to have a change in scenery for a few days.

Ewe's Not Fluffy, Ewe's Fat 

Everywhere at GTMO, at all hours of the day and night, you see people here running or walking. There are plenty of (free!) exercise classes, and they are almost always packed. People take exercise and fitness seriously here. Most of that is because military servicemen and women have to pass PT tests, but I think a lot of the love of physical activity comes from the fact that there really isn't a lot else to do. Remember that GTMO saying: You leave here a hunk, a chunk, or a drunk.

So coming back to the US where most people are, well, less motivated to exercise, and therefore are a little (or lot) overweight is a shock of sorts.

Where did all the fat people come from? I guess they have always been around, but coming from somewhere where they are probably less than 10 morbidly obese people (military spouses or contractors), it's a shock to see so many chunks out there.

Also, in regards to the really, really fit guys we have running all over our base----they tend to run shirtless. More reasons to love living here. :)

Duck Dynasty

When did Duck Dynasty get so freakin' famous?!?

Not just at Walmart, the epoch of all things culturally wrong with the world, but everywhere else we went. There were no Duck Dynasty flashlights, tee shirts, life-sized cut outs, hats, visors, sunglasses, mugs, cups, bobblehead dolls, posters, etc ad naseum when we lived in Texas just 9 short months ago.

Seriously, people, why do you want to wear pictures of people who look like that man who sleeps under the bypass, and on camo fabric? It's just. . . weird.

I like the show. I am sure they are lovely people. But dear God, it's like someone vomited Duck Dynasty all over the world.

All Those Small Things

One day, my oldest child ate three sandwiches. Not because he's a teenager and has the metabolism of a hummingbird, but because "the bread is SO SOFT AND FRESH!"

No more pre-frozen bread!

I stocked up on some birthday presents for kids, since we only have a few things to chose from here. The last birthday party we went to, we had to give the girl colored pens and a notebook because the toy and book section was very picked over. Other things we bought you cannot get in Cuba: a variety of baseball gloves----the few here don't include an adult glove for our left handed kid, or the correct size for the youngest; running socks---I don't like the two styles they sell here; toiletries---more choices, and things that can't be sent here via mail because of fragrance; and lots of arts and crafts materials that don't exist here at all.

Also, we have very nice sunglasses here---VERY nice, as in usually $180, only $90 Prada or Coach or Kate Spade, etc etc glasses. If you know me and what a natural born klutz I am, you can see how owning something as ridiculous as a $90 pair of sunglasses can be. I run in them, wear them in the ocean, work in the yard in them, and tend to leave them in strange places and never see them again. I stocked up on frou-frou brand glasses at Ross and TJ Maxx for $5-10 each. So there. Also purses---I would love to buy a $170 purse, but puh-leeze. It's going to eventually end up thrown onto the dirty floorboard of my car, so really, what's the point? We don't have a shortage of nice quality, sturdy purses or sunglasses at our NEX----just a shortage of affordable ones. I got a really nice purse on super-super-super sale for less than $50. Score! Can't do that at GTMO.

The VERY BEST thing about going back was that my grandmother cooked the last batch of purple speckled butterbeans that she and my late grandfather had put up together. And I ate three servings. I've written before about how I equate food with love (and how food can seal a friendship). Nevermind all the other things we got---the fact that she made my favorite meal (and that my grandfather had a part in it) made it the best supper ever.

Back to the Real (?) World

I loved seeing my family for a too-short visit, and I feel especially bad that I didn't make an extra effort to see more people---especially my friends (that's you, Becky, Liz, and Jennifer) who for over 20 years of our crazy gypsy life have always, always, always been the ones who say, "You're coming to Mississippi? I'll drive over to see you!" Once you've spent one, two, or more 12 hour days in a car to make it back home, and you are no longer 25 and hurt for 5 days afterwards, you appreciate these friends even more. Especially when they, too, may have a long drive to see you.

My husband likes to say, "This place is great as long as you aren't into material things," and that's so true.

We did end up with an additional suitcase crammed full of "necessities" we can't get here---but now that we've lived here, it's nice to be able to look at the massive variety of everything and think, "I just really don't need that." Having one or two choices instead of twenty isn't really a bad thing, once you are used to it.

Starting with the day we came back, and everywhere we went the next few days---first at the airport, and then the NEX, and then our neighborhood---people stopped us or rolled down their car windows and hollered, "Welcome back home!" And that's as good a reason as any to be happy to come back.

As close as you get to an iguana in Mississippi

That, and the iguanas. In ten days, I never did stop searching for them on the side of the road. Oh, how I missed the iguanas!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Four Tickets to Paradise; or, Home Again, Home Again

Ah, human progress.

It appears that the world has sped on by us in the nine short months that we have been living here in Cuba.

And after spending a rather overwhelming 10 days in the U.S., I'm kinda okay with that. I'm happy to be back where the world seemingly spins a little slower.

Just getting out of here is overwhelming in itself. As one of my co-workers likes to say, GTMO=GeT Me Outta here.

And good luck if you want to leave.

Once a year, we each get a round ticket back to our home of record (Texas), which includes transfers from Jacksonville to Austin and an overnight stay, as a perk that comes with a "hardship tour." I know what some of you are thinking: beaches, daily temps in the 80s, island life, how is that a hardship tour?

It is a hardship tour because we are über-isolated and it's a total pain to get outta here.

Unlike most other world-wide bases, we can't just jump in our cars (or on a train or bus), go to the closest international airport, and take a plane home any day we are on vacation. Travel from GTMO requires a lot of planning (and a little luck). We have a limited number of flights a month, and tickets are expensive. Because we, unfortunately, don't qualify for our free trip Back to the Future until October, we decided on the poor-man's alternative: Space A travel.

I should mention at this point that in the four years of our early marriage that my husband was active duty military, we were never patient/brave/crazy enough to even attempt to Space A anywhere.

It's very cheap---$20-30 each way---and when it works, it's a beautiful thing.

You are given a category according to reason of travel (medical or family emergency trumps vacation travel, naturally), your branch (DoD, civilian, military, etc), and in my case, you have to be on leave to qualify.

So I signed up the minute I went on leave (3:05 pm on the last day of school), got my command sponsorship and leave paperwork in hand, and we took the early ferry to the airport on the Leeward side schlepping mucho luggage in hopes that we would win the lottery.

While dreams of Mexican food, Target, Vietnamese Pho, and the Fox Soccer Channel danced in our heads, we waited. . . and waited. . . and waited for our names to be called.

It was nerve wracking.

There were 42 available seats when we arrived. We watched several people approach the desk to get tickets, mentally subtracted those seats from 42, and waiting turned to worrying. When they called my last name, I screamed out, "I've won the lottery!" Friends cheered. All was well. We sweated bullets, but the gamble paid off.

We were four of the last eight people to get on the plane. We were on our way.

We got to Jacksonville NAS and waited at least an hour for our luggage and the bus to take us to Jacksonville International Airport. We waited at least an hour for our rental car. We finally got to a hotel---only a couple of hours from Jacksonville---almost 11 hours after we left our house.

No worries, as the Jamaicans like to say. We were in the U S of A! And not Cuba-US, but real US!!!

Nevermind the shock of driving faster than 25 mph, or all the 18 wheelers and other big vehicles we haven't had to contend with in so many months----just getting back to the real world was a total trip.

So what happens when you walk into your typical convenience store for the first time in nine months once you've spent time on a small, isolated base such as GTMO?  We walked about, mouths agape, saying things like,

"OH MY GOD there are so many flavors of Snapple!"

"They have new gum! New gum flavors!"

"Magazines from the last month!!" 

It doesn't matter that I don't drink Snapple and my goal for vacation was to avoid junk food and fast food at all costs. We picked up and handled multiple items. We oohed and aahed over displays of Nestle Crunch Girlscout Cookie candy bars, racks of Mexican cokes, and bizarre dill pickle flavored chips. This went on for several minutes and the lady behind the counter thought a) we had lost our minds; b) we were foreigners from a tiny country and had really, really good American English accents; c) we had just been released from a long, extended vacation in the state pen; or d) we were drunk or on drugs. She raised an eyebrow at us with skepticism. In the end, we didn't buy a single thing---it was too overwhelming.

Then we did the unthinkable (for many reasons)---we spent an hour in Walmart. Again, mouths open, screaming at each other across the store: "Smell these fresh peaches!" "There is a craft section! Arts and crafts, arts and crafts!" "Look how many types of _____ there are!"

I was overwhelmed with hundreds of choices of toiletries or cookies or drinks. I couldn't get over the sheer number of cars on the interstate and how fast people drive. I was amazed at how green and lush everything is in the South. I was overwhelmed.

Seriously overwhelmed.

And that was just the first 24 hours back in the country.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Blame it on Liberace; or, The bird, the bees, and some fireworks

Well, now. My magazine from May 20 is much better traveled than I am.

It's a New York magazine (never mind I'm not from New York; I still like it) and was supposed to come to Cuba.

Somehow it ended up at two places first. It was covered with the red tell-tale stamps that map out my mail's detour before it hit Gitmo.

"Missent to DPO 09642" means it was sent to Madrid, Spain.

Then "Missent to 09613" means it then went to Livorno, Italy.  (At least it wasn't Oman this time).

I understand that the photograph of Michael Douglas (as Liberace) is quite disconcerting at first glance. I'm going to assume it was so distracting that a few postal workers along the way put it in the wrong pile. I'm okay that it's well traveled (at least it wasn't a bill). I just wish they would have thrown in a postcard or two.

And I STILL got it earlier than the magazines that are on the racks at the NEX.

Our baby bird has flown the coop. I was going out to my car a few days ago, and something in the bushes caught my eye. It was baby bird!  The little dove was flitting and flying, not too coordinated-like, right onto the top of the fence, and then into the neighbor's back yard. Saw him later on the neighbor's car and roof. I hope he hangs in this area a little longer, and I'm glad he at least made it to flying. It did my heart good to see our little bird was out on his own.

I FINALLY got out and hiked the ridgeline this past week. The dirt and rock trail follows the crest of some large hills surrounding the base, and it has the most beautiful views for miles (of not only US-Cuba, but Cuba-Cuba). I went with a friend and our three kids, who will be in 1st, 2nd, and 4th grade next year. In places, it's quite the hike---steep inclines and washed out trails make it challenging. The kids were awesome---two took tumbles and got a little scraped up, and another was attacked by a swarm of bees, AND they still lasted for a little over five miles. Not bad at all!

Because there was a trail run on the next day (July 4), the trail had flags every few yards with names of servicemen and women killed in war. It's quite sobering hiking by dozens of these names. I don't know what's worse---the majority of  PFCs, probably kids who are 18 or 19, or the higher ranking folks who were probably quite a bit older and maybe had their own wife/husband and kids at home. It's tragic any way you look at it. Probably 2/3 of the flags had blown over, so the kids helped put them upright, which is no easy task since the soil here is like concrete.

And the pot at the end of the rainbow was a trip to McDonald's, of course.  Don't judge; try cheering three tired, sore kids through trails and then YOU tell them "no."

We celebrated the Fourth by going to an outdoor festival for the kids (bouncy houses, face painting, games), then the oldest and I went to watch an all-girl (or mostly all-girl) AC/DC cover band.  Just seeing a group of women thrashing guitars and watching men scream like a bunch of teenage girls made the concert worth it. That, and I never thought I'd hear men scream/sing along as women belt out,"We've got the biggest balls of them all!" It's my all-time favorite double entendre song ever. It never gets old, even if I'm not a teenager anymore.

We also had a great feast with friends, and as with all things here, it was a mish mash of just about everything and most excellent: sushi, apple pie, and ribs. Doesn't get any better than that.

And of course, there were fireworks---amazing fireworks. There were fireworks that made shapes of stars, hearts, and happy faces. I've never seen that before. It was one of the best displays I've seen. I imagine the Cubans also watched in amazement. I wonder what the Cuban guards think as they are watching the fireworks from their perches in the towers, looking down at the bay.

I also thought of my grandfather Dudley and how he would have loved the wonderment of it all. You know, celebrating the birth of our country while living in a communist country; celebrating everything patriotic with friends, including some first and second generation Americans; and being thankful for the Chinese for inventing fireworks to celebrate the most American of holidays. My grandfather was a lifetime firework aficionado. He never got too old to get excited about a firework show. One of the last times we saw him, he pulled a lawnchair into the driveway as we shot some off in the street in front of his house for New Year's.

As I was oohing and aahing and saying "wow" over and over again, I thought how much I hope that in my 90s, I will still be able to find the little things in life exciting and fun. That's how my grandfather lived his life: he still found joy in everyday things, and he freely shared his joy with all those around him. Whether it's a bird that's flown the coop, or the silly looking iguana running across the road, or a huge Owl Moth in the back porch---I try to slow down and remember it's the little things that make life big.

And yes, that even includes getting my magazine with a somewhat bewildering cover over a month late. It's still all good.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Never Thoughts; or, What's Cooking? Not a damn thing.

And now, the latest edition of "never thoughts."

Never thought I would be excited about bread, sour cream, butter, or yogurt being on the shelf of a grocery store. 

Never thought I'd follow a web page to see when people post things like, "Block cheese at the commissary! Really! Get it before they sell out!" 

Never thought I'd have a closet full of running shoes and flip-flops. Didn't think I'd be all excited about a sale on shoes---especially running shoes. Or running shorts. Or lightweight, absorbent socks. Or that I'd be able to run a 10K and not absolutely die. 

Never thought I'd have to scream for my kids to come in at nightfall.

Never thought it would be damn near impossible to visit the United States. Saturday's rotator flight? It has 1 available seat. Again. Ugh. 

Never thought we would have to give a graduation card in Spanish because there are absolutely no other ones available. (The kid did think it was humorous, even if he didn't understand a word of it). 

As much as I love winter clothes (scarves! hats! mittens! cashmere!), I don't miss winter. Or fall. Or spring. It's pretty much summer here, all year long. 

I can bitch and complain and moan and groan over what I do miss, but that list has somehow, miraculously, gotten shorter. 

It has all come down to this: food. 

I miss food. As in, good quality produce and meat. I miss farmer's markets. I miss locally grown food. I miss the comfort food of my childhood. I see many of the people I love in relation to food. Grammaw = purple hulled butter beans. Granny = lemon pound cake (Aunt Irene's recipe!)  
Paw = jars of fresh green beans.  Mom = shrimp étoufée or gumbo. Dad = homemade peach ice cream or orange sherbet.

I spoke about this at a wedding once, about how food can seal a deal. I really think the turning point in a relationship with a colleague was when she took me to a restaurant called The Southern Kitchen in Tacoma, Washington. I was so homesick at the time---living in grey, depressing Washington, feeling isolated from my family, having a hard time making friends, and with a small baby---that one small gesture of kindness made me realize I could hang with that chick the rest of my life. I almost cried in my grits, biscuits with white gravy, and sweet tea. It was that good and the trip there meant that much to me.

Waffles in Cuba? No, silly. It's Brussels. 
(That same friend and I, fourteen years later, spent a few weeks last summer eating and drinking our way across Europe. I'm happy to say that we don't have to have food for our friendship to flourish, but it does make for some great memories along the way).  

My group of friends in Texas and I would meet once a month or so and discuss what we were reading---all over a nice, home-cooked meal, potluck style.  

Food is what brings people together. I love going to our friends/neighbors' house here for a meal (and usually a card game). I've learned to keep a bottle of wine in the fridge for last minute invitations. 

Not Cuba---Beefsteaks in Germany
And if you've been to my house for a meal  consider yourself a rare species. Why? I have horrible anxiety about cooking for people or for planning any type of event. I am not a foodie. I'm the antithesis of a foodie. Food is, well, something you need to live. It's not special. I don't understand my friends who pay big bucks for organic heirloom tomatoes (and then want to talk to me about it---bo-ring). I don't even really like tomatoes. I can read and follow instructions to make most recipes, and I know some tricks and shortcuts. I can proficiently work a pressure cooker, a food processor, and I love my fancy stand-up mixer. But cooking is just for eating, and that's not terribly exciting, either.

I just don't get obsessing over perfect meals---maybe because I've spent over 1/3 of my life at the table with children. And children, as we all know, are messy and sometimes disgusting in their eating habits and tend to prefer hotdogs over most anything else. Once you've had a child barf the meal it took you 2 hours to prepare all over the dinner table, well, you kind of lose interest in dazzling and just go for the quick-and-easy.

So we have ascertained that I don't especially enjoy cooking, but I do enjoy the company of my friends. 

And I have never been crazy about shopping, but now, I loathe it. 

The fact I'm having to spend so much of my time thinking about shopping lists and planning for the unexpected and having to improvise on the fly is killing me. 

I'm not putting all the blame on the commissary---after all, all groceries have to be barged or flown in. I guess many fresh ingredients can't make that voyage. And we are a small base (only store = commissary/NEX combo), so I shouldn't be surprised that we don't have the room or demand for several things I used to buy in my trusty old HEB in Texas. 

But I still have frustrating days. 

Today is a prime example. Went to the commissary to get ingredients for something I'm making for tomorrow night. I knew we don't have liquid shrimp boil here (we aren't in the South, after all), but with our more-than-ample liquor section, I figured we would have clam juice. Surely people are making Bloody Marys, right? But no shrimp boil, no clam juice. Plan C: make a seafood stock using chicken stock that comes in that funky little paper container. Nope, they don't have that either. 

And I'm out of ideas for Plan D. Actually, we'll just use that crappy stuff full of salt that comes in a soup can. They don't even have a low sodium version. 

See? I'm pissed and bitter. This would be how that alcohol mysteriously always ends up in the buggy. And how I end up taking 2 Excedrin Migraines every single time I come back from grocery shopping.

Also, I wanted to make brats tonight. Got the brats, got sauerkraut, but no buns. They are out of buns. 


It's like this EVERY SINGLE TIME I come to the grocery store. The blame is on me, not the commissary. I'm just not patient or creative enough to wheel around the store 30 times finding improvised ingredients for Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and Plan E. I've never lived anywhere where I had to do this for almost every meal. I see why people give up and buy junkfood for their families. I refuse to do that (most days, anyway)---but it is SO tempting. 

Bacon pancakes and Heineken for breakfast. Not Cuba; Amsterdam.
And don't get me started on restaurants. I dream of bowls of Vietnamese Pho, platters of Tex-Mex migas, or plates of German Jagerschnitzel (all which we had locally in our town in Texas).

Even though some people think living on an island near the beach MUST be like being on vacation all the time, life here isn't necessarily easy. It's all about adapting and improvising, and we've done a relatively good job thus far on almost every aspect of our life. 

I'm just having a really tough time with this one.