Saturday, November 30, 2013

Muchas Gracias; or, Giving Thanks

Today's weather in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: 83º and cloudy

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and in the season of giving and thanking, I am thankful for many little things here in Gitmo.

There are the obvious things: friends, family, health.

I am thankful that in such a relatively small time frame, we've met people here who I know we will keep in touch with for years to come.

There are stresses of living somewhere so isolated and limited in resources and entertainment, but recently I realized that overall, there is a core set of really amazing people who live here. I'm sure that exists in every community, but being in this small place, you can't help but notice how many people stand out.

Heard everywhere lately: "How is your family?" "How is your home?" When was the last time you went up to a total stranger and asked him or her one of those questions?

For Gitmo, however, it's been the norm the last few weeks since the catastrophic typhoon killed over 5000 (and counting) in the Philippines.

There are over 1500 foreign national Filipinos working at Gitmo---most are male, with contracts stipulating they cannot return home until they have been here at least 2 years, and most with a wife and child(ren) back home.

This entire base has been profoundly affected by the welfare of a group of people who we depend on for so much. They are hard working, friendly, and if you haven't lived somewhere where you have lumpia and pancit at every single social function, I really feel sorry for you.

Like most of our neighbors, I have found myself asking the Filipinos who bag my groceries, both school secretaries, the ladies and men who work at various MWR locations, the Bremcor construction workers who come into the schools almost every day, and the people standing next to me in line at the grocery store about how their lives have been affected by the recent tragedy.

I am thankful that I live amongst people who care for people who aren't quite strangers, but for the most part, not friends, either. Various groups and individuals have worked to get money wired to family members back home. They are still making sure that their families are taken care of for the upcoming holidays. There has been an outpouring of love and support for the Filipinos here, because they are a major part of our community, and we are thankful that they are here to make this place run a little more efficiently.

I am thankful for soccer.

Oh, how I love soccer. I love watching it on television or in person, I love playing it, I love watching my kids as they are getting better and better every game.

The women's league finally winded down a couple of weeks ago, and I really do miss it. Our league consisted of all sorts of women---Jamaican foreign nationals; people associated with NCIS, JTF, the Red Cross; civilian contractors; members of the Army, Marines, and Navy; military spouses; several moms. We had engineers and mechanics, MWR employees and women deployed without their families, and I am so happy to say I was the ONLY school employee in the entire league, because, like most teachers, I really tire of talking about anything work related l when I am away from school.

The season is winding down for the kids, as well.  I am thankful that Boy 1 is laughing and enjoying himself (and he's really good) with a sport he hasn't played since he was 8 years old. I'm am thankful that Boy 2 has ways to run off some of that 8 year old energy that his mama can't keep up with.

I am also thankful for the following:

  • my kids' teachers: I am so thankful for smart, caring teachers for both of our sons. When my oldest had a difficult time adjusting when we first got here, they didn't give up---they went beyond any teachers he has ever had in order to make sure his academic and emotional needs were met. This is not an easy place to teach---most high school teachers have 5 preps and most of the time, they are the only person who teaches a specific class---but they manage to not only leave that stress at home, but make sure my son transitioned to life on this crazy rock. 

  • the author John Green: Thanks to him, my oldest has found his love of reading again. Now, if he could just hurry up and publish another book. . . 
  • friends and family who say, "Tell me what you want, and I will send it"---and they MEAN IT:  I have received several wonderful care packages while living here, with everything from Halloween decorations to Zero bars to borracho beans to bacon. 
  • work people: I have coworkers who, despite some changes that have brought on many anxieties, still find ways for us to laugh and not take ourselves too seriously. And I am grateful for every one of them.
  • BEACHES: I have never lived anywhere where you can go to the beach every single day of the year. Whether it's diving or hunting for sea glass, the sound of the waves and the smell of salt air can make the most jaded person love life a little more.
Yes, that is Boy 1 in action.
  • slow traffic and only two main roads: This is the perfect way for a 15 1/2 year old to learn to drive a car. Not so sure how he'll fare---or the rest of us, for that matter---when we are back in the states next summer and the land of crazy Texas drivers. 
And finally, Friday really stood out as a truly Gitmo (early) Thanksgiving. We had a mini Thanksgiving celebration at the Youth Center for parents and kids in the after school program, and there was good food: fried chicken, pancit, callaloo, and festivals. If you don't know what pancit is, make friends with a Filipino and beg them to take you home to their mama. Pancit is at almost every catered and potluck event here. Callaloo is a wonderful salad from Jamaica made from the amaranth plant, and festivals are pieces of fried bread, much like beignets. Good stuff all around. I sat there at the end of a short (but somewhat stressful) work week and thought, this is crazy. I'm in Cuba, surrounded by Jamaican ladies serving Jamaican and Filipino food, and I got invited to celebrate Thanksgiving by two Russian ladies who have decided to celebrate the most American of holidays with their families here.  We chose to stay at home, just the four of us, and eschewed all tradition for pulled pork sandwiches and potato salad (why not?). We didn't stand in line at 6 am for Black Friday sales or put up a Christmas tree, but we did manage to have a very relaxing weekend at home and at the beach, soaking up the sun and counting our blessings for the things we have here in Gitmo. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

It's November; or, Chan Chan (Changes)

Today's high in Guantánamo Bay Naval Station: 85º F
Tonight: 75º F ("feels like 77")

Ah, nothing like autumn. In the States, changes are everywhere. Crisp, cool air. Leaves to rake. In Colorado, if we were lucky we'd have a thin powdering of snow by now. In Washington, the days would begin that change to becoming, in my opinion, unbearably short. In Texas, the shutters were opened, the cicadas would quiet down, the chiminea was set ablaze, and the quilts came out at night. 

At least that's how I used to do it. Not so much in the land of eternal summer. 

Every time I get in the car I take the opportunity to listen to one of the local Cuban stations. I really try catch everything said on call-in shows, sports shows (baseball, of course), and my favorite, the morning propaganda shows. I'm going to be dropping all final consonants and all my Ss if I'm in another Spanish speaking country again---Cuban Spanish has infiltrated my brain. After listening every morning, I'm getting better at listening in Cuban (even if I'm not doing much speaking in Cuban).  

But what I really love is the music. Some times you get Latin pop or rap, but I'm talking Cuban music---mambo and salsa and rumba. I'd recognize Celia Cruz's voice anywhere, but there are many, many others I don't know. I just enjoy my drives across base as I'm imagining that I'm going through the historical streets of Havana (instead of Cuban Mayberry).

Occasionally there are surprises. A few weeks ago, REM's "Losing My Religion" came on in the middle of an otherwise authentically Cuban set. 

Huh? Was it Communist propaganda against organized religion? Did someone hit a wrong button? Or are there REM fans scattered across that land right over the fence?

Also heard this week: "Y ahorrrra, Guns y Roses con 'November Rain." 

So in the land of eternal summer, how do you know November has arrived? 

When both the Cuban DJ and Axl Rose tell you, that's when. 

(Even if there is very little actual rain involved).

"Chan Chan" from the movie The Buena Vista Social Club. 
Little did I know when I saw this documentary with my friend in Washington,  
I'd be living in Cuba one day (and she'd be living in Germany). 
The four towns mentioned in this song---
Alto Cerdo, Marcané, Cueto, and Mayarí--are in the province right above our own

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mail, Shopping, and the Star Spangled Banner; or, You've Been Gitmoed!!

Today's weather at Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba: partly cloudy and 88 degrees ("feels like 95")

"This is So Gitmo."

"We've been Gitmoed."

Once you've been here a while, you hear these phrases referring to the place we all call home.

It's finding out that the cooler on the weekly food barge broke and there is a shortage of dairy and deli products. Or it's the dairy container full of yogurt and eggs that are all out of date. It's Pizza Hut not having pizza for a week because they ran out of cheese. (Last year, they ran out of dough). People swear this story is true: a few years back, McDonald's ran out of meat and buns, so they sold PB& J sandwiches. It's the Subway Sandwich Artist saying, "Sorry, but we are out of bread. And lettuce. And tomatoes. What would you like on your sandwich?" It's no candy corn for Halloween. What kind of place doesn't sell the National Candy of Halloween?!?!?

It's the movie being cancelled---because it is raining. It is work internet going out every week because of some issue---in Georgia.

It's the stampede of residents going into full-out hoarder mode and buying out the commissary when the barge dumped several containers (only to find out that food wasn't part of the catastrophe). It's paying $18 for a pair of cheater glasses, $45 for a pair of flip flops, or $130 for a pair of running shoes because you have no other shopping option here. It's the fact that, after a year, you don't even look at the prices of things you need---you just throw the items in your cart and brace yourself for a surprise at the checkout.

It's living in base housing, and thus having to take time off work to meet workers when they come to change the lightbulb in your fridge, which also belongs to the base. Seriously. You can't buy them here and you aren't supposed to change them yourself; you have to take off work to have someone CHANGE A LIGHTBULB.

Apocryphal, outrageous, and darkly humorous, stories of being Gitmoed have a life of their own around here, and with reason.

I went to a birthday party a few weeks ago and played on the theme of being Gitmoed. The decorations were from Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, leftover odds and ends from kids' parties (Scooby Doo, anyone?). The balloons included retirement balloons. It was very Gitmo. If you go to the party section of the NEX, it's about two feet wide, two shelves high. You get two choices of invitations. You get two choices of plates. You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit. If you try to get all fancy and order decorations and invitations online that, heaven forbid,  fit together in a thematic fashion, you better hope your mail doesn't get Gitmoed.

My mail has been Gitmoed again, and my Map of Lost Mail has yet another pin:

Abu Nakhlah, Qatar, has been added to places in Oman, Italy, Spain, and Egypt.

Something being So Gitmo isn't necessarily a bad thing, either.

On the day you turn exactly 15 1/2, you qualify for a Gitmo driver's permit. After passing a written test, your permit allows you to drive with an adult in the car, and once you turn 16, you can take the driving test and get a Gitmo driver's license.

Guess who spent 4 hours yesterday riding from one end of this base to another (and again) in Pearl with her 15 1/2 year old Gitmo permit holder son driving??

Nevermind that it's not recognized in the US; your Gitmo permit or license will allow you to have the Gitmoed driving experience.

Driving that is So Gitmo means 25 mph speed limits on the main road (Sherman Ave.), 35 on a small stretch to Cable Beach, and frequent stops for stubborn iguanas, stupid hutias, suicidal guineas, colorful chickens, Gitmo feral kitties or dogs, occasional deer, crazed land crabs, or the elusive and huge Cuban boa. Sometimes you see most or all in one day.

I was exhausted and cranky, making my way home in my super intense 5 minute commute last Friday, when not one but TWO families of guinea fowl, complete with little baby guineas, jumped out in the road. Luckily I saw them ahead of time and they didn't end up as road kill (or dinner). My commute that is So Gitmo has lots of pleasant surprises, and watching little guineas frenetically following their mama made me literally LOL.

It's the gang of feral neighbor kids who don't even knock anymore---they just walk in the front or back door, and use our yard as the cut-through. They open our fridge and help themselves.

They also snap at attention the second the Star Spangled Banner plays every morning (or before every movie) and when Colors are played at sundown. It doesn't matter if kids are mid soccer game, bike race, or climbing the big tree in the park behind our house---they automatically stand stone-still, chests puffed out, arms straight, and facing the nearest flag the second they hear the speakers.

The kids have been Gitmoed. It's charming and a little disconcerting, all at the same time. And so is this place that, for now, we call home.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Halloween, Gitmo style; or, Pillowcases, Bed Sheets, and Boba Fett

Today in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: 83 degrees and cloudy ("feels like 90," according to the Weather Channel)

Got to dig in the dirt and I'm now sitting on the nice, cool screened in backporch under a ceiling fan, typing and looking at my filthy fingernails---it felt good to get out and burn off some of that Halloween candy.

And what a Halloween it was! First, there was Trunk or Treat at the Lyceum. I've never been to one before. Lots of units and offices and contractor groups and even families had fun entries. The Bremcor group---a construction company made up of mostly Filipino workers---built an amazing pirate ship on the back of a truck that you could climb into. My favorite was was truck called "Ice Screams"---an old ambulance with a zombie crew, complete with a big ice cream freezer. I loved seeing all the kids and adults dressed up (and streaked with popsicle and ice cream down the front of their costumes).

There were probably 5 costumes to choose from at the NEX the one time I looked at them, so most kids either get them online, or their parents make them. I love that---you use what you have here (and with no fabric or craft supplies here, you get really creative). Part of the fun of the holiday is guessing what kids and grown ups are supposed to be. Next year, my goal is to make costumes (instead of sweating it out that our mail won't get here in time).

Then there was trick or treating. Last year, the guys got here on Halloween. The youngest got dressed up and we walked his new neighborhood. I had only been here 10 days, so we both were getting our bearings. The best moment was when we had hiked a quarter of the way around the block, and he said, "Awwwww. I'm so sad we're done." Then I realized---hello, base housing!---all the houses look alike and he really thought he was back at home. He was thrilled to realize his mistake, and unlike our older neighborhood, where we were lucky to have 10 houses with lights on for the holiday, almost every family participates here.

This year we went to a neighbor's house and combined four families' treats. There are slim pickings at our little NEX, so I was glad I had ordered a ton of candy online (and hid it until the 31st). There were grown up treats (wine and German cookies) and we all took turns visiting with neighbors and handing out the goods. It reminded me a lot of being back in the little town where I grew up---kids here get in big groups without adults, the older ones looking out for the younger ones. We went through tons of candy (and wine---did I mention wine?) and the grownups shared lots of laughs long after the kids went to bed.

Today I hit the NEX and couldn't believe the amount of Christmas decorations that were already out. That really annoys me in the US, and maybe I was so busy trying to settle in with the family that I didn't notice everything was out so early last year. Or maybe it wasn't. Or maybe I was so used to living in the US, where some stores start putting items out after Labor Day, that it didn't phase me. But living where you only have one store for everything makes it much more noticeable.

We didn't have but a small handful of Halloween costumes and only a few types of candy to choose from here this year. We don't have a bakery department, so there weren't rows of garishly decorated orange and black cookies and cupcakes for the holiday. There were a few decorations and lights for the house (but I honestly don't think anyone in our neighborhood bought any). You live in towns with Targets and Walmarts and large grocery chains that sell you items you don't even know you need, and when you make the switch to living where you don't have items you really do want and need and can't get, it makes you realize that you can really live without so much. I'm sure lots of kids who have lived stateside or on larger bases want the all-American Halloween with a large selection of brand new costumes and hundreds of varieties of candy and treats, but I found the experience of seeing a little ghost tripping on a cut up sheet, a few kids with bits and pieces of several past costumes that obviously didn't go together, or having a kid pull out his Pokemon pillowcase to fill,  a much more rewarding holiday experience.

Boba Fett with a Nerf gun---why not?