Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mirages at GTMO; or, The Great Pumpkin and Golf

Spotted this week in GTMO: mirages.

First there was the GTMO Pumpkin Patch. We got a flyer several weeks ago about the three-day event. I'll admit that although it's our third Halloween in GTMO---the kids and husband arrived on Halloween 2012---we haven't done the Pumpkin Patch until this year. (Living in a very small community, you have to leave some things until the next year just to keep up the level of excitement. And that's how we roll---we're all about the excitement).

With much anticipation, the youngest and I trekked out to the Youth Center for the Pumpkin Patch. We discussed in detail our pumpkin carving ideas for this year, and then pulled up to the field.

The Pumpkin Patch officially opened at 5:00. We arrived at 5:20. I thought I saw a pumpkin patch, but alas, it was just a mirage.

H says, "Look, Mom, it's the Magnificent Seven!" because yes, there were only seven pumpkins left. At 5:30, this was the GTMO Pumpkin Patch:
Can you find the Great Pumpkin??
In less than 30 minutes,  the three day long Pumpkin Patch event ran out of pumpkins.

I was certain that those few pumpkins were just for the first of three days, but I found out when I got home that those few were it.

I can't say I'm surprised. Going on year 3 here, I know better than expect things to be like back in the US. I expect to be Gitmoed---I guess you can say I like to be cautiously optimistic and then keep my expectations low, just so I'm pleasantly surprised now and then. 

I know it sounds harsh, but you get what you get---and then you watch the newbies throw a fit. 

I really did feel sorry for the year-one GTMO families who had the bad luck of showing up at 5:30 or later. The look of dismay and disappointment on their faces said it all. Those of us who have been here just chuckled, because, really, what else can you do? (I do know of families that are carving watermelons for Halloween because we don't have a shortage of those----yet. Let the word get out that it's a viable alternative, and we'll be out of them, too, within a few hours). 

So that was mirage #1---the GTMO Pumpkin Patch. 

Then there was other excitement a couple of weeks ago on Marine Hill. 

At the end of summer, the base opened a beautiful new fitness facility and started tearing down the old, hideously ugly one at Marine Hill. I once had the misfortune of going in it just to use the restroom, one of the worst I've walked into in my entire life---imagine a truck stop bathroom that smells like a locker room, and you get the picture. 

For a couple of months, the building was in various states of disassembly with a makeshift fence of plywood sheets and bright orange plastic barriers around it. Then the building came down, the concrete pulled up, dirt brought in, grass planted and watered, and---voila---we have a nice patch of green grass.

I know it doesn't seem exciting, but the building was a bit of an eyesore, so it's a vast improvement.

As the youngest and I drove up to the Marine Hill Mini Mart of couple of weeks ago, I immediately noticed the barriers were down and marveled at the improvement (plus an even better view of the Bay from the parking lot).

I said, "H, look at that!"

New green grass patch, looking towards the Marine Hill pool, a base bus stop, and one of our fire stations.
He said, "Whooooooooa. They built a golf course!!"

Considering that with our droughts here, the base golf course tends to be so dry that you need to bring your own patch of artificial turf to tee off of, I understand the confusion.
Notice the flag to the left of the cone? 
And there you have GTMO mirage #2: our new golf course. 

I did get the Brach's Autumn Mix this year at the NEX---a first for us, although my neighbor went back and they were already out of it. 

I'm at the bare bottom of the bag---my secret stash---and I can definitely attest they were not a mirage.  Although if anyone in the family asks, I will neither deny nor affirm that I hoarded a bag just for myself. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Looking Backward & Forward; or, Happy 2 Year GTMOversary

Almost exactly two years ago today, I was driving around our new home, Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, for the first time.

I was excited. 

I was terrified. 

Would my kids hate it here? Would they fit in? Would my husband think I'm crazy for leaving the relative comfort of the US for such a strange and unique place? How would I like my new job?  

Two years later, we aren't worse for the wear. 

In fact, in many ways, we are much better. 

I wake up in the morning and can see the fenceline with Cuba outside my front window. I also see mountains and the Bay. On a clear day, I can see the buildings of Caimanera, Cuba (but can never, ever actually go there). I hear the National Anthem broadcast daily over a base-wide public announcement system and listen to Cuban radio to and from work. My "local" news is from Miami (and after watching that for 2 years, I wonder why anyone would want to raise a family there). I work with people who have worked on several continents. Many of my students are nomads, "third culture" kids. I dream of joining some of my former colleagues in several Europe or Asia locations. 

I still am amazed that we are living in a place that isn't quite a foreign country, but definitely not the US. My kids have dealt with challenges we never even considered---they constantly say goodbye to good friends, the oldest has to deal with balancing online, correspondence, and in-seat classes in a tiny high school. This is considered a "hardship tour" for DoD employees with good reason---expensive and almost-impossible travel on and off island for civilians, waiting constantly for things that are "on the barge," and technology that harkens back to days of the early 1990s. 

And in our exclusive little gated community in the Caribbean, surrounded by fences and Communists (and Marines with guns), my children have more freedom that they could have dreamt of in the US. A few miles from the prison (yes, that one), and they are safer than anywhere else we've ever lived. We live in a fishbowl---not just everyone in this small place knowing all your business, but our community is scrutinized and criticized daily in the media by people who have no idea what it is really like to live in GTMO. 

(My favorite conversation the last 2 years was with a friend who, after several minutes, realized that yes, Guantánamo Bay is "Gitmo." She truly freaked out. It is Gitmo, but really, it isn't. If you live here, you know what I mean). 

Our life is full of sunshine and iguanas and slow traffic.  Hurricane kits and large rodents that will eat your car. Feral children and free outdoor movies. Impossible mail system and an infuriating monopoly on substandard phone and internet service. Cheap and easy SCUBA diving. Shortages of groceries and very, very few restaurants. The most amazing sunsets on a weekly basis. Neighbors that look after each other. Kids who experience the wide berth of freedom on a base that is geographically small and where everyone makes sure you are home by sundown. 

Here's to our first 2 years of Cuba-not Cuba life, and with much excitement we look forward to what the future brings.  
Looking forward while living in the present---life in GTMO

Saturday, October 18, 2014

No News is Good News; or, Anything But Ebola

The US, it seems, has gone Ebola crazy.
I don't want to sound callous or disrespectful to those who have actually contracted the disease (three actual victims and three million + scared to death).

But from the stories on the internet and the reports on television, I'm really happy that I'm in what my friend in Germany calls "the bubble."

Living overseas means you are as isolated as you want to be from American news. I'll be honest: when you turn on the news on Sunday, and the headline is the same story, same interviewees, same footage, same rhetoric 5 days later, it's nice to be able to shut it off and not turn it on again for five more days. And if the same news is still the headline story? You just wait another five days and something else will come around.

With no newspapers available here, we don't have to see the news unless we choose to turn it on. And many times, we simply choose not to turn it on.

In the meanwhile, my major worries the last 2 weeks have not been Ebola, but when the heck is the Commissary going to get tofu again? Seriously, folks, the little shelf space for tofu has been empty for at least 2 weeks and counting, and I really want to make a soup that needs tofu.

Instead of Googling "Ebola," I spend my days looking up things like the following:

(upon finding mystery eggs in our kayak stored in the backyard) snake eggs, Cuban boa eggs (they give live birth---who knew?), Cuban racer eggs

Also: tarantula eggs, hummingbird eggs

Most probably they are lizard eggs.  I'm going to see if the Biology teacher will let me use a microscope so I can open and check them out next week.

Other things I've Googled (instead of Ebola) include:
how to propagate hibiscus,  plumeria, and coral trees
how to harvest almonds (the mystery tree in our backyard)
how to grow coconuts
how to grow pineapples
Coral tree flower and seed pod. Each pod grows 2 trees!
What to do for iguana bites, shark bites (always must be prepared!)
The Cuban Rock Iguana---our base's favorite vegetarians
More Googling:
U.S. mail shipping laws for fragrances, batteries, and anything with chemicals

Recipes that use local foods such as mangos, lionfish, and ginips

Google Maps for locations of our lost mail and when I want to dream, the list of other DoDDS locations

And instead of Ebola, those of us living on tropical Caribbean islands have to worry about these things most Americans have never heard about, which I have most definitely Googled:
reef rash
stinging hydroids
fire coral
mango rash (sent my youngest to the ER---he got it in his eyes)
REEF RASH: This is what happens when you swim into coral. Don't ask.
One year later and I have a nasty scar. 
Also, I do read about Cuba. Often. I read blogs of people who are, quite frankly, living on the edge there. Most would be considered dissidents (and speak often of propaganda and how the news of recent deadly cholera outbreaks or the latest rounds of arrests for speaking out against the government is all blocked). I sometimes read about what's going on here on the base. I'm not talking about the military side, but the Commissions.

In respect to both matters, I think of the saying, "There are three sides to every story: yours, theirs, and the truth."

You could probably say the same about anything I write here, as well. I don't tend to write about my biggest frustrations and issues here because, really, who wants to read that? I refuse to talk about "that place" because it has nothing to do with why I'm here. As far as the fences and guard towers near my house, I'm not really going to talk about how I feel about that, either (or the fact that the US is here). It's complicated.

There are three sides to the story. The beauty is that I can choose what I want to believe and write about, and you, dear reader, can interpret it any way you like.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Parenting Fails; or, Story Time for the Win


The hardest job in the world. The best job in the world. The most rewarding. . . the most frustrating. . . 

You get the gist. 

You work 18 or so years to garner independence and have kids move out, and hopefully they will take some of the life lessons you've taught and modeled, and will build on them. 

But dang, sometimes it's hard. 
The beauty of living in GTMO is children here have infinitesimally more freedom than almost anywhere else they could live in the U.S. 

There's the base bus to cart them to and from the free outdoor movie theater; there is a bowling alley that's very inexpensive; there are huge play areas and large playground sets everywhere (and even better---huge banyans with tire swings). 

But even with freedom, kids push buttons. 

My youngest can sometimes be a hardhead (he comes by it real honestly, a gift from both of his parents).  He doesn't always want to go to bed at his bedtime or in his own bed and he has figured out how to manipulate this mom so he gets his way. 

I love how he uses my love of reading to get extra cuddle time and an extended bedtime. 

I know he is manipulating me----"Just one more story! Just read five more pages! You haven't listened to me read today---please let me read to you!"---and I fall for it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. 

It's the one thing I can't say "no" to---seriously, you want to read? And it's past 9 o'clock on a school night? And I know that I'm going to have to haul 76 pounds of dead weight back to his bedroom? 

Alrighty then, let's start another book! 

My very best parenting fail doesn't involve books but what I thought was tough love. It involves a puppy, rain, and a very temperamental four year old. 

When we first moved to Texas, we were mourning the loss of our two fur babies, a greyhound named Gizmo we rescued from a track in Colorado, and a mutt named Lacey I got while a grad student in MS. They died within a year of each other, with the greyhound dying less than 6 months before we moved across the country. We swore we were never going to open our hearts to another pet---if you haven't been through the death of a pet, it's one of the most heart-wrenching experiences ever. 

Yet the words, "Mommy, can we have another dog? Please??" was all it took and we were off to the pound, soon enchanted by a goofy chocolate Lab we adopted and named Katie. 

Katie was a sweet, patient dog, which made watching our four year old having a temper tantrum, refusing to get in the car and standing in the rain while kicking at the dog in the middle of the backyard even more infuriating. 

My husband begged, cajoled, and raised his voice, all with no luck. 

I suddenly had a brilliant idea, motivated by the one time my mom made my sister and me, who were bickering non-stop during the long, three hour trip to my grandparents' house, get out of the car and run around it several times while she sat in air conditioned comfort, radio cranked up and ignoring our pleas of, "Can we please come back in the car! We'll quit fighting!" I should also mention this was beside a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta. It was hotter than seven hells and a very effective way to make bad kids behave. Out-of-the-box discipline sometimes is the best discipline.
I thought my out-of-the-box idea of taking off while he had his tantrum and driving around the block once---the house was in the middle of a block and we could see the backyard the entire time due to the chain-link fence---was an absolutely brilliant idea. 

Before I continue, if you are sitting there horrified that I would actually leave my child, you either a) have no children; b) have the world's only perfect kid and/or never experienced your own child having a world-class meltdown; or c) have no faith that I am really not that bad a mom.    
It does have a happy ending. Well, sort of. . . .  

What I didn't bank on was our little genius going to our new neighbor's house and telling her, "My parents drove off and left me." 

Oops. Oh boy. 

We got a good cursing from the neighbor and walked on eggshells around her for months. We were terrified to raise our voices at him for fear that she had CPS on speed-dial, waiting to drop the dime on the negligent neighbors. 

Boy, did we really show him who was boss. 


Just like number 2 really shows me who is in charge of bed time. 

So as I'm sitting here looking at Stuart Little on one side of me and a child I'm going to have to hoist like a 76 lb bag of potatoes over my shoulder to get to his own bed on the other side, I'm thinking that it was just 10 short years ago that our oldest (who thankfully never had another temper tantrum in the rain while kicking at the dog again) was pulling the same bed-time stunt. 

Even in slow-paced GTMO, I'm reminded daily through my two boys how life is still zooming by. 

And we read four chapters tonight instead of two, just in case you are wondering. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Own Private Hell; or, Tedium and Minutiae

Last spring I set to filling out the paperwork for my our first paid tickets back to visit family, a perk and reward of fulfilling the first full year of my contract.

Many weeks of swapping emails with people in the States, many hours of phone calls on hold (paying 10 cents a minute), many hand-wringing moments later, I had our orders and tickets to go back home. The actual email confirmation came less than 48 hours before we were set to travel. Talk about nerve wracking!

And now I am paying the price for those lovely tickets back home in the form of The Travel Voucher, also known as My Own Private Hell.
In all fairness, it's not just my private hell. Oh no, it's the hell all civilians navigating the World's Largest Bureaucracy get the pleasure to go through.

As a military wife and dependent, I had no idea what goes into travel. And most military people don't have to go through the craziness us civilians go through, either. When you are in the military, you make an appointment and someone types up your orders for you. Your travel arrangements are made through a travel office. You don't have to worry about keeping up with a stack of receipts and exact records in order to get reimbursed for portions of the travel.

And there are the forms---dear God, the forms are killing me. Codes for everything, lots of scary blanks, and a very vague set of directions to guide you.

Remember that obnoxious commercial for a credit card that went something like this:

    •           4 round trip tickets =  $1000 
    •           1 rental car for 3 weeks = $600
    •           Seeing your family for the first time in over a year? Priceless
Oh, if it were just that easy. . . 
Know what else is priceless? Knowing "your" from "you're." Seriously. . . 

There is a definite cost to travel back, with so much that is not reimbursable. That which is requires you to fill out the form EXACTLY how they want. It's almost a joke because you know it's going to get kicked back to you at least twice before you get any of your expenses reimbursed. 

I'm not usually a conspiracy junkie, but I really do think the whole purpose of this experience is so you give up, thus letting the government keep those nickels and dimes for themselves. 

The travel voucher is technically supposed to be filled out within five days of our return, but like most of my coworkers, I've put it off because I know I have five years to fill it out. I've started and stopped the process several times since I returned in early August, and although I'd love to have that money in my pocket, the thought of filling out this form three times (once for every leg of the trip---an extra bonus for traveling separately for parts of the trip) makes me put off today what I can do tomorrow. In fact, I'm still trying to get reimbursed for portions of our Oct. 2012 move here. 

I complained to a coworker last year that we don't have anyone guiding us through the process like our military personnel have. 

He chuckled and unsympathetically said, "Um, we all have degrees, and most of us have at least one master's degree. I think they figure we can fill out a form without assistance." 

Maybe so, but I disagree. I don't have a Master in Tedium and Minutiae Degree, and although I like to think I'm a details person (I love writing library catalog records, filling out accounting forms, and working formulas in spreadsheets), I can't for the life of me figure out how to get these forms right the first time. 

After three hours tonight, I think the government won this round. However, I'm up for another fight, another round of filling out forms from hell, and hopefully I won't be two years getting my nickels and dimes this time around. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hurry Up and Wait; or, The Dirty Laundry Perspective

Several years ago when I was still working in Austin, I had a friend who invited a few of us teacher colleagues to her house for lunch and laughs. We had a great time, and one of the funniest exchanges went something like this:

Hostess: My husband's great, I just wish he'd turn his clothes right side out before he sorts them into the color or white laundry bins. 

Rest of us, picking our jaws up off the floor: Um, your husband actually puts his laundry in the dirty clothes bin??? 

***please note, my own laundry currently sits on the floor next to the bin. I'm not throwing stones or anything***

It just goes to show, sometimes you need a little perspective in life. To one person, dirty clothes not turned right side out is a big deal; to others, just getting the clothes in the bin is a major victory.

Life's like that here, too.

Island life has its perks. Beautiful weather occurs year-round---if you like sunshine, and I definitely do. It's not too humid and there's usually a light breeze. There are several beaches within a few miles of the house. Diving is relatively cheap here. There are no fresh fish at the one grocery store, but if you look hard enough, you'll find someone willing to take you fishing (or at least give you hints about the best fishing spots). Traffic is slow. Iguanas cause traffic jams, which never last more than 5 minutes. If you wear shorts and/or flip flops to work, nobody bats an eye. You keep sunscreen and bug spray in your car at all times because you'll need both.

It's not a total Jimmy Buffet relaxed lifestyle, however, because you are expected to work and produce in an island environment the same as you would on the mainland.

Yearly training modules---8 or 9  modules about everything from terrorism awareness to what we can do/say while on the job (especially about politics) to privacy training are unique to anyone working in a government job. We have a paid half day off work to get these trainings done, which would be generous in any other location, but when you have to do all these trainings online---and many are videos that take hours to load on our internet---my colleagues and I feel the stress of our "island life" when we are measured the same as anyone else with our jobs at any other worldwide location.

If my kids want to participate in Halloween, they have to decide by mid-September about costumes because they have to be ordered online (same with candy, unless you want the very limited selection available at our one store). Kids being kids (and fickle) get stressed out in early October when they realize that they can't change their minds.

I ordered Christmas gifts in mid November last year (forget about "black Friday" sales online), and some still didn't make it until after the holiday.

In light of "hurry up and wait," I try to keep things in perspective.

I was feeling down last week because I missed my grandmother's 90th birthday celebration. You're probably thinking I'm lucky that in my mid-40s, I still have a grandmother. She's sharp as a tack and very independent. I missed her birthday, but I've had her around to help guide me through my entire life. How many people can say that?

My youthful grandmother in Natchez, MS. 
My house, which is smaller than any other we've lived in (kids or no kids), is free. So are utilities. It's a perk of my job and something I have to remember when I wish I were living somewhere with larger rooms and located close to more shopping choices.

My job with its sometimes frustrating training requirements allows me to afford to travel and save money, something my fast-paced lifestyle (and Texas teacher salary) wouldn't allow. As a 20 year teacher veteran, I had maxed out the pay scale. Now I still have much more room to grow.

A completely untouched photo of yet another spectacular GTMO sunset---
a weekly occurrence. 
When the opportunity comes, I get a paid move to the next location. I don't know many educators who can afford to move all over the world on their own dime. It's a nice feeling.

And my friend who just wanted her beloved husband to turn his clothes right side out? Less than two years later, she lost him to a well-fought battle with cancer. She would give anything today to be able to tell him to put the clothes in the bin the "correct' way.

Some days a little perspective on life makes it sweeter and more bearable.

And those GTMO sunsets don't hurt, either.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Where is My Mind?; or, Black Holes (and Revelations)

One of the best concerts I've ever seen was not a musician, but George Carlin.

I saw him at my college (University of Southern Mississippi) way back in the 1980s. One of my all-time favorite Carlin skits is about the black hole that eats your socks.

If you've had infants, it's understandable how a dryer can eat a sock the size of your thumb.

However, I'm convinced that my house sits on a) an ancient burial ground; b) the site of a famous battle; or c)a mysterious supernatural force (that is probably connected to the mysterious Cayman Trench that sits next to Guantánamo Bay).

We don't have baby socks anymore (and my youngest had such huge feet as a newborn, he came into the world wearing 3 month booties). What we do have are other missing/lost items.  TONS of them.

I'm still trying to figure out how I can lose clothing, books, papers, and other items in such a small house. (I'm also convinced it's MUCH more difficult to keep a small house clean than a large house---I guess there's just less surface area to spread out your clutter).

I've dug and dug and still am looking for lost lesson plan binders. My husband recently found 2 more, so they have to be somewhere---I seriously doubt they were lost in the move---but after going through all the unpacked boxes twice, still no luck.

I can't find a shoe. Yes, one shoe. I know I packed it and I think I've worn it since we've been here, but damn, I can't find one of a pair of slip on leather sandals. (And when I spent the better part of 3 months in an air cast, the missing shoe was the one I needed. Naturally).

I've lost cookware. Linens. Books. I'm missing one earring from several pairs.

Single socks. A pair of jeans I bought this summer and wore twice. My favorite black Nike running shorts. A pair of Asics. My extra, unopened contact lens. My best hair brush. A hand mirror. A pair of gardening shears and a large set of loppers.

My house isn't very messy. It's just very small. Every single closet is packed. I took everything out of the hall closet this year---it is large enough we could actually put a desk in it and call it an office---but I found myself packing it to the roof again, even after weeding out unneeded items.

So what's crammed in that closet? Art supplies, a sewing machine (used twice since I got here), sewing supplies, family quilts, tons of board games, fly tying supplies, boxes of old photographs, pillows, wrapping paper, suitcases, nicer winter clothes we couldn't part with, and Christmas, Easter, and Halloween decorations. 

This would be after getting rid of at least 20 times that much stuff since we got here. And after of that cleaning, I was sure I'd find a few things we can't find. 

After all, we've done a pretty good job of organizing and marking everything. But still. . . 

Where's my voter registration card (needed for my absentee ballot)? My PIN to the debit card I never use?  A Walter Anderson print I know is somewhere in this house? 

There is either paranormal activity or a black hole that is sucking items one by one out of this house.  I can live without most of the stuff, but the fact I know what I want/need is somewhere nearby is driving me crazy.