Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Beaches; or, My sand is bigger than your sand

While we are waiting to go home on our RAT for summer, we are enjoying the perks of island life that elude us during the school year.

This past week, I went to the ocean more than I did in August through June. In fact, I only visited the beach once. Pitiful, I know. A combination of health issues in the fall and a crazy, crazy work schedule all year round had me staying in on weekends, instead of taking advantage of the beautiful, eternal summer that is GTMO.

One way to find much-needed balance in life is to get off my butt and get out of the house. What better way to relax than to smell the salt air, feel the ocean breeze, listen to the waves, and soak up the sun?  Everyone has his or her personal preference to the many beaches here. I've posted pictures from Chapman, Windmill, and Cable beaches, and each spot has its advantages and disadvantages. When it is just myself and my youngest, I don't like the isolation of Chapman beach (even though it is really gorgeous), and Cable has a great wading pool (and a smaller beach to the side I love called Pebble Beach), but not much in the way of sea glass and it's in the middle of a much-needed cabana renovation, so that's a no-go. Some people love Ferry Landing, but I can't deal with not being able to see my feet, and the water tends to be cloudier there than other spots. It does have nice sand and I've found some great sea glass there, but it is not my favorite swimming spot.

Instead, I love Girl Scout beach. It is a total pain in so many ways. For starters, there are the stairs. If you have lived here, you know what I'm talking 'bout---they are a bear. Going down isn't so bad, but after a couple of hours of swimming or SCUBA diving, they make you re-think how in shape you really are. Every time I think, "Dang, I thought I was in good shape" (and then wheeze like the 45 year-old asthmatic that I am). But it is so worth it, because it has everything that we like in a beach.
It has sand. I know this sounds crazy, but we don't have sand at all of our beaches. We have rocks. If you want to get technical, we have really, really, REALLY large sand, because what is sand other than tiny rocks, right? So we have XXXXL sand at most beaches, which requires shoes at all time. We also have urchins and rock fish and other things you really don't want to step on, so you should wear swim shoes here, regardless. I just bought some Chacos online and they work great for the XXXXL sand, too.  
In addition to sand, it has sea glass. Tons of it. I have found some other interesting things at Girl Scout, too. I've found: forks and spoons, old military buttons, gun shells, copper wiring, pieces of pottery and china, an old watch (broken), shells, sea fans, coral, and a grouchy iguana.

Some recent treasures: a plastic bottle top that says, "Séjourné Depuis 1915." I know enough to know that's French and I've got mad Google skills, so I found out that it's a soda top from Haiti. We unfortunately get lots of garbage from Haiti. It's not the first time I've found things written in French on the beach, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Sadly, our neighbor Haiti seems to be a country that puts lots of garbage in the ocean.
Image from (where else?) their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sejournehaiti
I also found a shard of china that says, "Buffalo China Mandalay." Google tells me that it's a pattern used in restaurants that was popular in the 1930s-50s. It's a nice pattern. I don't think I've ever found any pieces with the actual pattern on them, but I have found many other patterns of china in my beach combing.
Image found at www.replacements.com
What makes Girl Scout fun to us is the waves and on most days, opportunities for great snorkeling. Son 2 and I love diving and jumping in the waves.  There are strong currents, so you have to be a strong swimmer (and cognizant of all times as to how rough the waves are and how strong the undertow is). Son 2 sees the sign below and says, "If they are in danger, Mom, why are they making the 'hang loose' sign?" Good question, kid!!

The only downside to Girl Scout (other than the stairs that seem to double in size on the way back up) is the sand isn't tiny, dusty white sand like in Florida or the Mayan Riviera.

Therefore, you get lots of tiny rocks (or XL sand, depending on how you look at it) in your nose, ears, and mouth, depending on how graceful (or not, in my case) you are while rolling around in the tide.

This also means that kids (and adults) end up with lots of pieces XL sand in their swim suits.

I don't know how to delicately put this, but here's the thing: you end up with lots of XL sand all on your lady and manly bits.

It's as painful as it sounds.

The first trip to the beach, Son 2 gets into the shower and we hear the spilling of what seemed like 10 lbs of rocks (okay, XL sand) all over the bathroom floor. We were sweeping it up for weeks. Because of water restrictions, no beaches have water right now, but Girl Scout never had cabanas or showers, so that's a mute point, anyway. You haven't lived until you have rocks stuck in the creases and crevices of your swimsuit and your body (not a pleasant thought, I know), and then have them tumble everywhere when you take off your suit.

My poor shower trap, washing machine, and dryer all get lots of abuse after a trip to the beach.

The rock (XL sand) issues aside, the beaches here are worth the extra effort. So many conveniences of life we took for granted in the US, but the beauty of living here is the beauty of this place. Florida may have beautiful sand (XXS rocks) and crystal clear water, but show me a beach that has giant iguanas begging for food, strange artifacts that are decades old, or literally thousands of pieces of sea glass that glitter like jewels, all free for the taking (except that iguana---you definitely don't want to feed or touch him!).

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Leap of Faith; or, Jump (Go Ahead and Jump)

This summer has started with another set of goodbyes. After almost three years here, we are saying farewell to our 2nd round of friends whom we have known from the start to finish of their tours of duty here. I counted earlier this week, and when our youngest son starts 4th grade in the fall, he will have only one classmate he has known since we moved here in 2012.

Constant goodbyes are not easy for my kids, who had a very steady (and mostly uneventful) life until we moved here. It's also hard for those of us who are stuck here indefinitely. How many more sets of people will we meet and bid farewell while here? It never gets easier.

Jumping off the pier at Ferry Landing---all part of our goodbye rituals here. 
Yet this is the life of a military child, and as the child of a parent who serves the military, this is now my children's lives, too.

I occasionally have a hard time explaining to people that we are stuck here indefinitely. When you accept a job here as a DoD civilian, you generally have to go by the "five year rule." You can only work five years overseas, and then you have to go back to the States for two years before you can take another overseas job.

If you are military, you are typically here for two years. JTF people are almost always here for 9 months on an unaccompanied tour.

There are always exceptions to the rules, of course.

But teachers? We don't fit in any of these categories.

info from: http://www.dodea.edu/Offices/HR/employment/benefits/

The info above is from the DoDEA website and it is pitiful in its outdatedness and uselessness. There hasn't been a post in Iceland since 2008. Not only that, but you would think that Cuba is a one-year tour from this info. This is what many of us have to go by when we get here. The info above just means that after one year, we get a free ticket back to our Home of Record (HOR). I'm not well-versed in government talk, but I definitely didn't get that from the above when I read it the first, second, or tenth time. 

Bottom line: come to Cuba as a teacher and  you have to prepare to stay indefinitely. 

The entire DoDDS system is built on uncertainty. It can either build patience or breed impatience, depending your disposition. I would love to say that I have become more patient, more introspective in the last almost-three years, but there are days that I would give anything to be the one on that ferry leaving and waving goodbye, instead of the one standing on the dock. 

Our GTMO tradition is to jump off the pier for friends departing. As the ferry turns in front of the pier and picks up speed towards the airport, friends, coworkers, and neighbors jump and swim out towards the ferry. The first time I saw this, I was surprised that I teared up---it is a rather moving experience. Sometimes people decide last minute to jump and leap in the Bay wearing their work clothes. Other times, people wear funny outfits. I've jumped, waved, and even worn funny hats and sang songs in Spanish. Every goodbye is a little different. 

Once the plane schedule was changed this past year from Saturday to Friday flights, that sadly left us with fewer opportunities to say goodbye (thanks to my J-O-B, I can't just walk out of the building and take 30 minutes to go to Ferry Landing) and even less opportunities to jump. Just making it to Ferry Landing to wave is now a big event for me. 

Another part of the GTMO tradition is that if you jump off the pier, you will be the next one to leave. 

In that time-honored tradition and in hopes that that legend has some element of truth, I'm encouraging my youngest to jump until his heart is content this summer. I have the flight schedule in hand and we will become part of the (un)official goodbye committee, jumping for EVERY SINGLE FLIGHT, if that is what it takes to bring us some good juju. I'm resolved that we are here indefinitely, but I'm not one for turning down good juju. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Hotel Caimanera (not California); or, Peace, Love, and Understanding

(What's so funny 'bout) peace, love, and understanding?-Elvis Costello

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.-Mark Twain

One of my former colleagues from Austin just got back from a trip to Havana. I have to admit, I am a lot intrigued and a little jealous.

Meanwhile, in GTMO. . . This weekend was Filipino Independence Day. There was a huge celebration at Phillips Dive Park with speeches, cultural presentations (dancing), and food---FREE food. Pancit, lumpia, adobo chicken, and more. It was a delicious meal and a wonderful opportunity to celebrate with our Filipino community, without whom this base would not run.

There are way more Filipinos and Jamaicans than Cubans in GTMO, which means there is really a lot more Filipino and Jamaican culture here than Cuban. In fact, there is very, very little actual Cuban culture in GTMO. You can listen to Cuban radio, watch Cuban television (if you have an antennae), and go to one of the two centers on base to talk to the Special Category Residents, or SCRs, also known as the "real" Cubans who have been here since the fence closed its gates in 1959.

With the news that Cuba is now off the state-sponsored terrorism list, people here are excited at the prospects of things like a SOFA (status of forces agreement) and maybe even the gates opening again for travel between GTMO (US-Cuba) and the rest of Cuba-Cuba.

I'm not holding my breath that any of that will happen while we are here. And there is always the chance that no, instead of that happening, GTMO will close forever. Although I don't think that will happen while we are here, either.

Instead, we will be in US-Cuba limbo, not really in a foreign country, although we are most definitely residing on foreign soil. And with dreams of escaping through that fence to peek at what's on the other side, come possibilities.

One is tourism.

One night when I fell down the Cuba/GTMO internet rabbit hole, I found information about Hotel Caimanera.

Hotel picture courtesy of the Hotel Caimanera website. Check it out

According to Wikipedia (Wiki-pedia:from the Greek "don't trust the internet"), Caimanera is a fishing village that is the closest town to GTMO. It is considered a "forbidden town," meaning you have to have a special permit from the Cuban government to visit it. Some enterprising Cubans have taken it upon themselves to make this the selling point of the Hotel Caimanera, which according to its website, is "located to less than a mile of a distance from the cactus curtain on an almost barren hilltop" and "is like a Room with a Priceless War Border Zone view, since from their residence balconies you can observe the Guantanamo Bay US Naval base very clearly."

Awesome, right! We are not only isolated here, but we are being observed, much like zoo animals, from Cuban tourists who have gone through the trouble to get a special permit to visit Caimanera. And we are living in a "war border zone," which is exciting new development in my otherwise somewhat-mundane GTMO life.

In case you are wondering, the cactus curtain is what you call the miles and miles of thick cactus vegetation on the Cuban side of the fence, planted there by Castro's military to discourage Cubans from coming into GTMO once the gate closed (or this is at least the version of the story we are told on this side of the gate).

Also: "offering excellent service and a historically unique location, Hotel Caimanera is the prefect [sic] setting for a memorable vacation in a truly warm Cuban carefree atmosphere, all made the better by the sheer irony of being so close to a culture so absurdly opposite." Um, I think that was meant to be a jab at those of us living in US-Cuba. Ouch.

Seriously, this whole thing is not just "absurd"---it is totally, completely, 100% ridiculous.

How the US got GTMO is ridiculous. Having a certain prison here (which I only refer to as "that place") is ridiculous. How we view Cuba is ridiculous, and evidently, how they view us is, as well.

A little travel from both sides may cure some of our stereotypes and misconceptions about each other, although (again, it's ridiculous) the only way right now to visit Caimanera is to fly from GTMO to either Jacksonville, Norfolk, or Ft. Lauderdale (those are our 3 choices), then to Miami, then to Havana  (but only with a special visa), then travel the 935 km (580 miles) to Caimanera by car.

When you try to calculate the distance from Caimanera to Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, you only get "that place" listed for directions and are told, "sorry, we cannot calculate directions between Caimera and [that place]." I know it is not an eleven + hour trip, that's for certain.

Dear god, please someone tell Google maps and the rest of the world that GTMO is NOT a prison

(Okay, it's really difficult to leave here and it's super isolated, so maybe the joke's on us). 

But ridiculousness aside, if that fence does open while we are here (highly unlikely), I will have my $41 in hand and be on the bus to Hotel Caimanera, so I can see US-Cuba from the other side of the fence. With travel comes a new understanding of Cuba-Cuba. It's all about peace, love, and understanding, folks. Y'all look for me! I'll be the one waving from my balcony with a Cuban cigar in one hand, binoculars pointed at GTMO in the other.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The (Not) Love Letters; or, Going Postal in GTMO

I'm an old-fashioned sort of girl who loves getting notes and letters. I haven't saved too many mementos from 22 years of marriage (and 11 moves), but I do have the few love letters I got along the way (from the husband, in case you are wondering).

Naturally, I love getting any sort of letter in the mail. Postcards will do, too.

Remember sending real letters? I used to love picking out the right stamp for letters to bunkmates at camp (usually written to once or twice, and then forgotten forever), friends who went off to college while I was still in high school, or cousins who lived several hours away.

Now we just do email and no more letters.

Unless you are in GTMO, that is.

In the last six months, I've gotten a lot of letters from the postal service.

I will call them my GTMO NOT love letters.

Much of the time, there's not a whole lotta love for the postal service in my casa.

Reason one is exhibit A:

A package covered in what appears to be (or smells to be) chili sauce.

I'm not 100% sure because the package contains no condiments, only Valentine's Day candy (that thankfully was not destroyed).

Exhibit B: I did get a nice note taped to the outside of the stinky, plastic bag covered package about just how much the post office cares, which did seem to soften the blow. But I'm not going to lie; if the candy had been ruined, I would have been irate.

I love Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap---you know the stuff that comes in the bottle with LOTS! of EXPLANATION! MARKS!!! and strange messages about love, soap, and Rudyard Kipling (please tell me you know what I'm talking about). My kids love Dr. Bronner's and I love it, and instead of buying it the few weeks I'm in the States a year and hoarding it all year long, I try to order it online.  I also love Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Lavender Laundry soap---it's the only thing that gets the kids' nasty soccer clothes smelling great again.

So a couple of weeks ago, I got another plastic-covered package. Instead of a package covered in chili sauce, I got a package that was actually dripping. We're talking serious haz-mat time here. Goodbye to my much anticipated package of Dr. Bronner and Mrs. Meyer products and hello to filling out forms for refunds. This is the third time we've received an exploded and dripping package in 3 years (albeit a good smelling one this time around).

I'm not sure if there was a note inside of that package because I just chunked it in the garbage. I didn't even bother to open it up.

Exploded packages and notes from the P.O., such is my exciting life.

Also, I've recently received a mystery note.
Exhibit C:

The "damage" happened, according to the Chicago International Military Center, because of their "highly sophisticated mechanized and automated equipment utilized to expedite delivery." I should point out that the package was actually in better condition that 99% of what we get here; the only "damage" was it had been opened and some of the contents had been pilfered. 
Um, whatever. 

This letter was inside my package. It's like opening your suitcase a few days after a trip to find that weird piece of paper in the middle of your mass of twisted, dirty clothes from the TSA that says that they have randomly inspected your suitcase.  (Am I the only person who gets those, too?)

What was missing? Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day hand soap. I kid you not. It's like I'm doomed to get anything from Mrs. Meyer sent here. :(

I seem to have bad luck with mail here, as attested by my Map of Lost Mail. In fact, as I am typing this, there is a package from Banana Republic that is floating around aimlessly in the FPO system. My clothes ordered in May that should have gone to FPO 09593 somehow were sent to APO 09053---Garmisch, Germany. Another pin for the Map of Lost Mail! (That is, if the package ever actually shows up).

Again, my mail is better traveled than I am. And it is still not here. I'm watching it go 'round and round. The most amazing part of this to me is that a package can leave Columbus, OH, on a Wednesday and end up in Germany on the following Monday, but it takes a minimum of 2 weeks to get anything to GTMO from the states.

Anywho, I do have one question: How damn difficult is it to read a zip code? I still don't understand why so much of our mail ends up in Europe (and why we were stuck here). 

I don't think it's that we have lousy mail service here in GTMO (or in the FPO system) as much as it is we rely on mail WAY more than the rest of the developed world.  In a place that is isolated and with very limited services and products, we really do depend on the mail (dammit!) to get the things we need.

Weird notes, exploded packages, and misdirected/lost mail happens all the time, I'm sure, but the chance of it happening to the average person in the US is slim, because most Americans (unless you are a QVC addict or a hermit, or maybe---bonus!---both) don't get the majority of their clothes, a large percentage of their toiletries, and several food items delivered on a near-weekly basis via mail. Instead, people use UPS or Fed-Ex if they are actually getting something important delivered (we have neither option here) and get it in a day instead of 3-4 weeks. Or they go to a real store to buy said items. Both of those options seem so exotic and exiting once you've spent a few years in GTMO. . .

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Problem Solving 101; or, Slaying Snark, One Skate at a Time

We have this big emphasis on doing problem solving with our students. And quite honestly, I do think it's an underrated life skill.

Think of all the stupid questions people ask you on a weekly basis. Or inane/uninformed/ignorant comments people post on facebook on an hourly basis. Most of these questions and comments would be eradicated if people would just stop and think things out. You know, problem solving.

I decided to put my own problem solving to the test and man, am I glad I a) cleaned out my garage and b) have been running recently.

The printer in my room isn't working and hasn't been for over a week. This isn't usually a big deal except 3/4 of my students are turning in research type projects for their finals, and since I'm having them put them in their writing portfolios, I need a print copy. This means I have to have students either email projects to me, share their Google Docs with me, or put their Word docs in a file on the shared drive. Then I have to walk down to the teacher's lounge to the closest working printer---the xerox machine.

The problem is there are usually jams or the person who printed before I sent my printing didn't replenish the now-empty paper drawer.

So more trips back and forth to my room to get paper to then go back and print. I'm making 20-30 trips a day, minimum, and it's exhausting.

What can a tired girl do?

Thanks to a recent discovery while cleaning the garage, I now have some old school quad skates and I've been going back and forth in style. AND I'm getting a workout. AND it takes about 1/4 of the time.

Our classrooms open to the outdoors, so my hallway is an open sidewalk with grass on one side (thankfully I didn't need to fall into) and little lizards frantically running in all directions when they hear me coming.

Thank god I started running a few weeks ago because I am not in the worst shape and didn't completely want to die after the 15th or so time to the teacher's lounge.

I actually forgot how much fun I had as a kid on roller skates. I skated every day after school for years. I admired Olivia Newton John in Xanadu and Linda Blair in the awful Roller Boogie and watched them dozens of times each, and like all kids of the 70s and 80s, I had my favorite skating songs, as well. By the end of the day, I was skating around the classroom backwards (and bonus: the kids really did pay attention, although I think it as more to see if I busted my butt than because research is just that riveting).

Why oh why did I quit skating?

One kid in the hall (in a snarky tone of voice): WHY on EARTH are YOU wearing SKATES?

Me: Because I can.

Kid to snarky girl: WHY are you NOT wearing skates?

Love these skates. 


District employee to me: WHY are you wearing skates?

Me: They are a metaphor. Skates represent the last two weeks of class. If you study hard and do your work. . . (pointing to student)

Student: You skate through the last week of school.

Can you believe the kid picked up on that? Not bad, right? (And not bad for off the cuff, if I must say so).

Skating/Problem Solving/Metaphors.   I see a great lesson plan in the future. Feel free to use and adapt it for your own needs. (Be sure to throw in some Common Core in there, too).