Welcome back to the Odyssey, now entering its third month here in the everyday suburbia of Guantánamo Bay. Gitmo has turned out to be a bit of an absurdist paradise, 47 square miles of cognitive dissonance, where you can start the day by attending a military commission for the notorious “9/11 Five,” break for some Taco Bell down at the local bowling alley for lunch, and wrap your day up with some “Classic Beach Lifestyle,” as the adjacent t-shirt suggests, indulging in a little leisurely beachcombing beneath the razor wire of the Camp Delta detention center. “Bring Your Flip Flops,” for sure, but mind the concertina, all the same.
Given the notoriety of Gitmo since 9/11, we can all be forgiven for visualizing it as a grim dungeon peopled exclusively by cackling CIA agents in rubber gloves and executioner’s hoods. So, it can be rather jarring when you first pull up to your sparkling new duplex in the Nob Hill subdivision and are greeted by smiling neighbors bearing plates of cookies, gaggles of apple-cheeked children curious about new potential playmates, and, naturally, a lovely view of the distant Sierra Maestra mountains, a view that is only briefly interrupted by a US guard tower on the perimeter fence and its Cuban counterpart somewhat further in the distance.
The surreal sensations continue more or less everywhere you go. Turn right instead of left when leaving our subdivision and you find yourself jogging along a lovely country road through the coral tideflats. Gaze left and let your eyes linger on the lovely white cranes and graceful herons searching for their evening meal in the sun-shot, pink-hued gloaming of another lazy, Caribbean sunset.
Gaze right and let your eyes recoil at the rusting bands of razor wire, overgrown with scrub grass and, naturally, the faded and deteriorating remnants of Camp X-Ray in the chain-linked distance. Yes, that Camp X-Ray. The one that earned Gitmo the nastier sides of its reputation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Still right there, just a mile or so from Nob Hill, as you can see there at right.
If you keep going past Camp X-Ray, you eventually come to the Northeast Gate between GTMO and Cuba proper. I mean, you would get there, if you were
brave foolhardy enough to go past all the signs telling you not to go any further and you somehow managed to ignore the armed Marines waving their hands for you to stop. And the gunfire. And the anti-tank Czech hedgehog structures straddling the road at strategic choke points. Not that I’ve, err, tried this or anything. Cue nervous laughter and sheepish shuffling of feet.
You’re never going to get there, dude
Just as well – aside from the monthly meeting between the US and Cuban border guards, the Northeast Gate’s been closed since the revolution. Not that any of that stops the occasional gaggle of grandmas visiting the base from pushing a stroller down that road, past Nob Hill, past those warning signs, and into the waiting klieg lights of the Marine Corp Security Force Company. Sorry, grandma – it’s the enhanced interrogation techniques for you.
tell me more about that cognitive dissonance thing
This fundamental incongruity between expectations and how the place actually presents itself is probably what you notice most about Guantanamo Bay. It’s absolutely jarring in many respects, whether it’s:
The endearingly prosaic announcements on the reader board outside the commissary (“Patio Furniture Has Arrived!”).
The fact that there really is a credible attempt at an Irish pub here. It’s possibly the only Irish pub in the world staffed exclusively by Jamaicans, but that’s something that works entirely in its favor. Honestly, I can’t think of a single service in the world that would not be improved by being staffed exclusively by Jamaicans.
Case in point – it’s not easy to find the phone number of anything here, even though the phone numbers are all only 4-5 digits long. So, we constantly find ourselves dialing Directory Assistance, something I haven’t done since, like, 1985. Anyway, after I thank the laid back Jamaican who’s given me whatever number I need this time, he always closes with a lilting, “Coooool, mon.” Man, I live for that. I call directory assistance three times a day just because I crave that kind of reassurance. Sure, I’ve got worries about my 401k and credible doubts about my ability to parent a teenager, but everything is cooool, mon. I gotta get a recording of that guy. And start writing down the phone numbers he tells me.
The overarching sensation that much of the base presents as nothing more than your classic American suburb, plucked out of the midwest and plunked down on the dry side of your average Caribbean island. I mean, so long as your version of the “average” Caribbean island has been avowedly socialist since its revolution in the fifties, was the target of a failed invasion sponsored by the CIA in ’61, very nearly housed Russian-sourced nuclear weapons in ’62, and, since 9/11, has been the site of the world’s most notorious prison. In that case, yeah, totally average.
There is, of course, a method to the figurative madness here and it’s got everything to do with keeping literal madness at bay for those stationed here.
don’t you mean keeping it “at guantanamo bay”?
No, I don’t. Not even I would stoop to that pun. Which is why it’s fortunate that I’ve got a handy, imaginary “alternative me” making the really bad puns in headings like that one up there. Thanks, buddy.
Guantanamo Bay is probably not the easiest duty station in the world. It’s isolated, it’s hot, it’s completely shut off from the outside world (only six flights per month!), and you almost never get new patio furniture. The grocery store suffers from occasional stocking issues. The internet arrives via satellite for most of the base and is two-tin-cans-and-a-string slow. Regular cell phones do not work. Anything you order over the internet arrives via a semi-mythical barge that is purported to arrive in GTMO once every two weeks. No one has ever actually seen this barge. Some believe the barge exists, if only because Amazon Prime orders eventually do arrive, sometimes as quickly as two weeks after the initial order.
Regular Amazon orders of the non-Prime variety? Yup – still on the barge, waiting to be delivered by the ubiquitous base iguanas and their perpetual bad attitudes. There’s a popular bumper sticker here that reads, “My other car is on the barge,” which I’m starting to think is just base code for “My other car was stolen by iguanas.” Very slowly, as you can see in that picture down below.
slow amazon deliveries? however do you endure, my good man?
In the greater scheme of things, most of these GTMO peccadilloes play as minor annoyances and, in some cases, are actually kind of nice. For example, it’s a semi-refreshing experiment to see how much your daily life revolved around obsessively checking email and the web when you can no longer readily do either of those things. Turns out I used to like to read and play guitar, Kristanne could bake bread from scratch, and both kids were accomplished belly dancers. Who knew?
Still, the aggregate of these Gitmo Gotchyas (not a trademark…yet) can start to weigh on you, which is why the Department of Defense has put a whole lot of effort into making you feel like you never left Anytown, USA. Take for example, our particular suburb of Nob Hill. We live in an as-new, 3BR duplex, complete with a garage and a white picket-fenced backyard that make it feel every bit the averaged and idealized version of the American home. Even the attention paid to the standard American practice of giving subdivisions wildly optimistic names completely at odds with their surroundings helps you feel at home a bit. Sure, “Nob Hill,” Guantanamo Bay, has about as much to do with the real Nob Hill in San Francisco as “Cabernet Ridge” in Stockton has to do with vineyards or “Serenity Shores at Fulton Ranch” has to do with, well, much of anything at all, but that just adds to the Americanizing effect. Don’t I sound soothed?
This is not to say we don’t love it here in Nob Hill. Quite the contrary, in fact. Not only did our house come with the perfect graffiti pre-carved into its backyard banyan tree, as you can see there at left, but it also has a seemingly endless supply of waving neighbors, hard-playing kids, and the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that comes when you actually are all in this together. Plus, it’s all free. Yup – free! The home maintenance plan is excellent, too – you call and they come over to fix it, no charge. I much prefer this to my standard, stateside home maintenance plan, which I typically start with twelve trips to the hardware store, continue by screwing up the job in increasingly inventive and ever more expensive ways, and wrap the whole thing up by paying someone else to fix what I broke. Did I mention I’m not very handy?
So, yes, I’d most definitely like to take this opportunity to thank you, the American taxpayer, for all of this. Yes, you, the one muttering under your breath, angrily stamping your feet, and looking for new federal bird sanctuaries in Oregon to commandeer. Thanks, bro! I’m just going to have another sip of this free mint julep here on my air-conditioned back porch and check my portfolio while the government unclogs my toilet and massages my back.
REALLY HOPING THE TOILET UNCLOGGER GUY ISN’T MASSAGING YOUR BACK, TOO
Taunting armed seditionists is much easier from Guantanamo Bay than in person, I find. If it makes you feel any better, I did have to pay my son to mow the lawn after he threatened to take over the downstairs laundry room while armed with Nerf guns. Armed insurrection has been a new hobby of his since we arrived here.
It’s not just the housing and maintenance that’s free, either. Gym? Free. Open 24×7, too, with two full basketball courts (one featured there at right), racquetball, enough free weights to make Jack LaLanne blush, and every aerobic machine under the sun. Electricity, gas, and water? So free it would give your average extortionary PG&E exec the full-on heebie-conniptions.
Swimming pool? Free. It’s also huge, uncrowded, and equipped with some fairly epic slides, the likes of which would make a stateside personal injury lawyer salivate, as you can see there at left. Golf course? Free, though you do have to pay to rent a cart (and trust me, Cuba’s standard face-melting temperatures will make you want to rent the cart. Plus, no sales tax!).
First-run movies? Free, and delivered to TEAM GTMO (check the sign in the background of the picture at right) in a charming outdoor theater somewhat ambitiously referred to as “The Lyceum.”
One of the great things about the outdoor movies here, besides being free, is that, if the movie stinks, you can always pass the time stargazing at the incredible Caribbean night skies and/or waging a ceaseless battle against fist-sized mosquitoes bent on malarial destruction. That’s usually an “and” situation, by the way, and not an “and/or.” That’s Kristanne there at right, flexing her way through her usual post-mosquito-massacre trash talk and taunt session, featuring lots of aggressive posturing and classic lines adapted from past adventures, such as, “Stupid little mosquito – all your friends are dead.” They say Gitmo changes people, but I was really hoping they didn’t mean my wife. And rebel son.
Beer? Not free, alas. It also occasionally comes with the reminder that neither is freedom, as you can see there at left. Somebody’s gotta pay the bill somewhere down the line, I suppose, starting with me, who has to face the horror of a single, solitary grocery store stocked nearly exclusively with mass-produced domestic lagers, full of rice, gingerbread, and other things that have no business being in beer. It’s an Anheuser-Busch hell here in GTMO, I tell you, and I am barely holding on. Somebody get me Directory Assistance on the line, stat.
hmm…sounds like someone might have nothing to lose but his chains
The massive irony of all this free stuff, of course, is that we are living on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, a place that from the late ’50s to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was seen primarily as yet another Cold War domino, a staunch-but-lonely bulwark against the otherwise unchecked flow of creeping communism across our embattled US borders. A capitalist thumb in the eye of Fidel Castro, if you will. A beacon of democracy and freedom amidst the roiling waters of failed banana republic socialism, for crying out loud. All that, and here we are enjoying the fruits of the most enjoyably socialist lifestyle I’ve ever experienced (and, mind you, I’ve lived in both France and pre-1989 Poland, two places that occupy rather opposite ends of my highly subjective Enjoyable Socialism Spectrum). Heck, I may even invite Bernie Sanders to come on down, don the highly reflective waistbelt we’re all required to wear when outdoors after dark, and go for a little jog – it’s that enjoyably socialist, my friends.
Probably the best part of the GTMO lifestyle, though, is how it wholeheartedly embraces and actualizes one of the tenets of socialism that is not often delivered in practice – the part where everyone takes responsibility for what’s around them and works together towards a common good. Everywhere you go on base, there are people working. Soldiers working at their jobs. Soldiers cleaning up the base. Jamaican and Filipino workers keeping the base operating. Civilians working on lucrative contracts for Halliburton-like conglomerates making major, tax-free bank.
There’s really not anyone here who isn’t supposed to be here for some reason or another, except for, well, me. And frankly, after being crowned “Smarty Pants of the Week,” I’m pretty sure I’m newly in charge of Smartass Responses to the public library’s weekly trivia question on Facebook. Hey, you gotta start somewhere (and you might as well get two MWR GTMO Community Library bookmarks and a pack of “Nerds” for your trouble). Maybe if I win two weeks in a row, I’ll get some patio furniture. The dream lives on.
what’s up with the patio furniture obsession, weirdo?
That’s it for this week on The Odyssey. I still hold out high hopes for someday being able to write shorter, more frequent entries, same as I do for a successful Van Halen reunion with David Lee Roth and the return of my hair. In other words, don’t hold your breath, y’all. And, if you do, be sure to call Gitmo Directory Assistance right after. He’ll make you feel better right away.