Monday, September 27, 2010

Adventure in Japan - Part One

No question Nick and I have enjoyed Guam so far, but one of the major benefits from moving this far away is the opportunity to travel to not-as-far-away exotic places. With Nick traveling for work, a free week ahead of me, and an invitation to stay with my friend Mary just outside of Tokyo, I couldn’t pass it up. Not to mention, my good friend Kristi had just moved to the same area with her two small boys and was moving into her new house by herself that week. I booked a flight a week out and was so thrilled to have this adventure to look forward to.

The flight to Tokyo is a blissfully easy three and a half hours. Arriving in the airport surrounded by information posted in an unrecognizable alphabet, I was struck with the realization that I had landed in the most foreign place I’ve ever been. Thankfully the signs I needed were in English. I exchanged money to Yen, bought a train ticket, and set off to meet up with Mary and her 14-month-old daughter Annika. After only a slight glitch in our meet up plan, she found me at Yokahama Station---but not before I stood around gawking at the incredible number of impressively fashionable people passing through the station. Remember when I laughed about how funny it is when Japanese tourists take pictures of random things like shopping mall entrances in Guam? Well, the tables were turned when I was the only one with my camera out capturing the train station and the surrounding streets.  Definitely not in Hagatna anymore. 

Annika, Mary & Me
After a bag drop and a quick snack, we hopped back on the train and headed out sightseeing to an island called Inagi (I think), a cute touristy area near the water. We got ice cream (my flavor somehow translated to “rare chocolate cookie”) and walked up the hill toward a shrine. Mary did her best to explain Shinto and Buddhism and what everything meant. It would be great if I could remember anything worth passing along. 

On our way home, we took advantage of one of the major differences between Japan and Guam: sushi! We stopped at the grocery store by Mary’s house and picked up sushi, tempura, and edamame. So yummy!  I thought we’d eat sushi every day after this, but somehow this ended up being our only stop here.  That’s probably my only regret of the week, but so many other highlights made up for it.

Day two, Mary had to work so she dropped me on base with our friend Kristi.  [Side note is that Mary teaches English to Japanese students.  It’s a great job for military spouses here in Tokyo. It not only pays well, but also gives them a chance to converse with the locals on a more interactive level than sharing a train car.] Kristi and Mary’s husbands are both helicopter pilots in the same squadron and they are both currently deployed.  Mary’s husband left in May and Kristi’s left just on Monday, leaving Kristi to finish up car registration messes and move into their house with the help of her 5-year-old and 5-month-old sons. FUN!
Little Ryan at five months!

We had a fairly typical day on base – worked out, got lunch, shopped at the NEX, and went to the pool. Aside from driving on the left side of the road, we could have just as easily been on base in Guam... a nice little American getaway amid Japanese craziness.  It was even super hot—about 96 degrees—hotter than Guam actually. Kristi was one of my very first friends when we moved to Coronado. She and Ben lived in our apartment complex and at the time, their son Will was the same age that little Ryan is now. I had the pleasure of visiting them in Hawaii a few years ago and now get to take on Japan! Definitely one of the perks of the Navy is having good friends stationed all over the world. That night Mary joined us after her work and we had a delicious Mongolian BBQ at the O Club.  
Got my fill of babies & toddlers this visit!
Wednesday we got going early, hopped on the train, and headed to the famous Harajuku shopping district.  This is a great train stop, not just because of the shopping, but also because the Meiji Shrine is right around the corner. We decided to hit that up first since it was promising to be another scalding hot day. We sweated through the lovely walk through a very woodsy area that felt worlds away from the retail jungle a few streets over. 

The arch indicates you are entering a holy area (I think)
After tempura noodle soup (yum!), we set off on our shopping expedition. I was so pleased that Mary knew right where to take me first… Zara! Those of you who have traveled with me before or know any of my shopping habits are likely not surprised.  Afterwards, we grabbed a few souvenirs, did some people watching, and hit the train.  Unfortunately all of the fashion-crazed preteens this district is known for were in school while we were there, so we didn’t get the freak show I was hoping for.  We also didn’t have lines, traffic, or crowded train cars, so it all evened out.

Exhausted from our long fun day shopping in the heat, we dragged our bags back to Mary’s. It was at this point we found out the unthinkable news about Amy’s husband. It was one of those strange times when, technically nothing changed, and yet it felt like everything had changed. We went ahead with our evening plans and met Kristi, Will and Ryan at the pool. Kristi took some great pictures, but since she’s in the middle of a move right now, the last thing I want to do is task her with sending them to me. (But if you are reading this, Kristi... hint, hint!).

Kristi & her boys
Crazy fun watching this little guy grow up all the way to Kindergarten!
Thursday morning hit, and it was suddenly apparent that summer had turned to fall. It was rainy, overcast, and much cooler. In fact, overnight it dropped from high of 96 on Wednesday to high of 66 on Thursday. The temperature change much reflected the change in the air now knowing what Amy was going through. It was also perfect timing for celebrating the changing of the seasons (a quarterly Japanese tradition) with a group of Mary’s friends over pumpkin dump cake, wassail, goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms, and caramel covered apples (yum!).  It was the only taste of fall I will probably have in actual fall-like weather, so I soaked it up.

I am well over my self-imposed word limit, so I’m going to save the rest of the visit and my reflections on Japan for next time. Until then, sayonara!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

An Unexpected Tragedy

Dear family and friends,

I fully expected to spend my next post sharing stories and pictures from my spontaneous trip to visit friends in Japan. I am fortunate to have two friends that I know from Coronado a quick plane ride away from Guam and with Nick away this week, it was an easy decision to go. Our visit was going great until we received some unexpected heartbreaking news, which I feel is important to share with you now.

Some of you may have caught the news this week that a helicopter went down in Afghanistan. Off exploring Tokyo, I didn't hear about the crash until a close friend emailed requesting an immediate phone call (the friend I am visiting saw the headline of the crash earlier that day but refused to open the news article because her husband is a helicopter pilot). Though terrified picking up the phone, I was not expecting such tragic news---one of our friend's husbands was in the crash and did not survive. All of a sudden I was hearing stories of the uniformed officers contacting friends and family trying to get in touch with her. I was hearing about her sudden flight out to the east coast to meet the casket containing the love of her life. I was hearing about paperwork and photo slideshows and funeral arrangements. All in all, every military wife's worst nightmare descending upon my dear friend Amy.

Amy is part of the wine group you may have heard me gush about when I lived in San Diego. A unique group of five SEAL wives, three helicopter pilot wives, two navy doctor wives, and an intel officer, we got together every Wednesday to have a glass of wine, catch up, and oftentimes, celebrate the passing of another week that would bring us closer to reuniting with our husbands. The way the deployment schedules work, at least one person's husband was always overseas, with the likelihood of others' away on training trips. When Nick's team came home in the spring, Amy's husband's team had already left to replace them in their various missions. Last I talked to Amy, her husband was set to come home within a few weeks. Their deployment was almost over and homecoming was around the corner. She had been waiting for his return home since he left in March.

Our country suffered a monumental loss on Monday. Amy's husband Brendan was a Naval Academy grad, a noble fighter, a caring husband, a true warrior. Compounding the tragedy was the loss of one of Nick's BUD/S classmates, Adam Smith, in the same accident. At this point in time, all reports indicate the crash was, indeed, an accident. To me, that almost makes it even harder to accept, to make sense of, to find meaning in. Given the scope of this loss---nine American fighters were killed---I wonder if we ever will.

I write this today heartbroken for my friend. Even though we live it every day, I never thought our small group of wives would be so shaken by the effects of war. And here, tonight, a friend who loved her husband just as I love mine now walks on an earth without him. My heart aches as I consider this thought. Each of us in this circle, in this community, knows this could be our husband. The fact that it happened to such a close friend is almost unbearable. So today, I dedicate this message to my sweet friend Amy, who is unfairly yet gracefully bearing the true burden of this war. I regret not knowing anything adequate to say right now, but I am praying that divine presence and peace would comfort her heart as none of us can.

Please join me in praying for her, as well as Brendan's family, Adam's family, and all the families as they get through unexpected funeral services this week. Thank you, friends and family, for your ongoing love, support, and patriotism. And thank you for---for at least a moment---joining me in mourning our country's courageous heroes who this week made the ultimate sacrifice. 

We love you, Amy, and we'll do whatever it takes to get you through this. 

Funeral Services Set for Brendan Looney

The best verses I know for when you don't know what to say... particularly fitting during this sad time.

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal,
       a time to tear down and a time to build,
 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
       a time to mourn and a time to dance,
 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
       a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
 a time to search and a time to give up,
       a time to keep and a time to throw away,
 a time to tear and a time to mend,
       a time to be silent and a time to speak,
 a time to love and a time to hate,
       a time for war and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Thursday, September 16, 2010

First Week of "Work"

Had I done this blog thing for the past six years, I'd have racked up a number of vastly different posts that would qualify for this headline. Most of them involved digging suits out of the back of the closet, getting email set up, signing lots of HR forms, forgetting the names of a zillion new coworkers, and spending hours upon hours parked in a swivel chair staring at Windows 2000 waiting for something to happen. Well, going along with the theme that things are different here in Guam, my first week of work was refreshingly no exception.
Fellowship Games participants

Saturday I drove to a community gym to meet up with Doug (the other youth director), two kids from our church, and about 75 other local kids from churches and youth groups all over Guam for a first-ever event called the Fellowship Games. We spent the next five hours playing basketball, volleyball, kickball, and flag football. I have to say, I definitely still have some spike left in me. And despite the odds, our underdog team came in second in tug of war!

The games were fun, but the highlight of the day for me was finding myself surrounded by locals for the first time here in Guam.  Thus far my interactions with Guamanians have been quite pleasant, but they have also involved me buying something.  Within the first five minutes, I noticed an immediate difference between these kids and my kids in SoCal (besides the obviously darker skin).  The best way I can put it is that everyone was so ridiculously nice... to everyone.... to me, a towering white American newcomer, to each other, to kids from other churches that they'd just met, to other kids in their youth group. And it's not that my SoCal kids weren't nice. They absolutely were. Here it is just different somehow. It didn't seem to matter who played on whose team or who was paired with their best friend. They seemed happy just to be there.

Stranger still were the manners these kids had. At one point while I was sitting by myself, a boy who's a freshman in high school sat down next to me, got in a conversation, and asked if he could get me some water, which was way on the other side of the gym.  Later on, I was standing by the snack table eating a few chips, and another high school kid got up from his chair and enthusiastically said, "Miss, you can have my chair!" I politely declined, but was so taken aback by the overwhelming show of respect and acceptance from these kids who, starting the day, I'd assumed would have no interest in my being there.  

Doug with sixth-graders Tara & Jessica
I took this observation to Doug, and he confirmed my suspicion that respect for elders is a really big thing here. My next question was, "So that counts for us too, even though we're not that old?" Yes, ma'am it does. My immediate thought was how much easier that would make my job as a semi-authority figure. Doug expanded a bit, though, saying the problem comes in because kids here absolutely cannot under any circumstance disrespect their parents or disagree with their decisions. So if parents drink or smoke a lot, or if they don't value education or setting career goals or walking the walk, young people don't have a way to plow around that. They're stuck and will likely be forced to repeat the same mistakes of previous generations. It made me reflect on that aspect of American culture... that we are individuals, not necessarily an extension of our families. That we grow up in a place where we can transform our life into whatever we want it to be. I wonder if we can ever create a culture where we can have that beautiful freedom and teenagers who proudly give up their seat for you. That is probably too much to ask.

So a successful first day with the youth was followed by a second day teaching Sunday School to the high schoolers.  Then tonight I went to my first youth group meeting.  We meet every other Wednesday evening.  Tonight we had seven kids there.  We ate pizza & ice cream, played games, and talked in groups about one of my favorite verses, Acts 17:26-27, "From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth. And He determined the set times and exact places where they should live. God did this so that men might seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us." Clearly I was meant to come to this island to eat ice cream and take goofy pictures with these kids. It's all part of the plan.

On a side note, poor Nick is off in some jungle somewhere a few time zones back.  He's working 16+ hour days, sleeping on a cot in a mosquito net, and hardly has any time to work out, eat, or call me.  It's only a two-week gig (thank goodness!), but it highlights the fact that we are having vastly different experiences here, um, especially if you compare our jobs (I mean, he works almost as many hours in one day as I do in two weeks!). In fact, he may even be back in Guam before he gets a chance to read this. But just in case, thought I'd take this opportunity to thank you for bringing me with you to this interesting new place where I can continue to learn more about the world and myself. The fact that I'm getting paid to do so is one ridiculously sweet bonus.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My New Job

To work? Or not to work? This conundrum was most certainly in the forefront of my mind ever since we found out we were moving to Guam. "What are you going to do there?" was a top 3 question from friends and family during our pre-move discussions... along with "Where will you live?" and "Is it true that snakes fall out of trees onto your head?" (The answer, by the way, is no, unless the snake is dead).  

Part of me, the college-educated, goal-seeking list-maker, has bought into that whole American idea that you are the work you do, that your identity is dependent on having a meaningful, high-paying, important job that's part of an even more impressive career path. Over the past few years, this mindset has clashed tremendously with my #1 life role, military wife, and unlike many, I can't even fully blame relocation. The last couple of years in San Diego I found myself working part-time teaching and consulting while Nick was home on work-ups, then picking up full-time work and volunteering to pass the time during deployments. It's just no fun to be stuck at the office when Nick is home, and not productive to be stuck at home when Nick is away.

So when approaching opportunities to work here on Guam, I did so cautiously, especially knowing Nick will be home a lot more than we're used to. First of all, there aren't exactly a slew of job options. Local jobs are primarily limited to people whose last names are Duenas or Tatiague. In other words, if you aren't family, you probably won't be coworkers. Government jobs are either of the $8/hour food service worker or $120K/year telecommunications engineer variety, with few opportunities in the middle. So after figuring I could stay busy playing golf, working out, reading, writing, playing the piano, and volunteering, (and blogging, of course), while also remaining flexible to travel, I resigned myself to enjoy these two years in Guam finding myself... unless, of course, something found me. 

Well, something found me pretty quickly, and I am thrilled about the opportunity! The last week of August we tried out a new church that my friend Caitlyn invited us to. After the service, the pastor (Pastor Jeff) invited us to dinner that Thursday, a welcome to Guam sort of thing.  During that dinner I purposely left out my experience as the youth director at my church in Coronado, not wanting to get too roped in to volunteering too quickly.  Well, it must have slipped out during the conversation and, once it did, I immediately saw the wheels start turning.

Check out the million $ view behind the altar! Can be hard to pay attention to sermons...
Turns out the current youth director is starting a double Master's program and will be pretty busy, and doesn't have a lot of the organizational skill sets that would help the program run more smoothly. Pastor Jeff asked if I'd be interested in possibly splitting the 20-hour/week position with him. A few meetings and a council vote later, and within a week I found myself with a 10 hour/week job as a co-youth director at my church!  It's a small Lutheran church with about 12 kids in middle and high school. About half are from military families, half are locals.  Aside from Sunday mornings (when we'd be at church anyway), I can pretty much make my own hours and keep a flexible schedule for traveling when those opportunities arise.  I'll be getting paid to do something I've enjoyed enough in the past to do for free.  I suppose the fact that I had been praying for direction on how I could be useful here was purely coincidental... right?

Two youth (Tara & Jessica) and my counterpart Doug
Best of all, I couldn't imagine a more meaningful job at this point. Last September when the opportunity arose to decide whether or not to step in as the youth director at my church, my dear friend April gave me timeless, matter-of-fact advice that still rings true: "You never turn down an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people." Working (and playing) with the amazing kids and leaders of my last youth group, I learned so much about love, acceptance, life challenges, prayer, and how God works so precisely in ways big and small. I also learned that I personally can do very little to make a difference in the lives of young people. I may put in the hours, but J.C. up there does the magic. So as I set off on this new life assignment, I am excited about what magic might be done here that I have the honor of being a part of. I am already off and running (literally) and will share some stories and pictures soon!

"Call on me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things that you do not know." Jeremiah 33:3

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

American Tanker

And so it appears I easily survived my first two weeks Nick-less in Guam.  That’s right… Nick is home! He came back from his first trip to the Philippines early Saturday morning, just in time for the long weekend.  Luckily the rainy season blues of last week subsided and we had a couple of lovely days to go exploring. 
Saturday afternoon we launched Propeller off a boat ramp just south of the navy base. Once out on the water, the first thing we saw was a beautiful rainbow. As I was taking pictures, the thought crossed my mind, “How neat, a rainbow and no rain.” You can imagine what happened next. The good thing is, it doesn’t matter if you get rained on in the boat. Everything can get wet. In fact, I find it’s better to jump right in. The ocean is warmer than the rain.
Our first stop was a site we've dove before called Coral Gardens. This place is packed with lots of interesting corals and an abundance of colorful fish. Luckily many of the corals come up to the surface, so there's plenty to see without a tank of air. We explored the interesting corals and sea life for a while before hopping back in the Prop for more snorkeling guesswork. 

Trumpet Fish
Nick Fish
There was an island just less than a mile off shore that looked interesting. Let’s just say, we guessed right! Once we approached the island we found ourselves on a shallow shelf where warm waters rushed in an out pushing fish, loose plants, and snorkelers (us) back and forth like a pendulum over the coral-carpeted rocky floor. Got a few good pictures, but we’ve decided that pictures really can’t do justice to just how beautiful this area is.  That’s why we’ve decided to put this destination as a must-see on our visitor tour list. 
Scared Puffer
Don't step on one of these
Yesterday was a perfect day for a holiday. We slept in, had a big breakfast, then loaded up the Guam Prop with dive gear. The tank rental place is conveniently at the boat ramp, so one stop and we were off. We headed out into Apra Harbor (the navy base harbor) and dove the American Tanker. Most shipwrecks are very deep dives, 100 ft. deep or more, but it so happens that all of the good stuff on this one is more like 60-80 feet, which is great because it's not as cold (88 degrees!) and you can stay down longer. 
According to our dive book, the American Tanker is an old water barge which was purposely sunk to make a reef. While you aren’t supposed to go inside of a shipwreck unless you have wreck training, this particular wreck has a lot of open outer rooms that make it easy to swim through a door and find an immediate path out through a window in the ceiling. Not gonna lie, the thought of going inside freaked me out at first, but as always, Nick’s sense of adventure is contagious, so I found myself poking around inside too. I wish I had a better picture of the whole wreck, but between the spotty visibility (bay waters are never as clear as ocean waters), and the poor lighting this deep, we didn’t come out with any. One more thing you’ll just have to see with your own eyes on your visit. Well worth the effort to get dive certified.

I have to say, we are so fortunate to have our own boat out here. Sure, there are great dive charters around, but having the freedom to go where we want when we want and not have to schedule around the weather or work or, well, anything else, makes this place that much more open for adventure. Some of the most fun we've had was leaning over the side of the boat, sticking a masked face in the water while we're moving, just to see what's under there (we found a shipwreck debris area that's not in our dive books!). And five boat trips in, we have barely scratched the surface of all there is to do here. Possibilities are literally endless.
The rest of the week I’m playing golf, starting my new job (which I’ll post about  once I’ve actually done something), and sending Nick off on his next trip. He was supposed to leave for it early today, but now he’s not leaving until Friday. That plus the fact that he’s coming home a few days earlier than we thought adds up to a work trip first: Leaving later, coming home earlier… that never happens! One more check in the “pros” column for this place.
One last note – Thanks so much for all your fun comments, messages, emails, phone call mentions, etc. I’m thrilled to know this is a helpful way for us to stay connected despite such distance. This place wouldn’t be nearly as fun without the ability to share it with all of you! So thanks for visiting us again. And now, how about visiting us for real?