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Things to Do in Saint Martin with Kids

There is so much to do in Saint Martin/Sint Maarten! Go beyond the beaches and explore some of SXM’s kid-friendly activities. Discover ruins, fly through a rain forest, or feel the whisper of a butterfly’s wings. Make your time on Saint Martin the best family vacation ever!

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The Zoo may not be as large or as varied as animal parks in big cities, but it is the perfect size to see with kids in an afternoon. Learn about endemic animals as well as exotic species.

How to get there: Drive to Pond Road in Philipsburg and go north on the Saltpicker’s Roundabout. Turn left at the end of Pond Island and follow the signs.

Cost: $10 for adults and $5 for children

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The Butterfly Farm is a magical place for kids. Walk through a butterfly enclosure and let the papillons softly land on you. Learn about different types of butterflies and moths.

How to get there: Drive toward Galion Beach on the east side of the island. Take the turnoff to Galion Beach, and the farm is on your right.

Cost: $14 for adults, $7 for children

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Loterie Farm has something for everyone. Located on the grounds of an old sugar plantation, this site is loaded with both history and modern outdoor entertainment. You can take the nature hike, relax by the state-of-the-art pool, or try one of the three zip lines: the kids’ Tarzan zip line, the ropes course zip line, or (for the very adventurous), the extreme course. Keep an eye out– you may see the resident vervet monkeys! The park is closed on Mondays.

How to get there: Go north from Marigot and turn left at the “Pic Paradis” sign. The park is on your right.

Cost: 5 Euros for the hike, 25 Euros for the kids’ zip line, 45 Euros and 65 Euros for the medium and extreme zip lines. Pool chair a towel is 25 Euros up, and is required for pool entrance. The park takes US dollars as well.

Buffalo Wild Wings has a fun kids’ area at the Blue Mall in Cupecoy. I haven’t been there personally, but I hear that it’s a favorite with the expat kids.

How to get there: Blue Mall is located west of Maho in near Cupecoy Beach.

Cost: Price of food

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Seaside Nature Park is a little slice of farmland heaven. You can ride horses on the beach, play on the playground, or feed the animals at the petting zoo. The park also has a playground and a trampoline!

How to get there: From Maho, go through Simpson Bay to Cole BayTurn right just before Daily Extra Supermarket, and take a left at the end of the road (From Philipsburg, turn left when you come down the hill to Cole Bay Go through the one-way street, turn left, and then go right before Daily Extra Supermarket). You have to drive through the GEBE power plant, which seems odd, but you are going the right way!

Cost: $60 for a an hour trail ride on the horses. Petting zoo is $5 per adult and $3 per child. Bags of feed are $1 each.

Feeding the Donkey and Horses in French Cul-de-Sac is a great free activity to do on your way to the beach or Pinel Island.

How to get there: From Marigot, go north until you find the round-a-bout toward Pinel Island in French Cul-de-Sac. Turn left at the school and then follow the road past the school and up the hill to the donkeys and horses.

Cost: Free!

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Carousel is our favorite ice cream store. Not only does this place offer delicious ice cream and cotton candy, it also has a full-sized carousel in the back!

How to get there: Located in Simpson Bay

Cost: $3+ for ice cream. Carousel ride is free with purchase on Wednesdays.

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Sonesta Kids Zone is a great place to drop off your kids while you relax at the pool. The awesome staff will take care of your kids with games, movies, and fun while you get a break.

How to get there: In Maho. you can’t miss it.

Cost: In order to visit the Kid’s Zone, you have to either stay at Sonesta or purchase an all-inclusive day pass, which is about $90/person for adults.

The Movie Theater is perfect for those days when your beach plans got rained out. Tickets are actually cheaper than most U.S. theaters.

How to get there: Located in Simpson Bay

Cost: $7

Free Outdoor Movie on Mondays at Porto Cupecoy is a fun way to end the day. Just be sure to check the exact time, as they often change it, and ask ahead of time for the title and rating of the movie. Sometimes it’s a family movie, and other times it’s an adult movie. You can buy popcorn and ice cream at Rendezvous.

How to get there: Drive west from Maho and Cupecoy or south from Marigot.

Cost: Free!

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Free Kids’ Movie Night at Kim Sha Beach is a good Friday night activity. Adults can also enjoy the food and drink selection at Buccaneer Beach Bar.

How to get there: Coming from the airport, drive through Simpson Bay and turn right after Burger King. Park at Buccaneer Beach Bar.

Cost: Free!

Layla’s Restaurant and Play Ground is one of the few jungle gyms on the island. Enjoy the French Caribbean and let your little monkeys play the day away.

How to get there: Coming from Marigot, go southwest to the “handle” of the island. After Sandyground, you’ll see Layla’s on the right.

Cost: Price of food

Coconut Trees Go Karting is great for older kids and teens. Enjoy some healthy competition and adrenaline!

How to get there: Located in La Savane.

Cost: $15

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Feeding Fish in Simpson Bay Lagoon is always fun! You can feed the big tarpon from the Simpson Bay bridge, or you head over the north side of the Causeway and feed the fish by the sunken sailboat.

How to get there: The bridge is the best place, but you can go almost anywhere!

Cost: Free!

Aquamania Playstation is basically a floating playground! It’s a jungle gym on a boat. All the monkey bars, swings, and slides with none of the bruised and scraped knees.

How to get there: In Simpson Bay, park at the beach lot east of the bridge. Walk south on the beach to Aquamania on Kim Sha Beach.

Cost: $10 and up

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Port Marigot Fish Market and Farmer’s Market is lots of  fun for the whole family. The fish market is a good way to view sea creatures without getting wet. Take your kids around 8 or 9 in the morning to get the best peek at all the fish and lobsters. The open-air farmer’s market is open almost daily to greet visitors fresh off the boat. Find lovely local art, cheap souvenirs, and fresh produce. Oh, and don’t forget to get a fresh coconut with a straw from the coconut man!

How to get there: Located on the waterfront road in Marigot.

Cost: Free!

Fort Louis and Fort Amsterdam are two of Saint Martin’s oldest structures. Fort Louis is an easy hike up a few flight of stairs and offers a stunning view of the surrounding area. Fort Amsterdam is a short walk up a slope. In addition to having a beautiful ocean view, this fort is also the site of a pelican nesting ground. Be sure to keep an eye on your little ones– both forts have a steep drop.

How to get there: Fort Louis is located in Marigot. You can’t miss it. Park in town and walk up, or take the back road to park near the top of the hill. For Amsterdam is just southwest of Philipsburg. Approach Divi Little Bay Resort from Philipsburg (or use the Sonesta to make a u-turn if coming from Cole Bay) and make a left into Divi’s road. Park before the gate and let the guards know where you’re going. Walk to the far end of the resort until you hit the fort.

Cost: Free!

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Beaches are, of course, the most popular family activity on Saint Martin. The best beaches for kids are Friar’s Bay, Pinel Island, Simpson Bay Beach, Indigo Bay, and Galion Beach, Kim Sha Beach, Divi Little Bay Beach.

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My Inspiration Wears a Little League Jersey

Well, my master’s classes are in full swing and I’m not exactly off to a fabulous start. Admitting that is hard for me, because I’m a type-A personality who had a 4.0 GPA in undergrad. People warned me that taking online classes can be a lot harder than actually going to class unless you’re extremely organized and on top of things. Generally, I am. But I’m a lot better with paper and pens than I am with a double-password access online classroom with instructions in electronic format in a few different places. Find the library on campus? No problem. Find the library online? Well, now. That is a different story.

So here I am, looking at ten articles that I have to read and use to write a discussion paper and post online for the class to read by… well, by last Sunday. I guess tomorrow’s deadline for the unit meant the unit closes then for further discussion, not that the reflection is due then. That is something really I wish I figured out before today. I guess now that I know, I won’t be making that mistake again.

I’m sitting here with my pen and paper, feeling a little discouraged about my abilities to pull this off. School has always been my strength, and now I don’t feel so sure that I can be good at this online school thing. Besides, everyone else in my cohort has a lot more experience than I do. And let’s not fail to mention the fact that this is University of London, and I’m American. Will I be able to remember to spell “analyzing” as “analysing” with an “s?” Or put my quote marks on the inside of my punctuation? Am I supposed to do ‘ or ” for quotes? Will I get marked down for spelling things American-style?

In the middle of this stream of self-doubt, an image breaks in:

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These kids are so inspiring. Every afternoon, they come from Dutch, French, and English schools to Player Development Program for further help with reading and math. It’s really hard for a lot of them. Being bilingual or trilingual makes learning to read really, really tough. Some of them are in sixth grade and struggle to read very basic English kid’s books. But they don’t give up, they don’t let embarrassment stop them, and they keep pushing to get better and work up from where they are.

I’ve seen Spanish-speaking kids learn English in two months. I’ve seen kids who struggle with reading and writing spend as long as needed to compose a thank-you letter. I’ve seen kids sit, study, and sound out long words in until they could read the whole book.

To me, writing a short summary of Curious George is not hard. Reading 16 pages doesn’t drain me. Conjugating and pronouncing verbs takes no mental energy. But it does for them, and I would say that they have to work a lot harder to get it right than I’ll have to for my master’s degree. Does it discourage them? Sometimes. Does it deter them? No, it doesn’t.

If a seven-year-old can learn to distinguish vowel names and sounds in French, English, and Spanish, I can learn to use “s” and “u” the British way. If a twelve-year-old can have the courage to learn English as he goes during baseball practice, I can have the courage to post my late work where everyone can see, have a positive, non-defeatist attitude, and do better next time. If a nine-year old can have the humility to do sight-word flash cards in front of his friends, then I can have the humility to admit I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m willing to do what it takes to improve.

You know, the kids at SXM Player Development Program think that they’re learning a lot from me. I guess they are. But I think I’m actually learning more from them. God knew what he was doing when he put me into their world. There’s a lot of determination, courage, and hard work going on at those blue picnic tables. There’s a lot to be inspired and encouraged by. There’s a lot to look at and think, “that’s how I want to be.” I know that if they can work hard and never throw in the towel, so can I.

So I’m going to wipe away these tears of frustration, go back to that online library, and find that PDF e-book that’s hiding from me. I’m going to write my best paper, and I’m going to turn it in even if everyone can see that I’m late. And tomorrow, I’m going to do better. And I’m going to do it with those kids as my inspiration and my encouragement.

Grocery Shopping in French

“Ground beef. Like, beef– cow meat– but it’s all ground up in little bits.” I did my best unofficial international sign language to accompany my explanation.

“Ah! Bœuf haché?” The grocery store employee led me to the freezer and pointed at the package of meat, eyebrows raised. “This?” He asked. It didn’t look exactly like the ground beef at Walmart, but it appeared to be ground beef nonetheless. I smiled and thanked him, placing the package in my cart.

There are only a handful of affordable grocery stores on the island of Sint Maarten, and my options are to pay $170 a trip to shop in English or $102.75 to shop in French. I choose the language barrier and saving seventy bucks.

I spend a lot of time staring at labels, trying to make out what this can or that box holds. I’ve become pretty good at guessing, and I’ve even picked up some French in the process (although don’t ask me to try to pronounce it). Whenever I learn to speak French, I’ll have a head start. I will know the word for every single food item ever invented.

Some of the labels are easy. I babysat for a bilingual family, and their kids called milk lait at all times. The cow on the front also helps.

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Others aren’t so easy. I always thought fromage was just the word for “cheese,” but apparently it’s the word for every single dairy product on the planet.

This is not cheese. It’s yogurt. When I bought it, I needed yogurt, but it looked like it could be  cottage cheese or whipped cream. I decided that the risk was worth it. Ben hoped it would be whipped cream, so he was disappointed.

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This does not say fromage, but it IS cheese. Thank goodness this bag is see-through, or I would have been even more confused than I already was.

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The hardest products to find are the ones I don’t know the French word for, can’t see through the packaging, and don’t even recognize the packaging. It took me a few trips and some asking around to find baking soda. I was looking for the small orange box, but apparently Arm and Hammer doesn’t do French.

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I suspect the packaging issue is why I still can’t find baking powder. My friend Aqiyla went shopping with me yesterday, and she couldn’t find it either, although she speaks French. You don’t realize how powerful branding is until you’re dropped in the middle of unrecognizable foreign brands.

One thing that is not hard for me to locate, however, is Nutella! I think I have a Nutella radar built into my brain. I’m OK with becoming more European, if it involves chocolate for breakfast. Yes, please!

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I have encouraging moments, too. I’m getting to the point where I can read a lot of French words, even if I couldn’t use a single one in conversation. I can understand most French signage around town, and I can tell the difference between all-purpose flour and pastry flour. I can even scan package ingredients for allergens and be fairly confident that I won’t send anyone into anaphylactic shock.

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I never thought I’d say this, but there are days that I really miss Walmart. But at the same time, I’m glad I have the chance to make shopping a bilingual adventure. After all, I never quite know what I’m going to come home with…

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Two Girls Downtown

Sand and sun, tanzanite, johnny cakes and chapels. Downtown Philipsburg is as eclectic and international as you could ask. Philipsburg is the capitol of Dutch Sint Maarten, and its narrow streets hold a mixture of history and modern trends. Alyssa and I took an afternoon to explore this mix of past and present.

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Visitors to Sint Maarten often arrive by cruise ship. The first thing these tourists see is the Boardwalk, which is a sunny strip of sidewalk that borders Great Bay beach.

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Philipsburg was founded by a Dutch Navy captain named John Philips in 1763. Until the 1950’s, this area was relatively quiet, as far as tourism goes. At one time, it contained Sint Maarten’s only port, and saw just a handful of large boats each year. Later, as the island’s tourist industry expanded after World War II, bigger piers were built to accommodate cruise ships. It became one of the Caribbean’s busiest ports, and today thousands of vacationers stream off the gangways each week.

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The Saint Martin of Tours Catholic Church is located on the Boardwalk. The St. Martin of Tours Parish is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year! The church was named after the island’s own namesake, a 4th-century bishop whose feast day is November 11. When Christopher Columbus “discovered” Saint Martin on November 11, 1493, he named the island in honor of Saint Martin’s feat day. Naturally, the island’s  first Catholic church was also named after this saint.

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The Boardwalk holds many lovely surprises, like the reggae band we found and the little open-air restaurant where we stopped for icees.

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Iced drinks are the perfect refreshment on a warm February day in the tropics.

 

 

For many, the Sint Maarten experience stops here, on the edge of the aquamarine bay with a beach chair and a bottle of Heineken. But there’s so much more to downtown than just the boardwalk! Take a quick stroll down any one of the alleys leading to Front Street, and you’ll enter a whole new layer of the tourism district.

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Front Street is a wonderful place to shop if you’re not into paying sales tax and don’t mind dropping a good bit of cash of fancy goods. It’s also a good place to get a snack from local street cart vendors.

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Apparently, it’s also the perfect street for walking your pet iguana.

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The man who photobombed this picture was a pretty good salesperson. He caught our attention by jumping into this shot, and then managed to convince us to sample his wares. The face cream was nice, but neither of us were willing to pay $120 for it!

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The Sint Maarten courthouse is the most recognizable building on the island. It’s even featured on the country’s flag. It was built in 1793 and still serves as the courthouse.

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Front street is also home to a beautiful Methodist church. We stopped to take a look inside. This building was the first Methodist church on Sint Maarten. It was built in 1851, about century after the Methodist denomination was introduced to the West Indies by Nathaniel Green.

Beyond Front Street is (you guessed it) Back Street. There are many paths to Back Street, but my favorite is Old Street.

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Old Street isn’t really that much different from the rest of downtown, but it does have a certain charm about it. Maybe it’s the 50’s-era car permanently parked in the middle of the walkway, maybe it’s the big blue castle at the end of the street.

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My personal favorite place on Old Street is the art gallery. The family who owns it came here recently from Holland. The wife creates beautiful and unique art for her gallery and teaches art classes on the weekends. Her husband has a windsurf business at Le Galion Bay. His most recent work of art, he told me, is a crayon drawing of Winnie-The-Pooh.

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Back Street is for the locals. The prices here are significantly lower than those on Front Street, and you can find anything from Nike shoes to a washing machine in the stores. The look of Back Street is unique– huge stores sell appliances, old Dutch homes buzz with modern life, and local art covers the walls.

Cannegieter Street, or Third Street, as some people call it, comes next. Every day that a cruise ship docks at the port, Philipsburg Market is open. Dozens of vendors sell their goods along both sides of the road. Shoppers can buy all kinds of islandy things here. The crocheted cover-ups are my favorite.

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Pondfill Road comes last. This street is part of the main road that travels the perimeter of the island. Pondfill also runs along the Salt Pond, where slaves used to harvest salt for their masters. Salt slavery on Sint Maarten began in the 17th century. In 1848, slavery was abolished on the French side of the island, and subsequently Dutch slaves began to escape across the border for their freedom. Because of this, Dutch slave masters released their slaves and began to pay them wages for their work in 1848, although it would be 15 years before emancipation was officially legislated. There is now a monument to the salt slaves in the center of the round-a-bout on Pondfill Road. I took the picture below on Sint Maarten’s Day, when paraders marched down Pondfill dressed as salt pickers.

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As you can see, downtown Philipsburg is more than a place to tan or shop. It is the center of Sint Maarten’s history. There is so much to do and see here, but you have to go beyond the tourist district to see it all! Wherever you are, get out and go exploring. Happy adventures!

 

Some photos courtesy of Alyssa Fry. Visit her blog at ColorMeYellow.net

 

 

 

A Day with the Coast Guard

One of the most important jobs in the Caribbean is that of the Coast Guard. These brave men and women are ultimately responsible for the safety and security of the islands. They are often an unseen presence, but Ben, Stacey, Turner and I had a chance to meet them up close during an event this week.

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Protecting Caribbean waters is an international effort. There are four primary countries that protect Saint Martin: Netherlands/ St. Maarten, France, Great Britain, and the United States. We had a chance to explore a boat from each of these nations and talk to the crew.

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This is the Poema, a Dutch ship outfitted to stay at sea for two weeks at a time. We thought the gun at the front of the ship was pretty snazzy. Not something you’d want to have pointed at you!

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I never realized how many knobs and buttons it takes to drive a military vessel. The more I learn about the military, the more I respect and appreciate them. You can see one of the ship’s officers through the window, giving a tour and answering questions.

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Jay and Sandy gave the Poema additional cool points just by stepping on board. Sandy is a classmate of Ben’s at American University of the Caribbean. We stopped to say hey before making our way to the next vessel.

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The biggest boat I’ve ever driven is a canoe. I was happy to sit in the driver’s seat of this police boat, but I’m glad I don’t have to actually steer it.

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After leaving the friendly Nederlanders, we boarded a small floating piece of home.

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We approved of the name.

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As much as I love being an expat, there was something wonderful about seeing the flag of the good old USA. I didn’t realize how much I miss seeing the Stars and Stripes until I stopped for a moment to watch it flutter in the Caribbean breeze.

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Here’s Captain Stacey, ready to embark on the Reef Shark.

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It was nice to stop and talk with some of the American Coast Guard. Expats, no matter their situation, are always eager to talk with someone from the home country. We compared overseas experiences, talked about where we’d been born, and discusses what’s best and worst about the change in location. Suddenly, Arizona and Georgia and Michigan didn’t seem to very far away from each other.

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Turner enjoyed the maps in each boat. Some of them were extremely detailed.

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I had to smile at this quirky hula girl on the dash. She’s a little out of place for a ship stationed in Puerto Rico, but I appreciated the touch of humor in this room of gadgets and gizmos.

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I attempted to quickly attune my ear to French accents after the familiar U.S. drawl of the American officers. The Sualouiga is a fairly large boat, with a massive engine and a larger crew than the vessels we previously toured. What struck me most about the tour was the number of back-up safety features that our guide pointed out to us. Nobody is going to die on this boat!

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Ben admired the wood interior of the control room. He especially liked the classic wheel.

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I wish I could remember how many horsepower this engine has. The boat had two of them, in addition to a couple of large generators. To put the size in perspective, the engine came up to my shoulder. I would have liked to stay longer and look closer, but the engine room was hot and stuffy. We moved on.

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Our next stop was a Sint Maartin rescue boat. It’s a little orange boat suited for choppy seas and quick returns. Everyone on board was relaxing with cool drinks on the hot afternoon, so we took a quick look around, thanked them, and went back to the pier.

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We watched the patrol boats perform crazy maneuvers in the bay.

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What’s a military fair without camo face paint?

We tried shouldering the 100-pound packs the Coast Guard wear to train in. Thy bulletproof vest was heavy enough for me, but Ben and Turner could join the Coast Guard if they wanted to!

Since guns are illegal on the Dutch side of the island, this is the first time any of us have held a firearm in months. They were unloaded, of course.IMG_2183

Our final stop was a huge Dutch ship. We had to wait a bit to go on board, since the commanding officer was preparing to walk down the gangway. It was cool to see the show of military order and respect that accompanied this event.

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The gun at the front of this ship was gigantic. We’ve come a long way since cannons!

 

Ben especially appreciated this helicopter on the ship’s landing pad.

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It’s good to know that our security is in good hands. I’ve always had a lot of respect for US military, but now I have a high regard for Dutch, French, and British military as well. Experiencing the work of international military alliances firsthand is something I’ll always remember. I hope they come together to do this event again next year! It was definitely one of my favorite things that we’ve done on the island so far. Where else can you freely tour and photograph military vessels from four different nations?

A Woman’s Heartbeat

Never before have I been brought to tears by a drum solo. I am brought to tears by newborn babies, adoption stories, and my sister’s piano pieces. Never by the banging of drums. But this day was different, and this drummer was different.

It was the kind of day where time slips away silently and unnoticed. I was at Sint Maarten’s annual Art in the Park trade show, surrounded by art and some of my favorite people. As at every public event, Youmay Dormoy brought his New Generation Drum Band to perform and collect donations for operating costs.  Cool, I like drums as much as anyone, and I was excited to see it. The kids and youth marched forward in their colorful, traditional island garb. Little shoulders supported big white drums, older boys placed expert fingers on trumpet keys; I even caught a glimpse of a musical conch shell in someone’s hand.

The drumming was great, all of it. It really was amazing to see twenty musicians keep themselves in step and in rhythm. I enjoyed it and took some photos. But nothing struck an emotional chord in me, until one young woman came forward to solo on the bass drum.

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There was something about her poise, her confidence, her posture that made me stop to stare. There was something about the resonating boom of her bass drum that complemented perfectly the delicacy of her lace hem. She was a picture of feminine strength and beauty. I felt tears well up behind my eyelashes.

Is it sunscreen in my eyes, I wondered? No, it was this woman, this living embodiment of beauty and strength. In the twenty seconds of spotlight she had, she became an icon to me.

If we are honest, every women wants to be strong and beautiful. In the deepest cores of our feminine hearts, we want to awe the world with deep strength and captivating beauty. It is innate in our souls.

I wonder how often we unknowingly bring others to tears with a show of the strong and beautiful. I wonder how many times we unconsciously step into our twenty seconds to play to the beat of our hearts. I wonder how many of us walk through life believing we are nothing, yet capturing the eyes of others with a life of inspiring womanhood.

Don’t despair, beautiful friend. You are strong. You are beautiful. You were created that way, and you will show the world in your way, in your time.

 

 

Making the Dean’s List

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Med school is a beast. Last semester, Ben spent ten to twelve hours daily on medical school activities: lecture, studying, practice problems, tests. He worked hard, and it paid off. He finished the semester with a 93% average, honoring all his classes.

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American University of the Caribbean recognizes its honor students each semester with a ceremony and dinner reception. It was awesome to watch my smart, handsome man walk across the stage and receive his Dean’s List certificate!

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A few other awards and honors were recognized during the ceremony. One of these is the community engagement award. Ben G. (not my Ben) and Kyle M. received this award for their work with the SXM Little League Player Development Program, the tutoring and baseball program I volunteer with. One of the faculty members read a speech written by each of them. Hopefully, a few other AUC students had their interest piqued at the ceremony and will start volunteering with us, now that Kyle and his wife, Andrea, are leaving the island.

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After the ceremony and my enthusiastic admiration of Ben’s certificate, we headed to the student lounge for some free food and conversation. I was impressed to see prestigious faculty helping to serve the food. That shows what kind of community we enjoy here at American University of the Caribbean.

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Hopefully, we’ll be here again at this time next semester! Please keep Ben in your prayers as he works hard toward his goal of becoming a medical missionary and hospital founder in East Africa.

Yo Hablo un Poco Español

Yo hablo un poco Español. Imagine me saying that in a very bad Mexican/American accent, and you will hear the best of my Spanish. Actually, I’m not sure if the grammar is even correct (perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments). Sometimes I try “Yo hablo poquito Español,” but either way I am met with chuckles and amused smiles. Not sure if it’s the white girl accent or if I’m just saying everything wrong.

You’d think that I would have learned Spanish just by living near the Arizona-Mexico border, working with Spanish-speaking people, and going to Mexico a dozen times. Nope. Living in Phoenix taught me enough Spanish to pronounce “gila,” “agua,” and “cholla” correctly and navigate my way through Food City.  Unfortunately, the people I asked to help me learn mostly liked to teach me insults and laugh when I asked someone to “give me the hooker” when I wanted lettuce. Thanks, guys.  Muchas Gracias.

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Me in 2007 with my dad and friends in Mexico, not knowing Spanish

 

 

Fortunately, my Spanish has been steadily improving since I moved to the island. On the plane ride here, I set next to a Puerto Rican lady for a few hours. I used all the power of my jet-lagged brain to recall the words I learned in Spanish 101. Her English was even worse than my Spanish, and we got along just fine. Through Spanglish plus hand gestures, we had a conversation about how to avoid pickpockets in San Juan. I understood enough to be glad I was catching a connection to Sint Maarten!

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San Juan

 

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been practicing on the Duo Lingo app and watching lots of Spanish movies. There are a few Spanish-speaking kids in the group I tutor, so while I teach them English, they teach me Spanish. They learn a lot faster than I do. Some of them learned conversational English in a month, and I’m just over here struggling with Spanish adverbs. I told them they must just be smarter than me. They laugh. And then they correct my Mexican accent.

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Teaching as a Learner

There comes a moment in language learning when you realize that you’ve made a major breakthrough. Those moments are some of the best moments of life. It’s kind of like the moment you find out you’re hired or that you won the scholarship. That moment came for me a few days before Christmas when Ben turned the radio to a Christian Spanish station. We were tired, and we just listen to it in silence as we drove. Suddenly it hit me: I could totally understand everything the speaker was saying. I almost jumped right out of my seat, I was so excited. I could understand!

Don’t ever, ever, ever give up on the things that you want to do. Even if they don’t come easily to you.

I’m still struggling with adverbs, and I still don’t know whether I should pronounce “ll” the Mexican way or the Caribbean way. I still can’t speak or hear it as well as I read it. But I’m making progress, and it’s encouraging. Trilingualism, here I come!

The Perspective of a Painter

If you take a stroll down the Rue de la Republique of Marigot on the island of Saint Martin, you will find a tall, 200-year-old building with red gingerbread doors and shutters. On most days, the doors and windows are flung open to allow passersby to admire vibrant artwork within. This is the art gallery of Sir Roland Richardson.

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It’s a Thursday, the day when the gallery is most interesting. On Thursdays, Roland paints portraits. Today, my friend Stacey is the chosen model, and I have come to watch.

Roland welcomes us inside his gallery and begins to show us around. The first thing that catches our attention is the bright reds and oranges of the flamboyant trees in Roland’s paintings. As he opens the gingerbread shutters, sunlight floods the gallery and illuminates the artwork– a scattering of flowers on this canvas, a still-life print on the shelf, a field of sunflowers on that canvas. Roland tells us that every single painting in his gallery was done from life. “If I’m not looking at it, I don’t paint it,” he says. For Roland, a painting is a historical object. He doesn’t want to invent something that doesn’t exist; he doesn’t want to extrapolate on a photograph. He wants to capture a moment in time.

We can see that he captures moments in the most beautiful way.

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Roland continues to set up shop, and we wander into the garden. The back wall of the garden is perfectly picturesque; it is one of the island’s oldest buildings, a French barracks that housed the army while they built Fort Louis. The garden itself is charming. We admire the voluptuous tropical flowers and chat with some of the other gallery guests.

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It is late in the morning, and the tourists begin to trickle in. Roland welcomes them with his usual zeal and immediately begins to instruct on art and light. He sets a prism on the sidewalk outside and snatches up a blank canvas to capture the rainbow it throws into the room. Light is everything to us, he explains, because it defines everything we can see. Except for the things within our reach, the only reason we can know anything exists is because of light.

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He gestures to the rainbow on his canvas. While our minds think we see seven colors, he says, there are really only three: red, yellow and blue. In religion, there is the Trinity, and in the physical world, there are three dimensions. In the world of light and color, there are the primary colors. Light goes back, it goes forward, and it goes outward in a glow. Three dimensions, and three elements to light.

Roland’s wife, Laura, arrives to manage the gallery, and Roland takes leave of his visitors. Up the stairs we go. On the second floor, There is still more art– mostly portraits. Roland sets up his canvas and tries every combination of shadow in the room to find the perfect light in which to paint Stacey. We open and close all the windows and all the doors until he is satisfied with a soft, sunlit glow from one side of the room. He focuses for a moment on his subject and then on his canvas, tracing invisible shapes on its surface with his hands. “The first gestures to me are the most important, because it is the way the subject wants to appear in the space you have,” he explains. The canvas, he tells us, is a unique space. in order to create art on the canvas, you cannot simply determine what you want to put there. Part of the art of painting is the art of discovery. You must discover how the subject wants to fit within the space of the canvas; you must draw it out of the canvas. “A painting is not a picture of something. A painting is a thing in itself.”

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The first strokes of the master are light, but strong; purposeful, but free. I watch in fascination as the image appears on the canvas. Roland talks as he works, explaining what he does and why. He works on all the pieces of the painting simultaneously so that it can grow naturally. That’s how babies grow, he says– the whole foot doesn’t develop first and then a leg and so on. A painting can’t develop that way, either.

To Roland, painting is not just an art. It is not simply a form of self-expression. “Self expression is not art,” he states. No, art is something more than that. Art is something spiritual. “I believe that paintings are an essential aspect of humankind that is really unique and that an awareness of the importance of art…is intended to nourish our beings. Our spirits.”

My mind ruminates on this thought as Roland continues his work. Art really does nourish our spirits. Supposing that the universe is random and has no meaning, then what is the purpose of beauty, and why are we drawn to beautiful things? We inherently love sunsets and recoil from spiders. God placed something within our souls that craves beauty. And He created beauty all around us. Beauty in our lives is the thumbprint of God on the world; it is His signature. Every flitting butterfly and every turquoise hummingbird whispers to us that God loves us and that there is a meaning to life.

My thoughts are interrupted as a group of students from nearby school enter the studio. They are part of an art class, and they are here to interview Roland for a school project.

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“Why did you decide to become an artist?” asks one student. Roland turns from his work, fistful of brushes in hand. “You don’t decide to become an artist,” he says. It is not a decision. It is a calling. Being an artist is more than simply a job, he says. It is the purpose that the Creator made him for. He tells the story of how he became the first St. Martin-born professional painter, from the seventeen-year-old painting his very first piece to the successful artist he is today.

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The students finish their questions, say goodbye, and file down the stairs. The painting is becoming more and more lifelike. With every stroke, it becomes more Stacey. As he paints, Roland tells us the difference between painting a person and painting anything else. With an object, you can decide what you are looking at. With a person, you must discover what you are looking at. Painting through discovery brings respect to the human subject, he admonishes. This strikes me as profound, and I wonder if biographers and photographers also think this way. Perhaps if we all approached one another in this way– not just in painting, but in everyday life– we would have more grace and respect for one another.

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It is now mid-afternoon, and the shafts of light angle differently through the windows than they did when the canvas was still white. The room is airy, and I can smell the sweet fragrance of the garden flowers. Outside, the bells break through the sound of downtown traffic to chime three o’clock. Roland puts the finishing touches on Stacey’s blue eyes. He invites her to come see. A smile lights up her face as she sees herself in fine art on the canvas. It really is beautiful.

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We take in a few more quick lessons on art and color from the artist, bid him goodbye, and emerge from the cool of the studio to the warm sunlight of the West Indies. Time ticks on, the bustle of town swallows up the moments. The ferry pulls out of port, someone is born, and someone dies. But upstairs in the studio, a moment of time is forever captured and will never be forgotten.

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Community Action Day at American University of the Caribbean

What do you get when you combine packed buses, hundreds of purple t-shirts, smiling faces, and a giant rain storm? No, not the first day of your third-grade church camp– but good guess. You get American University of the Caribbean’s 2015 Community Action Day!

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An AUC Student Tutors in Reading

I love organized service projects. Our undergrad university put on a day of outreach each spring, and all the students got a day off classes to do yard work for the elderly, paint over graffiti, etc. I was happy to find out that AUC does essentially the same thing, although a day off school is not an option here. The event organizers offered about two dozen different CAD activities, and students and campus groups could sign up for whatever they choose. Ben and I decided to go help with the Little League Player Development Program, since I already volunteer with this organization.

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Coach Tom Shows Us the Science Room

We met our group at AUC and took a bus over to the baseball field. Not too many kids had arrived before us, so Coach Tom gave us a tour of the team’s clubhouse. The clubhouse is a wonderful place. It’s made up of three shipping containers– one filled with science stuff, one dedicated to reading, and one full of exercise equipment. Every week day and Saturday, the kids come to the clubhouse for tutoring and baseball practice. Coach Tom and his wife, Lisa, along with whoever shows up to volunteer, help the kids with math and reading. This kids are rewarded with baseball cards and time to play with toy trains and the science projects.

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Ben and His Classmates Tutor Kids

About 25 kids showed up on Saturday, and all the volunteers sat down with a child or two to help with reading. As they finished, kids and AUC students moved to the field to practice baseball.

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A Beautiful Day for Baseball

In the Caribbean, storms rise up out of nowhere and drench the earth with driving rain. It’s rainy season now, so it was not really a surprise when the heavens opened and poured the waters of all the seven seas upon us! We all congregated under tarps and into the containers to wait out the rain.

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Even AUC Professors get Involved

When the rain let up a little bit, Lisa drove Ben and I next door to the local university, where the Migratory Bird Festival was being held. She went back for a few kids at a time when the weather finally cleared. We colored some pictures of birds, learned about their feeding habits, and adopted a Gaiac tree to raise. Since Sint Maarten has been in a drought this year, there was an exhibit on drought and how it affects the birds–ironically, it was partially damaged by the rain and had to be moved inside!

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Raising and Planting A Gaiac Tree Helps the Ecosystem Thrive
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One of the Kids Discovers Pond Life

At noon, we walked the kids back to the baseball field. Most of the other volunteers were playing catch with the kids. We said goodbye to everyone from the team and piled into the bus to head back to Cupecoy. It had been a great morning.

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Most photos courtesy of Tom and Lisa Burnett