Very VI Christmas

We made it through the first 3 weeks of December, and I am so excited to be heading back to Virginia tomorrow. I know it has been a while sine my last blog post, but here’s what I have been up to:

  • Eagerly awaiting items I have ordered for my students, including repair and refurbishment of braille writers
  • Adapting and getting creative while we work without the tools and materials on order
  • Moving my office to an unused second-floor elementary school classroom – no AC but a lot of space to spread out and run the embosser without disturbing anyone (I still have a “mobile office” consisting of my backpack, file box, and 1960’s era braille-writer-in-a-carrying-case)
  • Exploring new sites on St. Thomas, including Bolongo Bay, Hull Bay, the Veterans’ day parade, and the Christmas Tree Lighting in Charlotte Amalie
  • A surprising amount of sewing – holiday gifts, skirts, curtains, etc.
  • not to mention enjoying Thanksgiving week with my husband

The holiday season in Saint Thomas, as you might expect, is short on snow flakes but big on food and fun! School concerts feature bamboula dancers, drums, island music, and colorful fashion shows. Read more about bamboula here

I have been excited about opportunities to keep in touch with colleagues in the BVI (blindness and visual impairments, not British Virgin Islands) field, though joining weekday conference calls has been a challenge given my unpredictable schedule and unreliable internet connections. I was incredibly honored to learn that I will receive the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division on Visual Impairment and DeafBlindness’ Exemplary Advocate Award at their upcoming meeting in Indianapolis at the end of January. Thanks to those who nominated and selected me for this unexpected recognition! I look forward to a quick trip to Indy to catch up with friends and colleagues!

As a holiday gift to you all, please enjoy these photos from my latest island adventures:Military vehicle in the Saint Thomas Veterans Day parade

Military vehicle (Mark Sheffield would know what kind) in the Saint Thomas Veterans Day parade

JROTC students marching and carrying flags in the Veterans Day Parade

JROTC students walking down Veterans Drive in the Veterans Day parade, near the Charlotte Amalie harbor in Saint Thomas
Photo taken overlooking a harbor with boats and a city with building on the side of a sloping mountain, with blue clouds in the background and green trees in the foreground
View of Charlotte Amalie city and harbor from the top of Paradise Point
Cars parked on either side of stairs leading down to the entrance to Mountain Top, sign over the stairs reads “Welcome to Mountain Top “ and “This sign survived the fire of 2009”
Entrance and parking lot for Mountain Top, a large gift shop and home of the original banana daiquiri
Photo of a small frog in white tile; the camera flash makes the frog’s eye glow
I think this is one of the coqui frogs, so named because they go “co-quiiiiiii co-quiiiii” all night long
Large cacti near the side of a road have horizontal “arms” growing towards the road with short “thumbs” at the end of each arm
Odd cacti on Water Island seem to be thumbing for a ride

Sign with information about Fort Seagramsmore info about Fort Segarraa (Water Island) here

Books stacked on top of banks of metal mailboxes in a covered, outdoor area
The “take-a-book, leave-a-book” unofficial library near the ferry dock on Water Island
Christmas tree waiting to be lit at the Tree Lighting event in Saint Thomas
Delicious ice cream cone with rum raisin ice cream, enjoyed during the Christmas Tree Lighting event in Saint Thomas
Community choir singing at the Christmas Tree Lighting event in Saint Thomas
selfi of Jamori Blash and me in front of the outdoor Christmas tree
#WashingtonNationals fans! Welcome your new National, Jamori Blash, from the #USVI ! Jamari and other “Ballers from the VI” MLB players attended the Tree Lighting to raise awareness for their nonprofit work

Seven Weeks In

My students are all in school! After a six-week delay, the junior high finally opened, bringing the final student on my caseload back to school, and filling my schedule completely (hopefully things will settle down and open up wiggle room for assessment and consulting. Prior to this past week, I took advantage of the extra time in my schedule to make some pretty fun tactile maps:

 

I’ve booked my trip home for Thanksgiving; really looking forward to time with my husband, my cats, and just about anything that smells or tastes “pumpkin spice”-ish.

Thanks to a friendly neighbor and lots of good recommendations from locals, I’ve done quite a bit of weekend exploration. Here’s a photo recap:

photo of a flat tire on a red car, parked in the dirt
Let’s get the not-fun photo out of the way. Unfortunately I had several flat tires and ended up getting new shoes for my Tiguan. Muchas gracias to the garbage truck crew who helped fix one of my flats! This weekend I sprung for new brakes, too, just in case.

The following photos are from the Rock Stone Grill in Tillett Gardens – my kind of place! Cats, birds, and delicious BBQ!

 

Ferry ride to Saint John (weekend before last):

 

While on Saint John, my neighbor and I hiked the Reef Bay trail to see a beautiful, secluded beach as well as ancient petroglyphs over a waterfall.

 

After hiking the Reef Bay trail, I managed to leave my hiking shoes at the dock-side bar, so I “had” to make a return trip this past weekend. Along a different trail, I found another quiet beach.

 

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Yesterday, following a trial-run of snorkeling at Coki Beach, I attended (for the second time!) the monthly jazz concert at Coral World. This weekend’s performers were from the University of the Virgin Islands’ Jazz band.

 

 

Today I revisited the 99 steps up to Blackbeard’s Castle (still closed for construction) and found the beautiful “Three Queens” statue commemorating three former slaves from Saint Croix who led a revolt against the Danish slave owners in 1878. Visit this site for more information about these heroic women.

 

This is a challenging, beautiful environment, and as much as I’m enjoying my weekends, I’m having even more fun during the week. I appreciate everyone who has reached out, kept in touch, and/or made themselves available for brainstorming TVI-solutions! While I can’t share all the details of my work with students, I can definitely say that the list of small successes is growing every day.

Month One

As I approach my 1-month anniversary in the VI, I’m starting to feel a little more like a local (though I have a ways to go!) and a little less like a tourist. While still pretty dependent on my GPS, I’m starting to learn a few routes independently, and I learned a great recipe for the local salt fish (“pick up” saltfish, a bit like ceviche).

Here’s a recipe for pick up saltfish from a local catering company.

Getting to work…

With such a small caseload, I have to be careful about sharing too many details about my work, but here’s a brief update: all but one of the public schools on Saint Thomas are now open. Unfortunately one of my students will be attending the yet-to-reopen campus, and another of my students is not yet in town, so my small caseload is temporarily even smaller. I’ve made use of the extra time to order textbooks and other tools and technology, including getting access to the NIMAC and digital files for textbooks. I sorted through a large room full of supplies recovered from the hurricane to identify several shelves worth of resources from the American Printing House for the Blind. As soon as the paper arrives for my braille embossers, I’ll be setting up a mini, one-woman braille production department (technically, I’ve already started by transcribing some social studies materials by hand on my 1960’s era Perkins braille-writer, but that’s not too efficient!)

The school campuses are colorful and almost always friendly, though most of the buildings are several decades old. It’s great to see ramps and other accessibility features; however, there is more work to be done to ensure that students with disabilities have full access around every campus. The school district has had many brightly-colored modular classrooms shipped in to replace the classroom space which was destroyed by the hurricanes last year, and in many cases entire schools have been are being relocated or combined with nearby schools as mini-campuses of modular buildings are installed on sports fields and most any other available, level spot of ground. I haven’t seen the inside of a modular classroom yet, but I hear they’re great! Check out this local news article from earlier this summer to see how the modulars were shipped. And here’s a photo inside one of the classrooms.

From my “outsider” perspective, a ton of work has been done and everyone is eager to see the students back in their schools; parking, internet access, and other logistical decisions still need to be ironed out to ensure that these campuses are able to support students and staff efficiently and effectively. I was excited to read that the situation of public education for students in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is on the minds of some U.S. Senators – take a look at this press release from Senator Warren’s office, and this video of Senator Warren advocating for a hearing. With all that’s going on in D.C., I can only hope (and call my senators to advocate) that the HELP Committee will seriously look into these concerns.

Out and about

Here are a few snapshots from the past few week’s adventures:

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view of the harbor and a large round building at the end of a pier, as seen from the Fat Turtle restaurant
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View of shops and shore near Yacht Haven – a rocky seawall, red-roofed buildings, and a green hill in the background
saxaphonist, keyboard player, and drummers on stage at Coral World
two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend “Jazz by the Sea” at Coral World on Saint Thomas

These photos give a “behind the scenes” view of one of the elementary school campuses which, at the time the photos were taken, was still awaiting its reopening for students.

One afternoon I stopped at Drake’s Seat  (famous or infamous depending on your thoughts about Sir Frances Drake) off of Skyline Drive on my way home from work.

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Last Saturday I nerd-ed out at a research poster competition at the local University of the Virgin Islands

 

Last Sunday I soaked up some sun with a friend, taking the ferry to Water Island and relaxing on Honeymoon Beach. The Shane Prather Band (out of Nashville) was excellent, and a slew of yachts and smaller boats sailed in to listen to the tunes.

This weekend I stayed out of the sun, getting a car wash, a pedicure, and an amazing lunch at Nisky Center. On Sunday, my neighbor and I took an open-air “safari” (kind of like a bus) around the island. Unfortunately I left my phone in the car, so no photos, so you’ll have to settle for a snapshot of these mouth-watering fish and chips.

fish and chips in a wire basket on a wooden table, along side a basil lemonade
Amazing fish and chips at Salt and Vinegar restaurant, Nisky Center

Week One

the "99 steps" (a local landmark)

A week ago I was changing planes in Miami, getting ready to board an American Airlines flight to Cyral E. King airport, Saint Thomas. This morning, I’m running a week’s worth of laundry through the washer and dryer in my apartment, completing the HR-required online trainings for my employer, writing postcards, and checking bank accounts and budgets to ensure I’m ready for the credit card charges accrued during my relocation. According to my cell phone, it’s 87 degrees and sunny, and the view outside my apartment (of the north and south coasts of the island) is still stunning.

Here are some photos and a few thoughts to document the adventures of the past couple of weeks.

Where’s the Tiguan?

red VW Tiguan (small SUV)
My red VW Tiguan (driver’s side) parked outside the shipping terminal. My dad can just be seen walking around the back of the car on the right side of the photo.

August 22-24, my dad and I made a road trip to Fort Lauderdale to leave my VW Tiguan at the Port Everglades terminal in preparation for its boat trip to Saint Thomas. Our 99% uneventful (but fun) two-day road trip was capped off with a complicated Uber ride back to our hotel and then two quick flights back to NC and VA.

Unfortunately (due to factors outside of our control), the Tiguan missed the boat the following week and didn’t sale until yesterday morning, but I’m anticipating its arrival in Saint Thomas on Monday! I’ve been renting a little white Kia Rio, which has already experienced a deflated tire (fixed without too much trouble). I’m looking forward to having a bit more ground clearance and my back-up camera soon!

Luggage

Having already left several boxes in Saint Thomas during my previous trip with my husband, I was hoping not to need to carry too much on my solo return flight. I ended up with a suitcase and two boxes, just under 50 lbs. each, which were not cheap to check on American Airlines. I calculated that it was probably less expensive than shipping, and certainly having the items with me reduced the uncertainty of shipping timelines. I also squeezed my grandmother’s 1970’s-era solid metal sewing machine into a roll-aboard bag (padded with fabric and sewing supplies) and carried a backpack crammed full of my laptop and other technology essentials. Between changing planes in Miami, dragging my boxes to the rental car, and unloading everything into  my apartment, I think the day’s relocation also counted as a weight-lifting workout.

Apartment Therapy

My wonderful landlord drove me around Charlotte Amalie (the main “city” part of Saint Thomas), pointing out the main roads and stopping by Moe’s Fresh Market so I could pick up a few groceries. For about $100, I didn’t get much – juice, milk, hummus and meat and cheese (dinner), some local beer, cereal, bread, and PB&J. I spent the evening watching the local PBS station and figuring out the window AC unit, making myself a shopping list for the next day.

I spent most of Sunday (and significant amounts of money) at K-Mart, Office Max, and Home Depot, with a few return trips on Monday and Tuesday, getting the other “essentials” that hadn’t made it into my luggage. Prices vary widely from store to store and are generally much higher than what I am used to from Virginia. The “cheap” plastic stuff that I’m used to grabbing in bulk at a discount store or Target’s dollar aisle costs a lot more on an island where everything has to arrive by boat or plane. Things that take up a lot of packing space (even if they are inexpensive to produce and light weight) can cost a lot. Plastic food storage and storage bins are pricey, as are basic household supplies like laundry detergent, clothes-drying racks, shower organizers, mouth wash, etc.

I’m pretty pleased with how everything came together:

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There’s some truth to the reflection by other mainland transplants that Saint Thomas is like the U.S. from the 80’s / early 90’s. Technology is much less valued – Office Max was out of wireless routers and didn’t know when they would be getting more. I finally found a router at a stereo shop in the mall, and paid much more for it than I would have in Virginia, even though it’s an older model. Likewise, I settled on a “smart” DVD player (so I can stay connected to Amazon Prime videos) at K-mart, where I had exactly one option to select from.

Island Adventures

Monday, Labor Day, I decided to play tourist, wandering around the market in Charlotte Amalie, climbing the “99 steps” (I counted 101) up Bluebeard’s Hill, and soaking up some sun and salt water at Magen’s Bay.

Back to School

I started work with the Saint Thomas-Saint John school district on Wednesday. Due to hurricane recovery efforts, only about half the school campuses are open; the other half may not open for another couple of weeks or even longer as they work to install mobile classrooms and to combine school campuses. Read more about the USVI schools and their recovery efforts here.

I worked Wednesday-Friday out of the district special education offices (temporarily housed in a repurposed classroom). I helped to sort through piles, boxes, and bags of supplies and equipment which hadn’t been unpacked since they’d been hastily gathered to escape the flooding caused by Maria and Irma last year. I was pleased to gather a small shelf full of vision-related materials, plus three embossers (unknown operating status) and several Perkins braille writers which need to be sent off for repair. Next week, if I can locate some braille paper, I’ll know what kind of shape we’ll be in for producing braille. My caseload, at least initially, will be pretty small and will mostly involve just two school campuses, neither of which is open yet.

I enjoyed meeting many of the other special education staff members, including several folks who were hired through the same staffing agency as me. Everyone is coping with the same challenges of trying to figure out which students are returning to which schools, what supplies and processes are available, etc. On Friday, one of the “veteran” special education team members gave us a driving tour to see most of the school campuses, and so I wrapped up the week with at least a mental image of the campuses where I’ll be supporting students.

Closing Thought (obligatory cat photo)

I’ll wrap up this post with a picture of an unexpected treat. When giving a colleague a ride back to her temporary-home at the same hotel where I stayed with my husband a few weeks ago, I came across one of the pretty, semi-feral hotel cats we’d met previously. While I miss my Virginia-based kitties (and my husband), it’s nice to know where I can find a feline friend if I need one!

an orage, grey, and white cat (semi-striped, semi-calico) with yellow eyes sits on a stone wall alongside some green leaves and ferns

Photos, plans, & (driving) practice

I returned from St. Thomas Wednesday evening and jumped right back into everything piling up from my research and teaching jobs. Now, Saturday morning, I have time to share some photos and perspectives after reflecting on my introduction to the islands.

Let’s start with the view from the restaurant/cafe at our hotel:

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We spent two days tracking down a diverse handful of apartments advertised on real estate agency sites, on Craigslist, and in the Virgin Islands Daily News classifieds. Islanders were hesitant to give us street addresses because GPS and road signs are so unreliable, so we met people on the side of the road and followed their vehicles round and round until we reached their rental units. Along the way we saw…

We decided on an apartment which is practically in the center of the island. Since Saint Thomas is a big rock with steep sides, the center of the island is fairly high in elevation, looking down towards the coasts. My new place has one bedroom, one bathroom, a futon for guests, a full-size washer and dryer, and (most important to my husband) has air conditioning!

And it’s hard to complain about the view!

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Feeling confident about my new place, I took the “plunge” (literally right down hill in our rented Jeep Wrangler) to practice driving on the left. Driving on the left turned out not to be as nerve-wracking as adjusting to the hair-pin turns, narrow roads, pot-holes, missing traffic lights, and steep hills. I’m going to need to give myself plenty of time for commuting and traveling between schools – it’s not a big island, but the maximum speed limit is around 35, and the maximum practical speed anywhere on Saint Thomas is not much higher than that!

I’ll end this post with another important aspect of any relocation and/or vacation, the food!

Stay tuned for my next adventure – shipping my car to the Caribbean!

 

Day One on St. Thomas

I woke up this morning in Northern Virginia, surrounded by old trees, bustling suburbs, technology, and familiar sights. We touched down in St. Thomas just after noon and spent the next several hours driving some really winding roads, checking out the neighborhoods I’ll be calling home in 2018-2019 school year. Aside from my Verizon cell-phone reception, fish tacos, and the amenities of our hotel room (and my especially patient husband), there are not many familiar sights here. What I do see is an island-full of history and resilience, and a place where I really think I can help make a difference for kids. In such a hilly, verdant, and weather-worn place, growing up or growing old with visual impairment has to be especially challenging – and teachers need to be creative, compassionate, and careful listeners.

I have a lot to learn, starting with meetings and more apartment hunting in the morning. Thanks to everyone who has wished me well in this new adventure. I expect I will be making great use of my network of colleagues, mentors, and friends over the next few months – and of course I’d love to host visitors wherever I wind up settling in!

(p.s. – the photo below is not mine; I promise to do better with the photo-taking tomorrow!)

Photo of an island beach with palm trees and white sand stretching into the ocean
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com