When I was in Grade 2 a teacher at my school gave me the children’s novel, The Secret Garden, as a gift.
As I was quite the avid reader, I read it in less than a weekend. It’s a story about an orphan, Mary, who is sent to England to live with a a grieving uncle. At first she feels isolated and neglected, but eventually finds solace in a rose garden she discovers. Being in the secret garden is a magical experience for Mary and transforms her into a healthier, happier version of herself.
Maybe it was my love of nature, the outdoors, and summers at the cottage, but I instantly connected with the story of a girl who is transformed by the power of nature.
I was also enchanted by the idea of secrets; the playful privilege of holding onto information that others would never know about.
So after reading The Secret Garden, I did something that seemed like the obvious next step: I created a fake cover in the book and hid a couple of crisp $2 bills inside (which had recently been discontinued from circulation), thinking that they might be worth something someday. They are still there.
More than 20 years later, I was reminded of that childhood secret I created–the discontinued 2$ bills hidden in a secret cover inside The Secret Garden, bills which are now valued at more than 20$–when my friend, Michelle, recommended that I visit The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. “It’s literally the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.”
Two months later, The Secret Garden Cotopaxi became my favourite hostel as well.
When I arrived it felt like I’d stepped into a fairytale. The landscape: golden grasses of high Andean tundra, rolling green pastures, and clear blue sky contrasted against the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi (which means the neck of the moon in Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s Indigenous languages), was enchanting. It was like I’d stepped into Mary’s rose garden, the majestic Eden I’d read about as a child but that I knew didn’t really exist in real life. It was beautiful. Enchanting. Real.
The hostel itself was as magical and special as the surrounding landscape. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I felt like I’d become part of a family. There’s no WIFI, so travellers are forced to talk to each other, share dinners together, play cards, and relax in the hot tub, basically, a kind of summer camp for adults.
During the day, we could opt to go hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horse-back riding, or even summit the volcano (this option was not available to me as Cotopaxi was closed due to recent volcanic activity).
Even though I met many amazing people from all over the world at the hostel, I appreciated being able to take time to myself to write, read, and reflect.
For me, it was a time of transitions.
I was moving back home after living in Colombia for nearly a year, and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to leave. Part of me wanted to stay. There was so much more of South America that I wanted to discover. I wanted to improve my Spanish. I would be leaving behind a special community of friends that I had made. The story felt, in a way, unfinished, and I wasn’t ready to write the ending just yet.
But I knew I needed to go back to Canada, at least for a little bit, to publish my first novel, to spend time with my family, to gain a little bit of stability before the next adventure (Patagonia: Dec 2017!!!).
I’m thankful that the mountain air of Cotopaxi helped me to find some peace and clarity about moving forward at a time when all I wanted to do was take a u-turn and go back.
The thing I’ve learned about journeys and paths from traveling is that they don’t have to be linear. Mine is winding and twisted, with just as many u-turns as straight stretches. I’ve learned that just because you leave doesn’t mean you can’t, or won’t, ever go back.
When I travel, I often feel overwhelmed by how much of the world I’ve yet to discover.
I meet people along the way who reveal hidden gems they’ve stumbled upon, and think I want to go there too.
My “bucket-list” just keeps getting longer and longer: Hike in Patagonia. Visit friends in Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. Trek in the Himalayas. Walk the Camino de Santiago. Camp in Northern Ontario. Drive across Canada.
But I have no intention of traveling for the sake of checking items off a bucket-list. For me, the wonder of travel lies in opening myself up to new places and cultures so that I can develop a deeper understanding of the world and of myself. Much like Andrew Evans of National Geographic Travel, I cringe at the idea of “DOING” a country.
“Last summer, I DID Colombia. Next vacation, I’m going to DO Morocco.”
Like a one-night stand, doing someone/somewhere implies CONQUEST: traveling to boost your “likes” on Facebook/Instagram (ie. your ego). It misses the true beauty of an intimate moment, the magic of possibility which comes from a deeper and often unexpected connection.
Even though I know that I’ll never have enough time to travel to all of the destinations I want to visit, I’ve found myself GOING BACK to places I’ve ALREADY BEEN.
When I was 16 my family took a ski trip to Banff National Park that changed my life forever. As we drove from Calgary airport to Banff in our jam-packed rental car, I was struck by the danger & beauty of the Rocky Mountains, and said something I will NEVER live down amongst my family:“I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mountains,” as though I was a character in Road to Avonlea (which at the time, I probably wanted to be).
Less than 6 years later, I went back and spent nearly a year working at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. My reasons for going back weren’t rational: I went back because something about the energy of the place took my breath away. I went back because I had to. I went back because I knew that the story of “me there” wasn’t over yet.
Since Banff, I’ve gone back to many other places for many different reasons. The land. A person. A challenge that wasn’t complete. A relationship that wasn’t over. A sense of ALIVENESS that I’d never experienced before. Something that made me think: I’m a better person because I’ve been here.
Five months after my teaching contract ended in the Arctic, I went back to take the junior boys basketball team that I’d coached while I was working in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to a tournament in Iqaluit. I had applied for a grant from the government to build the program and provide more opportunities for the team of grade 7-9 boys to engage in school & basketball.
Shortly after I’d returned to Ontario, I found out that I’d received the grant. I’d invested so much of myself in the team, that I couldn’t just decline it because I’d moved back home. Even though my contract at the school had ended, my responsibilities as a coach hadn’t. I needed to go back to finish what I’d started.
Much like life, travel is a journey, not a destination. Sometimes the story isn’t finished in time for the return flight.
Sometimes we stay.
Sometimes we have to go back to read the next chapter.
Around this time last year, I accepted a temporary teaching position at a bilingual international school in Colombia. Now I’m back in Toronto, surrounded by familiar faces and the comforts of “home.”
In some ways, it feels like I’m in the same place I was before I left. But travel is an incredible teacher, and my experiences in Colombia have taught me some valuable lessons that I hope will help me live a healthier, happier, more meaningful life in Toronto. Here are some of the lessons that I learned from teaching and traveling in Colombia.
Lesson 1: We are not our past.
The class sat around in a circle while ‘José’ told his story.
Everyone was crying including me. José told us that he had been bullied since Grade 2, especially by three other boys in the class. He couldn’t take it anymore. Due to the stress he’d experienced at school, he was acting out at home, being rude to his parents and mean to his sister. He was thinking of switching schools so he could have a fresh start. But he didn’t want to. He liked the school and the teachers and his friends and the extra-curricular clubs he participated in there.
After he spoke, each student told José something they appreciated or admired about him. The bullies apologized. José forgave them. Everyone cried some more. A group hug ensued.
A group of ten year olds had committed to starting over. They rose above their past and the identities of “bully” and “victim” they’d been living in for years.
A similar process has occurred in the political landscape of Colombia, but at a much larger scale.
After nearly four years of peace negotiations, the Colombian government is on the brink of finalizing a deal with the FARC guerrillas it has been fighting since 1964. According to the United Nations, the conflict has left more than 220,000 dead and driven nearly seven million Colombians from their homes.
The peace accord is an opportunity to formally end decades of violence. As the New York Times writes, “Victims of the conflict, many of whom have supported the process fervently, deserve recognition for their willingness to forgive. By facing down an enemy across the negotiating table, they set a laudable example at a time when so many of the world’s armed conflicts appear intractable.”
Thus, an important lesson I took away from living in Colombia is that clinging to past identities does nothing but cause more pain, more suffering, more violence. It is never too late to forgive, accept, more forward, re-build.
Lesson 2: Growth occurs through struggle.
I tell ‘Natalia’ to go to the office. She’d just thrown an eraser at ‘Elizabeth’ and I’m on the verge of breakdown. Five other students are already staying in for detention at recess.
I just want them to stop talking and listen.
I want them to learn math. I want them to WANT to learn math. I want to be doing a better job right now. But I’d never taught math before. I’m trying my best. Sometimes my lessons suck but I’m learning.
‘Martin’ walks up to me while I’m in the middle of teaching a strategy for multiplying fractions. He shows me his Hatchet quiz and asks me why I’d taken a mark off for #5. You’re unfair. It’s Friday and we are supposed to be playing. We are just kids.
I know you’re kids but the class’ behaviour was terrible today and you didn’t earn your free time. We didn’t cover what we were supposed to cover in math.
Fernando’s on the couch! ‘Monika’ yells from the back of the class. He’s not sitting in his seat. You’re unfair. It’s Friday and we are supposed to be playing. I don’t get fractions!!!
I take a deep breath.
I’m about to lose my shit. I knock on the teacher’s door beside me and ask him to watch my class. I walk around campus for two minutes, look at mountains, remind myself that life is beautiful and everything is going to be okay, then I go back to teaching math.
I avoid looking to my right at what looks like a 50 foot sheer drop into the dense jungle below. My heavy pack, filled with my tent, camping gear, and remnants of a week’s worth of food, throws me off balance as I carefully place my hands and feet on tree roots to pull myself up a steep, muddy cliff face. My body’s shaking, cold from the rain and terrified by my irrational fear of heights. All I can think is: Get me the fuck out of here.
We’ve been hiking for over 6 hours after a week of camping in Los Nevados National Park, and I just want to get home. But then getting home will involve another 4 hour drive in a jeep in my wet, smelly, camping clothes, and my family’s all back in Canada, enjoying the rest of their Christmas holidays, sitting warm and dry by the fire like normal people while I’m bushwhacking through the high-altitude cloud-forest in the Colombian Andes, so where’s home anyways?
It smells like gas. I say. The man looks at me blankly as I wave my hand in front of my nose and point to my gas tank by the washing machine.
He gestures towards the gas tank and asks me an onslaught of questions in Spanish. I don’t understand anything.
This continues for a few minutes. I’m feeling incompetent and incredibly helpless. What am I doing here?
I type: “There’s a gas smell” into Google Translate and show him on my phone. He reads it and then types something himself.
Carbon Monoxide. I read. Is he telling me that there is a carbon monoxide leak in my apartment? Am I going to die in my sleep?
I call my friend, Jill, and ask her if she can speak to the contractor in Spanish over the phone. I hand the contractor the phone and he explains the situation to Jill. A valve was open. Some gas did leak. I’m not going to die. Keep the windows open. The smell should go away in a couple of hours.
Gracias. Gracias. Gracias. I say because it’s all I CAN say.
So I found myself reflecting a lot about whether or not happiness is something I should be aspiring towards. (I wrote this blog post about this dilemma when I first arrived.)
During the year, locals often asked me if I was happy. Si, si.Estoy muy contenta. I’d say, after I learned enough Spanish to be able to do so. In some ways I was.
But there were definitely many low moments.
Life was really hard for me at times. I cried ALOT (especially at the beginning). During these moments, I’d beat myself up for not being “happy,” as I thought I should be. Look at all these incredible pics my other friends here are posting on Facebook about their amazing adventures. What’s WRONG with me??
Because I stuck it out during hard times, I learned some great teaching strategies that I can apply to future jobs. I can now speak broken Spanish, and decided to register for a course in Toronto so that I can continue to improve. The physical challenges that I undertook in the mountains taught me greater patience, discipline, and the importance of living in the moment.
While I don’t think I should seek out opportunities for sustained unhappiness, living in Colombia taught me the value of struggle. Many aspects of living and working in a foreign country were challenging. I often thought of quitting and coming back to Canada where people spoke my language and life was a little easier. Yet these struggles provided opportunities for incredible growth, which helped me become a stronger, more balanced, and tri-lingual (ish) person.
Lesson 3: Live in COLOUR.
In Kanata, a suburb in Ottawa, Canada, just minutes away from where I grew up, there’s a city by-law which regulates the colours of homes and garage doors. Basically, if you paint your exterior doors purple, you will get fined. In contrast, the Colombian towns of Guatapé, Salamina, and Salento, look like a giant package of Skittles exploded and painted the whole town in rainbow. Colour is EVERYWHERE.
I’m not blaming Kanata’s bland garages on my shyness or how I’ve often placed limits on my own potential. But Colombia’s colourfully warm and vibrant culture inspired me to live bigger, brighter, and more passionately. It reminded me to embrace opportunities for love and adventure, even when they seemed like silly fantasies.
So when my friend and teaching partner, Matt, introduced me to the “20% Percent Project” which he had done with his class for the last couple of years, I quickly jumped on board. It’s a project which is inspired by Google’s mandate that its employees spend 20% of their time at Google to work on a passion project, something not covered by their job description. This allows innovative ideas and projects to flourish and/or fail without the bureaucracy of committees and budgets. As a result of Google’s 20% Project, its employees created Gmail, AdSense, Google News, and the Google Teacher Academy.
Following Matt’s lead, I required that my students devote 20%(ish) of class-time learning about something that they are passionate about, something that adds colour to their lives. For their projects, they needed to choose a topic that they were excited to learn about, where they could apply research to creation and innovation.
They wrote weekly reflections on a blog that they shared with their classmates and presented their projects to their parents and school community in a TED-style 5 minute presentation at the end of the school year. The results of this project were unbelievable. My class of grade five students invented board games, wrote cookbooks, created craft books, created stop animation movies with characters and sets made out of LEGO, and built a model “Future House” using sustainable materials. It was amazing.
This project also inspired me to devote 20% of my own time to exploring my passions. As a result, I started the Inspiring Women Series podcast. I prioritized writing, travel, and living according to a healthy, active lifestyle. I spent five weeks traveling in Colombia with my parents, my brother, Brian, and my friend, Ashley. Then I spent most of August getting my novel ready for publication.
By learning to see the world (and myself!) through a more colourful lens, I was able to see greater possibilities for my life, and inspire my students to do the same.
Lesson 4: It’s okay to take care of yourself.
A few days ago Hillary Clinton took time off from the campaign trail to recover from pneumonia. She received much criticism for this decision, from people who condemned her for not being able to “power through” her sickness, to others who blamed her for not being more forthcoming initially about her medical condition. This criticism came to no surprise to me, as North Americans perceive taking time off as weakness.
My first couple of years of teaching, I never called in sick out of fear of being judged. When I was in university, I played rugby games with serious injuries because the culture of the sport promotes an invincibility complex. Needless to say, when I was required to take more than two weeks off of teaching after being attacked by a wild dog in Colombia, I felt very stressed out. A committed employee persists despite the pain, right?
Instead of making me feel pressured to come back to work, people from my school community came to visit me at home and in the hospital and even had food delivered to my house daily. They helped me to realize that my health was more important that my job, and that I don’t need permission to put myself first.
In Colombia, the attitudes towards self-care and rest are strikingly different than in North America. Colombia has the second highest number of national holidays in the world (after Argentina), with 18 public holidays and an average of 15 paid vacation days. Comparatively, Canada ranks third last in paid vacations. It’s hard to feel anything but lazy when you take time off in a culture where productivity is valued over health.
Living in Colombia helped me realize that taking care of myself is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes a lot of strength to say: I need help. I need time off. I need a break.
Lesson 5: Paths aren’t always linear.
There’s an underlying pressure in North America to follow a linear path. Go to school. Get X degree. Get Y job. Find husband. Buy house. etc. We are uncomfortable with living in the moment, allowing life to unfold organically. It feels stressful/ silly/ irresponsible to even consider opportunities that aren’t a tangible stepping stone to something else (especially if they don’t come with a pension or benefits!).
So when an opportunity for me to teach in Colombia presented itself to me, my immediate reaction was “well, maybe this would have been great a few years ago, but it’s time for me to ‘settle down.'”At the time, I was intending to stay in Toronto, and start building my life there. I wasn’t seeking out positions that would take me away from the city.
Since I’d never been to South America, I decided to apply for the job despite the rational side of my brain telling me not to.
A few days later, I had a great interview with the director of the school. While I felt positively about the position, I was booked to fly to Johannesburg for a trip to South Africa later that day, and figured that seeing wild beasts on a safari in Kruger National Park would satisfy my thirst for adventure. I told the director thank you for the interview, but it is probably best if you interview other people as I’ll be offline for the next two weeks.
When I returned from South Africa, the director of the school requested a second interview. I panicked and ignored his e-mail for a day. It would have been much easier for me if he’d hired someone else. I could tell myself that going to Colombia to teach was a nice idea. But an unrealistic one.
I went for coffee that day with my cousin, Jenn, who was pregnant with twins at the time. I told her about the job prospect, and about my plan to tell the director that there was no point of going through the interview. I didn’t want the job anyways. She suggested that I go through the interview, and then decide. Keep my options open. Darn hormones!
After the second interview, the director offered me the job. I had the weekend to decide. I made pros and cons lists. Talked to my friends and family. Convinced myself that I would be better off not going. When I sat down to write the director the e-mail, thanking him for the offer, and telling him of my decision not to come, the e-mail somehow transformed into a “thank you for the offer and I’ll accept the position.”
A few days later, I was offered a teaching position with the school board in Toronto. Of course. After four years of applying for jobs in Toronto and hearing nothing, I get offered a job NOW. The logical, rational, choice would have been to tell the school in Colombia about this unanticipated change in plans, and continue down the path I had intended for myself.
Teaching in Colombia was something I’d stumbled upon, not something I’d planned. Instead of finding the job, the job kind of “found me.” This experience taught me that sometimes it’s best to accept the gifts that life gives us, even if it takes us in an entirely different direction. I feel so grateful that I did.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
– Aldous Huxley
After spending 9 months living and working in Manizales, Colombia, as a teacher at a private bilingual school, I took advantage of my summer holiday to explore the country for five weeks before returning to Canada.
While I’ve traveled solo before, I felt incredibly grateful to have company this time. My parents, my brother Brian, and my friend, Ashley (who I travelled with for 3.5 weeks), joined for various segments of the trip.
Although traveling with someone else requires some negotiation and compromise (Mom slept in a yurt!), a travel companion, especially someone you love, allows for deepening of relationships, shared memories, and opportunities to explore places you wouldn’t venture to on your own.
At first, when Ashley and I decided to embark on a South American adventure together, we planned to cover a typical tourist route: meet in Cartagena. Fly to Bogotá. Fly to Lima. Hike Machu Picchu. Visit Lake Titicaca. Bus to La Paz. Tour the Salt Flats in Bolivia. AMAZING. However, once we began our research, we felt like we were designing a trip for the sake of checking items off a bucket list. Too much time on overnight busses and racing from one place to the next. Not the adventure either of us had in mind.
We wanted to travel more slowly, allowing ourselves to stumble upon hidden gems. So we decided to spend the time we had together exclusively in Colombia. For me, this was a special chance to really get to know the country I’d been living in, before returning back home to Canada.
One of the gifts of travel is that it opens your eyes to many new possibilities for adventure and discovery. Travel also teaches you many lessons and I wrote about what I learned from teaching and traveling in Colombia here. My summer in Colombia certainly left me with a yearning to come back and explore more!
Check out this map of my five-week adventure, beginning in Bogotá. If you’re visiting Colombia for the first time, I’d recommend adding a few days in Medellin. (With it’s trendy cafés, progressive transit system, and eclectic arts scene, it was one of my favourite places in Colombia.)
A picture says a thousand words...
Here’s a taste of my five-week adventure in Colombia in photos!
Tayrona National Natural Park
These are the places that we visited on a 3-day tour of La Guajira. We joined the tour in Riohacha and traveled northeast to Faro, Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America.
Stage 2 of our trip was the transition from the coast back to the mountains. We flew with Avianca from Riohacha to Bucaramanga (via Bogotá). I don’t have any pictures of our time in Bucaramanga…we spent most of it at the mall!
San Gil & Barichara
Thank you to Mom, Dad, Brian, and, of course, Ashley, for joining me on this amazing adventure!
We all learned that Colombia is an extremely diverse country with a warm & vibrant culture…no longer the Colombia of Narcos (drugs, violence & Pablo Escobar). I feel so lucky to have been able to discover this beautiful country con mi familia y una amiga increíble.
“You are perfect candidate.” Dr. Echeverri smiles. “We can schedule the surgery for two weeks.”
“Ella necesita usar las gafas durante las próximas dos semanas. Voy a examinar sus ojos el miércoles y ella puede tener la cirugía el viernes …”
The doctor starts speaking in Spanish to my school’s nurse, Maria Teresa, who has accompanied me to the appointment.
“You need to wear your glasses for two weeks. No contact lenses. Then you will need to see the doctor on Wednesday for an eye examination and your surgery will be on Friday,” she tells me.
Dr. Echeverri looks at me. “¿Tienes preguntas?”
“Any questions?” Maria Teresa translates.
“¿Cuánto tiempo…uh…no trabajo?…uh…no ejercicio?” I put my hands into fists do the running man action.
Again Dr. Echeverri smiles warmly, appreciating my efforts to speak in Spanish.
“Ummm…Friday, surgery, no trabajo. No work.” He replies. Yes, he can speak some English!
“One week, no exercise. One month, no swimming. Two months, no…ummm…deportes de contacto…” He looks at Maria Teresa for help.
“No contact sports for two months,” she tells me firmly.
I’ve always been curious about the possibility of getting LASIK eye surgery, but as a young Canadian struggling to build my career, pay off student loans, and scrape together the funds for world travel, it’s never been a budget priority.
“Maybe I’ll get LASIK when I’m a 30-year old professional and actually have savings,” I told my 25 year-old self. (LOL! #stillbroke)
But shortly after I moved to Colombia to teach at an international school, I learned that several of my American and Canadian co-workers had LASIK–IN COLOMBIA–and all had positive results. PLUS, at about 1, 700, 000.00 Colombian pesos (a little less than $750 CAD), it was much, much cheaper to have the surgery here as compared to in Canada or the US.
Two months later***, I’m at an ophthalmology office where a nurse is putting drops in my eyes to dilate my pupils for a pre-operative eye exam. This is an appointment that is usually scheduled a few days before the surgery so that the doctor can measure the refractive error, curvature of the eye, and thickness of the corneas, in order to create a map of the eye(s) prior to LASIK surgery.
My friend, Katie, is filling out some paperwork in Spanish for me, and answering the nurse’s questions about my demographic information for me, as at the time, my Spanish wasn’t good enough for me to answer myself. (Thanks Katie!)
After the drops set for about half an hour, an optometrist gestures me to put my chin and forehead against a metal device and look through a set of lenses. It takes him about five minutes to take the necessary photos of my eyes and measurements of my corneas in order for the doctor to get the final clearance for the surgery.
***(Unfortunately, I had to push back the appointment because I was attacked by a dog, and had to have two surgeries on my leg to debride the infection. Due to the potential risk of further infection, the doctor advised against putting my eyes in a vulnerable position and recommended waiting until the dog bite wound healed. This meant wearing my old, scratched glasses for two months instead of two weeks. While I could have gone back to wearing contacts for the time up until two weeks before the surgery, I decided to stick to the glasses to be safe. Contact lenses can distort the shape of your cornea, which could lead to inaccurate measurements and a poor surgical outcome.)
“Your vision will be perfect.”
Dr. Echeverri examines the results of the pre-operative exam. Using the measurement photos of my eye, he explains to me that the surgery will involve using a laser to create a flap in my cornea. He will then fold back the flap, remove a pre-determined amount of corneal tissue, and then lay the flap back in place. The whole procedure will take less than 15 minutes.
“No pain,” he reminds me.
At 9:30am on Friday, two days later, I meet my friend, Chrissie, in front of the building where the surgery is scheduled. Thankfully, she offered to go with me to the surgery, as I’m required to have a friend or family member take me home afterwards. Since my family is all back in Canada, so I am very grateful that Chrissie gave up her time to take care of me. She also had the surgery before with the same doctor, so understands my current state of anxiety.
“I guess,” I say honestly. “I was getting a little panicked at the gym this morning. I kinda just decided that I wanted the surgery and hadn’t let myself think about what it would be like until now. I’m freaking out a bit.”
“It’s better than you think,” she tells me.
We go upstairs to the Ophthamology Office and are greeted by a friendly receptionist who asks me to sign some release forms (in Spanish) and pay the money I owe for the surgery. I give her about 800 000.00 pesos in cash and then take out my credit card to pay for the remainder (I had been told I could put half on card).
The receptionist shakes her head and tells me that the debit machine isn’t working. She says I could come back Monday to pay if I had to, but it would be better if I could go to a debit machine at the mall next door. Fortunately, I had been paid a few days earlier so have enough money in my account.
Fifteen minutes later, Chrissie and I return to the office with the cash in hand. Almost immediately, a nurse asks me to follow her into another room, helps me put my purse and shoes in a locker, and hands me a blue hospital gown. I wait awkwardly for a few minutes for her to leave.
Maybe Canadians are a little more modest when it comes to undressing in front of people.
I start taking off my clothes and the nurse immediately waves her hands no-no-no then helps me put the robe overtop of my clothes.
Next, I’m led to a room where two other patients are lying on reclined leather chairs. There’s relaxing music playing and if one of the patients hadn’t been wearing little white plastic cones over his eyes, I would have guessed they were at a spa awaiting a pedicure.
I watch another nurse put drops into the other patient’s eyes. Then she gestures to me to sit in the vacant chair. I sit in the chair and join the “eye surgery assembly line.”
After I recline and try my best to relax, the nurse puts drops in my eyes as well.
“¿Alguien lavar los ojos?” I hear a nurse nearby say.
“¿SHANNON?” ¿Alguien lavar los ojos?”
“No entiendo.” I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
I freak out a bit, realizing that much of my Spanish comprehension comes from being able to read facial expressions and body language.
“Umm…she wants….uh…to know if someone has washed your eyes yet,” the guy sitting beside me with the cones on his eyes translates for me.
“Oh, no. No one has washed my eyes.”
I’m wheeled into a surgical room on a stretcher and put underneath a machine with a bright light that makes me feel like I’m at the dentist.
Dr. Echeverri greets me and then tapes my left eye shut.
“Now look at the red light….uh..very important,” he says as he positions my right eye under the laser.
He puts some more drops in my eyes which I presume is the anaesthetic. Then he uses a device to clamp my eyelid open. I’m still starting at the red light, which is hard to avoid looking at now that I can’t blink. I can’t feel anything as Dr. Echeverri uses a tool to mark the spot where the flap will be created on the cornea.
“A little…pressure,” he warns and as he places a suction ring on top of my eye to prevent eye movements.
“Now very important. Look at the red light. There will be…uh…twenty seconds of laser. The light will be a little…uh…blurry.”
I can feel someone–one of the nurses?–hold my hand, which makes me feel more at ease. I keep staring at the red light. It’s okay, be calm, Shan. I give myself a pep-talk and try to think of my family at the cottage and of my upcoming summer travels to help me relax. You wanted to do this, it’s okay. You won’t have to wear glasses and that’s so awesome.
CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The red light becomes black and blurry, the way things would look after staring directly at the sun for too long. I can smell a slight burning smell. Then the red light looks more clear then it did before.
“Perfect. Keep staring at the red light.”
I can see a tool scraping my eye and my vision becomes a bit blurry, like someone has applied Polysporin directly to my eyeball.
He tells me to open and close my eye several times. Every time I open my eye the red light seems more clear than before.
“Everything was perfect.” I can hear Dr. Echeverri’s calm, soothing voice.
Then he tapes my right eye shut.
I’m back in the assembly line (that feels like a spa waiting room), sitting on a reclined leather chair. Now I’m the one with the plastic cones on my eyes, while two others are being prepped for surgery.
My eyes are tearing up a lot, partly because of all the drops that the nurses are putting into my eyes, and partly in reaction to having been recently “lasered.”But I feel no pain. I’m surprised that I can see.
Before the surgery, I had imagined having a day or two of total darkness, where I’d be in a state of uncertainty of whether the surgery worked, and whether I’d ever be able to see again. But this is not the case. I know my vision is perfect. I feel so lucky. No more glasses for me!
Less than an hour after the surgery, the nurse takes me into a room where Dr. Echeverri examines my eyes. I’m surprised when he asks me to open my eyes and look through a similar apparatus that had been used to examine my eyes in the pre-operative exam.
“I thought that I wasn’t allowed to open my eyes.”
“You are allowed to open your eyes to go to the bathroom and eat.” I hear Chrissie’s voice. So the next few days will not be lived in total darkness as I’d imagined.
“Ok, everything is perfect.” Dr. Echeverri reassures me with his soothing, caring voice.
Tears are running down my face from all of the drops that the nurses have put in, so I wipe them off my right cheek and then go to wipe my eye. Then I freeze, realizing that I’m about to rub an eye that had undergone a major surgery less than an hour earlier.
Dr. Echeverri looks at me in disbelief.
“That is forbidden,” he says calmly, yet sternly. “Your cornea might detach. Very dangerous.”
I feel so stupid.
He gives Chrissie instructions in Spanish which she writes down for my friends, Katie and Jill, who will be taking care of me on the weekend (thanks ladies!!). I have to put drops in my eyes every hour for the next few days, and then use them as needed for the next year (which, six weeks after the surgery, has been a couple times a day).
I’m not allowed to look at screens or read all weekend, so no cell phone, computer, or book, for the next three days, and am not allowed to exercise for one week. I have to wear sunglasses inside for a little over a week and can’t go swimming for at least a month. I’m allowed to shower but have to keep my eyes closed.
And no rubbing my eyes. EVER.
I will have to go back to see Dr. Echeverri in two days and then a couple more times in the next few weeks to make sure my recovery is advancing as expected. But I can go to work on Monday for my students’ graduation, and other than some slight discomfort, I should feel no pain.
Medicine is amazing.
One of the gifts of travel is that it broadens your perspective and helps you see the world through a clearer lens.
Well, living in Colombia has given me better than 20/20 vision.
I watch blood trickle out of thumbnail-sized bite marks on the outside of my right shin. A blob of fat jiggles down my leg.
I wrap a hot pink Adidas dry-fit tee around the wound. Then I glance at the large black and white callejero, sitting peacefully on the other side of the fence, only a few meters away from me.
I didn’t think it would attack me…until it did…
Despite being fatigued from a long week of teaching my class of sweet, yet rambunctious 5th graders, I’m happy that I’ve joined my friend, Matt, on his regular Friday ride. It’s a longer and more challenging way home from school, an ascent of at least 20 minutes of steady switchbacks that brings us to a single track mountain bike trail across farmland.
My legs ache when I get to the top. But it’s a fulfilling exhaustion, much like the popular “runner’s high.” Cycling in the mountains helps me detach from the daily struggles of living in another country, releases any lingering stresses from the work week, and reminds me of the joys of living in the moment.
At the top of the mountain, we get off our bikes and have some snacks and drinks in a farmer’s field overlooking the Manizales sunset. I tell Matt that I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to live in such a beautiful place: “Life takes us down different and unexpected paths.”
“There’s often dogs around here,” Matt warns as a large black and white dog emerges from behind a small red and white paisa farmhouse. But they never caused him any harm.
I’m not worried.
So I remain calm when a couple of farm dogs emerge from behind a small paisa-style farmhouse. They’re harmless. I often bike by stray dogs–both in Manizales and on regular Sunday rides with my Dad at the cottage back home in Canada. Usually, they bark at us, then leave us alone.
Matt shows me how to climb through the fence before he lifts his bike over. I’m not really paying attention. I’m thinking of what I should pack the next morning for my flight to Bogota. Only enough for a carry on: a pair of jeans, a cardigan, pjs, a couple of t-shirts, socks, undies, camera. Wallet. It’s a risk to schedule my return for the early bird flight back Monday morning in hopes of getting to school on time. But I’m a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, and things seem to always work out for me (See my 2010 ‘Iceland Volcano’ story). Fingers crossed for good weather.
I just finish passing my bike over the fence when I feel a sharp, piercing pain in my right shin.
It’s like someone’s just hammered two nails into my leg then immediately ripped them out.
“What can you tell me about the dog?” An orthopedic surgeon asks me, examining the infected wound.
After a night in the hospital, all I can think is “thank God he speaks English.” (Necessito ir al bano and un perro mi mordio can only get you so far in Spanish-speaking Manizales).
“From the size of these teeth marks, it must have been big,” He adds.
The first doctor I saw in the emergency room immediately after the attack had also asked many questions about it. I couldn’t say much. After it bit me, I figured it was best to keep my distance.
“Yeah, it was pretty big.” I tell him, “The woman at the farm said it wasn’t her dog, that it just hangs around.”
“Un perro callejero.“
“Yeah. A wild dog.”
The doctor sits down in a chair beside my bed and cleans his glasses. “So I’m going to recommend surgery. We’ll have to open the wound and debride the infection. How does that sound to you?”
Since he seems nice and incredibly caring, I tell him that it sounds good. Do whatever you need to do to get the infection out. I’d just spent my first night EVER in a hospital so I may as well have my first surgery, too. (Add it to my list of things to do before I leave Colombia).
After receiving a rabies shot (my first of five) and a tetanus vaccination at the hospital almost a week earlier, I figured I would be okay. The attack happened on a Friday after school and I genuinely thought I would be able to go to work the following Monday. I biked home for at least 20 minutes following the attack!
Instead of going to school Monday, the school nurse, Maria Teresa took me to see a surgeon. He told us that it looked okay at the moment, but to keep an eye for infection, which can happen often in piercing dog bites. As time passed, the wound started turning red and eventually a bit black, signs of infection. So, when she came to check on me Wednesday night, Maria Teresa, suggested I go to the hospital. (I ended up staying there for three nights)
Maria Teresa was one of many people from my school who tirelessly cared for me throughout this incident. I feel so lucky to have been supported by the many teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, and students who went out of their way to act as “family support” for me when I’m so far away from home.
I wake up from the surgery with the incredible urge to ask the surgeon if he likes fishing. Then I have a brief panic about where I am and what happened. Everyone around me is speaking Spanish, I’m exhausted, and this weird tube is shooting hot air onto my thigh.
Nervously, I glance towards my right foot. Phfewf. Still there. Feeling the effects of the full anaesthesia I’d received two hours earlier, I close my eyes and go to sleep.
Later on, my friend Jill tells me that the surgery went well, and that they even had to clean the muscle. We’re curious to see the wound, but it’s heavily wrapped in gauze and a tensor bandage. The sight of blood soaking through the bandages suggests that the post-surgery wound is much larger than the initial dog bites. (I later learn that the surgeon had to make two incisions, each about the size of my pinky finger to effectively debride the infection).
Two days later, I have another surgery, a “second look” to make sure that the infection is gone. This requires another full anaesthesia and opening of the wound.
This time when I wake up, I’m not thinking of fishing.
Maybe it’s the exhaustion of having two anaesthesias in two days. Maybe it’s my frustrations with the language barrier and my limitations in communicating with the hospital staff in Spanish. Maybe it’s the stress of how much time I’ve had to take off work. Maybe it’s anxiety of knowing that my friends and family back home are worried about what kind of health care I’m receiving in another country. Maybe it’s the loneliness of being in a foreign country, longing for someone I love to hold my hand.
This time, I wake up from the surgery in tears.
After two surgeries and two weeks off, I’m now back at work. I can walk and carry out my daily activities without much pain. At the end of it, I feel lucky.
It all could have been much, much worse.
Since puncture wounds from dog bites cannot be closed with stitches due to the risk of bacterial infection being trapped under the skin, I have to be careful to keep my wound clean and dry. I’ve been instructed to keep it well covered and have to see the surgeon every couple of days to change the bandages. While he is slowly closing the wound with tape as it heals, I know I’ll have some nasty scars.
However, now that I can tell the tale of that time I survived being attacked by a wild dog (a callejero) in the Colombian bush, I’ll wear my scars with pride.
The Don Valley Cable Car is just beginning community consultations at a time when Toronto’s SmartTrack transit plan is getting smaller and cheaper. Although the Don Valley Cable Car is being proposed as a method of connecting both tourists and residents with urban greenspace, rather than at connecting low-income communities with better transit access as Medellin does, it’s a reminder that alternative methods for urban transit are possible.
According to research from York University, there is a “transit inequity” in Toronto, as the people who are most dependent on public transit, particularly those living in low-income, inner-suburb neighbourhoods, referred to as “transit deserts,” get the worst service. The study suggests that more recent transit infrastructure expansions have primarily benefited the rich living in areas of the city which are already thriving, while neglecting the inner suburbs.
Ironically, I’m learning about the proposed Don Valley Cable Car immediately after spending most of the afternoon riding Medellin’s Metrocable. All of my previous knowledge about Medellin has come from watching Narcos: crime, drugs, violence and Pablo Escobar. So I’m surprised by the city’s innovative approach to public transit, for which it won the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award (tied with San Francisco, USA).
The Metrocable opened in 2004 in response to significant spatial inequalities in transit access in Medellin. It connects low-income neighbourhoods located in the surrounding mountains, many of which had high rates of violence and crime, with the city centre. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Transport Geography, found that the Metrocable has doubled access to employment opportunities for residents living in low-income neighbourhoods. Another report, found that the neighbourhoods affected by the Metrocable Line K experienced a 66% faster decline in homicide rates than in the control neighbourhood. (Although both violence and homicide rates decreased dramatically for both groups).
These studies suggest that expanding public transit through alternative means can transform a city’s poorest and most violent areas.
Medellin has also targeted several social interventions in the neighbourhoods linked with the Metrocable. This includes support for social housing, schools, micro-enterprise, libraries, and implementation of additional lighting in public spaces. In addition, the city has involved local residents in participatory budgeting to determine how to allocate the funds designated for investment in their neighbourhoods.
As the world’s first modern urban aerial cable car transport system, the Medellin Metrocable presents an inspiring vision for how a city’s transit plan can be re-imagined to create stronger, healthier communities, and better life-opportunities for its residents.
It is an example for cities, like Toronto, that bold visions for affordable and sustainable public transit are possible and are already being lived out in cities around the world.
In light of it being Valentine’s Day in North America (in Colombia El Dia del Amor y La Amistadis celebrated in September), I thought I’d write about self-love. (After all, the longest relationship any of us will ever have is with ourselves!)
Sadly, though, we live in a world that makes it difficult to love ourselves. From a young age, we are taught that we are never enough. Beauty is purchased. Happiness is pursued. Bodies are shaped. There’s always someone smarter, fitter, faster, stronger, more beautiful than us. In my grade five class, I’ve been alarmed by the number of uber-thin girls who have told me how fat they are, and the boys who have broken down in tears after receiving 9/10 on their Math quizzes. As high-achieving ten-year-olds, they are already striving for perfection in every aspect of their lives.
But I did the same when I was their age. I was constantly complaining about how fat I was compared to the other girls in my ballet class and would wear baggy sweatshirts to hide my curvy figure. While I never developed an eating disorder, like many other dancers and female athletes, I struggled with exercise addiction until my mid-twenties (and arguably still do). I’d push my body to the point of injury and would beat myself up if I missed a day at the gym.
I’ll admit, there was a day during my undergrad when I taught three fitness classes and then played 80 minutes of rugby. I’d always opt for a Sunday morning run over Sunday morning cuddles with my boyfriend. In addition, I over-scheduled my life with clubs, activities, and leadership roles to fulfill a compulsive need to be the best at everything I did. But it wasn’t entirely my fault: “busy-ness,” over-achievement and perfectionism were glorified in the culture of my university. I even won an award at my graduation for outstanding contribution to athletics and student government. I’m sure my Dean’s List average, long list of extra-curriculars, and high-achieving résumé helped me land a grad school scholarship.
However, my extensive involvement and over-scheduled life came at a cost: time for myself. I went years without going to the doctor, was often running on little sleep, experienced several chronic injuries from over-exercise, and took some of the relationships I valued most in my life for granted. I missed a few of my good friends’ weddings. I had to skip out on Thanksgiving at the cottage (my favourite family time of the year), and wasn’t able to be there for friends who were going through hard times. Also, I never made time for creative pursuits, like writing and photography, which add joy and meaning to my life.
It took a tough and painful breakup alongside the professional heartbreak of not receiving funding for my PhD research for me to realize that the compulsive need to be busy all of the time, as well as perfectionism, come from a place of fear of not being enough as I am. I was forced to confront the fact that I’m human like everyone else, and this means accepting that I’m deeply flawed and ultimately, imperfect. But, as a good friend wisely told me, my beauty lies in my imperfection: my inability to close cupboards or doors, my awkwardness in big groups, my terrible sense of direction.
One of the hard lessons that I’ve learned from being a teacher is to practise self-love in both my personal and professional lives. This means, putting myself first and being okay with saying “no” to people who need my help.
Most of my teaching experiences have been in low-income, “at-risk” communities, like inner-city Toronto and London, and on First Nations reserves. So I’ve worked really hard in my role as a “helper”: helping students believe in themselves, helping them overcome adversity, helping them reach their potential when the odds are stacked against them. However, the amount of energy I spent in investing in others came at the expense of helping myself. Since I was on the road most weekends coaching basketball or rugby, I struggled to make time for the people and passions that I loved. This led to frustration and burn-out. It’s no wonder that nearly half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching.
I love teaching, but I’ve learned that to thrive in the profession, as well as maintain my health and sanity, that I have to constantly practise self-love. I have to put myself before my students. As my amazing and inspiring friend and fellow teacher said, “It’s like being on an airplane. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on someone else’s.” This means making time every day to exercise, prepare healthy meals, and get to bed early, no matter how much grading I have. I give myself permission to have shitty lessons every now and then. I give less assignments that I have to grade myself and have more peer and self-evaluated assessments. I continue to be involved in extra-curriculars but I don’t coach EVERY sports team or run EVERY club.
Prioritizing self-love in my professional life has also helped me in my personal life. I say “no” to social events I don’t want to go to and have stopped trying to please other people. I make time to pursue my passions like writing and travel. I’ve stopped investing in friendships that don’t make me better or add substance to my life and instead, spend the bulk of my time with the people I really care about. While I still exercise most days, I schedule time for my body to rest and recover, and I don’t beat myself up when I skip my workouts.
While I spent the bulk of this Valentine’s Day alone, I didn’t feel sad or lonely. I went for a beautiful run in the morning and shared a traditional Colombian lunch with my friend. I spent the afternoon writing in a café, practiced photography with my new camera, and then enjoyed una cerveza y solwith another friend. I felt free to do what I wanted with who I wanted because I didn’t feel the need to achieve, or please, or meet any sort of social expectations.
This Valentine’s Day, I feel lucky to have spent the day loving the person who matters most in my life: me.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. On average, I visit a café at least once per day, and usually do the tour of my local faves on weekends. This means, I likely spend $30-40 CAD per week on coffee, which is more than I budget for my phone, transportation, and sometimes entertainment (and I wonder why my only assets are my MacBook Pro, my Canon Rebel, and a couple of cute Anthropologie dresses).
For me, coffee is more than a daily dose of caffeine. It’s a reunion with friends I haven’t seen in years, or a regular catch-up with the people I see every day. It’s the motivation to teach a 6am spin class or go for a morning run when all I want to do is hit snooze and roll over. It’s a source of inspiration for grad school papers, blog posts, and writing my first novel.
Coffee has also been an integral part of the conversations that have changed my life: first dates, painful breakups, job interviews, and crucial advice from friends or family.
While coffee is a regular part of my daily life, I never really considered the complex story behind the coffee I consume.
However, after visiting the Tio Conejo coffee farm this past weekend, I learned that behind every cup of coffee there’s a struggle to build stronger, healthier, more sustainable communities. There’s an effort to be part of the full circle of life by giving back to the land and being able to pass on history, traditions and culture to the next generation.
At every step in the production process, there’s labour, sweat, and pain, as well as hope, innovation, and social change. After a day at the coffee farm, it was clear to me that producing a high-quality cup of coffee means a lot more than profiting from a commodity crop on the world market.
Stages in Coffee Production
Cultivating Nutrient-Dense Soil
Here’s where I come in! I’d be a completely different person without my morning brew. Thank you, coffee farmers, for all of the work that you to do to improve my quality of life…by helping me wake up in the morning, inspiring my writing, supporting engaging conversations with friends and families, and warming my insides on a cold winter day.
If you are in the Manizales area, or if you are a coffee roaster, café owner, barista, or curious consumer, I’d recommend taking a trip to Tio Conejo to learn about the origins of coffee and the story of where your coffee comes from. (When I was there, I met a couple from Black Dog Coffee in West Virginia who made the trip to Colombia to learn about the farm that produces the beans they roast for their customers!!)
For more info about Tio Conejo, check out this awesome video:
In my travels, I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some amazing sunsets. Located five degrees north of the Equator, Manizales, Colombia, the city where I’m currently living and working, has the some of most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder that the Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda, described Manizales as a “fábrica de atardeceres” (sunset factory). On sunny days, at about six o’clock in the evening, the sky transforms into the most radiant blend of orange, yellow, and pink, colours that stretch the limits of my imagination, as el sol (the sun) slowly disappears behind the Andes.
For me, sunsets are like a delicious piece of fruit: a juicy red mango freshly picked at my friend’s finca (farm), or a locally grown Ontario peach from a roadside stand. They remind me that life can be more colourful, more flavourful, more radiant, than I usually experience it to be. Sunsets inspire me to dream of a tomorrow that will be better than today…and encourage me to STOP what I’m doing, grab una cerveza (a beer), and enjoy the moment.
As I taught my fifth grade students in Science this week, the sun is the Earth’s primary energy source. It warms the planet, drives the water cycle, and makes life on Earth possible. While sunsets calm me down and inspire me to dream BIG, it wasn’t until I lived without el sol that I learned to appreciate its full value.
This time two years ago, while teaching in the community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, I experienced “the polar night,” which occurs when night lasts for more than 24 hours. When I was there, the sun set in mid-November, and didn’t rise again until early February.
This meant living in four months of darkness.
It wasn’t totally dark all-day, everyday. There was a twilight period between about 11am-2pm when the sun was just below the horizon, meaning you could go for a walk, ski, or snowmobile outside without a flashlight. However, I remember being shocked when some of my students opened the outside door to get some fresh air during last period gym class (about 2:30pm) and it was so dark that I was able to point out the Big Dipper.
Without the sun, a natural energy source, I had to develop strategies for creating my own energy. I took Vitamin D pills daily, had a spin bike and a set of weights in my bedroom, tried to force myself to get outside everyday (even if all I did was take a quick walk to the Northern Store or to school), coached community basketball, and connected with friends as much as possible. I’m often described as an incredibly positive and extremely active person, but without the sun to give me energy, there were several weekends when I didn’t even leave my house.
Needless to say, I’m amazed and inspired by the Inuit and northerners for whom living in darkness is a regular part of life. Let’s just say, I’ll never have sympathy for students who complain about the cold, as my students in Pond Inlet walked to school and gladly went outside for recess on days when it was nearly -50°C with the windchill, often without proper boots, mitts, or a warm enough parka.
Living without the sun made me reflect on the simple, yet crucial elements of life that I’ve taken for granted over the years. The fast-paced North American culture encouraged me to chase the future, look for a better relationship, check another item off my bucket-list, pursue another degree. But when you live one step ahead of your own life, you overlook the people, places, and opportunities that contribute to your ability to survive and prosper in the present.
So for now, every time I see a Manizales sunset, I’m going to make an effort to STOP, grab a beer, and ENJOY the moment. As I’ve learned the hard way: sooner or later, that moment will be gone.
And it’s always great to have an excuse for some cerveza y sol (beer and sun)!