Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, is one of the world’s most beautiful places.
The landscape is stunning: jagged mountains, seemingly endless glaciers surrounded by crystal blue lakes, snowy mountain passes with Andean condors flying overhead, and green mossy forests straight out of a scene from The Lord of the Rings.
During our time in the park, my friends and I continually redefined our vision of paradise. Comments like, “Wow, this is my dream place” were quickly replaced with “Oh, wait, THIS is my dream place,” followed by, “No no, THIS is my dream place.”
Torres del Paine is so breathtaking that it pushed the boundaries of what we imagined to be possible, not only in nature but also in our own lives.
It inspired us to dream bigger, feel stronger, and become more at peace with the choices that we have made that led us to such a special place at this point in our lives.
The “O” Circuit, the longer, more difficult of the two popular treks in Torres del Paine, was both physically and mentally challenging.
Our packs never seemed to feel lighter, despite dropping food weight as we progressed. At the end of each day, my legs were exhausted, my blisters were juicier, and I often felt like I would not have been able to take one more step. However, I enjoyed the physical challenge because it helped clear my mind,, and was a welcome opportunity for personal growth reflection.
Focussing on my physical pain helped me to let go of silly stresses:
Did I do the right thing turning down a teaching job at a school I liked?
Should I be investing energy into a relationship that is in many ways unrealistic?
Am I being too selfish and entitled to make time and space for writing in my life, when it probably will never translate into a full-time career?
Am I being irresponsible by taking time off to travel when so many BIG LIFE questions are up in the air and I have deadlines for my PhD that I’m falling behind on… and I don’t even have a permanent job?
Being on the trail helped me focus on the present, and reminded me to just let life unfold as it’s meant to, without worrying too much about what the future will look like.
The choices I have made thus far brought me to Patagonia, so I must be doing something right, even though it sometimes feels like I’m far behind from where many of my friends, who have stable careers, marriages, and families, are.
Planning Tips for Hiking the “O”
Hiking Patagonia’s “O” Circuit requires an extensive amount of planning, research, and advance decision-making…which is hard to do when you’ve never traveled to a place before. (Most of this was done for me by my friends Jill and Katelyn–thanks ladies!)
Hopefully, the following will help future trekkers with the trip prep needed to have an amazing experience in the mountains.
Make Reservations BEFORE You Go & Book Early
One of the most important things that you will need to do before you even think about heading to Torres del Paine is to make reservations.
I can’t emphasize this enough. MAKE RESERVATIONS.
It is essential to have reservations at each campsite before you start your trek. Fortunately, the friends I traveled with are currently living and working in Colombia, so were in contact with colleagues who had already done the hike and knew that they had to make reservations well in advance.
Being more of a spontaneous traveler, I could easily have seen myself arriving in Chile without having made any reservations in the park at all.
Unfortunately, camp sites book up very quickly. We saw several hikers being turned back by park rangers at various points on the trail because they didn’t have reservations for upcoming campsites.
My friends made reservations in October for our trip in January and some campsites were already booked. This required them to modify our itinerary based on availability of campsites.
When making reservations, you also need to decide whether you are going to sleep in tents that you bring yourself, tents that are already set up on platforms at the sites, or in refugios.
It is not mandatory to hike with a guide in Torres del Paine, but it is a great option for travellers with less backcountry experience, for those interested in learning more about the landscape, and for additional safety.
My friends and I opted to carry our own gear, including our tent, camping equipment, food, clothing stove, etc in backpacks and organize the trip ourselves without a guide. This is definitely the cheapest option and since trails are so well-marked for the most part, it was fairly safe.
We camped in a 3-person tent which we had rented in Puerto Natales for 5 of the nights and stayed in hostel-style rooms with bunk-beds in ski-lodge-esque refugios for two nights.
Our packs were quite heavy (especially mine–I definitely need to invest in a lighter sleeping bag!) and it rained a lot, so it was a nice splurge to sleep in beds a couple of nights. This was quite a bit more expensive, though, so staying in refugios every night wasn’t really in our budget.
If we were to do the hike again, we would consider reserving tents at campsites to avoid having to carry our tent throughout the trek as this was not much more expensive and would help to reduce the weight in our packs.
Before you book your accommodation at campsites, you need to decide on your route.
There are two main treks in Torres del Paine National Park. The “W” is shorter (76km) and much more popular. The trail follows a “W” letter shape taking tourists to spectacular miradors (look-out points) to see views of the French Valley, Grey Glacier, and the infamous towers, Las Torres, after which the park is named. It takes between 4-6 days to hike the W depending on weather conditions and how long you want to spend at each site.
We opted to hike the Paine Massif or “Big Circuit,” the “O,” which is a longer and more challenging route of 110km that takes between 8-10 days to complete.
It is less busy and more remote, which was more appealing for my friends and I as we were craving a physical challenge and an opportunity to be fully immersed in the wilderness.
To complete the “O”, hikers follow a counter-clockwise loop around the backside of the mountains before hiking the entire “W” route.
We hiked the “O” in 8 days, since we were more limited with vacation time and planned to travel to Valparaíso and Santiago afterwards.
In hindsight, we would plan to do it in 9 or 10 days to allow for a recovery day (perhaps at Grey Campsite where we could opt to kayak or hike with a guide onto Grey Glacier). Also, the views at the miradors are very weather dependent, and more time could increase chances of being able to see the French Valley or the Torres on a sunny day.
Where We Camped on the “O”
My friends made reservations for our trek (December 31-January 6) in October and several campsites that we wanted to stay at were ALREADY SOLD OUT. Therefore, we had to modify our itinerary slightly to adjust for the campsites that we were able to book.
This was our itinerary for hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine.
How to Book Your Campsite
There isn’t a central reservation system for Torres del Paine, so if you are planning the trip yourself, you need to make reservations at campsites run by one of the three companies below.
As previously mentioned, my awesome friends made the reservations for this trip. They expressed having had some difficulty/frustration with the reservation process. Many people we met on the trail also said they had some problems communicating with some of the campsites and securing their reservations.
Everyone agreed on the importance of BOOKING EARLY.
Fantástico Sur is a family business that has refugion, cabin, and campsite accommodation located along the W Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.
Each Refugio has a restaurant, which offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, beverages and boxed lunch options to carry while hiking. It’s also possible to rent camp equipment such as sleeping bags, insulation mats and tents.
Vertice provides accommodation as well as guided tour packages along both the “O” and “W” trails. They offer shelters at Paine Grande, Grey, and Dickson, and campsites at Paine Grande, Grey, Dickson, and Los Perros.
I traveled from Toronto to Puerto Natales all in one day because I was meeting friends who were already in Southern Argentina and we wanted to get started on the hike as soon as possible since we were limited by our vacation time.
While I did end up making it to Puerto Natales as planned, it was quite stressful as my original flight was delayed and I missed my connections. This being said, I would recommend spending a night, or even a couple of days in Santiago, instead of trying to do it all in one journey.
1. Flight from Santiago–> Punta Arenas
I flew Air Canada direct from Toronto to Santiago (10 hours) and booked a separate ticket through Sky Airlines to Punta Arenas. There is also an airport in Puerto Natales, which is closer to Patagonia (saves the 3.5 hr bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales) but flights were much more expensive than our Sky Airline flight option to Punta Arenas.
Sky Airlines is a low-cost Chilean airlines that operates domestically in Chile as well as to a few international cities in South America.
Unfortunately, my flight from Toronto was delayed by more than 2 hours so I had already missed my Sky Airlines flight by the time I picked up my luggage.
Since I basically just didn’t show up for my flight, I anticipated having to buy a new ticket out of pocket, but luckily the Sky Airlines agent allowed me to get on the next flight without any hassle (which saved me at least $250 US, possibly more if I would have had to stay in a hotel).
On the return trip, my friends and I spent a night in Punta Arenas. It’s a gritty, seaside town and the entry point to Antarctica.
I’d recommend spending a whole day there and take a trip to Isla Magdalena where you can see penguins in the wild. I had hoped to do this but we didn’t plan enough in advance and weren’t able to make time for it (it requires at least a half-day).
2. Bus Punta Arenas–> Puerto Natales
As mentioned above, there is also an airport in Puerto Natales, but prices were substantially more expensive and less frequent than flying to Punta Arenas and taking the bus to Puerto Natales.
The bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales is 8, 000 CLP and takes 3.5 hours.
I had planned to take the 9pm bus, the last one of the night, which was tight given my flight change. Luckily the travel Gods were on my side, and everything worked out.
As my ticket said that the bus leaves from “Terminal Bus-Sur” in Punta Arenas, I took a 25 min taxi ride from the airport to the bus terminal (10 000 CLP) to catch the bus. It turned out that the bus stopped at the airport after leaving the terminal…so I could have saved myself time, money and stress by staying at the airport. Oh well. I was happy to have made the last bus of the night, meaning I would arrive to Puerto Natales late that evening as planned.
3. Taxi Puerto Natales Bus Terminal–> Yagan House Hostel
When I arrived at the Puerto Natales Bus Terminal at 12:15am, I took a taxi to Yagan House Hostel, which cost 1, 500 CLP and took less than 5 minutes.
Jill and Katelyn were relieved that I arrived safely in Punta Natales and on time. Jill had received a few panicky “Not gonna make it to Puerto Natales!!!” when I was dealing with missed flights and tight connections, so they had thought they might not be seeing me until sometime the next day. We shared a bottle of Chilean wine (the first of many during the trip!) and made a plan for a busy day of trip prep.
4. Bus Puerto Natales–> Torres del Paine
From October to April, several bus companies perform regular daily trips from the bus terminal in Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.
The bus costs $ 7500 Chilean Pesos. It takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel by bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga (where you have to pay $21 000 Chilean Pesos as a foreign tourist to enter the park).
From there you can take connections to the Pudeto catamaran at Lake Pehoe or transfer to Base Torres (which is where we started the O. Tickets cost $ 3000 Chilean Pesos).
Information about routes and fares is available directly from the companies offering transportation of passengers.
Buses JB : Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:30am and 2:30pm
Buses Gomez: Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:20am and 2:30pm
The regular buses from Torres del Paine National Park to Puerto Natales have 2 schedules, and it is possible to take them from three different places of the park, Administration Office, Pudeto and Laguna Amarga Gate.
1:00pm Administration Office
2:30pm Laguna Amarga.
4:30pm Arrival to Puerto Natales
6:30 pm Administration Office
7:45pm Laguna Amarga.
10:00 horas pm Arrival to Puerto Natales
Trip Prep Day in Puerto Natales
It took us an entire day to do last minute trip prep like renting equipment and buying food for the trail.
I would highly recommend planning to spent at least one full day in Puerto Natales to do this.
While we met a couple on the trail who had arrived in Puerto Natales in the morning, and only spent two hours getting last minute packing before getting on the 2:30pm bus to the park, they said that it was very rushed and stressful. (They had also brought freeze-dried with them from the UK so didn’t need to get much in terms of groceries).
Also, many stores are closed in the early afternoon (1:30-4:00pm) for siesta, so we ended up taking a lunch break to coincide with the few hours in the afternoon where we wouldn’t have been able to do any shopping anyways.
Make a Pit Stop to Frutos Secos!
In the morning, we went to the grocery store to get snacks, coffee, and lunch items for the trail.
I had brought freeze-dried backpacker dinners that I purchased at Mountain Equipment CO-OP for our meals. However, I discovered that you could buy these same meals at most gear stores in Puerto Natales for about the same price that I paid for the meals in Canada.
Then we made a trip to Frutos Secos, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for one of my friends.
Frutos Secos is a tiny dried food shop in Puerto Natales where you can buy snacks like dried pineapple, apple slices, blue berries, craisins, raisins, etc, chocolate covered coffee beans, nuts, trail mix, spices, and freeze-dried meal packages. These treats certainly added some much needed flavour and variety to our daily breakfasts of oatmeal and provided us with sweet and salty snacks at the end of a long day on the trail.
Go to the “Three O’Clock Talk” at Erratic Rock Hostel
Erratic Rock hostel offers free Torres del Paine trekking seminars daily at 11am and 3pm.
We found the guide’s seminar to be helpful, informative, and entertaining and gave us a thorough and informative overview of crucial details that better prepared us for the trek. He talked about everything from getting to the park, equipment and food prep, hiking times, what to bring and what not to bring, weather, terrain information, permits, camping, and gave us a chance to ask questions.
The guide was obviously very experienced in Torres del Paine and had some fantastic advice for making sure we had a positive experience in the park. He was also hilarious and taught me some important tips like:
Don’t wear a rain poncho unless you want to become a “flying tortilla”
The mice in Torres del Paine speak English and have generations of experience in tourism (ie. don’t leave crumbs in tent).
Don’t trust a stone when crossing rivers. Instead, get your feet wet!
Avoid doing the “Gortex Dance” by keeping your rain jacket in your backpack while hiking. You will get too hot hiking in Gortex and will get wet anyways.
You can drink the water from the lakes and streams in Torres del Paine and at all campsites.
Bring your passport and make sure you have reservations. Rangers will be checking passports and reservation receipts.
Mosquitos are bad at Seron and Dickson (They actually weren’t too bad).
Leave early from Perros to Paso because Paso John Gardner closes at 11am. It takes 1 hour 40 min to get to the pass.
When there are high winds, lean into the mountain!
You can leave your pack (at your own risk) at the Ranger’s station at Italiano to climb to miradors in the French Valley without a heavy pack
There are very difficult sections of the trail where you will ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” but it will be worth it in the end!
You can rent gear at Erratic Rock Hostel as well and don’t need to make reservations to do this.
Once we rented all of our equipment and purchased all of our food (and some wine!) for the trail, we went back to Yagan House Hostel and packed our bags. In terms of clothing, it is important to stay light, and avoid packing things you don’t need.
Here’s what you do need: a ‘wet uniform’ and a ‘dry uniform.’
Passport: You are required to show your passport at the Rangers Station at each campsite
Chargers: there are places to charge phones/cameras at many of the campsites
Underwear (some would argue that this is optional LOL)
Biodegradable shampoo/soap (there are several places to shower along the trail)
Hiking Poles (I didn’t bring these and my kneed regretted it on the steep descents)
Ziploc bags/dry sack/garbage bags
Cash/credit card (You can buy food/booze/supplies at refugios)
We traveled during the Christmas holidays, which is high season in Patagonia due to it being summer there, and didn’t make any rental reservations in advance. We had no problems renting all the gear we needed, although we had some difficulty tracking down a three-person tent (most places rent one or two-person tents).
I would suggest renting as much as you can while you are there in order to travel a little lighter.
I brought my MSR Whisperlite camping stove, empty MSR fuel bottles and pot, spoon, mug, and bowl for cooking with me from Canada. Since it was so cheap and easy to rent gear in Puerto Natales, I would leave the stove behind the next time around and rent one there. It was also somewhat tricky to find the white gas (Benezina Blanca) that my stove requires (we found it in a hardware store).
We each brought our own sleeping bags and sleeping pads, which I would do again since I prefer sleeping in “my own bed” than in a sleeping bag previously used by someone I don’t know.
There were many other places to rent gear in Puerto Natales (such as Yagan House where we stayed) with equivalent prices.
I had packed my dry clothing in a dry sack and sleeping bag in a waterproof compression sack that I brought from Canada.
These items were key as it rains a lot in Patagonia and your gear is bound to get wet. That being said, put any dry items like journal, maps, books, camera, phone, into Ziploc bags and line your pack with a garbage bags. My friends and I also had waterproof rain covers for our packs which we found to be helpful in keeping our gear dry. It can get very windy in Torres del Paine so it is important to secure the rain covers to your pack so that they don’t blow away in high winds.
Gear I Didn’t Need
Before I went to Torres del Paine, I had this vision of it being very remote and wild, like a previous camping trip I had taken in Alaska.
While Torres del Paine is remote and feels wild in some sections (especially along the “O”), there is actually quite a lot of amenities and camping infrastructure that I hadn’t anticipated. There is even an option to pay to use Wifi at many of the refugios, especially along the W (although I was happy to take a break from cyberspace).
Here are some of the unnecessary items that I packed:
Lots of Extra/Emergency Food
If you aren’t on a budget, you don’t need to pack much food to hike in Torres del Paine. The refugios sell hot meals, as well as beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages (much more expensive than what you could bring yourself though). You can even buy packed lunches to take with you on the trail.
NOTE: On the “O” it isn’t always an option to buy food. Some of the campsites are a little more basic (like Los Perros and Paso).
I hadn’t realized that there would be bathrooms with flush toilets at each campsite (the simplest at Los Perros being a drain hole in the ground) and even hot water for showering at the refugios.
Water Filtration Supplies
You can also drink the water at each of the campsites and don’t need to filter the water from the streams. I put water filtration tablets in my water for the first couple of days on the trail, but stopped once I realized that the water was safe to drink and tasted great.
I had packed my bathing suit thinking that I might take a quick swim at some point to freshen up. However, the lakes contain icebergs and glacial water and I was often cold on the trail due to wind and rain. There are hot showers along the trail so if you want to get clean, you don’t need to freeze in order to do it.
Peace & Inspiration
I feel very grateful that I was able to take the time to travel to Patagonia and hike the “O” in Torres del Paine National Park with my friends.
The trail inspired reflection, calm, and future travel plans, and helped us feel at peace with the choices we have made that have enabled us to embark on such an amazing adventure.
The Importance of Taking Time Off
I made what felt like an irresponsible decision to take unpaid weeks off work to travel to Chile (and later Ecuador).
I don’t have much money or a permanent job: shouldn’t I be working towards more stability and certainty in my life, rather than gallivanting around the globe?
Wasn’t it time to buckle down, grow up, and start taking life more seriously?
At one of the ranger’s check-in stations, there was a sign that translated to “Travel. Money can be recuperated, time cannot.”
This quotation helped me feel more at peace with my decisions to take time off, despite the social pressures in North America to work, work, work and never give ourselves a break.
While it is a privilege to live in a country and work at a job where I am paid fairly, which enables me to have some disposable income to travel, I returned home feeling proud & grateful that I gave myself some time off, rather than irresponsible.
My trip to Torres del Paine has made me stronger, and has helped me to gain a greater sense of clarity on my personal and professional goals.
When I went back to Toronto, I realized that nothing was lost professionally by taking time off. I jumped right back into work as I left it, and actually, my bank account is not suffering as much I had anticipated.
Live at Your Own Pace
Sometimes on the trail my friends and I felt frustrated that we were hiking much slower than the recommended hiking times.
We thought that we were pretty fit and would be ABOVE the average hiking speeds. But we were also stopping a lot to take photos of the scenery (especially me!) and took breaks to have some deep conversations that were inspired by the sense of peace that the wilderness had instilled in us.
We decided that it didn’t matter what speed we were hiking at, as long as we got to our intended destination eventually.
In Patagonia in January the sun doesn’t set until close to 10pm, so there is really no rush to get to the campsites early. This helped me to realize that, like hiking, life doesn’t need to happen at anyone else’s speed but your own. I guess my pace is the right pace if it works for me…even if it means that I haven’t started making dinner when everyone else is washing their dishes.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my daily reflections and more wilderness wisdom that the “O” inspired for me.
If you have more specific questions about the hiking in Torres del Paine, don’t hesitate to contact me.
I hope the woman sitting beside me can’t smell my feet.
But I had to take off my hiking boots because my feet were swollen and sweaty and I have a 3.5 hour flight followed by 3 hour bus ride before I make it to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Patagonia, and my destination.
If I make it tonight.
I arrived in Ottawa around 7pm last night, about 24 hours earlier, to catch a flight from Ottawa to Toronto (I had spent Christmas at my family cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec). My flight from Ottawa was delayed more than an hour due to freezing weather conditions which required the plane to be de-iced and the engines reset.
So when I got to Toronto, I had to sprint through Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport to catch my connection to Santiago. RUN! The lady at the gate urged me.
When I arrived at the gate, I learned that the flight to Santiago was overbooked and would be delayed more than an hour. Once we finally boarded, we waited on the runway for more than an hour for more de-icing and for the runway to clear.
When we finally took off I knew I was going to miss my connecting flight in Santiago to Punta Arenas.
The plan was to meet my friends in Puerto Natales just after midnight (a 3hr bus ride from Punta Arenas). We were going to spend the following day planning our food, gear, and route to hike the popular and rugged “O Loop,” an 8-day trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile.
Anyone with common sense would have spent the night in Santiago and given themselves a bit of a buffer in case there were delays, and to avoid a stressful travel day of plane, plane, plane, taxi, bus, taxi. But I was itching to meet my friends and get started on the big adventure.
As time passed, it seemed like my travel itinerary was a little too ambitious for the Christmas rush and record breaking cold temperatures in Ontario.
I was sure I was going to spend the night in Santiago alone. I had been mentally calculating how much it would cost. I figured it would be a minimum 250$ US to re-book my flight to Punta Arenas and another $50-100 US for a last-min hotel room near the airport. Plus meals. I had a Costco-sized pack of protein bars in my bag, so maybe I would skip dinner to save a bit of money.
It took about an hour for me to get my collect my bags and go through customs. I tried to calm myself down, reminding myself that’s there no point beating myself up for buying a cheaper ticket with another airline which meant that the airline I had traveled with from Toronto had no responsibility to ensure I would make my next flight. They were completely separate bookings. Being cheap and thrift can sometimes have consequences. Luckily, I could speak a bit of Spanish now and the agent who is in charge of managing delays tells me I have to go upstairs and hope that the next airline will re-book me. Probably for some exorbitant fee.
I email my friend to tell her that I will be spending the night in Santiago.
Instead, the next agent tells me if I hustle I can make the last flight to Puerto Arenas which will leave in 45 min. I run towards the Domestic Departures area with my nearly overweight bags.
El hombre me dijo que necesito traer mis maletas allí.
A bit of broken Spanish comes out as I try to catch my breath.
The woman nods, hands me my ticket, and gestures towards security.
When I get there I’m dripping in sweat. I’m smelly from 24 hours of wearing the same clothes and stressed from the uncertainty of the journey. I’m so thirsty because I didn’t even have time to buy a bottle of water. Remind me again why I choose to spend my vacations in a stinky state of panic and chaos?
Importantly, I’m excited to begin the next adventure, unsure as to whether I will be spending the night alone in Punta Arenas or if I will catch the last bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales where my friends have booked a room in a hostel.
So far this adventure has gotten off to a stressful start. But I’m learning how to accept things I can’t control, to surrender to the unknown, to stay calm in stressful situations, and to advocate for myself in Spanish.
If I don’t get to Puerto Natales tonight, I will get there tomorrow. It doesn’t really matter because the adventure’s already started. (And the women to my left hasn’t said anything about my stinky feet.)
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.
The first draft of my début novel, See What Flowers, was written in Toronto, after I’d returned from just over a year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. (Check out my interview in Shedoesthecity for details on how living and working in the Canadian Arctic influenced the writing and research for my novel. )
In addition to Vancouver and the Arctic, much of See What Flowers is set in Toronto, particularly on Dufferin Street and Bloordale Village. Landmarks such as Christie Pits Park, the Baldwin Steps (Spadina stairs by Casa Loma), Snakes & Lattes, Toronto Western Hospital, High Park, and the #29 Dufferin bus are described in the novel.
Not only is Toronto featured in See What Flowers, but various locations in the city also inspired the writing of it. Here’s a few Toronto landmarks where See What Flowers was written:
1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)
Boxcar Social is my favourite café in Toronto. I love the ambience, the lattés, and the back patio. One Sunday afternoon, I even saw Andrew Coyne, one of my heros in Canadian writing, there. He was writing too. I was writing. He was writing. I thought, maybe one day, we’ll both be Canadian writers. Maybe one day.
Boxcar will always have a special place in my heart because that is where I finished the first draft of See What Flowers.
It was a Saturday night in October 2015, just a few weeks before I left Toronto for a year to teach in Colombia. I arrived at the café at about 7pm intending to stay for a couple of hours. The café turned into a nightclub and I didn’t even notice. At midnight I was still writing. Some guys came over to ask me if I was freezing and if they should close the back door. I didn’t even notice that the back door was open. I didn’t even notice that it was dark out. I didn’t even notice that the café had turned into a bar. It was like I was in the zone on a long run. All I could focus on was what I was doing right then. The writing.
The last thirty or so pages of the book contain the strongest writing. They are also the most autobiographical and get as close to the truth of life as I know it. I’m really proud of them. So thank you, Boxcar Social…maybe it was the music, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the crowd, but you certainly inspired something in me the night I finished the first draft of my first novel.
In 2015, I took almost a year off teaching high school to write. But I kept my job as a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness Clubs and taught lunch time classes from Monday to Friday at the Yorkville, Manulife Centre, and Bloor Park locations. My days usually involved writing at my aunt and uncle’s Forrest Hill mansion (where I was living) in the morning from about 8:30am-11:30am, then I would go teach my class from 12:15-1;15pm, and in the afternoon, I would go to the nearby Toronto Reference Library from about 2:00-5:00 pm.
Luckily, my good friend, Keira, was writing her Master’s thesis at the time, so we would often meet and write together at the library. This enabled us to take coffee breaks together and support each other in what can be a very isolating process.
One thing I loved about writing at the Toronto Reference Library was that I was surrounded by thousands of books. The books were written by humans. Maybe I could write a book, too. It was also great to have a free space to use for the afternoon during a time when I had very little income.
All of those afternoons spent writing at the Toronto Reference Library made for many, many coffee breaks at Balzac’s. I often brought my laptop with me and stayed there for an hour or two for a change of scene. Balzac’s coffee is some of the best in Toronto. They even have an Atwood Blend, named after Canadian literary icon, Margaret Atwood. So perhaps Balzac’s coffee contains some secret ingredient to inspire great writing.
Since she lived in the west end at the time, often my friend Keira and I would meet at Saving Gigi a hip café on Bloor at Ossington. It serves coffee, beer, brunch, and amazing salads and sandwiches. The part I loved most about writing there is that it attracts the staring artist type. I was always surrounded by others working on screenplays, articles, blog posts, graphic design, and other creative projects. Their work made my own creative venture seem less of a silly fantasy and more of a worthwhile venture.
I was inspired and motivated by others struggling to pursue their dreams at a time when social pressures were encouraging me to develop a sustainable financial plan and settle.
Just west of Saving Gigi is Bloomer’s, a homey vegan café which serves coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, salads, sandwiches, and delicious home baked goods. It is an amazing space to write, especially in the summer. It has big booths and tables, a positive vibe, and a garage-style open window which allows you to write while people watching the passerby’s on Bloor Street.
Bloomer’s is the only café in Toronto that I wrote at which is actually featured in the novel, See What Flowers. Adam and Emma’s basement neighbour, Jess, describes a terrible Tinder date experience that she had at “Bloomer’s, you know, that great vegan café at Bloor and Ossington?”
Most of my writing happens when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I’m walking or running or biking or thinking or staring into space. Or reading. I get inspired by ideas that were written by other authors and incorporate them into my characters and plot.
So when I get an idea in the midst of doing another activity, I often stop and write it in my phone. Then I email it to myself and incorporate it into the draft of my writing.
In March 2015, I marked the OSSLT (Ontario Literacy Test), which is a great opportunity for teachers to gain experience in assessment. But it is also a bit soul crushing. It is like an assembly line for grading essays. I marked the same answer from thousands of students across Ontario for two weeks straight! It took me over an hour to travel to the location of the OSSLT at the Toronto Congress Centre. I had just started writing the first draft of Parts 1 & 2 of See What Flowers, and much of it was written on the 52 Lawrence West bus as I worked a little creativity into an extremely monotonous work day.
Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto
While I wrote the first draft of See What Flowers in Toronto, much of the editing happened outside of the city.
See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.
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.
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.
A few years ago, I took my first trip to Disney World during a spring break vacation to Florida. To be honest, I was kind of dreading the experience. I thought that I’d be turned off by all the crowds, commercialism, and unrealistically proportioned princesses.
But since the friend I was traveling with was excited to visit the recently opened Harry Potter World, I decided to give it a chance.
As predicted, I did find some of the ways that the park commodifies happiness a little soul-crushing. Surprisingly, though, underneath all of the make-up and costumes, amusement park rides, princesses, castles, light shows and souvenir shops, I was witnessing a hint of magic–something unbelievable but that existed nonetheless.
Stripped down, I could see that Walt Disney World is an example of the extraordinary power of the human imagination and what can be accomplished when dreams are put into action.
Oddly, I sensed a similar presence of magic on a trip to the Amazon last week.
I know that Walt Disney World is NOTHING like the wild of the Amazon Rainforest, but both left me feeling like I was witnessing the impossible. They inspired a sense of wonder, left me questioning reality, and stretched my imagination of what I believed could exist in real life.
Unlike Disney World, however, the magic of the jungle is that it is not imagined, but a living, breathing ecosystem. It exposes the darkest side of nature, but also its brightest colours.
The Amazon River is the largest river on earth, making up one-fifth of the earth’s freshwater. It’s been referred to as the “lung of the world” because of its massive power to have vital gases exchanged between the forest and the atmosphere. The rainforest stretches through nine countries: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, and is the most bio-diverse region on the planet.
In the Amazon, there are anacondas that prey upon caimans, birds, and even jaguars from blackwater lagoons, trees that are over 5000 years old, termites that inspire engineering projects, birds that mate for life (take that, Ashley Madison!), and butterflies that re-define the colour wheel.
Due to its diversity, the extraordinary role it plays in regulating the earth’s climate, and the sense of wonder it inspires, the Amazon Rainforest is an example of the ways in which life can transcend what we believed to be possible. Unfortunately, looming threats of oil and gas extraction, deforestation, and other development projects threaten the future of the Amazon (along with many of the Earth’s wildest places).
Not only will this limit the diversity of life on the planet, it will also threaten our ability to imagine new possibilities for how to make the world a better place to live. For me, it’s these glimpses of magic that make life interesting. They push us to dream bigger, live more fully, and expand our imaginations of what we can accomplish.
As Walt Disney said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”