Las lecciones: What I learned from teaching & traveling in Colombia

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.

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Colombia went from having one of the world’s most violent countries in the mid-90s to the “Happiest Country in the World”

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.

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It wasn’t easy to learn a new language, teach at a different level, or live in the mountains, but overcoming these challenges made me stronger.

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.

*

Colombia’s been ranked as the “Happiest Country in the World” twice in the five years, according to the WIN/Gallup International Association’s annual end of year survey.

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.

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Chiva party. 8:00 am. Staff Appreciation Day in Salento

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.

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My friend, Katie, takes time out to read a book during a long weekend in Salento

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.

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Maybe life’s a series of switchbacks, taking us up, down and around the mountain, instead of a straight path to the top.

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.

Cinco semanas de viaje en Colombia/Five weeks of travel in Colombia

“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.

WHY COLOMBIA?

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!

Bogotá

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Monserrate
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Mom and Dad at Monserrate
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Colourful graffiti in La Candelaria
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Cyclovia: A main road is closed to car traffic on Sundays in many cities in Colombia

Manizales

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Yellow castillo coffee beans
Tio Conejo coffee plants
Tio Conejo Coffee farm
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My parents riding the chairlift at Recinto Pensamiento
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Mom and Dad on a coffee tour of Tio Conejo

Salento

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Town of Salento
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Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary

Cartagena

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Cartagena Old Town
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Panama hats!
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Playa Blanca
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Sunset at Café del Mar
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Shameless photoshoot
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Strolling through Getsmani

Taganga

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Playa Grande
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Sunset in fishing village of Taganga

 

Tayrona National Natural Park

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Cabo San Juan
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Parrot love
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Finca Barlovento
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Enjoying the sunset at Finca Barlovento #D R E A M

 Minca

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Hiking in Minca
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Pozo Azul

 

Palomino

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Playa Palomino
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Beach life
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slow. slow. slow.
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Paradise

La Guajira

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.

 

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Manaure Salt Mine
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Cabo de la Vela
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Playing frisbee in Cabo de la Vela
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Taroa Dunas, where desert meets ocean
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Faro, Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of South America
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Flamingoes, Punta Gallinas

 

Bucaramanga

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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

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San Gil is an Andean city situated in northeastern Colombia
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Barichara is known as the “Prettiest town in Colombia”
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White walls of Barichara
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Camino Real, a 2 hr pilgrimage-style hike from Barichara to Guane
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Cobblestone streets of Barichara

 

Bogotá

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Ashley & I at the top of Monserrate
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Bogotá arts scene
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Botero Museum
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Ashley admiring Adam and Eve sculptures by Fernando Botero
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Street performers in La Candelaria
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Ashley & I in Plaza Bolivar
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Ashley caminando

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. 

Practising Self-Love on Valentine’s Day

 

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Finding my balance by connecting with nature! (On a camping trip in Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia) Photo credit: Jill Holmes

In light of it being Valentine’s Day in North America (in Colombia El Dia del Amor y La Amistad is 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 sol with 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.

 

El Sol

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Manizales, una “fábrica de atardeceres” -Pablo Neruda

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.

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Sunset from historic cable cars in Manizales.

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.

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Sunset on the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Hvar Island, Croatia.
Serengeti Sunset
Kruger National Park, South Africa

 

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Sunset over the Arctic Ocean
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I can travel the world, but it’s hard to beat a sunset at my cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec.

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.

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Pond Inlet is a community of 1500 people located on the northernmost tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada

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.

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I took this photo while walking to church on a Sunday morning in December for 11:30am mass. (Mittimatalik is the Inuit name for Pond Inlet.)

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.

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It was important for me to get outside during the twilight hours of the dark season.
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My friend and I witnessed the “Return of the Sun” on a -40C ski in early February.

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.

Leahtee
I was so pumped for the “Return of the Sun” that I did a -30 C photo shoot in my Leahtee, an awesome clothing line designed by my good friend, Leah!

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)!

Los Nevados: My week ‘out on the land’

laguna clouds
Camping by a secluded laguna in Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia. My carpa (tent) is the white dot in the bottom left corner.

I just spent the last week without my iPhone. I know what you’re thinking: How did I live without the daily dose of selfies from my fave Instacat? #Olivegram

@justoneolive
@justoneolive  How pretty is this kitty? #Model.

Even though I make a conscious effort to detach when I can, it’s been years since I’ve gone without the Internet at my fingertips for more than a couple of days. Many places of quiet solitude, like my family cottage in Quebec, and some of Canada’s National Parks, my ‘refuges’ from the stresses of city life, now have Wi-Fi hotspots. With so many distractions, so much pressure to squeeze in a status update, respond to an e-mail, or scroll through a database of potential dates for Saturday night while riding the subway or running on the treadmill, it’s hard to make time these days to stop. think. breathe.

Los Nevados National Park, Colombia
Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia

But last week, on a week-long camping trip in Los Nevados National Natural Park, I was finally able to unplug and disconnect. Los Nevados (Spanish for ‘snow covered peaks’), is a protected wilderness high up in the Colombian Andes (over 3500m in altitude), where conditions are wild and rugged, reminiscent of previous trips I’ve done in the remote Alaskan backcountry and northern Canada.

At least in the regions of the park where we were, there is no electricity or running water, no designated campsites or marked trails, and certainly no Wi-Fi. It is a place that is difficult to access, even for local Colombians.

I hope this jeep can handle lava! Driving past Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Los Nevados National Park.
I hope this jeep can handle lava! Driving past Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Los Nevados National Natural Park.

Luckily, I was camping with locals who knew the land really well, as cloudy conditions and gnarly terrain resulted in us losing the ‘trail’ multiple times. On several occasions, the clouds had created such a whiteout that I felt like I was standing at the top of Tremblant, the ski resort that my family often went to when I was a kid which often has blizzard like conditions at the summit.

Following a trail in a cloud forest is like a game of 'Where's Waldo' at the top of Mount Tremblant!
Following a trail in a cloud forest is like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ !

Since the ultimate purpose of our trip was to fly-fish for trucha (trout), we had a goal of locating a laguna (small lake) that my friend’s boyfriend had previously heard about from some campesinos (local farmers). It took us two days to find it, which involved bush-whacking through thick jungle, crossing swamps and streams, summiting mountains, hiking across tundra, and getting lost then re-routed several times, but it was certainly worth the struggle. The elusive laguna was nestled in a secluded valley surrounded by mountains and was a gold-mine of trucha. Originally, we planned on traveling overtop one of the mountains to another river, but rainy weather and great fishing convinced us to change plans and camp at the laguna for four nights.

Smoking trout for dinner!
Smoked trout for dinner!

I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshing it was to be forced to slowdown and be still. I enjoyed being able to read a book without being constantly distracted by texts or e-mails, and having real conversations with friends who were truly paying attention to what I was saying, rather than half-listening while scrolling through Instagram.

Trucha (trout)
Trucha (trout)
The sun did make some brief appearances! Good thing a 5am need to pee forced me out of my tent to see this beauty of a sunrise.
The sun did make some brief appearances! 5am sunrise over the laguna.
Frailejones, a cacti-looking plant that is exclusive to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It grows only 1cm/year, so the one in the right corner is likely 800-100 years old!
Frailejones, a cacti-looking plant that is exclusive to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It grows only 1cm/year, so the one in the right corner is likely 800-1000 years old!
Apparently the trail goes through here.
Apparently the trail is this way.

My week of being ‘out on the land’ (a phrase I often heard used by Inuit when I lived in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to describe being in nature) forced me to truly live in the moment, which according to Buddhist and many New Age philosophies, is the pathway to happiness.

I loved being able to read without distractions.
I loved being able to read without distractions.

(Okay, so maybe one of the books I read in my tent during a monsoon was Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which further reinforced the idea that showing up, being present, letting go of the past and our expectations for the future, and living in what he calls ‘the NOW’, is essential for spiritual transformation and whole-hearted living).

I guess my challenge NOW that I’m back in the city, is how to live without distractions in a world that is full of them. I haven’t even been able to write this post without pulling out my phone to see if my friend’s messaged me on WhatsApp or compulsively checking Instagram for @justoneolive’s latest status update.

Maybe I should start by–gasp!– turning my phone off.