Cottaging, Camping & Book Promo: My Summer at Home

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Camping on Little Coon Lake in Algonquin Park

 

“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” 

― Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Since I’ve been living and working away from home over the last couple of years, I’ve taken every opportunity to travel during my holidays.

For me, the purpose of travel is to deepen my understanding about people and life. Through exposure to new people, places, and cultures, travel has broadened my perspective about the many different ways that one can live a happy and meaningful life. It has also helped shape my identity by reinforcing which values I held onto and which ones I let go of.

So it may seem strange that I chose to stay home this summer during my holidays from teaching…especially since my bucket list keeps getting longer and longer.

One of the main reasons that I stayed home was to promote my first novel, See What Flowers, which I recently published through Amazon CreateSpace. As I self-published my novel, I’m required to do all of the marketing and promotion myself. While this work has been very fun and interesting, it’s also quite time-consuming. As writing a novel has always been a dream of mine, it was important to me that I invested the time and energy into making this happen.

Another reason that I stayed at home was to spend time with friends and family. Several of my closest friends live abroad and came home for parts of the summer and it was important to me to hang out with them as much as possible while they were here.

By staying at home, I was able to go to the ROM in Toronto for the first time with my friend Meira who lives in Israel. I was able to meet my friends’ Lisa and Jessie’s new babies. I was able to attend my friend Paige’s wedding in Creemore. I was able to have some long chats with my friend, Laura, who lives in New Zealand, and attend a Blue Jays game with my friend Jill who lives in Colombia and her awesome dad. I was able to explore a few of Ontario’s Provincial Parks with friends and family. Oh, let’s not forget that I was also able to spend last Saturday night alone with my parents at the cottage listening to Taylor Swift on repeat.

While I still intend to travel to as many different places as I can, my summer at home has helped me see the value of making time for the people and places that matter most to me. Although travel has been one of the most incredible teachers in my life, some of the most formative experiences for me have resulted from building deeper connections with the people and places I’ve known forever. Turns out that some of my best adventures have happened in my own backyard.

Here are a few photos from ‘local adventures’ that I partook in this summer:

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First annual cousins canoe camping weekend in Algonquin Park!

 

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Pink Hues over Little Salmon Lake in Frontenac Provincial Park
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From South Africa to Collingwood, E-Bay and I make excellent wedding dates! (At our friend, Paige’s wedding in Creemore, ON)
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Kayaking at my cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec
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Canoe camping with friends I met in the Arctic in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
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Practising my nature photography skills while canoeing and kayaking
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I spent a lot of time in the kitchen…Cooking fajitas in the backcountry at Frontenac Park!
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Camping with my cousin, Jenn, and her son, Cameron, at Bronté Creek Provincial Park
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Book signing at Café 349 in Shawville, Quebec
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Book Promo! Scruffy says “It’s a page-turner!”
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Teaching fitness classes at Goodlife whipped me in shape for this 1.5 km portage at Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
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Exploring my neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant Village in Toronto
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Practising my French and Spanish at Mundo Lingo in Toronto
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Checking out the Blue Whale exhibit during my first visit to the ROM (even though I’ve lived in TO for 4 yrs on and off)
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^ My heroes ^ Many evenings at the cottage were spent binging GOT with my parents!
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My first novel, See What Flowers, is on the shelves at Indigo, Canada’s largest bookstore at Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto

^ I started teaching myself how to windsurf at the cottage…this involved at least 20 wipeouts. Thanks to my Aunt Pat for rescuing me from a near storm.

In addition to these things, I also did a lot of NOTHING. (Although I’ll admit that a lot of this nothing was spent watching fan commentary about GOT Season 7 on YouTube!) I’ve learned that doing nothing every once in a while fuels creativity, reduces stress, and makes space for spontaneous surprises. It also makes me excited to get back to work in a couple of weeks once I feel fully rested and recovered (However, I’ll likely be saying something different on Labour Day weekend!)

See What Flowers Book Signing at Café 349

flowers cafe

Thank you to everyone who came out and supported my first novel at Café 349 in Shawville, Québec today! It was so nice for me to chat with some new and familiar faces about books, publishing, and summers in Norway Bay.

One thing I find hard about self-publishing, is that I am required to do all of the book promotion and marketing myself. This means that I have to sell myself and my work. As a shy and humble person, it is quite a challenge for me to ‘knock on doors’ and self-promote. Luckily, I have an enormous support network of friends and family who have helped me along the way. I have been touched and overwhelmed by all of the ongoing support you have provided for me.

Thank you to everyone from Norway Bay, Shawville, and the Pontiac who came to my book signing. Special thank you to Ruth Smiley Hahn at Café 349 for providing me with the opportunity to promote my work.

Paperback copies of See What Flowers are available to purchase in Café 349, or through Amazon.ca, and Chapters/Indigo. See What Flowers is also available as an eBook.

Upcoming Events

Thursday, August 24, 7:30pm-9:00pm

Ottawa Book LaunchTerrace on the Canal, Ottawa, Ontario, featuring acoustic performance by The Bristol Hum

Sunday, October 1, 1pm-4pm

Book Signing at Yonge & Eglinton Indigo, Toronto, Ontario

signing books at cafe 349

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Flowers on shelf 2

Flowers on shelf

 

New York, New York

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Chilly strolls through Central Park

I wasn’t in Times Square when the ball dropped, but arrived a few days later to kick off 2017 in what’s arguably the world’s greatest city.

Other than a quick jaunt into the city during a 12 hour layover to Toronto from Ecuador, this was my first time in NYC. All I can say after my short visit: 4 days, 3 nights, is that I want to go back. Many, many times.

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Times Square
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Grand Central Station (photo taken in August, 2016)

From 2009-2010, I lived in London, UK, another one of the world’s great cities. Even though I lived and worked there, met some lifelong friends, connected with locals, and even played on a rugby team, I still don’t feel like I really KNOW London. I’ll never be able to go to all of the pubs, cute little cafés, bookstores, or visit all of the unique neighbourhoods. No matter how many times I go back, I’ll never really know London. New York felt the same: every trip will be filled with new discoveries, new adventures, new possibilities, new mistakes, new lessons.

Maybe this is what makes a city great: a combination of sameness and newness, predictability and adventure, traditional and modern, stale and fresh. It’s nodding to the past while looking to the future.

There’s the awe and nostalgia of walking in the theatre district and imagining all of the stars who performed there. Or spending nights in gritty comedy clubs, wondering which celebrities once got their big break in the same run-down bars, likely hovering over the toilet seat because it was too disgusting to sit on, just like you did. There’s the fascination of staring at fancy cars with tinted windows, imagining that they might be escorting A-Listers, or picturing the cute barista who served your Grande Bold at Starbucks as the new McHottie in the next season of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s where dreams are made but also interrupted.

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Chelsea Market

 

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West End Graffiti

 

While in New York, I was reminded that everyone starts somewhere, and that what we are doing right now doesn’t make us who we are. It was also a refreshing lesson that life is full of surprises, from stumbling upon inspiring street art on the High Line, to discovering the most delicious pizza I’ve ever tasted in Midtown, to practising my Spanish at 2am in Greenwich Village, to reconnecting with friends in Hells Kitchen.

New York helped me realize that greatness doesn’t come without struggle, and that the struggle always takes us somewhere, even if it wasn’t where we thought we’d be going. So I guess there’s no other option than to accept the struggle, to stick with it, and not to beat myself up if I ate too much pizza or drank too much beer along the way, as tomorrow will always be a new adventure and New York will always be there.

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My 1.5 sec of fame on the Jan. 4th episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (second row on right, second from right)

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Heather Cheeseman

Sarah & Robert - June 19, 2010

“It is only YOU who gets to make the choices about your own time and what you do…and you need to make the time for what DOES matter. It’s okay that that may not be what everyone else says matters…”

After growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Heather Cheeseman completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Queen’s University. In the fall of her fourth year, she was recruited by the international tax, audit, and advisory services firm, KPMG, and became a Partner in KPMG’s Canadian Mining practice by the age of 32.

Over the course of her career, Heather has visited over fifteen mine sites on six continents, and has significant experience providing internal and external assurance and other services to companies at all stages in the mining life cycle. Although she’s experienced tremendous career success, Heather still struggles with a sense of “impostor syndrome” in the workplace.

“No matter what success you reach or no matter what you do, you always think that someone else is going to figure out that you’re really not that good at what you’re doing.” 

During her undergrad, Heather also met her husband, Dave, while they were both working in their hometown of Burlington for the summer. As Dave attended Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Heather and Dave maintained a long-distance relationship for a few years before eventually moving to Toronto where they both currently live and work.

“I think the thing with love…a big part of it is seeing beyond all the good stuff and seeing them for who they really are and accepting that…and knowing you’re not perfect and they’re probably not perfect, but accepting that about them… and being there through it…

…The good stuff’s easy.”

Despite her busy schedule as Partner for KPMG, Heather has learned to balance her personal and professional lives and make room for other things that are important to her, like spending time with her family and friends, traveling, drinking wine, and going to the gym.

“There’s always more work to do if you want to do it….so it can be A LOT if you forget about what else is going on in your life.”

It has taken her several years to establish boundaries at work but Heather believes that letting go of “work that doesn’t actually need to get done” so that she can put herself first has actually helped her to perform better at work. It has also improved her relationships, as she has learned to invest her time and energy into the people who matter the most to her.

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the stories of the many women who have inspired me in my life or who have inspired the lives of others. You can subscribe to the Inspiring Women Series podcast in the iTunes Store and can listen to my conversation with Heather below.

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. 

LASIK Eye Surgery in Colombia

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“You are perfect candidate.” Dr. Echeverri smiles. “We can schedule the surgery for two weeks.”

“Ella necesita usar las gafas durante las próximas dos semanas. Voy a examinar sus ojos el miércoles y ella puede tener la cirugía el viernes …”

The doctor starts speaking in Spanish to my school’s nurse, Maria Teresa, who has accompanied me to the appointment.

“You need to wear your glasses for two weeks. No contact lenses. Then you will need to see the doctor on Wednesday for an eye examination and your surgery will be on Friday,” she tells me.

Dr. Echeverri looks at me. “¿Tienes preguntas?”

“Any questions?” Maria Teresa translates.

“¿Cuánto tiempo…uh…no trabajo?…uh…no ejercicio?” I put my hands into fists do the running man action.

Again Dr. Echeverri smiles warmly, appreciating my efforts to speak in Spanish.

“Ummm…Friday, surgery, no trabajo. No work.” He replies. Yes, he can speak some English!

“One week, no exercise. One month, no swimming. Two months, no…ummm…deportes de contacto…” He looks at Maria Teresa for help.

“No contact sports for two months,” she tells me firmly.

*

I’ve always been curious about the possibility of getting LASIK eye surgery, but as a young Canadian struggling to build my career, pay off student loans, and scrape together the funds for world travel, it’s never been a budget priority.

“Maybe I’ll get LASIK when I’m a 30-year old professional and actually have savings,” I told my 25 year-old self. (LOL! #stillbroke)

But shortly after I moved to Colombia to teach at an international school, I learned that several of my American and Canadian co-workers had LASIK–IN COLOMBIA–and all had positive results. PLUS, at about 1, 700, 000.00 Colombian pesos (a little less than $750 CAD), it was much, much cheaper to have the surgery here as compared to in Canada or the US.

So I did a bit of research. Instead of being risky and “third-world” as I’d imagined, nearly everything I read, and people I talked to, convinced me that LASIK in Colombia consisted of high-quality doctors, cutting edge technology, and excellent patient care and treatment.Turns out, a Colombian doctor, Jose Barraquer, actually pioneered the earliest forms of the surgery in Bogota in the 1960s.

*

eyes

 

Two months later***, I’m at an ophthalmology office where a nurse is putting drops in my eyes to dilate my pupils for a pre-operative eye exam. This is an appointment that is usually scheduled a few days before the surgery so that the doctor can measure the refractive error, curvature of the eye, and thickness of the corneas, in order to create a map of the eye(s) prior to LASIK surgery.

My friend, Katie, is filling out some paperwork in Spanish for me, and answering the nurse’s questions about my demographic information for me, as at the time, my Spanish wasn’t good enough for me to answer myself. (Thanks Katie!)

After the drops set for about half an hour, an optometrist gestures me to put my chin and forehead against a metal device and look through a set of lenses. It takes him about five minutes to take the necessary photos of my eyes and measurements of my corneas in order for the doctor to get the final clearance for the surgery.

***(Unfortunately, I had to push back the appointment because I was attacked by a dog, and had to have two surgeries on my leg to debride the infection. Due to the potential risk of further infection, the doctor advised against putting my eyes in a vulnerable position and recommended waiting until the dog bite wound healed. This meant wearing my old, scratched glasses for two months instead of two weeks. While I could have gone back to wearing contacts for the time up until two weeks before the surgery, I decided to stick to the glasses to be safe. Contact lenses can distort the shape of your cornea, which could lead to inaccurate measurements and a poor surgical outcome.)

*

“Your vision will be perfect.”

Dr. Echeverri examines the results of the pre-operative exam. Using the measurement photos of my eye, he explains to me that the surgery will involve using a laser to create a flap in my cornea. He will then fold back the flap, remove a pre-determined amount of corneal tissue, and then lay the flap back in place. The whole procedure will take less than 15 minutes.

“No pain,” he reminds me.

*

At 9:30am on Friday, two days later, I meet my friend, Chrissie, in front of the building where the surgery is scheduled. Thankfully, she offered to go with me to the surgery, as I’m required to have a friend or family member take me home afterwards. Since my family is all back in Canada, so I am very grateful that Chrissie gave up her time to take care of me. She also had the surgery before with the same doctor, so understands my current state of anxiety.

“Ready?”

“I guess,” I say honestly. “I was getting a little panicked at the gym this morning. I kinda just decided that I wanted the surgery and hadn’t let myself think about what it would be like until now. I’m freaking out a bit.”

“It’s better than you think,” she tells me.

We go upstairs to the Ophthamology Office and are greeted by a friendly receptionist who asks me to sign some release forms (in Spanish) and pay the money I owe for the surgery. I give her about 800 000.00 pesos in cash and then take out my credit card to pay for the remainder (I had been told I could put half on card).

The receptionist shakes her head and tells me that the debit machine isn’t working. She says I could come back Monday to pay if I had to, but it would be better if I could go to a debit machine at the mall next door. Fortunately, I had been paid a few days earlier so have enough money in my account.

*

Fifteen minutes later, Chrissie and I return to the office with the cash in hand. Almost immediately, a nurse asks me to follow her into another room, helps me put my purse and shoes in a locker, and hands me a blue hospital gown. I wait awkwardly for a few minutes for her to leave.

She doesn’t.

Maybe Canadians are a little more modest when it comes to undressing in front of people.

I start taking off my clothes and the nurse immediately waves her hands no-no-no then helps me put the robe overtop of my clothes.

Oops.

Next, I’m led to a room where two other patients are lying on reclined leather chairs. There’s relaxing music playing and if one of the patients hadn’t been wearing little white plastic cones over his eyes, I would have guessed they were at a spa awaiting a pedicure.

I watch another nurse put drops into the other patient’s eyes. Then she gestures to me to sit in the vacant chair. I sit in the chair and join the “eye surgery assembly line.”

After I recline and try my best to relax, the nurse puts drops in my eyes as well.

“¿Alguien lavar los ojos?” I hear a nurse nearby say.

“¿Shannon?”

¿SHANNON?” ¿Alguien lavar los ojos?”

“No entiendo.” I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

I freak out a bit, realizing that much of my Spanish comprehension comes from being able to read facial expressions and body language.

“Umm…she wants….uh…to know if someone has washed your eyes yet,” the guy sitting beside me with the cones on his eyes translates for me.

“Oh, no. No one has washed my eyes.”

*

I’m wheeled into a surgical room on a stretcher and put underneath a machine with a bright light that makes me feel like I’m at the dentist.

Dr. Echeverri greets me and then tapes my left eye shut.

“Now look at the red light….uh..very important,” he says as he positions my right eye under the laser. 

“Abierto. Abierto.”

He puts some more drops in my eyes which I presume is the anaesthetic. Then he uses a device to clamp my eyelid open. I’m still starting at the red light, which is hard to avoid looking at now that I can’t blink. I can’t feel anything as Dr. Echeverri uses a tool to mark the spot where the flap will be created on the cornea.

“A little…pressure,” he warns and as he places a suction ring on top of my eye to prevent eye movements.

“Now very important. Look at the red light. There will be…uh…twenty seconds of laser. The light will be a little…uh…blurry.”

I can feel someone–one of the nurses?–hold my hand, which makes me feel more at ease. I keep staring at the red light. It’s okay, be calm, Shan. I give myself a pep-talk and try to think of my family at the cottage and of my upcoming summer travels to help me relax. You wanted to do this, it’s okay. You won’t have to wear glasses and that’s so awesome. 

CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The red light becomes black and blurry, the way things would look after staring directly at the sun for too long. I can smell a slight burning smell. Then the red light looks more clear then it did before.

“Perfect. Keep staring at the red light.”

I can see a tool scraping my eye and my vision becomes a bit blurry, like someone has applied Polysporin directly to my eyeball.

He tells me to open and close my eye several times. Every time I open my eye the red light seems more clear than before.

“Everything was perfect.” I can hear Dr. Echeverri’s calm, soothing voice.

Then he tapes my right eye shut.

*

I’m back in the assembly line (that feels like a spa waiting room), sitting on a reclined leather chair. Now I’m the one with the plastic cones on my eyes, while two others are being prepped for surgery.

My eyes are tearing up a lot, partly because of all the drops that the nurses are putting into my eyes, and partly in reaction to having been recently “lasered.”But I feel no pain. I’m surprised that I can see.

Before the surgery, I had imagined having a day or two of total darkness, where I’d be in a state of uncertainty of whether the surgery worked, and whether I’d ever be able to see again. But this is not the case. I know my vision is perfect. I feel so lucky. No more glasses for me!

*

Less than an hour after the surgery, the nurse takes me into a room where Dr. Echeverri examines my eyes. I’m surprised when he asks me to open my eyes and look through a similar apparatus that had been used to examine my eyes in the pre-operative exam.

“I thought that I wasn’t allowed to open my eyes.”

“You are allowed to open your eyes to go to the bathroom and eat.” I hear Chrissie’s voice. So the next few days will not be lived in total darkness as I’d imagined.

“Ok, everything is perfect.” Dr. Echeverri reassures me with his soothing, caring voice.

Tears are running down my face from all of the drops that the nurses have put in, so I wipe them off my right cheek and then go to wipe my eye. Then I freeze, realizing that I’m about to rub an eye that had undergone a major surgery less than an hour earlier.

Dr. Echeverri looks at me in disbelief.

“That is forbidden,” he says calmly, yet sternly. “Your cornea might detach. Very dangerous.”

I feel so stupid.

He gives Chrissie instructions in Spanish which she writes down for my friends, Katie and Jill, who will be taking care of me on the weekend (thanks ladies!!). I have to put drops in my eyes every hour for the next few days, and then use them as needed for the next year (which, six weeks after the surgery, has been a couple times a day).

I’m not allowed to look at screens or read all weekend, so no cell phone, computer, or book, for the next three days, and am not allowed to exercise for one week. I have to wear sunglasses inside for a little over a week and can’t go swimming for at least a month. I’m allowed to shower but have to keep my eyes closed.

And no rubbing my eyes. EVER.

I will have to go back to see Dr. Echeverri in two days and then a couple more times in the next few weeks to make sure my recovery is advancing as expected. But I can go to work on Monday for my students’ graduation, and other than some slight discomfort, I should feel no pain.

Medicine is amazing.

*

One of the gifts of travel is that it broadens your perspective and helps you see the world through a clearer lens.

Well, living in Colombia has given me better than 20/20 vision.

Literally.

 

 

 

 

 

That Time I was Attacked by a Callejero

 

Hospital
Post-work bike ride gone wrong!

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 dog.

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.

My leg! 

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.

Warrior wounds. 

 

 

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Lovely Zaman Shima

“Every woman should have the strength to know herself. Yes, you will face obstacles, but you have to turn that obstacle into energy… If you have belief about your strength…if you have support in your life…then nothing can stop you.”

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For the second episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had a conversation with Lovely Zaman Shima, who I met while we were both in graduate school at the University of Ottawa. From the moment I met Lovely, I was immediately struck by her positive spirit, her confidence, and her determination.

Lovely was born in Bangladesh in 1979 and grew up in the capital of Dhaka, where she is currently living with her husband and her two children. After losing her parents at a young age, and being raised by her brothers, Lovely was able to find the strength to stay positive and work towards her dreams.

A turning point in her life was achieving 7th place out of 150,000 students in Bangladesh on her exam for the Secondary School Certificate (S.S.C.). Positioning so highly on this exam helped her to believe in herself and her own abilities. It also inspired her to dream BIG.

Thus, she enrolled in an undergraduate program at the University of Dhaka where she met her husband. They quickly fell in love and got married, and Lovely became pregnant with her daughter at the age of 21. Instead of seeing her pregnancy as a barrier to finishing her studies, Lovely “turned the obstacle into energy,” and completed the program during her pregnancy. Afterwards, she completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations at the University of Dhaka.

Following her schooling, Lovely joined the government service as Assistant Super of Police (ASP) in 2005- one of the most prestigious jobs in Bangladesh. As ASP, she worked with Bangladeshi women to help them overcome situations of oppression.

When her husband, a diplomat, was posted abroad, she traveled with him and her family, first to Malaysia, and then to Canada. While in Canada, with the encouragement of her husband, she started a second Master’s in Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa. Shortly, she will begin a PhD, which she hopes will help her to represent Bangladesh in the international arena.

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Lovely describes how every woman should have confidence in her own inner strength. Rather than perceiving obstacles as barriers to personal growth, Lovely views them as a source of energy which women can use to gain strength and push themselves to reach their goals.

I interviewed Lovely over Skype from Colombia while she was in Bangladesh, so the connection gets a little fuzzy at times, but it’s definitely worth a listen to learn from her wisdom and courage.

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the stories of the many women who have inspired me in my life. You can subscribe to the Inspiring Women podcast series in the iTunes Store.

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.

 

Los Nevados: My week ‘out on the land’

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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.