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.

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Megan Valois

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“I’m just one person trying to leave the world a little better than I found it.”

The seventh episode of the Inspiring Women Series is my conversation with Megan Valois, a high school teacher in the Ottawa Catholic School Board and a longtime friend of mine.

Since she is one of the hardest working, most caring, and most positive women that I know, I feel fortunate that Megan was willing to share her story, insights, and passions with me.

Megan grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, where she currently lives and works. As a young girl, she was inspired by her father’s commitment to volunteerism, and became dedicated to community service herself.

“His name on a bulletin board wouldn’t mean anything to a lot of people…but the people who did know him were greatly impacted by him, and that’s the type of person that I want to be.”

During high school, she volunteered at her church, was involved in her school’s Youth Ministry and Peer Helping programs, and spearheaded the Student Ambassador Program for Kids Help Phone in Ottawa.  In 2002, she received the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for her contributions to the greater community.

“It’s just the little things that, cumulatively, create a person’s legacy.”

After “fast-tracking” from high-school, Megan completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Following her graduation, Megan moved back home and earned her Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Ottawa with teachables in English and History at the Intermediate and Secondary Levels. She also has additional qualifications in Special Education, Primary/Junior Education, and French as a Second Language.

Megan has been working as a high school teacher for 10 years and is currently teaching Grade 11 English and Grade 10 history, including a “sheltered class” which consists of only ESL students. As a teacher, Megan is passionate about differentiated instruction, Assessment for Learning, 21st Century Learning, and the use of technology in the classrooms. Megan moderates Canadian Ed Chat and has completed her Google Apps for Education training. In 2012-2013, Megan received the honour of being one of five teachers recognized by Queen’s University as “Associate Teacher of the Year.”

“I would love to do something that has a big impact on education.”

As she is very invested in ongoing professional learning, Megan uses much of her spare time networking with other educators online, preparing for conference presentations, and attending professional development workshops. However, since giving birth to her son, Ethan, just under two years ago, Megan has learned to balance her passion for teaching with her family responsibilities.

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Megan discusses her passion for education, the unique challenges of being an “army wife” (her husband, Travis, serves in the Canadian Armed Forces), her desire to make a difference in the world, and the importance of surrounding herself with positive people.

“I thrive on positive energy because when you are around like-minded people who really want to make a positive impact, it really causes you to look inward as well and ask yourself: ‘Where is my passion? What is my fire? Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? What kind of impact do I want to have?'”

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others. Please contact me if you would like to nominate someone for me to interview.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Megan’s interview here:

 

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Louise Johnson

 

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“You have to stay authentic to what you really love, like when you were a kid, when you didn’t care what people thought…those weird quirky things…I think you should always hold onto those.”

For the sixth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had an insightful conversation with Louise Johnson, a Toronto-based writer and blogger.  I’ve known Louise since we were kids, as both of our families spend the summers in the beautiful cottage region of Norway Bay, Quebec. I’ve always been inspired by Louise’s love for her family, her way with words, her creativity, and her courage to put her thoughts into cyberspace.

Louise grew up in Oakville, Ontario, a suburb outside of Toronto. As a young girl, her  parents encouraged her to become  involved numerous activities, like dance and soccer. Louise believes her incredibly busy upbringing has helped her to learn how to balance her day job with her dreams of being a writer.

As a business student at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, Louise spent her summers interning for Elizabeth Arden in New York. After graduating, she was offered a full-time job to work on the new Taylor Swift fragrance and starting making plans to relocate to New York City. However, two months before she was set to move, she was offered a position at Elizabeth Arden’s Geneva office and ended up moving to Switzerland for two years.

When she first moved to New York as an intern, Louise started the blog, Manhattan Maven, as a way of sharing her adventures abroad with her friends and family. She quickly realized her passion for writing and documenting, and the desire to pursue writing more seriously began to gnaw at her.

“It’s this invisible drive or voice inside of my head that I feel like I’ve always had. Sometimes it’s quieter than others, but it’s always there…and I just have to get it out.”

So, when she returned to New York after living in Switzerland, she assembled her writing portfolio and applied to grad school. Louise ended up getting into Harvard University’s Master’s of Journalism program and moved to Boston, where she fully committed herself  to the craft of writing.

Currently, Louise is living in Toronto and working full-time as an in-house writer for an advertising agency. This allows her to pay the bills, write creatively on the side, and live closer to her tight-knit family after six years of living abroad.

“I value my family so much…I am just in a constant state of ignorant bliss when I’m with them.”

On top of her day job, Louise is freelancing for several websites such as Normale MagazineGlamping Hub, and the Boston Day Book. Although she currently loves Toronto’s energy and social scene, she dreams of one day moving to a little cabin in the woods to write a novel.

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Louise discusses why she left her incredible life in New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer, her obsession with her family, and the importance of living authentically.

“It’s hard to put yourself out there and take judgement, but when you do, it’s so freeing. You just stop caring what other people think and you just do things that make you happy… It’s the best feeling.”

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Louise’s interview here:

 

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Debbie Jenkins

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“My inspiration is in nature. It’s simplicity. It’s complexity. It’s beauty.”

For the fifth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I chatted with Debbie Jenkins, an amazing woman who I had the pleasure of meeting while teaching in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Debbie worked for 7 years in the Canadian Arctic as a caribou biologist, and is currently completing her PhD at Trent University.

Debbie grew up in North Bay, Ontario. She attributes her current passion for biological conservation to her active, outdoorsy childhood, a life-long gift from her amazing parents.  

From an early age, she developed a deep connection with nature, and this relationship is at the core of everything that she does. An avid adventurer, Debbie takes every opportunity to get outside, whether that is through traveling, hiking, skiing, paddling, camping, or simply spending time alone on the land.

“At the core of who I am is this connection I have with nature.” 

After completing her undergraduate degree at Laurentian University in Environmental Science, Debbie worked for Science North and then the Department of the Environment in Sudbury for several years. Eventually, her love of learning and commitment to nature pulled her to quit her job to follow her dreams of becoming a biologist and she began a Master’s Degree in Biology at Trent University.

During her Master’s, Debbie worked with elk that had been reintroduced in Ontario, and white-tailed deer, and developed a research interest in large ungulates. After graduating, she left the security and comfort of her work in Ontario, and moved to the Arctic where she lived and worked for 7 years.

“I always wanted to work in the Arctic. I always felt this passion for large, wild spaces and I couldn’t imagine a wilder space than the Arctic.” 

As a wildlife research biologist in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Debbie conducted population surveys of caribou and muskoxen, collaring projects, and community-based monitoring. She traveled all over the High Arctic and completed research projects in some of the most remote regions, many of which had not been monitored for 40 years. 

Debbie is currently completing her PhD at Trent University and is using the data she collected from her time in Nunavut to inform her research. With many caribou populations declining, not only in the Arctic, but across Canada and globally, Debbie’s work is important for gathering information on the status, distribution and structure of caribou and muskoxen populations, as well as the potential impact of climate change on these iconic Arctic species. She hopes that she will be able to use the knowledge she gains from doing her PhD to communicate scientific research in a way that is meaningful and “palatable to people in the Arctic and to people around the globe.”

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Debbie talks about her loves of nature, her partner, her family, and her dog, her passion for protecting the earth’s biological diversity, and her personal challenge to do new things even when she’s afraid.  

“I quit two jobs to go back to school. I left a really comfortable job in Ontario to go up to the Arctic, and it’s not to say I was this brave person heading out, because I was scared to death when I did some of those things. But I did [them] afraid. You know when you think you can’t do it, when you can’t get past the fear, just do it afraid.”

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Debbie’s interview here:

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Josefina Bittar

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“I think sometimes you just have to let some things go so that you can find better things.”

For the fourth episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had a lovely conversation with Josefina Bittar, a Paraguayan woman who currently holds a Fulbright Scholarship to study a Master’s Degree in Linguistics at the University of New Mexico in the United States.

After graduating from high school in Paraguay, Josefina studied Language Arts at the University of Asuncion. During her undergrad, at the age of 19, Josefina became pregnant and got married. Unfortunately, her marriage didn’t work out and she got divorced shortly after.

Instead of dropping out of school to deal with the emotional pain of her divorce and the challenges of raising her son as a single mother and full-time student, Josefina found the strength to continue her studies.

“School made me happy. If I didn’t have school, it would have been much more difficult.”

Her close-knit extended family was an amazing support for her during this difficult time. In addition, Josefina found hope through learning the stories of other women who had also gone through a similar experience. Josefina feels that her divorce has taught her important lessons that can be applied to both her personal and professional lives.

“You can try to convince yourself that this is the person or this is the place or this is the job and you don’t realize that you might be missing out…that there might be something better for you out there.”

Following university, Josefina worked for two years as a school teacher at the American School of Paraguay in Asuncion. While she excelled as a teacher, she felt pulled to continue her education. When she was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, she moved to the United States with her 6-year-old son and her new husband.

In the future, Josefina hopes to work as a linguist in Paraguay, and possibly pursue a PhD so she can research the country’s use of Spanish and Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken by 90% of the population.

There has been very little research done in linguistics in Paraguay, so Josefina hopes to advance knowledge in this field. (Guaraní is the only indigenous language of the Americas whose speakers include a large proportion of non-indigenous people. Elsewhere, the indigenous languages have been largely replaced by European colonial languages such as Spanish, French or English).

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Josefina talks about her research goals, love, self-acceptance, and the many different roles that women can have in society.

“I’ve learned that I can be the way I want to be, and as long as I’m a good person…that’s okay…”

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the many stories of women who have inspired me in my life, or who have inspired others.

You can subscribe to the podcast series in the iTunes store or listen to Josefina’s interview here:

Mitad del Mundo: Centring Myself in the Middle of the World

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That time I straddled the #Equator.

I smile in disbelief as my friend takes a picture of me, right leg in the northern hemisphere, left leg in the southern.

I’m standing in front of the Mitad del Mundo Monument, a historic site located 26km north of Quito, Ecuador, built between 1979 and 1982 to commemorate the 1736 French Geodesic Mission which determined the Equator’s approximate location at zero degrees latitude. (According to more recent GPS readings, the Equator actually lies about 240 meters north of the marked line.)

Thousands of tourists have struck a similar pose, but for me, the photo feels like MORE than a sweet shot for my Instagram followers #zerodegreeslatitude.

Why? At 31, I haven´t “checked the boxes” expected of someone my age: no stable career, no husband, no babies, no house, no pension, no savings, no assets. Yet I have a wealth of life experiences, lots of stamps on my passport, and amazing friends all over the world.

So, as I strike a pose in the middle of the world, I realize how lucky I am to be where I am, and how far I’ve come in order to get here.

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“Machete-ready” at the Mitad del Mundo Monument in the Amazon. There are milestones to mark the Equator along zero degrees latitude all over the world.

At zero degrees of latitude, the Equator may be an imaginary line. However, for me, it represents something real: taking risks, starting over, being one step closer to my dreams.

Only two years before, I was living above the Arctic Circle, at 72 degrees north, working towards becoming a university professor. However, after a few personal and professional heartbreaks, life has spun me in another direction, and I’ve begun pursuing more creative writing, (as opposed to academic which would have been a much more secure investment of my time and energy, but not as personally fulfilling).

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The position of the sun in relation to the Earth enables us to tell the time on a sundial.

It wasn’t until I stood at the centre of the world that I realized that finding my own “centre,” the road that I’m truly meant to follow, might involve choosing a different path than what’s expected of me. I guess the bright side of life not going “according to plan” is that the new plan (the one you are forced into when your previous one doesn’t work out) can take you somewhere new and unexpected, somewhere closer to where you wanted to go, but never had the courage to pursue.

 

At the Mitad del Mundo, I’m realizing that even though I’m traveling further and further away from the direction I thought I’d be going, that I’m moving closer and closer to where I truly ought to be.

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.

 

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.

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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)!

Are you happy?

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Is happiness the key to life?

Since moving to Colombia two months ago, on most days, a staff member at my school, or one of my students’ parents will approach me, greet me with kisses on both cheeks, and ask the same series of questions:

Colleague/Parent: Hola (hi), Miss Shannon. Como estas? (How are you?)

Me: Bien. (Good) [At this point, I try to avoid the standard “y tu?” (and you?) as that invites an onslaught of Spanish that I can’t understand.]

Colleague/Parent: Are you happy?

I never really know how to respond.

Happy?

Am I “happy”?

I have a good job and am trying to pursue my dreams of becoming a writer. I have amazing friends and family (even though I’m currently living on another continent from most of them, hooray for FaceTime and Skype!!!).

Surprisingly, living in Colombia has offered me a comparable if not better quality of life than I had back in Canada. I’m lucky in that I’ve never had any major health problems and have a healthy, active lifestyle filled with biking, hiking, and spending time with friends.

So, am I “happy?” I guess so…???

I’m not sure why the question makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s because it’s not the cultural norm in Canada to ask anyone outright if they are happy, not even the people we are closest with, so it feels weird being expected to reveal what feels like personal information to strangers.

Maybe it’s because the North American consumer-based culture that I was brought up in has ingrained in me that happiness is an ideal to be pursued & purchased: better hair, better body, better make-up, better house, better car, better TV, better boobs, better boyfriend, etc.

Maybe it’s because I’m not sure if “being happy” is even something that I should be aspiring for.

Isn’t happiness fleeting?

I think about the people who have inspired me in my life: Athletes like Michael Jordan and Clara Hughes. Writers like Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert. My parents (shout out to my Mom who’s probably the only one who’ll even read this blog post- Hi Mom!). My amazing, beautiful, and talented friends.

These people have all struggled and overcome great adversity to achieve the things that have given their lives the most meaning, whether it’s winning championships, writing novels, building careers, moving overseas for the people they love, having children, or designing their dream cottage (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!).

If there’s any wisdom in the Barenaked Ladies song, Lovers In A Dangerous Time“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/ Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight,” it seems like achieving our goals requires some kind of struggle.

And a state of struggle doesn’t necessarily equate with a state of happiness.

(Suddenly, I’m brought back to my rugby days at Queen’s University. Those Thursday night practices at West Campus in the RAIN, always in the RAIN, were miserable. Rainy October nights in Kingston, Ontario, Canada are the worst. Cold & wet. Tackling each other in the mud. I hated every minute of them. But in the end, they were worth it. They made our team stronger, as we bonded in our collective struggle. Personally, they made me tougher and more resilient in games, as I needed those miserable practices to amount to SOMETHING.)

So I’m not sure if answering, “Si. Yes. I’m happy” to concerned and caring parents and staff members necessarily means that I’m living a better or more fulfilling life.

I’m not advocating for a life of gloom and doom. In fact, I think it’s important to avoid letting myself get “stuck” in situations where the possibility for happiness is hopeless. There’s a fine line between accepting too much suffering and making a change.

At the same time, I think it’s okay not to be happy all of the time. If my rugby days taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the struggle, the pain, the fight, and the frustration, are totally worth it. These periods of potential unhappiness can result in more meaningful careers, deeper relationships, and greater life satisfaction in the long run.

But for now, when people here ask me if I’m happy, I’ll respond with “Si” (yes), or “Oui” (yes), as sometimes my terrible Spanish comes out as French.