El Sol

Manizales sunset
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.

cable cars
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.

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


sunset over arctic ocean
Sunset over the Arctic Ocean
norway bay sunset
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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 7.08.29 PM
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.

walking to church 11am
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.

It was important for me to get outside during the twilight hours of the dark season.
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.

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?

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.


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.