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.

That Time I was Attacked by a Callejero

 

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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. 

 

 

 

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)!

Wasn’t ‘the plan’ to settle in Canada?

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Manizales, Colombia: my new home!

I could hear the surprise my Mom’s voice as she reacted to the news that I had accepted a last-minute teaching position in Manizales, Colombia. She was right. “The plan” was to stay in Toronto where I had been living for the last year.

Since 2007, I had lived in seven different cities: Kingston, Ottawa, and Toronto, Ontario. Banff, Alberta. London, UK. Fort St. John, British Columbia. Pond Inlet, Nunavut. After years of being away from home, I was feeling a strong pull to put down roots in Toronto where I’d lived on and off since 2009.

However, things in Toronto weren’t really coming together as I’d hoped they would. By the end of the summer, I was feeling frustrated, heart-broken, and restless. So when my good friend messaged me out of the blue to tell me that her school in Manizales was looking for a grade five teacher, I began to wonder if life’s really meant to be lived according to a specific plan. As my friend reminded me, “Toronto will always be there”. Thus, I abandoned “the plan” and opted instead for a more uncertain path, the  “the one less traveled” that Robert Frost wrote about.

Maybe the pressure to “have a plan” and follow a linear path prevents us from taking risks on the spontaneous opportunities that could lead us in the right direction (or maybe I’m just trying to justify a foolish decision).

This all being said, it was never part of my plan to live in Colombia, but here I am.

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Checking out the sights of Manizales!
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Coffee plant. Manizales is part of Colombia’s “Coffee Triangle”
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Posing in front of some wax palms on the Vallé de Cocora hike on a trip to Salento
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Picking my first aguacate (avocado)
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Its mountainous terrain makes Manizales a cycling mecca in South America.