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 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:

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Rose LaBrèche

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27-year-old Rose LaBrèche has been named as Canada’s only official for Rugby Sevens at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

“When I started refereeing I never thought I would get to this point…or even when I started playing. You never think that what you are doing is going to take you down this amazing road of challenges but awesome occurrences in your life.”

For the third episode of the Inspiring Women Series, I had a conversation with Rose LaBrèche, a former rugby teammate of mine at Queen’s University, who has been named as Canada’s only official for the début of Rugby Sevens at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. At 27-years old, Rose feels honoured to be part of the Games so early in her refereeing career, an event she describes as being much bigger than herself, and much bigger than rugby.

“It’s the pinnacle of sport. It’s what everybody strives for.”

Rose started refereeing as a result of the encouragement of her coaches, particularly Beth Barz, at Queen’s University. After a series of concussions kept her off the pitch as a player, Rose began by refereeing high school and junior club rugby, and eventually progressed to both men’s and women’s matches at the top level.

Rose was initially attracted to the analytical and reflective nature of officiating, and loves how refereeing has enabled her to stay in the sport, despite her injuries.

“I am absolutely enthralled…and have this love affair with rugby.” 

This past September, Rose was named to the international panel of officials for World Rugby. Since then she has officiated “World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series” stops in Dubai, Sao Paulo, and in Langford, BC, as well as Six Nations games.

In order to make split-second calls during the fast-paced action of sevens play: a 14-minute game involving constant sprinting,  Rose has to maintain an incredible level of physical fitness. Rose has been described as one of the “fittest and fastest female referees out there,” which she attributes to her disciplined running regime and CrossFit workouts.

“It’s really tough once you’ve made an eighty meter break or something on the field and then you get to the next breakdown and you have to make a 50/50 decision….In order to make it easier for yourself you have to train by putting yourself under that sort of stress.”

Rose currently works for the Federal Government in Ottawa and has set high standards for herself in her “daytime” career. After graduating from Queen’s with a Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Environmental Science and a minor in French, Rose worked for two years in Toronto at the Immigration and Refugee Board. Next, a short internship in Brussels, Belgium inspired her to complete a Master’s Degree at the University of Ottawa in International Affairs and Environmental Sustainability. Rose feels that what she has learned through refereeing has positively impacted her confidence and assertiveness in the workplace.

In this episode of the Inspiring Women Series, Rose talks about how overcoming her struggles with self-confidence has helped her to gain the respect of top-players and coaches in the international arena, as well as become better in all aspects of her life.

“When you have failure in your life you always second-guess yourself and you always doubt yourself. It’s about being able to come back from that minor failure, or even major failure to overcome your fears…

I have messed up. I have made bad calls on the international stage that have been on TV and that so many thousands of people have been watching and it’s kind of like, ‘How could I have done that? How do I ever come back from this?’ 

It’s all about looking within yourself and knowing that this is a temporary feeling and that you’ll get over it and time moves on, and you’ll get out of this in a better spot than when you came in.”

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 Series podcast in the iTunes Store and can listen to my conversation with Rose below.

 

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.

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.