I wasn’t in Times Square when the ball dropped, but arrived a few days later to kick off 2017 in what’s arguably the world’s greatest city.
Other than a quick jaunt into the city during a 12 hour layover to Toronto from Ecuador, this was my first time in NYC. All I can say after my short visit: 4 days, 3 nights, is that I want to go back. Many, many times.
From 2009-2010, I lived in London, UK, another one of the world’s great cities. Even though I lived and worked there, met some lifelong friends, connected with locals, and even played on a rugby team, I still don’t feel like I really KNOW London. I’ll never be able to go to all of the pubs, cute little cafés, bookstores, or visit all of the unique neighbourhoods. No matter how many times I go back, I’ll never really know London. New York felt the same: every trip will be filled with new discoveries, new adventures, new possibilities, new mistakes, new lessons.
Maybe this is what makes a city great: a combination of sameness and newness, predictability and adventure, traditional and modern, stale and fresh. It’s nodding to the past while looking to the future.
There’s the awe and nostalgia of walking in the theatre district and imagining all of the stars who performed there. Or spending nights in gritty comedy clubs, wondering which celebrities once got their big break in the same run-down bars, likely hovering over the toilet seat because it was too disgusting to sit on, just like you did. There’s the fascination of staring at fancy cars with tinted windows, imagining that they might be escorting A-Listers, or picturing the cute barista who served your Grande Bold at Starbucks as the new McHottie in the next season of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s where dreams are made but also interrupted.
While in New York, I was reminded that everyone starts somewhere, and that what we are doing right now doesn’t make us who we are. It was also a refreshing lesson that life is full of surprises, from stumbling upon inspiring street art on the High Line, to discovering the most delicious pizza I’ve ever tasted in Midtown, to practising my Spanish at 2am in Greenwich Village, to reconnecting with friends in Hells Kitchen.
New York helped me realize that greatness doesn’t come without struggle, and that the struggle always takes us somewhere, even if it wasn’t where we thought we’d be going. So I guess there’s no other option than to accept the struggle, to stick with it, and not to beat myself up if I ate too much pizza or drank too much beer along the way, as tomorrow will always be a new adventure and New York will always be there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
– Aldous Huxley
After spending 9 months living and working in Manizales, Colombia, as a teacher at a private bilingual school, I took advantage of my summer holiday to explore the country for five weeks before returning to Canada.
While I’ve traveled solo before, I felt incredibly grateful to have company this time. My parents, my brother Brian, and my friend, Ashley (who I travelled with for 3.5 weeks), joined for various segments of the trip.
Although traveling with someone else requires some negotiation and compromise (Mom slept in a yurt!), a travel companion, especially someone you love, allows for deepening of relationships, shared memories, and opportunities to explore places you wouldn’t venture to on your own.
At first, when Ashley and I decided to embark on a South American adventure together, we planned to cover a typical tourist route: meet in Cartagena. Fly to Bogotá. Fly to Lima. Hike Machu Picchu. Visit Lake Titicaca. Bus to La Paz. Tour the Salt Flats in Bolivia. AMAZING. However, once we began our research, we felt like we were designing a trip for the sake of checking items off a bucket list. Too much time on overnight busses and racing from one place to the next. Not the adventure either of us had in mind.
We wanted to travel more slowly, allowing ourselves to stumble upon hidden gems. So we decided to spend the time we had together exclusively in Colombia. For me, this was a special chance to really get to know the country I’d been living in, before returning back home to Canada.
One of the gifts of travel is that it opens your eyes to many new possibilities for adventure and discovery. Travel also teaches you many lessons and I wrote about what I learned from teaching and traveling in Colombia here. My summer in Colombia certainly left me with a yearning to come back and explore more!
Check out this map of my five-week adventure, beginning in Bogotá. If you’re visiting Colombia for the first time, I’d recommend adding a few days in Medellin. (With it’s trendy cafés, progressive transit system, and eclectic arts scene, it was one of my favourite places in Colombia.)
A picture says a thousand words...
Here’s a taste of my five-week adventure in Colombia in photos!
Tayrona National Natural Park
These are the places that we visited on a 3-day tour of La Guajira. We joined the tour in Riohacha and traveled northeast to Faro, Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America.
Stage 2 of our trip was the transition from the coast back to the mountains. We flew with Avianca from Riohacha to Bucaramanga (via Bogotá). I don’t have any pictures of our time in Bucaramanga…we spent most of it at the mall!
San Gil & Barichara
Thank you to Mom, Dad, Brian, and, of course, Ashley, for joining me on this amazing adventure!
We all learned that Colombia is an extremely diverse country with a warm & vibrant culture…no longer the Colombia of Narcos (drugs, violence & Pablo Escobar). I feel so lucky to have been able to discover this beautiful country con mi familia y una amiga increíble.
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 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.
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.
“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.
I only got the job in Colombia five weeks before I had to start teaching.
Five weeks is not enough time to learn a new language. But I figured that most people in Manizales speak at least some English (wrong!). And besides, I’m “fluent” in French! How hard could learning Spanish be? I’ll be trilingual in no-time (wrong!).
Before moving to Manizales, Colombia, the only Spanish words that I knew were the ones I’d heard referenced in pop culture, but I didn’t really know what they meant:
“Hasta la vista” (Goodbye/So long)
“Yo quiero Taco Bell” (I want Taco Bell)
“Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas)
“Adios amigos” (Goodbye friends)
“Livin’ la vida loco” (Living the crazy life)
“¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!” (Come on! Come on! Up! Up!)
“Shakira, Shakira” (This counts, right? She IS Colombian!)
Oh wait, I knew some food-related words, too:
Unfortunately, my limited Spanish hasn’t really helped me get by in daily tasks like going to the grocery store, taking public transit, and ordering at cafés and restaurants. Thus, I’ve been forced to learn and learn quickly. But I’m not learning as fast as is necessary to truly have a good life in Manizales, partly because I teach in English and speak to my closest friend in English, and partly because my natural awkwardness is exacerbated by the fact that I can’t communicate effectively with many locals. So, despite being surrounded primarily by unilingual Spanish speakers in my day-to-day life, I’m not actually “submerged” in the language as much as I should be.
This has created a few uncomfortable situations, such as not being able to direct a cab driver to my own apartment, waiting for over an hour for someone to pick me up for an event that I thought was on Tuesday but was really on Wednesday (Both martes and miércoles start with ‘m’), paying 20 000 pesos for something that cost 2 000 pesos, having my bilingual students help me write e-mails to their parents, trying to explain to a Spanish-speaking airline staff that my luggage needed to be checked through to Montréal and not Cancun, being lectured by a Spanish-speaking dental hygienist about my inadequate flossing habits, and most commonly, staring blankly, then giving an innocent, “no hablo español” pretty much anytime anyone approaches me in Spanish.
Luckily, I’ve been able to develop a few strategies to help me overcome the language barrier. I have a Google Translate app on my phone which has been a lifesaver and is usually accurate enough to communicate the general meaning of what I’m trying to say.
In addition, I’ve become an expert at playing charades. For example, last week, I was able to go to the drug store counter at the grocery store and ask for both sunscreen and contact lens solution without saying more than five words.
I’m also taking Spanish lessons with an amazing tutor and learning vocabulary with the awesome app, Duolingo.
Finally, I’ve accepted that in order to truly learn a new language, that you can’t be afraid to make mistakes. This means looking & sounding foolish and being completely okay with it. (Booze helps.)
Even though it’s been humbling and exhausting at times, learning to navigate the world in another language has helped me to gain perspective on what life is like for the English or French Language Learners that I’ll likely have in my classes once I start teaching in Canada. Just because someone can’t communicate doesn’t mean they don’t understand what’s going on! Also, it has opened my eyes to how much can be “said” without speaking.
Finally, it has shown me how warm and patient the Colombian people are. No one has ever made me feel stupid about my inability to communicate–it’s mostly in my own head–and usually, people are willing to take the time to make sure I understand what’s going on, whether it’s translating through an English-speaking friend, using Google Translate, or joining me in an entertaining game of charades.
Lo más importante es que estoy aprendiendo. Most importantly, I’m learning.
(Who am I kidding? That was totally cut and paste from Google Translate!)
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.