Or, muli bwanji, in Chichewa, the language spoken throughout much of Malawi.
This probably (hopefully?) won’t be too long of a post as I am typing on my phone! My laptop has been left in Zomba while I travel this weekend.
As you can presume from the fact that I am writing to you all, I have indeed made it safely to Malawi. I arrived in Lilongwe (the capital) on Monday afernoon and spent the first few nights at a lodge while we went through orientation with WUSC Malawi (our sending Canadian organization). Us is the 8 female Canadian volunteer interns who are with the Malawi Student Without Borders program this time around. We arrived together and will see each other on and off I’m sure. Five of the girls are living in a volunteer house together in Lilongwe, two are staying at a lodge in Blantyre and that leaves just me! I am living in the back of a pastry/coffee shop called MaiPai (pronounced “my pie”), in Zomba.
The first few days watching the Lilongwe ladies settle into their home, making plans for shared tuk tuks and the weekend, I was feeling pretty nervous about the fact that I would be all by myself. Additionally, WUSC hasn’t sent volunteers to Zomba in a long time so no one could give me information on things to do, places to get groceries, good taxis to call etc. Considering everything in Malawi is done by word of mouth and who you know, this was a little stressful! In fact, all anyone could tell me was how beautiful Zomba is…not that I am complaining about natural beauty!
We spent our time in Lilongwe going over culture, language and little things like how to buy phone minutes, how to take mini buses (the slightly sketchy public transport), where to find the vegetable market. We also did some more work oriented tasks like reviewing how they want us to go about monitoring and evaluating our work and how to fill out our workplans.
Finally, on Thursday morning it was time to head to Zomba! It was about a four hour drive down to the more southern part of Malawi and we arrived just in time for my introductory meeting with my organization. I will be working for the next 3 months as a Youth Leadership Officer with “ArtGlo” or in longer terms, the Art and Global Health Centre Africa. They use creative leadership programs and approaches to health and development. For example, they have a program called Make Art Stops Aids and a Students With Dreams program (which I will mostly be working on) which gives university students funding and an open slate to develop creative development projects. They are then supported by the centre to impliment them and also grow in their own abilities as leaders. Having worked as a leadership facilitator at camp, I remember getting to watch the kids develop their skills and become more confident and how rewarding that process was so I am super excited to be working in youth programming again and with students at the university. From what I understand I will also be helping to update training manuals and write funding proposals. I’m sure I will get a better idea as I get settled in but that is what I know so far. I met a couple of coworkers who were super welcoming and very cool so I can’t wait to be introduced to everyone else on Tuesday!
Why Tuesday? It just so happens that we arrived right before a long weekend for a national holiday! Not wanting to waste any potential travel time, the other interns and I scrambled to get together taxis and hostels at Lake Malawi. We are going to Cape Maclear tomorrow (Saturday) and staying until Monday. Apparently it is the big tourist and expat hotspot so we will see!
That said, I will be living alone in Zomba so it made more sense for me to tag along to Blantyre and then taxi from there so I am visiting here until we leave tomorrow. More dinners with volunteers and my third city tour in three days! So far, so good.
I don’t have much to say about Zomba itself as I was just there for about 16 hours haha. Still, we walked around the “city” (its a more like a town, if that haha). But it is so green!! And at the foot of a mountain so safe to say, I am already obsessed. The coffee shop I will be staying at seems really cute and all the staff were so welcoming. I’m excited for my daily walks to work and to get to know the city and the people! More on my adventures there to come, I am sure.
I’m going to say goodbye for now! We are meeting with a WUSC volunteer who is a gender advisor so that should be super interesting. Keep posted for lake pictures because, I guess I am going on vacation this weekend! Not what I was expecting but I am excited 🙂
Friends! It’s been a while hasn’t it? I feel like I always end up busier than I intend to be and suddenly important things get pushed to the side, like long walks catching up with friends and writing on this blog! Still, I can’t help but be grateful for the busyness; it means lots of chasing passions and meeting with people who make my soul smile!
Alas, another semester has come and gone and with it, a new transition and adventure is quickly approaching. Yesterday was my last day of co-op at Volunteer Canada, today all my residents have moved out and I had my last pre-departure training before Malawi, tomorrow I have to leave Leblanc (forever my favourite residence) and say goodbye to all my Ottawa people. Then I have a week at home before heading off next Sunday for 12 weeks in a new country, on a new (to me) continent. Wild.
This is the first time I’ve left Ottawa feeling sad to leave my home here. After first year, I went to camp for the summer. I’d only lived in Ottawa for 8 months and during that time I had rarely strayed from campus. Additionally, all my friends were also leaving for the summer and heading back to their respective homes, traveling, working at camp, etc. So leaving felt natural and although I was glad to go back in September, I wouldn’t have called Ottawa my “home”town. I even wrote a blog post about not having a “home” per say!
However, it’s been nearly two consecutive years now of living in this city. I have adapted to this place’s quirks and it’s quiet culture. I have favourite coffee shops and I’m a regular at an open mic night. I know where to go to find green space and where to go to find quiet and where to go to embrace chaos. My network is large and supportive and I feel known in Ottawa which was something I missed a lot when leaving Barrie. I like to know people and be known and have connections in many circles.
SO this summer leaving Ottawa is sad. But it makes me all the more grateful to remind myself that I once wondered if I’d ever feel at home again. I do and I will, wherever I go. I remind myself that wherever I go, there are places I can find and call my own and people who will see me and choose community with me. This last semester especially I have found myself feeling rooted in the communities God has created for me here in Ottawa. And I have been reminded of all the different layers that make up a network. From the people I smile at when I pass on campus to my residents who I am meant to guide and support, to my co-workers at co-op and my fellow CAs, to my dear friends with whom I share my heart and my dear friends with whom I share laughs, to people in my program I can debate with and learn from and my friends in different programs who open my eyes to new things, widening my perspective, to my Christian community and my Outdoor’s community, to my people I catch up with once a semester and the ones I make sure to see every week. I am so grateful to have these intermingling and oh so important, layered, and real relationships. As beautiful of a city I think Ottawa is, it is the people I have learned to call “mine” that I will miss the most in Malawi.
Isn’t it funny how much longer it takes to fall in love with a place when you know it may be permanent? When I went on exchange I quickly felt at home in my adopted city of Geneva and I will always have a home on Kitchi sands, despite having lived there for a collective time of maybe a year. But when I came to Ottawa, it took 3 full years to feel comfy and settled here. I find that so odd.
I think it’s because it takes longer to admit that your real and permanent life is transitioning, that you are not adopting a second or third home but moving your main base somewhere new. I really doubt I will ever call Barrie home again. Not because I dislike or because there aren’t still people there that I love but simply because my career and my life will call me elsewhere. So, I think I held onto that being “home” for as long as possible, even subconsciously.
I also have higher standards for Ottawa than I ever do for temporary homes. All those layers and intermingled connections I talked about? Those take time to cultivate. Deep friendships can sometimes happen quickly but having networks of co-workers and acquaintances and classmates and church families and friends in different places take time. Having people to wave at in the streets takes time. Having the barista know your order at the coffee shop near work takes time. Having people you can ask to pray for you takes time. Your go to study people, your outdoor adventuring people, your “listen to my deepest dreams” people and your “come have a beer with me” people all take time to find. Finding all those things at once? Takes a whole lot of time!
I still love going home to Barrie too, don’t get me wrong. I was lucky enough to be born and raised in the same town so it always feels familiar and I love going to see my family. But my dad is moving provinces, my mom lives in outside the city limits now and most of my friends are also off on their own new adventures. Ultimately, my ties there get weaker all the time and to me, those relational ties are much more important than the physical streets and buildings (and even those I recognize less and less each time I visit!). They say home is where the heart is, and my family will always be a home to me but Barrie itself is less and less.
More than anything, you have to build a life in order to build a home. Ottawa is no longer just the city I go to school in. It has slowly and surely become the place in which I centralize my life. It’s my home base when I travel and the place I know the most people. It’s where I’ve invested in people and in places and in connections. And I am grateful to be sad to leave.
Transitions have never been easy for me. I think by now I put on a pretty good face and make it seem like I’m fine but since I was little I have cried at goodbyes. I still cry every time my mom drives away and leaves me in Ottawa and I cried a little leaving my job yesterday. I just love a lot and so it makes it hard to leave ya know?
But not to fear, Ottawa, this is all just temporary. Before you know it, it will be August and I will be back to couch surf with all those lovely friends I mentioned!!!! Praise Jesus for friends with open arms and open doors because low-key I will not have a literal, physical home for 3 weeks during summer school haha.
And on that note? I AM GOING TO MALAWI IN ONE WEEK. HOLY COW!!
I have barely let myself get excited until now because everything has been so up in the air but I have a tentative flight – still no ticket, but you know, trusting that everything will work out – and I am (almost) free from residence, work and school so now I have time to dream about my internship, the things I will learn, the places I will go and the people I will meet.
Until then I am excited to spend a week snuggling my family, hanging out in the sunshine, eating food I didn’t have to cook, hiking (hopefully), driving the car, singing in the shower and talking to Jesus about how to make this experience as impactful as possible (for me and all my soon-to-be friends in Malawi)!
Until next time,
P.s. This my 100th blog post on Sam’s Grand Adventure!! How wild is that? Thanks to all for sticking with me and my ramblings for this long!
Ask anyone who knows me – I like to talk. Specifically, I like to tell stories. I try to keep them honest, to recount them the way they actually happened as best as I can. Sometimes I tell it in a dramatic or funny way but I keep it real. And isn’t that what a storyteller is? Someone who relays the facts without distorting them but also without boring people?
The thing is, stories are how we relate to people. It’s how we share bits of our lives, parts of who we are. It’s a way to see that we aren’t alone in the world, a way to let people in, a way to be vulnerable. Sure, sometimes telling my friends about my crazy professor or my long drawn out adventure across campus to get a form signed may not seem like a vulnerable thing but it’s all part of the continual process of letting people in, of learning to relate to others and of learning how to confidently portray who we are.
But what if I didn’t get to tell my own stories? What if they were always being told by observers who didn’t really understand me and who wanted the narrative to fit their own perception of who I am? They say that there are three sides to every story: your point of view, the other person’s point of view and the truth. What if the other person’s point of view was the only one to be told, always, in every circumstance? More importantly, what if their version of the story always portrayed you as weak, incompetent, destitute or worse?
That is the danger of a single story.
As many of you may know, this summer I will be interning in Malawi as part of pursuing my degree in International Development. I am so very excited to have gotten a position with Art and Global Health Centre Africa as a Youth Leadership Officer and I cannot wait to go and live and learn with people on the other side of the world, in a continent I have yet to visit. As part of the course uOttawa has associated with the internship program, I have to go through 30-50 hours of pre-departure training this semester. We usually meet on Saturday mornings and discuss how to ask yourself powerful questions about your internship, how to look at issues of power, privilege and intersectionality, what is means to build capacity in your host organization and other topics to help each of us make the most of this incredible experience while also being as respectful, helpful, humble and open-minded as possible. I am grateful to be part of a program that cares about the ethics behind working internationally in the Global South. And after a weekend of training with WUSC, CECI and Uniterra, I am also feeling pretty blessed and encouraged by the insightful, intelligent, passionate and thoughtful other interns who will be going to Malawi at the same time as me, as well as those who will be in other countries this summer. It is very inspiring to be in a room with people who share your passions.
A week ago we watched a video recorded at TEDGlobal in 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The official description is “our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”(see video below). Basically, she talks about the pervasive international perception of “Africa” as a poor country in need of saving, and the importance of exposing oneself to multiple stories or perspectives of individual countries and people in order to relate to them, to celebrate difference while also seeing the threads that tie us all together. At least that is what I got from her message, although it is far from verbatim.
When I got home, I started searching for movies, TV shows, YouTube videos and books about Malawi and/or by Malawians. I found very, very few. Those I could find were mostly written from the perspective of foreigners.
And so I guess what I have been pondering is, how do I make sure that when I tell stories about my time in Malawi, I am not perpetuating the single story? How do I stay true to my own perspective and also accurately portray other people’s experiences? How do I avoid telling stories that are not mine to tell while also using my opportunity to learn from the Malawian people and share my thoughts, feelings and lessons learned with those here in Canada who do not have the same experience? I want my time in this nation to impactful, to build capacity in my host organization, to build capacity in myself and to share knowledge with those who I have influence over, whether through my relationships, my social media, or this blog.
I know that my stories will always carry bias. The biases of being white, of being a Christian, of being Canadian. Of speaking English as a first language, of being a student of international development, of being straight and of the quirks of my own personality. Even that fact that I identify storytelling as being part of who I am, influences the way I communicate, the way people listen and the opportunities I am given to be heard.
I want my storytelling of my time in Malawi to be authentic, honest and true to both me and the people I share my experiences with.
I don’t necessarily have answers, no promises of how I am going to make that happen. But I want you all to know that it is something I am thinking about and something I am going sincerely make effort towards.
So watch this space. I am filled with anticipation. I feel very privileged to get to pursue the things I am passionate about and to have experiences I have dreamed of for a very long time. And I am excited to share them with you. Adventures come in all sizes and types and I try to live everyday like an adventure. But I have to admit, some are a lot more grand than others and I suspect my time in Malawi will be one of the greatest yet.
Please watch the video below and think about the ways in which you can explore broadening the narratives you hear.
Thank you for listening to my stories. I am so grateful to each of you for making space in your lives for my words.
A static melody fills my room as the radio alarm clicks on at “5am” which is really more like 4:50 since all my clocks are set ahead; my chronic lateness needs all the help it can get to make me be on time for something, anything.
Even though I want to snuggle down into the covers and wrap myself in the cozy denim coloured jersey sheets, I force myself to put my feet on the ground before I think twice. Half asleep, I hit boil on the already filled kettle and scoop this morning’s caffeinated drink – vanilla matcha – into a wide mug I need both hands to hold. Almost on auto-pilot I brush my hair, get dressed and gather my things for the day. Before 5:30, I am out the door, green drink in one hand, grey bible in the other. I head for the common room.
I spend the next hour or so sitting in front of the window. I journal while music quietly plays and sip my drink while reading about this week’s “spiritual discipline” of choice – gratitude. I pray and ask God to meet me, to teach me, to change me, to grow me, as I open the Word and read the Psalms. I am almost brought to tears by the beauty and emotion of the Bible’s poets. I praise the Lord for the truths I read: that He is my refugee, that He alone gives peace, that I ask and He answers, that He is angry without sin, that He delights in me, that He gives joy in the darkness. I do not feel the tiredness in my body any more. You could argue that it is the matcha kicking in but I can feel the Holy Spirit filling me with so much excitement about being alive. I ask for forgiveness for the times this week I spoke in anger, for the times I was lazy or selfish or unkind or prideful. I ask the Holy Spirit to be with me through my busy day.
I practice gratitude all the way to work. I realize that for the first time this year I can hear birds chirping in the tree on the Leblanc front lawn and think, “what a gift that is to me!” I watch pink streaks wind their way through the sky and smile to myself as I step into puddles. Whether or not it lasts, this morning feels like spring and I am grateful to be alive.
I talk to God about how much I love writing and getting to know people. I pray about the book I want to someday write and the blogs I have in the back of my head. I thank Jesus for the plans He has for me today, tomorrow, this summer and six years from now and day dream about all the countries I will visit soon. I remember my last year’s trip to Iceland and am thankful all over again for a God who fulfills the desires of my heart. I remember how I prayed last August that I would be able to find a non-profit to do co-op at this winter. I walk through the downtown core of the city I so love and cherish on my way to the job that is everything I asked God for, and more. Like the bonus of having Friday’s off to accomplish tasks for my many other commitments. I thank God that He actually does give me more than I can handle but never more than He can handle; I am grateful I have to rely on Him and not my own stubbornness and pride.
I pray for friends near and far. I pray for people I do not call friend. I pray in French and thank God for language and rain and my residents and for being a God who is “tu” and not “vous”. I stop and buy a tea. I tell the women behind the cash how grateful I am that she got up early to serve me this morning.
I get to work 20 minutes early. I sit and talk with my co-workers about how beautiful long-lasting friendships are and I think about how excited I am to catch up with my best friend on the phone tonight. What a blessing it is to have technology to keep in touch.
I sip my tea. I start up my computer. I make my to-do list. I get to work.
I gave up sleeping in for Lent and it is not easy to resist the snooze button. Sometimes I mess up, like last Friday when I convinced 3 friends to meet me on campus at 7 for prayer and then I slept through the alarm and missed it. 5am comes oh so early. But a 5am start to my day means I have time to meet with Jesus and focus my day on the Lord before the busyness of everything else kicks in and more and more I am finding beauty in this rhythm. I am truly giving God the first of my time and getting His view on my day long before the stress of work or obligations kick in. At 5am, there is nothing I need to do but sit in the presence of the Lord.
Morning rhythms, quiet cups of tea, birds chirping. I get to pray and meet with the Creator while most of Creation sleeps. Wow, if that doesn’t help me cultivate gratitude, I don’t know what will. I am so thankful for the life I get to live.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” – Mark 1:35
Thank you for being one of the best yet. Thank you for allowing me to pursue myself, to pursue passion, to pursue learning, to pursue adventure, and above all to pursue Jesus and the plans He has for me. It’s been so good.
2018: you’ve got a lot to live up to…somehow I’m believing you’ll be even better.
So here’s to you, 2017, with all your jumbled joy and challenge. Thanks for being:
Never have I ever written as much as I did this past semester for university. I’m not sure if it’s a 3rd year thing or just that I was lucky enough to have professors who loved written assessments but holy cow, my fingers hurt just thinking about all the typing I did! Counting only pieces that were 8+ pages, I wrote 9 academic papers this semester. Huh, when I see that number it actually doesn’t seem like that many but let me tell you, it felt like a million.
The last week of classes was, in particular, rather brutal. In the span of 9 days, I had 3 final exams, an Arabic oral presentation and 4 papers due. I barely slept and I should have been stressed out of my mind. Shocking everyone, myself included, I was incredibly calm and focused. In comparison to last fall, in which I spent most of the exam period alternating between crying from stress and talking about how stressed I was to anyone who would listen, this semester I felt like I had everything under control, despite the overwhelming amount of work I had. I think the sheer volume of what I had to do actually helped because I felt like just finishing it would be an accompaniment, regardless of the grade that I achieved.
However, the most incredible thing I realized this finals season is just how much my perspective on grades and exam stress has changed since first year. As crazy as it might sound to those of you who don’t share my faith, I had this incredible sense of peace during exams (and really all semester) that God had this. That didn’t necessarily mean I was going to get As in all my classes but this was the first time in school that I genuinely, deep down in my soul, knew that my grades do not define me. That my best was enough, whether that meant I lost my scholarship or if it meant I got straight As, I knew I would be silly to think that something as little as getting a C+ in Arabic or failing a Statistics exam could possibly derail God’s plan for my life.
God is the Creator of the universe. He designed the tallest mountains and the deepest depths of the sea. He crafted the world’s most precise intricacies and set in motion the laws of nature. He imagined every language before any human tongue spoke it and ordered the world with incredible attention to detail. And most amazingly, I too am part of His grand, elaborate, creative and perfect design. Wow! Because of that, I am inherently enough. I was created enough.
I’ve known this in my head for years. But last year there was a time when I had to confront myself and ask “am I trusting God with school because I trust Him or because it keeps working out fine in the end? If I actually failed a class or an assignment would I still trust Him with it and say that He is good?”. I was about to find out. I had a take home final due in my International Relations Class (which had been killing me all semester) and I had spent about 17 of the last 24 hours writing the final. I was doing OK in the class, but not great and definitely not as well as I wished I was. Finally handing in that paper felt so freeing; it was finally over, after much stress and striving.
Then I got home. A friend was going to come over before church and I was scrambling to clean my persistently messy room when I picked up a piece of paper and saw that it was one of the pages of my assignment. It had slipped off the printer and because the cover page had been there, I had just stapled the assignment and handed in, with about 500 words missing. Cue instant nausea and hysteria. God bless my poor friend Jon who showed up to my door to me sobbing and running around my room in a panic, trying to call my professor’s office, which was now closed. I tried to calm down and then Jon and I prayed for favour with my professor and TA and I emailed them both the electronic version of my paper, explaining what had happened.
As we headed to church, I was trying so hard to let it go and trust that God would make it all work together for good but I just couldn’t. I was furious with myself for not being more careful. I was mad that this class was, yet again, stressing me out. And to be perfectly honest, I was mad at God. Here I am, in university, trying to honour the opportunity I had been given to get an education, trying to do what I felt God had called me to be doing in this season of life and He, in all His power, couldn’t make sure I handed my paper in right?! Sounds silly I know but I’m sure we’ve all been there with anger that makes absurd accusations regardless of their truth. Thankfully Jesus is used to taking the ugliest parts of my human nature and drawing me closer to himself with patience, love and grace.
We got to church just as I received an email from my professor telling me that she would not be including the missing page and that my assignment would be marked as it had been handed in. Of course, I start sobbing again and go hide alone at the back of the church. I spent the entire service in angry, crying prayer. Y’all probably think I am so dramatic and honestly, I knew I was being dramatic too. I kept telling myself it was just a paper, that it was just one class, that it wasn’t life or death but I was so distraught.
That’s when God really started getting deep into the heart of it all. Why did this academic setback send me spiralling so hard? Why did I feel like such a failure?
Even though I could say that my identity is found in who God says I am, was it really true? That afternoon, God softened my heart, drew me close in his presence and reminded me who I am. I am not an incomplete IR paper. I am not my transcript. I am a daughter of the Highest King. I am chosen, set free and redeemed. There are plans for my life that will go beyond my wildest dreams if I am willing to give the reins over to the Lord. I had to level with God and admit that I had been idolizing academic success, for a long time. I had placed what my uOzone grade report said above what God himself said about me.
It was a hard lesson and it didn’t end that day. Last December as I headed home for Christmas I was utterly exhausted. I had had the worst four months of my entire life. Academically, personally, professionally. It had all been difficult. I was tired. So tired. My best friend and I sat in a parking lot one day and just yelled and laughed at how absurdly terrible our fall semesters had been. But then we talked about how good God is through those hard seasons.
I walked into my second semester and 2017 feeling more grounded in God’s word than ever before. I had learned what is means to hide myself in Him and His promises. I’ll be writing about 2017 year soon but for now, let me just tell you that it was been one full of grace, full of hard lessons and more anger at God and more running towards him all the same. It has been a year of growth and change and dreaming and hope. So much hope. We are so lucky to get to life this life, complete with all it’s joy and challenge.
So, who can stop the Lord Almighty? Not me and certainly not my grades. I am enough. I am worthy of the plans he has for my life because He created me, Jesus redeemed my life and I choose to value that above all else. That doesn’t mean I don’t try my very best at school – on the contrary, I believe my education is one of the biggest blessing I have been given and I want to steward it well. What it means is that I am free to do my best and have that be enough. I am free to hand things in and sleep in peace knowing that my world will not fall apart, regardless of what grade I get back. It means walking out of exams and not feeling like I’m going to melt in a puddle of tears. It means going home at the end of semester and not feeling like I just climbed into a lifeboat. Because I wasn’t drowning in the first place.
Trust God, friends. Rest in the knowledge that your best is enough. You are enough.
So many drafts saved, so few posts published! The saga continues with the tension of this internet space, as I discover more and more about who God has created me to be, think about how to express my thoughts, figure out what I want to share here and ponder what, if any, my influence is through writing. It’s a fun journey but one that sometimes means not much actually makes its way past a draft!! To make up for it, here’s a reallllly long one with lots of pretty pictures!
Anyyyyyway. If you follow me on social media or know me in real life, you probably know that I went on a little adventure last month to a place I’d never been before – Guatemala! Wahoo! This was my first time in Latin America as a “backpacker” (LOL) since previously I’ve visited with my family but stayed mostly on the resorts, hanging out on the beaches. This was a very different experience! I also got to travel with one of my best friends and we had just the most fun time. Fair warning, this post may just be a jumble of photos and little stories!
That said, there is something very unique about international travel that I simply love. I love the process of going from one place to another, the fact that I can sit down in this mental tube and a few hours later be someplace totally different. I love, love, love the process of planning and dreaming, only to find myself totally winging it when I get there. I love meeting people I don’t interact with in my everyday life whether that means locals or other backpackers. I love the tension and being kept on my toes and having everything just be a little out of my hands. I love trying to practice new languages (I got out a little easy this time because Nick’s Spanish is a lot better than mine and he bailed me out a bit hehe!)
Not to mention, the world is crazy beautiful.
Suffice to say, Iceland lit a fire under my feet and had me checking flight prices all winter and spring. After a while, I realized that my cheapest option was probably going to be Guatemala. So I started telling all my friends that I was going and that they were invited. Some people showed interest, a couple seriously. Eventually my dear friend Nick agreed to come along and we booked flights. Over the next couple months we laughed often about the fact that we were ACTUALLY going to go.
So here’s 10 things I learned over reading week in Guatemala:
You can be as careful as you like, but you still might get sick. Nick and I were pretty careful about where and what we ate and drank because we had heard that lots of people get sick while in Guatemala (and developing countries in general) but OF COURSE, the day we were supposed to go hiking, we both ended up really sick with some kind of brutal stomach bug or food poisoning. It had us out for the count for a full day/day and a half and didn’t fully go away until more than a week after we’d been home. I actually got it worse a second time after we were home and had to take antibiotics. All that to say a) you can’t control these things and b) you can’t be bitter about it and let it ruin your whole trip. I did warn Nick on day 1 that if anything bad could happen, it would surely happen to me/us. Y’all know the deal #samproblems
2. Travelling with a friend is very different than travelling alone. Not better or worse, just different. When I went to Iceland, I loved that I was totally in control of my own time and that I was only responsible for myself. Travelling with Nick, I suddenly was aware that all my decisions had to work for another person too! There was some tension with that because I had planned most of our trip and felt responsible for whether or not Nick had fun. At the same time, he is an adult and can take of himself. So it was interesting to figure out how to balance those things and how to travel together and how to let each other do their own thing but also be together most of the time. At the end of our trip we had a really good talk about communication and sharing planning responsibilities and how to learn from this trip for future adventures together!
Also, I noticed that I am more chill of a traveller than maybe I realized? I don’t really stress and stay pretty calm in situations that could become concerning and even though I knew that about myself, it was interesting to…notice I guess, what others find stressful about travel. Nick noticed things that I didn’t even think to be concerned about and it was good for both of us to balance each other out in that way because it forced me to consider things more carefully and question my assumptions and I encouraged him to relax a bit. On the flip side (this is going to sound very contradictory), I think I am still a pretty cautious traveller. Like I said, it’s a balance. I don’t act rashly but I also don’t worry once I have made a decision.
Overall, it was super nice to have someone with me along the way, especially since Nick is one of my best friends and he and I haven’t gotten much one on one time since moving out of residence in first year so our time together was really precious to me!
3. “Dangerous” is a relative term and a little common sense can go a long way. Speaking of stress or fear or danger and using common sense, I think it’s worth noting that I never felt unsafe in Guatemala. Before we went, several people voiced concern for us because statistically, Guat has high levels of crime. However that is mostly gang related and concentrated in the capital where we did not stay. There was one situation in a taxi where Nick thought we were potentially in danger but that was more due to a miscommunication in Spanish than anything else and everything ended up being ok. One other time, we were told a particular hike was unsafe unless in larger groups due to reports of tourists being mugged which, just that stipulation made me a little nervous. But honestly, we never felt like we were in particularly dangerous place. On our part, we took some precautions like not wandering around at night or flaunting expensive things around. In general we found Guatemalans to be very welcoming people who were open to sharing their culture (although sometimes they were pushy sales people lol)
4. A week isn’t long enough to appreciate the complexity of a countries history, politics and culture. Honestly, I have little to say about this except to say that I regret not learning more about Guatemala’s history before I went, that I really loved how present and prevalent the Indigenous culture still was and that I am constantly amazed by my own ignorance to other countries’ political climates, even though I am studying international development. I have so much to learn.
5. On that note, I’m still learning how studying development shapes my world view. I felt uncomfortable by how many people assumed my trip to Guatemala was to volunteer or do some kind of development work. Aside from the fact that I am still working through how I feel about “voluntourism”, the comments also felt a little accusative, as if my chosen field of study disallows me from travelling in the developing world for my own enjoyment. Yet, in a strange way, it does. Because of my education, I see things differently. I found myself hyper aware of my privilege as a visitor, painfully aware of my relative wealth. Although I am all for tourism because it is a source of income for many people, it’s impossible to visit Guatemala and not see the inequalities, the lack of drinkable water, the poverty.
Yet, as a student of development, I was ALSO really interested in the efforts I saw being made towards empowerment – Indigenous owned coffee companies, a newly opened restaurant that was part of a women’s co-op and vocational school, Spanish schools that teach the language through politics and education on colonial history. I could see small projects and changes happening. On my end, I am constantly learning and travel is just a small part of that. Even though this was a vacation and not an experiential learning opportunity, my education has changed the lens with which I travel and it continues to challenge the way I think and look at the world.
P.s. Like I said I have a lot of mixed feelings but a definition of voluntourism I would feel comfortable with would definitely involve way more awareness and knowledge of Guat than I had and would require longer term investment than one week – but that’s for another blog post.
6. Try to speak the local language. Just try a little. In Guatemala, you kind of had to know at least some Spanish. Although, in the villages, Spanish was actually the second language for many people who spoke one of 20+ Indigenous languages as a mother tongue! Although my speaking isn’t all that great, my comprehension in Spanish is ok and because of that, I got to barter and chat and hear bits of people’s stories – my favourite was talking to our taxi driver about swimming, a favourite activity we both shared. P.s. shout out to Nick for his Spanish skills saving me when I floundered 2 out of 3 times.
7. Backpacker culture is different in different parts of the world. Previously when I’ve stayed in hostels I have found it easy to make friends and fit into the backpacker culture. In Guatemala I found it more difficult to “fit in”. Many people I spoke to had very different perceptions than I do of what traveling looks like, what it’s purpose is and why one should do it. Although I love talking to people with different points of view, I found the backpacking culture in Guat to be a little toooooo “go with the flow” for me. Not that being flexible is bad but everyone I talked to seemed to be traveling indefinitely, with no plans and no purpose, to the point where some of them were rather rude about the fact that Nick and I were in school – because in their mind, school couldn’t possibly be about anything other than conforming to societal expectations. Along with this, I found many of them didn’t seem to understand that their ability to travel in this manner is not a way of fighting back against the capitalist societal norms but actually a result of their Western privilege – hanging out at a hostel for months on end means you are wealthy enough to travel and CHOOSE an alternative to the corporate world. I don’t mean this as a judgement or to paint all Central American backpackers in a bad light because obviously there are many types of people who travel for various reasons, it was just an overall attitude difference than what I have seen other places. That said, Nick and I did of course meet some really interesting people, from a new friend from Colombia to a group Irish girls on their grad trip to a really cool German couple and an older woman on a spiritual journey. Travel always, always, always opens my mind to the diversity of people.
8. 20 is apparently still too young to be travelling. When I was 19 in Iceland I was “just a baby”. Apparently going to Guatemala at 20 still warrants “awww”s and disbelief that young people can take airplanes without adult supervision
9. Splurge on some activities but don’t forget that just being present in a new environment is an amazing way to spend time. I absolutely adored going zip lining in a National Park and I am so glad we spent a day in Chichi at the largest market in Central America. But my favourite memory from our trip is when one morning we got up and went swimming in the volcanic lake. Here’s a little blurb I wrote in my journal that day:
“This morning when I got up, I looked out and saw nothing but trees. With only two walls and no electricity, our hostel room feels more like a secret club house than a bedroom. I got up and wandered down to the lake where the sky was clear and the tops of the volcanoes were visible, towering on the other side of the lake. Carefully picking my way along the boardwalk, I went to a quiet swimming place and jumped in, the clear, cold water enveloping me and then buoying me back up to the surface. As I turned back to shore, I can hardly believe my eyes. Mountains reach up and up, covered in lush, dense jungle and spotted with coloured houses. Around the summits, fog swirls. Nick and I keep laughing because it honestly feels like we must be in a movie, it’s just so beautiful.”
The sheer joy of being a new place, seeing beauty I had never seen before, floating in blue water and laughing with my friend is a wonderful as any activity I could have planned. When travelling, make sure to take time to just be present in the place.
10. Travel always revives my sense of wonder and reminds me of God’s glory and creativity. Wow, wow, wow you guys. Guatemala is seriously incredible! And it just makes me want to see other places all the more. Seeing natural beauty and diversity always just makes me want to draw close to the Lord and praise Him for all He has created and blessed me with. One morning when I couldn’t sleep because I was sick, I went down and sat on a dock around 4am and sang worship songs as the sun rose up from behind the volcanos ringing the lake. It’s as beautiful as it sounds. Traveling around and exploring Guatemala revived my child-like sense of wonder and made me grateful all over again for the world God created.
SO that’s about all I’ve got for now I think. I guess I had quite a bit to say! I’m just so grateful for the opportunities I have to explore and live life to the fullest. Thanks as always for reading, for putting up with my ramblings and for following me along on this ever changing, ever challenging, ever exciting and ever grander adventure.
It sucks that you all are so far away
(or maybe not, if you’re in Ottawa lets grab coffee).
I really love sitting with people and hearing about their biggest dreams.
The ones you don’t talk about so often, the ones that matter so much you don’t dare tell people, lest they don’t understand.
I want to invite you into my room,
pour you a cup of tea and sit with you on my couch by the window.
You’re lucky; I don’t clean my room very often but I always try to tidy it for guests.
Today, all the pillows are in place and the plants have been watered and the kettle is on
I want to hear what you’re passionate about.
I want you to explain to me things I probably won’t understand,
the things that make you talk a little too fast and gesture with your hands a little too much.
The things that make your eyes light up
and then keep you up at night, in awe of the beauty and complexity of the world we live in.
Tell me about how plants duplicate their chromosomes,
about how science exposes the miracles of creation
Explain how to find the best lighting for a photograph, how to set up the perfect shot,
to balance reality and creativity
Let me read bits of your soul on paper,
poetry and stories that capture the world and wrangle it into squiggly lines,
tell me how words beg for lined paper homes and pitch tents in old notebooks
Show me how to make a good cup of coffee, latte art and all
Share the secrets of the sky, the constellations and the nebulas;
whisper their stories, as if you lived each legend yourself. You, storyteller of the skies
Explain math to me, not in the way my 3rd grade teacher explained it,
Instead explain how the logic clicking into place explains the subtext of the way the world works together in I way I just don’t see
Tell me how you see colour and make paints and pencils
somehow recreate the world I can touch but never see the way you do,
let me into the exhale you feel when you do what you were created for.
Tell me what makes you feel alive. Tell me what you do to feel most you.
Who are you friend?
What makes you tick?
I only get one life, one set of eyes,
one mind to ponder with.
and see through each other’s mind for just a little while.
I’ll sip my tea while you talk
I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the student neighbourhood beside campus, drinking tea, listening to the classic coffee shop music and enjoying watching the people come and go.
Today is the first day since the middle of August that I have nothing I absolutely have to do. No commitments and no responsibilities. Yes, I should study. And yes, if my residents ask me a question I’m going to answer it because that’s just me. Yes I could prep for my interviews next week or I could finally get around to balancing my budget for a trip I led or I could do the research I haven’t had time to do for my volunteer project. But honestly I’m going to take full advantage of this unexpected time off.
Let’s be real, if you know me, you probably know that I would never have planned a “nothing day”. I absolutely thrive when I am busy and productive and surrounded by friends and adventure. And so, that’s what I planned for this weekend. I planned my third Outdoor’s Club trip in three weeks. I planned to take 10 people to the Adirondack mountains in New York state, my first time to go there. I spent three weeks planning logistics and signing people up and running around collecting gear and making sure everything was ready to go and I packed my bag, ignoring the fact that I was tired and my weekends off were meant to be restful, not stressful.
See I’m not that good at saying “no”. And apparently I’m not that good at listening when God is trying to tell me to “stop”.
Let me tell you all the things that went wrong while I was planning this trip:
– People didn’t show up to sign up and we spent days running all over campus to collect money
– A driver dropped out
– Then we found another driver
– Another driver dropped out
– Then we convinced another exec member to come and be a driver
– Then we realized no one had sleeping bags or tents and all the club ones had been rented out
– So we spent the day before the trip running all over the neighbourhood, posting on Facebook and tracking down as many sleeping bags and tents as possible.
– Then we couldn’t find the stove we were planning to take
– Finally at 10:30am the DAY OF THE TRIP – a driver cancelled because they were sick. After everything else, I almost wasn’t even surprised.
So, I took one for the team and I didn’t go. We managed to squeeze everyone else into the remaining two cars and I stayed home, after three weeks of thinking, planning and preparing for the trip. I was really sad but after running through all the options, this was the only one that really made sense. I’m not looking for praise for sacrificing my trip for everyone else to be able to go (which is what I’ve gotten from a lot of friends) because honestly, it just reminded me of all the things I’ve learned about being a leader over the years. A leader puts the team before themselves – I wasn’t necessary to the trip and I didn’t HAVE TO go. There are two other leaders still there and I was the least necessary to the well-being of the trip because I didn’t have experience in the location. And as the president of the Outdoors Club, I put in so many hours of organization to allow other people to experience the wonder and transformation I’ve always felt outdoors. I didn’t want to take this experience away from anyone else and so it made sense for me to give up my adventure so others could have theirs. That’s what a leader does sometimes.
So here I am.
And last night and today as I was getting ready for my unexpected day off, I reminded myself that everything happens for a reason, that God the Father knows what I need long before I do. Although I thought what I needed was a day in the cold mountain air, a day spent pushing my body to it’s limits and climbing and doing something new, God had other plans. I have to continuously remind myself that when you surrender your life to God, you surrender the right to be angry when plans change. A long time ago I surrendered having total control over my life and I asked God to led me down the paths that are the BEST for me. Not just good or better but BEST.
Trust me, I thought the mountains were a good path. I still think it would have been a great weekend. But I can see God’s hand in this. If I truly believe that God knows me better than I know myself AND that He cares for me and gives good gifts (I do believe that), then I also have to trust when He changes plans on me. That belief also means trying my best to take changed plans with a positive attitude and an open heart to learn from whatever situation I find myself in. I think it wasn’t so much the mountain adventure that wasn’t God’s best for me – it was the constantly being responsible for others that I needed a break from. I didn’t even realize it before now but I think I needed a weekend to be just Sam. Not a CA, not a leader, not a student, not a friend or anything else. Just me.
I’m taking this “weekend off” as I nudge from God that I need to slow down. That I need to remember to do simple things, to have Sabbath times in my life, whether or not that ends up being a Sunday morning. I need to be taking time to breathe.
Today I am drinking coffee and taking time to blog. I’m going to go finish my book in the park and I’m going to go to the mall and buy new jeans. I might do some readings for class but only if I feel like it. I’m going to go for a long walk and listen to worship music and maybe see some friends. And tomorrow I’m going to go to church which I haven’t done in weeks because it’s been a month since I’ve been in Ottawa on a Sunday.
And come Monday, I’ll be back to my crazy life; don’t get me wrong, I love it. This semester is full of light and life and goodness and excitement. I’m actually really thriving in the busy, crazy goodness of it all. For the first time in a long time this season feels like I am exactly where I need to be. I feel like I am doing the Sam things and that God is preparing me to springboard into even more exciting seasons. I’m truly so so happy. I’m taking six classes in three languages and I’m in my favourite residence with amazing first years, I’m running a club that I love and am so passionate about and I’m volunteering with a food security project at the university. I’m applying for coop jobs and spending time with people who I am incredibly blessed to have in my life. I’m spending lots of time outside and lots of time with Jesus and my heart feels happy and full.
I just need to remember that it’s ok to take a break from the chaos, EVEN WHEN the chaos is GOOD. Life is crazy and busy and above all full of goodness and sweet, simple gifts from God. I just need to remember that it’s ok to say “I can’t sorry. I just need to go have a coffee and be Sam.”
Thank you Jesus for knowing what I need long before I do. I’m so blessed.