Thoughts from visiting countless cathedrals

Soaring columns and colours that dance on the walls due to stained glass windows letting in the light, Gothic architecture is a pretty specific (and stunning) look. It’s one that is extremely prevalent in Spain and particularly in the many Catholic cathedrals and basilicas that sprinkle the country. As I learned more about the architectural choices and the significance behind them, I definitely grew to see the beauty in them as an offering of creativity by architects seeking to honour God and in some cases (such as the Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona), an opportunity for the entire community to come together and create a place of communal worship in the centre of the neighbourhood. Cathedrals are truly awe-inspiring and I think some cases, really do create a sacred space that draws people into contemplation, prayer and ultimately, a meeting with God.

However, I also saw a lot of excess. A lot of wealth being demonstrated by ancient royalty to prove their power and “devotion to God” while they simultaneously allowed their people to starve, while they destroyed minority communities, while they exhibited cruelty instead of love. Some of the places I visited felt so joyful and spirit filled (guys, visiting the Sagrada Familia was actually such a holy experience for me, despite the crazy crowds of people trying to get their perfect picture). But some of the cathedrals and the history behind the buildings, the context of how and when these monuments were created, made me feel sad, made the hallways feel empty and hollow and fake. Monuments to man instead of God. Wars waged over who got to worship within their walls. Monuments to the institution of religion instead of a home for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts.

I’m currently working on a post about what God was teaching me about having a pilgram’s heart and mindset while travelling, as well as some just about travelling with my mom and the incredible adventure we had. For now, I want to share with you this poem I wrote while exploring one cathedral that felt like a museum to the king who had built it and a space for the Church to honour itself instead of Jesus. I am not going to say which one because I don’t think it’s important for you to know. We must acknowledge the history of spaces and also know that the Lord renews all things; who am I to say that God will not meet you in that particular cathedral in a powerful way? He met me there. In that centuries old building that felt like an empty tomb, Jesus reminded me that He is wherever I am. And He also reminded me that I am not innocent of the same sins I felt there. I too try to build up things that show the world how faithful I am, instead of just walking it out and being the church to the people I meet. I pray that this poem will be a prayer I don’t stop praying, that I continue to seek to honour God with the things I am choosing to build with this life. And you dear reader, what are you building? What do you want the monument of your life to show?

 

Holy God.

You are not contained in cathedrals.

Yet we strive,

build up impressive monuments,

instead of creating churches out of our lives.

We each want to prove that we love you the most.

Build big enough examples to see for miles,

and yet we can’t even find a smile

as we walk past yet another beggar.

So easily we forget;

you are in the rags that we turn our eyes away from.

Gilded statues and gold,

we are willing to give our money but refuse to let you hold

our hearts.

Surrender is a false concept we bury deep in the foundations

to hold up our own creations

instead of being fully present in the one You gave us.

And Jesus, I know you are with me always,

in the mountains and in the hallways

of this church.

But may I never try to keep you here.

These drafty hallways and ruby coated walls,

heaven on earth is not this at all.

Lord,

you have all the riches you need.

Instead I offer you my heart.

Please,

take away my tendency for jealousy and greed.

Build cathedrals in my soul, Lord.

May I worship you each day,

singing holy, holy, holy is the One

who has shown us all the Way

to the Father’s throne.

It is not here, not made of velvet and stone.

Instead make pillars out of faith Lord,

to hold me up when life is hard.

I can survive without stained glass windows

but losing intimacy with You,

I can’t afford.

For though I see the beauty in these walls,

when our bodies are all temples, echo chambers of your call

for each of us to know You

we shouldn’t need a massive space to prove

our faith.

Lord,

may I never create for creation’s sake,

for conquest, power or for pride.

But as an imitation of your love

that is tall and deep and wide.

God thank you for this journey,

as you carve in me a pilgrims heart

Your Holy Spirit rests in me, in my study, work and art.

Let these buildings not distract me,

or others from the truth

that it’s not about the saints and angels

but the simple joy of knowing you.

Jesus,

teach me as I worship,

with each step and every breath,

how to find You in this world of wild excess

and more importantly, in the quiet and the rest.

These buildings are stunning and some have pointed me to you.

But others are empty of the Spirit,

honouring earthly kings and their world-views.

I learned that in Spain three religions warred,

wanting power and control,

but you Lord are the Lion

who comes in as a baby, with a cry and not a roar.

Though you are the keeper

of all Creation big and small,

You sacrificed the last True Lamb

to save us one and all.

Holy Spirit,

Cathedrals do not contain you

though they amaze me with their size

You are in our daily rhythms, in our hearts,

our prayers, our minds.

Build signposts in my heart Lord,

to keep pointing me back to You.

Let me love bigger than a basilica,

so that it is You my actions point to.

Make my life a work of art

A sign that reads humbly but clear

that this is not an empty building, temple, body.

The Holy Spirit dwells here.

 

Not Painting the Sea

Being in British Columbia made me wish that I was a painter. Despite usually feeling like my words are sufficient to paint images in people’s minds, these views had me speechless which happens very rarely.

One day I went hiking with my family and left them to continue the trail while I climbed down to the rocky beach. Kicking off my sandals and walking out onto the rocks, I feel more like a foreigner than anything else. My feet are soft, from summers spent on sandy shores in Georgian Bay, years of running through Beausoleil Island and Killbear Provincial Park. This pebbled beach, rolling under my feet and pricking the soles when a bit of shell peaks through, it feels different. It’s hard to believe this is the same Canada I know and love.

I get to the edge of the water, breathe deeply through my nose, inhaling the salty smell. This too is new. Canada, from sea to sea to sea, for me has always been a land of lakes, where I can dive deep, look up and watch the sunlight filter through the marbled green and blue water. I will not even try to open my eyes in the ocean.

The waves lap against my toes and my feet remind me that they are hurting on the rocks; the sooner I go in, the sooner I can float and let them rest. But the water is cold and it is not a hot day. My favourite black bathing suit, which I’ve been carrying around for days hoping to get close to the ocean, has been left in the car. I didn’t expect this hiking trail to led me to the water. Still, my red jumpsuit will dry quickly I suspect and I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to swim this trip. Now or never.

I clumsily walk into the waves, trying not to fall. A little girl runs toward the water a few meters away from me; clearly she is BC grown because she doesn’t even flinch at the rocks splaying out from under her feet. Her grandma trails behind and we look at each, smiling. I remember that I now look more adult than girl.

“Is it cold?” She asks me.

I smile again and nod. “I’m trying to convince myself to do it, just to dunk and get it over with.”

“It’s not bad, come on!” the little girl is kicking and splashing between us.

She’s right. My legs and feet have adjusted and I know the rest of me will too as soon as I convince myself to get in. I turn around to face the shore, count to three and fall backwards into the shadowy, rolling water. It’s a trick that always works but my breath still catches for a minute as the cold water engulfs me.

And then I let myself breath deeply. Lake or sea, water is water and I always feel at home when I’m floating. My clothes billow out around me but for some reason, it doesn’t feel scary, like swimming in clothes sometimes can. My lips taste the salt and my hair, loose and long, fans out around me, bits of it sticking around my neck and chest. The grandma has taken the plunge too and she and the girl are pretending to be dolphins; I can’t help but grin, remembering all the hours I spent kicking and spinning in the lake back home, sunlight dancing in patches on my skin, as I pretended to be a mermaid. To see me now, in the sea itself, long hair and bright eyes, I can almost fall back into the fantasy.

I start paddling out, awe struck by the mountains on the horizon. It’s this moment that leaves me feeling without adequate words, this moment where I curse my “lack of creativity” and wish my fingers knew the secrets of replicating the Artist’s greatest works. It’s a view all made of blue, the sea the sky and mountains layered in the distance. As if someone started at the bottom and ran out of ink as they shaded skyward, the mountains rise in groups of bluish gray, getting lighter as they dance towards the sky. Mountains always seem to me to be to be vibrating with their own rhythm and life, despite their strongly grounded roots.  The trees here look different too. Like Christmas trees in fairytale giants’ homes, they cluster around the base of the jagged hill. From far away, they don’t look green, but rather almost black, a contrasting border to the mountain shades. How wondrous it is that this fairytale view too is the country I call home.

I’m not sure how long I floated there, thinking about how small I was. Just floating in the sea and wondering at the mountains. Eventually my family comes into view over the ridge high above the beach and I know it’s time to go. My uncle is coming down for a minute; I think he wants to touch the sea before we leave. As I climb out of the water, my hair and clothes suctioned to my body, my uncle and the little girl’s mother on the beach are staring at something just behind me. My uncle points and I turn around.
“Orcas” someone shouts.

I stare at the horizon, straining without my glasses to see something far away. To my surprise, I see a fin rise up much closer than anticipated, maybe 100 feet or less from where I had floated minutes before. I watch, mouthing “wow” to myself again and again, unable to come up with anything else, as the rolling waves reveal three orca whales passing by close to the beach. I can hardly believe how lucky I feel; I shared water with these creatures. Their smooth black and white bodies are clear to see, despite my lack of distance vision. My uncle is trying to get a picture or a video but I feel rooted to the rocks, my tender feet forgotten. I want to be present in this moment with Creation. The rollercoaster movement of the orcas, up and down, coming into view further left each time, feels like a gift, handed specifically to me by the Creator. Lord, if you wanted me to fall in love with B.C., you’re doing a really good job of it.

Eventually, we can’t see them anymore as they round the corner of the island. The women tells us that despite coming here, to this beach, every summer of her life, she has never seen whales here, not ever before. I can’t keep the smile off my face; what a gift God has given me today. My feet could dance, even on the rocky shore.

I grab my shoes. I take one more deep breath of ocean air. Nature has so many smells and I’ve grown to love each one. From the mossy dampness of the forest, when you crawl out of your tent in the quiet morning after a storm, to the sprigs of lavender that dot the path in the meadow in late August, to now this salty, brisk, wild smell of sea in British Colombia, a new puzzle piece in my Canadian mosaic. I take one last look at the view. Even though the whale friends have disappeared, this view can hold it’s own for awe and wonder. The mountains in their magnitude, crashing into the bluer sky and melting into the untamed waves evokes in me gratitude, hope and a sense of adventure that fills my soul and reminds me, the way something beautiful does everyday, how glad I am to be alive.

I feel a moment of sadness, knowing that I am not a painter; I will never be able to replicate with misty edges and smudged colours, this picture that my mind will slowly let fade. But it’s ok. this feeling of foreignness and home, of wonder and of awe, of being small and one with Creation. This feeling will come again. I serve the Greatest Painter and He is always sharing with me His favourite pieces of art.

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Malawi Musings

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Daily commute

It’s wild to think that I have been in Malawi for nearly a month now. I’m going to renew my visa tomorrow and I can’t believe it’s that time already! So much has happened and yet at the same time, life is quiet here. I’ve settled into a routine and so as much as it’s adventure to adjust to a new country and culture, at the end of the day, I still go to work Monday to Friday. The day to day is too boring for Instagram I’m afraid! Still, there has been a lot of beauty to be seen so I’ll try to give an update on the most major things without dragging on too long.

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Firstly, I’ve been learning to live without instant access to electricity. I really don’t want to whine or go on too long about this but it has been a significant adjustment to not always be able to flick a switch and have light. Malawi deals with power load shedding which sometimes follows a schedule and sometimes does not. This means for a certain number of hours each day, each area of the city gets the electricity cut off. The sun sets here at around 5:30pm so not having lights at night means a lot of hours of walking around with a flashlight or lighting candles. I also live by myself so for the first couple weeks I absolutely hating coming home at night knowing I’d be alone in the dark for hours…I’ve gotten  a lot more sleep by going to bed at 8pm some nights! The schedule seems to have mellowed out though (less nights in a row without power) and my place got a gas stove so I can cook even when the power is out which I am super grateful for. I’ve also just gotten more used to it…I always complained about not being allowed to have candles in residence so I am certainly making up for it now haha! I even did a co-op interview by candle light this week.

The general pace of life here is much slower as well. Living in Zomba rather than a bigger city like Lilongwe (the capital) or Blantyre (the economic and business hub), means that nights are quiet and there is not much to do…I am used to running around every night of the week with multiple commitments so it’s been a change to come home, cook dinner, read and go to sleep! On the flip side, it is incredibly beautiful here. I love walking to work looking up at the plateau and I am always surrounded by greenery which of course makes this outdoorsy human happy. I don’t think I will ever get used to being in a meeting on the back porch and getting distracted by watching the monkeys and baboons play beside the office!

 

 

Speaking of the office, I am really enjoying my work here. It’s been so cool to finally get to work with people in the field and see interventions taking place in real time. A couple of weeks ago I got to go to a drama festival for ArtGlo’s Make Art, Stop Aids program. Along with learning that field work sometimes comes with delays, challenges and broken down cars, I also got to watch Malawian youth use art to be catalysts for conversations about sexual reproductive health in their communities. It was inspiring. On the more regular days, I am in the office (or out on the porch) helping with curriculum, funding research, program review and whatever else I can pitch in with. I love moving seats each day and getting to know my co-workers better all the time. They are quite amused by my weak Chichewa attempts.

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Some colleagues and Students With Dreams mentors at their end of year graduation!

I’ve also gotten to start exploring Malawi a bit on the weekends (and I am looking forward to hopefully doing a lot more of that!) My very first weekend in the country I went to Lake Malawi, at Cape Maclear. I hadn’t been feeling well during that trip but even so, I had a great time. Boat rides, a fish fry on the beach, snorkelling, reading and taking in that I was actually, finally, in Africa for the first time was a pretty good way to spend the weekend!

 

My second weekend I hung around Zomba and started getting to know it a little bit better. I visited the market with my landlord/friend Esnatt and she introduced me to her vegetable man, potato lady, and banana stand of choice. The market here in Zomba is not nearly as overwhelming as the one Nick and I visited in Guatemala, or even the others in Malawi I have seen. I also hung up my hammock between two mango trees, ate cake at MaiPai (where I live), read a lot and called friends from home. I also went to church with Esela (Esnatt’s sister…there is also Emela) which was interesting…mostly because it wasn’t much different from home! The English service wasn’t, anyway. Apparently the Chichewa services are more lively.

 

My third weekend was filled with plans that ended up changing. In the end, five of the girls who I flew over from Canada with (the other WUSC interns) came to visit from Lilongwe and we went hiking up on the Plateau that dominates the Zomba views. It was my first trip up and I can promise that it won’t be the last. As I said, my outdoorsy heart is pretty happy here surrounded by all the green. We had a fancy lunch at a hotel on the top with a beautiful view and hiked to a waterfall. Myself and Val even went swimming!

 

Last weekend, the fourth in Malawi, I happened to find myself back at Cape Maclear…I hadn’t been sure I would make it back at all, let alone so soon! This time I was with a group of other expats from Zomba and it was really a fun weekend. We stayed at a lodge down the beach from where I had been the first time and I read a whole book while laying in the sun, taking swim breaks and chatting with new friends. We did a boat cruise as well, at sunset, and danced to fun songs in the evening. It was nice to get to know some people living here and to feel like I am making friends!

 

I hate when I let myself fall away from blogging….it always means that when I get back to it, we end up with these long winded catch-up posts that don’t have a particular topic. I think one of the reasons I have been so hesitant to share my time here is that I am trying to be mindful of jumping to assumptions or sharing things I don’t actually know much about. Honestly, I just don’t want to appear whiney either, or ungrateful for the opportunity to be here, or like I can’t handle development work because I am lonely and don’t like not having electricity. And the truth is, I really have been fine, even when I miss Ottawa or wish I was eating a meal that doesn’t involve rice. 1528050334609

I still haven’t found quite comfortably how to be honest about my experiences and share them but also not being dramatic or making things out to be different than they actually are. Where is the line between being critical and being condescending? How do I allow myself to be curious and process my lack of knowledge without spreading ignorance?

Over the next couple weeks (once Skype interviews for co-op are over, fingers crossed!) I’m hoping to write some more specific posts, about things I’ve done or things I am learning. I would love to know what people want to hear more about. Are you interested in more development minded posts, analyzing things are the same or different from what I have been taught in school? Or in more travel focused posts, about my weekend adventures and the beauty and culture of the country? Or stories about my life here, like my show down with the rat who has decided to share my room? Something else? Let me know!

Until next time, Sam

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Beautiful view from the boat

You Guat’a be kidding me

Hey there my friends! How is everyone?

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!

Last year I decided to stop talking and writing so much about desiring adventure and travel and just friggin’ do it. I went to Iceland by myself and it was a really freeing and wonderful experience that I think helped me grow a lot as a person. It’s that “shut up and go” attitude that I’ve tried to carry over into my everyday life since then, from spontaneous weekend trips to Montreal, to canoeing in new places, to trying out a new hobby, to “adventuring” in my own city to find new places to study and explore.

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.

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Friend!! He put up with me being bossy and sick and bad at Spanish for a whole week! What a guy!!

So here’s 10 things I learned over reading week in Guatemala:

  1. 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

 

 

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A real-life view of what travel sometimes looks like #dying

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Until next time,

Sam

(Don’t) talk to strangers?

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I met these friends just two days before our adventure to Gatineau Park

Every little kid knows the rule growing up: don’t talk to strangers. And fair enough! The world is a dangerous place. Kids are vulnerable. You never know people’s true intentions. However as we get older, the narrative continues. Especially as a girl, I am continually encouraged to keep my guard up around people I just met, not to trust too quickly. Stranger danger becomes a way of life, a way of looking at the world.

While we definitely need to be thoughtful, wise and aware, I think that the intense and immediate distrust of strangers, the assumption that people are bad or dangerous until proven otherwise, is a communal mindset that drives us towards a more individualistic and frankly, more boring society. As children, yes, a blanket rule of thumb is required for safety. But as adults? I would argue that we all could use some more stranger “danger” in our lives. Not literal danger y’all, just a couple steps outside our comfort zones will do!

Choosing to interact with people you don’t know in a genuine and engaged way brings so much joy and interest to our day to day lives. It teaches teaches us about what true hospitality looks like and helps foster an encompassing sense of community that humanizes the “other”.

Friends have, I’m sure, heard me say it before, I may have even written it in the blog, that “strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet”. I don’t say that to be naïve. I’m not assuming everyone will like me and I’m not disregarding the fact that there are indeed dangerous people out there with malicious intentions. However, that is not the majority. Everyone you have ever known was a stranger at some point. Maybe you were introduced by a friend or had a class together and you got to know each other in what is societally considered a safe space.

But

Who’s to say that guy reading a book in the park isn’t also going to be super cool and share your love of skiing?

Unless you ask her, how will you know that the women sitting next to you on the bus has walked the entire Great Wall of China or that she has her pilots license or that she and her husband have the best love story you’ve never heard?

If you don’t talk to strangers you may never hear why someone would want to be vegan or how one goes about building their own sailboat or what it’s like to work in a brewery or what it’s like to be a diplomat in Syria. My parents always told me, “you can’t do everything”. They were right! But SOMEONE out there has done everything. Don’t you want to hear their stories?

Aside from being purely interesting, it also teaches us how to love more fully. Inviting someone into your life and into your space isn’t always easy and it may require a little bit of sacrifice. But choosing community and choosing hospitality is SO WORTH IT.

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In the woods, exploring with Remi, Jess and Mike

As many of you probably read last week I ended up going to Montréal by myself. While we’re on the subject, thank you all so much for the support! I received countless messages of encouragement after my plans got flipped on their head. Spontaneity and risk taking y’all, it pays off.  Now I could have spent all weekend exploring by myself but where’s the fun in that? I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and so I couldn’t wait to get to know these people that had been unexpectedly thrown into my life. Getting to know people and hearing their life stories was one of my favourite parts about my trip to Iceland and I didn’t see why Montreal had to be any different!

 

I ended up meeting people from all over: Scotland, England, France, Germany, China, Australia, Brazil, etc. Everyone had different reasons for traveling, they were of all different ages and we spoke about all kinds of things, from music to politics to language learning to sailing to what it’s like to be Canadian. I wasn’t just talking to strangers. I made friends. 

And although it might have made my mom uneasy, I actually ended up inviting a couple of guys, David and Frank to stay at my apartment back in Ottawa with my roommates and I as they continued their Canadian adventures. You know what? It made my week having them there. Aside from the fact that they were completely respectable houseguests, they were also fun guys! We took them to see the light show on Parliament Hill, went to a karaoke bar, went to Blue’s fest and also just chatted. My roommates and I felt a little lonely when they finally moved onto the next leg of their trips, after each having spent 4 nights sleeping on our couch!

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David and Frank, our couch surfers. They were trying to see if the cucumber would scare our cat?

They were strangers. Who quickly became friends.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made fast friends about people and welcomed them into my life. There are a couple of people I’ve met through blogging/Youtube who I’ve actually met and hung out with in real life. There are a couple of girls I connected with on Facebook before coming to university who are still friends of mine. My host family in Switzerland were total strangers and they were some of the most wonderful and kind souls. Speaking of exchange, my current roommate is a girl I met in the airport on my way to Switzerland 3 years ago. Our other roommate was literally a stranger.  And you know what? I love them both so much it’s crazy.

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Roomie love

I’ve made friends with strangers in the park and random people on buses and in coffee shops. I’ve had fantastic conversations with people I will never see again. I’ve gotten to go on outdoor adventures with friends of friends of friends because I decided to talk to them.

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More strangers turned friends!

It’s scary to talk to strangers. They represent a total unknown. They could be rude. They could be having a bad day (in which case maybe a friendly banter with you is exactly what they need?). Maybe they re someone unlike anyone else you know – and maybe that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe they have incredible stories to tell and maybe you’ll find them incredibly boring.

But try. Invite someone to have coffee with you. Treat acquaintances with more warmth and hospitality than they are expecting. Smile at the man standing next to you at the cross walk. Take time to step outside of the individual bubble we’ve all taught ourselves to walk about in. Start seeing people as the complex, puzzling, dazzling pieces of art that they are. I promise that your life will become infinitely richer with each story you tell, each face that becomes familiar and each human being you choose to call friend instead of stranger.

Until next time

 

Sam

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Ready for an afternoon paddle – with a bunch of total “strangers” as per the usual!

 

 

 

 

 

Skál and Bless

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Where to begin?

Well, I’ve been home from Iceland for just more than 24 hours and I’ve already figured out where I want to go next reading week and scoped out the cheapest flights, if that tells you anything. I’ve travelled before but this was the first time by myself and the first time in this way. Going on exchange in Switzerland, visiting family in Ireland and spending time at resorts in Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican are very different than staying in a hostel and travelling just for the pureness of it.

It truly was a whirlwind 5 days. Between hours spent on buses, planes and waiting around for the two former, I lost all of Sunday and most of Thursday to travel so in reality, I had just THREE days in Iceland. Call me crazy (and some did) for taking such a quick trip but it was exactly what I needed to wet my feet and get out of this city. Don’t worry Ottawa, I still love ya but the change of scenery and sense of adventure, independence and autonomy was so good for my restless soul.

A long time ago, just after coming home from my exchange I wrote a spoken word poem that I posted here, about the intense desire I felt to see more of the world, as well as about how I expected travel to shape and change me. I look back now on my exchange and I am so incredibly grateful of the afternoons I spent wandering around my adopted city (Geneva) and the road trips my lovely host family took me on; it allowed me to see so much of their mountainous country. It was then that I first learned a new language, that mountains became so dear to my heart and that I made friends because hey, they happened to be sitting next to me! My trip to Iceland brought all of these memories rushing back.

And the fact that I wrote “I want to get lost in unknown cities and find Sam in the process”  makes me laugh because I really did get lost in Reykjavik one day and rather than panic or get upset about having lost a good chunk of my day, I just went with the flow and had a perfectly “Sam” adventure. It ended with me standing knee deep in the North Atlantic Ocean in February, staring up in awe at Mount Esja, up close and personal.

I had also written about wanting to meet “people rushing about, strangers who were really just friends I hadn’t yet met” and that certainly came true on this trip, to an extent even I hadn’t expected. I noticed that there is something about being a solo traveler in particular that draws friends to you. I’m not sure if it’s because you’re less intimidating/more approachable, if they just don’t want you to be alone or what but I was constantly being invited to do things. That was a common theme in the hostel as well as on tours or even just in the streets. Every traveller I met was eager to meet other people, which was SO refreshing. In my everyday life, I find that we are all  so focused on our own busy lives that we rarely look up to see the strangers with whom we could have SUCH GREAT conversations, if only we made the time. As people have been asking me my favourite part of the trip, this actually has been sticking out, above even all the incredible natural wonders that Iceland had to offer and my own adventurous spirit being satisfied. I enjoyed meeting diverse and interesting people everywhere I went.  Some of them, I spoke to for just minutes and others hours. Some I am connected with on social media and others I will never hear from again. Some were “recurring characters” so to say  (those in my hostel room in particular), well others were part of only one scene like the teachers from New York that I met on my first day at 6am. These “characters” are what fill out an adventure. The beauty of a place is important yes, but those conversations had floating in the lagoon or chatting over drinks are what will stick with me the most I think.

That said, Iceland itself was beautiful. With such a short time frame I didn’t see as much of it as some others. And I missed seeing the Aurora Borealis booooooo. Still, that which I did see was breathtaking. On my second day, I took a bus tour out of the city and around the “Golden Circle”: three popular tourist sights that essentially give a good taste of what Iceland has to offer while being a relatively short drive from the capital. We saw a geyser called Strokkur, a waterfall called Gulfoss and visited the national park Pingvellir (a UNESCO world heritage site) where we walked between tectonic plates and saw the site of the first democratic parliament. My particular tour also included a stop at the so-called “Secret” Lagoon which may have been one of my favourite parts of my trip. Just picture hanging out in a giant natural hot tub beside steaming hot mud pits and a boiling geysir that are feeding directly into the pool. So friggin cool. One of the most interesting things about Iceland is the geothermal energy that runs through the country in plenty.

That said, I didn’t feel the intense connection and draw to Iceland the way I have with other places I’ve visited. I know a lot of people adore the country and many travellers return time and again; maybe I just didn’t have enough time to really appreciate it or maybe I spent too much time in the city and not enough out in nature but I don’t feel a desire to return anytime soon. Not to say I didn’t like it, honestly it’s difficult to explain. Just that I’m glad I’ve been but I wouldn’t rush to be back. And this might also sound strange but (sorry Mom and Dad), it kind of felt too safe. Someone I met put it really well: Reykjavik felt almost like a theme park. It was just so peaceful, everyone spoke English, the capital was small and easy to wander. Again, not to say I didn’t love my trip because I did but it was almost like being in this travel bubble where I had huge margins for error and nothing could go wrong. It definitely took away some of the adventurous feel. And I didn’t feel like I got to experience or see a different culture which for me is a huge and important aspect of travel. Definitely, I’ll go back someday if I get the chance and maybe road trip around, see more, but I’d choose to see somewhere new before going to Iceland again. I think I’ve seen enough of Europe for now though actually…I want to be really immersed in cultures very different than my own.

Overall, it was an amazing experience to travel alone, to meet new people and breathe fresh air in a different country. And like I mentioned, I’m already planning my next trip. Although this experience satisfied me for now, it also reinforced the desire to explore and see more. So skál (cheers) and bless (goodbye) to Iceland and to reading week, and another hello to Sam’s continuing, changing and growing grand adventure.

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-Until next time, Sam

Cultivate sparks – a 2017 thesis statement

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Have you ever tried to write an essay without brainstorming first? Just started writing with the hope that your thesis will magically refine itself as you spew nonsensical and unrelated facts? In my experience this is usually a late night, last minute, coffee fuelled approach to assignments. Sometimes it works out okay but the papers are NEVER as thoughtful, articulate and compelling as the ones I spend (literally) weeks researching, mind mapping, discussing, and reworking. The university paper I’ve been most proud of was one where I changed my thesis several times, discussed it with my professor and made all kinds of examples and connections that helped me understand the topic better, even if they didn’t end up in the finished project. Well put together papers take time…and I need to have an outline to know where I am going. 

I find that New Year’s resolutions are too often of the former approach. We frantically make them, (often too many of them) without actually considering how we are going to make them fit together. How are we going to actually make it from the opening paragraph (January) and effectively bring them to life and expand them throughout the body of the year, wrapping them up in December in a way that is still connected? And with no grades on the line like there is in school, how do we make sure we actually finish the “2017 paper” rather than having it be left unfinished like so many other years aspirations?

As with a paper for a class, our goals for a new year need to have a theme. Something that ties them together, a theme, a thesis so to speak. That’s how I see the “one word” new years goals. The theme is looked at from different angles every day but it weaves it’s way all the way through, tying the year together from start to finish. Anyone who has been keeping up with my blog for a while would know that for the past few years I have chosen a word of the year. Previous words have included renew, courageous, and then last year still. I guess choose is not quite the right word…it’s actually a process of prayer and really asking God what HE wants this year to look like and what HIS plan is. I can make all the resolutions I want but at the end of the day I know that God’s plan is better than anything I could come up with – and He is faithful with what He promises!

That said, I actually knew my 2017 word way back in November…at least I thought I did. I was having a pretty rough semester of school and although it really did force me to be still and draw close to the Lord, it was also a season of frustration and questioning. Anyway, I think one day God just decided to take pity on me and give me some hope for the new year.

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Me, all of 1st semester (source)

One night as I was journalling I ended up drawing a campfire (guys I do NOT draw lol) and writing under it “Lord make my heart outshine my beauty. Set sparks that will flourish into fire”. I really felt that that was a promise God was making to me; that 2017 would be a year of sparks and flourishing. Ya’ll sparks are LITERALLY hot. I associate them with excitement and fresh starts and fiery, confident growth. They START something that builds and builds into fire that can’t be contained. They are small but mighty. They can float away into the night, lost forever OR they can be fanned into something that can be seen from miles around. Guys, I was STOKED (get it?) that this was the word God was giving me for the new year. Especially after being “still” for a year…yes, lots of growth and intimacy with God but like hello 2017.

“See I am doing a NEW thing! Now it springs up, do you not see it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert” – Isaiah 43:19

So I’m all excited right? You know, I’ve got my theme for the year. It’s January 1st, I’m in church and praising and I’m all pumped for the new year and (I’m so sorry Pastor Jay) I’m not listening to the message at all because I’m just thinking about what kinds of exciting opportunities God’s going to give me this year. And then I start thinking about the phrase “she will run through fields of harvest” which is a poster I have on my wall in Ottawa and I’m thinking about how in order to reap a harvest you need to cultivate the crops yada, yada, yada. So the word “cultivate” just keeps running circles in my brain. I’m sitting there panicking and HOPING that God is not trying to change the word on me hahaha. Sparks sound exciting, cultivating sounds like WORK! But I really opened my heart and prayed about whether I was supposed to be focusing on the word cultivate instead.

I slowly began to realize that God wasn’t changing the word…He was ADDING to it. He can give me all the sparks I want. But like I said, sparks can fly away into the night, never to be seen again. Fires take time to build. It takes effort and patience. God was promising me sparks but He was also CALLING me to cultivate them.

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Cultivate (transitive verb)

2. To improve by labour, care or study: refine.

3. Further, encourage.

So yeah,  it will be work. But anything worth having takes work

SPARKS!!! TO CULTIVATE INTO FLAME!! Ya’ll this is exciting. I know this started as a boring analogy about thesis’ and essays but it made sense in my head. My word(s) of 2017 are now not JUST a theme but a thesis. They have a purpose that I can run with, expand, and discover. I am filled with so much hope for this year and all that it will bring!

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gifts of God…” – 1st Timothy 1:6

May 2017 be a year of passion, of friendship, of growth and of hope, of curiosity and of cultivation. Let’s do this friends.

-Until next time, Sam

p.s. yes I know I’m a month late, sorry not sorry

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Throwing it back

Hey friends! Hope all is well in your crazy lives whether you are back at school or working full time, I hope that you’ve been finding some time here and there to get out and enjoy the last few weeks of sunshine. Summer is slowly on it’s way out…I can feel it in the air! Soon it will be time for ankle boots and blanket scarves and I’m not going to lie, I am pretty excited.

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This is my “loving life” smile

This post is going to be the first of several that are pretty different than what I am usually up to around here. Today I stumbled upon a blogging challenge called “Blog-tember“, run by Bailey Jean at Brave Love. It’s basically a series of prompts, one everyday of the month to get you blogging everyday. I know, I know, I’m a little bit late to the party but hey, September has been a little (read, a lot) busy for me between completing my programming requirements for my job, going to meetings, adjusting to new classes and catching up with all my friends here in Ottawa. Suffice to say, I haven’t been thinking about blogging much. But I’d like that to change, I really would. Blogging is something I do just for me, because I enjoy it. So when I saw this challenge, I was curious. When I saw what the topic was for today, I knew it was meant to be!

See, today’s prompt is: A list of your favourite blog posts you’ve written. 

The reason that made me so excited is that earlier today, I did that. Totally unknowingly. I was updating my “About Me” page and decided to include a list of my personal favourite posts to give new readers a place to start. This challenge was meant to be! So here they are, my favourites from the past couple of years. Some are ones that just mean a lot to me personally and others are ones that I am proud of. It was a good reminder today to read through these posts and see how far I’ve come. It made me remember that writing is a passion God gave me for a reason and that I need to be using it.

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Speaking of throwbacks, here’s one from when I was just starting to explore Ottawa last year

Have a look through if you’d like, before I bombard ya’ll with a new post everyday (!!!) for the rest of the month! Here’s to making habits and forcing myself to do the things I love and often put off.

Monday Morning

Grateful

I Found My New Favourite City

Nepal – Shaken not Shattered

A simple pause

I will remember

15 things I learned in 2015

Crossing Oceans

Like a Bird

5 Things 1st Year Taught Me

Shawarma dajaaj min fadlik – Reflections on learning Arabic

Adventures in tripping – a little flippin’ never hurt!

Leader-what?

Thanks for reading. Praying you’re having a great evening and that something I wrote may make you smile 🙂

Until next time,

-Sam ❤

Grateful

Sometimes at night I like to think about all the things I am grateful for. The list often quickly becomes longer than I had expected.

I think it’s normally really easy to get caught up in the bad in life or the struggles we face. We focus more on what we don’t have than on the things we do and more on the things we want than on the needs that have already been fulfilled without our even having to ask. Stopping for just a few minutes to record the little things in life that make me happy and grateful is one of the easiest ways to keep myself looking at the positive and to remind myself how truly blessed I am.  Here are the things that I am grateful for tonight.

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– Laughter. The kind that makes your eyes water and your belly hurt, the kind you can’t stop or control. Best when accompanied by good friends.

– A warm bed, a home. To me, it seems normal and expected. Reminding myself that it is a privilege and not a given is important.

Warm spring rain. All rain is good, but this kind is special. It smells like new beginnings.

Tea. Need I say more?

-A God who loves me despite all my faults. I am the farthest person from perfect that I know but I am blessed enough to serve a God that looks past that and loves me unconditionally either way.

Access to healthcare. The dentist terrifies me but having untreated cavities sounds worse. Medicine may taste bad but I am so beyond lucky to have it when I need it.

-Peace. Both in my heart and in my country

-Poetry. Beauty expressed in words is my favourite

– Community. I am part of a church family that supports me, a school with more spirit than we know what to do with and I have world class friends and family members. What more could I want?

– Dreams. I mean this in two senses. One, who doesn’t like a fantastical sleep full of adventure and intrigue? It’s like a movie in your head! Also, dreams and vision for my future. It’s fun having things to look forward to and to aim for.

– Quiet time alone. Yes, I am an extrovert. Yes, I like to be alone in the silence sometimes!

– Thought provoking conversation. Let’s talk about life and have debates about complicated topics. I’ll learn and maybe, I’ll teach you too.

– Singing. In the shower or in the car, I will belt it out whether it sounds good or not. God gives us so many opportunities to choose joy everyday and music just makes my soul sing…so obviously I have to actually sing.

-Colours. How can you look at a tiny flower in bloom or the blue of the sky and not feel lucky to be alive and in such a vibrant and colourful world?

Honestly, this list could go on and on and on. There are so many things in my life that I feel so blessed to have. Are some of these trivial? Yep. But I’m choosing to try and find joy in even the smallest aspects of my life. Once you start looking, you may find you’ll never stop finding blessings in disguise.

No idea if this was of any interest to anyone other than myself but, c’est la vie right?

-Until next time, Sam

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