I hiked up Burke Mountain on Oct 5, 2019 and had to share some of the photos I took. The best time of the year to hike in the Northeast Kingdom for foliage is the first week of October. It's incredible how the leaves change every year, reminding me that no matter what happens in life, it will go on. I was in particular need of a solo hike to reflect, enjoy, and listen to my favorite podcasts. The hike up took about 2.5 hours up on the Red trail, accessed through the lower parking lot of Burke Mountain. On the way down I took the access road, and halfway down I asked a friendly local if they could bring me the rest of the way in their pickup truck. On the way up I saw lots of squirrels, breathed plenty of fresh air, ate lots of pistachios, and felt grateful that I could spend five hours outside by myself and feel totally safe. We're lucky, because that simply isn't the case in the majority of the world.
The Montreal Climate March drew crowds of 500,000 people, which is about a quarter of Montreal's immediate population of around 2 million. That's significant. The manifestations lasted from 11 AM to 4 PM, and I was there the whole time taking in the infectious energy. The signs were incredible. I started off at McGill with thousands of other students, and then we all marched to Mount Royal together.
I took lots of photos (of course!) and here are some of my favorites.
Some signs were meant to be funny, some signs were meant to be punny, lots of signs were about plastic in oceans, others targeted particular politicians, or targeted particular extractive industries... One guy even stole a bike sign and carried that the entire march (hella good triceps I imagine), others made reference to Bill Nye, and many pointed to how Canada is not doing enough for the planet. The ones that resonated with me most were those pointing to how 100 companies emit 70% of the world's CO2. This is a systemic issue, not an individual one.
This person holding a plant was the anthem to the entire climate protest. Some people were dressed up as TREES, with branches on their arms and stilts to make them taller.
I must have seen 20 signs referencing the Lorax.
People blasted music from their homes, we all chanted together, and overall it was just a really great day to stand together. Hopefully the energy continues so policy change can take place. We all know we need it.
August 18th marked Montreal's 36th annual pride parade, where over 300,000 people joined to celebrate sexual diversity during a 2.7 kilometer walk from Metcalfe to Alexandre-DeSève on René-Lévesque Boulevard. The parade's infective energy, colorful outfits, and loud ensembles of music made for quite the event. Some of the more prominent political figures in attendance included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier François Legault, and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante. The number of political parties, however, were far outnumbered by the corporate-sponsored groups in the parade. This is not unique to Montreal. With an increasing number of corporations joining LGBTQ+ celebrations comes the increasing omnipresence of rainbow-themed marketing at Pride events.
You know when you ride a bike after a few years, and it feels awkward for a few moments? Your body still knows how to ride the bike, but it doesn't feel quite natural?
That's reverse culture shock.
It's a reminder of how acute our conception of "normalcy" is. It's returning to "normal" but feeling out of place, a stranger in what is supposed to be comfortable. But since this not-normal-"normal" was so automatic before your time away, your body goes through the motions. That's why you don't fall off your bike. That's why your routine day-to-day breakfast feels wrong on your tongue, because you have tasted other breakfasts, but it's somehow familiar. It just takes a few mornings to actually feel like you're here and not there. It's like your mind is straddling two realities, unsure which is the current.
Of course, this is accentuated when the reality you came from is increasingly different from the one you're coming back to. After living in a small fishing village in France for a few months, it wasn't that difficult for my brain to comprehend that I was back in small town Vermont. Upon return, I could reflect on my daily routine there and understand it from here without a problem. After living in Ecuador for a year, my brain had a bit of a strenuous exercise. It was difficult to imagine my friends in busy Quito eating humitas when I was picking blueberries in some field without another person in sight. Beyond that, with a new "normal" in Ecuador came new neural connections... literally. I learned Spanish there, and had never spoken it here. It was surprising, frustrating, and a bit funny when I went to my grandma's house soon after arriving back from a year in Ecuador and I couldn't speak to her in French. My mind was hardwired in Spanish! Eventually the French came back, and luckily the Spanish stayed too.
After living in Kenya for three months, I'm having a hard time back in Canada/USA understanding that what I lived there wasn't a dream. I'm drinking water from the tap in my kitchen, and just weeks ago I was speaking to women who walk seven hours daily for water. My bedroom here is significantly larger than the structure I lived in there. I'm not hearing Swahili, I'm not eating ugali, and I'm not washing my clothes on the stove. Rather than being relieved I'm back to "normal," I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the stuff in my house that I don't need. When I stepped out of the airport, I was mesmerized by the pedestrian lights. I wasn't gone for that long. How is it that I had forgotten they existed?
That's reverse culture shock, my friends. The worst culture shock I ever had was after a three week trip to Southeast Asia when I was fifteen. Even though it was such a short period of time, it made me question everything I thought I knew. I spiraled into existential shock, for months. (I'll have to write a blog post about what I wish somebody had explained to me at that time... much of the guilt I felt came from a place of misunderstanding and societal misinformation... anyway, more on that another day). Perhaps that one was so strong because my experience in Southeast Asia was the first one that really rocked my senses. This reverse culture shock from Kenya is a tiny reverberation of confusion compared to that one, even though this is after a longer period of time away, because it's not my first rodeo.
It's strange and uncomfortable, but perhaps it's a survival mechanism to pretend like the other reality doesn't exist in order for this one to take root again. You know when you sleep away from your house for a night and wake up disoriented? Reverse culture shock is taking a few moments to orient yourself when you wake up at home and don't recognize your surroundings because your mind is still in another reality far from this one.
But it's not all bad.
Reverse culture shock can make you realize the things you had forgotten. You can be amazed by the beauty of the natural landscape when you return home from extended periods away. When we live in a place for so long, we don't recognize the intricacies of everyday life the way we do when we return back to it. Whereas before leaving you don't stop to breathe in the fresh air of your home, or examine the common birds, or the smells of the bakery down the road, now you do. It's like you're a tourist where you're from. For the first time, you notice the small purple flowers that have always been dotting your lawn. You're more attentive to objects you had always taken for granted. The sunlight fractions out from clouds differently, and now you're hyper-aware of it. It's spectacular to realize how much of our surroundings get filtered out once we're used to those surroundings, and even more spectacular to be reminded to breathe and observe.
Normalcy doesn't exist. Although this may seem unsettling, I think it's more comforting than anything else. It keeps us curious. It's a reminder of how much we have left to learn, and it's a reminder not to take things for granted. Where I grew up, it was normal to have access to forest, so I internalized that it must be normal everywhere. In Nairobi's slums, forest isn't in sight. Plus, cost barriers exist. Having "space" means something entirely different. It takes time to re-adjust to new conceptions of what this means.
It's easier to envision new possibilities when you've lived many "normals." It allows you to question societal norms that you might not otherwise question. Why doesn't our school system include more time for play like in Sweden? Why hasn't my city banned plastic bags when the country of Kenya has? Why do I always eat the same thing for breakfast? What is preventing me from going to that museum down the road I've always just passed by? When we internalize one kind of normalcy, our realm of thought is constricted. When you've lived many different "normal"s, you tend to ask yourself why things are the way they are.
It's nice to have a cozy sweater, and feel comfortable in it, but if you only ever wore that sweater, you wouldn't understand how lucky you are to have it. And to extend the metaphor: when you travel, you can thread what you learn into that cozy sweater back home to make it even richer. Ecuador's culture is not as neurotic as the stress-filled go-go-go of Canadian University culture. Upon returning home, I realized I didn't have to buy into that stress culture because other possibilities exist. Kenya's culture is very family oriented in ways that my Montreal culture is not. I can learn from that experience and use it to make my Montreal "normal" more family-oriented.
Culture shock happens. Reverse culture shock, too. Although sometimes we push it away, it should be a cause for celebration, regardless of the initial difficulty, because it allows us to better define what we want from our realities, wherever we are when those realities materialize.
Living in a country where your sexuality is illegal is kinda off-putting, at least when you're from a place where the Prime Minister attends Pride parades. I lived in Kenya for three months doing an internship with IMPACT, the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (read more about the experience, here). As someone who identifies as bisexual, I found myself adjusting the way I spoke about queerness. I stubbornly faced the fact that being openly queer just isn't safe in many parts of the world
It has been far too long since I've updated you on my whereabouts, probably because I've been busy hopping from one place to the next over the past few weeks. I split up the following adventures based on the locations where I was (even though the shenanigans experienced in each place probably deserve their own standalone blog posts). I hopped from the acacia-filled savannah in Samburu, to the white sandy beaches in Diani, to the Mosque-filled streets of Mombasa, to tiny Kianyaga town, back to Nanyuki, then to Nairobi, and tomorrow I leave for a 4 day trek up Mt. Kenya.
I spent one week in Samburu doing field research with IMPACT (Indigenous Mobilization for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation), researching conservation and gender. I saw many beautiful things and met friendly people who welcomed me into their homes. I also had very difficult, draining conversations about some of the structural barriers facing women in Samburu, including forced marriages and FGM. People were very surprised when I said my family does not own any cattle, and even more surprised when I said my dad does the cooking in my family because he enjoys cooking. I was told that since I am educated, my dowry would include up to 20 cattle, which is above the normal 13 cattle dowry in the village. I joked I was worth at least one camel. Some of the more interesting conversations included 1. speaking with Samburu elders, both men and women, about the impacts of climate change on their livelihood strategies, 2. a conversation with a young Moran warrior whose dad has five wives, 3. learning the resilience of women's organizations in the region which are challenging gender norms. We had no electricity (other than solar power) which meant no refrigerators for a week. That means all of our meals were cooked fresh! Lots of cabbage, and admittedly more goat than I could handle. The week included seeing more wild zebras than I can count, sipping tea in mud manyattas, and making jewelry with decorated elders. The landscapes were incredible. On the last day we saw wild elephants frolicking in the acacia-tree bushes near the Ebawesi River.
I spent the next week in Diani Beach, on the Kenyan Coast, enjoying the finest white sand I've ever felt in my life. It actually felt like silk. Highlights included speaking Spanish with Mexicans at our hostel (my heart is in Latin America), feeding bush babies, having my almonds stolen by a monkey in our outdoor baobab tree dorm, eating delicious seafood, visiting a cave restaurant, and reuniting with the wackiest crew. This wacky crew is comprised of the other interns from McGill who are scattered around the country doing their various projects. It was phenomenally funny to hear about their adventures. We stayed at Diani Backpackers Hostel, which I would recommend to anyone. There was a nice pool, and we were a 5 minute walk from the beach. Every time we traveled in town to explore, we tuk yellow tuk-tuks. Some of them were decorated with flashing lights and boom boxes! Our anthem was "Swing," which Anoushka was sure to sing whenever she had the chance. Although the together time was good, so was the alone time. I read a few books, wrote in my journal, and got up early on numerous occasions to watch the sunrise on the ocean.
A few days in the city of Mombasa gave me a taste of what the Middle East looks like, considering the ongoing Arab influence in the city due to historical trade routes. The streets reminded me of an Arabian Nights film set, complete with a spice market, vendors clothed from foot to toe, intense heat, and beautiful fabrics. I had Swahili coffee, and it was perfectly sweet, as we chatted with a local about the underground gay scene among Muslim men and we laughed a ton. The Airbnb hostel that Sasha booked rocked my socks off. It was $30 with the promotion, but we had an entire house and garden area to ourselves. It was unreal. The woman who owned it was a mysterious type, always friendly, writing a play upstairs. I half expected her to have a fortune teller ball with her turban and flowy dress outfit, floating from one place to another. Complete with colorful cushions to sit outside, and a view of the ocean, it was by far the nicest Airbnb I've stayed in. We were only in the city itself for one day since the following day we both were exhausted and quite quite sick... Jury is still out, but I think it was the shish kabobs, and Sasha thinks it was the water.
We took an 8 hour train ride back to Nairobi from Mombasa, and I was passed out the entire time. I essentially slept 30 hours straight, sick as a bug, but eventually felt better. A 4 hour bus ride brought us to a tiny town called Kianyaga, leading to a ridiculous weekend seeing what some of our McGill friends have been up to. Kianyaga was great because it revealed the extent to which the experiences of the McGill interns have been so different. Maddie and Anoushka are in Kianyaga, have been without a refrigerator for 3 months, and love the small town vibes. We thought Nanyuki was small, but Kianyaga is a village. Their “supermarket” doesn’t have chickpeas so they go buy vegetables every day. They live a stone’s throw from their office. We met Joackim, their welcoming (and wacky in the best way) supervisor who is always so cheery.
Nanyuki is such a funny place to return to after being away for 3 weeks. Sasha and I now have a pet frog who lives in our shower. Florence, our host sister / friend is still my favorite person in all of Nanyuki, with her sarcastic jokes and delicious tea. We worked all week on our field report, which is now close to 50 pages. It’s bomb, if I do say so myself, and I’m excited by how much we learned during our time at IMPACT. Sasha and I have essentially become one, considering we share everything from meals to shampoo to house keys to blankets to deodorant to motorcycle taxis to headphones to socks. The other day we found ourselves saying the same exact thing at the same exact time in the office and we’re sure to have separation anxiety when we part ways in a week. We found a new gym and it’s been fun to switch up the routine. ALSO we never refer to Nanyuki as Nanyuki, but affectionately call it “Nanyukes.” It’s so weird that next week is my last week here in Nanyukes after meeting so many people who have become familiar faces in my daily routine. Blog post to come on that.
The weekend was spent in Nairobi, and the best word to describe it? Wacky. Just wacky. Why was it wacky? So many reasons. To celebrate Sasha’s birthday, we went to eat Ethiopian food (YUM!) at Habesha with the same crew as from the beach. I washed my clothes in a WASHING MACHINE. The luxury! The next morning, Sunday, the wackiest of days, I find out two phones and a bunch of cards were stolen the night before. Yikes! We all went to eat at Artcaffe (YUM!) and then bounced to the next Airbnb where I exercised on the rooftop terrace with a lovely view of clotheslines. The highlight was going to see a soccer game - Kenya versus Everton. On the way, my phone was snatched from a car window, out of my lap, on the HIGHWAY. The guy legitimately jumped over the hood of a car to escape. At the stadium, we accidentally ate a feast in the staff area thinking it was meant for us and our $10 VIP tickets. Oops. When Kenya won the game in penalty kicks, the crowd went BALLISTIC. Men shouted absurdly inappropriate things at me on the way out of the stadium, but Ryan and Day and I escaped to a luxury safari lodge (who can afford these prices?!), waterfalls included, to call an Uber to get out of the madness. One minute in a raging crowd, next minute in a resort to escape it. Two different worlds, separated by a gate. That's Nairobi. We all hit up the Alchemist bar, and then K1 club, and our night out was the most phenomenal, hilarious, wacky one yet.
If you’ve made it to the end, congrats for getting through all these shenanigans. Every single day of this three-month stint in Kenya, I’ve written a personal reflection about the day, thanks to my trusty 2012 MacBook. When I get back home, I might even try to publish it as a wackiest personal journal. I’m grateful for this experience in ways I didn’t imagine. I leave for a four-day Mt. Kenya trek today (woohoooo!!!) and then one more week in Nanyuki before I travel for 2 weeks and head home.
Sasha and I walk 45 to 50 minutes to work every morning, and I've only taken my camera twice on the journey. Today was one of those days taking photos, so here is a compilation of what the average commute looks like. (Keep in mind I didn't take my camera out during the busiest intersections because I'd rather not be robbed!)
The slideshow of photos is below. Normally it's HOT HOT HOT and I'm dripping by the time we reach the office. If it rained the night before, the road is MUDDY MUDDY MUDDY so I'm dripping AND dirty by the time we reach the office. That's a particularly good combo.
Depending on the route we take, either the main road or the slum road, we get different amounts of cat-calls and dust sticking to our skin. We prefer the slum road because even though it goes by the slum and the prison, it's greener, less crazy in terms of traffic (and dust), there are less creepy men, and more small children. On any given day, we might pass one to four herds of goats chomping grass on the side of the road.
Why is this my favorite photo of the day?
Firstly, the smoke catches my eye. There is random smoke all over, from mini stove cooking fires to trash burning fires in ditches. Sometimes it smells nice, like when somebody is cooking chapati (Kenyan naan bread?), while other times it smells carcinogenic, like when people dispose of plastic.
Secondly, there's a sign for M-Pesa, which is linked to the Safaricom phone plan. M-Pesa allows you to buy anything from your phone, and acts as super quick e-transfers. People use M-Pesa to purchase anything from meals at hole-in-the-wall "hotels" (aka tiny restaurants) which have their M-Pesa numbers painted on the walls, to making reservations at hostels.
Thirdly, there are colorfully painted signs, like everywhere all over. My favorite one in the photo is the sign that says, "Silver Touch Salon." If you saw this in a magazine, with just the name, you might think it would be worth getting your hair done here. I just appreciate how nice names are painted in block letters on cramped concrete tin sheds. Some of our favorite painted names include "Mt. Kenya Pork Den" (kill me that's so funny), "Faith Milk Hotel" (count me in), and "Nice Pub" (sounds nice).
Fourthly, the buckets remind me of my lovely bucket showers. Fifthly, the three stones are like those I use for weights when I do workouts outside. Sixthly, the red bottle cap on the right side of the photo, on the grass, depicts the classic trash/grass combo, but on a small scale that is manageable. Seventhly, "Chester's Kinyozi" is the hidden sign, and tells helps everyone understand there are at least 5 Kinyozi (barber shops) around the corner. Eighthly, the scene does not convey poverty because these people have a sturdy concrete home (better than tin), electricity (notice the lightbulb), and a clean space to cook.
Finally, I enjoy how the man is coming out of a pink door frame. I have seen patriarchal norms up-close-and-personal for the past month, and they really irk me. This photo shows the fluidity between masculinity and femininity, and gives me a piece of mind that things are slowly changing, even if it's just in my little bubble (I realize I take comfort in a door frame, but I'll take what I can get).
Today you go to Nairobi National Park. You have too many highlights to count.
First, the facts. Nairobi National Park is 117 square kilometers, and home to 100 animal species and 400 migratory and endemic bird species. It’s only 7 kilometers from the center of Nairobi, which is quite hard to believe considering how calm it is compared to the center of Nairobi. It is the only national safari park that has a cityscape background. Before going, you thought it would be strange (and maybe not genuine?) to see animals and skyscrapers in the same view. Once there, you realized that the animals have lots of space, and seeing Nairobi in the background adds to the scenery instead of takes away from it. You would absolutely recommend the park to visitors. In three hours, you saw lions, ostriches, buffalo, hartebeests, elands, impalas, giraffes, grey crowned cranes, ibises, a vulture, and rhinos. The entry fee for foreign nationals is $43 USD for adults and $22 USD for kids (but less than $5 and $3 for Kenyan citizens). Since there were 7 of you sharing a $100 vehicle and driver, the one-hour transportation to the park, three hours in the park, and transportation back from the park cost $14. Compared to expensive safaris that cost from $120-$200 per day, this game drive had a reasonable price at $57.
You see a lion and a lion cub in the distance. When they lie down, they’re completely invisible due to the grass cover. It’s wild. Although you’d love to be able to get out of the safari vehicle to walk closer, you know they could easily kill you, so you wait for their ears to pop up every now and then. The mom walks a few steps, and crouches back into the grass, and then the little cub walks a few steps, and crouches back into the grass. Awh.
You see a male and a female ostrich approach you from afar, and decide they’re the strangest animals you’ve ever seen. Basically, they’re oversized puff-balls who bob their heads erratically when they walk. When they sit down, you’re *shook* because they bend their knees the wrong way—backwards instead of forwards like how your knees bend. When the female runs, you can’t believe it can move so fast. You decide ostriches are admirably awkward creatures that can teach every self-conscious elementary school kid to fully embrace their uniqueness.
You see herds of buffalo. When you see buffalo, you can’t help but think that their horns are actually toupees. Although these buffalo are objectively stocky and arguably ugly, the babies are still cute because babies in any species are cute. You also see herds of hartebeests, which are in the same family as wildebeests, and actually part of the antelope family. Hartebeests have long faces and look so serious all the time. They’re the most serious animals you see at the park. Finally, you see the most muscular breed of antelopes, called elands, that look like they throw back steroids on the daily. They remind you of mythical creatures, like centaurs, but instead of a human-horse mix, these are cow-moose mixes with goat faces. You would put them front and center in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Although buffalo, hartebeests, and antelopes are cool, your favorite herds are the impalas. They are so graceful, and their patterns are painted onto their bodies. Their bodies are shiny and they move so easily. Their horns seem like they’ve been carved into place by the wind.
At one point, Tori recommends going to the King Fisher picnic stop to walk around. You’re more than glad she does. On the way, you see four rhinos in the distance! If that weren’t enough, you also see three giraffes—up close and personal—maybe three meters from your vehicle.
In your three hours in the park, you barely scratch the surface. There is so much area left to explore, and so many animals left to see. It’s neat that you could have seen elephants, cheetahs, and leopards, and zebras. On your way out, you pass by a little pond and somebody thinks they see a hippo, but it could have been an alligator.
The grey crowned cranes deserve their own paragraph because they are zany. You don’t even know how to use zany in a sentence, but these colorful birds with gold mohawks sure fit the description for what you’d consider zany.
You turn out of the park and see some baboons inflicting terror on a preschool group. Lol. Two of the little kids, who are wearing matching green track suits, start crying when the baboons get too close. You can understand, as they’re almost the same size! The kids seem to prefer giggling at the warthogs. The warthogs don’t get too close.
Realistically, you had nothing to do with the planning of this trip. Justin, who is a PhD student from McGill doing work in Tanzania, was at the conference in Nairobi and wanted to explore. You decided to join him while you were eating breakfast. As is often the case, hopping on the bandwagon for this impromptu plan led to a fun day. It also led to a new appreciation for ostriches.
The most phenomenal part of the hike is seeing lake Naivasha on your right side, from where you came, and seeing the volcano crater expanding out on your left. It’s like you’re on a tightrope between two magnificent views, and you often can’t choose which way to look.
You don’t know how many times you said, “This is unreal” today, but definitely higher than the average day. In fact, out of the past two weeks, today was filled with more “What is this life” moments than any other day. You were not expecting to see zebras or giraffes or insanely beautiful views of an expansive valley, but today all three of these things happen and it’s incredible.
You wake at 7 in your comfortable (lol but far from luxurious) Airbnb and help yourself to some communal instant coffee in the kitchen. You greet the whole crew as they wake up, one by one, before sharing some yogurt-muesli breakfast. The crew is comprised of 7 others from McGill who are dispersed all over Kenya doing internships. You all met this weekend for a rockin' time in Naivasha province. Somebody calls Morris (the gatekeeper/hero) to help arrange a taxi to bring you to Hell’s Gate National Park, and one hour later you’re riding in the back of a matatu, which is a packed van-bus. Morris somehow convinced the matatu driver to bring you 8 keeners to the park. Thanks Morris.
As if the views weren’t already phenomenal from the house on the hill, the beauty is somehow accentuated riding in the third row of this van along Lake Naivasha. You particularly enjoy seeing the fog lifting from the blue mountains in the distance, foregrounded by tall grass and acacia trees. You love the cactus trees. At one point, your matatu turns off the main road and into in a field of yellow flowers as a shortcut. You think about how most North Americans imagine poor slums when they think of Kenya, yet this is the farthest image from poverty you can imagine. The land is rich, the views are rich, the conversations with everyone you meet are rich, and life is as full here as it is anywhere.
After a bumpy 40-minute ride to the entrance road leading to the main gate of Hell’s Gate National Park, your matatu stops and asks if you want to rent bicycles for the day or if you’d rather drive through the park. Duh. Bikes. You all rent some clunky bicycles, helmets nowhere in sight, and you love every moment of the short 2-kilometer ride towards the gates. The guy at the bike shack agrees to let me take a photo. He's a goof.
When you see baboons, you stop your bike. You’ve seen them before in Cambodia, but they are fun this time too. The best part is seeing a baby clinging to its mother’s chest upside down as it walks across the dusty road in front of you. The baboons stop, and you see one picking bugs off the back of the other. The baby starts drinking its mother’s milk, and the human-like expressions on their faces is crazy to see. Their hands are like yours. You remember learning from a National Geographic magazine that your DNA is 99% the same as a chimp. These aren’t chimps, but the similarities are there nonetheless.
You pay your entrance fee and soon the movie set for “The Land Before Time” unfolds in front of you. Then, as if on cue, you see three zebras in the distance. The smile already on your face breaks out into laughter as you shuffle through your backpack for your camera. They look like painted donkeys and there are three of them just wandering around about 500 meters to your right. What is this life?
Over the next hour, you see antelope, gazelle, and warthogs. The grass is green and looks fairly lush. You see another three zebras. At this point the sun is out and it’s getting warm, so one of them rolls on its back in a pile of dust to cool off. You take many, many pictures, but these pictures don’t capture the indescribable feeling of biking alongside wild zebras. You weren’t even expecting to see any animals today. Anoushka, one of the McGilligans, told you last night that she had been here before and not seen anything. You feel like a little kid waking up to find out it’s your birthday, and then mom lets you eat chocolate cake for breakfast. It’s unthinkable.
The giraffes come into view as you pedal farther. Forget chocolate cake. You just got a chocolate fountain, and your family threw you a surprise birthday party. You don’t just see one giraffe, but three of them. One is fully grown, the second is maybe a teenager, and there is a tiny baby (well, still bigger than you) who just recently got out of the stage where walking was difficult on such wobbly long legs. You don’t believe in heaven, but you hear yourself utter that that’s where you are. You throw your bike to the ground and watch them for 15 minutes before the others drag you to continue pedaling. You could sit there for hours.
The whole crew comes together to eat lunch at a rest area for the second main attraction, the Hell’s Gate Gorge. A monkey scrambles closer and closer to your table, and everyone reaches instinctively for their sunglasses and their phones. The monkey hops on the picnic table faster than you’d believe and runs away with two green apples in hand. You were going to eat those apples!
You figured that you had seen all the beauty you were going to see today, but you’re happy to know you’re mistaken. With a Maasai tour guide, whose English name is Dennis, the eight of you descend into the gorge. You have no clue what to expect, because as is common with you, you didn’t know what the plan was until you woke up this morning.
The mouth of the gorge opens up into a wider expanse, and soon you’re seeing walls of 30 meters climbing on either side of you. At some points, the spaces close until you’re walking in single file climbing over mini-waterfalls, and it seems less colorful but longer and taller version of Antelope Canyon. You enjoy seeing the obsidian rock fragments shining, naturally polished, on the ground.
The gorge fills up during the wet season, and you can imagine how powerful the current must be. Dennis shows you some natural hot springs, which the others really enjoy, but you’re a snob and saw geysers in Iceland so you’re not as impressed as them. You are, however, impressed with the magnificent view which comes next. You all climb out of the gorge and walk to the “viewpoint’ which inspired the creators of the Disney movie “The Lion King.” Although you enjoy the artistry behind Disney Animations, the creators absolutely did not live up to the magnificence of the natural beauty before your eyes. Wow. You try to take a panoramic to capture the view, but very few camera settings can depict the true vastness of such scenery.
You walk through a jewelry market. You ask a woman selling jewelry if you can take a picture of her. She says that if you buy something, you can have a picture. You decide it's a fair trade. Like a sailor lured by sirens, you cave in and buy a beautiful beaded bracelet. You see Dennis take a cell phone out of his traditional outfit and wonder if he only wears it for tourists, or if he wears it all the time. Regardless, he's a bro. You buy a cold water bottle and immediately feel refreshed.
It’s about 4 PM at this point, so you and your seven pals take a matatu to Camp Carnelley, a campground next to Lake Naivasha. It’s one of the nicest campgrounds you’ve seen, considering the tall bonsai-like trees providing a comfortable canopy of shade for the tents below. The view of the lake is gorgeous, but strangely all too familiar. With kayaks as the foreground to a blue lake with blue mountains in the distance, you could easily be in Vermont or Ontario. You let the others continue to the campground’s restaurant as you sit on a tree trunk and write a poem about how time is temporal, and so are experiences. Whoa, Laurence. That's deep.
The sounds of the waves lapping the shore of the lake bring you peace of mind. You hop up from the tree trunk and admire an egret before joining the others.
The restaurant is way too nice to be in a campground, probably because the area is next to a boat launch, attracting both international campers and local Kenyans. When you get to the table, you chuckle to yourself when you see everyone has ordered some kind of mixed drink to celebrate the day. It’s even funnier when you see the menu, and the drinks are under the subtitle heading, “Sexy Gin & Tonic.”
The ride back to the little house on the hill is dark and bumpy. Everyone is tired, yourself included. You type as many words as you can on your dad’s itty bitty keyboard attached to his iPad your mom encouraged you to bring. You’re glad you brought it. It has allowed you to document the whole weekend. Your parents are actually the best. When you get to the house, you boil some water, take a bucket shower, and enjoying every second of scrubbing the dust off your skin. You grab your phone and see three bars. Gold. You call mom and dad, and tell them you saw a baby giraffe. The call only breaks a few times. You head to bed, as tomorrow you have to wake up at 5:00 AM to hike Mount Longonot. Another adventure awaits.
We (Sasha and I) arrived in Nanyuki, Kenya a little over a week ago. Nanyuki is a 3.5 hour ride to the north of Nairobi, in Laikipia Province. Here are some crazy new things we've experienced in just a few short days. It's been a whirlwind, filled with lots of laughter to ease the ridiculousness.
1. Started an Internship with IMPACT
2. Overcome living with Goats
Before coming here, neither one of us could have said we had lived amongst chickens or goats or cows, but now we can. We are living in the guest house of a host family with three kids, ages 5, 8, and 12. So far, my favorite Kenyan friend is Florence, who is the nanny for the family and all around champion cook in the house. She's makes the best goat milk tea. Sasha and I have learned to cook a few things with her.
Our little cabin has no bathroom door, which has made us closer than ever. (Lol. Sorry Sasha.) But after one week here our cabin feels cozy and warm. We feel grateful to have running water, and we even have a gas stove to make meals. Although we kind-of live amongst creatures including shower spiders and mice in the rafters, the company doesn't bother us. Well, except for the morning rooster.
3. Accepted our identities as mzungus on the walk to work
Mzungu is "white person" in Swahili. From kids on the street yelling "mzungu mzungu mzungu!" to groups of guys trying to intimidate us to buy something at their shop with a chorus of "mzungu come!"s, we can't really get away from the fact we're not black. As one person told me, "You have no melanin." Thanks.
ESSENTIALLY we're an easy target for all things non-local. We can't exactly fit in inconspicuously. That means we hear LOTS of cat-calling on the way to work. (I'm writing a blog post about that soon. Cat-calling is shitty. Don't do it.) HOWEVER since people now recognize us, they've stopped bothering us so much on our 50 minute morning stroll since we're so good at pretending we don't hear them. We also get charged mzungu prices. But like, 60 cents for an avocado the size of my face is still a bargain so no complaints (avocados are actually the size of my face).
Our walks to work have been quite exciting. We start off with a rockin' view of Mt. Kenya in the distance, always passing herds of goats and sheep. We walk on uneven dirt/rock paths next to the main road, passing a billion kinyuzis (barber shops), street vendors selling fruit and clothing, and a man-powered car wash complete with large sponges. And of course little kids going to school. No pictures of them yet, but coming eventually.
Check it out^^^^^ It's Mount Kenya in the distance and we're going to climb it sometime next month YAY. Also, those are herds of goats. There are goats everywhere. I had soup today and there was probably goat in it. Who knows.
Also we realized quickly that the word "hotel" doesn't mean a place to sleep. We're not sure what it means. But a milk hotel sounds legit.
4. Rode a boda-boda and a tuk-tuk
The traffic in the streets is WILD. I have my international driver's license and I'm never going to use it here because people drive on the left side of the road, and also motorcycles weave in and out of cars like water dripping through rocks.
I'lI have to grab a photo of a tuk-tuk right away.
5. Tried FUN new foods
6. Mastered the Bucket-Shower
The trick for a shower spa day is to boil some hot water and mix it with the lukewarm water from the tap for a bucket of perfect temperature. Toilet seat not included.
7. Went to a 4 hour church service
It was a pentecostal service and people had the holy ghost in them and it was wild and loud. The collective energy was impressive. It felt like I was in a soccer stadium with people supporting their favorite sports team after a winning goal. Instead, I was in GCC Congregation in Nanyuki, Kenya, and the sports team was God, and the winning goal lasted over thirty minutes. And I was the only white person in sight.
FINAL NOTE: I went on the back of a motorcycle to get there. We sped through dirt streets winding around tin houses and a field of kale.
10/10 would recommend.
8. Became a bargain shopper
I needed a new shirt for work because my white ones are not withstanding the orange dust baths they get every day. I got one for $1 and the purple stripes are my groove. Sasha got a black shirt for $1.70 because she's bougie. No photos of the shirts, or the clothing stalls for that matter, but here's a veggie market we walked through and bought a palm sized piece of ginger and 3 carrots.
9. Got lost (multiple times)
10. Visited a hype organization for street kids
I have a tendency to think white expats always mess things up for locals. A few days ago I was proven wrong when we met this incredible guy who has lived here for the past 10 years creating a grassroots homeless shelter for street kids, and finding ways to get them into school. The first kid he sponsored ten years ago made it to the top of his class from the streets. The second kid did the same thing. The third kid too! So instead of returning home from his volunteering trip, he stayed in town for another decade creating this valuable organization. The organization has helped over 135 street kids make it through primary school. We visited the transition house, where some of the former orphans live. It was one of the most moving testaments to hopeful and collective action against suffering, yet also one of the sharpest reminders of ongoing real-world struggles.
11. Seen a camel on the street and a giant crab in the fridge
Seeing as we are surrounded by wildlife conservancies on all sides, with lions and zebras and giraffes, it's bizarre that we saw a camel. One day it was walking down the street. Maybe it's from Somalia? Who knows.
We also have a frozen giant crab in our freezer, stuck to the back of the freezer. We can't remove him, so we've decided to call him Marcus.
Unfortunately, no photos of the camel or of Marcus, but I do have a photo of a nice pub and a place for millionaire investors.
12. Was adopted by a dog
For clarity, we didn't adopt a dog, but it adopted us. His name is Survivor and we live in the cabin where some Norwegian visitor essentially mothered him for 6 months. So this dog automatically follows around any white people who stay in this cabin. Sasha loves him. I'm more ambivalent because I don't want fleas, but he's growing on me. He sleeps outside our door when we sleep.
13. Learned some Swahili
Obviously imma learn some kiswahili while we're here.
14. Went to the Equator
On our way into Nanyuki, our taxi driver let us stop at the equator which was BOMB because I lived in Ecuador and visited the equator in South America.
15. Enjoyed some interesting music choices
Can somebody please explain to me why Kenyans like country music? Sasha and I rode a taxi back home from the supermarket and this badass dude, who we thought would play hardrock, blasted country music with the most ridiculous bass I've ever heard. It was bumpin'.
Apart from the gospel heard in the church, Sasha and I also heard the most phenomenal impromptu concert at our gym. There was a man in a bright green t-shirt hyping up the dance moves and I think Sasha fell in love with his frog-like enthusiasm.
FINALLY we listened to Swahili happy birthday for Mac, our now 5 year old host bro.
SOOOOOO turns out it is illegal to take photos of things in Kenya. I don't know exactly what the reasoning is (probably against spying?) but even in malls and grocery stores taking pictures is often not allowed. It is strictly forbidden to take pictures of embassies. Like, illegal. I did not know that. I took a photo of the Canadian embassy out of a taxi window as we were driving by. Call me a criminal.
Some back story is probably necessary. In the past few years, a jihadist fundamentalist militant group called al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, has caused some ruckus in Kenya. The majority of violence has taken place outside of Kenya, but there have been sporadic attacks, which caused Canada to officially list al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization In 2010. In 2010, the group pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Here's the good ol' Wikipedia page if you want more info. The most recent attack attributed to al-Shabaab was on a hotel in Nairobi on January 15, 2019 which had 15 casualties. (I heard all about it from my parents who read about it shortly after I was accepted to take on this internship.)
Just after a few days here, I am amazed by the security everywhere. Like, everywhere. There is a security guard at the entrance of every hotel, many with those airport scanner things you walk through. There are frequent, frequent, frequent police stops on the roads. Every apartment complex we saw had a private guard, and they ask for ID before they let drivers through. In fact, it is illegal not to have your ID with you at all times. All of this security has made me feel quite safe.
Apparently everyone knows you are not allowed to take pictures of consulates or embassies. Everyone except me, that is.
Here's how it went down. After spending a lovely afternoon at the Nairobi National Museum and listening to an impromptu poetry slam, the 4 other girls from McGill and I were off to a restaurant to grab dinner. We called an Uber. From insanely crowded streets with loud honking and lots of traffic, all of a sudden we were seeing manicured lawns on both sides of the road with landscaped greenery. I saw a sign for "Ghana embassy" and then one for "Saudi Arabia embassy" and eventually a Canadian flag. I snapped a few pictures for the memories. We continued another 3 minutes and a barrage of 3 security guards blocked the road until the Uber driver was forced to pull over. Then, 3 security guards quickly became around 7. One guy asked for the three phones from the three white chicks in the Uber, aka me and two of the other McGill interns. They took our passports and my debit card.
One guy demanded to know who took a photo, and I said I did. He demanded to know why. I said I was taking a picture for my grandmother to show her I wasn't that far from home. The guy with the overwhelmingly large gun didn't seem to think that was a good enough reason. Even when they learned two of us were Canadian they weren't any less aggressive. Four of them took turns copying the details of our IDs vigorously in a notebook, and asked for my address in Montreal, my phone number, and my passport number (which thanks to Peruvian hostels I memorized back in 2016).
They said not to worry.
Can I ask a question? How is it possible NOT TO WORRY?
Throughout the encounter, I must have said 5 times "I can just delete the photos as I apologize I did not know it was against the rules." But, there was no rushing the process. One guy asked me to get out of the vehicle. That scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. My knees were wobbly as I stepped into 7+ security guards / soldiers / armed men. One guy said to go look at the sign that said "no pictures." I can honestly say I did not see that sign. He didn't believe me. Maybe I shouldn't have said "it's a small sign" but I did because this was getting ridiculous and by this point I was annoyed.
I sat in the car again. Once they rang our info to the person sitting inside the consulate who verified we weren't registered terrorists, I deleted the photos from my phone and they let us go. That was after 30-40 minutes of intimidation tactics.
3 main takeaways:
1. Read about where you can and cannot take pictures before going to Kenya.
2. Be honest always.
3. Know when to give your Uber driver a generous tip.
We got to the restaurant 5 minutes later and ordered a pitcher of sangria. My Kenyan friend said it was good I miraculously acted chill (the other girls confirmed I only turned white after the car started moving again). She also said I was lucky I wasn't charged a major fee. I guess that means I'm lucky. Cheers.
Woke up in our sweet airbnb, went to the grocery store, ate lunch, and headed out for the Nairobi National Museum at around 2 PM. I particularly enjoyed three of the exhibits. The first was about "life cycles" in Kenya, aka traditions in the 42 ethnic groups from birth to death, split up into infanthood, youth, adulthood, and elderhood. The second was about our ancestors and evolution, where I took a photo with my great great great great great uncle, probably a few times removed. The third was about some of the traditional knowledge holders or powerful figures in various ethnically-based stories. The entrance was the equivalent of $12 USD (they use Kenyan shillings here, which equals about 1,200 so easy math).
We stepped outside and stumbled upon an impromptu poetry slam. That was particularly cool. After a hella stressful Uber ride (click here to read "How I essentially got detained in Nairobi on day 2"), we made it to a restaurant to eat dinner. We got back to the Airbnb and I passed out.
We woke up this morning and Nairobi National Park was outside our window. WAIT IS THAT A GIRAFFE?! Yes. Yes it is. This is going to be a great 3 months.
We landed in Nairobi at 7 PM last night (1 PM back home), got through customs reeeal fast (turns out you don't actually have to do the visa ahead of time if you're pressed on time) and took a cab to the hotel my parents so generously paid for us in hotel points. We bought our SIM cards for our phones with data plans at the airport (TelKom cards) for 10 GB of data + 100 minutes + unlimited Whatsapp for $15 / month. What a relief! Now I can call my grandma from Kenya whenever I want.
This morning we woke up at 11 AM (that jet lag tho) and went to the gym before packing up our stuff and heading out to find our AirBnB. We took a 45 minute Uber and it cost $6. I had a very preliminary conversation with the cab driver, Agnes, in kiswahili! She was impressed I knew the word for avocado. Little does she know that's one of the first words Duolingo taught me. I'll never find out what the Duolingo algorithm is for introducing vocabulary but I'm a fan.
The VERY affordable apartment was beautiful. We went to a little quirky restaurant down the street called "Pots and Palms." It was cute and we watched people watching a soccer game on the screens. We went back to the AirBnb and I passed out for an hour.
Who is staying at the AirBnb? Good question! I'm doing my internship through McGill with 5 other interns also from McGill. I'll be with Sasha working at IMPACT (Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation--more info on that later) while Iris and Ottalia are working with ILEPA (Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partner Association) and Victoria and Elizabeth are working with SORALO (South Rift Association of Landowners).
We're getting ready to go to a Masego concert tonight because life is wild and why not go to a concert in Nariobi after your first full day here?
I am currently sitting on a plane flying from Zurich to Nairobi, and have nothing but appreciation for the multi-cultural experiences I have learned from in the past 5 years of my short life. I have moved 12 times in the past 5 years (with a move constituting a period over 3 months) living in 5 different countries during those moves—Canada, Ecuador, France, USA, and (soon !!!) Kenya. Beyond these 5 countries, I have been fortunate enough to visit another 6 countries on backpacking trips between the moves, in total hopping 11 countries across 4 continents in 5 years. Here’s a list of the top 5 things I have learned.
1. People are *pretty much* the same everywhere.
Even though daily life can look extremely different from Chennai, India to a rural fishing village in Brittany, France, all people live their realities with certain common attributes. People build their lives around other people. Whether this is family, or friends, or even strangers, people plan their lives according to the people they strive to be around. From Cuzco to Montreal, all people want to be accepted, hence all people need other people to accept them. We all experience emotions, and we all can feel love and pain. From Cambodia to Iceland, people listen to music and have their favorite foods. Although that music and those foods might be different, the need for human connection through the enjoyment of these things is constant. All people laugh, all people cry, and all people need to be comforted sometimes.
2. Living with a host family (while learning the language) is the most enriching way to know a place and a culture.
Don’t get me wrong: I was shaking with nerves when I arrived in Ecuador without having ever taken a Spanish class and knowing I would be living with a Spanish-speaking host family for eight months. But turns out, my Ecuadorian host family experience was the most fulfilling and heartwarming travel experience I’ve ever had. Fast forward three years, and I have been back three times to see these people who quickly became so important in my life. By completely immersing myself in a family home, I understood Spanish in 2 months and could speak the language fairly fluently in 4. Yes, I was particularly lucky in the case of Ecuador, where my host family essentially adopted me, and made me feel like I belonged in every family birthday party, and every salsa-dancing and tequila-drinking outing. That being said, the host family / language experience in France was also what I remember most fondly about that experience, precisely because it is the human connections that make travel so invigoratingly beautiful. I imagine my Kenya experience will be that much more genuine for the same reasons.
3. People will flow into and out of your life, and you must put effort into keeping the friendships that matter most.
You can learn something from every person you meet, which is why I enjoy meeting people wherever I go. One time in Porto, I was backpacking with a friend and we met a great group of interesting people at the hostel we were staying, which led to fun shenanigans we still laugh about. The point of this story? The people we met made the experience what it was. Especially during solo journeys, meeting temporary friends can make experiences more memorable. When I hiked Rainbow Mountain in Peru—the most beautiful place I’ve ever been—I shared the adventure with strangers from New Zealand, Thailand, and Paraguay. I never saw them again, but the moments were more meaningful because they were shared. All of this to say: It’s okay that people flow into and out of your life. This being said, even the craziest globe-hoppers need some kind of stability, and it can be challenging knowing friendships can be temporary. The tricky balance is knowing which friendships to let go of, and which friendships are worth maintaining. Often, this happens naturally. Over the past few years, I have learned that apart from my family, I can count my best friends on one hand. Even though they live across multiple continents, and although it might not always be practical or easy, I have decided these friendships matter to me, and it has been worth putting in the time and effort to making sure they continue.
4. “Normal” doesn’t exist.
Human beings have an incredible ability to adapt to new situations. I am always amazed by how quickly routines can change when living in different places. The “new normal” eclipses the old one faster than I believe it can. I’ll give you an example to clarify what I mean. Before going to live in the Amazon Rainforest, I would have never imagined that it would become routine to take a canoe across the river to get to the bus. But like every routine, repetition breeds habit, and within two weeks I didn’t think anything of it. Although adaptation periods vary, I find that routines can sometimes take root in just a few days. Have you ever been in a hotel for a week-long vacation, and accidently said “we can do that when we get home” referring to the hotel room as home, and not your house back home? Humans adapt quickly. Taking baths in the Aguarico River was once part of my daily Amazonian routine, just as in Montreal it is part of my routine to get to my classes 30 seconds before they start. Reality changes so quickly from place to place that one "normal" can be incredibly abnormal for somebody else. It’s fascinating to be able to question what normalcy is, especially after seeing that different realities can all appear normal after a few months.
5. Travel refines your sense of self.
I used to think my identity was tied to my habits, and who I surrounded myself with, and, perhaps most dangerously, my achievements. Over the past 5 years, I have learned that no matter where I go, or who I am with, or what qualifications I have, the truest form of my identity does not change. In other words, the essence of who I am is constant, and travel has allowed me to understand that better. In other words, the more I travel, the more I have learn that my unique character as a human being is the only real version of me. Although I can have different social circles from one city to the next, that should not change my sense of self. I suppose I believe that only by striving to be myself in every capacity of who I am can I fully embrace my identity in the most wholesome manner possible. Today, I know who I am better than I ever have.
*It may not have been possible for me to learn any of these lessons if it were not for the undying emotional support of my family, who accepts me exactly for who I am, and encourages me to achieve what I set out to achieve. Thanks mom and dad.
WHERE I HAVE LIVED:
Sept 2014 - April 2015: Kingston (Canada)
April 2015 - April 2016: Quito (Ecuador)
1 month backpacking in Peru & Bolivia
June 2016 - August 2016: Burlington (USA)
September 2016 - April 2017: Peterborough (Canada)
1 month in Ecuador to visit host family
May 2017 - June 2017: Sherbrooke (Canada)
June 2017 - July 2017: Grenoble (France)
August 2017 - December 2017: Trebeurden (France)
2 months teaching skiing lessons in Burke, USA
March 2018 - June 2018: Quito (USA)
June 2018 - August 2018: Saint Johnsbury (USA)
3 week backpacking Sweden, Denmark, Iceland
2 week family trip to Cheticamp, Canada
September 2018 - April 2019: Montreal (Canada)
2 week family trip to Cancun, Mexico
1 week family trip to Arizona, USA
May 2019 - August 2019: Nanyuki (Kenya)
Before moving to Montreal to start my MA in political science at McGill in September, I was anticipating a stressful year ahead. Why? Like most type-A personality high achievers who put way too much pressure on themselves, I was a neurotic stress ball for most of my undergrad. I find university does that to lots of people. School infiltrates your psyche every moment, to the point you feel guilty enjoying yourself because you're not being productive. It's a weird, messed up competition where "I'm more stressed" means I must be doing something right. This year, I decided that was bonkers, and it resulted in the most wholesome existence since I was 14.
I learned some of the most valuable lessons this past year, and they weren't from any one experience that was particularly life-changing, but from a conglomeration of small daily practices which resulted in liberating mental shifts, summarized in 2 points:
1. Making school part of my life, and not my whole life
I changed my priorities from getting an impossible GPA to spending my time in ways that kept me energized. This was facilitated by the fact 1. I was a TA, which meant I finally realized how absurd it is to associate a grade as your self-worth since grades are super subjective, and 2. This was my MA and I have my bomb undergrad GPA I can fall back on.
This meant I spent less time being frantic while doing assignments, since my focus wasn't so much on the grade but on learning. Yes, I continued to work hard on assignments like always. However, if I needed a brain break, I'd take it to go for a run or do something energizing, rather than pushing through and being miserable. Since I spent less time actually DOING school, I found that I could more easily stop the incessant background anxiety THINKING ABOUT DOING school when I was doing other things.
Essentially, my definition of "productive" changed. Before, productivity was equated to working on assignments or studying. This meant that any time I was not thinking or doing schoolwork, I would feel guilty or bad or unproductive. This occured to the point I would feel bad taking too long a break for dinner because I'd be anxious to get back to work. How nuts! Whereas during my undergrad I rarely ever went a day without working (or when I did I would feel extremely guilty), I sometimes got so busy this year with doing other things -- like seeing family, or going to the gym, or cooking hearty meals, or going on a date for goodness sake -- that I was able to do no work for an entire day and not feel that pit in my stomach. Imagine? Feeling guilty for having a life beyond school? This year, by reminding myself that it was okay to enjoy the moment, l actually did.
The most interesting part of this experiment was that by taking more frequent breaks doing things that kept me in a healthier mental state, I learned that I was more productive when I actually was working. This means that MY GRADES ENDED UP BEING THE SAME! How crazy is it that precisely because I was spending less time thinking about school, I was able to re-charge and think more clearly while doing school?
Perhaps this is why the word "productive" started to bug me when I heard it being used by friends. I realized that when I'd ask "how was your day?" many student friends would say "I wasn't productive." They could have had a full day with friends and re-energized their mental health, but it wasn't "productive" academically, so they didn't feel good about their day. And all for what? An impossible GPA? A piece of paper at the end of four years that quantifies your intelligence? For the first time this year, it didn't make sense to let myself accept that logic, so I didn't. It took some work, and at first it was hard not to touch my essays on Sundays, but I got there.
I now gauge my productivity by a different definition: how many things did I do today that made me feel like a full, happy person? Advancing on an assignment is still part of that definition, because of course it feels good to make progress on an essay. But it also feels good, and makes me feel like a full person to go to the gym and sweat until I can't move my legs. It also feels good to cook an elaborate dinner for friends I haven't seen in a long time. It also feels good to explore a new part of the city I didn't know before and write a poem about my bicycle. By expanding my definition of what "productivity" meant, to include productively taking care of my well-being, I became a healthier person.
2. Balance comes from taking care of myself.
Although taking care of yourself comes in different forms for different people, these are some of the activities I prioritized this year which energized me. I think I am writing this list to remind myself to do these things in case I ever fall back into the monotony of work, work, and work some more.
a. Exercise: I did some kind of intense physical activity at least 5 or 6 times a week for the entire 8 months. Exercising clears my mind. Some people get that from dancing or singing. I get it from physically exerting myself until I can wring out my rag with sweat. That may be gross, but it's true. Whereas before I exercised less often for longer periods each time, this year I learned that even a 30 minute jog can set me up for the rest of the day, meaning exercising more often for shorter periods works best for me.
b. Creativity : Creativity is a big part of who I am, and if I don't make time for creative activities, I'm not making time to fully be myself. The first semester I took an Italian class, which I consider creative because it allowed my brain to work in a fun, non-academic way. Languages allow me to be creative. The second semester I took a pottery class and spent 6 hours per week at the pottery studio. Although I enjoyed both, pottery was more meditative, and I met some awesome non-school people who reminded me of life beyond the academic bubble. Throughout the year, I also made jewelry and wrote poems when I felt the urge.
c. Family : One of the primary reasons I chose McGill over Oxford for my MA was to be closer to family. I am extremely lucky because my family re-energizes me every time I see them, which I realize is not the case for everyone. Just being in Montreal, a 2 hour drive away from each of my sisters and my parents (closer than in the past 4 years!) allowed me to have the option of visiting them for an afternoon or a weekend. PLUS my extended family on my Dad's side lives in Montreal, and I deeply enjoyed being able to spend time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins on a regular basis. When spending time with them, I wouldn't stress about school, but focused on re-energizing myself with their positive presence. What a positive change!
d. Eating well : Easily the most life-changing book I've read in the past 5 years for my mental health was "Always Hungry" which I read this past summer. It essentially encourages eating more healthy fats and less sugar by de-bunking every food myth we've been brain-washed into believing since the 1980s (take that sugar industry!), and providing recipes to keep you full longer, which literally retrains your fat cells. By changing my eating habits, like cutting out processed foods and taking time to cook proper well-rounded meals, I was 100% more energized throughout the day (aka I miraculously never felt that post-lunch lull like every other year of my life). Perhaps most importantly, my relationship with food shifted into a much healthier one, as I no longer thought about reducing calorie intake and I didn't feel guilty about having chocolate every now and then. Plus, in the process I learned to love cooking wholesome meals.
e. Spending Time With Energizing People: Although this goes back to the point about spending time with family, it also includes friends who make me feel good. I enjoyed planning activities to look forward to, and also going on spontaneous outings, even if they meant not doing homework that night! This point implicitly suggests not spending time with people who drain your energy. Everyone knows what I'm talking about when I say that, right? The great thing about adulthood is that you don't need to force yourself into friendships that don't give you a peace of mind. I found that I found energizing people while doing things that brought me joy, such as at language exchange events.
f. Doing Energizing Things Alone: I'm a social person, and I've had rough patches where being alone for too long has made me feel antsy. This year, I learned that spending time alone can be energizing for me when I do things that are interesting and fun. In other words, spending time alone in the house for days on end is obviously going to lead to stints of sadness, which is why putting yourself in situations that make you happy will make you feel more energized. For me, this meant going for solo bike rides to new parts of the city, exploring new cafes, writing poetry in those cafes, reading books in Spanish, listening to Portuguese podcasts, going for walks in the forest, and meditating.
These combinations of activities allowed me to enjoy the moment more than in years past. Although the schoolwork stress sometimes crept up on me from time to time, I would make a conscious effort to change the physical and mental space I was in when that happened. Over the months, that neurotic energy which absorbed a lot of my time in undergrad (you'll find that energy in McGill's libraries during exam times, which is why I never frequent the libraries during exam times) came up less and less. The mental shift freed up headspace to stop and enjoy a bird song rather than making impossible to-do lists in my head.
Another important lesson was with regards to the winter (*dramatic music signaling seasonal affective disorder taking over Montreal like a blanket of snow*). While the lack of sunlight indisputably sucks, I tried my best to go about my daily activities even despite the darkness, including running to the top of Mont Royal 3 x per week in the snow and going to coffee shops past dark. That kept my mood much more stable than in past years. This is a reminder that being outside is good for me, even during the winter, when my first inclination is to coop up inside.
In Sum, Attitude is Everything
Basically, these past 8 months taught me a lot about myself and what I need to be happy. I put into practice what people around me have been telling me since I was 14 ("Don't work so hard!" "Don't put so much pressure on yourself!" "Happiness is not an end solution but a daily practice!"). There were undoubtedly some factors which played in my favor on this funny little journey. For example, my housing situation could not have been better, my MA course load is less intense than my BA course load, and I had no worries about financial troubles because of the TA position and reasonable tuition prices. I also had family I could rely on every step of the way.
This being said, the mental shift came from finally allowing myself to define balance as a wholesome existence, and not measured by achievements or grades.
I am far from achieving a perfect balance, in part because "perfect" is a word that bears connotations beyond human capacities. This being said, I had more balance this year than I have ever had. What a relief.
Kingston (Canada) : Sept 2014 - April 2015
Quito (Ecuador) : April 2015 - April 2016
1 month backpacking in Peru & Bolivia
Burlington (USA) : June 2016 - August 2016:
Peterborough (Canada) : September 2016 - April 2017
1 month in Ecuador to visit host family
Sherbrooke (Canada) : May 2017 - June 2017
Grenoble (France) : June 2017 - July 2017
Trebeurden (France) : August 2017 - December 2017
2 months teaching skiing lessons in Burke, USA
Quito (USA) : March 2018 - June 2018
Saint Johnsbury (USA) : June 2018 - August 2018
3 week backpacking Sweden, Denmark, Iceland
2 week family trip to Cheticamp, Canada
Montreal (Canada) : September 2018 - April 2019
2 week family trip to Cancun, Mexico
1 week family trip to Arizona, USA
Coming Soon, Nanyuki (Kenya) : May 2019 - August 2019
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