I'm living in Tunisia this summer for 3 months working with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), completing the human rights concentration of my McGill University law degree. I'll discuss the work I'm doing in another post, so stay tuned because it's been phenomenal. In this post I want to discuss what it's been like so far living in Tunis. I'll cover where I live, what my favorite foods have been, activities in Tunis, my walks to work, people I've met, and exciting weekend adventures.
Living in the Medina
For starters, I live in the Medina, which translates to "old town." We're not talking "old" as in old Quebec founded in the 17th century, but we're talking about a city founded in the year 698, which is approximately 1500 years ago. For somebody who lives in Canada, a (settlor) country that recently celebrated its 200 years, that's a lot to wrap my head around. Tunisia has been colonized 7 times, by the Carthaginians, the Romans, a stint by the Vandals and the Byzantine Empire, then the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire, and the French. Amazingly, bits of each of these historical epochs can still be seen as you walk through Tunis, from Roman ruins, to European ceramics, to French pastry shops. I live between the Zitouna mosque - the second oldest mosque in the Maghreb region - and the Kasbah - which literally translates to fortress but in this case refers to the administrative capital of the country. Considering the Medina's streets are too narrow to be driven in, I have to walk about 5 minutes to get out and onto Beb Jedid road where I can hail a cab.
Living in the Medina means I live in a UNESCO world heritage site. There are some 700 historic monuments in the Medina, distributed in 7 areas, among which the most remarkable are the Zitouna Mosque, the Kasbah Mosque, the Youssef Dey Mosque, Bab Jedid Gate, Bab Bhar Gate, the Souq el-Attarine, the Dar el-Bey, Souqs ech-Chaouachia, the Tourbet el Bey, and noble houses such as Dar Hussein, Dar Ben Abdallah, Dar Lasram, the Medrasa Es-Slimanya and El-Mouradia, the El Attarine military barracks and the Zaouia of Sidi Mehrez.
I live in one of the historical houses (scroll through the slideshow below) right near Tourbet el Bey. In Arabic, "Tourbet" means cemetary, and "Bey" means "king," so I live right near the tomb of the kings who once reigned here. The house is a treasure. The ceramic tiles in the house are hand painted and the doors are made of carved wood. Believe it or not, found the house I'm living on Facebook in a group for people searching for housemates. (Shoutout to Martin for commenting on my post!) My guess is that the king used to live here, but note that's not backed up by any kind of actual historical knowledge. I just want to believe I'm living in a royal palace.
Each of my housemates is so lovely I could write a blog about all of them. Jeanne is a down-to-earth woman who lives in the moment with cool shoes and a laugh that just fills your heart because it comes from her soul. Martin somehow knows everyone in Tunis, has a phenomenal fashion sense, and takes the time to let people know he cares. Matthieu has slick shades, witty humour, and makes Tunisia's best Omek Houria (spicy carrot salad) despite not being Tunisian at all. Chloe is an enthusiastic social butterfly who makes everyone in a group comfortable simply by being herself. Amani is a badass Tunisian activist who will one day publish her book that will change lives. Just briefly, I want to emphasize how grateful I am to them for including me in their social circles and inviting me to share moments of their lives. From eating dinner together to having deep chats over coffee, I don't need to explain myself to be understood, which doesn't happen so easily so often. My heart is full in this house.
It would be downright rude for me to write about my house without mentioning our pet, Batman. Batman is a cat whose name was decided before her sex was obvious. We love Batman, our gender-defying cat who is as social as a dog. (For a picture scroll to Week 3.)
The house is nestled between winding roads just wide enough for a donkey cart, with mosques and birds visible from the roof, and cats around every corner. In the afternoons after work, I've picked up the habit of taking a snack in the little courtyard before heading to the roof terrace to exercise, sometimes hearing the mosque prayers in the background of the cardio video on my phone. It's calming up there because hardly anyone goes onto their roofs, so I'm in the middle of the busy city but can't hear traffic (no traffic since cars don't fit in the Medina) and I feel alone, away from the hustle and bustle of the day despite being right above it. I'm lucky enough to catch the sunset most days with the birds circling in the dozens above my head.
A useful traveller tip for wifi: To get internet, I have a small internet box from the Orange phone store with 100 GB I paid $40 CAD for. It means that instead of using data, I can flip on the switch of the handheld box and have internet whenever I need it. I'm still grateful to Jeanne for taking me there on day 2 when I still couldn't figure my way outside the maze of the Medina.
Tourist Suggestion - Rue Jamaa El Zitouna: If you want a Medina experience, take a spin on Rue Jamaa El Zitouna and get ready for packed streets, souvenirs and teashops, like in the photos above.
A useful traveller tip for backpacks: I swear by keeping my backpack on my front at most times so that I can always see what's going on. I also highly recommend the brand "Pacsafe" (which I promise I'm not sponsored for) because it allows you to clip the zippers into the side of the bag so no pick-pocketers will open your bag and snatch anything, because you can't simply zip it open. Plus, they're slashproof and RFID protected, meaning people can't take your credit card info through the bag. I've got a backpack - one that I "borrowed" from my mom years ago without looking back - and a little travellers purse.
It's only been a month, but I've tried so many delicious foods. I love the street food here, because it's hella cheap and super tasty. You can get a makloub, which is a sandwich-giro filled with tuna and vegetables and spicy harissa, for about $2 CAD. Although makloubs are good, I enjoy mlawi more. Mlawi is a super thin bread with the consistency between a crepe and Indian naan, filled with meat and veggies and spicy harissa (harissa is everywhere) rolled up so you can eat it on the go. Another funny thing here is a fricase, which is a small sandwich made out of a donut commonly eaten as a snack. The best part is this donut sandwich isn't even considered a dessert.
It would be silly to mention all of this without recognizing that the cous-cous here is divine. Amani made some for us the other night, with squid and veggies on top. I've never had such flavorful cous cous.
There are olives and dates sold on every street corner, and nuts sold in every tiny convenience store area. (Although I say convenience store, instead picture a wall where a man or woman sells practical things - like coffee, sweets, cigarettes, toilet paper - behind a small counter).
I'll name just a few culinary experiences so far. In the northern town of Bizerte about an hour from Tunis (see below for Bizerte adventures), apart from the beach, one of my highlights was drinking sweet hazelnut tea and eating freshly grilled fish I bought from a fish market. In the Medina of Tunis I ate at a fancy restaurant called Fondouk el Attarine complete with two appetizers, a salade and an entree (I chose cous cous), and dessert for $16 CAD (see below for pictures). Of course, going to the local market is also quite the experience, and cheap. As for desserts I've eaten way too many baklavas (layered pastry dessert made of filo pastry filled with chopped nut), a kaak warka (marzipan rosewater cookies that are white in color and shaped like rings), samsa (triangle pastries stuffed with roasted nuts), bambalouni (fried dough ring doughnuts), ghraiba homs (chickpea cookies apparently dating from the Ottoman empire), makroudh (semolina dough with date filling inside doused with honey), Kaber ellouz (almond balls colored to look like sugary peaches), and assida boufriwa (hazelnut creme in a cup).
A useful traveller tip for transport: Getting around is easiest on foot, because public transportation isn't easily accessible from where I live. Using Bolt, an Uber-like application, is quickest, but most expensive. Hailing down cabs so that they use their taxi meter costs half the price as Bolts, so that's my go-to. I live a bit far from where I work (ie. the Medina is about 30 minutes from Lac 1, the fancy schmancy region where the UNHCR is found, where many embassies and international organizations are.) Instead of paying for a taxi each time, which costs about 7-8 dinars ($3-4 CAD) each morning and evening, I posted in the facebook group "Co-voiturage grande Tunis," a carpool group. I now pay 5 dinars ($2 CAD) each day, there and back. Now that's a deal! Another option is to take shared taxis. For trips outside the city, "louages" are shared, cheap vans with parking lot stations.
Before the film we went to grab a bite to eat at the food court, and I found it so funny that the American chain Chiles was there, with a drinks page in the menu with "Sprite" instead of gin or vodka. Turns out Azur City is non-alcoholic.
We had trouble finding a Bolt to go back home, but eventually made it. One tip might be arranging transportation beforehand for a late night film.
Week 2: Conference of Coincidence, Queer Play & Yuka
After a rapid change in plans concerning my prior internship, I emailed the Canadian embassy for guidance on legal organizations doing good work in and around Tunis with whom I could work with. I honestly wasn't expecting a response. Within 30 minutes, I got an email from who I now consider a friend, Lara, from the International Bureau for Children's Rights. Believe it or not, she was contacted by somebody from the embassy and happened to be sitting in a cab with my professor, Dr. Francois Crepeau, who taught me refugee and immigration law last semester. (Aside: Dr. Crepeau used to be the United Nations special rapporteur on migration, so he's kind of a big deal but also one of the most laid back profs I know). Turns out my prof from Montreal was here in Tunis to help lead a conference on the child rights of migrants. WHAAT?! Considering I just finished writing a 30-page research paper about Mediterranean migration routes and EU policy, and a few months ago wrote another 30-pager about child labour for my human rights class, Lara invited me to attend the conference.
Sometimes when you least expect things to go smoothly, life defies your expectations and you oggle at the way things work out.
The two-day conference at the Hotel Berge du Lac was phenomenal both in terms of agenda but also in terms of getting me back on my feet. I met Lara's lovely co-workers including bubbly Marie-Soleil, a Québécoise woman whose accent made me feel right at home, and young Ivorian and Congolese friends passionate about refugee rights. I learned about unaccompanied child migrants in Tunisia and enjoyed a cocktail casually meeting the Canadian ambassador, representatives from the IOM (International Organization for Migration), UNICEF (UN agency for children's rights), and UNHCR (UN agency for refugees). Although normal people want to meet Lady Gaga, for me meeting people working at the UN was a *pinch me* day. With no time to waste, I bolstered my confidence and spoke to all these reps explaining my situation and proposing internships. Usually nailing down a UN internship is a year-long process. I don't know why or how, but by Monday, these three organizations had offered me internships. It was a serendipitous, confidence-boosting week as I started my time with the UNHCR.
Sometimes, the toughest thing to do is to make a decision for your mental health that you're unsure will end well. This is one of those examples where being courageous enough to put a quick end to a plan couldn't have had a better turn of events.
Rooftop Party: Like I mentioned above, my roommates are pretty cool. This week, they decided to host an apero at our house on Thursday. With great weather and great people, the gathering was a perfectly timed opportunity to make pals.
Have I mentioned I'm grateful to be living with these lovely human beings?
I've found that Tunisians are like that. They want you to feel welcome, and they'll invite you wherever they're going. One time, a taxi driver eating a sandwich even offered me a bite of his sandwich! I politely declined.
Tourist Suggestion - Fonduk El Attarine: This is a definite must-see in the Medina. For a 3 course meal, plus a shared appetizer of bread and olives, the cost is 38 dinars, or $16 CAD. Apparently there's a similar restaurant that serves the same food for double the price nearby, but let me assure you that you're not missing anything if you come here. The chef is the same person.
I had the generous salad du chef, which pleasantly had strawberries and nuts, followed by the couscous poisson aia karkenaise, which was DIVINE, and finally the zriga assida or hazelnut chocolate mousse. With cold water and coffee, this is the slam dunk deal of the Medina. To be clear, this is quite an expensive meal for here, considering a filling streetfood meal is about $2-$4. The experience was worth the cost. We stayed for around 3 hours talking and laughing.
It's important to recognize that Myriam didn't need to invite me to this lunch, but she did. Not only that, but her and her cousin and aunt included me in conversation, sharing other secret gems in the Medina. It's always a privilege to be invited into the intimate family spaces of strangers.
Queer Activist Play, Flagrant Delit: There might be nothing I like better than queer activism in a country that penalizes sexual intercourse between people of the same sex. (See my blog post about anti-homosexuality laws in Kenya, here.) Let's just say Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code of 1913 is not a friendly law for queer people.
On Saturday night, I went to see the play called "Flagrant Delit," organized by the local grassroots NGO called Mawjoudin We Exist. This NGO took the lead from Damj, a queer organization in Tunisia that hosted the first queer play a few years ago in all of the Arab world. That's a big deal. These people are trailblazers in terms of human rights. Flagrant Delit, the play I saw, was an edge of your seat, heart-wrenching, humanizing, utterly raw play about being a trans person in Tunisia. Amani, who I live with, works at L'Art Rue, who was in partnership with Mawjoudin on this project, and provided me with a ticket. The play took place at Rio Theatre in downtown Tunis. There were french subtitles dancing across the top of the screen as the scenes unfolded. Even though I didn't understand everything, I understood enough to get shivers. The play was mindful of the heavy subject, and somehow included both humorous moments and education about the legal context in Tunisia.
Le Muret : That evening I went to a resto/bar called "Le Muret" near Place D'Afrique with friends from the Canadian embassy I had made during the conference earlier in the week, namely Joelle and Khawla, two lovely people who like to have a good time. The music was delightful because the woman singing had such a powerful voice. (At first we thought it was a CD, she was so good! And in English as well as in Arabic.) It was a great evening. We laughed, we danced, we ate good pizza, and all fought over the little crunchy appetizers we couldn't decide were peanuts or chickpeas (they were peanuts; I lost that fight). It was the night I started picturing myself actually living in Tunisia for more than just a 3 month internship. Who knows, maybe I'll be back for longer.
A useful traveller tip for nightlife: The eastern suburbs, including Gammarth, the Marsa, and the Goulette, are the places to be if you want some life at night. For a classic evening out, head to Yuka, which is actually only one of about 5 bars in the complex. I went back to Yuka at night the next weekend with Jeanne and Chloe and it was bumpin' at night.
Week 3: UNHCR, Martin's Goodbye, Beach Day
UNHCR: Week 3 was my first *full* week with the UNHCR, and boy can I say it I enjoyed it. Everyone in the office is extremely friendly, well intentioned, and hardworking. I'll check on the confidentiality permissions before writing a more detailed explanation of my work there so far, but let it suffice to say I'm academically and intellectually satisfied with what I'm learning. Beyond researching relevant legal questions the team is working on, I went to a conference this week about protecting the rights of child migrants in Tunisia at the Golden Tulip Hotel. It was great to see Lara, Marie Soleil, and Joelle again from the International Bureau for Children's Rights and the Canadian embassy.
Another *wild* thing about the conference was the simultaneous translation happening from French to Arabic and back. I took a silly picture of myself with the headset, with no intention of sharing it in the future, but include it here just to share how neat this headset was. I'll admit that I let myself close my eyes for a moment and pretend like I was at the UN General Assembly, switching into my language of choice.
As for the office environment at the UNHCR, let me just say that my supervisor and co-workers are lovely. Rihem is a kind-hearted person who drove me to work once, shared with me her love of music. Mariem is an activist with fun hair who jokes around sometimes but is a fierce leader with refugees and asylum seekers when she needs to be. Both are young Tunisian women working in human rights and killing it. Michael is from Saskatchewan and always recognizes the work of interns on emails, which is appreciated. Lilia, Mouna, and Ghita are all distinct personalities who jive together. It's a great team.
Martin's Farewell: To celebrate Martin's departure to Italy, we had a gathering at Majestic on Wednesday. I couldn't be happier that my path and Martin's crossed when they did. Cheers to Martin's new chapter and his stylin outfit!
A useful traveller tip for shopping: You think thrift shops are cool? You've never been to Tunisian streets, where pop-up clothing stands on plastic tables are the things of dreams. Going to the "Fripe" means going to a thrift shop where you'll find $200 brand name boots for $20 like Jeanne did last week, t-shirts for 50 cents, and beautiful flowy yet elegant new work pants (because it's too hot to wear anything tighter!) for $7, which is considered expensive.
Beach Day: Sunday I went to eat a big bowl of salad with Jeanne in the Marsa and then went to the beach to soak up some sun. Apart from some good chats with Jeanne, my highlight of the day was definitely playing soccer with local boys on the beach, who just about went ballistic when I scored.
Week 4: Morning Italian, Paddleboard, Beach Paradise
After playing soccer with the paddleboard crew, I meet up with friends at Le Pirate, a restaurant bar near the Sidi Bou Said beach. I ordered an enormous salad and was so happy to be eating a salad (considering my veggie intake hasn't been great).
After a few hours of laughs with Jeanne and Florine, I got a text from my pottery pal Daly who invited me to Wet Flamingo, another bar in the Goulette I had been to the week before. I head over there and he introduced me to his friends. I'm usually not one to stay out late, but it's not the first time in Tunisia I got home after midnight.
Capitaine El Bounta in Raf Raf : The next day was one of those summer adventures I'll remember for a long time. After falling in love with a tiny kitten we found near Chloe's grandparent's house, Chloe and Jeanne and I spent the day driving to Raf Raf, which is near Bizerte but hidden away in a little cove.
I actually could not believe the color of the water. I didn't edit any of these photos. I've never used the word "aquamarine" to describe a color in a better place than here.
The place was really neat. We had a little table on stilts and spent the whole afternoon there. The cost for the day at Capitaine was 70 dinars per person, or $29 CAD, which included the boat ride, the whole day at the place, a delicious lunch comprised of freshly grilled fish, salad, bread, fries, water, and an afternoon watermelon snack, and the boat ride back. It doesn't look like Capitaine is the only place like this, as we boated past another place called Lovina, which had a similar setup.
We went back to the Yuka bar (I had gone there with the Canadian embassy people during the day, remember?) but this time at night. The vibe was neat and fun and different. The lights were on, the atmosphere was club-like and the people were all much more nicely dressed than us. We grabbed a table and chatted about life before heading home way too late but happy in our hearts.
Maybe the most surprising thing is that I still live where I lived 3 years ago, which is surprising for me as much as it is for anyone else. I really really enjoy living in Montreal. It's a great home base, always has events going on, and is a safe space. Each new season marks a change in outdoor activities. I like that. In the past 3 years I've discovered every single cafe in Montreal within biking distance, and admittedly spent most of my savings on those coffees. (No regrets.) I've gone on bike rides, went to museums, organized outdoor barbeques, and made lots of pottery. I have a group of stable people who have made it worth staying. That, and I've stayed to study.
In 2019 I graduated from my MA in political science and decided to study law. I'm now 2 years into my law degree at McGill, and I'm psyched about having legal tools in my activist toolkit to throw a few more pebbles into the ocean of change veering in the direction of social equity.
COVID happened, and is still happening. Doing my first year of law school online and away from my family was an enormous challenge. Since the borders were closed, I relied on my small bubble in Montreal to get me through. I can say with confidence that I've never worked so hard in school as I did during that year. The second year was better for multiple reasons, notably because the vaccines came out, the borders opened up, school returned in person, and I could take classes that genuinely interested me. I don't know about you, but I much prefer international environmental law, public international law, critical human rights, and international development law to contract and torts law, however useful the latter might be one day.
I was lucky enough to go on some adventures. I dove into outdoor life in Quebec, complete with a 2-week road trip around the Gaspesie region (whales included), a full-day kayak trip down the Yamaska, a bike ride around Lac Brome, foliage hiking at Orford, a ski day at Sutton, a month living around Lac St. Jean eating blueberries, going to Saguenay Fjords Park, and camping on Ile d'Orleans. I went to Costa Rica to meet my partner's family, discovering my new favorite beach called "Dantita." I visited my little sister in Wyoming and was wow-ed by the Teton mountain range and Yellowstone National Park, climbing up to the incredibly blue Delta lake, seeing a bear, and going to Salt Lake City. Christmas in Cancun was a laid back family holiday filled with novels and my dad's cooking. Although perhaps less glamorous, dinners with my extended family in Laval and Quebec city were the most heartwarming weekends. Finally, the most recent adventure was a month in Ecuador, where my heart will always feel full because of the lifelong friends I've made and maintained since my first time abroad when I was 19. I'll get around to writing about each of these adventures in due time.
Some things change, but other things stay the same. Even though my cousins had babies, my sisters moved states, and my parents retired, I know I can pick up the phone and call them all for a good chat.
Now, I'm in Tunisia for 3 months and then I'm off to Italy for 4 months. Amazingly, both experiences are paid for with bursaries from my University because they are educational experiences. Considering I'm in school full time, I've been quite lucky to benefit from so much time exploring.
I took lots of photos (of course!) and here are some of my favorites.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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1. Started an Internship with IMPACT
IMPACT is the organization we are interning with for the next three months. IMPACT stands for Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation. Basically the organization covers a lot of ground considering historical land injustices and pastoralist conflicts are everywhere. The organization works mostly with pastoralist (nomadic) groups in the four provinces of Laikipia, Samburu, Marsabit, Isiolo, & some parts of Turkana. The office team is extremely friendly and we've been welcomed with open arms. Our main role will be to incorporate a gender-based strategy into the organization, seeing as gender inequalities are implicitly tied to resource use and the privatization of land. We walk 45-50 minutes to the office every morning and it is a crazy adventure each day. Although at first it was hella intimidating to cross the busy honking roads, and to watch for crossing cows, now we're pros.
2. Overcome living with Goats
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
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).
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
5. Tried FUN new foods
My favorite so far is horny fruit. It has the texture of the inside of a cucumber and doesn't taste like much, but look how fun it is! Plus the name makes us giggle because we're 12.
The best part of the day is often going to new hole-in-the-wall lunch spots around the office during our hour break. My go-to meal is githeri, which is a bean and corn mixture, often with a cooked vegetable salad and spinach on the side. The cost is around $1.50 USD for lunch and the food is very filling. We've also tried (and made) ugali, which is essentially a starchy flour bread thing that makes me extra sleepy. Kienyenji is a mashed potato base with beans and greens mixed in. Chapati is the Kenyan version of Indian na'an bread. Feel free to look up the other foods on the menu.
6. Mastered the Bucket-Shower
7. Went to a 4 hour church service
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
9. Got lost (multiple times)
So Nanyuki isn't a big city. It's quite small, and there are not too many paved roads so it shouldn't be too hard to keep track of where you are. On the first day of work, however, we ended up walking back to the Equator in the complete wrong direction of our cabin. Here is a lovely photo to illustrate. Do you see that big blue circle? That's where we started. Do you see the Equator marker? That's where we ended up. Now do you see the orange marker with a star in it on the far left? That's where we were supposed to go. Eventually after being followed by a 12 year old kid who wouldn't leave us alone, we got in a cab and directed it to go to the blue marker on the far right. Here's the problem: our cabin doesn't have an address. Eventually we made it back to our house because I remembered the name of a hotel we passed on the way to work that morning called Falcon Heights. But think of how many steps we got in! Reached that 10,000 step goal by a landslide.
10. Visited a hype organization for street kids
11. Seen a camel on the street and a giant crab in the fridge
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
13. Learned some Swahili
14. Went to the Equator
15. Enjoyed some interesting music choices
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)
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
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.
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
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.
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
- My 3 month internship in Kenya where I had some interesting culture shocks, traveled, and saw beautiful things like Naivasha's Hell's Gate National Park, Nairobi National Park, and Mt. Longonot
- Moving to Montreal to start my MA program
- Going to Stockholm, Sweden
- Working at Kingdom Trails and mountain biking on the daily
- Being a ski instructor in Vermont
- A glimpse at what I did in France for 2 months
- 2 intensive French classes in Sherbrooke, Canada and Grenoble respectively
- my month-long visit back to Ecuador (where I climbed a snowy volcano, performed a rap, ate bomb ice cream, and soaked up the sun with blue-footed boobies)
- an impromptu trip to Toronto to see the activist Vandana Shiva, and to Quebec to see my lovely grandmother
- & adventures in Vermont last summer (including an owl visitor and a hike)
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