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It’s been almost half a year since Ellen and I left for Latin America with little money in our pockets and no plans to speak of. We had ideas and vague intentions, but nothing concrete. As our trip has progressed, we’ve regularly felt grateful that we had themes to focus on rather than plans to stick to. Now, as Ellen is spending a few weeks in Canada getting her future sorted out, I figured I’d spend some time looking back on our vacation to see what we’ve done and what more I’d like to do. I’m not making a bucket list – I read an article that eloquently lays out reasons to avoid those – but I’m examining the themes of our travels over the past months and into the future.

  1. Working with Wildlife – We left home with this idea featuring prominently in our minds, but it hasn’t materialized yet. There are plenty of wildlife rescue places in Latin America, but most require volunteers to make a hefty donation to the centre in exchange for the opportunity to work with monkeys, snakes, turtles, or wildcats. Ellen might choose to pursue this further, but my budget has relegated this idea to the back burner for me.
  2. Beer – Every travel article I’ve read says there’s no good beer to speak of in Latin America. Ellen and I set out to prove them wrong by finding microbreweries and artisan beer on our trip. This focus of our travel has had mixed results. We didn’t search extensively in Costa Rica or Panama, but instead drank what the locals drank. We had more success once we hit South America. We found an excellent craft brewery in Medellin, Colombia, and were able to sample local beer from Bogota as well. In Ecuador, there’s good local beer to be found on tap in Canoa, and I also had the pleasure of buying the first two bottles of ginger beer brewed in Mindo. This week I’m couchsurfing at the home of an American who distributes the craft beers from Canoa, and who has asked me to help him close a couple of deals while I’m in Quito. I hope this will allow me to sample their India Pale Ale, which is my favourite type of beer and which I have sorely missed in Latin America. Ellen and I have also played with brewing our own beer at the farm here in Ecuador, as well as making traditional fruit alcohols in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Ecuador. I look forward to continuing to explore our passion for good beer as the trip carries on!
  3. Food – I absolutely love the food here. Ellen and I have enthusiastically embraced local ingredients and experimented with imitating Latin American dishes and incorporating the new fruits and vegetables into foods we like from home. I haven’t done as much exploration of the South American food culture as I’d like – I think I’d need to be living and working here so I could systematically make sure I’ve tried everything – but Ellen and I are eating fresh, local foods every day, so I would call this a rewarding focus of our trip.
  4. Writing – When I started my blog, I hoped to write almost every day. I wanted my blog to record my journey, capture my reactions to new experiences, and keep my friends and family informed of my movements. Beyond that, I also wanted my blog to serve as a portfolio of my writing style, an avenue for self-improvement through daily writing practice, and a venue to expand my contacts and open doors to a potential career in the writing or publishing industry. I haven’t written quite as much as I hoped, and spending time out of internet service has limited my ability to be actively promoting my blog and interacting with readers. However, I’m enjoying the project immensely, and Ellen appreciates being able to keep her network of friends informed without having to use the internet herself.
  5. Sketching and Painting – I haven’t been doing as much artwork as I’d hoped on my journey, but neither have I abandoned the hobby. I’ve been pleased to be able to improve my skills at sketching especially – I’m finding a style of my own that I like, and enjoying the process of drawing as well as the results. Painting I’ve found less rewarding, so I’m focusing more on my work with markers on paper. Maybe when I’m more settled in one place, I’ll experiment with the Asian black and white watercolour style that I’d like to someday emulate.

    A sketch that I'm particularly pleased with

    A sketch that I’m particularly pleased with

  6. Sustainability – I didn’t set out to learn what Latin America could teach me about conservation of resources, but it seems this lesson found me on its own. Everywhere I look, I’m struck by how the locals are doing things in ways that don’t create nearly as much waste as we would at home. Latin America still has pollution problems, waste management issues and a lack of recycling centres, but unnecessary packaging and wasteful lifestyles aren’t as endemic here. North Americans and Europeans are more aware of pollution as an issue, but Latin Americans seem more pragmatic about their consumption of resources.
  7. Natural Building – This new focus for my travels has surprised me. I’ve never been interested in architecture, but discovering how different natural resources like bamboo, straw, and clay can be put together to make comfortable houses that look and feel better than modern materials like concrete and drywall has been a rewarding pursuit. The more I see, the more excited about the subject I become. I am inspired to learn different natural building methods so I can eventually build a home myself. This has opened up all sorts of avenues of discovery to explore – I’m hoping to refresh my knowledge of electricity and wiring (my least favourite topic in high school physics) and learn about drainage and plumbing so I can understand how to construct a home from start to finish.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

    An addition to the farmhouse that I helped work on.

  8. Education – I had taken a hiatus from teaching when I started this trip – I felt disillusioned and tired of the whole industry. Taking a step back from my teaching career seems to have renewed my passion for learning, though. I’m excited about education again, brimming with ideas about teaching, learning, schooling, and exploring the world. I need more time to put my philosophy into words and understand how to apply it to my life, but the first steps are forming. I hope to incorporate these lessons into wherever my career takes me.

Travelling with a focus instead of definite plans has led me in exciting directions. Not only have I explored the themes I set out with, but I’ve discovered new passions on this trip. I still have no idea what my future holds or where I’ll be in six months, but at least I know what paths I might be interested in following.

Everywhere I go, I am constantly amazed by what other people are doing with their lives, especially those who have made similar choices to mine. One volunteer at the yoga farm moved back in with her mother for a year in order to save money to travel the world. The volunteer coordinator at the farm in Costa Rica spends six months of every year working in the United States and six months volunteering. I haven’t met someone who funds their travels through writing yet, but you can bet that when I do I’ll be picking their brain for advice and contacts! I really enjoy finding out how others keep themselves grounded while travelling. With all your routines out the window, it’s easy to lose track of days, forget about life goals, and fall out of touch with yourself when you’re on the road. Having a project helps. One girl in Costa Rica was compiling people’s stories about being female travellers. A couple on the farm had given themselves the task of learning something new every day, and recording what it was. They also had a rule that they had to play at least one chess game per day. For my own project, I try to write every day. I want to get into the habit of observing what’s going on around me and recording it to share with others. I don’t want the act of writing it down to interfere with the experience of travel, so I try to remember and leave the writing until later. I often go around with a running commentary of what I’m doing buzzing through my head, until I have a chance to jot it down in my notebook. The ideas in my notebook are fleshed out into proper articles or blog entries. I don’t post everything I write to my blog, but I do post enough that people at home know where I am and what I’m working on.

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Need to work on perspective, but not a bad sketch

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I’m also keeping a sketchbook of my travels. This I work on much less than my writing, but enough that you can get a feel for the places I’ve been based on the drawings. I have a few paintings of greenery and mountains from the farm in Costa Rica, sketches of palm trees, boats, and water from Panama, and sketches and paintings of buildings from Cartagena. Today I painted a mural of lotus flowers on the wall of the yoga farm – six months ago I wouldn’t have felt confident painting a mural, and on this trip I’ve done two, as well as some furniture.

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Yoga farm mural

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One of the benches I built and painted in Costa Rica

My projects give me something to work on during the quiet moments of my trip. When the weather is hot and I’m tempted to take a nap, I can write or sketch instead and still feel rested. Both pursuits fill the need to record my wonder at what I see, and allow me to share those feelings with people at home. I’m envious of other people’s projects, and wish I could have the time to do everything I’m doing and that, too, but I’m happy with what I’m achieving while I’m away. I feel comfortable writing, sketching, and painting, and my confidence in those grows every day. I try new things, like yoga and capoeira, and speak better Spanish every week. I may be wandering the world, but I don’t feel aimless.

The new year has me thinking about how absolutely wonderful this past year has been for me.

I worked in Saskatoon’s only microbrewery and learned an unimaginable amount about brewing and beer, which has only whet my appetite for more knowledge about beers and brewing. I feel like I passed this passion and good fortune on to my former roommates by getting them involved in Paddock Wood Brewing and its recent offshoot, the Woods Alehouse (if not directly, then indirectly). I became more involved in the poetry community in Saskatoon, and even wrote and performed my first poem (which I haven’t been able to follow up with any other poems, but I’m still enamoured of the first and haven’t been inspired in the same way to write another). Again, I passed this passion on to others by introducing people who I knew would appreciate the atmosphere and beautiful words to the poetry scene in Saskatoon. Through trial (and failure) I learned and shared with others a great deal about different kinds of relationships, learned more about what I want and why, and learned (I hope) another lesson in the importance of honesty and openness in conducting relationships. I discovered that I actually do have a talent for sketching, which I had never believed of myself, through a burlesque and dance centre event shared with a person who taught me many of the lessons I had to learn about love. Now as I travel, sketching has been a way of capturing the people and places I go without relying on memory cards and batteries.

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A sketch I did on the boat in San Blas

I finished my Master’s degree this year, with a renewed appreciation for my project and the importance of my work. I killed two birds with one stone by spending the spring and summer transforming my thesis into a publication, which meant my hard work will actually contribute to the scientific community, and which also allowed me to save up enough money to travel for as long as I want. I gave away my possessions to various charity groups, and gave my most treasured possessions to the people who I knew would cherish them equally and think of me each time they used these items. I finally started the trip with my sister to Latin America that we have been dreaming of for more than a decade. I’ve learned a huge amount about sustainable farming in the tropics, about renewable energy, and cheap but effective ways to light and heat buildings with little to no energy inputs. I met other travellers who are interested in learning about farming and sustainability, about other cultures, and about local food and community development. I wrote an application to vet school that I feel exceptionally good about, because it truly reflects who I am, what I want to do with the field of veterinary medicine, and how much I have to offer the world as a vet. And I’m continuing to expand my horizons now in the New Year, looking for places where I can learn about natural remedies and medicinal plants that grow here in the tropics.

Almost every day I have had to stop and give thanks for the amazing place that I find myself in, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Thanks to everyone who has been a part of this growth over the past year. I love you all and hope you can experience the same wonderful reflection upon your own personal development.

Usually, if a town has bars on the windows, it indicates it’s dangerous, run-down, not family-friendly. Same with graffiti – clean towns, with proper neighbourhood associations and fine upstanding citizens, paint over any pesky graffiti before hoodlums take over the streets. Here in Cartagena, there are both bars on the windows and graffiti on the walls, and it’s the most amazing, friendly, positive place. I am constantly saying to Ellen, “Oh, our cousin Renee would love to raise her kids here. Look at the kids playing ball in the square, and all the moms dancing to Salsa music nearby!”

The church in Plaza de la Trinidad - host of bingo nights, Salsa dancing, food and drink vendors, and children's soccer games.

The church in Plaza de la Trinidad – host of bingo nights, Salsa dancing, food and drink vendors, and children’s soccer games.

Everywhere I look, I see another thing that someone at home would love. Our cousin Josh would love to skateboard on these winding streets. Jill and Chris (our parents) would love to paint the beautiful buildings in the old city. My friend Ashley would go crazy looking at the souvenirs for sale from little vendors all over the city. Yejin would admire some of the attractive guys wandering by. Why aren’t all you people visiting Cartagena? Let’s have a meet-up here!

I wish I could capture the beauty of the buildings here as well as this street vendor's lovely paintings

I wish I could capture the beauty of the buildings here as well as this street vendor’s lovely paintings

But back to the topic – the bars on the windows. In Costa Rica, as I mentioned last week, there were metal bars and barbed wire fences. Here, there are also bars, but not to the same extent. The wrought iron bars are decorative as well as functional. Wooden bars usually have flowers in pots beneath them and vines growing through them up the walls.

Form meets function while showing Latin America's typical attention to beauty

Form meets function while showing Latin America’s typical attention to beauty

The bars seem more to define private versus public spaces when people’s doors are open, rather than to serve as fortifications against unseen enemies. Here, the bars are a pleasing and integral aspect of the architecture, painted or stained to complement the walls. I can’t imagine Cartagena without bars, and I wouldn’t want to.

The bars here suit the design of the buildings

The bars here suit the design of the buildings

I’ve also seen lots of graffiti here in Cartagena as well – incredible works of art that add to the beauty of the crumbling old city walls, brightening dark spaces. Instead of showing disrespect for the city, they seem to show the love the people here have for their town. A missing stone from a wall becomes an eye socket in a portrait – a feature rather than a blemish.

Mural or graffiti? In this case, probably a mural, but who can tell?

Mural or graffiti? In this case, probably a mural, but who can tell?

This artist is prolific and incredible at portraiture

This artist is prolific and incredible at portraiture

The wall nearest the hostel is full of samples of this graffiti artist's work

The wall nearest the hostel is full of samples of this graffiti artist’s work

I don't read Spanish well enough to understand this yet, but I captured a picture for when I do

I don’t read Spanish well enough to understand this yet, but I captured a picture for when I do

This one caught our eye because it looks a little like us!

This one caught our eye because it looks a little like us!

A colourful statement on new construction versus traditional buildings

A colourful statement on new construction versus traditional buildings

Really, this town is beautiful. You should come visit.

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Here in Costa Rica, unlike in Canada, labour is cheap and natural materials are abundant. That means that when you want something, it’s easier to make it than to buy it, and people show a great deal of pride in their workmanship. Everybody, it seems, is adept at design and construction. It’s a creatively satisfying way of living.

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Make your own toilet seat? Why not?

All the buildings on the farm here appear to have been built by hand. The nails, screws, and pieces of roofing were bought, but the wood and bamboo came from the woods and jungle surrounding the farm. Javier, on his farm tour, points out which trees he planted for wood, which ones repel insects, and which attract scarlet macaws. In my first week here, I helped sand and varnish a cabana for guests, which now provides a more private option for couples volunteering on the farm. I assume the millwork on the wood was done elsewhere, but the cabin was designed and built by hand with local materials.

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The cabana

Every morning, we meet to plan the day’s projects in a structure called the rancho, which is an open building made from insect-repellent wood. From its pillars hang hammocks, but when the volunteers outnumber the hammocks, many people end up standing. One of last week’s projects was to build, sand, paint, and varnish stools and benches to provide seating in the rancho. Where in Canada one would run out to Ikea and buy an eight-dollar plastic stool or folding chair, here it makes more sense to create one yourself. Almost all the volunteers have enjoyed the opportunity to try their hands at measuring, sawing, sanding, or painting these stools, whereas a stool at home would probably just be a place to park one’s rear while participating in the morning meeting.

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Handmade stools

Mario, the grandfather here on the farm, is especially talented at repairing tools. He can make a perfect replica of a storebought shovel handle out of a more durable wood, down to carving the original brand name and logo down the side. (Try as he might, Nick, the volunteer coordinator, cannot induce Mario to carve his own name into the shovel handle on the repaired tools.) Mario also built a sugarcane press by hand out of wood. This nifty contraption has two people turning the handles to crush the mature sugarcanes, while a third feeds sugarcane into the machine, and a fourth makes sure the cane juice pours into the bucket below. Mario designed the machine and carved each piece of wood to fit perfectly, so that the canes are crushed between the smooth logs of the press.

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Feeding sugarcane into the press

Even beverages are more commonly made than bought. Ellen and I indulge in a few beers a week carried up the hill from the pub in the village, but the family usually drinks homebrewed alcohol. Ellen and I experimented with making chicha, the local moonshine, out of orange juice, which we hand-squeezed, mixed with cane syrup, and left in a bottle in the shade for two weeks. Every day, we shook it and let the air out as it fermented. Traditionally, chicha is made from corn or pineapple, but since there are an abundance of oranges at the moment, we decided to give orange chicha a shot. Since we’re leaving this week, we tasted it last night, although the local chicha takes about a month to brew. It needed more sugar, but it was certainly drinkable and pleasant.

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The remains of the orange chicha

We have definitely enjoyed being here for almost a month. Since we’ve been here, in addition to the projects above, we’ve built a trough for the pig, set up a library in one of the dorms, built a roof over the hydroponic garden, planted a flower garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and terraced several hills for planting. Ellen designed and built an orange picker out of a canvas sack on a long stick, with a sharp piece of plastic to help pull the orange off the branch. I assembled eight stools and painted four of them, and sanded and varnished a table. Ellen and I will leave at the end of the week, and I’m excited to imagine what new projects our next volunteering stint will have in store for us.

Every Wednesday, we have a talent class here at the farm, and this week’s was sketching people. I’m a little under the weather this week, so please enjoy my sketches in lieu of a proper blog post.

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Anna relaxing in a hammock

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Tory pondering life

I’ll try to write a better post tomorrow.