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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.

Occasionally, Ellen and I wonder if we’re spending too much time in one place. We are, after all, on a Latin American adventure, and yet we’ve spent over one-third of our vacation at this farm here in Ecuador. This led me to start an inventory of skills or concepts I’ve learned here.

The largest category of skills I’ve had a chance to develop on this farm have been construction-related. Since the farm is just starting out, there are lots of outbuildings to build and existing structures to expand. Ellen and I have been involved in every stage of construction. We’ve cleared land, felled trees, split bamboo, dug foundation trenches, hauled stones and sand, set posts, built frames, put up roofs, painted, and repaired buildings. We’ve evened the land out, laid a concrete pad, leveled it, brushed it smooth, and kept its surfaces damp while it dried. Then we yelled at the dogs and cats for jumping on the fresh concrete, repaired the scratches and footprints, and re-smoothed the surface. We’ve built greenhouses, drying houses, benches for beehives, chicken houses and barns. Before I came here, I had a feel for the concepts of building, from reading books on construction and from watching building shows on TV, but now I know construction from experience. It’s a different kind of understanding altogether. I can tell by look and feel whether the cement I’m mixing is the right texture and has enough water in it. I’ve never learned that kind of skill from a book.

The new beehives, on the hand-crafted bench.

The new beehives, on the hand-crafted bench.

Despite being a good cook at home, I’ve also learned a lot from spending time in the kitchen here. Cooking here is much more of a challenge than at home because of the availability of ingredients. I have my recipes from home here with me, but they’re completely unreasonable here. My cake recipes, for example, call for half a dozen eggs plus two yolks and a cup of butter in one cake. Here, I cannot justify using any butter or more than three eggs for a cake – we just don’t have the resources. (When the young chickens start laying, we’ll be able to use as many eggs as we like, though.) I’ve learned to cook more by feeling, which I’d heard was difficult with cakes. Just as with the cement, I can tell from texture whether the batter is right. With other dishes, too, I’m getting the feel for how to cook Latin American food. I understand the ingredients and I’m learning how they work together to make the flavours of the foods I love here.

I’m also adjusting my ideas about working with others. When I’m doing projects alongside other volunteers, sometimes I have to let them struggle to do things without stepping in to help. It’s important to let inexperienced people try, and succeed, on their own rather than to do the work myself. Most of the volunteers are much younger than me – between 18 and 23 – and have never done this kind of work before. I’m also working with the family’s daughters, who are 13, 11, and 2, and who are very interested in learning and working alongside the volunteers. I have to let go of my ideas of doing a perfect job, in order to make the project educational and enjoyable for everyone. Even Laia, the two-year-old, gets to have her turn to use a paintbrush or a trowel. I’m much more aware of giving everyone a chance to try, although the work goes more slowly and isn’t done exactly the way I’d do it.

The two year old gets to feed the animals too! (Especially the baby lamb, of course!)

The two year old gets to feed the animals too! (Especially the baby lamb, of course!)

Even with all the things I’m doing and learning, I still have dozens of ideas for things to learn next. Every skill I learn opens the door to other projects for which I’ll need to learn something else. It’s a reminder of how learning is a lifelong journey, and there’ll never be enough time to do everything. Even staying in one place, I feel as if every day is a step in the right direction.

I don’t plan on going home to Canada when I run out of money to travel. My plan has been to get a job somewhere in Latin America and stay here for a few years. When asked what kind of job, teaching English seems like the most obvious choice: I have a Master’s of Education, I’ve worked six years in the field, I’ve written textbooks on the subject, I enjoy working with learners, and English teaching jobs abound in every major city in the world. The problem is that I don’t actually want to teach in a school. Since giving up on getting my British Columbian teaching certificate a few years ago, I’ve been disillusioned with mainstream schooling. I always loved school myself, but I don’t think it’s the right way to educate people. Much more can be learned by participating in life, without curriculum guides and mandatory testing. How can I get a job teaching in a school, here or elsewhere, when my most valuable learning experiences have been far removed from the classroom?

When I think about the skills and values that are most important to me, I didn’t learn them in school. My passions and inspiration have come from other sources. I adore learning languages, for example. However, I recall being bored in my French classes at school, drawing my amusement from distracting the teacher. We used to play a game, counting how few words in French the teacher could use in a 60-minute period if we diverted his attention elsewhere. Our record was twelve. When I’m teaching English, I don’t look back on my language classes in school as inspiration. Instead, I think of my experiences in Korea, the Philippines, Latin America, and Thailand, trying to interact with people despite language barriers. I remember what strategies helped me express my needs. Memorizing grammar rules by rote, as school language teachers are wont to assign, were never among those successful tactics.

Reading is also a passion of mine. I can devour a book in less than a day, and reread the same novels time and again without getting bored. The books I read in school, though, almost killed that passion. In silent reading in elementary school, we were given twenty minutes to read ten pages of our assigned book. We weren’t allowed to read further than those ten pages, and I was always forty pages into the book before the teacher had seen that I’d gone ahead and told me off for it. I hadn’t noticed the chapter ending – I was too deep into the story. Soon I was reading library books under my desk in class while the teacher was going over material we’d covered the year before. If I was caught, the books were confiscated and the teacher threatened to take away my library card. At home, though, we had thousands of books lining the walls, and I could read any of them well into the night if I wanted, and I often did. I read encyclopedias and dictionaries, poetry and fairy tales, novels and books of cartoons, and when I’d read through all the fiction I started on the books on gardening and cooking. I still read voraciously, but never the kind I was assigned in school. I faked doing my college readings – dry papers in jargon-filled prose written by pompous experts – and bluffed my way through the discussions for them, and yet I read tonnes of books on the same theories, written by down-to-earth real people dealing with the issues. Why does the education system not use these more accessible resources?

My passion for reading combined with my love of languages: Spanish books to read on the farm

My passion for reading combined with my love of languages: Spanish books to read on the farm

When I look back on my life, most of my important lessons were taught outside of school. I learned the value of hard work from my parents, and from working on the farm. The animals needed feeding before we did, because they couldn’t feed themselves. I learned about other cultures from the many volunteers on our farm, as well as from our travels in Europe when I was a child, and my parents’ and grandparents’ stories of living in other countries. The world was a much more exciting place than school ever led me to believe. I remember considering running away, when I was about thirteen, to pursue my dreams without finishing my education. I did my research first, though – I looked through the classified ads in the newspaper to see what kind of jobs I could get without a high school diploma and how much they paid, then compared that to the prices of apartments and airplane tickets. My calculations showed that I’d never be able to make ends meet, let alone save up for trips to other countries, if I didn’t finish high school, so I stuck it out. I don’t ever remember that kind of budgeting taught in school.

Now, as I consider whether to get a job teaching when my travel budget is exhausted, my heart and soul are crying at the thought of spending my days in a school. I’m thinking of the boredom, of the endless assignments and marking, of the curriculum planning of the entire year’s lessons into fifteen minute chunks. I want to teach by being a guide for my students. I want to point them in directions that interest them, and let the students run off their own way, pursuing their passions. I want to be a resource to help people learn. In short, I don’t want to teach in a mainstream school. I wonder, though, where that decision will lead me in my educational career, if I choose to continue it. Only time will tell, I suppose.

The kind of life lesson that we really learn from, summed up in graffiti on the streets of Popayan, Colombia

The kind of life lesson that we really learn from, summed up in graffiti on the streets of Popayan, Colombia. “Live, simply, immediately.”