Hasta luego , Ecuador!

In 24 hours I will be back in Toronto! I’m so excited to come back home! Can you tell by all the exclamation marks?! 

Beautiful Cuenca
A parade for Cuenca turning 460 years old!
Spanish class. My teacher was awesome and I laughed so much with her.
Lovely Ecuadorians I got the pleasure of knowing.

To wrap up my blogging, I wanted to share the top 10 things I learned/re-learned from my 6 week trip in Ecuador:

1) Children are the best teachers. Not just for languages, but life as well.

2) A lot can be communicated through non-verbal communication.

3) There is no cure for grief. A sweat lodge doesn’t fix you. A trip to a different country doesn’t make you forget. 

4) You are supposed to drown in your grief. You are supposed to build strength by swimming back up. You are supposed to catch some air before getting sucked back under again. And eventually you are supposed to learn how to stay afloat for longer periods of time. Just don’t ever expect to not get sucked under anymore. Because the waves of grief are unpredictable and violent.

5) It is very isolating to not be able to express yourself because you don’t have the language for it.

6) Laugh at yourself. A LOT. 

7) Love for yourself and others is the most important thing to cultivate in this life. Your money, your job, or your brand name clothes won’t be surrounding you when you need help the most.

8) Tell people what you appreciate about them whenever you get the chance. Don’t save it for special occasions. You never know when someone needs a pick-me-up.

9) It is so fun yet so HARD to learn something new. Don’t let the hard part stop you.

10) I went on this trip hoping to find out who exactly I am without my mother. But I already knew the answer ….. I am my mother’s daughter. And that gives me strength.

Take care all!

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A Healing Weekend in Peguche, Ecuador

​Do you ever feel like some things are just meant to be?

On my way back from Mindo, I met an American couple on the bus that offered to split their taxi with me as they were headed to Otavalo. Hmmm…a comfy, quick $10 taxi ride or a minimum 2 hour bus ride for $2? I already know what it’s like to rough it <insert picture of me falling out of the washroom with my pants down on my 12 hour bus ride in Vietnam> so I accepted their offer. During the taxi ride, they mentioned a sweat lodge ceremony (Temazcal) that they had done the week before. I told them I had wanted to take part in one but I had missed my chance as my hostel only offered it once a month. They told me to ask the owner of my hostel about a ceremony taking place down the street. I never would have known to ask without them, plus, not many people do the ceremony so I felt it was a serendipitous meeting.

Ah, nature. My hostel (Hostal Aya Huma) in Peguche – a 10 minute drive from Otavalo.

Temazcal ceremony

This is what a sweat lodge typically looks like.

The sweat lodge is basically a 2 hour ceremony that helps in healing and cleansing. I happened to do a women-only ceremony and it was very moving to be surrounded and supported by each other despite not knowing one another. 
To sum up the ceremony: The tent/sweat lodge represents Mother Nature’s womb so you crawl into it on your hands and knees (like a baby) and state your intention. The participants form a circle around a pit where volcanic rock is put into and handled with antlers from some sort of animal. There are four rounds – each round represents a different element – fire (your spirit), water (your emotions), air (your mind), and earth (giving thanks). Each round has different chanting, singing, and instruments. This was all done in complete darkness which usually makes me anxious, but I remained calm. It was a powerful experience and I could feel my mom and grandma all around me. It was nice to think of my grandma because I wasn’t that close to her and didn’t feel like I knew a lot about her. Her death was a shock to me because she was the first one to die in my family – but her death also pushed me to know my grandfather better and I became quite close to him in the last two years of his life. Ah, the bad always comes with some good in life if you’re looking out for it.

As part of my trip, I also wanted to learn about different perspectives and practices related to death and dying. Apparently, the sweat lodge can be used to pray for someone to die peacefully and if someone knows they are going to die soon they can sit in the sweat lodge, pray and die in there. It sounds a lot more calming, peaceful, and accepting than deteriorating in a hospital bed where you don’t even smell like yourself anymore – only sterile.

After the ceremony, two ladies offered to drop me off at my hostel. However, their car was stuck in a ditch. So, 5 women (including myself) helped push the car out of the ditch. It was the perfect way to end the day – getting through the sweat lodge displayed our internal strength and the car mishap showcased our external strength – both while relying on the help of one another.

The aftermath of pushing the car out of the ditch.

Musings from Ecuador

It’s been 2 weeks since I’ve left Toronto – wow feels like way longer!
This is what I have been up to:

Hiking the Yellow House trails in Mindo, Ecuador
Met a Dutch girl named Nynke. Both our moms had died in our 20’s. Behind us was a waterfall called ‘Cascada Madre’.
Took part in a Guiness World Record challenge for the largest locro soup ever made!
Climbed some of the volcano behind me. Cotopaxi is the second highest active volcano in the world!
The teléferico takes you almost 5000 metres above the city of Quito.

While seeing new sights and meeting awesome people have been great, this whole trip has not been settling right with me. For instance, climbing a volcano was cool and all but my favourite part of the day was struggling to keep a conversation going with a bus driver in spanish. I went on the teleferico overlooking the city of Quito and all that was in my head was – so what? That’s when I knew something was up and because this is a blog post and most people reading this are impatient millenials (said in jest) – I’ll cut straight to my points.
1) Life changes, priorities change. Nothing is static.

Damn, travelling at 28 feels different than at 26. I learned so much about myself and was inspired by so many people along the way. It just doesn’t feel the same. Now, there’s an overwhelming feeling that I’m dragging my feet and constantly doing things just to fill up my day. This was supposed to be fun!

2) There’s nothing wrong with wanting to share an experience with someone else.

Let’s get one thing straight – if there’s one thing I know about myself it’s this – I am perfectly fine being alone. I have gotten over my fear of loneliness a long time ago (do you still have yours?). So, if I’m going to be spending time with fellow travelers I want to have a genuine connection – or else what’s the point of hanging? I am grateful I’ve met some amazing people – but it’s not enough to get me to stay on this trip. I keep on thinking back to all the beautiful human beings I now consider family and I wish I could experience these sights with some of them. 
3) Trust your gut.
No matter how many times I attempted to change my attitude, what finally made me at peace was when I made a plan to come home to prioritize my future in a more meaningful way. I’ll be taking spanish classes in Cuenca, Ecuador and then in mid April I’m coming home. 

This is not a quarter life crisis! I’m still happy I quit my job because I learned all that I could and it was time to move on (seriously, there’s no reason to be unhappy with what you do. It should not be looked at as ‘brave’ to quit – only logical). 

I was also quite surprised at how much I’ve grown in self-awareness. I mean – I made a plan and hyped this trip up for so long – the old Jessica would be embarrased to “give up”. But I could feel what wasn’t working. 

It was also great that I didn’t feel the need to rely on people’s approval. I only asked friends if my reasoning sounded logical – not if they approved of my decision. And that is a BIG difference. 

So what does the future hold? I’m coming back to study for and write the MCAT. As I research the sheer insanity it is to get into a Canadian medical school, I’m not wavering because at least this way I don’t have to live with any ‘what-ifs’ (those are the worst). There’s also a few other things on my mind – but that’s the point. We can have so many possibilities for our life at any age if we so choose to. Backpacking has just been scratched off the list for me this year. Glad I tried it out and now onto the next thing. And when the time is right I will backpack again!

Stay tuned for a post on my healing weekend in the indigenous town of Peguche, Ecuador.

2017 Adventures

It feels like a lifetime ago I was traveling throughout Southeast Asia – but, here I am in 2017, kickstarting new backpacking escapades. First stop: South America! Family, friends, and random internet strangers – I hope you enjoy!

My 2017 adventures have a completely different spin on them. Looking back at my blog posts, I feel that 2015 Jessica was trying to figure out who she was as a person – not attached to anyone. I truly believe she found out she was beautiful inside and out and that she mattered.

I was very lucky to be able to travel for the rest of 2015. I decided to bike 1500km across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with six amazing girls through a charity called “The Otesha Project”. Do you know what biking that far as a novice biker does to you?! It makes you realize you can do ANYTHING you set your mind to. Then I traveled to the west coast of Canada for the first time with my mom, traveled to the east coast of the USA with a special friend, and rounded out the year in Medellin, Colombia!

My mom and I in Vancouver.

Realistically, the highs of 2015 had to come to an end eventually because life needs to throw some curve balls in your face to help you realize what you’re made of.  The challenge life gave me ended up allowing me to see I am made up of a lineage of strong women – my grandma survived Auschwitz and my mom persevered through serious health problems since she was 7 years old. You see, traveling in 2015 with my mom was so special because it was the last trip I ever took with her. She had gone in to the hospital for brain tumour surgery in April 2016 and by August she was dead. We were extremely close and I am slowly starting to pick up the pieces of my life and fit them back into a cohesive pattern I can make sense of.

So, while 2015 Jessica was asking “Who am I?“, 2017 Jessica is asking “Who am I without my mother?“.

Let’s see if South America has some answers…

G Adventures Review – Thailand on a Shoestring

Below is my review of the G-Adventures Trip, “Thailand on a Shoestring“. All opinions are mine and feel free to comment below with any questions you may have.

When I decided I wanted to travel solo to Southeast Asia, I knew I wanted to start off with a tour group to get me accustomed to the new environment I would be immersed in for 2 months. Out of the plethora of tour companies I could have gone travelling with, I chose G-Adventures because I had read the book Looptail by Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G-Adventures. His story amazed me! I loved his resilience, innovative thinking, and belief that a company should be helping the local communities in which it operates in. Unfortunately, his passion and vision didn’t really translate into the experience I was hoping for.  While the trip did get me used to sleeper trains, tuk-tuks, and cultural nuances, I did not think the hefty price tag ($1,599) was fitting to the very freestyle nature of the trip that left the group with too much down time and sub-standard excursions.

Accommodations
Despite the trip description stating we would be staying in budget accommodations – I was pleasantly surprised with the level of comfort at each hotel. As we traveled south to Koh Samui and Koh Tao, I felt like we were on a luxury resort at each place we stayed at! No complaints, here.

Excursions/Activities
I really wanted to learn more about the history of Thailand. I did not feel like our tour guide could efficiently translate into English what he wanted to say. I don’t feel like I learned a lot from the tour guide and I thought that was the main point of having a local guide – so he could share his passion for his country.

In Northern Thailand we went on a 3 day jungle trek which was amazing!

There was a food crawl promised on the itinerary that did not happen and there was no reason given as to why that did not occur. Many times we were left to wander by ourselves – for $1,500 I would expect more coordination and less free days

Safety
One of the guys on our trip had digestion issues and was not feeling well at all. During the intense jungle trek through the sweltering heat, I did not feel like the jungle trek tour guide looked after him as he should have. I was unimpressed with the lack of follow up given to someone suffering from dehydration and diarrhea on a 3+ hour journey. I know we were all adults on this trip that can take care of ourselves but I would have hoped for some better follow-up. Otherwise, I had no safety concerns.

Overall

I wouldn’t do it again but I don’t regret my decision because it did not allow me to become more comfortable traveling in Southeast Asia which was the original goal. Now, with more experience under my belt I would be able to organize my own trip.

Travelling Solo: Life Lessons from Abroad

My Southeast Asian adventure has finally come to an end. I still get a bit tongue-tied when meeting up with friends and the dreaded question comes up – “so, how was your trip?”. How do you explain almost 2 months of new experiences in a couple of hours?

Well – the condensed version, that sums up my trip is: My first day in Thailand I remember being so anxious to be by myself but I spent my final 3 days in Vietnam, perfectly content to just BE with myself.

Now, if you want to hear a longer version of what I think travelling alone can offer someone – feel free to read below. People often say that you’re on a high after you travel but being back in your usual environment takes you back into the same old routine. I try to dispel that with practices anyone can continue back in “real life” mode.

LESSON ONE: BE COMFORTABLE IN YOUR OWN SKIN

Cat-Lion-Mirror

Travel life:
If I wanted to keep my bag light there was no room for “nice” clothes or makeup. This was also deliberate. I wanted to just live and be comfortable in my own skin – that meant not caring about what societal norms tell us what a woman should look like and to be abundantly happy when looking in the mirror (seriously…think about it, when was the last time you were perfectly content looking at your reflection in the mirror?). But as time went on I realized a very small percentage of those “happy” thoughts have to do with what I look like on the outside – it’s about loving yourself and all you have to offer from the inside. That’s what will really make you see that you’re beautiful when you look in the mirror. And spending a whole lot of time alone with yourself and reflecting can help give you the insight into all you have to offer the world.

What this can look like in “real life”:
1) No more insulting yourself when you see a picture of yourself or look in the mirror. It is a self-defeating ritual, that most people seem to take part in. Start noticing it. If everyone is doing this around you, do not engage.
2) When you’re alone, really listen for that inner voice that’s always your toughest critic. You need to find a way to ignore it. Imagine the positive things you would say to your best friend. Now, imagine you ARE your own best friend – what awesome qualities do you think you possess? Have you ever thought about it? Are you funny, hardworking, a good dancer, or an awesome cook? Say THAT into the mirror instead.

LESSON TWO: LET GO OF YOUR EXPECTATIONS

Travel life:
Shit happened. Not everyday was full of fun and adventure. I got scammed at a border crossing. I was very nervous crossing the motobike filled streets of Ho Chi Minh. Some travellers did not invite me out to hang out when I totally thought they would. A bunch of day tours I went on really sucked. Suck it up, buttercup! It’s all about the journey. I realized quickly, that to enjoy everyday it was important to not have any expectations of what that specific day may bring. Instead of thinking of the future, I tried very hard to live in the moment and embrace the realities of each situation. By doing this, I was able to appreciate every moment, get rid of anxiety, and be way more positive and easy-going. This helped me when dealing with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, making the most out of poorly run tours and respecting new cultures.

What this can look like in “real life”:
We all have expectations in our lives – expectations of our career path, friends, partners, and much more! When reality doesn’t match up with what we had hoped for this often causes misery in our lives.
1) Breathe in and then breathe out. When you breathe out, let go of unrealistic expectations. You can’t have control over every situation. When you are able to get rid of how you envisioned a situation to be, your mood instantly changes in that situation from one of frustration to content since there is nothing to be annoyed at anymore.                                            
2) When dealing with people, it is important to communicate your expectations. This creates honest and open dialogue. Through this practice you are able to understand more clearly if your expectations are unrealistic, how the other person’s expectations align with yours, and you get potential insight into how your expectations may have caused unnecessary conflict.

LESSON THREE: STRETCH THE ELASTICITY OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE

wherethemagichappens

Travel life:
Some awesome travel memories: I jumped off a 3 metre ledge into open water. I rode on the back of a motorcycle through mountains and very busy Vietnamese streets. I saw a movie by myself. I travelled alone for 7.5 weeks. Wahoo! It still feels awesome saying it all. I was totally terrified, acknowledged my fears, and found something inside myself to push back against those limiting thoughts inside my head that said I couldn’t do it. Now, some people would not find anything I did that scary – and that’s totally cool. We all have our own individual set of comfort levels that we should try to expand at our own pace – taking on more than you can handle can often cause more harm than good. The most important thing is – we keep on growing and taking baby steps to move past the limitations we constructed within ourselves throughout our lives. If we can do this, a new reality starts to open up for us with a whole new set of possibilities for our lives.

What this can look like in “real life”:
Going out of your comfort zone does not necessarily have anything to do with bungee jumping, swimming with sharks, or public speaking. It means stepping out of the 25km bubble of how you live your life.
1) Next time you double think something you want to say to someone (assuming it is not offensive), you have to make sure you say it! That hesitation is usually coming from a fear of something (ie. rejection, confrontation). Get over that fear by being fully self-expressed and speaking your mind. The more you do this, the less fear you will feel in expressing yourself openly and honestly in any situation.
2) Get uncomfortable with your comfortable, normal routine. Once we start a full-time job and age a bit, we get really used to our daily routines. It’s important throughout our lives to keep on doing something, anything, out of the ordinary. Use a different route to get home. Start and continue a new hobby or pursue an interest. Be persistent at whatever you choose to do. This will continuously challenge your mind and help you think differently since you’re always exposing yourself to different environments and their contexts. Bonus, if it is a social activity, you meet new people that may also have different view points and help you thing big – away from your own comfortable biases and thought patterns.

LESSON FOUR: WE ALL HAVE OUR OWN JOURNEY. STOP COMPARING.

Travel life:
Some people I met were travelling for more than a year! Sometimes, when I looked around it seemed other people were able to make friends much more easily than me. Others, clearly had way more interesting travel adventures – and hey, we went to the same countries – what was I missing out on?! Those times I started comparing were really useless. It just made me feel inadequate and that all my accomplishments were not a big deal. I realized it really is a slippery slope when I start comparing myself to others. I’ll always feel inadequate measured up to some people and more than adequate compared to others. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses – including me! So once I stopped comparing, I became really proud of everything I accomplished on my trip – and there were only warm, fuzzy feelings inside of me. Those positive sensations allowed me to enjoy myself and my trip more.

What this can look like in “real life”:
1) Focus on yourself. Start now. Make a list of goals you have for your life. Start doing them. Once you can start ticking your goals off you will feel empowered and accomplished.
2) Stop Facebook and LinkedIn stalking. It is a waste of your time and energy. Your mind starts making up false stories about other people’s seemingly “happier” lives. Instead, focus on tip #1.
3) Be open and vulnerable. Share with people your mistakes, feelings, and worries. If you start to do this, other people may open up to you and share as well. It starts to make you realize the happiest people can be going through struggles we know nothing about. You might start to realize we’re all in the same boat – navigating the highs and lows of life with no idea what the heck we are doing.

LESSON FIVE: EMBRACE CHANGE

1040958.large_

Travel life:
I have always not been very good at this. When travelling, you constantly have to get used to change. New roommates and new cities are usually the ones that would make me uneasy the most. It would suck to make a connection with someone and then they leave the next morning. I started my trip always making sure I knew where I was going next and what hostel I would be staying at each day. But as time went on, I became comfortable switching up plans last minute and not sticking to my original itinerary. I stopped resisting change and controlling everything.

What this can look like in “real life”:
Life is always full of change. Moving to a new home, losing touch with a friend, deciding whether to leave a partner, giving birth, changing jobs, declining health, growing up…you get the point. It is so natural for things to change – yet we can get very sad, anxious, or angry when these things happen.
1) Become aware of the next time you start feeling negative feelings towards change. It could be something as simple as plans changing last minute. It is so important to realize how and why you feel the way you do because you can start to become aware you are resisting a fundamental principle of life. This will create a lot of misery if you cannot get a handle on it.
2) Be a risk-taker. You can either wait for the inevitable changes that life will throw at you, or you can grab life by the handles and make some changes to your own life. Big risks can come with big rewards but this doesn’t mean everything will work out the way you want it to (don’t say I didn’t warn you!). At least you are being an active participant in your own life instead of a by-stander. It makes life more interesting!
3) The next time change occurs, think positively. This can be really difficult especially when we are dealing with rejection or loss. Embrace that you are exactly where you need to be right now. An easy way to put this belief into practice is at the end of everyday – say everything that you are grateful for out loud. When you’re going through a change, it is important to remember other areas of your life that are bringing you joy so you don’t get too wrapped up in the one (or more) area(s) that is(are) bringing you difficulty. This is how you can empower yourself – and empowering yourself is not meant to be easy, it’s SUPPOSED to be a challenge.

LESSON SIX: SUPPORTING WAR, DESTRUCTION AND VIOLENCE WILL NEVER, EVER, EVER RESOLVE CONFLICT AND PROMOTE PEACE

Travel life:
I just thought I would add this last lesson since I never see travel blogs that comment on this issue. Cambodia took part in a civil war in the past 40 years that caused the genocide of over 1 million people. I heard some of the many horrifying stories people went through during that time. During the Vietnam War, the United States use of Agent Orange left a legacy of disabled and disfigured children and adults. When I was in Israel last summer, I saw families with little children run to a shelter zone when bomb sirens came on. War is a decision made by the elite that are in power and all it does is breed cycles of hatred and intolerance.  The violence that occurs is more likely to effect citizens than the decision makers that chose to go to war. War is always a band-aid solution. It does not fix the underlying issues that caused the war to occur in the first place. How can killing innocent children, women, and men ever promote peace?

What this can look like in “real life”:
1) Go look at a map of the world. Realize that all the borders carved out for each country were man-made. Therefore, it is a reality that can easily be changed. In 100 years, some countries will have different names on the map. This has been happening since the dawn of humankind.
2) Realize we’re all one race – the human race. You and someone living on the other side of the world both have the same DNA. When you were born, you had no hate in your heart. Any biases you have against others were taught to you by society and your mind will always seek justification for those biases if you let it. Instead, have a conversation with someone you wouldn’t have in the past. Always challenge your assumptions about others and be kind to the next person you meet.

What have you learned from travelling? What tips do you have to carry those lessons forward when you settle back into your normal routine? Totally disagree with any of my insights? Feel free to comment below!

Words of Wisdom IV

Christina, 36 years old, Spain
On love:
“You don’t find love, you build love”

“People know so much about being in love, but never how to leave love”

On dying:
“Death is not a thing to be scared of, but we never talk about it”

Name unknown, age unknown, USA
On overcoming fears and anxiety:
“It’s OK to have fears, just take them along in your backpack with you!”