Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: My Year Of Discovery (A Humbling Year)

I'd be lying if I said I was sad to see 2015 go.

Was it a bad year? God no. But it's been an emotional year, a humbling year, a year of many, many ups and downs. And I can't wait to see what 2016 brings.

I've never made a big deal of the new year. I've never made resolutions. Maybe I've never had a year worth saying goodbye to.

But 2015 was different. January was the first time in 14 years that I was unemployed. It was the first time I wouldn't be able to rely on a paycheck. I left my job of 7 years. A company I had helped build, I was leaving behind. I packed up my apartment, said goodbye to my friends and family. I was starting a new journey.

Central America. Developing countries I only knew from my travel books. After my month of volunteering I had no concrete plan. I was truly on my own and it was exciting. I met some truly incredible people that first month. I let everything go: I napped in hammocks, I went to the beach, I climbed volcanoes, I ziplined, I went caving, I watched a million sunsets, a couple sunrises and went cliff diving. And that was only the first 5 weeks. I got certified for open water diving, went volcano boarding, snorkeling, hiked mountains, jumped off waterfalls, napped some more, hitchhiked, and went everywhere barefoot. I tried some amazing food and ate a lot of ice cream.

I also cried. I had a couple melt downs. I was at times extremely lonely. I felt insecure. I felt depressed. I was on the other side of the world from the people I needed a hug from. I didn't live every day to the fullest. Some days I stayed inside and read or watched movies. I realized that that was okay to do. Some people can always be on the go, I cannot. Some people easily make new friends, I do not. But the friends I did make? God I love them. I miss them so much. Funny how you can get to know so much about someone when you're on the other side of the world together. I missed home but I didn't want to go home.

I came home in May. To say that it was hard would be an understatement. I was an asshole. I was irritable and short-tempered. I lashed out at my family. I had no idea what I wanted to do next and kept changing my mind. My first thought was that I wanted save money and go right back out there, discover somewhere new. That dream quickly shattered as I realized how much debt I had and how long it would take me to save any money. I thought I wanted to save the world, go back to school, move to another country, I was lost. That is a terrifying feeling. I was applying to jobs and getting interviews and not getting hired. I questioned my skills, I questioned what type of job I wanted, I questioned myself. I had no idea what to apply to, what to look for. I was unemployed and angry. I didn't hide that from anybody.

Then came summer. Summer saved me. I got to see my friends again, I went to a music festival, and camping and hiking, visited my relatives in BC and ate lots of ice cream. Sound familiar? Being outdoors saved me. I made new friends and fell in love. I grew, I cared about who I wanted to be and was able to laugh and a little bit of the weight was lifted off my chest. I still felt lonely and depressed and not myself at times, but I saw a little part of me that I had missed. Sometimes when you lose yourself, you can't put your finger on what's wrong. It isn't until you have a moment of happiness that sort of takes you by surprise that you see the part of you that was missing.

In the fall I started working again. Still living at home, I was able to work for my old bosses at one of their stores. I am so grateful that they welcomed me back, knowing that I was still looking for a job in Toronto. This was only a slight comfort when I bumped into old friends: married, babies, career - while I was 30, living at home and working retail. I kept reminding myself that I had chosen this path, that I had chosen to leave everything to travel and experience the world. That was easier to say when I was on the other side of the world.

I guess I forgot to mention that I turned 30 over the summer. It's not as terrifying as everybody makes it out to be. Of course, by now I thought I would have a family, but things change and I'm not settling. I refuse to settle. Not in any aspect of my life. I might be crazy but it is a decision I will never regret. Still, being penniless, living at home and not being able to get a job does sting.

This is why I've always lived for the little things. Ask anybody, I laugh easy. I delight in the small things. A fresh baked croissant, a hug from a missed friend, a night in catching up on everything, scaring the shit out of someone by sneaking up on them. These things make me happy. Oh and poop jokes.

So what happened this winter? I had a low key, wonderful Christmas with my family. I accepted a job offer in Toronto that I am ecstatic to start. I start a new adventure.

2015 was full of discovery, learning, and experiences of every kind. I can't wait to see what 2016 holds.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Heat of Summer

This summer has definitely been one for the books.

I have felt more lost and scared than I have in a very long time. Right now I am unemployed, after coming off of an incredible 4 month trip through Central America I have been trying to figure out what I want to do next with my life. And that's a big question. What do I want to do? I have no fucking clue. I have thought about working in a bar to enable me to go traveling again, or go back to school or work in not-for-profit or teach ESL. I have no idea and it is terrifying. There are days where I feel so lost that I don't want to get out of bed. Between that and trying to figure out where I fit in life, I get serious bouts of depression. I have lashed out at my family more times than is acceptable. I'm living at home after living on my own for 11 years and we've all been adjusting to each other.

But I have also had one of the best summers that I can remember. I love my family. They are so supportive of me and have put up with my shit. While I have often felt that I would like to be on my own and not disturbed, I find comfort in their support. I have seen friends that I hadn't seen in months and laughed so much that my stomach hurts. I've gone hiking, cycling, camping, cottaging, canoeing, swimming and most recently my first music festival. I am more tanned than I have ever been in my life because I have spent so much time outside. I can't get enough of it. I've read about 4 or 5 books. They have been my therapy. It has been 5 days since I've read and I'm itching to start a new book. I've also had a lot of ice cream. Ice cream is delicious.

I met a boy too. He's pretty great and has brought me so much happiness and opened up my cold heart that hasn't been trusting in many many years. Even though our time is limited since he will be moving across the globe in a couple of weeks, he will always hold a special place in my heart for allowing me to be me and being someone I can trust and open up to and have the absolute best time with. You guys would really like him.

So much has happened this summer and I feel like I haven't even touched on half of it. I am also going to BC next week to see my family. I haven't seen them in a few years and the mountains are one of my happy places. I will be seeing my nana for probably the last time. She is in a hospital full time and has serious dementia. She won't recognize me. But I am glad that I will be able to say goodbye. She is an incredible woman with the best laugh and sense of humor. Even though she won't be the same person when I see her, she'll still be my nana.

And in a couple of weeks I will be turning 30. Quite the milestone and I think I'm okay with it. Let's leave it there so that I don't overthink it.

I've been on an emotional roller coaster. Many of my ups are tied in with my downs, and sometimes my heart feels like it will explode. But I can't change any of it. If you took away those downs then you'd be taking away my highs. And those highs are amazing. And they are accentuated even more because I know that not everything is perfect and I'm lucky to have what I have. I am very very lucky.

So thank you, I love you dearly.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Sometimes there is an anger or sadness or fury inside that wells up out of nowhere. No, it is not from nowhere, probably the exhaustion from nonstop travel, but it doesn't come out of the blue. That is for sure. It is dizzying and consuming and somewhere recently you have wanted to cry out for attention.

Help. Love. Love me. Accept me. Hold me. Why aren't you worth it? Why do you not believe you're worth it? How can you ever heal and move past this and feel comfortable in your own skin?

A moment of bliss. Pure happiness. Where there is honestly not a single shred of darkness. You hold onto this moment dearly and enjoy it, do others enjoy these moments as you do?

That is the root of it, though, isn't it. The pursuit of happiness and longing for acceptance. The nagging fear of being laughed at, not with, not in the way you want. You make a fool of yourself to see a glimpse of a smile. You withdraw when you feel a moment of exclusion. You run.
You want them to notice you are no longer there. See the emptiness. Is it them or is it you? Who are you more angry with anyway, yourself for not being good enough or them for not loving you.

It started at an early age, before you can really remember, but most likely around 5. You, the loner. That marking, ugly word. The girl on the swing. Oh, you idiot. It probably started from not being invited to play a game and you never fucking got over it. You replayed every fucking word that came out of your mouth, of theirs. What should you have said differently. Who should you have been instead.

You show your true self, that dark, quirky, giddy side. That total oddball weirdo that you are proud of. One second of doubt and you recoil. Don't they know how hard it is to be yourself. It is a daily conscious decision.

Sometimes it is easier to hide. To cover yourself in darkness and self pity.
You want to cry out, pay attention to me, love me. You fear the worry of your family. You fear the others will tire of you. Nobody wants to be around someone who craves love.

You question everything. Did you run. Will you ever be whole. Will you ever be loved in the way that you crave. What could you have done to be included. What should you have looked like to keep his attention.

To be wanted. Oh to be wanted.
A song runs through your head. I want you to want me. I need you to need me.

But you refuse to change. You are proud. Proud of who you are. Aren't you? Fuck you for not seeing me for me. It is a paradox. You are submerged in a life of contradictions.

Are you attracted to danger, or are you genuinely curious? Can it be both? When you walk into the the lion's den, does it matter why you're there? Only that here you are, half hoping you will see something terrifyingly beautiful and eagerly awaiting that feeling of your heart in your throat. Will it see you? Will it recognize a lost soul wandering? When it rips you apart, do you regret romanticizing all of this?

And finally, that nagging question: would you, the one I hold onto so fiercely, have turned out differently if I had been better?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Day 25: All the Farewells

Last week was my last (official) day at Vida, and I have been missing them dearly ever since I left. My last day was perfect and I would like to tell you about it.

I am always delighted to come in to Vida and see Shari and her little brother there (they aren't always able to make the trek) and I was happy that I would be able to say goodbye to her. There is something so bright and magical about this little soul that drew me in from day 1. About 30 minutes in she bumped her head pretty hard and rather than me stick around the classroom as I usually did, I scooped her up in my arms and sat with her until the tears subsided. Even though I knew her head hurt, I was content to just sit there with her on my lap and I started to sing her the lullaby that my mom sang to me when I wasn't feeling well. I found it very fitting to sing Que Sera Sera (Doris Day) and sure enough she settled. We talked about siblings and boyfriends (myself, no, but there was a very tall and cute boy she would like to be her boyfriend) and she asked where I was from. She asked if there would be any more gringos coming (white people) and I told her I hoped so.
We made our way over to the swing and as I slowly pushed her she leaned back, closed her eyes and smiled up at the sky. I will never forget that moment. Partially because it was so perfect and also because I have always done that same thing. I smiled from the bottom of my toes.

Oliver then asked me if I'd like to accompany him to the market to grab the day's lunch food, and while peeling away from Shari was hard I've always loved my conversations with Oliver. He speaks with such passion and love and sincerity that you know that he loves what he does more than anything. On our walk there we noticed two children pulling at someone.
It was one of the kid's mothers. She was drunk, past the point of being able to open her eyes or stand and her child was trying to get her home. It couldn't have been later than 3 pm. Slowly the kids pulled her up but she soon collapsed with her underwear around her ankles. The pain in that boy's eyes ran so deep, he should have been coming to Vida but instead he was forced to make sure his mother didn't find her end in the streets.
It's these sights that pull you back down to reality and force you to see how much work needs to be done. But it can be done and slowly but surely, Oliver, Daniel and Marcos are changing the lives of the children in Dueñas. We soldier on.

When we get back to Vida, Oliver and I make the kids sandwiches and I find myself quieting. I am sad to leave and it is getting nearer. After lunch I notice the kids huddling outside and Oliver asks if I'm ready. I'm not. They yell my name and I'm greeted by a giant farewell sign with drawings and messages from all the kids. They thank me for my love and patience but inside I want to cry and only hope that I have left solely a positive impact on Vida, for they have changed me. Each one of them comes up to give me a hug and kiss goodbye and many of them have made additional cards. They are beautiful and perfect and I am full of pure love.
The money that we all raised, you and I, is going to pay for the salaries of the teachers and helping staff. Many have not been paid in awhile, and they have lost some amazing teachers as a result. The teachers are so important here, with their love and patience and generosity and I knew that they couldn't lose another.

Thank you, Marcos, Daniel, Oliver, for showing me what pure love looks like and how to be a champion for children.

Always yours,
Ale 🌷

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Day 16: All the Vida

Last week I went on "house visits" with Oliver, one of the founders of Vida, and Meg, my volunteer companion and friend.

I had been warned and prepped for what I was about to see. I knew what to expect. I knew it would be difficult. And then I experienced it and realized that no matter how much someone tells you what an experience will be like, whether it is someone close to you dying or falling in love, the actual experience is completely different.

I didn't take pictures. I didn't feel comfortable invading their privacy. I didn't want to be the girl with everything who was passing through wanting to take pictures of a life she couldn't imagine living.

We visited 5 homes. They were all very different. Everything is built from aluminum laminate, some had laminate "roofs" others had bamboo holding up plastic sheeting. Some had cement floors, others had dirt. Some had been tidied and made to feel somewhat homey, others were littered with garbage and other matter. There was normally 1 bed, a sunken mattress, for 3-4 children and the mother.

The children, when I saw them at home, were completely different from when they were at Vida. I was used to their never ending smiles, squeals of laughter and boundless energy. Here they were shy, quiet, reserved. Many children spent the entire day, every day, on the streets. Their parent(s) rarely know where they are and this is the norm. Some children didn't know where their parents were. Some have an alcoholic father or a mother who prostitutes.

I am so thankful to Oliver for taking me here to see the reality of these children's lives. These kids, who jump on me and wrap their arms around me, they don't have happy lives at home. They barely have a home. But every day they come to Vida for a piece of happiness and a moment away from reality. I am so thankful that Oliver, Marcos and Daniel found each other and built Vida. Last week they didn't have the money for rent for next month, but Daniel says he is not worried. This is God's plan, He will help them find a way. This is their calling.

I only have a couple of days left and I am wracked with guilt. I do not want to leave these children. But I also need to find my own way. I need to follow my own path, that may lead me back to them. Of this I am sure.

I would like to find a way to help them fundraise for different things; whether it is their lunches, rent, paying the teachers, buying more desks, or new toothbrushes or vitamins, I would like to gather sponsors. Their work is never done. They will soon be building a new house for a family thanks to a volunteer's contributions. They are opening a second location in a neighboring town for children with down's syndrome. They are tireless. They are warriors and angels and saviors and very humble.

I only have a couple of days left with them, but I know my work with Vida is far from over.

(I would also like to add that while writing this post, My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion was playing in the background. I can't make that shit up. I don't know where it came from.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Day 10: All the Kids

When I signed up to volunteer in Guatemala I knew that it would be tough and rewarding. It is so much more. It is humbling, tiring, fun, taxing and sometimes frustrating. My feelings of frustration are always at myself. It has been hard to pick up Spanish, even with classes. My brain keeps telling me to speak French. This is not helpful. I want to be able to communicate better with the kids. One girl, Shari, she must be about 6, teaches me words in Spanish and I love it. I love when the kids teach me because I hope that it makes them feel important.

Let me tell you about Vida. I have wanted to write this post for awhile, but knew it would be hard, and needed to prepare this post. And myself. Vida started off as a safe haven for children with down syndrome and is now a place for kids with any mental disabilities or who don't have a parent at home. People with down syndrome in Guatemala (and I am guessing many other countries) are discarded. That is putting it simply, and that is how I will leave it. People with other mental disabilities are at risk of being treated the same. Then there are kids with absent parents, alcoholics, drug abusers, or 6 other kids to take care of. There is a 9 year old who parents his 7 younger siblings. So Vida opened up its doors to them as well. It fluctuates from between 25-45 children. The kids that go come on their own volition and by themselves. Nobody brings them or picks them up.
Vida is their safe haven. It has been built from spare parts and they have been amazingly innovative. The people that work there only get paid when there is extra money. There is never extra money. They have lost some amazing teachers because of this. There is a makeshift playground, a dining room where they eat their snacks, and right now lunch three times a week, 2 small classrooms and a work shed. My first day there I was told that Vida was now my home. Forever.

Vida let me into their home and I let them into my heart. The kids run up to me every day and greet me, "Hola Ale!", with a hug and a kiss, or a high five and a fist bump. They climb all over me and chase me and smile the most beautiful smiles up at me. My face hurts from smiling back. I'm always smiling and determined to only ever bring love to Vida. Vida's first project was called the Love Syndrome, Síndrome de Amor, which is the perfect name. Vida is run down and in need of everything, but it is full of love and acceptance.

I want the money I raised to be beneficial in the most beneficial way possible, if that makes sense. Right now someone is sponsoring 3 lunches a week for the children, but that is not a long term thing. They are also always in need of vitamins. They could always use more craft supplies. The clothes the children wear are stained and torn and always dirty. Their homes are tiny and have nothing in them. I have limited amounts of money and I want to use it for everything, which isn't smart or realistic. You see my dilemma. So I am in the process of strategizing what they need most, what will be most beneficial, and what will have a lasting impact for these children. I will be speaking with the people who run Vida about how they would like me to contribute but I know they will tell me that it is my decision.

And so, for a short amount of time, I will give them my love.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Day 8: All the Adrenaline

This weekend 15 volunteers went up to Semuc Champey, and let me tell you, it was the most surreal weekend I have ever had.

Semuc Champey is about 8.5 hours away from Antigua. We piled in, 10 per shuttle bus/van and hurdled through the mountains, weaving through narrow roads, around potholes and fallen rocks and staring down beautiful cliffs and valleys and small towns. That was the first 7.5 hours (including stops for food). We were then dropped off on the side of the road where a pickup truck waited for us and we piled in the back for the next hour. It was 9 kilometres, however since it rains most mornings, the amount of mud, winding roads and rocks makes it an extremely bumpy ride. We managed to get to the hostel, El Portal, unscathed and in awe of our surroundings. The power is only on from 6pm - 10pm. There is no hot water. But man is this place beautiful and how else do you add character?

First on the agenda on day 2 is wake up at 5 AM because there is a rooster outside your window and some lovely men who are renovating the hut next to ours. 🙇 But alas, it is a new day. After bumping around in the dark and breakfast we make our way into the small rainforest and up the mountain. I use the terms rainforest and mountain lightly; the mountain, although not the easiest thing I've climbed, didn't take us more than 2-3 hours to climb. And then we hit the pozas, the natural pools, where a river flowed down the mountain and through the pools, over a waterfall and back into the river. The view is surreal. We are in awe, giddy that yes, we are here breathing in this air and jumping over mini waterfalls to the next pool. I tried to slide down the last, larger waterfall at our guide's suggestion. He was joking and I was thoroughly disappointed.

After we are all chilled a little bit too much we hike home (most of us in our bathing suits and barefooted as our muddy shoes are definitely not appealing to put back on) and grab some lunch. Then it is a five minute walk to the caves where we are handed candles that we will need to use the whole time for light. Most of the way through the caves we are either waist deep in water or can't touch. A candle will go out and someone will help them relight it. Honestly, it is hard to describe how thrilling and adrenaline inducing the caves are. We climb a waterfall using a rope, end up in pitch black when most of our candles go out, jump from a high spot in the caves into a pool below, slide down a mini (very mini) waterfall (that is pitch black at the bottom) and the whole time the stalagtites throw shadows and look like prehistoric teeth, waiting for their next meal. When we end up back out into the light it feels like it couldn't have been real. We were given tubes to float down the river while kids tried to sell us beers from their tubes. The water was cold but when the sun cme out it brought me right back to summers gone by in thr Slocan Valley in BC, mountains on either side. Our last adventure to end the day is to jump off the bridge into the water below. Only 4 of us worked up the nerve, and I think my heart restarted.

Our walk back to the hostels resulted in being covered in mud (and probably poop, let's face it) and being very grateful for a (cold) shower and dry clothes.

So yes, that was my weekend. Actually that was all done in one day. 2 days of driving for one day of pure adrenaline and excitement and beauty.

I would love to upload photos but Blogger won't let me, so the ones on Facebook and Instagram will have to do.

Here I am in week 2 and very excited for the adventures that await.

XO Ale (Alex in Spanish is Ale, pronounced Al-eh)