Thursday, June 5, 2014

Like Mother, Like Daughter

When we drop all our distractions, we see that nature is the most entertaining, Manuel Antonio 2014

They say we look alike, from the neck down anyway. They say we act alike, which we certainly do in some ways. They say "Like mother, like daughter" or in our case "Moe and Smo".

I had been waiting for this moment since the second I arrived in Costa Rica. Whenever I felt lonely, homesick, fascinated and aw-struck I thought of this moment at the airport when I could wrap my arms around my mom. Five months of thoughts, experiences and emotions suddenly manifested themselves in tears. Tears of happiness, tears of emotional release, bitter-sweet tears, because I knew this moment was fleeting and that the time with her would pass by in the blink of an eye. Nonetheless, the moment of anticipation had arrived, my mom had arrived in Costa Rica.

Horseback riding down to the Rio Reventazon, Finca Monte Claro
I had been anticipating this moment for months, yet I had not anticipated what a profound impact this visit would have on my relationship with her. This was the first time I had ever spent two whole weeks with just my mom, and the first time where she was in 'my home' rather than vice versa.

What this time revealed to me was that she is a person too. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. Of course she is a person. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am now seeing my parents as people, as equals. Rather than 'mom and dad' that fed me, clothed me and told me what to do.

Sometimes this realization is difficult. Growing up I saw my parents like super heros. They were always there for me, always put up a united front, always highlighted the best characteristics of themselves and others to show good examples. I didn't see my parent's stress or their strengths and weaknesses. So as I grew into a young adult and coming to terms with some of these things can be, surprising, off-putting, relieving, showing...challenging. However the flip side to this realization is beautiful. I am beginning to see what a strong, independent and sensitive woman my mother is. I am so grateful to have a woman in my life that I can share my doubts with and that I know will never judge my stupidest actions. I am so grateful to have a mother that is honest with me, that is courageous enough to show me her weaknesses, share some of her craziest memories and youthful enough to have a drink with us "Merrickville kids" on a summer Friday night. 

We had a wonderful two weeks in Turrialba and Manuel Antonio, we went to the market and bought fresh fruits and vegetables, cooked delicious food and ate until we were stuffed, went horseback riding through the mountains, spent hours watching birds, basked in the sunshine, read by the pool and savoured the sunsets.

I hope so share more memories with you soon Mom.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Somewhere Between el SueƱo y la Realidad

San Juan del Sur,  Nicaragua, May 2014

"Children see magic because they look for it." -Christopher Moore

I wouldn't say I was a dreamer when I was a child, but I certainly had dreams. I wanted to be the first woman in the NHL, I wanted to be a celebrity like Britney Spears, I wanted to have a farm with twenty horses. None of these dreams came true, but that isn't really the point is it?

I often made mental notes to myself through my observations of and interactions with adults as to how I wanted to act or ways I never wanted to be. I remember looking up at people, three-foot-Heddie with chubby cheeks and blue eyes and being annoyed that these 'grown-ups' wouldn't take me seriously. I always wanted to be seen as an equal, which is why I suppose, I always wanted to grow-up faster. I remember my father telling us countless times, "enjoy your childhood, it will be over before you know it." Back then it seemed like it would. Time seemed to pass so slowly. I remember thinking in Grade 3 that I would never graduate from Grade 8, just because childhood was all I knew and time seemed to be infinitely abundant. But of course, my father was right. Once I turned 14 it seemed like time jumped into warp-speed and the last ten years have been a flash before my eyes. 

Catching my first big fish, Dad and I, Otty Lake 1994

If I could take two lessons from my childhood they would be, live in the moment and never stop dreaming. 

One of my goals for the past 8 months has been to 'live in the moment'. Once life went into warp-speed, I dedicated the majority of my time and energy working for the future. In high school I worked to get into a good university. Once accepted to that 'good' university, I worked harder than I ever have in my life to stay competitive with my classmates, get a good GPA and plant the seeds of a successful career. Once I graduated from that 'good' university I dedicated all my time to finding a job in my field, worried that if I didn't find something almost immediately it would be too late, and the last 8 years would have been wasted. All of my actions were focused on getting to the next step, something that I think is culturally reinforced. I remember thinking so many times, "If I can just get there, then, and only then, I will be happy" and I can't tell you the number of times I have heard some version of this from my friends, family and classmates. I finally realized a few months ago that the future will always be in the future, and that if I don't start living in the moment, I will never be happy.  

Since arriving in Costa Rica, for the first time since life went into warp-speed, I haven't focused on my future at all. I am present. I cooked when I want to cook, I read because I am thirsty for knowledge, not because I have to memorize the political arguments of 50 different authors. I occasionally sleep in my hammock in the afternoons. I sit with sadness if I need to, but mostly I enjoy. I enjoy my company, I enjoy the company of others, I enjoy the birds singing and the challenges of learning a new language. 

However this "living in the moment" has created an interesting dynamic for me. I have forgotten how to dream. 

A few weeks ago I started the process of seriously looking into graduate programs. There are two that absolutely reflect what I want to study and would give me the tools and the skill set I need to have a successful career in my field. However, they are both extremely competitive, expensive and require an interdisciplinary skill set, that would require me to take courses in the sciences before applying. I felt defeated. This would be a lot of work. Maybe I could continue looking for another program...

I stopped myself in this negatively-swirling thought process a couple of days later. When did I stop dreaming? I asked myself. And since when did this outspoken young girl who never took no for an answer stop chasing what she wanted? 

I was so disappointed in myself. This was the biggest mental note, 'little' Heather had made. As a child I perceived so many adults as settling, as accepting life for what it was and not ask, demand and work for more. I understand now that it is not as simple as that, that life has circumstances that do not always allow us to live as freely as we did as children, but life's circumstances should never take away our ability to dream, and in some way, even if it is small, attempt to live those dreams. 

I decided that I would apply to both of these graduate programs. I am going to take these science courses, study my ass off for the GRE and write a fabulous application. I will do everything in my power to live this dream. Because no one ever succeeded at anything without trying.

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." -Eleanor Roosevelt

Now the challenge is to live in the moment while at the same time avidly chasing my dreams. We do not have much time in this life and as someone brilliantly once said:

"One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching."

Colours of Life, Cemetery San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, May 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Boy and Fruit-flies

 Hotel Mariposa, Manuel Antonio

I have been mulling over in my mind how to write my next post. How do I bundle up two weeks with my mom into 500 words? How do I express every word perfectly so that you all interpret it exactly how I intended? How do I give you all the insight into my life without feeling too vulnerable? But then I stopped myself, thought about it, and I realized two things:

1. If I wait for every word to be perfect, I will never complete another blog post.
2. I shouldn't be afraid of being internet-vulnerable a) because that is kind of the point of this blog b) Heather, beyond your family and friends, not many people really care what you have to say.

Yet, here I am, struggling to find the courage to type out these words, thinking of what my parents told me when I was younger, "be careful to put anything in writing". With the lack of privacy these days I am constantly thinking of what the repercussions of my actions...or rather words...or uploads, will have not only today but for the rest of my life. Like, what if I become famous or something and they find this blog? More likely, it will just be my next employer...and the employer after that.

So after all that, I am going to continue writing my blog and explain the real reasons I have been so absent.


I have been waging a one-woman war against what seems an endless army of fruit-flies. The downfalls of fresh fruits, right? But seriously, where do these things comes from? I have tried cleaning all the dishes, sanitizing the counters, making fruit-fly traps (which are very effective), but there are always more! My god, I even found them on my toothbrush the other day. The worse part, they have allies! Ormigas (Ants in English). They have an airforce and an army! So this has been rather physically exhausting (constant cleaning), mentally challenging (how do I put literally all the food I have into my small fridge? It is like a puzzle) and psychologically traumatizing (this is disgusting and any house guests will think I am dirty).

So yes, this has been taking up quite a bit of time, but Heather, let's be honest, the fruit-flies have not been that demanding of your time.

Okay okay okay...

A Boy

Everyone said "Oh Heather you will go to Costa Rica and fall in love with a Costa Rican boy and never come back", I smiled politely and kind of giggled to myself on the inside. I was going to Costa Rica with my career in mind: learn Spanish, gain experience in the field, get out of my parent's basement.

Yet it turns out those people were right...well kind of. I found a boy...but he is not Costa Rican and I haven't abandoned all my life's ambitions to stay here forever (Dad you can breathe now).

There is definitely something to be said about those Latin boys...or at least this Latin boy. I don't know if it is his big brown eyes, the way he rolls his Rrrr's when he says my name, how he can walk through a forest and pick a handful of different fresh fruits to eat, or how passionate he is about his work, family, life...aaaaaand some other things. It is definitely a combination of all them. And not just these things...but that is all I am giving you for today. I most certainly need to write a post called "Love in Translation" because there are so pretty funny interactions (slash) misinterpretations when you don't speak the same language.

I promise to put up another post soon, I know you will all be dying to hear about how I progress with the fruit-flies.

Hibiscus, Hotel Mariposa, Manuel Antonio

Monday, April 14, 2014

3 Days. 4 Types of Forests. 1/2 The Costa Rican Country Side. 1 Awesome Experience.

We arrived to the Reserva Natural Monte Alto in Hojancha, Guanacaste, Costa Rica's wester province, at about 10pm. The parking lot was empty, there were no lights and no visible buildings. My boss, Roger, told us to get out of flashlights as he began leading us down a path into the jungle. Exhausted and just getting over the flu, I was beginning to question if coming on this four-day forest-management field trip was such a good idea. All that was going through my brain was 'bed, bed, bed, sleep, sleep, sleep, it doesn't matter where". A few hundred meters later a green building appeared that would be our lodging for the evening. It was all open, rustic in the true sense of the word. The sounds of the night insects sounded peacefully, interrupted occasionally by the terrifying howl of the Howler monkeys. Roger was giving us an introduction, and I must admit I did not hear a word. My eyes were immediately transfixed on a spider the size of a large man's hand in the room across the hall from mine. I couldn't scream, I couldn't jump around like a 5 year old child, which is usually my first instinct. No, I had to act like a dignified adult and pretend like nothing was there, kind of like how everyone else did. My friend walked by it and just casually kicked it to the side. No big deal! 

Let's just say I didn't sleep so great that night. However our 5:30am wake up call was definitely worth it. The birds sang from the treetops, the sunlight poured over the mountains and a hummingbird gracefully sucked nectar from a banana tree. 

We were guided through the 20 year old forest, that had been collectively paid for by the surrounding farmers and restored from bamboo, coffee and tree plantations into a vibrant habitat for over 40 species of birds, 70 Howler monkeys and countless butterflies, insects, snakes and I am sure many others. 

Butterfly by the river

Howler monkey enjoying the morning

Grasshopper for breakfast

We continued on to a small farm of a few hectares, where there were greenhouses filled with cilantro, lettuce, dozens of different kinds of flowers and all surrounded by orange trees. 

After a sweltering day in the heat we were rewarded with a late afternoon trip to the beach, just in time to see the sunset over the pacific ocean.

The following two days were just as informative of the first. It was an amazing experience to get deep into the woods and see some of Costa Rica's world renowned biodiversity. We drove through about half of the country, and I must tell you, it was beautiful. But nothing compares to the breathtaking mountainsides of Turrialba. It was nice to come home. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Pana Puppies

This won't be a long post (although I tell myself this every time). I just wanted to update everyone on these cute little bundles of fur! 

So I went to give the puppies some food one night after work. I knew where they were, but hadn't had a chance to see them yet. Poor Pana had them in an old aqueduct pipe. Anyway so I am walking to give them food and I see people there at a distance, with a broom and a box. I got a bit closer and they began walking away and I could see puppies in their hands! I immediately began panicking. Where were they going? Were they taking Pana? Who were they? 

After a couple of Heather-acting-like-a-crazy-person phone calls and Facebook messages I was relieved to find out that a student from CATIE had taken them to her home in Turrialba, all 8 of them. 

Josique and I went to visit them on the weekend....and I don't need to tell you how cute they are...

Best buds


5 of the puppies already have homes waiting for them in a month, and this will be Pana's new home. 

I guess sometimes there are happy endings...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pana Shock

I was prepared to be lost-in-translation, to work with limited resources, to live without the same products I have in Canada. I was even semi-prepared to accept that occasionally, a giant, horrid looking spider would cross my path (and they have). I was mentally prepared to deal with the culture shock process, which surprisingly, has yet to take me on an emotional roller coaster. Cuso warned us in our pre-departure training to "be prepared for the unexpected". Pana was my unexpected.

I noticed a dog wandering through the forest at a distance as I walked to work one day. I saw it again a couple of days later dart across my backyard. The third time I saw it, it was lying at the bus stop in front of the student residence Panamericano. It had the kindest face, cutest mix of brown and white spots and was very pregnant. It was at that moment that "it" became "her" and "her" became "Pana" and "Pana" became "our dog". My friend Victoria and I tried feeding her some rice and beans, apparently the widespread Costa Rican affection for rice and beans doesn't extend to dogs.

Over the next few days she learned that she could always find food, water and a blanket outside my door. She would be waiting, wagging her tail when I arrived home, always eager to put her paws in my lap and try to sneak a lick on my face. She stole my heart.

What I couldn't understand was how someone could abandon their pregnant dog a week before giving birth? How could humans be so cruel? So irresponsible for their actions and commitments? So inhumane? 

What shocked me even more was how desensitized everyone else was. I would tell them the story and they would look at me with a blank face and kind of shrug. This was a cultural shock I had never predicted, and I was completely unprepared. I felt angry, stressed, helpless for Pana, how could no one care? 

I only realized days later when I had calmed down and stopped taking the situation as a personal attack on my value system, that it wasn't that people didn't care, in fact people cared a lot. It was that this is an issue that is so widespread in most of Central and South America that it doesn't phase people anymore. Kind of how -15 degrees doesn't phase Canadians, but would seem utterly outrageous to anyone from here. 

Once I got passed my little bout of culture shock, I opened my eyes to realize that Pana had not only stolen my heart, but the heart of so many people at CATIE. Pana is now "Pana neustra perra"(Pana our dog), so many people offering to help in any way they can for her wellbeing. 

A week and a half ago she disappeared. She didn't come back for two days. I was worried and relieved at the same time. I knew that I couldn't take care of her puppies here, but at the same time I didn't want her to have them in the forest and not be able to come for food. But she came back. She comes back about 4-5 times a day, and she is eating so so so much! Her favourite is the hardboiled eggs, and knowing how much I hate eggs, it is a true gesture of my affection for this pup. 

Hopefully in a couple of weeks we can meet the puppies and interact with them enough to start finding them homes. 

This whole experience has given me such a strong reaction to human nature. How is it that we humans can be such compassionate, empathizing, loving beings? Yet at the same time have the capacity to be so cruel and unjust? Especially towards a dog that just wants your affection. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Panama City

It felt like a boa-constrictor had wrapped itself around my neck. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't think. Wonderland's beauty had deceived me, the birds singing and luscious vegetation seemed like decoys for the serpents of gossip that were slowly suffocating me. I thought I was about to be its next meal, engulfed by CATIE's insatiable hunger.

CATIE is a bubble, or burbuha en espanol. As I have stated previously it is a beautiful place, it feels like a wonderland. But we all know that fairytales have their dark sides. CATIE's is that everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everything.

Just as I felt my esophagus closing, the snake released itself. Panama.

Unfortunately...or fortunately, we have not yet been able to sort out our volunteer visas with the Costa Rican government. From what I understand, last year the whole process changed departments, and when that happened, things got complicated and lost, and no one knows, who's responsibility is what. Thus, I unfortunately have to take a four day trip out of the country everything three months.

Josique and I landed in Tocumen International Airport, Panama City on a Friday at 2pm. We had just flown in over the city, the buildings with glistening windows, towered over the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

We had arrived to tax haven of Latin America, and having essentially packed only the clothes on our backs, we were ready to indulge in some very materialistic, shopping, movie...and more shopping.

Now I wouldn't say that I love to shop or spend any great length of time browsing around malls. The idea of walking around for hours in flats that make your feet hurt, with florescent lighting that gives you a headache and shows all your skin imperfections is usually not my idea of a good time. However that day, Josique and I were like kids in a candy shop.

Not only for the selection of clothing stores available but for the grocery store. I think we were shrieking like 13 year old girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Dark chocolate? Pesto? Curry paste? Fresh pasta?

Sure you can find a lot in Turrialba, but there are things that I never knew I took for granted...such as Greek yogurt. I know I know, first world problems.

Anyway, I digress. I will not bore you with my various purchases and will skip right to our day(s) ( 1 1/2 days really) of sightseeing.

The Panama Canal

Josique, giant ship & I
It takes 8-10hours for one of these ships to pass through the entire Canal from the Pacific to Atlantic with each lock using 100 million litres of water. I know that I should have been overwhelmed, perhaps I just couldn't fully comprehend the historical significance or impact that this canal has on daily world trade, but I couldn't help but think "it looks like the locks in Merrickville, just bigger".  What I think was most impressive, that I never would have thought of is that the ships are raised on the Pacific side and then lowered on the Atlantic so that the point in the middle is highest (check out this link to see what I mean). Any idea why? I am ashamed I didn't think of this really, but it so that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans don't mix and there is no (or minimal) cross-contamination of species, so the water of the canal is actually all (or mostly) fresh-water.

Casco Viejo - The Old Quarter 

Approaching Casco Viejo from the boardwalk, you may as well think you are in the south of France or Italy. The boats lazily swaying in the breeze with the backdrop of colourful buildings with chipped paint and flowers. This touristy peninsula of the city is undoubtably beautiful with its colonial buildings, many of which are being restored into the cities chicest restaurants and quaintest hotels. There are Italy worthy Gelateria's and your generic markets boasting all the usual Arts & Crafts. Sounds like it could be anywhere right? It partly reminded me of Europe, partly of Montreal's old port and partly of a ghetto. What made this touristy spot so unique from any other, was that these beautifully restored buildings were like islands in a sea of abandoned, decaying, illegally inhabited ones.

Reggae vibrated the already frail foundation of this more-than-chipped-paint building. Teenage boys casually hung their arms over rotting balconies with beautiful flowers. Men with leathery hands covered in plaster worked at a slow pace in the afternoon heat to restore some of this beautiful ugliness. 

Central Square, Casco Viejo

After three full days in the extreme humidity while shopping, sightseeing and filling my stomach, I was looking forward to going back to the bubble. I was excited to hear the birds in the morning instead of traffic, feel a cool breeze rather than hot heavy air. The big city was fun, but we all know I am a small town girl at heart. 

Fisherman's Dock, Panama City