As I write tonight there is a welcome chill in the air after the hot days of July. I flip the calendar page to August and realize it is time to start thinking about the year ahead and making plans.I have been talking about going back to school and using my experience as a veterinarian along with my business experience and people skills to help other veterinarians build amazing careers and lead balanced lives outside veterinary medicine. Something that is finally on the collective minds of our profession and is sorely needed. I truly love being a vet and the thought of building a new career to help other vets find the joy and satisfaction I have experienced in my profession excites me BUT… There is always a “but” isn’t there? Getting my executive coaching certification, while not impossible to do while vagabonding around the world, will be more difficult. Staying put in Canada and working towards this goal would definitely make things easier.
Over our favorite craft beer (at the Rossland Beer Company), we talked it out and tried to come up with a “plan” for the year ahead.As I looked into the red/gold liquid of my Helter Smelter Amber Ale, the words from a song by Noah and the Whale started playing in my head.
“On my last night on Earth, I won’t look to the sky
Just breathe in the air and blink in the light
On my last night on Earth, I’ll pay a high price
to have no regrets and be done with my life.”
You’ve got more than money and sense, my friend
You’ve got heart and you’re going your own way”
I thought back to April 2016, Rob and I were bouncing across a flat plain in Botswana on our first trip to Africa. We were on a budget camping safari and loving every minute of it. With a hot wind in our faces, we had the tunes blaring as we shared a set of earbuds and watched the surreal scenery unfold around us.
We still owned our veterinary practice and the management pressure and workload was weighing heavily. I needed to make a change, hire a practice manager or commit more time to management and less to being a vet. I was struggling with how to move forward and honestly struggling to figure out what I wanted from life. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N was playing and as I listened to the lyrics I realized it was time for us to stop putting off the things we want to do. What an amazing journey to build a small practice from nothing into a business and vision we could be proud of. To be part of a great community and to be able to provide a livelihood for several families in that community. But what did Elaine really want, on her last night on earth? That’s the kicker? What are my regrets and what can I do to reduce any regrets going forward?
My biggest priority has always been my family. If I am honest, it wasn’t always easy being a wife, mother and a veterinarian. The pressures of running a business, managing staff and client demands, being on call and also being present for my husband and children left me feeling like I was running on empty some days. Which seems crazy because I also had a supportive business and life partner, who I know felt the same way most days! Being in it together and having each other’s back, helped us survive those crazy times. Perhaps it is one of life’s great ironies that once you finally have more time and are able to enjoy each moment, your children suddenly don’t need you as intensely. They’ve grown and moved on to their own lives, which is as it should be.
What I do know moving forward is that my family is still my biggest priority and I want to be their biggest fan. I want to be there for the big moments. I want to have the time and make the effort to be a part of their lives while giving them the space they need to become their own people as they figure out this next phase. I also know I want to keep pushing my fear aside, trying new things, meeting new people and not let my fear of looking or sounding foolish hold me back. So if I don’t pursue a coaching career will I have regrets? Probably. When I am at end of days, looking back on my life will I regret not taking another year to bugger off, travel, volunteer and see more of this big beautiful world? Definitely. Decision made. Now I just need to stick with it and quit the second guessing.
Pretty great life, to be sure. If you are feeling envious, don’t be, instead be inspired. Ask yourself what you want, what’s holding you back and make a plan. Face your fears and do what you need to do, in order to find the joy you deserve. No regrets.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination”.What a load of crap. Let’s be honest here, anyone who has done any amount of traveling knows the journey often sucks.Long lines in crowded airports, missed connections, surly flight attendants and shady taxi drivers make the “journey” something you grit your teeth and endure, in order to enjoy the prize, your “destination”. To me, there is something so patronizing about this little saying. It grates on me. “Well you know dear, its all about the journey now isn’t it”.Meanwhile, the little voice inside my head is screaming “Really? The journey you say? Now that you mention it, maybe it really is fun to urinate in a claustrophobic cubical spattered with strangers bodily waste. Thanks for helping me see this in a whole new light!” Obviously, I am being sarcastic to make a point. We all travel for different reasons and there is no right or wrong way to travel. Sometimes it is about the journey. Sometimes it is about the destination. And sometimes it is all about you.
It is hard to believe we have been back in Canada for 3 weeks. It feels like I never left.Did the last 8 months really happen? Or was it all a dream? As I write, I am sitting on the deck of a BC ferry heading home to Rossland after finishing a locum at a 24-hour emergency hospital on Vancouver Island. I am back to work, as a veterinarian, our town is the same, our house is the same and old routines are easy to slip into. While it feels like I never left, it also feels like everything has changed. During the past 8 months, I did not manage to figure out “what I’m going to do with the rest of my life” but I also feel less urgent about having a plan.
It was an amazing 8 months and looking back I realize for me, it is not about the destination or the journey but it is all about the people that I met along the way. Through my blog posts, I have shared stories featuring some of these amazing humans and dogs (see the story of stinky dog) but I also want to share a few more stories about people we met who made our journey so special.
Cycling into Cienfuegos Cuba, hot tired and in need of a beer and a shower, we headed to the central plaza to find some shade, wifi and make a plan. Rolling up we heard a shout from across the square “Hey Canadians, bikers over here!”Two friendly cyclists were waving at us enthusiastically and we recognized them as the American/German couple we had chatted with roadside near Playa Giron. We pushed our bikes over and were greeted with big smiles, hugs and immediately fell into conversation like old friends. They introduced us to another cyclist, Pierre, riding a bike so fully loaded I was amazed he could peddle it forward. It quickly became apparent that Pierre was a powerhouse of energy and I suspect he willed that bike forward with his positive energy and the enthusiasm he had for life and second chances. We agreed to meet for dinner that evening and headed off to find a bed for the night. On the road, you make friends in an instant and that evening we learned that Nic and Franzi were on a final “fling” before settling down and starting a family.Pierre had left Quebec to spend an undetermined time cycle touring in Cuba after a diagnosis (and luckily successful treatment) of prostate cancer. It was only one night but we made instant connections and shared our contacts.
Following Cuba Nic and Franzi spent an unbearably hot month in Mexico and then inspired by our description of British Columbia, headed to Canada to cycle from Vancouver Island, across the interior of BC and on to Montana. We were thrilled to get an email on our arrival home announcing they were in Canada and wanted to come to Rossland for a visit.
Did you know in certain hostels, you cannot stay if you are over 40 years old? What a stupid rule!Our favourite hostels were those with travellers representing a wide range of ages, ethnicities and interests. These hostels had the best vibes, best stories and it was at one such hostel that we met Holger, the “German Renaissance man”.As an extrovert, Ilike hostelling and Hostel Polako a little hostel in Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was my favorite hostel experience.
The name Polako means “slow down” and the hostel owners, Lauren (American) and Bartek (Polish) welcome travelers of all ages.Their friendly, open and laid back attitude seemed to be adopted by the other travellers staying there.If you are willing to listen, everyone has an interesting story but sometimes, if you are lucky, you meet other travelers and make an instant connection. Holger, a pharmacist by profession, had decided to make a big life change and left his job, made his way south and ended up in Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He liked the town and hostel so much he stayed for months. Curious about the world, interested in other people and their stories as well as articulate, intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, Holger was so much fun to hang out with during our 3 days in Trebinje. My favorite memory is an afternoon at the local winery learning about the subtleties of wine tasting and enjoying the late afternoon sun and conversation while slowly getting tanked.
No one used the spit basin because if you stay in hostels you’re probably not the type to waste free wine!
And finally the Croatian Brothers, whose names I cannot remember but whose hospitality will forever stay in my memory. Battling strong winds and rough seas on the western coast of Solta island, off the coast of Croatia (see Some things are Scary: Kayaking off the Coast of Croatia) we inched our way into a sheltered bay.Our recommended campsite for the night was still 4 km away but we were tired, stressed and night was quickly approaching. As we paddled into the deep bay to find some shelter and spotted a small beach at the end of the bay. A beach big enough to land two kayaks. We decided to paddle towards it with the hope that we could camp there for the night.As we got closer, our hopes were dashed. I could see first a fishing boat and also a man on the gravel beach, it was private property. As Rob paddled up beside me, I could see he was as tired and dejected as me.
“Let’s go ask if we could camp on their beach”, I said. “The worst that can happen is they will say no”.
I approached the shore and shouted “Hello, do you speak English?”.
With a shake of the head and a motion to wait there, the old man disappeared only to return shortly with his brother.
“We are very tired. Could we camp on your beach tonight?” I asked.
“Of course, of course. Please come in”, came the reply.
Before we could get out of our boats we heard a question ring out across the water, “Do you like wine”?
We pulled our kayaks onto the gravel beach and were met with warm handshakes and a genuine welcome. After introductions, we were led up a stone path and given a tour of tidy gardens, olive trees and an ancient stone cottage which enjoyed a lovely view of the Adriatic.
Anxious to get to the wine, our hosts once again invited us to join them on their patio. Darkness would soon arrive, so I said we would love to enjoy a glass of wine but they must allow me to prepare dinner and share it with them. As we sat down to enjoy a Mediterranean salad, cheese, local salami, cookies, and chocolate on their patio, the sun was setting into the Adriatic. Two bottles of wine and many stories later we realized what had started as a long and stressful day was ending in the most unexpected of ways. We rose early the next morning and joined our new friends for coffee before setting out.
As we loaded our kayaks, they loaded their small fishing boat with supplies and together we paddled out of the sheltered bay to the open ocean. I will forever remember soft morning light framing two old gentlemen as they stood in their little red fishing boat, wishing us safe travels and waving goodbye to two strangers from Canada.
I am excited to share with you the story of our journey from practice owners to volunteer veterinarians. I recently submitted this article to the West Coast Veterinary Journal and had my story published. Very exciting for me (I know, it is pretty small potatoes but pretty cool to see my words in print)! Hope you enjoy and please feel free to share!
I cannot figure out how to attach a link to the original article as the West Coast Veterinary Journal a private publication for members of the Society of BC Veterinarians. I am sure there is a way but my old brain isn’t so good with this shit. Anyway, below the jpeg image of the article, I have posted my original submission which will be much easier to read, I hope!
Will Spay for Food
The life you have led, doesn’t need to be the only life you have
Knowing it is time for a change is easy if you listen to your heart. Actually setting the wheels in motion to make that change, is the hard part. For most of us, it is fear that holds us back. Fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of disappointment. It is far too easy to listen to that voice in your head, the one ruled by fear, instead of taking a chance and seeing where life can lead you if you are willing to make a change.
I love to travel and in 2011, had the opportunity, together with my then 11 year old daughter, to volunteer for 4 days with the Mexi-Can Veterinary Project in Jaltemba Bay, Mexico. This was my first international sterilization project and it planted a seed.But how do you marry a career in private veterinary practice and raising a family with a desire to see the world? It isn’t always easy, especially if you live in a rural community and are married to another veterinarian with whom you own a practice. Our solution was to book locums and drag our kids around the world on family ”adventures”. Eventually, those children grew and left to pursue their own adventures, leaving us at home, running our business and a just a little envious of the exciting journeys they were about to embark upon. Perhaps this was the catalyst we needed.
In 2017 we decided it was time. Time to see where life might lead two middle-aged, vets if they were willing to sell their practice, embrace the unknown and embark on a new journey. Prior to the sale of our practice we had started to explore the world of international volunteerism and found, not only was there a huge need worldwide for veterinary volunteers, but we were we well suited to this type of work. We would return from each project energized, with a renewed passion for our chosen profession. To date, we have worked with the Equitarian Initiative, World Vets, the Canadian Animal Assistance Team and the Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project and currently Carriacou Animal Hospital. These projects have taken us to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Botswana, Cuba and Grenada.
So what inspires successful practice owners to give it all up, to live on the road and work for free? It would be easy to stay home, keep doing what is comfortable and experience the world through yearly vacations and the discovery channel. In many ways, it would also be the safe path, but by doing so we would miss out on so many life changing experiences. And perhaps more importantly, we would miss out on meeting the remarkable human beings who have opened their homes and shared their lives with us.
In Costa Rica, I worked with a group of dedicated equine veterinarians. Their goal “to sustainably improve working equid health by harnessing the passion and expertise of volunteer veterinarians”, appealed to me. Despite that fact that it had been 20 years since I had done any work with horses, the Equitarian Initiative volunteers accepted me, a small animal vet, without reservation. Perhaps, in part, because I provided some comic relief! I recall one spry, older gentleman who arrived with his very elderly horse for the free clinic explaining why his horse was so important to him. During certain times of the year, the river flooded, cutting off his access to town. His horse, however, could still cross the river allowing him to get to church on Sundays and maintain his contact with the community. The love he shared with his equine companion was just as strong as any we Canadians share with our pampered pets!
Working with World Vets in Ecuador, I marveled as over the course of a week a group of individuals with unique personalities, backgrounds and a wide range of ages became fast friends. The small town we were working in was well aware of our presence. Early each morning, as we boarded a bus to head to the campaign, local people would run up, dogs in tow and ask if we could take their pets to be sterilized. We would each grab a pet, bring it on the bus and head off with a few extra surgeries for the day. If you are traveling solo, volunteering with World Vets provides you with an instant group of like minded traveling companions, accommodation and the chance to experience a new culture while providing veterinary care in a unique part of the world.
In Cuba, we joined forces with the Spanky Project, founded by Canadian, Terry Shewchuck and named after his beloved dog. The Spanky Project arose from Terry’s love of Cuba and a desire to improve the lives of the dogs and cats he met during his travels. This group of passionate people works with the University of Havana veterinary school and local Cuban veterinarians to exchange ideas, provide much needed materials and medications and most importantly mentorship to the Cuban veterinary community.Working with the students and enjoying the energy and enthusiasm they brought to the project was very rewarding. Many students commented that they would learn more about small animal anesthesia, surgery and recovery during the Spanky Project than they would in the university curriculum. Some of the Cuban veterinarians volunteering this year had participated in past campaigns as students themselves.After being mentored by Spanky volunteers, they were back to give their time, improve their anesthesia and surgical skills and help mentor a new group of students during the 2018 campaign.A great example of international collaboration and sustainability.
Botswana and the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS) holds a very special place in our hearts. Rob volunteered with MAWS, through the Canadian Animal Assistance Team, in April and in November we both signed up for a 6 week commitment. Through their dedicated clinic located in Maun, as well as remote outreach clinics, MAWS provides free veterinary services to low income villagers across Botswana. Living in the MAWS cottage we woke early to enjoy a chorus of birds and cicadas as we prepared for the long day ahead. Working with very limited resources and supplies we sterilized and vaccinated animals until we were ready to drop. It took us back to our early years building our own practice and we came home each night, exhausted but happier than we had been in years.
The stories of how these animals arrive in our care humble us. We are reminded again and again of the resiliency of our patients and their will to survive, thrive and be happy.There was “old girl”, who came to us after having boiling water thrown on her back for stealing eggs. During her stay at MAWS, we saw her fearfulness disappear and her sweet, gentle nature emerge. And little pup, who stayed with us after surgical repair of a preputial injury and within days was bossing around the adult dogs. Often amputation is a practical and life saving option in countries with little resources and nonexistent surgical aftercare. I fell in love with one amputee from a cattle outpost who had lost her paw after being caught in a snare. She arrived in skeletal condition but still running happily on the stump of her infected metatarsals! A proper amputation gave her the gift of a pain free life. Their affectionate nature and joyful exuberance in the face of such a harsh existence is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, in equal measures.
In a small village in Botswana, we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic with his dog and another small child in his care. He asked if he could stay with his dog during the surgery because, in his words “My dog is a good dog, but he is afraid and will be comforted by my presence”.We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated and started surgery on his much loved dog Rob began to talk to him. The boy intently watched Rob preform and an ovariohysterectomy and explain what he was doing. When Rob paused, the boy looked at him and thoughtfully said, “So sir, I can see that what you are doing here helps the dogs and people of Botswana and for that we are grateful, but what I am wondering is how this benefits you”. Rob had a great response and said the benefits to us were not something you could see or touch, like money. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and think it is a very special place. We love the wild animals and by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we were helping to keep both the dogs and the wildlife healthier. I could see the boy was both a little surprised but also proud that we loved his country and wanted to help. They then talked about the idea of “paying it forward” and Rob said that we were lucky to be in a situation where we could help the people and dogs of Botswana. He then said to the boy, “Perhaps someday you will remember us and how we helped your dog and this will remind you to help someone too. By paying it forward, each of us can do our part to make the world a better place”.
With any volunteer project there are also frustrations. At the end of a long day, we have asked ourselves what it is about this work that draws us in an keeps us coming back for more. The days are long, hard and we usually come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the neediest population of pets. We often feel at a loss when it comes to making a diagnosis and we try our best to help and not harm. Our patients bleed easily and profusely during surgery, our clamps don’t clamp our suture is sometimes on a spool requiring our old eyes to thread needles all day and our scissors are as dull as the ones you buy for a first grader.Yet we make do, we struggle, we laugh and at the end of the day it feels good to be “dog” tired and know we did some good today. If we are honest, we started this journey for selfish reasons, looking for adventure and escape from the stresses of practice ownership. But it became so much more. How do you tell someone how good it feels to help an animal in need and to see the relief and thanks on the faces of those you help? How do you explain the amazing ability to make friends and deep connections with a community that will last a lifetime in just a few days or weeks?
As a middle class Canadian, I live a life of privilege, compared to the vast majority of the world’s population. Working as a volunteer veterinarian has driven home this point and also made me realize how very little I need to be happy. I have discovered that what often appears straightforward on the surface, is actually very complicated. As a volunteer, it is important to critically consider the impact you have on a culture and the long term ramifications of your actions. This work has challenged me to be more resourceful, open minded and adaptable. But perhaps, most of all, it has taught me that there really is more good than bad in the world (despite what the media may lead you to believe) and if you travel with an open mind, an open heart and a big smile you will be amazed at where it will take you.
Nestled between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, Montenegro is one of six countries which made up the former Yugoslavia. While small in size at roughly 14,000 square km and a population of approximately 620,000, Montenegro makes up for its small land mass with unsurpassed beauty and miles of unexplored lakes, mountains and rivers.An outdoor adventure mecca teetering on the brink of discovery, we had to check it out.If you thought this blog was about the home of Yosh and his brother Stan Shmenge from Leutonia, I am sorry to disappoint you. Go ahead and hit “escape” immediately. Don’t feel bad, I’ll never know you left. But if I’ve caught your interest, my thanks to SCTV and the infamous Shmenge brothers!
I have to give creditfor visiting Montenegro to our awesome daughter, Hannah.Living in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a student at UWC Mostar, our primary reason for visiting the Balkans was to spend time with this cool kid of ours. After leaving Carriacou Island in Grenada, we needed a plan and some adventure, while she finished up classes and exams.Hannah loves the Balkans and listed off the attributes of several countries but qualified her recommendations with “I think you guys would really love Montenegro, its beautiful with lots of mountains and outdoor activities”.After our conversation, I logged onto google and entered various combinations of “mountain biking+adventure+off the beaten path+Montenegro+bike rental” into the search bar. Each search eventually lead me back to a little website meanderbug.com. With enough pictures and blog posts to get us excited, I fired off the first email to this “Meanderbug” not realizing where it would lead. Within hours, Brit, the owner of Meanderbug responded with a warm and informative email.We corresponded over the next few weeks and it became obvious Meanderbug wanted to do more than just sell us a tour.Brit wanted to get to know us, to find out how we like to travel and to make sure that our time in Montenegro was unique and special. Our goal of finding mountain bike rentals in Montenegro suddenly morphed into a 19 day cycling adventure and cultural experience in the rural villages, katuns and mountains of Montenegro. An experience we would have never found on our own, without the help of Brit and Zana, the team at Meanderbug. To our delight, we discovered we were the first tourists to do a hut to hut trip via bicycles in Montenegro and we would be the “guinea pigs” for this type of trip. Luck for us, no “guinea pigs” were harmed in the making of this adventure! Check out this link https://meanderbug.com/mtb-adventure-cycle-touring-in-montenegro-trailblazers-q-a/ for a video about our experience and Q and A’s about being the first people to do a hut to hut cycling adventure with Meanderbug.com
As the details of our trip, across the globe in the Balkans, started to come together, the reality of getting ourselves from a small island in the Caribbean to Montenegro set in.Following many hours of research on Google flights and Momondo (my travel planning go-tos), we found ourselves on a 2 day journey from Carriacou Island, to Grenada, Miami, Los Angeles, Moscow and finally Tivat, Montenegro.
Aeroflot exceeded expectations
Flying over the Arctic Circle
Thankfully I have a very relaxed travel partner, who happily agreed to my crazy itinerary in order to save a few bucks. However, after having to pay extra for luggage with American Airlines (my new least favourite airline) and then spending an uncomfortable night on the floor at LAX waiting for Aeroflot’s ticket desk to open (I couldn’t download our boarding passes for some reason), he was starting to question his choice of “travel agent”! We arrived in Tivat, tired and smelly but were greeted by perfect weather, the beautiful coastline of Montenegro and the friendly and informative Jovan, our first host.
Our first 2 days in Montenegro were spent at the Old Mill Farm stay with Jovan and his family.Located on the Lustica peninsula near Kotor, we enjoyed beautiful views of Kotor Bay and private sunsets over the Adriatic while enjoying a glass of homemade wine each evening.
Jovan’s family has lived here not just for generations, but for centuries, and the family was proud to show us their 300 year old olive press and guvno (threshing area). Meals prepared by Jovans mother were delicious and our first opportunity to sample farm fresh Montenegro cuisine and olive oil from the farms’ own orchard.
We spent these first days recovering from our jet lag while doing some hikes and exploring the old town of Kotor.
After spending time along the coast of Montenegro we were excited to start our journey north towards the first mountain biking destination Berrane.We headed to Podgorica by bus, spending a night near Skadar Lake before continuing by train towards Berrane and BijeloPolje. The train from Podgorica north to Berrane is the part of the Montenegro Express, traveling from Bar, Montenegro to Belgrade, Serbia.Brit arranged for a fellow traveler to alert us to our stop just outside BijeloPolje.Lucky for us, as we would never have noticed the stop, a small, nondescript cinderblock building in the countryside which marked our stop.
We starting walking along the train tracks wondering if we were at the right spot. Within moments we saw someone in the distance waving vigorously and jogging towards us.We were soon taken underwing by Dimitrije, our host for the night and a man with so much positive energy about his community and neighbors, that you couldn’t help but be infected.Dimitrije grew up in the area and loves the mountains and outdoors.For many young people in Montenegro, finding work in the rural towns and villages is difficult, resulting in a migration of young people to the cities, looking for work and a more modern way of life. Raising his own young children in BijeloPolje, Dimitrije wants to find ways to help his community remain viable by supporting tourism and developingthe infrastructure needed to find new ways to make rural Montenegro vibrant and attractive to the next generation.
The next day we were excited to pick up our bikes and start riding. Our early 90’s Polar hardtail rental bikes, while far from the latest technology, got the job done and as we wound our way up towards Biogradska Gora National Park, we had our first taste of what mountain biking in Montenegro was going to look like.The day started on a quiet paved highway but quickly turned into a small paved country lane and then a gravel road or path. These gravel mountain roads, similar to what we would call forest service roads in British Columbia, made up the majority of our riding in Montenegro.The quality of the road would vary from broken pavement to rough and rutted gravel, to our favorite, a hard packed two-lane path through mountain meadows. If you are expecting well maintained, buff single track you’ll be disappointed, as this just does not exist in any large quantity in Montenegro. The funding and infrastructure to build this type of trail system are not there yet.However, if you love to travel on two wheels, where the journey is often more important than the destination, you’ll love Montenegro.
The next 3 days at Rakovic Katun in Biogradska Gora National Park were our introduction to Montenegro hospitality.In rural Montenegro, the traditional farming way of life involves moving families and their livestock into the mountain villages, called katuns, during the warm summer months. Livestock can graze on the abundant mountain meadows, saving stored hay and feed for the winter months. Here the way of life takes a step back in time. Katuns are simple buildings, with no electricity and no running water.Cooking is done on a wood stove and water is most often collected from the abundant mountain springs.The whole way of life is dedicated to caring for sheep and cattle, making cheese, tending a garden and preparing for the winter to come. It is a simple but harsh existence and much like the family farm in many parts of the world, this way of life is slowly disappearing. Staying in the Katuns, with the local farm families, is an effort to keep this part of Montenegro’s heritage alive. Companies like Meanderbug are dedicated to sustainable tourism that not only benefits local people and supports their way of life, but also gives tourists more than just a fun biking holiday. This type of travel forces you to slowing down, engaging with locals and gives you a deeper understanding of the culture and people of Montenegro.
Rakovic Katun has been in our host’s, Stefan and Sanya’s family for many generations.Stefan, a park ranger and Sanya, a teacher, live in nearby Berrane but spend their summers in the family Katun, hosting guests in two small cabins located on the property. We spent 3 days with the Rakovic’s and given Sanyas’ excellent English and Stefan’s developing language skills we had a great time getting to know them and learn a little about life in Montenegro.
Arriving in mid-May, there was still snow at higher elevations and after spending the last 4 months at sea level in the Carribean, the elevation at Biogradska Gora made itself felt.We cycled to nearby Siska Lake and rested on our first full day and then set out for a 10 km hike on day two to enjoy the dramatic landscapes and beauty of the park.
From Biogradska Gora, it was an easy ride back to the village of Lubnice and a luxurious night at Three Springs Cottage before heading to the Konjuhe Village nestled below Mount Komovi and our next farm stay at Old House.
The next morning our hosts at Old House pointed us towards the winding and steep back road leading to Mount Komovi and with the help of maps.me, we found our way to the base of majestic Mount Komovi.
After all our altitude gain, we got to enjoy a long, fun ride downhill ride back to Old House and another delicious meal of homemade pita, cabbage roll and pickled peppers.
Our next day of riding was to take us from Konjuhe Village to Prokletje National Park over a mountain hiking trail which was so overgrown and covered with downed trees, that we decided to turn back and get a transfer to the next Katun. A good decision as on the way back to Old House we were caught in a thunderstorm and were quickly soaked.Our transfer to took us to the edge of Prokletje National Park and gave us our first view of the so-called “damned or accursed” mountains, the highest peaks in the country. Ditching the bikes, we spent the next day hiking in this beautiful park and were transferred late afternoon to Bajrovica Katun deep within the park.
Traditionally, families move into the Katuns during the month of May, depending on the snow melt and ability to access their homes.Our mid-May timing made us the first visitors to many of the Katuns and meant we ran into virtually no other tourists during most of our trip.Brit and his daughter Joy joined us for a few days in Prokletje National Park and at Bajrovica Katun and provided the transfers and support when our initial route was impassable. It was great getting to know them and enjoying their friendly, positive vibe and learning how Meanderbug came to be. That is their story to share not mine, but I will say how special it was to work with a company where we started as customers and left feeling like we had become friends.
The next 3 days took us into an area known as the Katun Road. Travelling this remote and untouched area was like stepping back in time and was a truly unique experience.After a long day of wrong turns and backtracking, we finally climbed to Cakor Katun. For me, this was the hardest day. As we made our way on a seemingly unending uphill climb, I said to Rob, “tonight there better be rakja and meat! I need booze and meat”. I was not disappointed as our host Gordana was an amazing cook and prepared perhaps the best meal of our journey.Two tired Canadians were offered not only rakja, but also homemade juice and cherry liqueur.
Followed shortly by soup, cheese, homemade bread, roast chicken, crispy roast potatoes andgrilled peppers.
After our hosts left, we stoked the wood stove, had another glass of rakja and crawled under layers of heavy blankets to fall asleep in absolute silence and darkness, alone in our cozy katun.
It’s time for an aside about the food. Really, I should devote an entire blog to the food we enjoyed on our farm stays in Montenegro. Homemade, homegrown, simple, fresh and organic. Every host provided excellent meals. We were never hungry and it was obvious our hosts were thrilled that we enjoyed their food so enthusiastically. For me this was easy, I love to cook, love to try new flavors. Trying new cuisines and food around the world is one of the things I like most about traveling. I fall firmly in the camp of those who “cycle to eat” rather than “eat to cycle”. So you pretty much need to just put a plate in front of me and I will eat whatever is on it (one exception to this is liver and BTW what is with the obsession with goose liver in Hungary? Another story for another blog …). We ate well, we ate a lot and everyone loved watching us eat. Literally, our hosts would watch us eat, then after we were finished, they would eat. It was a little weird but part of the cultural experience. At Mokri Do Katun, it was a special experience when our hosts sat across the simple table and shared many glasses of rakja with us, a simple but tasty dinner and then showed us photos of their 7 daughters and grandchildren.
Riding the Katun Road area was our favorite part of the journey. High mountain landscapes, shepherds with large flocks of sheep and route finding to the next katun made for a fun adventure.
With no other tourists, it felt like traveling in our mountains at home but instead of a tent and some rehydrated food awaiting the end of a long day, there was a warm katun and a kind host.
For me, the hospitality and warmth of the people Montenegro will stay with me long after the memories of the mountains and beautiful landscapes fades.
Perhaps the best example of this is our experience while traveling between Cakor Katun and Mokri do Katun on the Katun Road. After getting off route and backtracking to find the right trail, we came across a small katun with a man working in his garden. We pulled out our map and stopped to point at it and confirm our location. Speaking little English, he gestured to his house and pretty much took Rob’s arm and pulled him toward the small patio. There he brought out 3 glasses and a bottle of rakja.After a drink, apparently, we could discuss location. Two young children and a baby came out of the house, followed by his wife, to meet the crazy people riding bicycles. I had a small package of cookies for our lunch so I pulled them out to share with the children. He and his wife disappeared into the house for a few minutes and returned with some bread and cheese, followed by pickled peppers, cooked chicken and steak, homemade juice olives and more of their own cookies! We shared lunch together and they pointed us in the right direction after refusing to let us pay for the meal. While they spoke some English, communication was limited, but before leaving I understood the wife’s request, “Facebook?”. If you happen to read this, thank you again, Jugoslav Lekic and family. Your hospitality made a lasting impression on us and exemplifies what makes rural Montenegro so special.
After leaving the Katun road area we made our way back to Berrane and BijeloPolje ending ourjourney at Agape House and Community Garden outside Podgorica. Enjoying the company of our young and forward thinking hosts, we had a great conversation about the recent election in Montenegro, the political and economic situation, from their perspectiveand their successes and frustrations in making a positive change in their community. Warm and kind hosts, a cute, comfortable room and good conversation; we would have enjoyed spending more time at Agape House.
In fact, we were sad we didn’t have more time in Montenegro. Our 19 days were over too fast and we were truly sad to see our trip come to an end. If you like to travel off the beaten path, get hives from crowds of tourists and aren’t afraid of getting dirty or lost, then consider a cycling trip in Montenegro. The coast is beautiful and well worth visiting, but the secrets hidden in the rivers, lakes and mountains of this little Balkan country and the people who live there, are the real reason you should go to Montenegro. Know you will be among the first to travel this way (if that matters to you) and leave with memories of a country and a people that will exceed your expectations.I know it did ours.
This morning we were up early to beat the heat and make our way out of Santiago de Cuba and cycle on towards Bayamo.We pushed our bikes up calle Jose Seco, a pedestrian only street and across the busy intersection towards Plaza de Marte.I noticed a young dog trotting ahead of us as we walked along, with a lolling tongue and happy grin on his face. He was in good shape, muscular and fit and, compared to many of the dogs we had encountered in the Santiago, appeared to be in excellent health. Traffic was already heavy and as a result we decided to walk the bikes to the next major intersection before starting to ride.As we crossed streets and weaved between pedestrians and people pushing bicycles, I would see the little street dog pop up between us, ducking and weaving along the sidewalk and street, keeping time with the two of us. Each time he trotted beside me, I picked up a foul odor and noticed his neck and backed were streaked with something rotten he had obviously rolled in earlier that morning. I said to him “hey stinky dog, where are you headed” and he looked at me with a goofy grin as if to say “you tell me?”
I figured he’d abandon us once we started to ride.When we reached the Avenida de los Libertadores, it was time to get riding. Rob hopped on his bike and started off in the lead.I laughed as stinky dog jumped down from the sidewalk with a spring in his step, let out 3 happy yelps and sprinted off behind Rob. The traffic for Cuba was heavy with taxis, motorcycles and buses taking people to work.Our route out of the city towards the carretera central (highway) that would take us over the Sierra Maestra mountains and towards Bayamo, took as through a traffic circle, stop signs, left turns and across major intersections.I watched and held my breath repeatedly, as Stinky Dog navigated traffic like a seasoned pro, keeping pace with our bicycles and showing no signs of fatigue.
Finally, stopping to check our map we decided we needed to end this game.We yelled at him “go home Stinky Dog!” And waved our arms. “vamos amigo”.He would turn, walk a few steps the other direction and then as we rode off quickly, we would find him back with us again, happily following along, within a few hundred meters.Finally, giving up, we decided to ignore him, hoping he would tire of the chase.We wound our way out of the hilly city of Santiago, up and down hills before finally leaving the city and traffic behind. Stinky dog stuck to us like glue.He stayed behind Rob but every now and then, if I fell too far behind, he would turn and look for me to make sure I was still riding.As we stopped for a rest, I told Rob that it looked like he had found himself a great mountain biking dog.Rob just laughed and said, “I’ve already told him the first thing I’m going to do to him is to cut off those balls!” I laughed and replied that he didn’t seem to concerned about Rob’s threat.
By now we were about 12 km outside of Santiago and unsure what to do with Stinky Dog.He seemed quite happy and showed no signs of tiring, despite the increasing heat and our faster pace. As we cycled along and puzzled over our dilemma we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a cycle race.Police sirens blared and pointed for us to pull off the road while groups of cyclists, clad in colourful spandex, blasted past us.During a lull in the chaos we made our move and were back on the road, quickly making a left turn off the highway to make our way to the village of El Cobre and the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre. Apparently the multiple bikes confused Stinky Dog and as we looked back, he was no longer with us.I suspect he continued on, happily racing after the road riders, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the joy of just running for the fun of it!
The 4 km detour was well worth it.As we weaved along a hilly road, lush with tropical vegetation, we would catch glimpses of the beautiful Basilica high on the hill ahead of us. I stopped to pull out my iPhone to take a photo and suddenly my heart stopped.My phone (camera) was gone.Having had it to take a photo of Stinky Dog at our last stop, I knew I had lost it somewhere in the last 8km. 8km of mostly rough downhill riding, which meant 8kms of uphill riding in the heat. We turned around and started retracing our steps, in the hopes it was still lying along the road and not in someones pocket. We started back and lady luck or perhaps it was La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) whose shrine is housed in the Basilica, blessed us.Regardless, there on the side of the road, 200m back was my perfectly intact phone.Rob let out a cheer and after tucking it safely inside my pack, we started back towards the Basilica.
As we road towards the Virgen’s shrine, Rob suddenly stopped at a rode side stand and bought a $2 CUC bouquet of flowers.I gave him a quizzical look. “I know I am a scientist and also an atheist, but I somehow feel we need to make an offering to Our Lady of Charity” he said.“It’s a lot cheaper than a new phone!”I laughed, tucked the flowers along side my panniers and decided I would not only give thanks but also ask for the Lady’s blessing.
Rob watched the bikes as I went into the cathedral, truly remarkable and one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites and shrines in Cuba.Sweaty and likely quite smelly, I walked in with other pilgrims, there to make an offering to La Virgen or Cachita, as she is also known.I placed my flowers at the shrine along with a favourite photo of James, Hannah and our dog Maisy, which I carry in my wallet and taken when they were all quiet young.I asked the virgin to protect our kids, to keep them safe and then, under my breath I also asked her to watch over Stinky Dog, the little street dog from Santiago.
La Virgen de la Caridad, Cachita as she is known locally or Our Lady of Charity is a religious icon to almost all Cuban women.In Santeria, the virgin is syncretized with the beautiful orisha, Ochun Yoruba, goddess of love and dancing. Legend dictates that the virgin was discovered during a violent storm, by 3 fisherman floating on a board in the Bay of Nipe in 1612. Fearing their lives would end, they pulled out the board and found inscribed on it the words “I am the Virgin of Charity”. As the storm subsided and their lives were spared, they assumed a miracle had been granted and a legend was born.
Over the years, many have offered gifts to the Virgin. Ernest Hemingway decided to leave the 23 karat gold medal he won for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1954 “to the Cuban People” and rather than hand it over the the Batista regime, left it to the Catholic Church where it was temporarily held in the Basilica.
In 1957 Lina Ruz left a small guerrilla figurine at the feet of the virgin to pray for the safety of her two sons, Fidal and Raul Castro Ruz, then fighting in the Sierra Maestra.Was it fate that saw the two Castro brothers living into their senior years or was it the spirit of El Cobre?
It is midday in a crowed market place in downtown La Paz, Baja California Sur when I realize what started as a feeling of being “slightly off” this morning is quickly turning into a tsunami in my bowels.The smell of meat in the open air butcher shop is not helping my condition. I swat away the flies buzzing around both the hanging sides of beef and my head and suddenly, it hits me.I need a bathroom and I need it NOW! I am too embarrassed to say what happened next, but I am sure you can guess.As the saying goes, shit happens!
It was 1994 when two prairie farm kids decided to take two months off work and travel from Alberta, Canada to the tip of Baja California on motorcycles.As kids, our family holidays consisted mostly of camping trips, ski holidays and trips to the big city of Calgary for back to school shopping.International travel, was either outside the family budget or outside the family comfort zone.Looking back, it no longer seems like such an epic adventure, but what we did not realize, is how pivotal that trip would be in our evolution both professionally and personally.As veterinarians, leaving a mixed animal practice for two months to travel, was not done and, in hindsight, it was the first nail in the coffin of our failing partnership.Leaving that prairie partnership, while terrifying, became the first step towards creating a life that was the right fit for us, rather than trying to make ourselves fit into the life we thought we should live.From crashing my bike on a winding, mountain road in the northern California redwoods to stripping down to our swim suits so we could wash ALL our clothes in a small town laundromat, while the locals laughed at the crazy gringos, that trip left me wanting more. it changed the way I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and the way I viewed travel.
Fast forward several years. We own our own practice, now have two small children and have finally managed to book a locum for a glorious two week holiday. We decide, it is time to have an adventure. The plan is for Rob to drive our Toyota truck, loaded with camping gear and supplies to San Diego.I will stay and work for a few extra days, then the kids and I will drive 2 1/2hours to Spokane, Washington (the nearest major airport) and fly to join Rob. From San Diego we will head south to Baja to recreate that epic trip, this time with two children in tow.Finally the exciting day arrives.Rob has made it to San Diego, enjoying 2 days of driving and blissful solitude along the way. The kids and I are on our way to the airport.Suddenly a moment of inattention leaves me standing on the side of the road beside a crumpled car with two small, nicely shaken children.A short ambulance ride and set of X-rays later and we determined to be intact and are discharged from the hospital . We once again I find myself standing beside the side of the road, holding a small pack filled with snacks and activities for the airplane as well as the hands of two small, nicely shaken children.It is at this point my son, James looks at me and asks “Mom, what are we going to do now?”. I bend down, lean in and say in a cheery mom voice “Well, we are all okay and so we are going on this holiday.I guess we will just have to hitch hike “.Unknown to me, the driver who towed our car into town overheard us and quickly realized I was not kidding.He kindly took pity on us and offered a ride.It was an unfortunate start to what turned into an amazing trip.From learning to do the stingray shuffle on the beach at Baja Conception to petting gray whales in their calving grounds at the Bay of San Ignacio, it introduced us to the joys of traveling with children. Seeing the world through their eyes, sharing adventures as a family and expanding their world, was for me, worth every episode of “shit happens”.
The reasons for travel are as unique as the individuals who decide to take a journey. For us, travel was always a way to escape the pressures of our hectic life. To escape the internet, school pressures and just be together as a family.An opportunity to realize the world over, humans wants and needs are the same and happiness is not necessarily dependent on money or status.Then life moves along and the reasons change. Now there is no stress awaiting us upon return and the experience or journey becomes more important. We have discovered that having a community to connect with enriches the experience and working with organizations like the Maun Animal Welfare Society has allowed us to meet amazing people, interact with the local community and get a better sense of what life here is really like.Tomorrow we head to the community of Shakawe a village in the northwest corner of Botswana where we will do daily outreach clinics over the next week. It will be hot, dirty and hard work but also a fun adventure, a chance to make new connections, see a new part of this country and, of course, to see what “shit happens”!