Adventure awaits – Reflections on Hobbits, Home, and Veterinary Volunteerism

It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door… You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. – Bilbo Baggins

This morning as I sip a foul cup that passes for coffee, I realize it has been just over a year since we stepped off the hamster wheel and made some big changes in our lives. We have just finished a 5-week volunteer gig in the Caribbean and in a few days will swap our swimsuits for ski gear as we head home to Rossland, BC the most perfect place to spend Christmas. While I would like to think my gypsy heart would be happy to wander indefinitely, it knows that home is there, waiting quietly for my return. A little town, nestled in the mountains of BC and where my mind goes when I hear the word home. How lucky I am to have a home and to have it waiting patiently for me at the end of each journey.

Each time I return I am greeted by friends and acquaintances that make me feel like a minor celebrity and I realize the decision to step off the hamster wheel early is often misunderstood.  I try not to cringe as I hear the question “how are you enjoying your retirement?” I really need to stop explaining that we are not retired, just making a change in our career and lifestyle goals because, why does it matter?  To walk away from financial success in order to do more of the things I love, to give back in some small way and to explore new career options has been one of the best decisions of my life but it is not easy for everyone to understand. To be honest, learning how to live more simply and on less is a challenge and one I am still figuring out. We all think we need just a little more and we all spend to the limit (or beyond) our income. It isn’t an easy pattern to “unlearn”.

While home calls, waiting to wrap me in the warmth of its familiar embrace, the road continues to beckon, luring me with the thrill of the unknown. Since 2017 I have had the good fortune to spend approximately 20 weeks working as a volunteer vet on projects in 5 different countries and new opportunities await in 2019. I would be lying to say there have not been challenges. Challenging conditions, bureaucratic red tape, exhausting flights, and difficult people. Once hooked, working as a volunteer vet becomes like an addiction. Despite the dirt, the poverty, the overwhelmingly sad cases, I am a junkie waiting for my next fix, my next project.

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This year, I am looking at veterinary volunteering with new eyes and with the hope of making international volunteer work more accessible to other veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the personal rewards and experience gained, the cost of travel and finding time to volunteer is a huge deterrent for many veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Previous blogs have described the benefits of volunteer work (I am Published, Cool beans! and For the Love of Dog) as well as what makes for a great volunteer experience (Try the Goat) but what about the project itself? How do potential veterinarians and veterinary technicians choose from among the many projects in need of their expertise? How can you be sure you are making a difference and also have a fun, positive experience? The answer to this question is complex but can be broken down into two parts. First, taking an honest look at the reasons you want to go on a volunteer trip and second considering the project, its leadership, and goals.

If you have never dipped your toe in the world of veterinary volunteerism, it is difficult to know what to expect and how you will react to challenging conditions. Picture yourself working in a hot, dirty, smell environment with cockroaches in the dog food bin. Consider your ability to practice veterinary medicine with limited tools and supplies. Will you laugh with delight to find drugs and suture only 2 years out of date instead of 6? How do you feel making a treatment decision using only a stethoscope and thermometer as your diagnostic tools? Are you adaptable to using unfamiliar drugs (what has been donated), unfamiliar anesthesia (what is available) and unfamiliar suture (always check its strength before using)? Finally, how will you react to the overwhelming need and neglect (by our Western standards) of so many of the animals in these countries? Can you work within the local cultural context and leave your judgment at home? My blog “Try the Goat” is an attempt to give volunteers some tips on having a great experience but as also a reminder that you need to be honest with yourself and decide if international work is right for you. If you need life’s little luxuries to be happy or if what you really need is a holiday, you may end up disappointed. If you see the world in black and white and cannot practice medicine without structure, familiarity and the organizational hierarchy of modern veterinary hospital, you may find this type of work stressful and anxiety-inducing. Finally, if seeing emaciated, neglected animals, and experiencing different cultural values associated with pet ownership is going to leave you either deeply enraged or deeply depressed, you may want to rethink your participation in an international veterinary project.

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Rob, a small animal vet, stepping outside his comfort zone and performing a Cesarean on a sheep. Large animal medicine, just like riding a bike…

If after reading this you are still excited about offering your skills to a volunteer project, the next step is choosing a great project to join. Do a google search of “veterinary volunteer projects” and you will be overwhelmed with options. Start by narrowing the search to a certain region or part of the world, talk to colleagues who have volunteered and finally consider these key considerations when evaluating your participation in a specific project.

1. Does the project has a clear mission and clearly defined goals (ideally in writing) that guide the decisions of both the project leaders and the volunteers. Read these goals and make sure your ethics align with those of the project leaders. For example, on some projects, sick animals will not be treated unless the owner agrees to sterilization. Are there clear medical protocols and are expectations for volunteers clearly communicated? Clearly defined goals provide a uniform and consistent message to the local community and provide the most efficient and productive use of volunteers energy, resources and time.

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Elaine is pretty happy to effectively sterilize 9 animals with just one surgery.  Meeting project goals and preventing 8 more puppies to hit the street.

2. Is there evidence of accountability? Nonprofit organizations, just like small businesses, need to be accountable to their volunteers and donors. Can the project document how donations are used? Do the organizers make efforts to track and evaluate the impact of the project on the local community and whether it is meeting its goals? Is the board willing to critically evaluate its’ impact and implement changes when it starts to veer off track? This can be a difficult thing for volunteers to evaluate but it worth your consideration. Full disclosure, when I began volunteering, I did not consider accountability. I wanted to escape, travel and experience veterinary medicine in a foreign country. These projects can be costly, you are likely using up your holiday time and you may also be giving up income or time with family in order to participate. With so many organizations looking for volunteers, consider your options and choose wisely.

3. Does the volunteer project respect the local culture and look for ways to become sustainable without outside support? This my friends is a lofty goal and I realize I am naive to expect long-term sustainability without foreign support, but it excites me when I see local community members supporting the project, being employed or trained by project leaders and ultimately becoming advocates for the project within their community.  Consider if there is an education component to the project (is there a school program), are there local supporters who help with the logistics and organization of the project and do they work alongside the foreign volunteers and project leaders to deliver education, sterilization, and medical care? Is there a spirit of collaboration with the local animal care community or are local organizations displaced and disrespected?

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4. Finally, is the project a fun, collaborative and positive experience for volunteers? Do volunteers feel respected, comfortable to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of being judged or shut down? Does leadership support a collaborative approach and foster an environment of improvement and learning? Do volunteers feel appreciated and supported? Are all volunteers, regardless of their experience, age or role on the project treated consistently with equal respect and perks? After leading a team for 20 years, I can confidently say, it is lonely at the top. Your team doesn’t care about your needs or how hard you work and nor should they. You took on this role and while it isn’t easy to stay positive and not let your personal biases influence your behavior and actions, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility. Before signing on to a project, talk to past volunteers about their experience, and be sure the time and money you spend in order to offer your skills we are rewarded with appreciation and respect.

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After 5 months of working as a veterinary volunteer I am fully aware that I have the easiest job, just show up and work hard. I appreciate the countless hours of work that goes into organizing these projects. From bringing together leaders and volunteers with different backgrounds and personalities, to engaging the support of the local community. From fundraising and bringing the required drugs and supplies across international borders to staying focused and positive in the face of daily roadblocks that can be overwhelming. It requires a phenomenal work ethic, passion, and perseverance that often goes unrecognized and sometimes unappreciated.  I tip my hat to all of you, the leaders with whom I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 2 years.

So after all this thoughtful advice, my final comment is simple. Know yourself, do your homework and then stop overthinking it. Put on your pack, tuck in some lembas bread and open the door of your safe little hobbit hole. Step outside by placing one foot in front of the other as you walk through the Shire and into the great beyond. Adventure awaits, not for the strong or the brave, but for those with an open mind and a curious heart.

Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back and home to bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! – J.R. Tolkien

On the road again: Random ramblings of a volunteer veterinarian.

So here’s the thing; it is really flipping hot here. Hot and humid. Rivers of sweat sliding off my face and traveling down my body on a journey to some unknown ocean, hot. Why isn’t there a call for volunteer vets in Iceland?

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Time for a tasty smoothy in Hillsborough Carriacou

So here’s the other thing; apparently there are about 3000 different species of mosquitos worldwide and scientific studies (the number of bites counted in one square inch of my exposed ankles) prove that all 3000 species are to be found in Carriacou.

So here’s the final thing; despite the heat and the mosquitos, it is good to be back volunteering. We arrived in Carriacou, a small island off the coast of Grenada about a week ago. Rob and I spent about 7 weeks here in April and May of 2018 (see Where the Heck is Carriacou) and are back for another 6 weeks working with this special project.  When we were here in the spring, it was very dry and water on the island was scarce. Livestock, plants, and people were feeling the effects of low rainfall and water shortage. Now we are catching the end of the hurricane (rainy) season and the island is lush, green and cisterns are full.

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Eye enucleation surgery
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Puppy recovering from surgery

We have been very busy since our arrival on the island, treating the usual array of skin diseases and parasites. Performing sterilization surgeries and health checks as well as 3 eye enucleations. We have had a number of poisoning cases (a common occurrence on the island), tick fever cases and the frustrating but ever-present cases of neglect or abuse. So many of the problems we see arise from lack of education and pet overpopulation. We are working to improve the condition of the animals and in turn the health of both the wildlife and humans who are impacted by diseases in our domestic pets. Some days are difficult and it can be too easy to judge the actions of others based on our own cultural mores.  The goal of traveling and working with an open mind can be easily forgotten and my personal rule of “seeking first to understand” tossed aside.

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Dog suffering from anemia most likely due to tick fever and malnutrition

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another cultures’ mores, values. Right and wrong are culture-specific and the ability to understand a culture on its own terms rather than using the standards of your own culture can be very beneficial when doing this kind of work. Sorta like what your mom always said, “don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.

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Severely emaciated dog, this photo does not really show how thin this dog was. She was tied up for “punishment” without food or water

This is a very simplified explanation of cultural relativism, a concept which is actually a very complex. Working and living in Carriacou however, brings this concept to mind daily as I interact with the friendly kayaks (what people from Carriacou call themselves), the expat population who now call Carriacou home, the tourists visiting the island and the other volunteers. I am hardly the person to get into a philosophical debate about this topic but I will say it can be hard to reconcile my own personal beliefs on animal welfare and sustainable veterinary volunteerism with that of the expat and tourist population. I feel it is important that foreign volunteers remember this is not their home and not their culture. Respect for the local people and their way of life is imperative to the success of the project. We are here to support the veterinary needs of the island dogs and cats based on what is culturally relevant for Carriacou.  This may look quite different than how we care for our own dogs and cats at home but without sensitivity and respect for cultural differences, the project will be doomed from the start. How do you react when someone treats you in either a patronizing way or simply tells you your ideas have no merit and are wrong? For most of us, this attitude ends the conversation and becomes a huge roadblock to progress and change. 

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Community outreach to provide free flea, tick and deworming treatments to local dogs

Let me give you an example. You live in Canada, or the USA or the UK or perhaps France (you get the idea, you are from a culture of privilege). You travel to a little island in the Caribbean (or Malaysia, or Malawi) for a much needed holiday and a chance to see a new part of the world. You get off the plane, it is hot, muggy and you are immediately hit with new sounds, smells and find yourself in a world remarkably different than where you came from. There is a period of adjustment and some culture shock, which you may or may not have anticipated. As you walk to dinner at a fine restaurant the guidebook recommended, you pass several “street” dogs who are in various states of poor health. Thin to the point of emaciated, perhaps limping, perhaps they look mangy. But the dogs seem so sweet and so friendly and as you eat your expensive meal (by local standards) you think about those hungry dogs. You want to help but how? You give one a pet as you leave the restaurant and the poor thing follows you back to your hotel. He is waiting outside the next morning and greets you with hopeful eyes. You save a little of your breakfast and bring it home for him and by the end of your holiday, you’ve fallen in love and want to take him back to Canada, or the USA, or the UK or perhaps France.

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Yachts anchored off Carriacou

So what’s the big deal and is there anything wrong with this scenario? On one hand, it happens all the time and for that individual dog, should you manage to work out the paperwork and red tape to adopt the sweet creature and give it a life of luxury, where is the harm? I am not saying this is wrong, I am just suggesting that people need to look at the bigger picture. That dog most likely had an owner and it is quite possible the owner does love their dog but does not have the financial resources or knowledge to provide better care. Most likely in this culture dogs are not kept in fenced yards and wander and find food where they can. If you had not fed him, he probably would have gone home. When you “rescue” one dog you need to realize it will be quickly replaced by another who will soon be leading the same life as the animal you rescued. While you can feel good about what you did and you can take comfort knowing that you made a difference for one animal, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is really making a difference to the local dog population. In fact, you may have damaged the relationship between the “locals” and the veterinary volunteers working in that country. Your skin is the same color as theirs, you came and basically stole a dog. How will this action be perceived? Perhaps the local population will doubt the intentions of the veterinary project working in that community? Your actions may contribute to a feeling of distrust between the local people and the volunteers. “They say they are here to help us and our animals but how can we trust them if they allow our dogs to be stolen?” Obviously, I am making a point here and trying to give an example of how our actions, however well-intentioned, may actually create more harm than good. Making a difference is hard work. It is complicated. It means being culturally sensitive, carefully considering the consequences of your actions and ideally, being in it for the long haul. Perhaps, most importantly, it means leaving your judgment and moral superiority at home.

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I wonder if I am becoming jaded because I now cringe whenever I hear or see this quote “Saving one animal will not change the world, but the world will change for that one animal”. I understand the sentiment and agree that it is better to do something than to stand by and do nothing but I also think we need to explore the ramifications of our actions and be sure we are basing them on not only what is best for ONE animal, but also what is best for the entire POPULATION. Remaining idealistic is hard when faced with so much suffering. If I can be honest with you, I struggle to know if our volunteerism over the last few years is just a self-centered quest for meaning or if it actually makes a difference. But then, on a good day, I remind myself and truly believe that it is the small acts of kindness that accumulate and end up making the world a better place. Perhaps I just have too much time for self-reflection?

When in doubt default to kindness.

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L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

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.”

“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

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.

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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.

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Oh the People You’ll Meet!

“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. 

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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, I  like hostelling and Hostel Polako a little hostel in Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was my favorite hostel experience.

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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.

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No one used the spit basin because if you stay in hostels you’re probably not the type to waste free wine!

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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”?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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I am published! Cool Beans!

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!

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Will Spay for Food

The life you have led, doesn’t need to be the only life you have

                                                -Anna Quindlen

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.

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Cabbage Rolls and Coffee, Can’t be Beat: Tales of Happy Wandering in Montenegro (Title credit: Eugene Levy and John Candy)

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.Balkan-Karte-Fotolia_Kartoxjm_78480771_L-1024x1024If 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 credit for 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. 

 

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.

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Sleeping (not!) on the floor at LAX

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.

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Rob checking sitting in old guvo or grain threshing area at Old Mill farm stay
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Sunset on Lustica Bay

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. 

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Breakfast at Old Mill Farm

We spent these first days recovering from our jet lag while doing some hikes and exploring the old town of Kotor.

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Kotor Bay Montenegro
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1300 steps to Sveti Ivan’s Fortress (also known as St. John’s)

 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 Bijelo Polje. 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 Bijelo Polje. Lucky for us, as we would never have noticed the stop, a small, nondescript cinderblock building in the countryside which marked our stop. 

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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 Bijelo Polje, Dimitrije wants to find ways to help his community remain viable by supporting tourism and developing the infrastructure needed to find new ways to make rural Montenegro vibrant and attractive to the next generation.

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Dimitrije on right with his neighbors and Nedjo, Svetlana and twin sons

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.

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Riding to Biogradska Gora National Park

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.

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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.

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Stefan and Sanya Rakovic

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.

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Hiking in Biogradska Gora
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Spring wildflowers were in abundance in Biogradska

 

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. 

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Rob poses for a photo with Mount Komovi in the background

   

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Rob riding towards Mount Komovi
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Finally, time for some fun downhill!

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.

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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.

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Hiking in Prokletje National Park
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Someone’s excited to get to the top (or perhaps just excited for lunch?)

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.

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Elaine, Brit and Joy in Prokletje National Park

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.

 

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Homemade rakja – Zivjeli!

Followed shortly by soup, cheese, homemade bread, roast chicken, crispy roast potatoes and grilled peppers.

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Gordana and one of her feasts at Cakor Katun

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.

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Enjoying morning coffee at Cakor Katun before the start of our favorite ride to Mokri Do 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.

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Choose your breakfast drink at Mokri Do Katun – Coffee or Rakja?

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.

  

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Where are we Rob?
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Oh of course, Vukova Stanina – I can’t say it, but this is where we are!

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.

 

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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.

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New friends at Mokri Do Katun

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.

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Amazing hospitality from Jugoslav and family – Note the Canada shirt!

After leaving the Katun road area we made our way back to Berrane and Bijelo Polje ending our journey 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 perspective and 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.

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Morning Fog fills valley below Cakor Katun

 

 

The Little Street Dog that Could

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?”

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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.   

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?