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

 

 

Try the Goat

As I watch the sun set over the Caribbean it seems remarkable that 6 weeks have passed since our arrival on the beautiful island of Carriacou. In just 5 days, we we start on a long journey to Eastern Europe with the end goal being some family time and to visit our daughter who is a student at the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia. For the next month we will not be doing any veterinary volunteer projects and just enjoying some travel time and family time. While we will enjoy just being vagabonds and on our own schedule for the next 8 weeks, volunteering as veterinarians has been an amazing experience. It has given purpose to our travels and improved our surgical skills, adaptability and resourcefulness as veterinarians. These are benefits I had expected when I started down this road of international volunteerism, but there is one benefit that I had not fully anticipated. Volunteering abroad has provided us with an instant community of interesting, passionate and dedicated people from around the world, with whom we have formed lasting and meaningful friendships. To all you exceptional humans, whose we’ve met over the past 16 months, thank you. Getting to know you, sharing our stories, sharing a meal and occasionally sharing too many rum punches has made the last year a truly amazing journey. It has gotten me thinking about what makes for an exceptional veterinary volunteer experience and also what makes an exceptional volunteer.

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In the last year and a half we have worked with a large number of volunteers. People from around the world, with different backgrounds, nationalities, ages and experience levels.  Compassion and a love of animals is the common ground that unites us and brings this diverse group of people together on a project. While I can only truly speak to my own experience, I feel some volunteers return home transformed and empowered while for others the experience is less fulfilling. Like so many things in life, the benefits you receive are directly related to the effort you are willing to put in. So once you have decided to dip your toes in the world of veterinary volunteerism (or really any type of volunteer work), how can you ensure you will have the best experience possible?

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When you pack your bags, don’t forget to pack a great attitude. If you walk around with a storm cloud over your head at your practice back home, leave the attitude there please.  This is a working holiday, after all, so leave your worries at home and consider it an opportunity to make a fresh start.

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Be ready to work hard and pitch in wherever you are needed. This means forget about your job description at home and be willing to clean kennels, wash instruments, answer phones and sweep floors, even if you are a vet!  Really?  Yes, really.

Shut your mouth and open your mind. Forget about how you do things “back home”, listen to the project directors, follow the protocols and accept that things are done differently for good reason. Costs and availability of medications varies greatly from country to country and project to project. Stop and consider the Project leaders and directors. These people have often put in countless hours of their own time not to mention countless dollars from their own pockets, in order to get the veterinary project launched. They have a very personal stake in the project. When you show up and immediately start complaining about the type of suture available, the anesthetic protocols the expired drugs on their hospital shelves you have just successfully alienated the very people that gave you this opportunity. Good work!

If you have a big ego, please stay home. Seriously, there are enough big egos and competitive attitudes in our veterinary practices at home, let’s not bring them along on volunteer trips. Egos are the enemy of teamwork. A big egos does not endear you to your coworkers, and most importantly it gets in the way of reaching the project goals.

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Talk with the local people not at them. Engage and interact with the community you are working in and try to leave your preconceived ideas of a country or culture at home. This can be harder to do than you may think. We are all programmed to believe our way of thinking is correct and to want to change a local populations way of thinking to more closely match your own.

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Remember your manners. Be respectful of local people, the charity organizers and the other volunteers. Say good morning, smile and don’t forget to say thank you. Nothing will give you a bad reputation, as a volunteer, faster than rudeness and an ungrateful attitude. Have fun but remember you are working in a small community of people, both the volunteer community and the local community.  Your behaviour can impact not only you but can also affect the reputation of the project. Remember you are an ambassador for more than just yourself.

Finally, remember to bring a sense of adventure, have fun and be willing to trying something new. Never eaten goat? Now is your chance. Always wanted to snorkel with sharks? Say yes to that unexpected invitation. Things rarely go as planned on volunteer trips, electricity goes out, patients wake up in the middle of surgery and you may find yourself forced to improvise and try things you would never consider in your practice at home.  Just go with it, stay cool and don’t sweat the small stuff. Odds are you will be amazed that, in the end, it all turns out okay. 

 

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Since selling our veterinary practice in November, we have discovered a new world of opportunities and experiences as veterinarians. A huge thank you to everyone who has made these past 8 months so remarkable: Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project, Carriacou Animal Hospital and all the people we have met along the way. You accepted us without hesitation, made us feel welcome and gave us the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Thanks to you, we now have friends around the world and networks to new adventures in the years to come.  Following our travels in the Balkans we will be returning to Canada for 4 months to work as locum veterinarians. Our journey as volunteer veterinarians, however, has just began as we have several new projects, as well as a return to some of our favorites, lined up for the end of 2018 and 2019.

Stay tuned and until then remember to try the goat!

Where the heck is Carriacou?

Since March 26, Rob and I have been hanging out on a chill little island in the Caribbean. In exchange for a free bed, we are offering up our veterinary skills to the Carriacou Animal Hospital, the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou. Let me tell you this gig is one sweet deal! While Rob and I live at the hospital and are available for walk in appointments and emergencies, the relaxed pace, instant social life and beautiful turquoise sea just a few steps away is ample reward for the work we provide.

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Kathy (director of Carriacou Animal Hospital) and Nadine (Head Veterinarian)

So where the heck is Carriacou? Located in the South eastern Caribbean Sea and one of the Grenadine islands, Carriacou is a two hour ferry ride north east of Grenada. 

The population of the island is listed as 8000 but locals suggest this may be inflated by seasonal visitors and a more realistic number may be 6000. In either case, at just 13 square miles, it’s a pretty small place and to our delight, has a very authentic Caribbean vibe. It is a place that seams stuck in time, with friendly locals, small shops and restaurants with glimpses of  beautiful white sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean Sea from every vantage point.

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Rough seas on the ferry from Grenada to Carriacou
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The ferry landing and our first glimpse of Hillsborough Carriacou

So what does a typical day at Carriacou Animal Hospital look like?  Most days we awaken early to the frenzied sound of the hospital’s yard dogs barking at the passing garbage truck. We lounge under our mosquito net and listen to the ocean waves as we plan our morning.  Coffee is the first priority, then while one of us attends to the animals in our care, the other begins emptying garbages, sweeping and cleaning the cabin before our clients and patients arrive. We clean kennels, wash wounds, give medications and make sure all our charges have had some exercise and some love before we head to the beach to relax for a bit with toes buried in the soft sand and our morning coffee in hand.

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The hospital officially opens at 8:30 am, but clients trickle in at any time of day, often as they are passing by and remember they need advice or medication. In Carriacou, appointments and surgeries are rarely planned very far in advance. After all, this is the Caribbean, relax man and go with the flow! The amazing and upbeat Lorraine, arrives at 8:30 and starts to organize our day. She manages to juggle phone calls, client requests, finding lost files and confused volunteers with a laugh and smile. Clients are called a day ahead to schedule elective surgeries but our days rarely go as planned. Carriacou is a small place and it is often while out in the community that the founder of Carriacou Animal Hospital, Kathy or Nadine, the head veterinarian, will be met by local people asking “Are you the vets? I have a dog that needs to be cut.” The local term for sterilization, either a spay or neuter surgery, is to have your dog “cut”.  They will take a name, phone number and try to find out where the dog lives and then set up a time for surgery, usually as soon as possible.

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Our patients arrive in all sorts of “carriers”.  This little guy had a small eyelid injury from a dog bite. He healed up and did great.

 

Some days our surgeries arrive at the hospital between 8:30 and 9:00 am and we get an early start, but often the clinic team needs to travel and pick up our patients at home. Many locals rely on public transportation and cannot take animals on the bus. After following the winding roads up hillsides and into small communities, we now have to catching our patients. While most dogs are friendly, they have not all been socialized to strangers and this can take a good part of our morning. We sedate them onsite and arrive back at the clinic ready to start surgery. 

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Rob preforms a cat spay

During most of our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital we did not have a veterinary technician/nurse, but instead had 3 veterinarians, myself, Rob and Dr. Nadine. One of us would assist the “surgeon” for the day while the other would see appointments that dropped in, wash surgical instruments and attend to laundry.  As patients recover through the afternoon we write up charts and finish with instrument sterilization and cleaning. Sometimes there are emergency calls about animals which had been “bumped”, the local term for being hit by a vehicle and sadly, a common occurrence on the island. Other days we see walk in appointments or attend to scheduled house calls to check on patients or treat animals whose owners have no transportation.

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Children showing us their puppy while checking on another dog with heartworm that lives with this family.

 

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Puppies – Our favorite house call patients!

By mid to late afternoon our patients are awake and ready to be delivered home, to their thankful owners. Now its time to relax and cool off in the turquoise sea, that is literally steps away, while we watch the most spectacular sunsets.

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Similar to veterinary hospitals around the world, everyday brings something new through the doors of Carriacou Animal Hospital. For me, this variety, is one of the things I love most about my chosen profession; life as a vet is never dull and there is always something new to learn! Our patients are usually covered in fleas and ticks and heartworm infection is extremely common here. 

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This client brought his dog in for a check up and tick treatment. Check out the ticks in his ears in the photo below.
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Wow, he will feel so much better after his treatment!

Educating clients about preventative treatments and their importance is a routine part of every client visit. Tick Fever is extremely common on Carriacou and can present with a variety of symptoms. Interestingly enough, we have found the amount of bleeding during surgery seems to be less severe than with our erhlicia infested patients in Botswana. Nutritional advice is also much needed on the island. Locals commonly feed puppies bread and milk. Dog food, while available, is expensive and not commonly used.  Part of our job is educating people about the importance of nutrition and protein in a puppies diet.  Sometimes the smallest changes and advice can have a huge impact on the health of the local dog population.

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These three puppies were all from the same litter but the small one lives with a different family member and has only been fed bread and milk. Note the difference in size and health.

Injuries, accidental and deliberate are also common in the local dog population. Burns, gunshot wounds and fractures (sometimes secondary to malnutrition and often the result of trauma) are just a few of the cases we have treated.

The local dog population is a mix of breeds with the average size adult dog weighing between 10 to 20 kg. Mixed breed Pit Bulls are popular with the islands young men and occasionally we see pups that look like they have some type of herding breed in there background.

Being the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou, we also get calls to treat the occasional sheep or goat. One sheep arrived for emergency wound care after being attacked by the neighbours pit bull. Another little orphaned lamb came in to treat an abscessed hoof. In general, however, livestock concerns are referred to the local agriculture veterinary department.

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Rob reliving his days as a mixed animal vet!

While the hospital was started to provide veterinary care to the local population and their pets, as a way to give back and provide a desperately needed service, Carriacou Animal Hospital also provides care to the local expat population.  Export permits are commonly needed as well as routine preventative care for pets that are lucky enough to spend part of the year in the Caribbean with their owners.

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Sancho arrives at the hospital via the sea
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Sancho gets a checkup from Rob

Founded in 2012, Carriacou Animal Hospital is an independent non-profit veterinary hospital. The hospital does not receive public funding and is staffed entirely by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians/nurses. Volunteers often fundraise at home, prior to their trip to Carriacou, bringing with them much needed medications and supplies. Minimal fees are charged in order to cover the cost of delivering this much needed service. However, the hospital’s main goal is to provide care for the animals in most need, often those whose owners cannot afford treatment.  Clients are NEVER turned away due to lack of financial resources and patients are treated, without question or judgement, with the goal of alleviating distress and suffering and providing the necessary care for each individual patient. Check out their website at www.carriacouanimalclinic.com to learn more or donate to this wonderful project. You can also follow Carriacou Animal Hospital on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CarriacouAnimalHospital.

While it is easy to tell you about our work days, the patients we see and the fun activities we have experienced in Carriacou, it is harder to put into words the cultural experience of volunteering as a veterinarian on this small island. Carriacou is not what I  pictured when envisioning the Caribbean. It has a small town feel, it is not yet a “hot” tourist destination and on most beaches you will them completely to yourself. There are no all inclusive resorts and the restaurants, for the most part, are small and locally owned.

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The “road” we cycled along to a small beach with great snorkeling.  

 

While the local people are friendly and welcoming, there is no doubt that you are an outsider. I find it interesting that there are several unique “communities” that coexist in Carriacou and between these “communities” there is a wide range of values and of course wealth. After spending the day doing house visits to families living in abject poverty we would often return to the hospital and see super yachts anchored just off shore. I am talking yachts that are towing at least one speed boat as well as 3 jet skis and rent for $800 000 USD per week! The yachting community and other expats who spend part of their year living in the Caribbean, while not all are of the uber-wealthy super yacht set, are definitely part of the “haves” of the world (as are we). There are also the local Carriacou families who were born here but moved away as children or young adults, often to Britain, to be called back to the simple way of life and family values that tied them to the islands. Finally there are the locals who have grown up on the island and never left. They may be fisherman, tradesmen, running a small business and raising their families here on the island, proud of their home and heritage.  For the most part, all co-exist peacefully on this beautiful island, but the disparity in wealth is ever present and more obvious given the small size of Carriacou.

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The Coral Ocean Super Yacht which was anchored just off shore

 

 

Since hitting the road in November, I have tried to be an observer and record what I see, letting the experience of being in the moment and using the skills I have acquired, guide me. I am sure as time passes and I process these experiences I will find a more articulate way to express what I have learned. Right now, I feel extreme gratitude for all the blessings I have in my life, my health, my family and most of all, the one over which I really had no control; my good fortune in the genetic lottery of life.  How very luck to be born into a middle class family in Canada with the intelligence, drive and opportunity at my disposal. Seeing families living in poverty unlike what many of us can imagine, drives this gratitude home. How to help those less fortunate, whether at home or abroad, living in the cycle of poverty and despair, is so complicated it leaves me feeling quite helpless. Over the last 6 months, the problem of the worlds overconsumption as become more real to me. The amount of garbage and waste we find in the country side and the ocean, coupled with over packaging and lack of recycling is disheartening to say the least. Living out of a backpack, makes it easier to reduce consumption and consumerism but the real test will be finding ways to continue this positive change upon our return home. This journey has made me more mindful of my own consumption as well as questioning my western values and lifestyle.

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Garbage littering a green space in Havana Cuba

 

In 10 days we will leave Carriacou and start a new journey in a new part of the world. We will take with us two new friendships and the knowledge that we will be back again to work with this amazing charily in November.Stay tuned for more adventures and more ramblings from a mind unleashed in the weeks to come. And yes, I will be feeling very guilty about my carbon footprint when I get on that plane.  

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Local dogs playing in the ocean

The Good, the Bad and the Truly Awful: Our last weeks in Cuba

Time for an update from Vets without Boundaries, aka Rob and Elaine. We arrived in Grenada to start our next volunteer project with Carriacou Animal Hospital on March 25, 2018. You may be wondering, where the heck is Carriacou and I am still deciding if I want to tell the world about this sweet little spot. It’s kind of like our home in Rossland, BC where our community needs the tourists and jobs but we really don’t want to see things change too much and destroy what makes it so special. Before I tell you more about Carriacou, I need to backtrack and fill you in on what has happened since my last blog.

After volunteering with the Spanky Project in Havana we headed off on our bicycles to see more of Cuba. Our first day back on the road took us approximately 80 km to Los Terrazas, a small community located in the Sierra del Rosario Mountains. After making a wrong turn on the way out of Havana, we eventually got ourselves “un-lost” and then made good time along the Autopista heading West. After traveling this road 5 years ago we were quite surprised by the increased amount of traffic and were happy to turn off the highway towards Los Terrazas. The final 7 km was a mountainous uphill push, but we were rewarded with a beautiful setting for our first night outside of Havana.

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Los Terrazas

The village was designated as a Biosphere Nature Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 and the 5000 hectare nature reserve was replanted using terraces to prevent erosion after deforestation. With a population of approximately 1000 residents, it caters primarily to tourists. There was was a large eco hotel but no licensed casa particulares, at least none that we could find.  After a long, hot day we ended up splurging on the hotel as the thought of another 25 km, uphill to Soroa, was not going to happen for this old lady! The following day we packed our panniers and decided to check out the San Juan Pools, a 6 km detour out of town.  We are so glad we did as it was a beautiful little spot with hiking paths along the river and numerous fresh water swimming holes. 

We discovered little camping cabins, basic but clean, beside the pools, for a reasonable $25 CUC per night. It was such a lovely spot, we wished we had discovered it the night before and avoided the expensive “eco” hotel! After a swim and some relaxation, we decided to delay our departure and stay overnight.

The next morning we enjoyed the second worst breakfast in Cuba (the winner for worst breakfast was the dry ham bun at La Mula Campismo) and headed west towards Soroa. The ride was beautiful with pavement in excellent condition, little traffic and lots of hills to keep things interesting.  The last uphill stretch prior to the Soroa junction was long and relentless.  After walking up the last half km, I was cranky and my attitude was likely not improved but the minimal breakfast provided at the San Jan Pools restaurant. It was obvious Rob wanted to press on towards Vinales and I grumpily agreed! In the end, I was glad we did, as the road was in great condition, the breeze kept me from overheating and the scenery was spectacular. 

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Farmers selling fruit on the route to Vinales – delicious!

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We were a little unsure about the availability of casas along this northern route and watched for a good option as we road through small farming and fishing communities.  We did end up finding a great casa, a warm welcome and delicious food at Villa Jose Otano.

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Elaine “dog tired” and taking a break on arrival at our casa

The next day we pressed on to Vinales, to find the sleepy country village of 5 years ago, completely transformed. Vinales is definitely on the tourist radar these days and the once quiet main street was lined with restaurants, shops and the sidewalks crowded with tourists.  We ended up riding out to a cheesy cave tour the next day and decided to leave early in search of a more authentic Cuban experience. The Viazul bus to Jaguey Grande was full so we were directed to a fellow booking a mini bus for the next morning.  After leaving a $20 CUC deposit advised that we needed to be at the bus station at 8 am. I was assured the mini bus would be a direct route to Cienfuegos and we would be dropped off on the highway at Jaguey Grande with no stops along the way. The next morning we arrived early and were again reminded that in Cuba, it is best to leave your assumptions and expectations at home. When someone says “mini bus” I picture a small, bus or van shaped motor vehicle. I joked with Rob as each old “van like” vehicle passed by us by saying, “there goes our mini bus”. But I was not far off when an old run down car with a large roof rack backed up to us (we had been advised to stand at the top a street which had a slight incline) and started loading our panniers and threw the bikes on top of the load. The driver managed to find some rope, really it was more of a string, to tie on the bikes and then motioned for me to get inside and for Rob to push!  With a bump he popped the car into gear and the engine started. Rob quickly hopped in as we rolled down the hill and off to pick up several more tourists headed the same direction. We noticed at each stop, the driver was careful to either leave the engine running or park on an incline in order to bump start his car again!

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Mini bus number 1

About 2 hours into our journey we arrived at a junction along the highway. Turning in and stopping, the driver motioned for us to get out, removed our bikes and told us to wait there for another car. 90 minutes later another car arrived, reloaded our gear and delivered us to our destination; the side of the highway, outside Jaguey Grande and about 30 km from Playa Larga. 

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Mini bus number 2

If you are looking for a beautiful beach, few tourists and great snorkelling, head to Playa Larga. At the top of the Bahia de Cochinos or Bay of Pigs and just over 30 km from Playa Giron it is an important site in Cuban history. On April 16, 1961 cuban exiles, financed and directed by the US Government assembled in Guatemala and Nicaragua then set out by boat to Cuba, in an attempt to overthrown Fidel’s revolutionary government.  They landed at Playa Giron, on the Bay of Pigs and were defeated by Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces, within 3 days, under the direct command of Fidel Castro. Now the Bay of Pigs is a quiet area, catering to tourists who come for the amazing diving or just to relax. 

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Snorkel spot along the Bay of Pigs
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Who says Cuban food isn’t good? Our picnic lunch from a street cart $2

We found a small, family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

We found a small family run casa right on the beach and spent the next 3 days, swimming, biking to excellent snorkel locations (which we had completely to ourselves most days) and enjoying great sunsets each evening.

After leaving Playa Larga we spent one night in Playa Giron and then got an early start for the long ride to Cienfuegos. We were up at 6 am and started packing our bikes in the dark.  Expecting the usual sunrise at 6:30 am, we finally figured out daylight savings time was in effect when the sun was not coming up! We decided to leave in the dark, using our headlamps in order to beat the tropical heat. Rob stepped off our deck in the dark and sprained his ankle very badly. After hearing it “crunch”, we delayed long enough to decide it wasn’t broken and Rob decided he could still ride to Cienfuegos. It was a beautiful morning ride, watching the sun come up along an empty road with no traffic. As the day progressed the heat wore us down and on arrival at the outskirts of Cienfuegos, I stopped to wait for Rob and look at our map. My exhaustion was apparent, when in slow, cartoon motion, I tipped over and fell onto the street! Coming up behind me, Rob saw the whole thing and after I stood up, unharmed, we had a good laugh and he admitted to feeling equally exhausted. We headed for the main plaza to find shade and a cold drink. As we rolled our bikes off the street we heard someone call out, “Hey Canadians, bicycles over here”.  We were thrilled to find Frankie and Nick two cyclists from Germany that we visited with while snorkeling outside Playa Larga. They introduced us to Pierre, a cyclist from Quebec, and then directed us to a good casa nearby.  We agreed to meet again that evening and enjoy dinner together.  We had a wonderful evening, sharing stories from the road and getting to know each other. It is always amazing how quickly you make friends and bond with complete strangers when traveling! The following day we said goodbye as they were leaving for Trinidad and we planned to spend 3 nights in Cienfuegos.

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Cienfuegos is a great city, with few tourists, a lovely plaza, great music and friendly locals. There were far fewer jinteros trying to take advantage of us, as compared to places like Vinales, and food, beer and accommodations were reasonably priced. We spent our first day finding a tensor bandage for Rob’s ankle (now officially a “canckle” and triple its normal size), finding internet to FaceTime the kids and eating ice cream. 

The next day, Rob felt his ankle was up for a 20 km ride to Rancho Luna and a quiet day at the beach. We decided to return via the local ferry and enjoyed seeing Cienfuegos from the water. 

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The beach at Rancho Luna and a ghost crab

In 2005, UNESCO placed the urban historic centre of Cienfuegos on the World Heritage list. With six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the historic centres sewer system is not up to 21st century expectations. The only downside to our time in this old colonial city was the smell.  Our casa was situated right on the bay and throughout our stay, the sewer gas and septic smells would occasionally waft in. On our second night, a huge rainstorm blew in, filling the storm sewers to capacity and resulting in the most putrid odor.  I really try not to be a “princess” when I travel but it was BAD.  Nauseatingly bad.  Rub tea tree oil soap inside your nose bad. I guess the take home lesson is be grateful we only had one night of rain and remember if you want to travel cheap, there are going to be some uncomfortable experiences!

Following Cienfuegos, we headed back to Havana to meet friends who were coming to Cuba for Spring break.  A trip organized in anticipation of Jackie O’Reilly’s 50th birthday but also coinciding with Mike Kent’s 48th year of being on this earth. Double the fun!  What can I say about the last 2 weeks in Havana Vieja and Varadero. Perhaps it would be better to describe our experience in a series of verbs:  clubbing, laughing, swimming, vomiting, diarrhea-ing, walking (looking for good restaurants), starving (for the vegetarians in the group) and stealing.  I will elaborate as you’re probably wondering what happened BUT I do not want to focus on the negatives, as re-connecting with our Rossland family was really special after being on the road so much this year. We had a blast on Jackie’s birthday and after dinner out and enjoying some local music we ended up at a disco until the wee hours. 

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Reconnecting with some of our “Rossland Family”

The next morning 3 members of the crew were hit with a severe case of travellers gut.  No this was not from all the rum we consumed (although in Mike’s case I am not sure) as one of the ill members of our party was underage and not drinking.  This “bug” ended up taking out 3 more members of the team (myself included) before the week was out. We were passing out our supply of azithromycin like it was candy! Thanks Dr. Andrea for making sure our first aid kit was so well stocked! We enjoyed the beach at Varadero but not the food. After eating delicious meals throughout Cuba, I have to say Varadero SUCKS when it comes to finding tasty, affordable and delicious food.  I finally understand why people complain about the food in Cuba.  My response is simple: avoid Varadero. This is NOT representative of the rest of the country. Step out of the government run restaurants and be a little adventurous and you will be rewarded. We did have 3 amazing meals at Club Waco a small privately run restaurant near our casa, which is really the only restaurant worth mentioning. The icing on the cake for our Varadero experience was the theft of Rob’s bicycle 2 nights prior to our ride back to Havana. We were fortunate to find a room available, right next door to our friends casa, in a nice neighbourhood and close to the public beach. From the start it had a bit of a weird vibe, compared to the many Cuban homes we had stayed in around the country and we dubbed it Casa Peculiar. The yard was fenced and they assured us the bikes were “secure”, as they had a security camera and locked the gates at night.  However, one night someone climbed over the back wall and was caught on camera stealing Rob’s bike.  True, we should have locked it up and we regret that decision. However I still say it is better to be occasionally taken advantage of than to be eternally suspicious. Initially we had thought we might leave our bikes in Cuba, but we had hoped to choose the person we would give them to. We returned our bike gear to Canada with our friends and will continue our journey with our backpacks only. On the plus side, we got to enjoy an extra 3 days with our good friends from Rossland.

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Beautiful public beach at Varadero

So final thoughts on Cuba?  I still love this country, its history, resiliency and the genuine, fun loving and kind people who are the real reason you should visit Cuba. However, in areas touched by tourism (Havana, Vinales, Varadero, Trinidad) things have changed when compared to our visit 5 years ago. Perhaps change is inevitable, but if you are thinking of going to Cuba, do it soon. Avoid the “tourist trail” and head to the East, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Manzanillo. If you are looking for a beach vacation visit the Bay of Pigs and Playa Largo. Eat at your casa or a family run paladar. Sit in the park and talk to people when you have the chance. It is the people of Cuba that make it so special. Have an open mind, open heart and a big smile and chances are you will learn something new or make a new friend.  And as for my friends in Cuba, may you find visionary leaders and new heroes of the people, with the ability to help you navigate the changes ahead. Finding ways for your country to prosper, while still retaining the values that make Cuba and its people so special.

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Saying goodbye to Cuba: waiting for our taxi to the airport outside our casa in Havana