Nursing North of 60º

Taloyoak, Nunavut - July 2012
Sea Ice breaks up in early July in the Arctic, but makes its return in mid-August.

From the air, the vast expanse of the Arctic Ocean is turquoise, and looks deceivingly tropical and inviting.  It’s not until the plane nears its approach to the gravel airstrip in Taloyoak, Nunavut that I realize the turquoise is a reflection of pack ice in the 24-hour sun.

~ ~ ~

It’s early July, and I am setting off on my next great adventure: Nursing in Canada’s High Arctic.  I land in an eerie, moon-like landscape, where the tallest shrubs and bushes are only a few inches off the ground.  Rocks and boulders scatter across the landscape as far as the eye can see, and I spot patches of bright purple and yellow wildflowers blowing in the stiff wind.

Having worked on isolated reserves in Northern Ontario for many years, I was prepared for the challenge of working independently, making treatment decisions using government issued guidelines, and coming up with creative solutions to problems which anywhere else would not be as big an issue.  What I wasn’t prepared for were the ravenous mosquitos.

Summer in Nunavut lasts only two to three short weeks, and at 4am, when the sun is as high in the sky as it would be at midday, there are kids playing baseball at the diamond outside my bedroom window. The clinic, generally staffed by four registered nurses, sees about 20 to 30 patients a day, ranging from prenatal patients, to elders. Nurses rotate emergency on-call shifts, in order to provide 24-hour access to care. Most patients come in for common primary care complaints:  UTI, Ear Infections, coughs and colds, etc.  Kids get their vaccinations at the clinic, expectant mothers have their bi-weekly prenatal visits with the nurse, and elders have their chronic disease follow up.  There is a portable x-ray machine in each clinic, and the nurses local support staff are trained to take x-rays, which are then sent to Yellowknife to be read. Once every 3-4 months, an ultrasound technician visits with a portable ultrasound machine, providing accessible diagnostic imaging for patients in their home community.

The physician visits the community for one week each month, but is otherwise accessible for consultation by telephone. The nurses are the eyes, ears and hands providing all the care in the community.  The Community Health Representative – a local worker trained in the technology, manages Telehealth conferences.  These videoconferences allow patients to remain in their own community while being assessed by specialists as far afield as Yellowknife, Edmonton and Toronto.

In the perpetual daylight hours of the arctic summer, its not unusual to be woken by the sound of a baseball game at 4am. 24 hours of daylight makes for a lot of activity at all hours.

Working in such an isolated setting is not without its challenges. I received a phone call from the nurse who was first on call early one Friday evening. “I’m in the clinic, and have a baby seizing. Can you come help?”

It was just after the regular clinic day ended, and the other nurse had taken the vehicle to the grocery store, so I grabbed my coat and ran out the door.  I flagged down the first 4-wheel ATV that passed by. “There is an emergency at the clinic!! Can you please give me a ride?”  The driver didn’t speak much English, but he understood enough, and drove as quickly as he could.

Running into the trauma room, I see the 6-month-old baby girl seizing, and my colleague was applying oxygen with the ambu-bag.  I got the physician on speakerphone, then quickly got some lorazepam out of the fridge, and attempted to start an IV in her tiny wrist.  After two attempts, I still had no success; the third went in and went interstitial. We had no choice but to attempt an intraosseous.  With many drugs on board, the little one finally stopped seizing, and we were able to arrange a medevac by plane to Edmonton, though the plane wouldn’t arrive for another 4 or 5 hours. About half an hour later, we got another phone call that a teenager had fallen off a moving ATV, and likely broke his arm.  After a quick assessment, some pain meds and an x-ray, a compound radial-ulnar fracture was confirmed, and we arranged for a medevac to Yellowknife – the second that evening.  All in a northern nurses’ day’s work!

Nursing in Canada’s north is not for the faint of heart.  You need to be confident in your assessment skills, and creative in your problem-solving abilities. In Nunavut nurses have a significant and positive impact on the community’s health and patient care every day.


Date a Girl Who Travels

Kindly borrowed from:

Sitting in front of Perito Moreno Glaciar, in El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina
Sitting in front of Perito Moreno Glaciar, in El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Date a girl who travels. Date a girl who would rather save up for out of town trips or day trips than buy new shoes or clothes. She may not look like a fashion plate, but behind that tanned and freckled face from all the days out in the sun, lies a mind that can take you places and an open heart that will take you for what you are, not for what you can be.

Date a girl who travels. You’ll recognize her by the backpack she always carries. She won’t be carrying a dainty handbag; where will she put her travel journal, her pens, and the LED flashlight that’s always attached to her bag’s zipper? In a small purse, how can she bring the small coil of travel string, the wet tissues, the box of cracker, and the bottle of water she’s always ready with, just in case something happens and she can’t go home yet? Yes, a girl who travels knows that anytime, anything can happen and she just has to be prepared with it. Nothing takes her by surprise; she takes everything with equanimity, knowing that such things are always a part of life. She’s reliable and dependable, traits that she’s learned while on the road.

You’ll also recognize a girl who travels by the fact that she’s always amazed at the world around her, no matter if she’s in her home town or in a place that’s totally new. She sees beauty all around her, not just the ones featured in travel guides or shown in postcards. A girl who travels has developed a deeper appreciation for life. She won’t judge you, or pressure you to do things you don’t want to do. She knows too much about the importance of identity and self-efficacy, and she will appreciate all the more if you won’t pretend to be who you’re not.
You can make mistakes with a girl who travels, and you can also be as idiosyncratic as you can be. Trust me, she has seen so much worse in her travels, and knows firsthand the vagaries of human nature.

Date a girl who travels, because when you’re with her, you’ll realize that even though she’s napped at a temple in Angkor Wat, went boating down the Mekong Delta, ran by the streets of Saigon, or went skinny-dipping in the caves in the Philippines, she still retains that humility that is the mark of a real traveler. She knows she’s been to a lot of places, but she’s humbled by the fact that the world is still a big place and she’s only seen a small part of it. Seeing this in her can make you feel all right with yourself too; there’s no need for you to do more, to be more. What you are is enough.

When you meet a girl who travels, ask her where she’s been and what she’s going to do next. She will appreciate your interest, and if you’re lucky, she may even invite you to join her. When she does, do. Nothing bonds people better than traveling. On your trips, you will both see each other’s best and worst characteristics, and you can then decide whether she’s worth fighting for.

It’s easy enough to date a girl who travels. She won’t want expensive gifts; you can buy her (or both of you) cheap tickets to Thailand for the weekend, and she’ll be more than happy to take you to the longest wooden bridge in the country. You don’t even have to go overseas; you can take her out on day trips, caving or hiking, or treat her to a full body massage.

You can also buy her the little things that she keeps forgetting to buy for herself; that carabiner that will attach her backpack to her seat so that she will feel easier about sleeping on her bus trip, or a backpack cover, a small alarm clock, a money belt, or maybe another sarong that will replace the one she lost in China.

She won’t mind if you get lost on your way to a date. She knows that oftentimes, the journey is more important than the destination. She will help you see the lighter side of things. She’ll walk along with you, not behind you, pointing out the interesting bits of things you’ll see on the way. Before long, you’ll realize that yes, the journey has been more memorable than the destination that you’ve planned to take her to.

Is a girl who travels worth it? Yes, she is. So when you find her, keep her. Don’t lose her with your insecurities and doubts. Because when she says she loves you, she really does. After all, she’s seen so many things, met so many people, and if she had chosen you, better grab that opportunity and thank the gods that you were lucky enough she’s chosen you and not that bloke she met while watching the sun rise in Angkor Wat, or while whitewater rafting in the Padas Gorge in Sabah.

If she says she loves you, she must have seen something in you, something that can always call her back from her travels, something that can anchor her to the world in the way that she wants to after weeks and months of being on the road.

Date a girl who travels. Make her feel safe, warm, and secure. Make her believe that no matter where she goes, and however long she’s gone, you’ll always be there for her, the one that she can call home.

Find a girl who travels. Date her, love her, and marry her, and your world will never be the same again.

Inspired by Date a Girl Who Reads by Rosemarie Urquico

Hey Daddy, there’s a hippo in my bathtub…

The red dusty earth stained my sandalled feet, as I walked down the path from the umudugudu.  The term for village was one of a few words in the Kinyarwanda language that I managed to pick up in my four days here.  As I walked along the path, people would pass me in the other direction. “Miruwe,” I would say, “Miruwe!” they would reply back.

~   ~   ~

While the scars of the 1994 Rwandan genocide still run deep, the country has done a remarkable job of healing its wounds and is turning towards the future with a surprising measure of optimism.  Many Rwandans sought refuge in Congo, Uganda and Tanzania during the war, and now, 17 years later, the government has taken significant measures to eliminate clashing tribal identities, including eliminating the mandatory ethnic identity card (identifying Tutsis from Hutus), and has successfully rallied the country under the unified Rwandan banner. In the hopes of stimulating its developing economy through ecotourism, the country is now also protecting its most vital natural resource – the mountain gorilla.

Anne and I arrived in Rwinkwavu on Monday morning, after deciding to stay in Kigali the night before.  We were exhausted after our gorilla trek earlier on Sunday and decided instead to have a nice leisurely dinner in Kigali and a good sleep, then drive the remaining 2 hours southeast from Kigali the next morning to the place where she works.

After stocking up on groceries, and a few other bits and pieces, we were on our way to Rwinkwavu.  We drove on a newly paved motorway for most of the distance, passing villages and farms along the way.  The rolling hills gave way to pastures for cattle and goats to graze. Every kilometre or so, a little yellow box appeared at the side of the road, stamped with “Fibre Optic Cable”.  As part of the investment in the national infrastructure, the Rwandan government has laid fibre optic cable around the entire country, but has yet to ‘flip the switch’.

As we got to Kabarondo, we turned off the main road onto a dirt side road the colour of paprika, following the signs for "Rwinkwavu Hospital" and "Akagera Game Reserve, 10km".

As we got to Kabarondo, we turned off the main road onto a dirt side road, following the signs for “Rwinkwavu Hospital” and “Akagera Game Reserve, 10km” which were on the corner.  I would be visiting the game reserve and national park later in the afternoon.  As we drove down the bumpy dirt road the colour of paprika, children would emerge in their blue school uniforms walking home from school, and others would be working the hand-pump well to fetch water for their families.  Just like we experienced in the north, the kids were super excited to see us, and would jump and up and down when we waved back at them.

As we drove down the bumpy dirt road the colour of paprika, children would emerge in their blue school uniforms walking home from school, and others would be working the hand-pump well to fetch water for their families.

We arrived in Rwinkwavu, a sprawling village where PIH has its project. (CLICK HERE to read more about the project, and CLICK HERE to read an inspiring story resulting from the intervention) The Rwinkwavu hospital, training centre and library are only part of the ongoing development to support and promote health in this poor rural district of around 150,000 people.   Rwanda has one of the lowest incidences of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and due to its altitude also has a relatively low rate of malaria.  As we turned off the dirt road onto a path heading up a hill, Anne pointed out Amahoro House – a centre where ex-pat and some local staff are housed and we could get meals.  As I write this, I am sitting on the front porch of Amahoro house, which is perched mid-way up a hill, overlooking a sprawling savannah.

We drove into the little village to Anne's home - known as 'Gatoto's House'. Anne shares the little yellow stone and concrete house with three housemates.

We drove into the little village to Anne’s home – known as ‘Gatoto’s House’.  Anne shares the little yellow stone and concrete house with three housemates:  Catherine and Celia, both American from Boston, and Sally from the UK.  The house is in the middle of the ‘umudugudu’ – or village, about a 10 minute walk from the training centre.  It was nice to be integrated into a neighbourhood.  The four-room house has a detached annex with two more bedrooms, and a detached kitchen, bathing room and latrine in the backyard.  Unlike many of the neighbours, Gatoto’s house has a refrigerator and gas stove.  There is also running water, which is collected from the roof during rainstorms, and fed into a raised water tower at the side of the house.  The backyard has a little fire pit, which we made use of on Tuesday night.

The four-room house has a detached annex with two more bedrooms, and a detached kitchen, bathing room and latrine in the backyard. Unlike many of the neighbours, Gatoto's house has a refrigerator and gas stove. There is also running water, which is collected from the roof during rainstorms, and fed into a raised water tower at the side of the house.

Electricity in the house is typically African (i.e. reliably unreliable), and it’s not unusual for just two or three of the rooms to have power, and the rest of the house to be out… or just the kitchen, or just the annex…  or often none at all… no two days are the same, it’s always an adventure!   The girls have made their home very much their own, by having curtains and pillows sewn by a local seamstress, planting flowers and grass in the front, and herbs and tomatoes in the back. Catherine has cleared a small plot of land behind the yard, and plans to plant lettuce, arugula, and other vegetables.  A hammock is tied between the tree in the back, and a rafter from the kitchen. Since we had a driver to bring us back to Rwink, Anne also decided to purchase a mirror in Kigali, and  it was placed in the back by the sink.

After bringing our bags into the house, and meeting the lovely 21-year old housekeeper, Jane,  Anne left for work, and I was off with the driver to Akagera Game Reserve.  Although the park is only 10km down the dirt road, it was about a one hour drive over a bumpy dirt road to get to the south gate.  Square mud-brick homes lined the sides of the road, and women were working in the fields, many with babies swaddled to their backs, turning the soil and pulling weeds.  The largest cash crop in Rwanda is bananas, and there are over 40 varieties that are cultivated here.  A newer-introduced crop which has also taken off in this area is pineapple, and as we drove towards the park, we saw groves and groves of pineapples growing up the terraced hills.

Akagera National Park covers 1,200km in eastern Rwanda, against the Tanzanian border. Much of the savannah area of the park was settled in the late 1990s by former refugees returning after the end of the Rwandan Civil War. Due to land shortages, in 1997 the western boundary was regazetted and much of the land allocated as farms to returning refugees. The southern boundary used to be in Rwinkwavu, and is now further north. The park was reduced in size from over 2,500km to its current size. Although much of the best savannah grazing land is now outside the park boundaries, what remains of Akagera is some of the most diverse and scenic landscape in Africa.

As we pulled into the launch area, two baboons hopped out of the grass at the side of the road, and sat in the middle of the road. One eyed us carefully, then turned back to the leaves he was eating.

I paid the admission to the park, and arranged for a boat safari on Lake Ihena, the eastern shore of which is on the Tanzanian border.  As we pulled into the launch area, two baboons hopped out of the grass at the side of the road, and sat in the middle of the road.  One eyed us carefully, then turned back to the leaves he was eating.  A large swarm of Marabou storks were being fed scraps of fish from fishermen that were pulling in their catch.  I boarded the boat, and pushed off shore.

Within two minutes, we had come upon our first group of hippopotamus, soaking just under the surface of the cool water with only their nostrils, eyes and ears poking out.

Within two minutes, we had come upon our first group of hippopotamus, soaking just under the surface of the cool water with only their nostrils, eyes and ears poking out.   A hippo’s skin is very sensitive to the sun, and so they stay cool by staying underwater or in mud during the hot daytime hours. To my surprize, I learned that the quiet, and seemingly shy hippopotamus, whose weight averages between 1.5 and 3 tonnes, is actually one of the most aggressive creatures in the world and is often regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.

As the boat crossed over to a small island in the middle of the lake, a number of birds appeared, including a black and white Pied Kingfisher, who watched us intently for a moment, then took off to fish.  We cruised along the shore, and came upon a mother crocodile, protecting her nest of around 60 eggs.  She was as still as a statue, but I could feel her eye on us at every moment.  We continued along the shore of the island, and discovered a group of trees full of Darters and their nests. These large awkward birds would fly away from the boat as we approached, land on another branch, and take off as we got close again.

We drove past a small herd of gazelles, including two males with the characteristic curly antlers.

After our return, we drove away from the boat launch, and saw more baboons eating leaves in trees, and walking along the side of the road.  We drove past a small herd of gazelles, including two males with the characteristic curly antlers. We returned to Rwinkwavu, through the rolling hills of terraced banana and pineapple plantations.

Anne was waiting for me when I got to the house, and we went to the training centre together to access the internet.  She showed me around the square building built around a central garden, with a koi pond (filled with tadpoles, but no koi) in the middle.  In one corner of the building was a large open-air porch with tables and chairs, overlooking the stunning vista over the valley.  This is where I spent most of the next few days, working on school work, and letting the beauty of the landscape sink in.

In one corner of the building was a large open-air porch with tables and chairs, overlooking the stunning vista over the valley. This is where I spent most of the next few days, working on school work, and letting the beauty of the landscape sink in.

~   ~   ~

About two weeks ago, the kitchen at Gatoto’s house was broken into.  After interrogating some of the local children, it came to be known that four – 11 year old boys had entered through the small window at the back, having stolen all the perishable food, and more importantly, the BBQ lighter which Anne had brought from the US to light the gas stove.  Anne and her housemate approached the boys’ fathers, who were completely mortified at the situation – they eventually returned the BBQ lighter (albeit nearly empty of fuel), and one of the fathers said that he couldn’t sleep for three days until it was found.  They came over to apologize, and during the conversation, Anne and her housemates invited the rest of the neighbours over to get to know them.  So a small get-together was planned for Tuesday evening.

A case of Fanta and a case of Beer were ordered, and was delivered on the back of a bicycle that evening.  As we were finishing our dinner, the neighbours started arriving.  We brought everyone into the back yard, and handed out the beer and Fanta (the beer being infinitely more popular than the Fanta). I started working on building a fire in the fire pit, and one of the men took over. He put some logs together, blew on the fire, but not much happened so he walked away. I went back to the fire pit to try and get it going and Loralie, one of the local ladies shooed me away.   She put some of the logs together, then asked for a machete. Hesitantly, we handed over our machete, and she proceeded to expertly make one of the logs into kindling.  The fire was a roaring inferno in no time.

With about 20 of the neighbours sitting on our back step, drinking beer and staring blankly at us, it was time for a speech.  Through an interpreter, Anne introduced herself to the group, and said that they were sorry they hadn’t had a chance to introduce themselves sooner, and that she was happy to be part of their neighbourhood.  They then introduced me, as Anne’s friend visiting for four days from Canada.  I said in my speech, “I want to thank you for including me in this get-together tonight, and that I am glad that my friends have such caring neighbours. Knowing that they are so far from home, and so far from their families, it makes me happy to know that they are welcome here.”.

With about 20 of the neighbours sitting on our back step, drinking beer and staring blankly at us, it was time for a speech.


One by one, the neighbours also spoke, welcoming them to the neighbourhood, and the village chief then stated that he would ensure the girls’ safety.  Funny enough, almost everyone that spoke also invited me to return to Rwinkwavu, and to stay!  One of the ladies then said that she was the neighbour directly across the street.  Anne asked whether she had children, to which she replied she had four.  Anne asked what their names are, and after the lady told her, Anne joked that she would have to write down the names, because she would never remember them.

Anne stated to the group, “We will have to come over to your house sometime, and you can teach us how to dance!” So some of the ladies, including Loralie then started clapping and singing, and the group started dancing.  All in all, it was a fun night, filled with song, dance, beer, and a just a hint of awkwardness.

So some of the ladies, including Loralie then started clapping and singing, and the group started dancing. All in all, it was a fun night, filled with song, dance, beer, and a just a hint of awkwardness.


At the end of the evening, when it came time for people to head home, everyone came and shook our hands. Loralie, who by that time had had three beers (and probably a few more before coming over) plunked herself down, and refused to leave.  When the village chief gently pressed her to leave, she didn’t want to.  The chief said to her (as we later learned through the interpretor), that he had assured us of our safety, and that Loralie’s behaviour was not reflecting that promise he made.  So she reluctantly left (though she was supported under both arms).  Just before the festivities finished, the neighbour from across the street came back, and handed Anne a little note with her children’s names written on it.

As my time in Rwanda draws to a close, I realize now that I had fallen in love with this country, and its people.  A country, who 17 years ago was realatively unknown to the greater world, then became the stop story on the nightly news through a series horrific events, has now emerged as a thriving and vibrant land, with poor but proud people who are working extremely hard to rebuild everything from its infrastructure to its mental health.  The government recently decided to make English an official language alongside French and Kinyarwanda, and most of the children who attend school are now learning English.

It will be interesting to watch what happens over the next 5 to 10 years.  The current president is overwhelmingly popular, and has done a lot of good for the country.  I hope to return someday soon, and take the neighbours up on their suggestion.

Gorillas in the Mist

The massive silverback gorilla kept his eye on our group.

The tension in the air was palpable, as the massive male silverback gorilla lumbered towards us. His low rumbling grunts expressed the fact that he was the leader of this family group, and he wanted to make sure we understood that.

~  ~  ~

The dense vegetation of the three national parks that straddle the borders of southern Uganda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaïre) and northern Rwanda is home to the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Of the two species of gorillas, Mountain gorillas are the most severely endangered, with an estimated population of just over 700 left in the wild and none in zoos. Their populations have suffered the wrath of poachers, and civil war, and now their environment is coming under threat from slash-and-burn clearing for farms.  Gorillas are the closest relatives to humans and chimpanzees. In fact, human genes differ only 1.6% on average from gorilla genes, meaning that we are 98.4% identical (just with a different hair-do). The name gorilla was derived from the Greek word “Γόριλλαι” (Gorillai), meaning a “tribe of hairy women” 🙂 .

We arrived at our friend’s house in Musenze on Saturday evening in the midst of a torrential downpour. At one point during our 2.5 hour drive from Kigali, we were forced to pull over, as the fog was so thick, we couldn’t tell where the side of the road was.  As we settled in with our new friend Stacey, we set our alarm for 5:00am. After getting outfitted in our trekking shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved nylon jacket, we were ready to go. We arrived at the Gorilla centre in the Parc National des Volcanes, and found that we were the first ones in the parking lot. Though sunrise was imminent, the clouds in the sky looked ominous, and we wondered whether we might be in for some more rain. Our driver heard on the news that the torrential downpours the night before had caused a landslide nearby, and 5 people were killed.

We went into the registration centre, and submitted our trekking permit that Anne had arranged over a month ago. The Rwandan government strictly regulates the number of trekkers who can visit the gorillas.  Only 8 permits per day are made available for each of the 7 family groups available to visit, and so only 56 people per day can trek to see the gorillas and the visits are limited to one hour.  In our group, we had 6 Americans (including Anne), myself (the token Canadian), and our new friend Arno from the Netherlands.

Children run alongside the car, yelling "M'zungu! M'zungu!" ("foreigner! foreigner!")


We piled back into the 4×4, and made our way towards the park gate.  We turned quickly off the paved road onto a dirt road, which continued on for several kilometres.  From there, we turned onto a very bumpy “road” (for lack of a more accurate term), which took us to the trailhead.  As we were driving, we heard choruses of children yelling “M’zungu! M’zungu!” (“foreigner! foreigner!”), and waving at us.  When we waved back, we were always rewarded with enormous smiles, and sometimes even a little happy dance!  The kids were so incredibly excited to see us.

An enterprising young gentleman drew a picture of a gorilla in crayon, and wanted to sell it to us. "You give me one dollar?"


As we bumped and jostled our way up the road, some very enterprising young gentlemen, probably between 8 and 10 years old had drawn colourful pictures of gorillas in crayon and wanted to sell them to us  – very talented, and entreprenural work… “You give me one dollar?”

We arrived at the trailhead, and met the rest of our group. Our driver parked the car in the village at the base of the mountain, where people were going about their daily routine – women in colourful dresses with young infants swaddled to their backs were seen working the potato fields, carrying large bundles of firewood on their head, or washing clothes.


As we walked the rest of the way towards the base of the mountain, more children ran alongside us. “Hello! What is your name?” one little boy asked me. “My name is Valerie, what is your name?” He returned a broad smile. “My name is Prosper!”

At the base of the mountain (which started at an altitude of about 2000m [6500 ft]), we turned to look out over the spectacular clouded landscape of rolling hills, with terraced farms and small villages peaking out from between the clouds. Beyond that, the snow-capped peak of the Sabyinyo Volcano, where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo all meet, appeared briefly, before it sank back into the clouds.

Spectacular clouded landscape of rolling hills, with terraced farms and small villages peaking out from between the clouds. Beyond that, the snow-capped peak of the Sabyinyo Volcano, where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo all meet.

Armed with a walking stick, I climbed over the 4-foot stone fence separating the potato fields from the forested park, and crossed a log over a deep trench.  As I started the climb up the mountain, I quickly realized that the rains of last night would not make this an easy (or clean) trek. Within the first 5 minutes, I lost a foot-hold, and slid down the steep muddy slope a few feet.  Winded, but unharmed, I continued with some difficulty.

As the altitude increased, the next tumble landed me near an ant nest, and to my surprise, a few minutes later I discovered I literally had ants in my pants.  There is no modesty needed when quickly taking your pants off in the woods, to brush away stinging fire ants. You’d think I would have remembered to tuck my pants into my socks after the tarantula experience in Haiti last year! They got tucked in after that.

Along the way, my feet would be sucked in by the deep, thick mud, and I was surrounded on all sides by vines of stinging nettles, which penetrated my clothes and irritated my skin. Thankfully, Peter – one of the local porters who was accompanying the group, took me under his wing, and patiently held my hand nearly the entire way up. Unfortunately, Peter could only speak Kinyarwanda, no English or French, and so we had to resort to sign language to communicate.

I would have never believed that I would be so affected by altitude, however by the time we reached about 3000m (9800 ft), I felt even more winded, and the headache and nausea were nearly unbearable.  At one point, as I was resting on a fallen log, I firmly believed I would be forced to turn back.  My head was spinning, and I could barely climb 10 paces without needing to rest to let the nausea subside.  It was at that point that one of the park trackers came to join me and Peter. (I had told the group to go on ahead of me, as we stayed in touch by 2-way radio).

The tracker’s name was Innocent, and he spoke French.  He told me that the Gorillas were only 5o metres away to the west of where I was standing, but I would have to climb up and over a ridge, then down into a ravine, and up the other side.   At first I wasn’t sure whether I could do it, but then I heard the gorilla’s rumbling grunts nearby, and I found a new resolve to continue.

It was worth the effort.

As Innocent and I arrived to the group, I first laid eyes on a female gorilla with a fuzzy young baby in a tree about 6 feet away to my right.  She would take leaves off of branches, and eat them and the baby would mimic its mother. We slid under a fallen log, and I stood alongside the rest of my group.  Just below us, only about 10 feet away was the adult male silverback.  There was no mistaking him for the alpha of the group.  He had his back to us, as he was munching away on greens.  To my right, there was another gorilla in a nearby tree.

The low-pitched grunts, which sound like quiet throat-clearing, were used as communication between the trackers and gorillas, and between the gorillas themselves.  Another female gorilla appeared behind us, and perched herself on a ledge to watch our group.  In all, this family numbered about 9 adult gorillas and one baby.

Another female gorilla appeared behind us, and perched herself on a ledge to watch our group.

The mother gorilla came down from her perch in a tree, and started to make her way towards us.  I couldn’t see the baby, and wondered where he was.  Not long after, the mother stopped, looked back, grunted, and the little baby gorilla scampered onto her back for a ride down the hill.  The fuzzy little baby looked at us intently with his golden brown eyes, his fluffy fur looking nearly crimped. He swung down to his mother’s underside to nurse, and I recalled the guide telling us that baby gorillas nurse for about three years, before becoming independent, and thus, mother gorillas only have offspring about every three to four years, averaging around 6 babies in their lifetime.  The Silverback fathers of these babies also play a role in their upbringing, not only by being their fierce protector, but watching them while they play, and often times becoming the baby’s climbing apparatus themselves.

The mother and baby gorilla sat down about 4 feet away from where we were standing – I could practically reach out and touch them, and the other female gorilla, who had been watching us from her perch made her way down the hill to them.  The baby climbed into the other gorilla’s arms, and she proceeded to cuddle, rock and kiss the baby – so human-like!!!   A third gorilla joined the pair, and the baby snuggled into his auntie’s chest, with one eye on us.  It was hard to say goodbye to this lovely family, but our time on the mountain was up.

Not long after, the mother stopped, looked back, grunted, and the little baby gorilla scampered onto her back for a ride down the hill.

We made our way down the mountain through a path our trackers cut by machete, and the trip down took a fraction of the time the trip up did… although there was a lot more time spent sliding down on our backsides in the mud.

My experience with the gorillas is one I will never forget.  I feel privileged to have spent time with this critically endangered primate in its natural environment.  It is up to all of us to make sure it is protected.

For more information, visit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website at:



Satisfied after a long hike to the gorillas






Bag Lady

Having travelled extensively to many corners of our earth, I wasn’t sure what to expect on my arrival in Kigali.  I envisioned an experience similar to my arrival in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007, where the complete and utter chaos of the airport left weary western travellers bewildered, and panic stricken.  I expected to be bombarded with porters tugging at my bags, trying to drum up business, at car horns and rickshaw honking incessantly in the parking lot, and armed military guards trying to keep the throngs of gawkers at bay.

Kigali is nothing like that.

The KLM flight first stopped in Kigali, before continuing to Entebbe, Uganda, and so not quite half the plane disembarked here.  The line up at passport control was very short, and I was greeted by the officer with a warm smile, and “Bienvenue!” (never had that happen before).

Walking from the plane to the airport terminal, I saw a sign on the door stating that polyethylene bags are banned in Rwanda.  “They’ll never make that work,” I remember thinking as I walked past the sign. I had only just set foot in the country and already I had broken a law, simply by bringing a plastic bag holding a magazine and bottle of water that I bought in Toronto, into Rwanda.

But the bag ban makes a lot of sense, as it makes cities and the countryside much cleaner.  The ban prohibits the use of plastic bags to pack food, drinks and groceries, and has a huge impact on the effects caused by discarded plastic bags which block drainage systems, causing floods and landslides. Rwanda became the first African nation to ban the bags five years ago, and since then many other countries including the Congo have made moves towards banning the product.

I was stopped by a guard, and my plastic bag was confiscated to a recycling bin before I left the terminal. Some of my fellow passengers had their bags wrapped in cellophane.  This too had to be removed before they were allowed out of the airport.

It seems to fit Rwanda’s shiny new position as a tourism and information technology destination. There are no plastic bags blowing in the wind as there were in other parts of the world I’ve visited, where they could be eaten by domestic animals such as goats, and wildlife, with sometimes-lethal results for the animal.

Given the opposition raised when Toronto took steps to limit the use of plastic bags, I find the Rwandans’ quiet pride in their legislation to be quite welcome. When I travel to Rwanda again, you can be sure that there won’t be any banned substances in my luggage.

Duty Free Curiosity

Landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, I have about four hours to kill between flights, so after having a quick bite, I wandered around the “lounges”, an atmosphere which is more shopping-mall than airport.  It got me to thinking about airports in general.  I’ve seen my fair share of airports around the world, and they have always fascinated me.  Everyone in the airport is going somewhere, and here in Schiphol, a major hub between Africa, Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, the  diversity of our world is prominently on display.

African women, with their vibrantly coloured flowing dresses, stand next to Sikh men in colourful turbans and mischievous blonde haired, blue eyed Dutch children. A group of chinese tourists in matching green baseball caps rush past me, following their leader with holding a pointer with a green ribbon, and bleary eyed teenagers on their first backpacking trip across Europe stand bewildered looking for the passport control.

In duty free shoppes around the world, one would have no trouble finding perfume, liquor, cigarettes and chocolate (among other items, but these are the most common).  What is so special about these particular items, that make them the items people most want at Duty free shops?  Alcohol and cigarettes, ok I can see – they are usually heavily taxed.  But what is so special about perfume and chocolate?

Many airports have started catering to their customers and are providing more mainstream retail services.  As I write this, I am indulging in a foot massage at the Xpres Spa at the airport…  what a brilliant idea!   UK airports also usually have Boots pharmacies on the secure side.  How many times have you passed through security, and were wandering and thought “OH I forgot to pack XYZ!” A quick trip to the pharmacy would resolve that.  I wish Pearson would shape up and bring a Shoppers Drug Mart in.

Unfortunately, due to the “captive” audience (and yes, we technically are captive, behind the secure airport lines), the prices at airports are ridiculous.  Who wants to pay €20 for a McDonald’s meal? or €4 for a bottle of coke.  Well, now that we can’t bring anything more that 100mL through security, I guess we have to.

So, my ramblings continue…. as I wait another couple of hours for my flight to Kigali.

Up up and away!!

Made it to Pearson with plenty of time… Now I’m sitting on my KLM flight, getting ready to depart for Amsterdam. Hard to believe that in 24 hours, I will be in the middle of central Africa. Hard to believe how small the world is, and yet how vast it is at the same time.

Looking forward to the next few weeks of adventures!


“Val, why do you travel so much?”

My wanderlust was acquired very early in life.  By the time I was two, my parents had traveled extensively with me, and before any trip we took, dad would break out the atlas, and we would let our fingers do the walking over the maps to our destination.  I was always fascinated by these colourful maps, measuring the distance we covered in a few hours in a plane over the different topographical features in hand-widths. We would visit our family in Poland, or go south to a Caribbean island.  We took road trips to places like Sault Ste. Marie, and Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I remember one plane trip, while looking out the window being very upset that I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play in the fluffy clouds.  I had imagined they felt a bit like a bouncy castle, or a feather duvet.   By the time I completed my undergraduate degree in university, I had visited Europe at least 10 times, but my travels were only beginning.

The loss of my Mom in May 2000 had the greatest impact on my desire to travel.  She and my dad were excitedly looking forward to retirement, in order to visit exotic places like South America and Asia.  Unfortunately those plans were cut short by cancer, and in those final weeks that I cared for her,  I learned a life lesson that I continue to carry closely in my heart and mind. I learned not to take anything for granted, to take every opportunity that comes my way, and to live each day to the fullest!

Just after we lost my mom, a good friend invited me to go with her to visit her family in Italy.  During this trip, we discussed our dreams, our goals, and made plans to someday visit India and Nepal together.  Ironically, those two countries remain on my ‘bucket list’.  (perhaps she and I will end up visiting them together after all!)

Then one day everything was just right. I had no debt, no serious relationship, and was ready to leave a really stressful job that I wouldn’t miss. I had always wondered what the wildlife in the hills of Borneo sounded like, what the sand felt like on the beaches of southern Thailand.  I’d always wanted to see a sunrise over Angkor Wat, a massive temple complex in Siem Riep, Cambodia, and wander the streets smelling the amazing dishes being prepared in the French Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam.  So I bought a ticket to Asia, and planned my departure for January 2, 2005.  I knew as I tearfully went through security and saying goodbye to my dad and aunt at the airport, that I would come back a different person.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.0 earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra, spawning a tsunami which would obliterate half a dozen coastal nations, and take with it over 200,000 lives.  It was this disaster, and my experience in post-tsunami recovery which changed my path, and became my destiny.

I now travel to unusual places around the world like Pakistan and Haiti, having discovered the fascinating and rewarding field of humanitarian relief work… My life’s true calling!!

The purpose of this blog is to capture the essence of some of my adventures, but also to share some of my stories and experiences.  I will be departing next week for East Africa, where I will meet up with my friend Anne Stevenson.  Together, we will travel to Tanzania, and experience a big game safari.  Admittedly, the closest I’ve come to wildlife in their own surroundings are the raccoons that I chase away from my garbage bins.

I’ve heard that if you go to Africa, it’s in someways a shame – because you’ll never want to go anywhere else, you’ll always be trying to go back.  We shall see…

Traveler. Humanitarian. Nurse Practitioner.