Adapting, Learning, and Letting Go

After traveling to Matelot, I can confidently throw away most of the preconceived notions that I went in with; most of what we learned in class was very accurate, but I was surprised to see some of my own assumptions proven false. In class, we talked about the fact that Matelot is a small village with little infrastructure and an underdeveloped economy. While that was very true, my subconscious assumption that they would be disconnected from the rest of the world couldn’t have been less true. The surprising part about this, besides seeing everyone with a smartphone, was that there were countless points on which to connect with locals. Making casual conversation was a million times easier than I expected. You could bring up a current world event, discuss sports, or just joke around while doing some landscaping- which we did, and had a great time with- and remain on the same page.

Talking to people in Matelot was not hard at all. While I was initially afraid to start a conversation because I expected a communication or culture barrier, it seemed like they had the same fear. By just getting a conversation started, it was easy to break down those barriers that didn’t really exist. If I didn’t understand what someone was saying, I just asked them to repeat it until I did, and they were not offended. If I had a question about a cultural difference, they were always happy to answer with a prideful description of how they do things. The locals were even happy to hear things from our side, showing genuine interest when I told them about similar work to the library project that I’ve done or describing different sports we play. While I expected the cultural differences to be points of contention and difficulty, they actually proved to be the best talking points, and revealed more similarities than differences.

Although I found that most of the cultural norms and differences posed no difficulty at all, there were a few that gave me a little bit of anxiety initially. I went in with the expectation that people would be late for everything, and it was pretty much true. In fact, a lot of the time, people that were supposed to meet with us never showed up. This was not a huge issue, though, because while timeliness was nonexistent, things always got done. We were able to meet with each group that we intended to and most of them showed genuine interest in talking with us. The difficult part was less the timing of things, but how they got done; I can’t think of a single thing that went as planned. When we went to paint the outside of the library, I ended up hoeing and shoveling dirt for the day. When the schedule said we would go on a hike, we ended up getting a tour of a farm in the woods, learning the beginning to end process of making cocoa. This is not to say that the activities were reduced in any way- each one was more enjoyable than I imagine it would’ve been if we’d stuck to the schedule. I was able to take away from this that while our culture is accustomed to adhering to plans, theirs is based around doing things spontaneously. This was very challenging to get used to at first, as I quickly figured out that any expectations about anything that was going to happen would just be wrong. I was able to accept this because our tour guide, Andre, and the site director, Michelle, had deep interests in our enjoyment of the program. They were the driving forces that made each of our quickly thrown together activities a success.

Another cultural norm that I came across and found to be a challenge to overcome was Trinidad’s sleep schedule and sleeping arrangements. Each night, the locals unplugged and the village went quiet by 10:00. This made it very easy to fall asleep around midnight; the challenge came when I was woken on Monday at 6am by loud reggae music from across the street. That night’s sleep was further degraded by the mosquito net that seemed to close in on me each time that I rolled over, the dogs having an occasional 2am brawl, and the animal (probably a bat) that was banging itself against some part of our house. The second night was difficult as well, but by the third night, I was used to it all and slept fine. I even started to enjoy waking up to reggae music over the sound of the waves crashing. I was able to realize after a couple nights that American culture values sleep as a warm and cozy form of rest between exhausting days, and Trini culture had a totally different view; they sleep only a few hours each night in order to function and get up early to enjoy the slightly cooler air and get the day started. They seem to love their daily activities so much that they’d rather be doing them all the time than be asleep. I was able to adapt to this, as I was excited for each day’s surprise list of activities. While these few cultural norms were difficult to adapt to at first, I found myself deeply enjoying integrating them into my daily life while visiting Matelot.

From this trip, I was able to add some pieces to my overall perspective of global business. Before travelling to Matelot, I assumed some economic needs to be universal between areas. I didn’t realize how early in the process of economic development the village is until I went there. There were things that I never considered, like the sleeping arrangements or lack of nearby places to get food, that are insufficient in their current state for most western tourists. Overall, the infrastructure is one of the biggest limiting factors for Matelot in terms of tourism potential. While I expected this to be true, what I didn’t expect was the lack of people who are ready to make tourism happen. The most basic necessity of the village right now is jobs, and a long-term goal of preparing the area for tourism isn’t on most peoples’ minds. Most of the people are focused on the immediate concern of making a living, and that applies to the people working with Amizade as well. I got the impression that while the locals are interested in seeing tourism flourish, they didn’t share the same vision for it as Amizade. For now, it seems to me that it is a situation in which the organization is paying people to help themselves. The library being built with paid labor is a perfect example of this. There are some people, though, who are making a serious effort to push this movement forward, but the problem remains that with so few of those people, it will be difficult to get ideas off the ground. I didn’t realize before now how necessary people are in order to get an economy up and running. The most basic aspect that should be assessed to determine the path for an area’s economy is the priority of the majority. In order to start Matelot on a path towards tourism, the village needs to understand the benefits and become personally invested. This principle can be applied to any region’s economy and was a valuable lesson to learn. My perspective of global business has expanded from this recent realization that economic activity is massively driven by the priorities of the people within it.

Through our global service learning project in Matelot, I was able to learn a lot about myself and gain a lot of confidence. Before going to Trinidad, I wasn’t sure whether I could handle traveling to certain places, dealing with the living conditions, and communicating with the people. By going to Matelot, I feel that I was able to experience a relatively extreme case of each of those and overcome its difficulties. Even though the transportation throughout Trinidad was arranged for us, it was much different from how I get around on a regular basis yet felt manageable. Additionally, I’ve always had a fear of living in less comfortable conditions when traveling; after living in Matelot for a week, I feel like I can deal with pretty much any conditions that I’d come across. Almost every aspect of the living situation in Matelot was the polar opposite from what is experienced in the US. Besides these, my biggest concern with traveling has been from a self-conscious stance- a fear of not being able to effectively communicate with the people in that area, make friends, or even just avoid offending them. Communication did prove to be difficult at times, as it was tough to understand people’s accents, although I was able to get used to the accent and understand people better. I was even able to become decent friends with a couple of the locals by doing work on the library with them and making conversation. This experience made me a lot more confident with making friends in foreign countries because I realized how much there can be in common between people across the world. It even made me realize that I shouldn’t worry too much about offending people of different cultures because it can hold back a conversation more than it could hurt it. With there being so much more in common than not, it was a lot more beneficial to talk like I would to someone of the same culture. With that said, we did know a lot of the basics in terms of cultural differences going into the trip, so I knew what was off limits regarding conversation. Still, I found that most of the time, the locals were happy to answer any questions we had about their culture.

In addition to adapting to new living situations and talking to foreigners, I found out that when you’re traveling or doing anything new, you have to let go completely. Any time that I found myself comparing the cultures or living situations of Trinidad and the US, I felt limited in what I could get out of the experience. Once I put aside all that I was accustomed to, I was able to get my hands dirty and really enjoy it. This is the one factor that made everything much more enjoyable and let me engage myself in a really meaningful way.

On top of what I came to understand from these lessons, I was able to learn the overall value of travelling and experiencing new things. This trip was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Discussing the possibility of ecotourism with the locals gave incredible insight to the challenges that the community faces. Even the simpler experiences, like cracking open a coconut to get a drink during a long day’s work, helped make it all feel authentic. This trip greatly enhanced my understanding of the lifestyle of people in a country that is vastly different from mine.