Takeaways from Trinidad

I cannot believe I am already back from my trip to Trinidad. It is crazy how fast the week went by, but it was an experience I will never forget! I learned a lot about Matelot, myself, and the culture of Trinidad. From the very second we arrived in the Port of Spain, I began to notice several cultural differences that I had to learn how to manage. This first started when we took a bus ride from the airport to Samise Villa, where we stayed overnight the first night of the trip. Our driver was going very fast and we were on a narrow road. The first time I saw another car coming at us I panicked a bit, and they casually swerved around each other. Because we had several long bus rides, I had to get used to this by accepting that is how they drive in Trinidad and trust that they knew what they were doing!

I think the biggest cultural difference that I trouble adjusting to was “Trini Time.” Going into the trip, I knew that they were laid back but just how laid back they were I was not prepared for. I first noticed this on the bus ride to Matelot. The bus driver pulled over on the side of the highway to buy himself a double, a yummy fried food that I ended up trying later on. I was confused when he did this because we were all eager to get to Matelot, but he was taking his dear time. We also stopped the bus once to pick up a cousin of our tour guide to give her a lift, which was interesting how casual and normal that seemed for them. The informality also was prominent when we arrived in Matelot. I am a very “type A” person and I like to have set schedules and plans, and it was hard for me to accept some of the things they did. When we arrived, we were watching the community school’s “sports day” but did a lot of standing around. While this irritated me, no one living in Trinidad seemed to have a problem with it. The informality also revolved around our set schedule, and often our schedule for the day would completely change or the times would be moved back. One thing I noticed was that even though we were there for business meetings, a lot of the time the groups we were scheduled to meet with would be late. On another occasion, we were scheduled to meet with the principle of the Matelot High School. He did not show up because he was on sick leave, but we were not made aware of this until we arrived at the school. I had to overcome this by telling myself to be more laid back and go with the flow. I wanted to fully experience their culture, and had to do so by not letting my meticulous tendencies get to me. Something that I found helpful was Amizade’s go-to phrase, “Okay, good.” It was a nice reminder that I was in a different country with a different culture and the people were not doing it to be rude or unwelcoming.

As far as ethical differences, everyone in Matelot acted very genuine towards us. One thing that was different was that because the population of Matelot is only around 400-500 people, everyone seems to know everyone. With this comes a decent amount of gossip, which I am not used to living in a city as big as Pittsburgh. Sometimes the conversations did not have the best intentions, and I had to learn how to politely not say anything that may fuel the fire. But having such a close community also had positive aspects. Our tour guide, Aloo Pie, seemed to know everyone (he claimed everyone in the community were his cousins) and was able to introduce us to other people and help us make connections. For example, when we took a long hike on one of the days, one of his “cousins” showed us around and let us eat lunch in his home. He was very outspoken and loud but a lot of people in Matelot seemed to be that way. On the first day, Aloo Pie mocked me a little bit for my quiet manners. I quickly learned that it was better to be louder and more talkative because it gave me a friendlier vibe. I had to adjust to his jokes and remind myself they were all in good spirit.

I also have a new appreciation for global business and how difficult it can be. For example, I never considered communication and why that could be an issue. The site director in Matelot, Michelle, had just gotten an iphone to be able to communicate with Amizade back home and was having trouble figuring it out. In the United States, it is simple just to send an email or quick text to verify information or do work. In Matelot, causal communication with the outside world is tricky and therefore makes doing business tricky. I can see why DORCAS Women’s Group and Amizade face some challenges because it is always easier to plan things in person but that is not always an option, being that Trinidad is so far away. Global business is also challenging because you have to consider the country’s wants and needs. I could tell that the people of Matelot are passionate about their land and their community. This proves to be a challenge if we want to change things to have more tourists visit. “Ecotourism” becomes an issue if the people do not understand the concept and do not want to implement change. In global business, everyone has to be on the same page to makes things work and that is not as easy as it sounds. Before going on this trip for business matters, I thought global business was almost as straightforward as doing business in country. I realize now that there are many obstacles that can make it challenging.

I also learned about global business when we took our site visit to KPMG in Port of Spain. Even though it was the same company as the one we have in the states, there are still differences. I learned that KPMG was the “biggest of the big four” in Port of Spain, whereas here in Pittsburgh it is considered one of the smaller ones. Another factor that makes global business is the difference in standards. For accounting firms, the United States uses the GAAP standards but in Trinidad they have a different set of standards called IFRS. That must come into consideration when doing global. It was also just very interesting to see a company in another country. The KPMG building was like how I would picture it being here, very high tech and well structured. It was very different being in that building after spending several days in Matelot, where nothing was high tech. Communication in this case would be much easier than doing business in Matelot, so it is all situational.

Spending a week in Matelot also gave me time to reflect and learn about myself. It was an experience feeling disconnected from home. I am so used to spending time on my phone texting people and using social media. Not having connection forced me to really be in the moment. In doing so, I was much more self-aware of what was going on around me. I learned that patience is a key factor in doing global business. I had to be patient when confronting cultural differences and learn to just do the best I can in the situation that is given to me. I also reaffirmed that I enjoy talking to people. This trip put me in many situations where I would be with the people of Trinidad, and it was up to me to initiate conversation. While this was difficult at first because I often felt uncomfortable, I gradually got better about speaking up and asking questions and making small talk with the locals. I am glad I did because it made my experience more valuable and authentic. I had to learn how to go with the flow and think fast at times. When we visited the high school and were unable to meet with the principle, we ran a meeting in an assembly-like fashion with the students. I had to step up to ask questions and help facilitate because we were not prepared to do anything like that. It gave me confidence and helped my leadership development.

I also was given an understanding of international service while in country. It is hard to appreciate “service learning” until you experience it. While I was helping the community by doing my project and helping to build and paint the library, I was taking so much out of the experience that will help further my development. I was gaining confidence, communication skills, leadership skills, and so much more. Coming back, I know I have several transferable skills to talk about and use in the future. One of the main skills I came back with is self-awareness. I had to be aware of what I was saying and how I said it, as well as being conscious of what was going on around me at all times. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to spend the week in Trinidad and will take all the memories and experiences with me for the rest of my life.