“Oh, the Places We’ll Go:” Off to Trinidad

It is almost time to depart for Trinidad and I am a mix of excitement and nerves. As a group we have worked through our deliverables and the possible challenges we may encounter on the ground, but we cannot predict everything that will occur. Some challenges I anticipate involve the Trini culture specifically the relaxed atmosphere, the idea they hold of working to live, not living to work, and communication styles.

To begin, the Trini culture is very relaxed and places a big emphasis on having an easygoing lifestyle. This does not mean Trini’s are not hardworking, but they find time to enjoy leisure activities and lime (“chill”). A time this can be seen the most is during meals. Often, meals will last for multiple hours and people will sit around talking after they have finished eating. To us, this may seem like wasting time, but to Trinis this is a time to talk with friends or guests and develop relationships. A challenge I anticipate here will be our desire to move on to the next activity as we hope to accomplish a lot in a very limited amount of time.

I also see this being a potential challenge when conducting the workshops on customer service and professionalism. While we are creating our workshops to be very open-ended and adaptable to wherever the conversations may lead, we have defined points we want to touch upon. Customer service and professionalism are such broad topics we tried to narrow down, but the DORCAS Women’s Group could have other ideas or experiences that are completely different from ours. The conversations could be difficult if the DORCAS Women’s Group embrace this easygoing culture and simply accept what we have to say about these topics, but do not offer up their own thoughts or experiences with the Trini culture. The major challenge I anticipate with this easygoing culture is that the DORCAS Women’s Group may take our workshops as more of presentations than conversations. There is the possibility that they will just accept what we say instead of adding or contradicting us with their experiences or thoughts on customer service and professionalism in Trinidad.

Furthermore, the Trini culture is easygoing, and this can be seen in the way they approach work. Contrary to the USA, Trini’s see work as a way to live, not their life. In the USA many people struggle with work-life balance and for a time work can become someone’s life. In Trinidad, the culture is more relaxed, so work is meant to be a means to support living, not one’s life.

I anticipate this being a potential challenge when working with the DORCAS Women’s Group to develop tools for customer service and professionalism. A problem the organization faces is dedication and continual membership, so tools developed with the DORCAS Women’s Group may not be sustainable. With members changing, the group of women we interact with may not all be members of the organization in the coming years. This goes along with the idea of working to live, not living to work because while most members of this organization are not paid, the ultimate goal is to establish sustainable ecotourism. The tools we develop with the DORCAS Women’s Group may “stick,” but they also may be brushed aside shortly after our departure because expanding the skills and work of the organization may begin to cross this line of separating life and work.

The final challenge I anticipate is with communication. Trinidad is a high-context culture while the USA is a very low-context culture. We are used to being very direct and taking what people say at face value; there is no hidden meaning behind the words we say. As a low-context culture we are also very used to be task-oriented, so we are used to working step-by-step to complete objectives. In a high-context culture like Trinidad the focus is more on relationships and often when people communicate there is a hidden meaning behind their words. Since they are so relationship focused, Trinis can understand and decipher these hidden meanings, but as a foreigner this could be a challenge.

With the workshops, we have tried to prepare them in a way less direct than we are used to. There is no agenda and set guidelines like a typical presentation may include in CBA. During the workshops in-country I anticipate their being communication issues. The DORCAS Women’s Group may have difficulty understanding our points because they will be searching for a hidden meaning behind our direct statements. Also, since the focus is so relational it may be difficult to connect with the DORCAS Women’s Group because we will only be with them for one week. While we have time to interact and speak with the group, the initial workshops may be more difficult because we will not have established a relationship with the group yet.

Through this experience I hope to grow and learn personally through the transferable skills of adaptability and cultural competence. While in country I am expecting the unexpected. No matter how much preparation I do, I know that when we arrive in Trinidad the culture and our activities will not be exactly like what I have read and what we have prepared. Going into this trip I believe I am in a good position as we have discussed the importance of adaptability and being able to pivot. I am going into this trip with the understanding that its likely most things will not go as planned. Already, our itinerary has changed twice adjusting who we are meeting with while in-country. While in Trinidad I expect many things to be different or not go as planned and I am interested to see how I react. Through conversations we have had prior to departure, I understand the need to be calm in these situations, but it is one thing to say this and another to do it. Through this experience I think I will gain a better understanding of my ability to pivot and even if I do “freeze up” the first time, I believe I will be able to grow. It is difficult to predict how one will react in an unpredictable situation, so I am interested to reflect on my reaction and figure out how to grow from it.

Also, I expect to expand my cultural competence while in-country. Prior to departure I have learned about the Trini culture and difficulties facing the country such as housing large amounts of refugees and its close proximity (about 7 miles) to Venezuela which is facing severe economic hardship. Even before leaving I feel I have begun to expand my cultural competence because I am understanding the country and what is happening there before arrival. This will enhance my experience and I will get much more out of my time in-country with this additional context.

During my time in Trinidad I expect my cultural competence to continue to grow. Studies show cultural intelligence knowledge, strategy, and action are all positively affected by intercultural service-learning. The growth in cultural intelligence knowledge is something I have already begun to see through the preliminary readings and research on Trinidad. Growing my cultural intelligence strategy is something I expect to happen either on the ground or after the in-country experience because I will see what I have done and hopefully, through thoughtful reflection, I will have a “light bulb moment” where it all comes together. Finally, cultural intelligence action is the specific part I expect to see while in Trinidad. This idea of action ties back to having the ability to pivot. Leading up to the in-country experience everything we have done has been discussion and theory based. Once on the ground, everything will become very real. All the preparation for the trip and understanding service learning will really come to life during our stay in Trinidad. The action portion of cultural intelligence is important because this is where service learning will become a reality. I will be able to see the “two-way-street” of service learning when we are working with the DORCAS Women’s Group, leaving behind tools they can implement, and learning along side the group. This has all been hypothetical, but while we are in-country, I will experience this and so much more. Since all the preparation has been theory based, the experience is not going to match up exactly and this is where the ability to pivot will come into play.

I personally feel that I will have expanded my cultural competence if when I return to the USA, I experience reverse culture shock. I think this will show if I have grown in this area because if I experience reverse culture shock it will be because I have experienced something so incredible and different that it opened my eyes to new things, expanding my cultural competence.

All in all, I am very excited to depart for Trinidad in less than one week. Meeting the DORCAS Women’s Group and traveling with them may offer up some challenges, but I feel that I am prepared to pivot and grow from the experience.