It’s hard to put into words just how amazing the past week in Trinidad was. Before we left, I had no idea what to expect. The experience I had was above and beyond my wildest dreams. When we began traveling together, our group of 8 were classmates. Now, traveling back, we are friends. Building relationships was a theme of this trip, not just with my fellow Pitt students, but with the DORCAS women and the people in Matelot.
The first cultural norm we had to confront was the pace of life. We had our first introduction to “Trini time” on the ride to Matelot. We were all expecting to load into the van (or “Maxi” as they say in Trinidad), and drive straight to Matelot. The van already arrived later than it was supposed to and we knew the drive was 4 hours. We quickly realized we were not on any sort of schedule when we stopped to buy oranges on the side of the road about 15 minutes into the drive. These stops continued throughout the drive, as we stopped for “doubles” a Trini street food, Guinness flavored ice cream, and more.
Hours later, when we arrived in Matelot, we were greeted by Michelle, Joanne, and Andre. Immediately, I could tell they cared deeply if we were comfortable and safe. Again, we adjusted to the relaxed pace of life as we sat and ate a homemade snack before we went and unpacked our bags. Being someone who always wants to use every minute productively, and is always early to everything, it was difficult at first to being comfortable being late to everything, and having large stretches of unstructured time.
While we move throughout our days in chunks that are dictated by what time we have to be at the next thing, Trini people let the thing they are currently doing dictate what time they’ll arrive at the next thing. There is no early or late because the day isn’t done on a timeline, and even if there was a time set for something, there was a 100% chance it wouldn’t take place exactly at that time. This is so different from how we live life in the US, we had to fully adapt to enjoy ourselves. As a whole group, we did a good job of this. Even when we were “early” for things we got better and better at relaxing and making conversation rather than obsessing over what was supposed to be happening in that moment.
Looking back I am glad for this unstructured time because it allowed us to develop our relationships with each other, and with the Matelot community since we had time to just sit back and talk. I think that is what shows I truly adapted, rather than just considering it killing time, I realized there was real value in not hurrying to the next activity. Also, I had no complaints about spending extra time at the river before moving on to the next thing.
The next cultural norm I noticed was specific to the culture of Matelot, not necessarily Trinidad. Matelot is a small town and it is incredibly tight knit. When we first arrived, everyone we passed would say hi to us. At first, this felt weird as we didn’t know these people, but by the end of the week, I would look forward to passing someone and getting to say hi to them. This was a large contrast to the individualistic culture in the US. Especially in a city, people would think you were insane if you said hi to everyone you passed.
This community focused culture was also highlighted in the communities relationship with children. There were two little boys, Devin and Kymani who hung out with us all week, and we never saw their parents. On our last night in Matelot, there were about 30 kids running around playing with us, and barely any parents. Even still, the children were behaved because at any moment they could be disciplined by Michelle or Andre, neither of which were their parents. This is how Matelot worked, the whole community raised these children as a whole. Being someone that works with kids, it was scary at first to have children running around and swimming with no designated supervision until I realized everyone was taking responsibility for everyone’s children. By the end even we were taking the time to make sure no one was fighting and everyone was following the rules and having fun.
This community culture rubbed off on us as well. Our group was quick to offer to get things for people, and no one ever shied away from letting someone borrow something or spotting them some TT to buy a snack. The people of Matelot looked out for us and for each other, and as a result we did the same.
The cultural “norm” that I struggled with the most was our role in community. We discussed this in our debrief on the last night in Matelot. We were viewed as guests in the community and at times that made for some uncomfortable moments. I was raised in a family that expects everyone to either help cook or clean up for meals, no one comes and just eats and doesn’t help with at least one. I think this is a norm in America, even as a guest you often help clean up, or bring a dish. This was not the case in Matelot, because we were guests we were not expected to help cook or help clean up. I also think this precedent was set by other groups from other universities that travel to Matelot with Amizade. We discussed how this mindset prevents the goal of building relationships. Since we weren’t eating with the women, we had to find other times to talk and relate with them. In the US we use mealtime as a time to get to know someone, so we had to challenge ourselves to move past that. I am interested to see if Pitt Business can work with Amizade to ask the women if some of these barriers could be tested for future groups of Pitt students.
In class we read an article about intercultural competence in relation to service learning. In the article it said, “Service-learning can help address the need of bringing people together across differences to address local and global issues (Keith, 2005). Service-learning is well suited to the development of intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes by providing experiential and reflection opportunities ‘with and about diverse persons that are not easily replicable in the classroom settings alone’”. I think this relates to this struggle with a cultural norm because while we weren’t getting to know the women during meal time, because this was a service learning class we were meeting with them during our debrief, and for difference service learning workshops.
One night in Matelot we had our debrief with Michelle, and I think most of my peers would agree this was one of our most powerful debriefs. Michelle had so much to add and she was quick to encourage us that no matter what differences we may see, we are all human and that is all that matters. I liked this because in our first couple of days traveling to a new place we are quick to assign a lot of value to differences we observe. Hillary brought up a good point that Dean Murrell made in class that we don’t need to assign value to differences, things can be different and not be good or bad, just different.
My perspective of global business was definitely developed this week. As I outlined in my previous blogs, our projects goal was to build local capacity in Matelot to start outlining a path towards opening an ecotourism business there. I didn’t fully understand the project until I was onsite in Matelot, and this is going to be true of each group every year. The focus of our year was on community service and professionalism. After speaking with Danielle a little and realizing the importance of a network in Trinidad, we shifted “professionalism” to networking.
The customer service presentation was interesting, and the DORCAS women and Andre had a lot of stories to share. Customer service is something that is universal and almost everyone has stories about it. I was interested to hear many of their stories had to do with customer service from doctors and people in the healthcare field. They were also all very interested to hear about policies in America where companies replace things that are damaged, for free, even if it was the customers fault. For example, if you drop your ice cream cone, almost always it will be replaced free of charge. This is not the case in Trinidad, if you were to drop your ice cream you would need to pay for a new one. I found this interesting and I think it relates to how important reputation is in America since we are so saturated with companies. In remote places like Matelot where there aren’t that many places that you can get ice cream, this reputation isn’t as important.
When looking at this issue through the lens of ecotourism, if Matelot is looking to America for customers, they will need to model their customer service more like an American company would. If someone is researching ecotourism, they are going to look for places with good reviews and a good word of mouth reputation. I think this will be important for the people of Matelot to remember when handling potential customers from America.
Connecting this workshop to the rest of our trip, when we went on the hike with Mr. Jose, he spent a significant amount of time asking us for feedback on how he could make the experience better. He was really interested in what he was doing wrong and how he could improve. This was also something Michelle and Joanne were really interested in, how could they improve upon the experience we had. Asking for and taking feedback is a large part of customer service, and the Trini’s were right in line with America with that element.
Moving on to the networking presentation, this was the workshop me and 3 of my peers were in charge of developing. As we made the handout we didn’t know what to expect. How we learn networking as a business student in college is very specific and not all of it would be applicable to the women. For example, we network to get jobs so we learn about elevator pitches and resumes and ways to pitch ourselves. The women are going to need to network for their group to gain partnerships, this is more about making business contacts and pitching the group and the ideas rather than yourself. This made for an interesting challenge when doing the workshop.
We discussed a lot about follow up emails and phone calls, and what those should look like and how to conduct them. The women expressed some concern with how long it can take people in Trinidad to get back to you and we discussed some ways to combat that. During the workshop, they were contributing and asking questions and it seemed like it was going well but I was worried none of it would really stick or make a difference.
I think this was also the case because I didn’t know what to expect from the different site visits. We knew that Nature Seekers could be a potentially good contact especially since they are an ecotourism operation that does partnerships. But, we didn’t know how the site visit would be structured and if it would allow the women the networking opportunities they were looking for.
When we arrived at nature seekers we met Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste, the managing director at nature seekers. She told us the history of nature seekers, sprinkling in inspiring quotes and just generally being amazing. What was most interesting is she talked a lot about the community in East Trinidad where Nature Seekers is located and about how much the success of nature seekers has helped the local community. She was able to list off countless jobs Nature Seekers has provided to the community and how the community has in turn helped NS. She tied this all back to community empowerment. I loved that she used that phrase because that is exactly what we are trying to do in Matelot.
Matelot already has a tight knit community, if they are able to leverage that along with their natural resources, in a sustainable way, they will be able to be very successful. However, none of this can happen without community empowerment. Suzan also stressed the importance of sustainability. Many towns and even countries have leveraged their natural resources and been successful, but if not done sustainably, they can be left off worse than when they started.
As the site visit went on, I was a little worried because most of the questions were being asked by Pitt students and the women were hanging back a little. But, the peak of this visit came when Joanne, one of the DORCAS women explained who she was and what group she was a apart of and asked for Suzan’s contact info, telling her that a lot of what she said was interesting and she would be interested in contacting her later. This meant a lot to me because this is something we talked about in the networking presentation, and to see that happen in real time made me feel like we could be making real strides towards the project goal. I also think Nature Seekers could be a legitimate partner for Matelot, and making that contact was really valuable.
At the rest of the site visits, we could see the women and Andre actively networking and discussing their goals with everyone we met. This was really awesome to see and made me feel like the workshop we did had a purpose and a reason. It was interesting to not only see how business works differently when its global, but also how business works when it’s in the very preliminary stages. Most of the companies we work with in school are very established, or startups that are successful. It was interesting to see the side of business where the capacity isn’t even there yet. Matelot still has a long way to go before this project is a reality but it was so interesting to see what “success” looked like when it isn’t defined monetarily.
I learned a lot about myself this trip. I learned I really enjoy living off the grid and not having access to people who I’m not with. This allowed me to grow closer to the people I was having this experience with and I think that is really important. In terms of transferable skills I think there are a few I developed more than others while on this trip.
The first one is communication. While they speak english in Trinidad, the accent is very thick and requires extra listening that we don’t usually take the time to do in the US. Also, Matelot is very different from Pittsburgh, and this cultural divide can sometimes be even harder than a language barrier to communicate through. A moment I picked out as testing my communication skills happened when we were visiting the local high school in Matelot. This happened when we were finished with our ice breaker activities and Hillary asked us to explain our project to the high schoolers.
I had been tasked with explaining this project to countless people, my coworkers, interviewers, friends, family and pretty much anyone who asked me why I was going to Trinidad for spring break. But, for some reason looking at the high schoolers that lived in Matelot, I knew I needed to use different words. This is the place they call home, and I would need to be careful when explaining what we wanted to do. I think it was in that moment, as I was choosing my words, when the project really began to click for me. I realized the importance of fully believing what you are saying when explaining a desired outcome, or the people you are talking to won’t become invested. I took the time I was talking to explain how this would affect their lives, and how they could help and be involved. The conversation from that moment on was different as we began to pull in things they had already told us into our plan. For example, one highschool girl was interested in fashion, but she knew she would need to move away from Matelot in order to pursue that. Someone brought up the idea of opening a fashion store in Matelot that would be geared towards people who came there for ecotourism.
It was interesting to use my communication skills in this way and I think explaining the project over and over again was useful in developing and testing those. I have interviews after break as well and I feel much more prepared to speak about the trip after this experience. The way I communicate with people who come from a very different cultural background than me is something I think I am developing every time I travel. Even thinking back to Vietnam, where we interacted with Vietnamese students, I felt that experience made me more comfortable in Trinidad. We talked a lot about the script we have when we talk with other Pitt students, “what’s your major, what’s your year, where are you from, where do you live, ect”. We discussed how this doesn’t work when talking to people from other cultures because most of those questions aren’t applicable or you already know the answer.
I remember this struggle from Vietnam, and while you can think of other questions, it’s important to try and think of ones that will lead to a deeper conversation, not just sound like an interview. Another thing I learned while in Trinidad was that while it might be fun to talk about your own way of life because it is so different from theirs, that is not the point of the project. In our debriefs people would often share information they got from conversations they had just walking to the river, or waiting for dinner to be ready. This went to show how important it was to have these conversations, even if they were a little uncomfortable at first.
I learned a lot about myself this trip, and I think it was a trip that I personally really needed to take for my mental health. Being in college it is really easy to get caught up in a certain way of life and lose sight of what is important to truly be happy. This trip helped remind me what really makes me happy in life and what I truly want to pursue. I have been considering traveling abroad next year and this trip really helped me realize how much I enjoy pushing myself completely out of my comfort zone. It also made me realize how there are so many different ways of traveling. I felt with this trip I truly felt like I was experiencing the community I was traveling to for what it really was. This was so interesting and so different from vacations I had taken with my family to resorts where you are isolated from the true culture of the country you are traveling to.
This trip required a lot of flexibility, some of it for me specifically. For example, this blog was a bit harder to write than I was expecting because I happened to lose my journal I had written all of my notes in, and the backpack it was in, one I got in Vietnam. When I had realized I left the backpack behind, we had already gotten in the maxi and we were on our way to the next destination. Everyone offered to turn around and go get the backpack, but we were on a one way road and it would have been a disaster to try and navigate back, to possibly arrive and the backpack already have been stolen.
This required some flexibility on my part but I can say with honesty that I am glad I left it behind. Material possessions only hold so much importance and that backpack was not worth the stress it would have caused the driver to turn around. It is these “fails” as my mom would call them, that teach us things. My next test of flexibility came at the KPMG site visit where I felt great at until all of sudden, I didn’t. I believe this was a bout of food poisoning, and further proved how kind everyone in Trinidad is. There was not one person, including the staff at KPMG, the DORCAS women, and Denise who didn’t want to help me. I was sad to miss the rest of the day with the group, especially since it was our last one together, but it was the right choice to not join them.
I know things will continue to happen in my life that are out of my control and as these things have happened I have learned it is much easier to just roll with it rather than dwell on why it was bad. If this trip had been a couple years ago, I am sure I would have obsessed over the day I missed, having intense FOMO and being mad at my body for having the bad reaction. But, there was no point in spreading that bad feeling to everyone else in the group. Staying positive meant they could all continue to enjoy their trip.
This positive outlook helped me in a lot of other aspects of the trip as well. Obviously, taking cold showers and sleeping in an mosquito net is not ideal, but complaining would provide no benefit to anyone. I was lucky to share a room with people that felt the same way and it was awesome to just enjoy the amazing place we were rather than focus on the things that are different than what we are used to. As I’ve gotten older I have realized this flexibility trait is one I have worked to develop and it is also a trait I highly value in others. If someone on our trip had started complaining about the things in Matelot that were different than what we have at home, they would have set a certain tone. Most likely, this would have made the trip not very enjoyable. But, instead we obsessed over what we loved about Matelot, and this made it really hard to leave.
In response to what I am learning about myself in relation to international service is that I really enjoy doing it- in a certain capacity. As a white person living in America, it is easy to develop the mind set that by traveling somewhere that is less fortunate you are doing them a favor just by being there. In order to really be of service I think this mindset needs to be destroyed. I think having such extensive preparation for this trip helped change that mindset. Simple things such as changing the word “presentation” to “workshop” were a good start. This helped when we did the workshops as they felt collaborative, and not like we were lecturing them on things that they didn’t care about or didn’t apply to them.
A final thing I learned about myself was in relation to the reflections and the debriefs. I have always worked better in a team and that is why I enjoy team projects. I realized a large thing I like about working in a team is the aspect when you get to discuss and bounce ideas off each other. The debriefs at the end of the night were what really made this trip come together. There were a lot of things we came across in the reflections that we never would have came across if we had been reflecting on our own and not as a group.
Overall, I could continue to go on and on about this experience, it was an amazing week and I hope it isn’t the last time I visit Trinidad. There are so many things I learned academically and personally, and I grew in so many ways as well. I am so thankful I was able to go on this trip and take this class and I am excited to see where the project progresses from here.