No One Left Behind: My Time in Matelot

As I sat in the Piarco Airport in the Port of Spain late Friday night, all I could think about was going home to shower and sleep. Over twenty-four house later as I sit in my apartment reminiscing on the experience I just received one-line sticks in my mind “No one left behind.” This is a phrase that I heard almost every day during my time in Matelot, Trinidad. Most of the time this phrase referred to our group struggling to stop walking twenty paces in front of our Trinidadian friends, but I also think it refers to the tight-knit community that we interacted with in Trinidad. Matelot is a small community and while walking down the street our tour guide throughout our time in Matelot, Andre, would wave, talk, and joke with every person we met on the street. In the beginning, our group was shocked at how open interactions were between everyone. In Pittsburgh when we walk around, the majority of us have our headphones in and our heads are faced down, avoiding eye contact of people we do not know and most of the time not realizing the people we do know. When seeing the difference in Matelot, we decided to change our perspective about interacting with others on the street. I found myself waving at everyone, asking how they were, and receiving responses from everyone back. These new interactions speak to the closeness of the Matelot community. Without noticing at first, our group already found a strength that Matelot would benefit from while attempting to establish their own ecotourism. Realizing these differences that can be used as strengths really speaks to the importance of cultural competency, the ability to effectively interact with other cultures, while on this trip. It was our responsibility to use effective communication skills to develop an understanding of how the culture in Matelot works, and with this new responsibility, it was our job to change to the environment, adjusting our business advice to adhere to their culture.

“Busting a lime” is another phrase that I learned during my time in Matelot, although not as commonly used, it speaks to Trini’s ability to focus on working well also leaving time to lime. Liming is a word that our group picked up before our trip to Trinidad and utilized, maybe a little too much, during our time there. Liming refers to the action of gathering around a river or on a beach and relaxing with friends and family. Michelle, the site director in Matelot, mention that people use “liming” in the informal sense as well, if people are chatting on the side of the street they would refer to this as having a lime. I think the most important aspect to take away from the phrase “busting a lime” is Trinis emphasis on taking time to relax. As soon as we arrived in Matelot, our group wanted to put our bags away and start some of our daily activities, with this stress of the situation on our faces, the members of the DORCAS Women’s group made us sit down and relax, not to worry about what we had to do or what our next step would be. Sometimes when Michelle believed we were working too hard or focusing too much on the things we would have to do in the next couple of weeks she would take the time to remind us to relax. Another one of the community members in Matelot, Andre, reminded us to take a breather while we were walking to breakfast one morning. We stopped in front of the Ocean and took a deep breath. I believe that all of these little reminders from the people in Matelot emphasize the fact that we can accomplish what we need to do while also taking time to have fun and relax.

I think a cultural challenge with this mentality is finding the balance between pushing your agenda and being flexible when the schedule is not going your way. The thing I struggled the most within this area was the sense of time in Trinidad or the lack thereof. In Trinidad, there is a concept called Trini time where if you tell everyone to show up at four for a meeting, everyone will show up at five. The lack of a sense for time became a little frustrating when trying to complete our networking and customer service workshops. These workshops are part of our deliverables and had to be completed with the four days of our time in Matelot. The networking workshop seemed to be continuously pushed back, giving off the sense that the DORCAS Women’s group did not see it as important; however, by analyzing the culture we realized that these things happen and utilizing the transferable skill of adaptability was the only way to get the most out of our project. Growing this cultural competence, allowed us to realize that pushing agendas back and moving times of activities was common practice in Trinidad, and a change in schedule did not necessarily mean that DORCAS Women’s Group saw our workshops as unimportant. By balancing the emphasis on getting our tasks done and being flexible with time changes, our group managed to efficiently and effectively deliver our workshops with the DORCAS Women’s Group.

With collaboration from the DORCAS Women’s Group throughout our workshops, I gained a true understanding of how business is completed globally. First, during our customer service workshop, we learned the lack of focus on proper customer service in Trinidad. In the United States, customer service is taught through trainings that focus on respecting, listening, and responding to a client. The DORCAS Women’s group mention the general perspective in customer service in Trinidad is that the business is doing the client a favor by providing them with a good or service. With this concept in mind, refunds do not commonly exist throughout Trinidad, if a product is broken or unusable, the customer must pay if they want a new one. It is important to understand when change is necessary for global business, and when something does not need to be changed because it is simply done differently. In this case, both your group and the DORCAS Women’s group believe that Customer service in Trinidad had to be changed. The main way to do this would through emphasizing many Trinidadians’ strength of building relationships and valuing these relationships with clients. Another interesting perspective we learned through our discussion on customer service was the importance of reviews through word of mouth. As mentioned before Matelot is a tightknit community; therefore, everyone trusts each other’s opinions. To put this into perspective Michelle told us that often community members would receive calls when a neighbor would see someone entering their household. Michelle told us this story to emphasize the fact that people in Matelot could not get away with anything, people are always looking out for each other, and neighbors trust other neighbors. This stresses the importance of word of mouth in advertising and business reviews for the Matelot community. Word of mouth is important in the US, but we tend to have a stronger emphasis on the use of technology and the internet. In this scenario, it was important for us to use the transferable skill of adaptability and critical thinking to change our presentation to be geared more towards techniques that work in Trinidad over what works in the United States.

For our networking presentation, I found out that networking in Trinidad is important in order to develop and establish business with returning customers. The way that we go through the process of networking in America; however, might not always work in the business world in Trinidad. We talked to Michelle throughout our workshop about formalities in the networking process such as follow-ups by prompting questions in formal emails. We learned that this practice is not common in Trinidad and most people prefer a phone call due to its more personal nature. Allowing these workshops to become more collaborative rather than a formal presentation allowed our group to learn more about the ways these processes are thought through and executed in Trinidad. This will give us the opportunity to adjust our advice in networking and customer service to be more geared toward what works for a business in other countries.

I think another perspective in Trinidadian business, especially in the small village of Matelot, is the conflict between the younger and older generations. This can be seen in DORCAS Women’s Group. While talking to Tia, the secretary of the DORCAS Women’s Group, she mentioned the power struggle in the group. Tia is a young mother who ran for president of the group with ideas to increase engagement, programs to help women, and delivering more promises to their members. The younger generation believes the group could go in one way and the older generation is resistant to this change. The president of the DORCAS Women’s group, Joanne, mentioned that she wants to establish ecotourism in Matelot, so her children will have something to stay for. Matelot has a high number of individuals from the younger generation leaving to pursue careers or continue schooling. The members of the DORCAS Women’s group see this problem and want to establish a stance in the ecotourism industry to create jobs in Matelot. Their purpose and desire to create ecotourism, however, does not line up with their method of establishing ecotourism. The input of the younger generation becomes vital as they are the ones that would be affected in the future from this industry. While visiting the local high-school in Matelot, I began talking to a student name Shaddai who mention her concerns for venturing into ecotourism. She worried about the effect on the environment, and the potential upset of the village that they call “paradise.” While many students wished for malls and grocery stores right in their backyard, Shaddai wished for resources to eliminate the erosion along their coastline and programs for efforts to clean up trash. Talking with Shaddai, I realized that in global business, the goals of individual communities are not always the same. Some communities do not want infrastructure ruining their view of the ocean and driving out their wildlife or malls placed on their beaches. This was the first time I realized the meaning of the phrase “do not put a value on the difference” meaning that even when people want different things and do things in a different way, this does not necessarily mean that it is right or wrong. It is just simply different. It amazed me the knowledge that I parted with from one conversation with a high-school student in Matelot, but this really shows the strength Matelot has in its youth. Instead of allowing the differences in opinions between the younger and older generations create conflict, the DORCAS Women’s Group should use these opinions to develop ecotourism that would be better suited for the generation that would see its effects.

During this experience, I have learned how easy it is for me to adapt to a new way of life. Everyone in our global service learning class attends university in a city setting, so many of us, when asked, would say we prefer to leave in a city setting, something we are more familiar with in our everyday life; however, while residing in Matelot, it was easy to adjust to a small community lifestyle. Community members were very open with their life stories, opposite to the “keep to yourself” mentality in the United States. It was easier for me to tell my story and have conversations with others about their stories, which made the experience nothing less than authentic. Understanding the differences between high and low context cultures worked here and I became more concerned with my ability to be an agile communicator. In a low context culture like the United States, we tend to be task-oriented and logical; whereas in Matelot we were forced to adapt to a more relationship building style that is common in high context cultures. This relationship building came about through chatting with the women during cooking lessons or learning more about individuals lives while riding the Maxi (Trinidadian way of say taxi bus) to the site visits. My ability to change my communication style surprise me, but also taught me about my ability to think and change my way of expressing myself to get the most out of interactions with the community members.

I think another aspect of international service that I experienced for the first time was the feeling of being in the minority. When you walk around Trinidad with as fair skin as I have, people can easily point you out as a foreign. The realization that you are a foreigner, especially during our time in Port of Spain, makes people watch you more closely. In our time in Matelot, people were more interested and curious about why we were in their small community. The feeling of being an outsider really puts into perspective how others might feel when you stare at them due to simple differences such as the pigment of their skin, disability, or simply what they wear. After this experience, I will always think about how others feel when you look at them differently or act differently around them due to minute differences, differences that make us no more less human.