Category Archives: Caribbean

Pavese Got it Wrong

According to poet Cesare Pavese, “Traveling is a brutality.  It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.  You are constantly off-balance.  Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.”  As an American student in a studying in Barbados, I would have to disagree with Pavese’s assessment of travel.

Of course the actual travel can be extremely brutal.  Between layovers, cramped seats, bad service, struggling with luggage, going through security, and having to deal with rude people, it is a wonder people go anywhere at all, but I don’t think that traveling makes one constantly unbalanced or that is something that make you lose sight of the familiar.  If anything travel can make you more balanced, put the familiar in perspective, and help you to appreciate what is yours.  In my time abroad, my experience on the grub line is my best counter to Pavese’s quote.

At the University of the West Indies, when you move into the hall for the first time your first week is an initiation. It is tradition for the first year/new residents ‘freshers’ of each hall to stay up all night for the whole week while the older residents on the hall ‘super seniors’ teach them the mottos, songs, and chants for their respective halls.  It all leads up to a battle at the end of week to see which hall has the most spirit. This process is called grubbing or being on the grub line.  It is seen as a way to immediately integrate new students into their new environment and jump-start friendships among new residents.

I was not looking forward to grubbing.  I figured that it would be a bunch of cheesy activities similar to my orientation during my freshman year of college back in the States.  Participation is not mandatory; however most people do participate and as the only American/foreign student in my hall I thought it would look bad if I did not. I did not want to be known as the ‘stuck up American girl’ or disrespect a tradition, so in spite of my reservations, I decided to participate.

On the first night, at about 3am, I was rudely awakened by the super seniors who were running up and down the hallways yelling and banging on pots and pans.  The freshers were summoned to the TV room where we were given names that we were to be referred to for the rest of the week.  It was more or less the same for the rest of the week. The super seniors would wake us up at odd hours with pots and pans and we would sound off with the motto, the song, and the chants.

As the American girl; however, my accent interfered with my learning the songs and the chants, though most of the verses would be in standard English, some verses would be in a dialect.  Most of the time, I would just move my mouth and imitate the sounds other people were making.  It was like singing along to a song where you know everything but that one line and you ad lib as you go.  It was funny, but I felt so foolish.  I felt even more foolish when I asked someone how to pronounce the words and what they meant and could not understand what they were saying because of their accent.

By the time we had to battle the other hall, I knew some of the words better and in other places I had perfected the ad libs.   For example, in one of our chants there was a line that said “wi nuh tek chat watch di words weh yuh fling” (we don’t take chat, watch the words where you fling) I kept saying what I was hearing which was, “we no ton chant watch the worth when yuh fling.”  Luckily, I have adjusted to the various Caribbean accents that I am exposed to on a daily basis and I now know how to properly pronounce our chants, but I still have many moments where I mouth the words.

To date, grubbing has been my most unique experience in Barbados.  Though it was something that was completely out of my comfort zone and completely different from anything I had experienced at home, I never felt as if I were off-balance.  Even in the moments when I missed home the most, I still felt as if the experience was giving me a new perspective.  The grubbing process also did not make me lose sight of what was familiar.  It made the familiar more endearing. I have a greater appreciation of home and have a better concept of what home means to me now that it is so far away.

Pavese was almost right when he said that nothing is ours when we travel except for the essential things that tend toward the eternal.  Except for what I brought with me, and the room I am paying to keep it in, nothing in Barbados is mine.  Even though ownership of these things is far from eternal or essential, being able to claim them as mine gave me a small place and space in a country where I can claim nothing.

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Where’s the Fresh? – Food in Barbados

I had high expectations for the food in Barbados.  Going to a country surrounded by water, I was excited try the fresh fish, and with its tropical climate I was looking forward to enjoying the local fresh produce. I even traveled with a small blender, thinking that I would have an opportunity to make yummy fruit smoothies for breakfast everyday. Sadly; however, my high expectations for Bajan cuisine have not been met. In fact, if anything the adjusting food in Barbados has been one of the biggest struggles I have had in my study abroad experience.

This is not to say that the food in Barbados is bad.  Perhaps, if I had come with more realistic expectations, then maybe I would have enjoyed the food here more. For example, although I expected to find fresh fish everywhere, I have yet to consume fresh fish that I did not cook myself. In general, they serve fish fried. While fried fish is delicious, as a Californian who does not normally consume a large amount of fried food, it was an adjustment for my stomach to consume fried fish on the regular basis rather than as an occasional treat.

The easy remedy for this would to be to buy fresh fish and cook it myself. However, this is not as easy as it may seem. The fish in the grocery store is rarely fresh, and has often imported from somewhere else. Being a student with limited transportation in a country with a very confusing transportation system, it is difficult to get to the beach side vendors who sell fresh fish.

The situation is similar with produce. While I expected to find an abundance of local fruits and vegetables available, most of the produce in the grocery store is imported and is often half bad since it had to cross an ocean or two to get all the way to Barbados. I have found that the best produce tends to come from street vendors. Locally grown spinach, cucumbers, and okra are delicious; however, even the street vendors don’t usually to have fruit to sell and I have to settle for the half rotten imported fruit from the grocery store.

Though the national dish is flying fish and cou-cou (similar to a blend of cornmeal and okra, it can also be made with breadfruit) and my expectations to find fish everywhere, Bajans eat a lot more chicken than fish. The typical Bajan meal will consist of meat (usually chicken), a starch, and vegetables. Other Bajan fare includes fish cakes, macaroni pie, coconut bread, rum punch, and pudding and souse. I haven’t had the opportunity to try cou-cou, but I have tried everything else. The only dish I did not like was the pudding and souse. The pudding consists of some kind of intestine and sausage and the souse is pickled pork. My favorite food in Barbados has been the macaroni pie, which is basically macaroni and cheese that is baked. I also really enjoy the coconut bread.

Living in another country has made me realize how essential food can be to making me feel at home.  It has also helped me to appreciate the variety of food options available to me in California.

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Taking the Leap

It didn’t hit me until I was sitting in airport. All of a sudden I realized the magnitude of the change I was about to make. I had been so busy with all my last-minute errands and packing that I hadn’t had the chance to feel anything about studying abroad, negative, positive, or otherwise. Even as I said my goodbyes, I kept myself busy easing everyone’s fears and hopes for me, rather than feeling anything myself. As I sat alone in the airport waiting for my flight, the feelings I had been too busy to acknowledge decided that it was time to show themselves.

In the weeks before my departure, I kept getting the question, “Are you scared?” Every time, I would laugh it off and come up with some witty response saying that I was not. However, in that moment sitting in the airport I wished I had been honest with myself about the answer to this question. In reality, I was terrified.

The feeling of terror is new to me. Usually, the only things that really terrify me are rats and spiders. I love horror films. I love roller coasters. I love trying new things and I usually take change in stride. But that day, change looked like a giant rat spider and all I wanted to do was run and hide. I was afraid that moving to another country might be too big a change for me to handle. I was afraid of not having a support system. I was afraid that no one would like me. I was afraid of being vulnerable in a place that I had never been. I was afraid that such a major change in my life would change me into someone I didn’t recognize anymore and somehow I would lose part of myself.

As these fears played in my head, I almost chickened out. I kept thinking, “How bad would it be if I just didn’t get on the plane. What if I just ‘miss’ my flight? It will save me a lot of money if I don’t go. I can find a job instead.” I created a whole life for myself based on my ‘decision’ not to get on the plane. But when my flight began boarding I boarded too.

By the time I landed in Barbados, my terror had mostly subsided. Seeing the water and the beach from the plane calmed me immensely and immediately confirmed that I had made the right decision by getting on the plane. As I took my first steps on Bajan land, I finally began to feel the excitement and the thrill that I usually experience when going somewhere new. Though I still had the same concerns and fears as I did in the airport, I knew that I would not regret my decision to come to Barbados. Even if all my fears came true, there would always be a beach nearby.

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Cross-Culture Shock: Returning to the U.S. from Trinidad & Tobago

Rewind back to January 2013. I climbed into the sweltering heat of Trinidad, yanked off my sweatshirt, and peered into a blinding sunlight the likes of which I had not seen in a long while. The taxi driver pulled up to the curb and began loading my baggage into the trunk. “Hop in de front chile,” she invited. I opened the door beside me- on the right hand side of the car- and was surprised to see a steering wheel attached to the dashboard. “Ya not drivin dis time,” she laughed and directed me to the seat on the opposite side. Six months later I return to Maryland, USA and find that I am now struggling to remember the correct driving procedures. A left turn through an intersection seems all wrong. I walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk, try to climb up a down escalator, and hold on to the left side of a railing, bumping into people walking in the opposite direction.

The racial makeup of Trinidad and Tobago is vastly different from that of the United States. My first shock upon arriving at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia was caused by the racial uniformity of the people milling about the airport. Trinidad and Tobago is a culture made up of Afro-Trinidadians (of African descent) and Indo-Trinidadians (of Indian descent). On the rare occasion I would run into a Caucasian Trinidadian, but generally they had roots in Europe and it was not often that I met a Caucasian Trinidadian who lived in Trinidad (many of them were only there to attend UWI).

While the United States refers to itself as the ‘melting pot’, many areas are very concentrated racially. The city in which I returned to was another shock to my senses. After spending months in the company of mainly Afro-Trinidadians and students from other Caribbean backgrounds, I was suddenly thrust back into a city that is demographically 90% white and only 3% black— a complete feeling of vertigo!

The USA has a rich culture to offer, if we look hard enough. Trinidad and Tobago has a rich culture, which we can see and feel without having to actively seek it out. I miss seeing houses of a million different colors, shapes, and sizes. I miss the open air shacks, the dorms with windows that never close, and the strange shades of colors chosen for each part of a house- none of which matched the others. Flying over the USA, I was again reminded of the feelings of conformity to one standard as I peered through the plane windows at the suburban homes, all following one color scheme.

I miss walking to the Tunapuna market for food on a weekend morning, hearing music blasting whether it was 8 AM or 8 PM, soca blaring from the speakers of cars or steel pan drums beating out a tune from the nearest church. Trinidad and Tobago is a proud culture, driven by their love of music and dance. Soca music draws in armfuls of instruments that dance together to make a joyous tune to which you can shake every muscle in your body! Back in my city at home, I hear music blare out the car windows of the occasional teenage driver, but shopping malls and grocery stores do not take part in the tradition of music. Here, music scares away the older customers rather than inviting them to shimmy in the doors.

Nevertheless, I am ecstatic to be  home to the delicious food. Having a food allergy, it is a relief to be back in the USA where I can find any food imaginable at the grocery store… back to a culture that takes pride in eating as much as possible! I also have taken for granted, in the course of my life, the ease with which I have access to goods and services. In Trinidad and Tobago, I had to travel several towns over, to a small mall in the north corner of the capital city, in order to find a store that would fix my camera. In the USA, it is a simple matter of of driving down the road and there are innumerable shops available to help you with every need. A chain like Wal-Mart does not exist in Trinidad and Tobago. Instead, there are seven separate stores you must visit in order to achieve the same shopping wholeness that one trip to Wal-Mart allows us.

At the end of the day, the most tangible differences are the accents and the public transportation. The suburban area in which I reside nearly lacks all public transport, the only option being a public bus that drives through a few times a day. Trinidad and Tobago relied on the maxi-taxis, wild buses jam-packed with people, driving on several routes for a mere $3 TT (under $0.50 USD). Nothing can compare to the “sing-songy” lulling accent of the Trinis, welcoming you aboard a taxi or into a shop.

As I adjust to the USA, my heart longs again for the lush forests, the clear water, and the rich people of Trinidad and Tobago.

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Reevaluating Goals

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to join a tour alongside the western coast of Trinidad and Tobago. We climbed aboard a bus and chugged into the heart of Chaguanas, stopping at two famous Hindu sites: An ashram dedicated to Lord Hanuman and The Temple in the Sea. The walls, floors, ceilings, and each doorway trailed colors, intricate patterns rising into the sky. Hindu gods of every shape, size, and color from the Ramayana sat peacefully in the center of the temple, greeting visitors. Yet, even having been in Trinidad and Tobago for several months, I feel I have not even begun to understand the depth of the people here. Hinduism runs deeply within a large portion of Trinidad and Tobago’s population, but it is a religion about which I know very little.

I have also been exposed to the practices of the Spiritual Baptists. In particular, I watched a ritual of purification as a group of Spiritual Baptists bathed in milk and the waters of Maracas Waterfall. I have watched a group of men in traditional Rastafarian gear gather to enjoy each other’s thoughts on a sunny afternoon at the botanical gardens. I have seen trinkets celebrating the voodoo rituals (less common, but certainly established) in Tobago.

Despite my fascination will all these practices, I have not had enough time to fully learn about each of the groups that bring their own flavor to Trinidad and Tobago’s rich cultural stew. Still, I know that seeing these new rituals has opened my eyes to the fact that the world holds so much that I do not yet know. Knowledge is my greatest academic, professional, and personal goal now. I have a passion to learn about all these practices, and perhaps be able to value and utilize them in better understanding the patients with whom I will work in the field of medicine.

I feel that I will not grasp the full impact of my study abroad experience on my understanding of the world until I return to the United States and absorb the changes. Embracing the different cognitions and practices around the world is undoubtedly a great help in any career, and will help to build stronger relations between myself and others I meet. I am now, more than ever, eager to learn!

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Culture Shock in Trinidad & Tobago

Certainly, the first stage of entry into a new country (and new culture) is that of excitement. Trinidad and Tobago enveloped me in a variety of scents, the endless music on the streets through all hours of the day and night, and the hustle and bustle of the transportation system. It first dawned on me that I was no longer at home when I waved down my first maxi-taxi, climbed aboard, and perched myself beside a man napping in full Rastafarian gear (robes, headpiece, elaborate hair, and all). What a relief it was to walk off campus and encounter three different roadside street carts with juicy, brightly colored fruits calling your name. It was certainly not America!

The second stage is that of irritation and frustration as the differences sink in. This stage has only occurred to me in relation to food. As someone who is intolerant to gluten (found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt grains), it became difficult to find foods that I could eat without feeling ill. Trinidad and Tobago certainly has curried options, as well as callaloo, rice, fresh fruits, and channa. However, a KFC or Church’s Chicken can be found on nearly every corner. Fried foods, bake, doubles, roti, and pastries are a big part of the food culture. In my attempt to enjoy those aspects of culture, I found myself torn and frustrated.

After finding myself sick on multiple occasions, having attempted to try the local cuisine (trust me, it is difficult to turn down fresh fried and seasoned shark on Maracas Beach), the only solution seemed to be to hunt down foods that I could eat. Thus began my food travels, a great saga of cultural cuisine crafting. This story ends joyfully (and with a fully belly) in the heart of Port of Spain at The Panyol Place, a small family-owned Venezuelan restaurant. Venezuelan culture can be found dispersed throughout Trinidad and Tobago, certainly influenced by the vicinity of the large South American country. For this, I am grateful!

For the most part, I could not imagine being homesick while I hiked to the peak of mountains overlooking the rain forest  found myself under a natural arch with the beautiful clear blue waters swirling beneath my feet, and stood amidst a group of dancers throwing colored powder into my hair during Phagwa! Still, there have been times when I have become frustrated, strolling back and forth down the market street or through the mall, unable to find something I need. I realize that in the United States, particularly in the area of my home, I am incredibly spoiled by the ease of attaining something. I do not need to search far and wide or call multiple stores to find what I need, because everything is within grasp. Here, and in most other parts of the world, a little more effort is required!

I recently read the following quote:
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”

I am lucky to have understood this mindset prior to arriving in Trinidad and Tobago. With a flexibility of mind, it is possible to seamlessly adapt to any cultural differences, however initially frustrating. I feel I have accepted Trinidad and Tobago as the new norm, at least within the context of how I am currently living. I can only imagine how many differences I will notice upon my return to the U.S.A!

*Note: this graph on Culture-Shock shows the stages that many of our study abroad participants experience.  It seems like Sana is going through stage 4 (developing strategies to deal with difficulties and differences and adapting to the host culture).

Culture Shock Graph

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Lay of the Land in Trinidad & Tobago

While some countries are known for their grand architecture and visitors traverse the pathways of the city to photograph the statuettes perched on every corner, Trinidad and Tobago is not one of these countries. Yes, these islands have a few beautiful architectural pieces, especially in Port of Spain, but the main attraction is the lush greenery. The surrounding nature invites you in and drives you into the realization that the untouched world around us is the greatest miracle we could ask for.

Over the last few months, I have been grateful to receive this knowledge straight from the source, the forests. Trinidad and Tobago offers an endless variety of trails ending in bubbling rivers bursting with life, rainforests teeming with a rainbow of birds, and waterfalls you have to crane your neck to catch sight of! In Tobago, especially, the beaches are awe-inspiring, with light sand and clear water, sparkling an aquamarine in the sunlight.

However, despite all this beauty, Trinidad and Tobago has certainly not reached a country-wide environmental consciousness. Specific parts of the country— such as the highly tourist-populated beaches of Tobago, the nesting sites of the leatherback turtles in Trinidad, and the popular hiking trails — have come ahead of the rest in encouraging recycling and environmental safety. Nevertheless, the majority of the country does not seem particularly discouraged by the thought of tainting the beautiful landscape with crumpled cans, used bottles, and non-biodegradable items.

Often, I find myself carrying a trash bag or an empty soda cup for blocks without seeing a single garbage bin. Even around my dorms and on our campus, it is difficult to find recycling bins and trash cans on every corner as I am accustomed to at home. I realize that in America I feel that I am a particularly environmentally aware person with a strong sense of friendliness for our plant friends. It seems that I may not be as aware as I believed myself to be. In America we barely need to raise a finger to find a recycling bin ready for our plastics, or a trash can ready for our Styrofoam  In Trinidad and Tobago, the processes have not yet taken place to set up a country-wide recycling system to spread awareness about conservation.

Although people are educated about the necessity of recycling and the consequences of littering, I notice that without the proper availability of resources to aid in this (such as recycling bins every block or trash cans on each street corner), it is impossible to expect people to walk miles with their trash in their hand, simply to lay it alongside the sidewalk when it becomes too much of a burden!

On the other hand, students at UWI take great pride in stepping out and helping with environmental cleanups when asked. This leads me to believe that most people are searching for a way to be more conscious (in all truth, no one enjoys kicking trash out of the sidewalk during an afternoon stroll), but struggling to find it! When the Matura Bay Cleanup fliers went out, advertising a volunteer opportunity at 6 AM on a Saturday, an unbelievable amount of people went! At my university, with a slightly larger population than UWI, we could not have even a third of the participation that I found here. Students worked in the early hours of the morning, picking trash off the bay that leatherback turtles most often nest on in Trinidad.

I know the importance of being environmentally aware. This week, I was lucky enough to experience a rare event— the nesting of the endangered leatherback turtles. Around midnight on Friday, from our campfire on the beach, we watched as a turtle slid onto shore and made its way slowly up to the softer parts of the sand on Paria Bay. This 2,000 ton creature found an easier path up the sand to dig a nest in which to lay over 120 eggs. Why? Because this beach was clean of trash! However, a local relayed to me the problems of littering on the beach. The baby turtles, already unprotected and highly vulnerable, hatch and must find their way to the water. With so much garbage and litter clouding the beach several more turtles die than they should, as their path is obstructed.

While Trinidad and Tobago could certainly improve in regards to cleaning up litter and increasing the availability of recycling and trash bins, one thing I would definitely bring back home with me is the health conscious behavior. Yes, this climate offers an advantage to those seeking year-round hiking adventures. The United States has a decent climate for the pursuit of outdoors adventure for at least 7-8 months of the year, and yet the majority of social activities take place inside! I enjoy how Trinidad and Tobago pays great attention to the natural beauty of the world around us and encourages a healthy set of physical activities involving the fresh air and lush foliage.

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