Published on 1/1/2010
In 1998 I spent ten days over Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago with a friend whose mother had fled to the US seeking asylum, and had never been back. My friend was born and raised in New York, and had never met her family that lived there. She was eager to spend time with her grandparents, but the islands of Trinidad and Tobago were not very safe, and she was concerned about going alone. Having recently ended a long relationship, I was feeling lost and empty. I had been feeling like this for a while and was unsure of how to move on. I knew when my friend asked me to join her on her trip that it was the perfect opportunity to get out of my normal space.
When I arrived I was told that I must stay with a member of her family at all times as it was too dangerous for me to be alone. As if to illustrate that fact, there were bars on nearly every window of every building. We stayed in the house of her grandmother who I was told practiced voodoo, and who assumed that we were getting married. We were so shocked by her assumption that we didn’t immediately correct her, and the rest of the family thought it best we keep quiet. I was surprised that simple friendships between men and women weren’t as readily understood or accepted as I was used to, and it made me wonder how different my life at home would be if my friendships with women were restricted.
I had other surprises in store too. When I tried to take a shower I learned that the public water would only come on at certain times each week and didn’t follow a strict schedule. My hosts tried to store as much as they could in buckets for to use later. When I was very young my family had lived in small wooden house that had few amenities by today’s western standards, but we were lucky: even though it had often been cold, we always had running water.
Also, they celebrated Christmas in a very different way to what I was used to. There was definitely no mashed potato and candies yams! The food was special, local food that was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. Even though my friend’s family were surprised and curious about my vegetarian upbringing, there was still plenty of options for me to eat, and it was fun comparing our cultures and customs over the diner table each night.
My friend’s grandfather drove us all around the island of Trinidad in a small, old, Eastern European car. It was made up of remnants of other cars, long since retired to the scrapheap, and had probably been rebuilt many times over the last decade. He enjoyed showing us around all his favorite places that he had known all his life, such as hidden caves, beaches, waterfalls and the ancient tar pits that the island was known for.
One day, on our way into the main town of Port-of-Spain, we drove past some shanty towns. I had never seen shanty towns before and thought they looked like a really bad way to live. They were very busy and chaotic. I asked about them, expecting my friend’s family to agree with me on their condition, but they replied that “it was just like that for some people.” I got to thinking about the different things we get used to, and how easy it is sometimes to get used to conditions that other people might find shocking.
About halfway through my stay there we took a six hour ferry to get to the island of Tobago where my friend’s aunt lived. Tobago was much smaller and safer than the island of Trinidad with many more holiday resorts. It definitely felt more easy-going. My friend’s aunt was a well-known and respected woman and seemed to know everyone on the island. So many people on the street would stop and talk to us that it felt like being in the company of a celebrity. I was quite shy so I was really thankful that she was so sociable. She introduced us to everyone and they were all interested in where we were from and what we were doing during our visit.
Staying with a family that lived in Trinidad & Tobago gave me access to the people and culture in a way that I never would have had traveling alone. The safety concerns on the island of Trinidad probably would have made it difficult for me to go there at all had it not been for my friend. In Egypt my experience had been amazing but at the time I hadn’t completely known why. In Trinidad & Tobago I was starting to realize that it was because I was able to get an understanding of the way of life there. I was able to ask questions about every single thing that interested me, in the moment that I was experiencing it. As a tourist I wouldn’t have been able to do that. As a tourist I wouldn’t have had anyone to provide me with the context necessary to help me understand what I was seeing.
This trip, along with many others, taught me something else as well. It taught me that travel can give you perspective and be therapeutic. I was able to temporarily step away from the challenges in my personal life and see the world from a completely new angle. I was able to begin to see that my problems, while important to me, were really quite small in the grander scheme of things. Looking at my life from an outside perspective allowed me to grow as a person.
Have you ever experienced a similar situation? Experienced travel as a way to gain perspective and work through a difficult point in your life? If you feel like sharing, I would love to hear your story.