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Students Explore Rum, Rasta and Revolution in Trinidad

Joelissa in Trinidad

Freshman Joelisa Harvest spends time "grounding" with a resident of Trinidad and Tobago while on a study abroad Spring Break trip.

By Dr. Bretton Alvaré, assistant professor of anthropology

Five undergraduates from Dr. Bretton Alvaré's Rum, Rasta and Revolution anthropology course and three undergraduates from Dr. Nadine McHenry's Cross-Cultural Research in Trinidad education course ventured to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago over Spring Break for a week-long exploration of Trinidadian culture and ecology. This was the Department of Anthropology's second Spring Break trip to Trinidad and Tobago, and the department looks to continue this trip on a bi-annual basis.

According to Alvaré, the trip exposed students to the many "faces" of Trinidad--not only the faces most visitors see when they vacation there as tourists, but the faces that remain known only to the island's "sufferers" (chronically poor, politically marginalized residents). He explained that Trinidad and Tobago is a nation of contrasts. It is the wealthiest nation in the Caribbean, yet it is plagued by poverty and violent crime. It is home to some of the most exotic plant and animal species in the region, but it is also suffering from serious pollution and environmental degradation. It is known for its legendary Carnival parades and celebrations, but most residents cannot even afford to participate in them.

The Widener group first stopped at Grand Riviére beach in the village of Toco, a primary nesting ground for massive leatherback turtles. Although it is still early in the nesting season, students witnessed a behemoth female leatherback measuring more than six feet in length lay her eggs in the sand just a stone's throw from their hotel. Students then visited the Asa Wright Nature Center before heading to the southern city of San Fernando to witness the spectacular Carnival celebration held annually to mark the beginning of Lent. Some students even got to enjoy the honor of being asked to "jump up" and showcase their dance moves alongside the dancers in the parade. The last two days of the trip were spent touring some of the most impoverished regions of the island and "grounding" (talking and spending time) with the local residents there.

McHenry and her students, in partnership with faculty and students from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, focused their attention on the state of the island's schools, touring various facilities and offering advice on how to improve conditions for special needs students.

"The experience gave me a new appreciation for how much we know in the U.S. about special needs students and how we intervene based on this knowledge," said Patrick Green, a senior early/special education major. "We shared with them our best practices based on research for early diagnosis and intervention."

Alvaré and his students visited local residents living in and around the oilfields in the island's depressed South region. They spoke with and visited the homes of local elders of both African and East Indian descent to understand the cultural similarities and differences between the island's two main ethnic groups and the difficulties they both face. Although extremely poor in the material sense, these people maintain rich cultural traditions, which they revealed in the generous hospitality they extended to Alvaré and his students, opening up their homes and gardens, recounting local history, and even serving delicious homemade Trini cuisine from their own kitchens.

According to Alvaré, Students walked away with a new understanding of the complexity of the Caribbean region, one not based on the images of pristine resorts featured in travel brochures, but on the real concrete experiences they had as they were exposed to the island's unspeakable natural beauty and unfathomable environmental destruction and to its people's capacity for joyous celebration and pitiable suffering.