Life Abroad is a new monthly series that gives some insight into what it is like to live as a foreigner in a particular country. It will focus on experiences and day to day living of expats and international students. This month, we’ll be looking at living in Trinidad and Tobago.
Check out last month’s life abroad in France.
Camping on the beach and seeing the sea turtles lay their eggs
Living in Trinidad and Tobago
I came to live in Trinidad and Tobago as an exchange student at the University of the West Indies. I was looking to escape Canadian winters, visit a new place and culture, and take my courses in English. This left me with only a few options. I eventually ended up in the Caribbean on the larger of the two islands, Trinidad.
An Exchange Student Living in Trinidad
One of the most striking differences was bureaucracy. While many offices in Canadian school and government systems certainly have their flaws, Trinidad takes it to a whole other level. Trying to get anything done was like pulling teeth. Everything took an extremely long time if they got done at all.
When I first arrived, I was picked up from the airport, along with a friend from the same university and driven to my student residence. I had organized it along with the school prior to coming and arranged for a private dorm. This was only to find that I had a roommate upon arrival. My friend, who hadn’t arranged anything prior to arrival, managed to get a private dorm on the men’s floor in the same building. After a couple weeks I was eventually moved to a private dorm room, but the dorm management seemed to only be “show your student card, here’s a key”.
Once settled in, the following days consisted of attending orientation and figuring out our classes. Thankfully, the classes were mostly arranged ahead of time, but some ended up having scheduling conflicts or their classes not even existing during the semester they were there. When I began my classes, I learned that for most of them, coursework was only worth 20% of the class, leaving 80% of your grade to a single final exam.
As exchange students, we were on a pass or fail basis – our overall grade didn’t even show on our home university’s official transcript (and later on, thanks to said bureaucratic nonsense, I had issues even transferring my credits over, but that’s another story). Due to this, there wasn’t much incentive to attend a lot of our classes, as long as we knew we could do the major assignments and pass the exam.
Fun in the Sun
Most of the exchange students hung out together. With the majority of us being from (colder) western nations, there were lots of activities that weren’t as available in our home countries and were much less expensive. We would go snorkelling, go out on boat trips, and hike to secluded waterfalls regularly.
It was also carnival season during my semester there. I didn’t know much about it before going; I thought it would just be a week-long festival with a big parade.
I’ve never been more wrong.
There are “fetes” leading up to carnival as early as 2 or 3 months prior. These are huge events with bands and DJs held throughout the country with some of the biggest being held in the capital, Port of Spain. Many are themed or have dress codes and almost all of them include drinks.
Many people will join different bands in which they “play mas” during the main event. They dress in elaborate costumes and have dances. While I didn’t play mas while there, I went with one of the main university groups during an event called “J’Ouvert” or opening day of Carnival. This involves a lot of music, costumes, throwing paint, coloured powders and mud and dancing in the street from night until the morning.
Being the Foreigner
Most of the times, even in the areas we were living in, we were assumed to be tourists. This was fine but calls of “welcome to the island” and close talkers looking to make sure we had “fun on our vacation” got old pretty quickly.
Other than that there weren’t too many issues. Many of us were used to being able to go out at night on our own without issue, but the times we mentioned even just running to the store alone or out to grab food to long after sundown, the local friends we made there strongly advised against it or volunteered to accompany us. The lack of feeling safe and comfortable on my own is main reason why I wouldn’t live there again.
As a student and with my friends, the freedom was wonderful. As we often travelled in such a large group when we went in one of their smaller buses, we would fill it. Then we’d simply negotiate with the driver to take us to our actual destination and not just the bus route. I found the lack of regulations kind of refreshing. Frustrating sometimes, yes, but refreshing. Nobody cared if there were three people on a motor bike, or drinking in the street. It may not be a lack of laws so much as lack of regulations, but I don’t know for sure.
Overall, if you’re looking for an extremely laid back way of life, consistently good weather, beaches, hikes, and enjoy being outdoors, Trinidad is a great place to go.
It’s not overrun with tourists and there aren’t people constantly trying to sell things to you. I’d highly suggest going during carnival season – you’ll be in for quite the spectacle and party.