Earlier in the Spring semester, I was awarded the opportunity to travel to Bogotá, Colombia to work on a project with an organization called Fundación Mujeres Empresarias Marie Poussepin through Clark University’s Liberal Education & Effective Practice (LEEP) program. The program funds student-led research projects and internships related to their field of study. I was accompanied on this trip by three other students from my university, alongside our Professor John Dobson.
My major is Global Environmental Studies, which is under the school of Geography. It is a highly interdisciplinary major so I get to take courses from a wide range of departments like Biology, Film, Economics, Political Science, and so on. My focus is on Natural Resource and Land Management, and I’m specifically interested in agriculture and food systems. So, how does this tie into what I did in Colombia? Wellllll… the organization we worked with provides low-income women with the opportunity to be entrepreneurs through urban agriculture. Therefore, I got to physically plant produce, as well as witness urban agriculture through a developing country’s lens.
The first day in Colombia I was so excited to be able to practice my Spanish! We had breakfast at San Javeriana University with some students and professors from the university who were joining us on the project with Fundación Mujeres Empresarias Marie Poussepin. English and Spanish flew across the table. It was a delight. Quickly enough, we got to socialize with the students and made plans with them outside our work schedules, such as going to the museums and even a nightclub (shoutout to Andres Carne de res). After breakfast, it was time to go introduce ourselves to the women from the organization and do some site visits to the urban gardens. Yay!
showing some produce
“We don’t give them fish. We teach them how to fish.”
We were introduced to the basic tenets of the organization and one that stood out to me the most was, “We don’t give them fish. We teach them to fish.” I really liked this quote, because sometimes in developmental work, it is easy to construct a pattern of dependency. However, with this quote that the organization follows, the idea of aiding people with knowledge and independence, rather than giving them the finished product, is emphasized. After a brief introduction and a delicious meal, we started visiting the houses of the women who had urban gardens built in their yards.
The point of this was to show us the working model the organization had adopted. However, for our specific project we would not be working on home gardens, but instead a communal garden. The government awarded the organization a plot of land in a community park space. What we would be doing is working the land in this communal space to allow for more women to reap the benefits of the organization.
Work begun promptly the next morning. We started removing the all the grass from the plot of land, which I have to say is some SERIOUS work. It took an incredibly long time. Whilst doing this, we spoke about our newfound respect for farmers – especially ones who take the organic approach. With conventional farming, the work we were doing by hand would have been completed in no time. Despite this, we all put 110% of our effort into, especially after seeing the older women doing so with no complaint! We then needed to pull all of the roots and rocks out of the soil. We encountered little critters like snakes and worms – which I did not like. Eventually, we all got accustomed and even fascinated when we found them.
The next day on the farm, we continued rooting the soil, and then we had to move the new soil onto the plot of land. This was arguably the most tasking part of the experience but I think I gained a bit of muscle. We all worked together and got it done.
After we put all the soil onto the land, it was time to plant (finally!). We each got our own little beds to plant with the help of our abuelitas. We planted lettuce, onions, beets, potatoes and cauliflower.
So, we got the planting done! But we weren’t finished with the project just yet. The other part of the project was to interview the women we worked with about varying things related to their experience in the organization. Things like what are some aspects of the organization they like, things they would change, how we can better assist them, etc. This was challenging due to the language barrier and the difficult stories some of the women faced, but we split into pairs and got it done! With the help of the material gathered from these interviews we were able to suggest methods of improvement for the organization.
The project culminated with a panel discussion and presentation at the San Javeriana University the final day. Clark students, along with San Javeriana students presented specific objectives to further assist the organization in the carrying out of their goals. Overall, this experience was the most valuable out-of-classroom project I’ve participated in. I’d never really farmed or planted anything before, nor have I had to work with people who spoke a different language to me. My Spanish has gotten better, my fear of snakes and worms has been minimized, and I got to try a WHOLE LOT of different fruits native to Colombia.
Apart from working on the land, we got to explore a little bit. We hiked a mountain, took a walking street art tour, met a llama/alpaca, shopped in La Candelaria, got lost, ate often, amazing stuff.
mantra on this venture: be in the moment, be present
After seeing a Facebook friend’s multiple posts about mosaic & pottery classes in Central, Trinidad (bonus for me because I live in Central & everything is usually in West), I decided to register for the two-day Raku firing course. I was looking for any chance to engage in my artistic side. I drove up to Ajoupa Gardens in Freeport, surrounded by lush, green forest.
I instantly felt at peace in this environment. It was 9AM, the beautiful birds of T&T were singing, the plants were alive with greenery & the breeze was cool & soft. I met Bunty & Rory O’Connor – the owners of this beautiful place & the instructors of the course. They were lovely. Bunty gave us a tour of the property and showed us the tremendous biodiversity that exists within her garden – the trees, the birds, she even has a fish pond! – it was beautiful.
The course consisted of four others and myself. The course started out with us getting a feel for the clay, emptying our minds and entering a state of peace before starting to make anything. We were instructed to “make whatever you feel in the moment, do not think about it, just do”. I emptied my mind, and my hands began to move. This calmed me because I came into the course set on perfection – perfection is a no; just do.
My pieces don’t look like they would win some prize, or be sold at an auction (lol), but I am a beginner at the craft, and I am proud of my work. Ya gotta start somewhere, right?
After we crafted our 12 pieces, it was time for lunch. We were instructed to bring our own lunches, however some food was provided – it was like a potluck. There was quiche, freshly baked bread, salad, lime juice and chutney.
After a delicious lunch & fulfilling conversation about cocoa in T&T, we headed back to work. It was time to conceptualize and sculpt our final pieces. I had a blank space in my head when it came to my final piece. Would I make a mug, a bowl, art? Then, for some reason I was transported back to my childhood where my mother had a ceramic turtle that held sweeties in our living room. I decided to use that as inspiration for my next piece.
After about 2 hours, my turtle began to look like I envisioned it – with a few tweaks here & there. I was overall happy with the outcome. I left Ajoupa Gardens that day full of inspiration, and excitement. Excitement to see my piece after it had been fired, and to return the following Sunday to glaze my baby up! 🙂
The second Sunday couldn’t have come fast enough. I was so ready to glaze my turtle and just be in that space again. I arrived and saw a layout of everyone’s pieces – it was great.
Today was the day to glaze and fire. We picked our least favorite pieces to glaze first so we could have an idea of the colors. We were warned that Raku firing is experimental and what you see in the colors is not always what you get. I was ready.
We glazed, then fired. Glazed, then fired. Glazed, then fired.
Then we ate. This Sunday was chicken salad, veggie lasagna, freshly baked bread, tossed salad, with the usual lime juice. We also had some desserts – brownies, banana bread, mangoes, coffee and tea. Someone brought beer (aye!).
After lunch, we glazed and fired some more. We saw our pieces from the first couple of rounds. It was really cool to see the different combinations of colors.
I was happy with the color of my pieces – even though now I think I could have worked more on the shapes. But maybe uniformity is not my style.
The colors and textures in these pieces impressed me so much. Of course after finishing my pieces I had to play with the dogs. I can’t help myself. Look how precious.
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No better way to spend a Sunday.
I left Ajoupa Gardens feeling inspired, joyous, & ready to create more! Thank you, O’Connors. Till next time.
took this trip to recharge after a stressful & emotional school year – i got way more than what i bargained for.
I arrived at José Martí International Airport around 12 PM, one hour earlier than expected. Surrounded by familiar palm trees, I felt a sense of “home”…until I arrived at immigration and all I heard was Spanish. The immigration officer shouted “LATINO!!!” at me when he saw me & he was confused when I told him no. After I passed immigration, I got my suitcase and then had to wait an hour or so for my cousin’s flight. I finally saw her, we waited another hour to get her bags, and then searched for the money exchange. We exited the airport and quickly found a man holding my name on a sign: Kaiomi Innies. I laughed & chatted with him in Spanish. I already felt the warmth of Cuba with that first conversation.
After we exchanged our money, we made our way to Centro Habana. We got to our casa particulares on Corrales and met our Cuban family. Magela and Yuri and their two kids greeted us and gave us advice. We quickly put our bags down and headed out to wander the streets of Habana.
The familiar hot sun blazed down, Cuban children gathered on the street, a few tourists with maps caught my eye and we did the tourist nod of acknowledgement that seems to occur in Habana. I began to notice cultural differences between Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago. The women wear shorter clothes in the street and it’s normal in Cuba, but in T&T women are told to cover up more, so I found this quite interesting.
After, we reached a park where I was immediately bombarded by jiniteras. These women fooled me into thinking they were interested in where I was from, etc., but they just wanted my CUC (tourist money). First lesson learned.
More Cubans shouted, “turista!”, “americanos!” and “nueva york!” at us when we walked further. When I told them that I was from Trinidad y Tobago, they seemed to be happier and said that we’re “Caribe neighbours!”.
Seeing the 1950’s style cars made me feel as though I was transported back in time.
The first restaurant we ate at was terrible “Spaghetti y Noodles”. We were hungry and just entered a random restaurant. Second lesson learned. After this terrible meal, we walked back to the casa and went straight to sleep.
I woke up that morning feeling revived and ready. Creds to Steve Madden for our comfy shoes. Breakfast at our casa was a plate of fruits – banana, pineapple, guava, mango, and paw-paw; freshly blended mango juice, bread & fried eggs, toast & honey, and Cuban coffee. Breakfast was done by a lovely lady who I called “mama” because she reminded me of an aunty. She was shocked when I did not want any meat.
After breakfast, we headed to the Museo de la Revolución but on our way there we were persuaded by Fernando, a man with a horse-carriage, to take his tour around Habana for 30 CUC. At first, I was dismissive of him but he was such a sweet guy. I was incredibly happy that we took the tour because we found so many things that we probably wouldn’t have on our own, and it gave us a sense of direction for our own explorations.
We arrived at the Museo del Ron which has an on-site bar and ron y tobaco shop. We ordered 2 mojitos and enjoyed the live music.
The live band played familiar Spanish language songs like Bailando, and I couldn’t help but get up and dance with them. My heart was filled with so much love & light in this moment.
After this, we went to various markets. I bought a Havana Club T-shirt. We talked to local artists. And after, our tour was over we stopped off at another casa for a local Cuban lunch (hoping it would be better than our spaghetti y noodles experience). I am happy to say it was 100x better. We also met an older couple from France at the casa. After dinner, we walked back through Centro Habana to walk off the fullness in our bellies. We arrived at the casa and slept through til the next day. I felt a tinge of sadness throughout the night because I forgot my T-shirt at the other casa. Overall, the day was filled with so much happiness, dancing, and “I love you!” from Cuban men.
Another day, another amazing 5CUC breakfast, except this day we had breakfast with two backpackers from Mexico. We spoke to them about their travels and our wish to visit Tulum. They left for Viñales for a climbing trip but left us with some spicy Mexican candies.
After breakfast, we took some photos on the balcony & decided that we would get to the Museo de la Revolución this time for sure.
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We made our way through Centro Habana and towards Habana Vieja to get to the museum. However, we got sidetracked yet again by a double-decker bus tour for 10CUC that makes multiple stops throughout the day. We decided to do this and head to the Plaza de la Revolución first instead. The bus tour gave us some great views of Habana streets.
We arrived at the Plaza de Revolución and were overwhelmed with the amount of history available to take in; the Che mural, José Martí statue, the library – it was a lot. I am intrigued by Revolutionary history so this was great. I was hoping to see more women figures represented.
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After this, we hopped back on the bus, stayed on for an hour taking in the scenery & then dropped off at our original destination – the Museo de la Revolución. The museum really taught me a lot & there was a room dedicated to the women who fought in the revolution. There was also a room showing how Castro’s government was pro-black, sending troops to Angola and Namibia, among other African countries to help them resist capitalist & anti-black regimes. The museum also provided some great views of the architecture.
After the musuem, we headed across the street to ChaChaCha – a restaurant that Magela personally recommended. I ordered a mango daiquiri and Xochete ordered her usual mojito. Lunch here was great and very top-notch.
After lunch, we sat around for a while talking about our future, as we have done since we were children. Discussing future travel destinations, our immense love for Cuba, the revolutionary history, etc. We decided to walk back to try to find where I left my shirt, and all of a sudden Xochete found a familiar face! It was her friend Kande from secondary school back in Couva, T&T. We stopped in the street & talked to her for a while & she invited us to come out for drinks with her later that night. Which we did. We met up with her and her British friend, along with two local Cubans. They took us to Cafe O’Reilly for tapas, drinks and a good ol’ time.
After the tapas and strong mojitos, we headed in a colectivo and towards a nightclub called “La Gruta”. This is where the locals head to on Friday nights. We entered the club was that blazing with Reggaeton and packed with Cubans dressed their best. I ordered a mojito and immediately joined in on the dancing.
Cuban men are not hesitant to ask you to salsa & I’m not one to pass up the opportunity. We danced with strangers. We laughed. We hugged. We sang. It was amazing.
We headed back home sweaty & free.
It was Saturday, the day after our night of dancing and laughter. We woke up late, had our breakfast and decided to find a salsa class – to no avail. We ended up just walking on the Malecon and going for drinks. We got tipsy so we decided to walk it off. We ended up again at ChaChaCha – I accidentally ate meat, but I tried to ignore it (lol). We ordered mojitos con frutas. Sat and talked about what our next move would be.
We decided to just walk and admire the architecture in Habana, before going home for a a siesta.
After our day of aimless, but seemingly purposeful walking, we decided to let the night take us where it wanted to. We made our way to Plaza Vieja, went to the Museo de Chocolate that was way too crowded because of mother’s day. On our way out of the crowd, I was serenedad by a Cuban man whose lyrics translated to, “I want to kiss a Trinidadian girl”. I gave him 1 CUC.
After we found a tapas place and bar called Cafe Bohemia.We sat, drank, and took in the movement of people as the sunset. While sitting outside on the plaza, we saw two Cuban guys taking pictures and were admiring how one of them was directing the poses. We laughed. Eventually one of them asked to take a picture of him and his cousin so I did. We got to talking (only one spoke English). The one who did not know English was quiet so I struck up a conversation with him in Spanish. They asked us if we wanted to go somewhere and at first, I was weary, but then I remembered – wherever the night takes us.
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Emanuel, the one who does not speak English, and I had a loooong convo about life and realized we were the same age and liked similar things – photography, Maluma, modelling, etc (haha). We ended up at Hotel Inglaterra where there was rooftop bar with salsa. Emanuel tried to show me how to salsa, but I’m terrible so it didn’t work. At the end of the night, we exchanged Facebook names & made plans to meet up the day after.
Even with a language barrier – I am not fluent in Spanish & he knows little to no English – our conversation was amazing and I felt like we were friends our entire lives.
I woke up this day knowing that it was our last full day. Sadness crept over me, however, after breakfast and hugging mama for mother’s day, I regained my happiness. We walked over to Callejon de Hamel – an Afro-Cuban community centre that has live music every Sunday inspired by Yoruba traditions.
We met up with Emanuel & his friend that we met yesterday there. The music was great – the beats of the drums reminded me of home. After the music was over, we wandered into some of the art shops.
We headed towards Vedado, stopped at Coppelia’s ice-cream and waited til the rain finished falling to continue. Emanuel went through my pictures and he saw one of New York and said “OMG New York!” and asked me to send him more pictures of New York when I got back. I told him one day he could visit me in NYC. Xochete and I left Emanuel and his cousin, to go get ready for our last night.
On our last night, we stopped at a cigar bar, where I had too many mojitos. Emanuel told us he has a surprise for us, so we followed him. We ended up on a newly constructed boardwalk out on the ocean. It was beautiful. At the end of the night, they walked us back home & ordered our taxis to the airport for us.
The day I left:
Xochete left before me so we had two separate taxis. I said goodbye to her. Then soon after, bye to mama and the rest of my casa family. I wrote them a note in Spanish and watched their faces light up whilst reading it. Emanuel accompanied me to the airport (so nice of him) and I said good-bye to my new favourite place in the world.
My time in Cuba was incredibly short and if it were possible I would have gone for at LEAST two weeks. I needed this trip so badly. My heart is full and I feel revived and recharged. I cannot wait to return. Cuba, te amo.
I just finished my second year of university, which means I am half way through my undergraduate degree (yay me!). This year was exhausting, amazing, heartbreaking, fulfilling – it was a rollercoaster to say the least. I’ve learned and lost during this sophomore year. And though I’ve lost, I appreciate it, or I will appreciate it in the long run. The funny thing about loss is that you gain so much during loss. The loss I experience allowed me to deepen relationships with friends that I probably was neglecting and I am so thankful for those relationships. It also helps you to channel your energy into something else, for example I joined the adult coloring book bandwagon (it’s soooooooo fun!).
Now that the school year has officially ended, I have reflected sufficiently on the past year & came up with a list of the top lessons I’ve learned this year:
Assignments/exams do not come before your health: This was so hard for me to accept. I grew up putting academics before anything else, even if I did not have the mental capacity to do something, I would still force myself to do it, and while getting As feels great, it doesn’t feel great when you have periods of deep sadness that last weeks at a time. I had to learn to talk to my professors when I really was not feeling well or could not mentally/physically produce an assignment on time – turns out most of the time professors are really understanding and will give you some leniency.
Cry. Just cry: I’ve always had this thing where if I cried I was weak and letting other people have power over me. So, I would always hold tears back, bottle up emotions, and then eventually they would pour out when I was triggered some weeks later by a completely unrelated event (not healthy). I learned this year to just cry. I actually feel so much better when I cry and let all that emotion out of me. Crying is a form of self-care.
No-one has got you like you got you: NO. ONE. I realllllly learned this just this year. You may have someone you think is you entire life, that they are your best friend, your right hand, and this could be true, but you have to know that they do not belong to you. Nobody belongs to you and nobody owes you anything. Once this concept gets stuck in your mind, things people do won’t bother you as much. You really have to be there for yourself – people leave and that’s a harsh fact. Tell yourself this every day and it will be easier to cope when someone isn’t there for you.
Fake it till you make it: Rihanna said it best. I’m not very confident, and I get anxious about the smallest thing – like saying hi to people or answering a question in class even if I know the answer is 100% correct. I had to re-adopt this phrase of faking it till you make it – pretend you are confident, pretend you got shit together. And eventually, you will kinda have your shit together lol. I had to do this for my job interview which had two stages – one was you had to go in front of an audience and answer questions the second was a group process and an individual process where you had to talk about a topic off the top of your head. In this moment, I really could not let my anxiety get the best of me because I needed this job so badly, so I had to fake it and I made it ;-).
Feelings are not facts: This is probably the most important thing I learned this year. Your feelings are valid and real, but they’re not necessarily facts. You can feel a certain way about someone, or even about yourself, but it does not mean these things are true. So whenever I feel like I am a shitty person, I remind myself that this is my temporary emotional response and that it is not a fact.
I am thankful for every experience – good and bad – that I had this year. It was all a learning experience that will help to shape me as a person. A million times grateful for everyone I’ve met/gotten closer with/collaborated with/connected with this past school year!
museums, french, coffee, cafes, baguettes, wine, falafel (?), chateau de versailles, louvre, museum of photography, rain, cold, billets, ivry-sur-seine, tour de eiffel
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highlight of the trip:
FALAFEL – I fell in love with falafel (it’s not French) but the falafel place I went to blew my mind because it’s the best one in the WORLD (Lenny Kravitz said so.) The restaurant was L’as Du Fallafel; it was incredibly “homey” and CROWDED (always take the crowded place). It was also affordable – like 8 euros for the Falafel in a pita – and so filling! 10/10.
FRANCAIS – The language is beautiful and easier to grasp if you speak English…or maybe it was my 6 unsuccessful years of French class. I was tremendously unprepared to speak the language but I had to ALL the time.
FRANPRIX – This is a grocery store I saw around many parts of the city but it was so nice. Wine for 4 euros, baguettes for less than 1 euro and lotsssss of green grapes.
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lowlight of the trip:
GETTING LOST – The first day I arrived in Paris, I was alone, and my friend did not join me until the next day. My phone died before I got to the Airbnb & I spent 1 hour looking for it, in the rain. Tears were shed, but in the end, I found the place and went immediately to sleep.
RUNNING OUT OF MONEY – Unfortunately, when I got to Paris, my bank card stopped working (don’t let this happen to you). So, I was stuck in Paris with only 80 euros cash and 5 days left. Paris is a relatively expensive city and I couldn’t experience the things I really wanted to do. I purchased ten billets (train tickets) for around 14 euros, so I literally only had to plan the trip so that I wouldn’t use more than two rides a day – one to go to the city, and one to get back. That meant I did A LOT of walking around Paris even in the rain. Also, that’s why my diet consisted solely of wine, baguettes and grapes. Pro-tip: Don’t be like me and only rely on a credit card.
FEELING ALONE – Like I said, I was with a friend and her SO, so much of the time I felt alone, even in their presence. I decided to do some exploring the city without them because sometimes it was an awkward situation….Paris is the city of love (lol). Also, I was incredibly nervous of striking convo with anyone because I was so ashamed of my French speaking skills. While this was a low-light, exploring a city alone was a step towards maturity for me.