Monday, December 13, 2010

My wild ride through an internship abroad

Submitted by Dave Rideout Mon, Dec 13 - 4:53 AM

Here I am in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as one of 20 youth interns dispatched around the world, part of the Youth In Partnership program. Before leaving Halifax, catching the bus was a rather inane activity: Wait at a stop, board the bus, take a seat and ride in silence until you’ve reached your destination.

This morning, as usual, I wake to a chorus of roosters crowing, dogs barking, and the bustle of workday traffic just outside my new home. Climbing out of bed, I leave my fan on to stave off the heat as I get ready — it’s already reached 30 C by 7 a.m. After I pack my bag and take a cold shower, I grab some fried breadfruit, wave ’bye to my host family and stroll to the end of the driveway to hail a bus.

In Kingstown, service is provided by private operators, and figuring out their system, and its nuances, is about as exciting and challenging as finding yourself living and working in an entirely new cultural setting.

The hood of each bus is emblazoned with its own distinct name like Snoop, Code Red, Young Bloodz or Toppa, and each bus has its own distinct personality. Some drive with the traffic, but others speed and dangerously overtake cars on blind corners. Some vans are plain, while others are painted bright yellow and sport racing tires. Each vehicle has its own custom sound system that blasts a different genre of music. As a regular rider, I find myself feeling energized by the beats of reggae, hip hop or Jamaican dance hall en route to the office.

The people I know here in Saint Vincent have personalities even more distinct than the busses. My boss here at the Caribbean Farmers Network loves to cook, insisting we sample all the West Indian cuisine, from dasheen to callaloo soup. As I taste-test, my boss loudly and jubilantly greets the other staff, all by the friendly nicknames he’s given them and never by their real names. The animated conversations in dialect that ensue leave me smiling but almost always baffled.

Sitting down at my desk, he leaves me with a list of tasks and minimal instruction; trusting my past experience and the trial-by-fire Caribbean work style will encourage adaptability and independent thinking.

In this network of nearly 500,000 members, it is my job as a communications researcher to work with small farms from across 13 countries. I try to figure out how they can work together to build capacity, mitigate crop risk, recruit youth and work with stakeholders to gain better access to national, regional and international markets. Agriculture has been the backbone of the Caribbean economy, including that of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, but hasn’t been garnering the attention that it needs to remain sustainable and profitable.

As a young communications and development intern, six months just doesn’t seem long enough to stimulate beneficial and lasting change, especially as a North American, my sense of urgency to finish work quickly often clashes with the relaxed Caribbean pace of life. With language obstacles, new food, and completely new surroundings, there have been moments when I’ve felt overwhelmed. I’m starting to think that maybe this experience abroad isn’t only about offering what I know but more about honing my ability to observe others, learn new perspectives and adapt to new environments outside of my Canadian context.

Speeding along the roads of this beautiful island with green mountains to my right, crystal blue sea to my left and Vincentian Soca music in my ears, I bus to work each morning knowing that development, and communications specifically, are very fluid fields of work. They require that we understand those involved as both individuals and as members of a community who, together, have an ultimate stake in what lies ahead.

Just as every bus I wave down brings a new and exciting ride, I can’t wait to see what lies around the next corner.

Dave Rideout is a young Haligonian selected for an internship in the Caribbean by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Coady International Institute.