Where Cultures Collide

Trinidad is a fusion of diverse influences—religious, musical, gastronomical—and Trinity students absorb it all.

It’s early on a Saturday morning in January, and junior Vander Corliss and the other students at the Trinity-in-Trinidad international program site are exploring the sprawling Tunapuna market outside the capital city of Port-of-Spain. The market is an all-senses introduction to the diverse cultural stew that is Trinidad and Tobago.
Voices chatter in Trinidadian Creole, the distinctive slang-infused tongue of the islands, as Corliss and his classmates weave through the crowded market stalls. There are classic island flavors like coconut and banana, but also pungent East Indian spices, flaming chili peppers, and twisted braids of Chinese green beans. After the market, the students gather at a professor’s house to prepare tomato choka, the local specialty of crushed roasted tomato seasoned with garlic and chili oil and served on roti flatbread.
Corliss, a religion major with a deep interest in history, has found Trinidad to be an ideal living laboratory. It is a land that has absorbed centuries of colonial tyranny, incorporated dozens of religious traditions—Catholicism from the Spanish, Hinduism from the East Indians, protestant denominations from American missionaries, as well as tribal African and indigenous customs—and emerged with a fusion “Trinbago” culture expressed most fully in its world-famous Carnival.
The Trinity-in-Trinidad program runs in the fall and spring semesters, as well as offering year-round opportunities. Students get to experience firsthand the jubilant celebrations that happen throughout the year. In the fall, it’s the many religious ceremonies, particularly the Hindu festivals of Remlilah and Diwali. In the spring, it’s Carnival, a three-day culmination of a full year of national anticipation. “I’ve heard people say, ‘When it’s not Carnival, you’re preparing for Carnival,’” says Corliss.
Music is at the heart of Carnival in Trinidad, Corliss explains. “And the [Trinity-in-Trinidad] program does a really good job of getting us out to different musical events during Carnival.” There are the “soca” or soul-calypso concerts leading toward the annual crowning of the Soca Monarch. Then there are the “pan” or steel drum competitions, a deeply Trinbago musical tradition with roots in slavery, colonial conquest and rebellion.  
In one of his most powerful Carnival experiences, Corliss and his classmates helped re-enact the infamous 1881 Canboulay Riots, sparked by a British crackdown on Carnival pan playing and the carrying of flaming sugar cane stalks called “cannes brulées.” Corliss played one of the British-commanded African policemen who clashed in the streets with Trinidad’s stickfighters. The staged event was televised nationally and attended by thousands.
It’s the full-immersion experiences like these that make the Trinity-in-Trinidad program so much more than a typical study abroad program. For his internship—a requirement of the program—Corliss is working with a local indigenous shaman.
“[The indigenous] believe that the Creator gave dominion over certain elements in the world to spirits — spirits of the mountains, rivers and trees,” explains Corliss, who accompanies the shaman into the forest to collect the medicinal plants he uses to treat his patients.
For Corliss, one of the best perks of the Trinity-in-Trinidad program is being able to take courses at the University of the West Indies, At UWI, Corliss is the only American in his two history classes where he’s often asked to offer US perspective on the history of the Caribbean and Caribbean culture. Corliss says the two Trinity-taught core courses—“Caribbean Civilization” and “Festival Arts”—prepared him well for these cross-cultural learning opportunities.
“Part of my comfort level comes from all of the guest lecturers we’ve had in our core classes,” says Corliss, among them Earl Lovelace—one of the most famous Trinidadian playwrights and novelists—as well as economics and history professors from the university. 
Learn more about the Trinity-in-Trinidad program and our six other Trinity international programs led by Trinity faculty on four continents.