In 2018, attorney Ayannah Fleming packed her bags and jetted off to Nicaragua on a two-week adventure as part of a travel experience called “Unsettled”. She would live with strangers of various ages and nationalities, finding kinship with these people who were at a similar place in life. They were all seeking something new. By the time she returned to Trinidad, Fleming was convinced that she wanted to shift her career path and live more boldly.
“One of the things that I took away from the experience was living boldly. That is one of the cornerstones of living “Unsettled.” It’s grabbing life by the horns and just taking every opportunity and relishing it; not being afraid of making decisions about your life,” she told Sunday Guardian.
“Before I left, my working arrangement was regular. As an attorney-at-law you work long hours, long days, weekends, public holidays. It’s a very demanding profession, but by the time I got back, I was like: no, that’s not what I want for myself.”
As a civil lawyer, Fleming engaged in legal work under a senior attorney in chambers advising clients and managing a heavy caseload of complex commercial litigation matters. On her return from Nicaragua, she approached her boss, whom she described as “very understanding and loving” and he agreed for her to work three days a week. She still does litigation, however, her focus now is on front-end tasks like drawing up contracts and being involved with clients before matters go to court.
She now has more time to devote to her mother’s hair salon, Le Monde de Paula Ltd where she assists in every aspect of the business, especially management. She particularly enjoys engaging with customers. Recently, they opened their own distributorship for hair products.
“It’s a very refreshing thing to just get away from the constant law and I enjoy it tremendously.”
Fleming has also tried her hand at planting cucumbers, tomatoes, passion fruit and a mango tree, and plans to delve deeper into farming. She nurtures “profound” respect for farmers with whom she has formed relationships from her weekly trips to the market and has adopted the mantra of one farmer: “I may not always have money, but I always have something to eat.” Fleming considers this to be the ultimate declaration of freedom.
Back in 2017 Fleming had been practising law for about four years and longed for a change. Stuck at a crossroad, she was contemplating her next move when fate literally struck.
“(Earlier), I had been pretending to be an electrician and a bulb exploded over me right where I was sleeping. I had to be hospitalised, get a tetanus shot and had to use crutches because my left foot had been injured and I couldn’t walk for a month,” she recalled.
“I had a whole month to figure things out and of course, I had seen this “Unsettled” experience advertised on social media. The concept is you and complete strangers living together for a period of time. I decided: yeah, this is the thing I need to do to assess where I am in my life.”
Fleming embarked on her adventure to Nicaragua without fear of kidnapping or human trafficking, flying via Miami, Florida. The only time she became concerned for her safety was when she realised that the trip to the Surf Sanctuary in the south-western part of the country where she would stay, was a two-hour taxi ride from the airport with just her and the non-English-speaking taxi driver.
“Some parts of the drive were completely desolate. It dawned on me that I could disappear in Nicaragua and I would not be able to help myself.”
But Fleming was undaunted. After all, she had shrugged off being turned away at the airport in Managua a few days earlier and had still made it to her destination.
“I had gotten to Nicaragua and I didn’t have my yellow fever vaccination card. I was hotly deported back to Florida. It was terrible. It was definitely a very defeated feeling. I got to ride back to Florida in first class, but that did not help. It’s the epitome of oppression, you know you get there to another country and you get deported.”
The immigration officer at Miami had found her tale quite humorous; as had her family. She ended up spending three days with relatives in Miami but was not deterred.
“I got my (immunisation) card and I said: Ayannah what do you have to lose. I was like money, but that was something that I could always make back. I booked another flight right back to Nicaragua.”
When she finally arrived at Surf Sanctuary, the deeply welcoming reception from her hosts who were from Thailand and New York made up for her earlier setback. She met “quite a nice mix of people” of various ages and backgrounds. The managers of the property were from Switzerland and South Africa. Her fellow adventurers were from places like Lebanon, Ireland, the US and Canada, and there was also a lady from Bermuda.
Fleming was especially intrigued by a grandfather in his late 50s or early 60s from California who had ridden his huge motorbike all the way from California to Nicaragua.
“It was amazing to meet all of these people; chefs, business owners, lawyers like me coexisting in this place, trying to learn from each other, but also trying to figure out where we were going in life; what was the point of all of this work and effort and journeying. It was definitely a retreat. You have no inhibitions because everybody is on the same page.”
The group had wonderful exchanges, setting up small informal workshops among themselves and sharing knowledge. One of the men was from Bulgaria and had a little session on cryptocurrency with whoever was interested. They even celebrated a Valentine’s Day. While ladies from Lebanon who were designers decorated the space, Fleming and a chef from South Africa prepared a lovely meal that included boiled corn, stuffed jalapenos, couscous, kebabs, pasta and meats, giving a window into their own culture while using local ingredients they had bought at a shop.
Sometimes they would go out for dinner and experience the local cuisine. It was at one of these restaurants that Fleming had the best lobster in her life, she said. She fondly recalled that the lady who owned the place kept referring to her as “Mi Hija” a term of endearment like “Dear” literally meaning my daughter.
“It was beautiful, unscripted. You could attend any activities you wanted.”
Going to the beach, surfing, taking a ride on a mule along the shore, volcano trekking…there was never a dull moment, Fleming reminisced.
She did have a culture shock though in the city of Granada on the Western side of the country where several restaurants offered outdoor dining. Children appeared as she and her group were dining and asked for the remnants of their food.
“One of the guys gave to a little girl. She sat down on the table right next to us eating and two more children appeared and started eating from the bowl. For me, that was just a huge eye-opener. The things that you take for granted and these children are just asking for refuse so they could have something to eat. That was definitely shocking and heartbreaking,” she said.
She also witnessed the reverence with how the people treated their dead in a funeral procession with a horse-drawn carriage decorated in black lace.
Fleming who has lived in Barbados as a law student and visited London, Portugal and a host of places in the US including Las Vegas and LA, said the trip to Nicaragua was the most liberating experience of her life. Whether happy memories or sad, the people, the bonds she formed, the landscape, all made for an exhilarating adventure that freed the soul and emboldened her to push back societal constraints and expectations and explore other aspects of her life that would make her truly happy.
Fleming, raised by a single mother in Woodbrook and a student of Providence Girls, was not pressured by her family to follow a defined path in life.
“They would support me as long as I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” she joked.
However, she was definitely torn while choosing her course of study at UWI and was persuaded by an aunt to opt out of her first love, Sociology and instead, choose law.
“I fell into the tradition; you go to school, you go to university, you get a job, you practise law. One thing just follows the other. It makes you stop and realise this is the run-of-the-mill, the usual route. But is this what I really want to be doing with my life?”
The free-spirited 31-year-old finally realised that she was drawn to a less rigid career path.
“Once somebody told me they thought I was in hospitality and I was so flattered.
“People are like ‘you’re just always so happy, energetic and bubbly.’ Well, I have a good life. I have good people in my life. And I’m very grateful for that. The saying is true: good friends are better than pocket money.”
Despite her easygoing nature, Fleming said there were certain things she would always be adamant about like respect for others.
She has the greatest admiration for her mother, Paula, who worked as a security guard in a bank, then became an administrative assistant before finally owning her own business. Her 84-year-old grandmother, Hillerine, whom Fleming said she “loves to the end of the earth,” has also shaped her. Hillerine would accompany her mother to do domestic work and later became a registered nurse.
Though contented with her choice to adjust her lifestyle, Fleming noted that freedom does not have to mean the same for everyone. For some, it could mean simply developing a new habit, writing more, taking an hour or two per day to just reflect. The important thing is taking control and discovering your true self, she felt.
The avid nature enthusiast, who plans to take more trips to Latin America, is counting down the days when she can return to hiking every weekend or escaping to beaches like Carlisle Bay, Barbados and Cotton Bay, Tobago.
“Being in the fresh air with nature settles you in a way I don’t think anything in life I’ve experienced can. It’s about appreciating that life is bigger than you and as much as we like to think we are the masters of all things, nature is very humbling. Sometimes when I’m hiking my mantra is ‘I give and I receive,’ because you’re breathing in and breathing out in between the trees and there’s just this exchange of energy that is ongoing. It makes you realise we are just here for a time and are all dependent on each other.”
On Monday, three youngsters sadly perished in a fire at their home in Maraval. Fleming said she heard the fire truck pass right near her house and hoped that there had not been a terrible accident. Referencing the incident, she said we often take for granted how much time we have on earth and are always waiting for the right time to fulfil our dreams.
“The right time is now,” she said.
Q&A with Ayannah Fleming
What does emancipation mean to you?
I argue vehemently with colleagues about what it means to be emancipated in 2021. It’s more than just the recognition of the struggles of our forefathers and where they have come and what they were deprived of or what they were stripped of in a very organised manner. It is more so about the recognition of where we are today and how we overcome the systems that still oppress us as a people. It is about recognising in each of us there is that power of making a choice to do better and to be better and to try to find creative ways–not illegal– around the systems that do not serve us as a people.
What stories did your fellow adventurers have?
There was a guy who had started his own cleaning company. It was just him. He was from Chicago and he grew that business into multiple businesses to the point where he could actually sell the businesses as a going concern. It was an eye-opener for me because sometimes we view businesses as people, we get very attached. It’s not something we grow and then release.
The friend I made from South Africa, the chef, worked on cruise lines etc and she decided she wanted to turn a diff chapter in her life and now she is a life coach. It was inspiring to see someone who had trained in a particular industry and achieved a lot could decide I want to do something diff.
There was a book editor who has horses and she was content with her life, but she wanted to have a diff experience. It showed me that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing in life there’s the opportunity to change, you always have that power to get away; change your perspective on things, change your situation. People sometimes just need to get away and figure things out.
What was your biggest takeaway from the people in Nicaragua?
The biggest takeaway was you just have to be really open to experiences whenever you step out of your comfort zone, whether the people are speaking your language or not. Be prepared to embrace and accept things that are not you, your traditions, your understanding of what things ought to be.