Whenever I have a job to write something for tourism (as I do now), I find it a challenge to fully comply with the client's request to 'make T & T look good'. All glossy colour, nothing ugly. Of course, it's not impossible to make T & T sound pretty - we still have a lot to offer in many areas. But ... it's very unlikely that a client would say: "Make sure to include the parts about carelessly strewn garbage floating in water, cluttering forest floors and choking our mangrove areas. Oh! And emphasise that the proposed smelters will slowly kill our flora, fauna and general population!"
Reading tourism-type descriptions of T & T, I realise that no matter how many forests are ravaged, wild animals slaughtered and green spaces invaded by concrete monstrosities, our ecological statistics remain frozen in a tourism time warp, simply to make T & T look like the premiere exotic eco-destination: 'X amount of birds, butterflies, reptiles' ... 'Y amount of rare species of this or that' ... 'Z amount of exotic flora'. How can these figures remain constant in light of 'development'?
What steps are being taken and what is being put in place to clean up our image? Can our 'tourism truth' continue to lie in pretty cliches, unchanging statistics and glossy, tropical images Photoshopped to seduce foreigners?
One of the things I've been trying to come to terms with in Trinidad again is the men. After a few years of silent appreciation (unless I made a trip to Peckham or Brixton markets where the population of Caribbean men was very present and reassuringly vocal) I'm having to re-learn how to deal with the constant commentary.
The fact that every man from the crack pipe smoking vagrants in front of the bank in Port of Spain, to the coconut vendor to the well suited bank worker thinks he can address me in the following ways:
and then proceed to make sundry comments, depending on what I'm wearing, or if they have a penchant for dreads, but usually the comments take the predictable lines of, I could play in those locks all day, family, or your bamsee looking real nice in them pants, etc etc.
Usually I keep my head straight, trying not to wince or worse turn around and slap the commentator.
The problem is of course, that there are women who respond to these ludicrous summons, out of habit or because they just don't have the self-confidence to do anything else but feel flattered if a man pays them the same compliment he's paid to every single women who's gone past him for the day.
I wonder what the point of it is. Why do men think that we need their reassurance? Why do they think that we want to know what base thoughts they are thinking. And really now, is that supposed to make me interested in you. Am I supposed to drop everything I'm doing to stop and have a really interesting and enlightening conversation with you?
Now the truth is, Trinidad is hot woman capital. I know this because I always feel inadequate in the face of all these annoyingly stunning of all shapes and shades. So I guess the drive by 'suitings' is the Trini man's primitive version of speed dating.
The general attitude in the Caribbean is that this is just machoman-ism at it's most harmless. We women have to just put up with it. It's just some harmless fun. The other day when I confronted a suitor by asking him what else he really had to offer me but his unclean teeth, he got very upset and defensive as if I was the one who had infringed on his rights to walk down the street without being harassed. He just couldn't understand why I wouldn't want someone, just some arbitrary man on the road side that he wouldn't mind 'resting it' on me. But with rapes so high, incest and child abuse and domestic violence, suiting takes on a very sinister kind of tone. We Caribbean women must deal with being objects for a whole society of men and not ever dare speak out against them.
In the end I gave up, he couldn't justify his behaviour and he was also too big for me to clout so I moved on, seething.
It can't be a healthy habit. It's not cute and most of the time it's not even funny, witty or well-meaning. It's not about appreciating the beauty of the women of this country, but a really subtle attempt at undermining our independence and our sense of who we are.
This morning I met a woman I'd never met before for coffee. (For the purposes of this story, let's call this woman "Clementine," which isn't her real name, or even close, but didn't you just love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?). Clementine and I share a mutual friend in Houston, who suggested that Clementine contact me while visiting Trinidad to determine the country's "livability." Always happy to help a friend of a friend (and talk about Trinidad), I obliged.
It's always very interesting for me to talk to Americans about Trinidad, because I find myself feeling rather schizophrenic. On one hand, I spent the majority of my life in America, and in many ways, I understand what Americans value about their home country. On the other hand, even given my extended time away from Trinidad, I feel more Trini than American, and so I find myself "selling" Trinidad whenever I speak to non-Trinis. So even though I talked about the crime situation here (because, let's face it, Clementine was asking about residing in Trinidad, and unfortunately, you can't talk about life here without including some mention of crime), I ended up spending a majority of the time talking about the lovely people! Beautiful scenery! Amazing music! Vibrant art! The Soca Warriors, for heaven's sake! Then, afraid that perhaps my Trini bias was colouring my description to her a little too much, guilt moved me to suggest she talk to my friend Joanna, who recently moved here with her family, to get a truer version of what it's like to move here from another country. Hopefully, between the two of us, Clementine will get a somewhat accurate picture of what life in Trinidad is like.
The other thing that I noticed myself doing (which I know I do all the time), is while I was speaking to Clementine, my American accent came on strong. Having spent so much of my life in America, I can do an American accent without even thinking about it. And its tone? Completely nondescript. It's like Newscaster American -- there's no mistaking its origins in the United States, but you'd be hard-pressed to assign a particular state or region to it. It is, come to think of it, like Clementine's (and by "Clementine," I mean Kate Winslet's American accent from Eternal Sunshine, not the woman I met today, whose accent is clearly from the northeastern part of the United States). And yet, when I needed to speak to the waitstaff at the restaurant where we were having coffee, I slipped right into Trini. It's like being bilingual, without ever changing languages. At this point, I don't even know WHAT my natural accent is anymore.
So pity my poor daughter, Alex, who, God help her, is surrounded by dozens of people speaking dozens of different ways to her. Her father has a distinctly Cornish accent, and I slip back and forth between Newscaster American and St. Joseph's Convent-girl Trini (there is, apparently, a special way girls who attended St. Joseph's Convent high school, as I did, speak, as compared to the rest of Trinidad). Celeste speaks to Alex in a rank Trinidadian accent. My parents speak to her in unspoiled Trini. Her schoolteacher is from Holland, though married to a Trini; and so she speaks to Alex with a Trinidadian accent slightly tinged with Dutch. All of Alex's friends at school are from both Trinidad and the rest of the world, but her best friend, Charlie, speaks with an Australian accent (though Charlie's grandmother, who Alex sees often enough, speaks to her with a Polish accent). Recently, anyone who meets Alex invariably asks me, "What is her accent?" My usual response: "Hell if I know."
Still, in a way, there's a part of me that is pretty proud of the fact that Alex is exposed to so many cultures in her day-to-day life -- I suspect very few children her age have such an international community at their disposal. But I can't help but also wonder to which country Alex will feel most of an affinity -- will she feel more English? Trini? American? Wherever we may end up moving next? I suppose time (and her accent) will tell.
In the meantime, Clementine (the woman I met today, not Kate Winslet), I hope I gave you the kind of information you were looking for. If the information seemed a bit random and disjointed, you now know why.
(This post also published at Chookooloonks.)
For those of you who would love to wake up early on Saturday morning and do something different, there's always the Greenlight REvolution. Have a click on the link and see if it appeals to you. Since it will involve being outdoors for at least two hours, from 8 - 10 a.m., let's hope that the weather will be ideal (i.e. light grey skies to filter out harsh sunrays and keep us cool ... but no rain to drench our placards or our guitars). Of those who have said they are coming, two have specifically REquested 'RE' words that they like from the list. If you are coming to be a part of the project, you can also book a word beforehand ... or you can just turn up on the day and choose one word at random. Who knows ... the random word you get may be just the word you need to apply to yourself: RELAX ... (been working too hard? stressing yourself out about a certain situation when you really don't need to worry?) RECONNECT ... (with yourself? with someone who's been on your mind?) REFOCUS ... REWARD ... REFLECT ... REUSE ... REGENERATE ...
Some people may wonder about the reason for the whole REvolution. The only true answer will come from experiencing it.
Is it arrogant to say ahead of time that the Soca Warriors will make a meal of Paraguay in today's match? I don't think so. This morning as I took my usual morning walk down the road to buy papers, the air was thick with confidence. I could not help but notice that all the men who passed me on the road (women didn't seem to be out yet - except for one woman in a blazing red jacket) had on what appeared to be brand new, shiny red t-shirts. Clearly one cannot wear the same old red t-shirt for history in the making.
As I passed by the guard in a nearby school, I called out to him: "You have on your red from early!" His face broke into a proud smile: " Exackkkly!" As I passed by one man who had SOCA WARRIORS emblazoned across his chest, I said to him: "Go, Warriors!" He laughed with casual confidence: "Yes! Yes!" I passed a few others along the way and what struck me about each of them was the common facial expression: a quiet, pensive, gritty determination, mixed with studious mental focus ... as though thinking ahead, projecting energy, envisioning the Warriors scoring many goals ... and, at the same time, visualising the match between England and Sweden as having 'the perfect' outcome (for T & T). We don't mind whose hair Peter Crouch pulls in that game, we don't care how many goals the referee says don't count (even though they do) ... once the score is such that T&T is guaranteed to move ahead.
Mummy just said to me: "They'd better win so they could stay on longer in Germany ... because if they don't, they'll be coming back the same day as Vanessa (i.e. my sister who's holidaying in the States). If so, she'll have to overnight in Piarco."
"Or hitch a ride with Beenhakker," I added.
But ... I have a strong feeling there will be no Warriors in Piarco and no traffic on the road that day.
P.S. (Aftermath): Well, we didn't make a meal of them, but ...it doesn't hurt to think that we could have. Congratulations to the team. You may not have scored goals, but you scored points in many other ways.
Everything glistens in a special light ... stretching roads are silver ribbons ... jewelled drops linger on leaf tips ... heavy thunder speaks from clouds, sending dogs scampering with tails between legs under tables ... sleep is sweet with the drumming of Nature's wet fingers on rooftops.
(Short video of another rainy experience)
Two days at Balandra for a friend's birthday turned out to be just what I needed to relax and reconnect. And this morning, perhaps as a 'birth of day' gift to all of us, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over the ocean, viewed from the window of the beach house (see short sunrise video here). Being there, we felt as though we were somewhere else other than Trinidad, especially as the beach lower down from the house was one we had never come across. Because it was fairly tucked away from public thoroughfare, it was clean and quiet. We enjoyed the tranquil green river, perfect for floating in the inner tubes of large tyres (the ones I drive around with in my car trunk for exactly that purpose) ... and the sea: blue and clear with enjoyably rough and playful waves. I think the Salybia/Balandra/Toco coastline in Trinidad has the best beaches. The drive: scenic, rural, still charmingly untouched by the concrete and condos of modernity. The sea: beautiful, often deep blue or green with stark white wave crests, quite rocky in areas, a bit rough, often with strong currents, but enjoyable nevertheless. You just have to be careful.
If you are one who loves to collect beach rocks and driftwood (as I do), that coastline is where you will most likely find your greatest treasures. I got quite a few this weekend: those black rocks with the striking white markings and also many heart-shaped finds.
This past weekend, my husband, daughter and I went to the north coast of Trinidad to witness the nesting of the giant leatherback turtles. There's something about going out onto the beach at nightfall with one of the local guides, and watching the dark, lumbering shadows make their way out of the water, find the perfect spot, and each laying 80 - 100 eggs, before making their way back to the deep.
It makes you feel small. Tiny. But important. And part of something so huge as to defy comprehension.
At dawn the following morning, we awoke and made our way back to the beach to see the last of the evening's turtles returning to the sea. And lest my husband and I think that we were the only ones who understood the significance of what we'd witnessed, as we watched one of the turtles make her way into the waves, our little daughter, Alex, suddenly waved her two-year-old arms and cried out:
"BYE-BYE, MUMMY TURTLE!"
(This post is also cross-published at BlogHer.)
So there we were taking the scenic route down to the south of the island. We were driving through the plains of Central Trinidad, enjoying the breeze and the sight of gayaps - a collective effort in which residents of a community come out and help a neighbour build a house. Food and rum and music flow freely and everyone is doing something.
I'm not sure exactly where we were and then all of a sudden I caught sight of a some commotion in the middle of a field. I thought it was a Hindu wedding, but it was just under a tent literally in the middle of a canefield, one side shooting up fire blackened stalks, the other dotted with white egrets picking gracefully through the freshly ploughed dirt for lunch. One of the fellars in the car says it's a mike competition. Huh? Us town people never hear about that. We keep driving but of course by now half my body is hanging out of the car. So we forget about the meeting that we're already half hour late for and head back to check out the mike competition.
It's the strangest thing. Anybody who's ever lived outside of the city should be familiar with the cars and their loudspeakers. They are particularly popular for funeral announcements but they really kick in around election time. It's really the ultimate form of noise pollution, which is why, I guess they have the competitions for these in the middle of a canefield. It's also a kind of mobile radio station that caters to the peculiar needs of the community it serves.
In the mike competition it's not just about the power of the mike. Some of the speakers atop the cars are slamming. Fancy paint jobs and interesting depictions of life. Some carry the name of the owners, others say things like 'No Fear' and 'Bomb'. It's a very masculine space, rum and beers flow and there's a lot of loud shouting.
However they were all blasting the sort of nasal and elegiac Bollywood film standards that took me back to my childhood growing up in San Juan, listening to Lata Mangeshkar and other luminaries popular Indian music that filtered into my experience of life.
We walked in, in the middle of a heated discussion about if judges from the audience should be used. Would the audience ajudicators be clued into what the main judges were listening for? I couldn't really tell.
It's a really refreshing to discover a whole new aspect of Trinidad culture by accident. I mean I knew these mike cars existed and they are still a very formidable means of communication in rural areas, but I didn't know this was an art that was taken so seriously by its practitioners.
It's a little surreal to be in 33 degree heat in the middle of a canefield with ghazals blasting into the universe. It would be interesting to investigate the connection of this form of communication to India. Was it always an exclusively Indian Trinidadian thing?
Seeing as I was one of three women in the field I was invited to the finals of the mike competition, which is going to be held at the Hindu Credit Union's headquarters at 10.30 on Tuesday, which is Indian Arrival Day. No coincidence surely. The melancholy tunes, the New World men with old world inflections. Displaced people making a new life for themselves having crossed the Kala Pani.
My cultural education continues...