Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, January 18, 2019

Hugs and Kisses

The family I grew up in was not very demonstrative. As babies and children, we were held and soothed, but we were allowed to outgrow "too much babying." In the extended family, we were expected to kiss aunts and uncles - a peck on the cheek - and when we were kissed, we would turn quickly to wipe away the imagined spit or lipstick.

I have a memory of being about four, walking home from Dot's Infant Private School on Ariapita Avenue to Gatacre Street. The little group of us were accosted by a couple big boys - Venezuelans we were told studying English - from a high upstairs house. One demanded a kiss which I reluctantly pecked on his cheek then ran down the road to catch up with my friends. It is one of my most mortifying memories.

As teenagers and young adults, we were alert and decorous. "Making out" with anyone was hidden in slow dances, the cinema or discotheque. Maybe the era of dancing apart and more vigorous movements also coincided with more open displays of affection. Out of the end of the sixties, hugs and kisses (with a boyfriend or girlfriend) were tolerated in public. Even if they weren't - I remember couples completely engrossed in each other - "Get a room" had not yet become a phrase!

Slow dancing in Paris (c 1984)

By the time I met Ranji, neither of us had any inhibitions. We couldn't stay out of each other's arms wherever we were. He loved to kiss and cuddle. And then he would whisper outrageous stories: like the time he was hospitalised to have surgery on a lower abdomen hernia. The cute nurse would come to bathe him and he would have a "hard on fit to kill a donkey."  A light slap would send the lil man home again!
 St Ann's (c 1982)

On the trail to Maracas Waterfall (c 1982)

 Nice (c 1984)
St Ann's (c 1982)

In Kenya, on honeymoon, a park ranger we were chatting with was amused by what he called our "grooming" as we would play with each other's hair. Instant image of monkeys taking care of each other; so we were just different monkeys! Maybe touching and other physical displays of affection were also outgrown; or transformed and demonstrated in other ways. Later,  he would say "I love you" with bursts of affection to any and everyone; and mean it in the most open and innocent way.

Michele, D'Abadie (c. 1986)

Dionne, Santa Cruz (c 2010)

Nathalie, on the farm in Santa Cruz (c1988)

Santa Cruz (c 2006)
Rikhi, Carl, Nadine, Santa Cruz (c 2015)
One of his sly sayings was, "You know what they say about men with big feet...(wink wink)" and I would respond, "yeah, big socks." Well, Ranji's big feet were legendary. He would tell the story about when their mother brought baby Ranji home; she would say to visitors, "Would you like to see the feet?" Well, big feet big hands! And in Ranji's case, big heart.

Safe in PopPop's big hands!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What if?

What if dreams, or wild imagining, could play out in our daily lives? Then, what would we dream of? How would we live?

Films, like books, have the power to move us into wild realms that exist only in the mind. Films like Blade Runner; or those in the Marvel series - Black Panther, Spiderman, Iron Man etc - begin with a fantastic premise that supports the story which unfolds. We become witnesses for the moments of the film, disengaging - reluctantly or gladly - by the end. It is the disengagement that allows us to tolerate horror films; many of which seem to be in the real world but descend into events so unthinkable as to take us along unexpected paths, with unimagined outcomes.

Occasionally, a film comes along that engages us at the heart and the senses; and challenges us, what if?  Such a one is Guillermo del Toro's "the Shape of Water," so real, so magical, that we are at one and the same time, drawn to it and repelled. What if?

Magic(al) realism is the term that is now used to describe works of art (literature, painting, film) that are based on real events in the real world, but into which something marvellous, implausible, fantastic or magical enters. The genre is associated with the 1950s Latin American writers, Alejo Carpentier,  Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and others. Ideas and influences of magical realism have extended further into literature, but increasingly have a strong presence in film. Think of Big Fish.

Magic realism stories begin in real settings. The story teller convinces you that it is safe; and leads you along to a "what if?" moment. Stephen King does it in Pet Semetary: you cross the threshold at that moment when the cat comes back.

This has been Guillermo del Toro's domain for some time. Pan's Labyrinth - like the rabbit hole   otherworld into which Alice tumbles - is an alternate realm that intersects with and begins to affect Ofelia in her loneliness; she enters the magical realm, saves her baby brother and inherits a kingdom. In the end, the two disparate realities come together for her redemption.

The Shape of Water opens on the lives of ordinary people: Elisa a mute with aspirations and appetites of any young woman; Giles, her graphic artist neighbour; and Zelda Delilah who keeps Elisa honest in the job cleaning floors at the military research facility. Elisa lives a solitary routine alleviated by singular moments of respite: musical rhythm; underwater in her bathtub; her shoes... What is the moment that she crosses the magic line? Is it the kinship she recognises in another creature who is also locked not in silence but in the ability to make the world listen and understand?

What if? What if we allowed the possibility of something different into our lives? What if... Would anyone recognise a god in our midst unless he would redeem our lives by his death; or unless he would strike us dead?

The story is simple enough: lonely female meets lonely male. A bond is formed in the most time-worn tradition; made exceptional by the extraordinary details of ordinary lives. She meets him surreptitiously: he in a prison; she in her own prison of non-communication. She feeds him - hard boiled eggs. He is tender to her; powerful beyond imagining, one wonders why he has not already made an escape. It's only a matter of time before they are impelled to be free together, and alone, to touch and explore the other.

Some people feel that Elisa's morning duties in the bathtub, attentive to her self, her needs, are gratuitous details. But they are not, and the bathtub scenes are essential to not just her discovery of self but to exploration of the other.  It is only her bathtub that allows her to sustain his life, until she knows that it is too small a pond for an Amazonian water god.

After the bloody battle that secures an escape, one can only imagine that he healed her; that they swam away to a life that started in a love story; but ended, as love stories do, in happily ever after!

Characteristics of magical realism include five primary traits (from
  1. An "irreducible" magic which cannot be explained by typical notions of natural law.
  2. A realist description that stresses normal, common, every-day phenomena, which is then revised or "refelt" by the marvelous. Extreme or amplified states of mind or setting are often used to accomplish this. (This distinguishes the genre from pure myth or fantasy.)
  3. It causes the reader to be drawn between the two views of reality.
  4. These two visions or realms nearly merge or intersect.
  5. Time is both history and the timeless; space is often challenged; identity is broken down at times.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Being black

I found out I was black, in America. September 1970 - Trinidad was still under curfew after the 1970 "black power" disturbances -  I started university at Hollins College. If you're not white, you black, I was told. I who had never thought seriously about the colour I was, or even my relationships with other colours, was asked to accept that the rainbow is black.

I accepted, and turned my back for a while on the beautiful diversity that was part of my inheritance in Trinidad and Tobago. The truth was that never mind what colour you were - dark blue, red, high yaller, cinnamon or sapodilla - you had the same right to aspire to be heard and respected. In Trinidad, we grew up with words that were more descriptive rather than derogatory: black boy, chinee, coolie, cashew head, mango head, red man, blue-black...  But later, after a few of us had gone out in the world, we would understand how the use of descriptors delivered with negative undertones could hurt and diminish.

September 1970, the same month Jamaican Jeannie, a hybrid Afro-Chinese girl with voluptuous lips and hips had to go to New York to bury her boyfriend shot in inner city violence. I imagined her dressing the wounded and broken body; I must have been told the lurid details but don't remember now how I came to the information.

The same year, the Indian from India via Trinidad arrived at Hollins. With her large curly mane and a wildness not the norm in either Trinidad or India, she attracted the Afro-American boys causing consternation among the sistahs who had only been admitted to this school in the heart of the white south a couple years before I got there. I must have been still vacillating about my blackness, while she wholeheartedly embraced theirs.

I have felt fear in America: walking through certain streets in downtown Washington DC; in small towns in the Carolinas; But I have mainly been welcomed, perhaps as a curiosity. Trinidad, where is that? In the south Pacific? I was encouraged to seek jobs in places where I would fit the "quota" - female, non-white.

These incidents shaped my understanding of America the great; not great enough to find equal places for all her children. Even after, or perhaps especially after, the presidency of Barack Obama, the contestation continues: dispossessed first peoples (native Americans); disenfranchised peoples seeking refuge in the "land of the free, home of the brave" willing it to be their land of opportunity, hope and glory.

The return to Trinidad brought awareness of much more than our multicultural, multiracial harmony. I began to look for what each ethnic group has brought to the mix; to search out the traits - unscientifically sure, using observation and instinct as guides - that each "colour" presented in the rainbow.

I understand the aspirations of hopeful immigrants, those who came with thoughtful purpose, commerce, norms of civilization, enduring relationships with families in the lands left behind.  But I also appreciate the contributions of people shaken viciously from their roots and transplanted here; how their culture came not in jahaaji bundles but in their very being, their genes, their souls. Watch how we move, how our hips sway, how we rejoice, how we sing and dance, how we mourn, how we eat; how we embrace differences and each other; and you'll see Africa in Trinidad whatever colour we may be.

Ancestry and DNA apart - the original ancestor of man we are told came out of Africa - we in Trinidad and Tobago have a lot to be thankful for, in our blackness, in our wholeness.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Child of the child

It is a soul-stirring experience when the child of your child is born. The son is at the age you were when you birthed him. That moment when you first held him comes flooding back: this tiny fragile loud human separate and apart. You knew everything then and you see it in him; every person at 33+ is old beyond their years, all-knowing at the peak of power. You have been regressing since, less amazed by what you know, more humbled by what you now know you didn't know.

This is what the term paradigm shift was coined for. This certainty that you need no further future; investing all in these generations. This hope, these fears, for all that might or must befall your child now he is a father, a husband, a man. These prayers for the child of the child.

Whatever sure-footed certainty existed before you bore children, started disappearing the minute the first was born; by the second, you progress towards unknowing. No wonder that parents with more than two, with five or nine or fourteen, lose identity. Child bearing and rearing are, in any age, running in the dark, sometimes with scissors in your hands, always your heart in your mouth. Your lion heart learns quietude when you have a child; it learns to listen, to hear the wild howling of the world; to steal the stillness with which you surround and protect your child and what's precious to him or her.  Your boldness learns humility in the face of all the dread, that none may find your child or your child's child.

When your child has a child, you want the world to be better, to be blessed, to be alright.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Queen of Port of Spain

Queen Street runs straight from Piccadilly to Richmond. If you stand on the bridge across the East Dry River, in the shadow of the United Brothers Lodge (251 SC), you can see the sheer shiny walls of the new Government Campus at the other end. But here at street level, you can walk a cross-section of the city – indeed of Trinidad herself – that is assorted multicultural and multilayered humanity; 19th century wooden homes, solid square "independence" apartments, giving way to post-coup (both 1970 and 1990) high-rise windowless commercial structures.
Looking west on Queen Street, towards the new government campus on Richmond Street

Everybody here is about some business. Buying or selling, breezing out or browsing, there is vigor on the street, liveliness and purpose that still speaks of possibility. Here is a street that is close to the hearts of Trinis, and especially those who live in Port of Spain, meaning the catchment from the hills that ring the city, Laventille to St Ann’s and Cascade, and even the flatlands fleeing to the west. The grid of downtown Port of Spain (the central business district) was laid out by the Spanish and improved by their last governor, Don Jose Maria Chacon, who gave up the city to the invading British under Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1797 rather than see it in ruins. It was Chacon who diverted the East Dry River to the foothills of Laventille.

Look up at the United Brothers Lodge at the eastern end of Queen Street

Piccadilly Street runs above the East Dry River, the diverted St Ann's river that is the eastern boundary of the city.
Tiny houses at east Queen Street have been divided into tinier apartments

George Street eatery

Residential side of Queen Street at Duncan Street apartments

Mixed residential and commercial use buildings at east Queen Street

From east to west, we walk from the Jama Masjid Mosque towards Nelson and Duncan Streets, still residential areas. Tiny houses have been partitioned into tinier apartments. Solid government-built apartment blocks are a modest three-floors, and residents hang over the open walls of common-area staircases. At George Street, homes give way to commerce: the corner is dominated by the downtown branch of one of Trinidad's most advertised roti shops.

One street over, busyness intensifies. The Heritage street market on Charlotte Street crosses Queen Street and runs a tented half mile from Park Street to Independence Square. The old Port of Spain Market that once straddled the block between George and Charlotte Streets is now completely enclosed in the East Side Mall.  But outside on the street, any and everything might still be bought: bright gold bangles and earrings, jockey shorts, panties and bras, slippers of every colour and size; but mostly fresh food, bodi, cassava, breadfruit, pumpkin, ochro, chadon beni, and fruit in season.
Queen Street haberdashery

Queen Street fashion

Between Henry and Frederick Streets was the fabric and fashion capital of the country: textiles from all over the world. In August, emancipation and independence season, the shop windows feature African prints not found in any of the malls.

Cross Frederick and enter a quieter district. Who would believe the corner of Frederick and Queen saw the start of the largest grocery chain in the country. Who can still remember Canning’s Corner? One block away is the 126-year old Trinidad Building and Loan Association in an imposing 1932 structure, the picture of stability and longevity. Opposite, the spire of Holy Trinity Cathedral. And on the next block, straddling Abercromby and St Vincent Street, the serene modern National Library structure floats above all.

Modern skyscrapers line the walk to the end of Queen Street at Richmond: a multi-story carpark and office buildings Best of all are the oliviers filtering the harsh overhead sun. We should plant more trees in Port of Spain.
At the corner of Queen and St Vincent Streets

Edifice to the stability of The Building and Loan Association at Queen and Chacon Streets

Tiny eatery

Remodelling a hundred year old Queen Street structure

The National Library

Quieter end of Queen Street
We need to plant more trees in Port of Spain

In this heart of Port of Spain, which was once called Cumucurapo, or was it Conquerabia - there's no one left who can confirm this - we wear the weight of the past ever so lightly. Sometimes, too lightly, our centre of government, the esteemed parliament now housed high above the city in one of the modern towers on the waterfront; the Red House still - close to ten years - under wraps. Perhaps it's a good thing to be agile and adaptable, to recognise the parliament as the people not the building. But surely, it's time to be not quite so tolerant of a constitution with one foot in the colonial past and just a toe in the future.

 We still don’t know – or much care – which queen is to be remembered by Queen street. Who was Frederick? Or Duncan? Today, we have our own queen worthy of being celebrated in a street name. Some people will perpetually call it Queen Street, becoming anachronisms to children and grandchildren, much like those of us who continue to shop at HiLo, or were connected to the world by TSTT.  But Janelle Commissiong Street has a nice ring, conjures the smile of a real Trini. Why shouldn’t we remake and rename ourselves. Brian Lara Promenade has already replaced Marine Square. We have Hasley Crawford Stadium, Ato Bolden Stadium, Brian Lara Cricket Academy, Wendy Fitzwilliam Boulevard and Keshorn Walcott Lighthouse. Let Janelle Commissiong have the heart of Port of Spain.

This visit to Queen Street coincided with the publication of Janelle, celebrating 40 years of Miss Universe 1977. When asked what she wanted her street to be called, Janelle Commissiong replied, "the cleanest street in Trinidad and Tobago." Here's a link to the publication Janelle:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Island blood: an education in one week

Every child with island blood in his veins should have experiences with the sea. This was my brother's wish when he brought his three daughters from their mountain home in North Carolina to his island home, Trinidad and Tobago. Here's how their island genes, long dormant in the mountains, were revitalised. Our father, their grandfather, loved the sea. We hope all his grandchildren share this love, even if their visits are one week at a time, years apart. Here's some of what they experienced for the first time, on their first visit. All in one week!

Buccoo Reef by glass bottom boat: fun in the Nylon Pool's clear water
Fish kiss
Paddling your own canoe: kayaking at Chaguaramas
Experiencing the force of wind and wave at Toco lighthouse
The beach at Grande Riviere: rusting shipwreck at the far end

First baby leatherback turtle viewing
Nestlings emerging in daylight: these are sheltered until dusk when they are released above the wave line.

Waves at Grande Riviere beach: just offshore, the female turtles are waiting to come ashore at nightfall.

Leatherback turtle nesting at dawn

Hungry cobos and dogs wait for the tide to unearth eggs or baby turtles

The family at Maracas Bay

Surely, we who live on the islands should ensure that children growing up on these shores have first hand experiences of nesting turtles, baby turtles, hungry corbeaux, fish life, coral reefs, warm tropical sea water, sand in toes, tides, wind, waves.
(Photos by Margaret Wong Chong, Chuck Wong Chong, Pat Ganase, Merryl See Tai)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sweet Oka

Oka passed away, quietly, as she had lived.

Over the past year, she played a daily game, edging towards the dining table as the evening sun heated up the west porch where she spends her day. When looked at sternly, she would tuck her head down, looking up with doe eyes even as she shuffled back to her place on the porch.

Oka, standing, in her prime

Overnight, she would take what was for her a long trek round the back of the house, down the stairs to the landing, then up the front stairs to the south porch which is Sox's domain. In the morning, we would find her at the east lookout - the corner of the porch from which to look at cobos in the bois canot trees. Otherwise, she might be on Sox's mat, or even further in, near to the big furry dog. But you only had to open the front door and she would haul herself unsteadily and shuffle through the house to the kitchen porch, her domain. She knew her place.

Since we started giving her a daily tablet of glucosamine and chondroitin wrapped in a sardine, her joints didn't seem to hurt so much. If the hobble-hop up and down stairs and around the house was her regular exercise, we let her be. She had been called obese by those who saw her barrel body on short slim legs. But it must have been her Rottweiler genes that gave that round shape. Her Labrador genes certainly gave her the sweetest disposition of any dog we have ever known.

She had come to us from a home in the east where she had been weaned to puppy chow. So she was a skinny leggy black pup that loved to play. Chasing the broom, she had fallen off a porch some ten feet. Surprised to find herself on grass, she promptly jumped up and ran to the concerned children. It was not the only time; another night without electricity, she had rolled off the same porch - with no ill effects.

We moved to the house in Saddle Grove shortly after, when she was about six months old, almost full grown but still playful and loving.

In her lifetime, Oka had three litters, with Max the male Lab-Rott. Oka had the most beautiful puppies, fat and furry. She was a good mother. She was considered portly or matronly, and nicknamed Chubby-Booby. Her affection for others earned her the name Licky-Licky. Her given name, Oka, is Swahili for "come here."

Oka with puppies, in typical Lab colours, jet black or creamy.
One of Oka's puppies seemed to have inherited her love of licking.

Oka had super-sensitive hearing. Bad weather, thunder, fireworks, loud noises gave her the heebie-jeebies. She would cower, trembling, in a corner, in bad weather or on old years' nights. But all she ever wanted was to be loved, petted and taken care of.
Oka only ever wanted to be loved.

If you want to see one of Oka's special tricks, check this post from six years ago:

Oka was 13 years old at the start of 2017.  We will miss her.