Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mindful cooking

Cooking is one of the three core skills of the good housewife (the others are cleaning and washing or laundry); all of which I learned from the age of about five at my mother's side. They may seem to be simple enough - so much so that those who can afford to, farm these out to others. Today, many women, and I am sure, men, relegate these "chores" that are necessary to our humanity, and I daresay, civilization, to outside contractors. That's alright, as long as they get done.

In our family, however, we have traditions of cooking from many strands - grandmother's creole recipes, grandfather's Chinese style, another parent's Indian dishes and yet another's French customs. Cooking day in day out, every day, and especially on Sunday, doesn't necessarily lend itself to thinking a whole lot about why you might have geera next to rosemary, or amchar massala and star anise, three kinds of peppers, two kinds of cabbages in your refrigerator; and two thymes, mint and basil in the backyard. At the end of the work day, you pull what comes to hand with the ease of many decades of practice; and the meal is ready in an hour, or 45 minutes; and eaten in less time that it took to prepare.

When my own children started asking for recipes I realised how little was written down, how much was in my head and more so, in my hands. They would call from far to find out how to make curry, or pelau. Others would ask too, about callaloo, or apple crumble. So I decided to write the blog: wildgirl-inthekitchen.

These days, as I cook, I pay attention to everything - how much, how long, high heat or lower, how it looks and tastes. I make mental notes as I cook, this seasoning or that, olive oil or regular cooking oil. And at the end of cooking - just before serving - the camera is the newest kitchen tool. What you have in the blog is how something was made on a specific day with certain ingredients. It's not gourmet, not for any cookbook; these are just journals of an activity that is the cornerstone of life; a meditation if you will, for continuous improvement.

After a lifetime of watching my mother and father cook with dedication and discipline; after performing these tasks for another lifetime, I conclude that love transforms even the simplest foods.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers and their days

Fathers have it hard these days. With mothers doing equal amounts of bread-winning, and most of the suckling and nurturing, what is there for Dads to do?

In my Dad's day, the roles were very clear. My mom stayed in the home and took care of the house, cooking and cleaning, and made sure that the children were well-fed, well-dressed and well-mannered. My father interacted with the world, ensured his family had a place in it that was secure literally and financially. But the women's movement has changed the world, the home and what we expect of fathers.

In fact, we don't quite know what to expect of fathers these days. There is still the sense that Dad is the one with authority - God the father syndrome; - that he makes us secure financially and physically; and that he gives the children the sense of self - older traditions of surnames, inheritance and so on. With many mothers now assuming full responsibility for the offspring, does this mean we can dispense with dear old Dad after he has donated his sperm? Surely as long as we continue to create new humans from combinations of two gene pools, there is more that should be expected from the one with the Y chromosome.

The latest science may give us some direction. Comparisons of the Y chromosomes in species with DNA nearest to humans (chimpanzees) indicate that human Ys are evolving faster than any other. This does not necessarily mean that men themselves are evolving, but instead suggests that they possess in that Y chromosome the genetic make up for greatest evolutionary adaptability. Studies are still in the earliest of stages, but there's enough food for thought. If at the genetic level, the Y is the powerhouse for change and adaptation, resilience and evolution itself, perhaps at the macro level, we are being shown what fathers are for.

Mothers model care and reliability, nurture and stability. Is it that fathers are coded for the evolutionary process itself - to show the results and rewards of risk taking, of unpredictable, adventurous, even aberrant, behaviour?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Talisman for joy

One of the things that distinguishes us, it seems to me, is the capacity - and an evolving ability at that - to see the big picture; and more than that to make the connection to the bigger picture even when looking at small things.

Look at a pebble or stone and you can make the link to the rock face (like the one on a Blanchisseuse bay that is the header for this blog). Look at the rock face and you can see the buckled layers that underlie the hills and valleys.

Through a microscope, we imagine that you might see, at the cellular or sub-atomic levels, things that behave like stars and galaxies. We already know that our bodies are composed of essential elements combined in chains that are the same or similar in every other being on earth alive now or that ever lived. We are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Between us and our main fossil fuels, the only difference is oxygen.

So don't think you are so different from a cockroach or a cobo, a sardine or a whale, a samaan or the moss growing on it. Seems to me we are not just parts of the web of life, but together with the multitude of mosquitos, icky fungi, slimy creepy crawlies as well as the most majestic sperm whales, zebras, parrots and eagles, we are the web of life (biodiversity is the new buzz word but web is so much more descriptive of the relationship). And to lose a part - however unnoticed at our scale - is to diminish the whole.

What's different from us are the other elements in the earth's crust. One of the most common of these is silica, the primary element in rocks of volcanic origin such as agates, a stone that has been used for centuries in jewellery and as a talisman for health, courage, prosperity and long life. It gets its (Greek) name from the river in Sicily where it was collected in abundance.

These are the things that come to mind in contemplation of this creation by the talented metalsmith Carolyn (carolynartist.blogspot.com), called Crazy Lace and Turquoise. How like the rock faces on our coasts is this frosty agate; how like the seething surf at Blanchisseuse; how like the Caribbean sky is this turquoise. Let it be a talisman of joy for the wearer.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Meet the People, Minister in the Ministry of the People

If I were...
Minister of the People, in the new administration of Trinidad and Tobago, I would want to "meet the people" that are the responsibility of this ministry. And the goal would be to define some common values and shared identity. These conversations could lead towards our "code of ethics."

With a brand new and electrifying proposition - "the People" matter - the people should be challenged to create a brand new charter about who we are and what we value. This would surely be able to provide the primary communications mechanism for a revitalised ministry.

Here's how to do it. Host meetings in villages, communities and business associations up and down Trinidad and Tobago - the more remote at the same time as the nearest. Let those organisations that already created their own codes of ethics talk about why they did, and what went into them. Create these sessions in units and departments and agencies of government as well. Extend the conversations into schools and universities. Have them facilitated and recorded. Allow all - or as many as possible - the people to speak.

What would we talk about?
Let's start with the traditional values that have made us a unique people. Let's discuss how we use them to underpin our aspirations, ambitions, and the way we wish to do business. The overarching objective would be to create a Code of Ethics for Trinidad and Tobago.

What are we looking for?
To re-invest value in our national watchwords, discipline, tolerance and production. Surely after a half century they mean more. Together we aspire, together we achieve. We would unearth many more value words, and words  indigenous to special communities - gayap, jahaaji, million man hours, safety, villages raising children, and so on.

This should be considered a worthwhile priority to be undertaken in the first six months of office. Let's have the Government Information Service record and televise and broadcast clips from the mouths of the people! What inspiration, what challenges, what grassroots wisdom would we find!

What a legacy for the People's Partnership!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tiger in the rain

The middle of June in the tropics is hot and prone to afternoon showers. The morning sky might be blue and clear, but by afternoon, clouds pile up. The humidity builds and all of a sudden, rain falls. The English can say of their misty drizzles, "It is raining." In Trinidad, rain falls, bucket a drop straight out of the sky. It was on such an afternoon - after a leisurely father's day lunch when everyone was dozing in a sweaty stupor - that she chose to be born. The mid-afternoon torrent turned into a thunderstorm to drown out the first wails: a tiny girl with curled fists and ears that folded forward like seashells. If she was sleeping on her ears for eight months, they were opening now to the sounds of thunder and drenching dwnpour. A tiger - even a fire tiger - born in rain, according to the Chinese horoscope, needs to be sheltered and protected. After all, cats don't like water.

But this was a cat of a different stripe. Swim she did, learning the strokes as for her natural element. Unconcerned with racing, it was the act of moving through water that was the thrill. The tiger that swims is one to be feared (as water polo opponents must know)!

School was not her thing, but if she needed to pass exams to get out, she did, and with flying colours. Tenacity was her gift. Where others sailed, she dived deep, pushing herself to prove her worth and uncovering qualities of determination and focus and perseverance to shame more gifted peers.

Twenty-four years have passed since that year of the fire tiger, the feisty child with brows that beetle and a lower lip that pouts when disturbed is now a self-possessed assertive and protective soul. . Be wary when you cross her path. Get on the gentle side. May the world teach her patience and that the best laugh sometimes, is when you laugh at yourself.

Happy birthday, tiger child!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The book and the film

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee was a hard book to read. Winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, it confronts deep differences in the human condition - male against female, black versus white - and the subtle but shifting struggles for power, in a sparsely peopled veld of post-Apartheid South Africa. It lays bare the violence and selfishness of most human transactions. Lucy's decision - in the face of what seems to be the defining human characteristics, control and callousness - might just barely be perceived as the defiance or acceptance of a willful idiot child, or the only act with a glimmer of redemption.

You should read the book first, and then see the movie with John Malkovich as Lucy's father, Professor Lurie.

Most films have the challenge of compressing the time and distances that can be spanned by even the slimmest volume in the two hours of its drama and dialogue. Disgrace the film doesn't try too hard to adhere to chronology. Instead, it succeeds in telling the story through its characters and their relationships: the jaded white male professor and his delight in the young, black and nubile; the daughter determined to shape a life in a garden on the veld; her black tenant; the nurturing animal welfare activist.

The interplay produces debate that is contentious and controversial. There is brutal beauty in the personalities, actions and decisions of these individuals that transcends the veld, that mirrors the world. This, says Coetzee, is what civilization is.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What wild?

What is this wild you are looking for?
In every day life - you know, the humdrum of work, eat, sleep, traffic, buildings - the unexpected true essence of something stops you in your tracks. Maybe it's a flowering tree,  a pair of green parrots flying over, the pigeon that bangs into the shatterproof glass of a tall building, the two small birds battling the hawk above the electric lines... But it's not just about the bird and plant life, these may be what's left of nature in our suburbs and cities.


You are talking about wild nature? Does it exist in society for instance?
Most certainly, it does. Perhaps the place that is most unexpected to find the wild is in human behaviour. So much of what we do is learned and habitual. What is expected of us, what we expect of others. There's not much room - or tolerance - for what may be considered unorthodox, even deviant, behaviour. The individuals who left homes on the other side of the earth to begin new lives in a small island. The couple who choose to live in the deep forest and raise their children there. The teenager who sails solo around the world. There may in fact be more wildness in civilized society than anywhere else.


What will you do with it?
Don't know yet. Record what I observe. Be a scientist of human behaviour? Write down all the stories I can find. That's a start.


(The dialogue will continue in this space.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Woodpecker and bois canot

As kids who were fans of the animated cartoon Woody Woodpecker, we thought that the bird with its black and white body and red ruff of feathers was a figment of someone's imagination.

Much later in life, when we moved up to the Santa Cruz hill with a stand of bois canot trees, we would hear this loud staccato rhythm, rat-a-tat-a-tat-rrrr-at-tat-a tat-rrrr, stopping occasionally before resuming in a blur of sound. Then we would see him fly with a flash of red head to settle on another tree. The movement of his head is mechanical and regular, like a jackhammer. Later we could see the holes he had made in the tree, from which we assume he got enough for a meal.

Bois canot trees grow readily in cleared forested areas in the foothills and valleys of Trinidad's northern range. They are tall and reedy when they start out, but can thicken after a few seasons. The trunk or tree stalk is light and hollow, and harbours stinging ants which keep the tree free of other insects or vines. The large leaves of the bois canot shrivel and dry into a characteristic grey-brown bundle that is used in a herbal infusion. You can see the large leaves of the tree clearly in these photos of the woodpecker.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Curse of Hydrocarbons


Imagine an Earth, mainly tropical, covered in swampy marshes or towering rainforest, leaf litter and fallen trees compacting over eons. A green planet growing every kind of tree and grass and leaf species, photosynthesizing like sunlight might one day end. An Earth producing so much green stuff, throwing out heady pure oxygen, to evolve dinosaurs, and animal giants, as well as massive amounts of micro-beings. In the oceans as well, sea grass forests and algal bed nurturing the ocean giants and many more. Millions of years ago, time beyond comprehending, this is what we figure was happening. Today, these eons of life are with us still, in the diversity of living beings on the planet; as well as compressed and stored in pure chemical form: linked chains of carbon and hydrogen, energy wealth of an infinitely resourceful Earth.

Suppose too that the earth had to have a species come along to use up all that stored energy. What but an ironic universe could imagine and produce a defenceless and vulnerable, naked, ungainly, greedy species that would in 2000 generations by dint of bravado and luck develop hands and a brain to be commander and exploiter of all we survey.

In 2009, Trinidad and Tobago - and the world just a few decades more - observed a hundred years of petroleum (Greek, rock oil) mining. Using these million year old reserves, in less than these four generations, the human species has seen two world wars, managed to almost double its population, and invented plastics (hydrocarbons plus) for a world of technology.

In our generation, it seems we cannot live without petroleum - fuel in our cars, electricity, heat, and consumables (plastic, glass, aluminum cans, paper products) which now collect in garbage dumps on land and in the great oceans. bp's great catastrophe in the Gulf horrifies us - not just the lives lost and the loss of wildlife habitat, but the ugliness of a landscape bathed in oil, the losses to lifestyle and commercial interest. But are we not all responsible, the children of petroleum obsessed with Earth's riches and ownership?

Hydrocarbons, whales, big fish stocks, forests, wildlife, food, the Earth is bountiful and sufficient. It is we who always want more.

June 5 is World Environment Day. Here's an exercise. Take stock of what you have that is based on Earth's hydrocarbon resources. Make a list if you have to. How many of these can you live without? How much can you reduce usage?

The Challenge of the Environment meets the Curse of Hydrocarbons. How many of us can live with how little? Where do we find balance?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mother Africa

Ok, just this one more.

So why didn't you write about African arrival, the reader in my head asks.
Well, it's hard to see myself on a shelf on a ship, snatched from a land of mountains and rivers and big sky, fearful and sick, dying of claustrophobia. Just trying to imagine it, my spirit sinks, leaving my body a puppet to pretend. Dragged across continent and ocean, those who came from Africa have nevertheless risen to contribute their myths, magic and experience to the new world.

Instead, let us understand what the National Geographic Genome Project, directed by Dr Spencer Wells, reveals. The ancestry of all humans on earth today - how can they know all? - has been traced back to a group that derived in central Africa 60,000 years ago. The journeys of these common ancestors can be traced in interactive maps on the NG website. More importantly however, they are still being traced through genetic material that anyone can submit to the project for testing.

It means that Africa is in each of us. Even if we intuited that all humans belong to the same species - we can breed whatever the differences in superficial characteristics, white, black or brown, short, fat, tall - we now know with certainty that we belong to the family that arose some 60,000 years ago and travelled across the earth.

We are all African.

(Alternate ending:  Yes! Obama is yo' daddy!)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The French Lady

World War 2 broke the whole world apart. When it was time to put it together again, so many parts didn't quite fit, so many others fell out and ended up in different places. Like the French lady.

She was born in a tiny village in a forested area west of Paris. By the end of the war, she had been flung across The Channel to England, a land slightly less broken than the one she left. She met a man, also far from a home across the Atlantic, from Trinidad southernmost island of the Caribbean. Romantic islands "discovered" by Columbus, colonised successively by many European powers, they were strategic outposts of empire and watchtowers for the west.

It was to these islands that she came, yet another adventurer by boat. Everything was strange but lovely, unscathed by battle, bombing or brutality. Life was real, and hardly mundane. From her mother-in-law, she learned to fan a coalpot, to roll a roti, to wash clothes on a jukking board.  Not only the climate was tropical and fertile. Children came quickly. Three born to the French lady in three years.

Half a century later, she lives again in France. Daily, she sees the young man she met in wartime London. Often, she thinks fondly of the children living in far off places, of their children and those to come. What do they make of the world now, inheritors of a global village with continents in their veins and wanderlust in their eyes?

(This is the last of the Arrival stories - for the time being - written in the hope that the real stories of the boy from India, and the French lady, might be told.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Boy from India

It's the latter part of the 1800s. Another boy walks away from wrenching poverty. He walks across India to a wharf where a wooden boat rocks at anchor. There's more water here than he has ever seen in his life. Barely 16, thin and hopeful, he squats on his heels and watches the endless ocean. There's land on the other side he's heard. Small islands where sugar cane, coffee, cocoa are being planted. The work is hard, the estate owners unrelenting. But at the end of the day, there's naan and more. Behind him, there's nothing to hope for.

He finds the labour office, a man at a small desk and gives a family name, Maharaj. Yes, he's 16, old enough to be his own man.

On the boat,  he is young and able enough to make himself useful, not to become seasick. The boat is an island on kalapani, and rolls incessantly, but it's a rhythm that rocks him to sleep at night. He joins others in puja, shares their food and storytelling. The days are fair. The nights full of stars. One day, the wind changes, there's a smell that brings back memories of dark rivers and deep jungle. Land is near. In Trinidad, they are quarantined on an ark of an island before being released to the work assignments.

Many many years later, Aja looks at strong sons and many grand-children, even greats, and wonders if he's still that boy who dared to walk across a continent for bread and freedom. Or maybe he doesn't. He pulls up his dhoti, crosses his legs and smiles.