Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Monday, October 17, 2011

Yikes! It's Skype!

The wonder of modern technology. It so easily takes you where your mind wants to go.

A generation ago, school in the Blue ridge Parkway was like going to the moon. Contact with home sporadic at best. The occasional - once a month - dutiful phone call on a Sunday evening was no lifeline. The knock on a dorm room door summoning you to the phone booth halfway down a long hall.
Hello! Hello? Hello?
My Mom on the line. Prosaic news, or maybe no news...
Where to start to connect ...how to read slow silence?
How to convey news no longer new? Exams passed or near misses?
The car crash that sent you to hospital for five hours, and a lump on the forehead that seeped to the eyes, making you look like the raccoon by Christmas. I am fine ... now.
On the highway next to semi trucks, walking for the sake of going somewhere. Went to the mall.
The chill of shorter days, the taste of snow and shivering in a thin raincoat. Yes, I am warm enough.
College life to people who had not gone beyond secondary school. I'll write. Letters were better.
I know now it wasn't about events, or what was in my head. She just wanted to hear my voice.

We used to send our children to the ends of the earth for better education, unafraid or innocent of the great gulfs forming between childhood and distances to go before you sleep. Was this wandering destiny coded in the genes from ancestors who travelled across worlds to find home. Distances are always there, miles, habits, lifestyle, time zones, needs, wants, friendship, hurts, dreams. But always, the yearning to connect.

So Facebook, yes. Email too! Instant texts on cell phones, Blackberry bbm. I am all for connecting every which way. Bring them on!

News now? What news? Just wanted to hear your voice, see your face!

London to Tobago

A lab in Amsterdam too!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blogging my write

Blogging may be inhibiting my other writing. I find when I sit to blog, my mind gets a sharp focus, and I know that I have to get to the point and be gone in four or five paragraphs. The first to set the scene - who, or what is the topic. Better to state it upfront and early. Don't beat about the bush. This focus is harder to find or just not there, on a blank Microsoft Word page with its infinity of blank space.

By the second paragraph, bring it to life. Is it about me on this hard stool at my kitchen counter. By this time, the chaos of impressions in my head makes me want to get up, drink a cup of tea, check on the dog, put out the garbage, start the laundry - do anything but continue what is a laborious process of sorting, and pulling out threads of thought, looking at them, discarding this one, testing that one, deleting and putting down something that might get me to the next paragraph.

It's not easy. But I have managed to keep my butt on the seat, and my fingers on the key board. Maybe now I can relax a bit. Breathe. Review what I have. Should I save as draft here, to come back later? Come back later - this virtual world can disappear in an instant like the five perfect paragraphs written two days ago that just were not there when I returned. Oops, something bad has happened was the response of the Blogger Team! Indeed.

It is at this point that what I call the "matrix thing" starts to happen. The parallel stories in my head start lining up. I see the patterns un-worded and chaotic though they are. This could actually become a series. I would call this one, Writing about writing. 

Except that writing about writing is like trying to describe the dirt in your own bellybutton. No one is particularly interested. Better to talk about the people and places to whom many more persons have connections. Steve Jobs and his insightful advice - how would you live this day as if it were your last. 
Which is about what you are doing, want to do, or have to do, but especially about the quality of that doing. Living today is the hardest thing you have to do. And also the most joyful.

Living to die removes fear, cuts you to your centre, gives focus and purpose, lights you up from inside. It's ten years since my first death ... But that's another story!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Green Face Bar

My grandfather was a very funny guy. "Ham goo mah!" he would greet us, throwing his arms out to catch a small girl in a bear hug. "Akung!" I would fling the response to his greeting (Call me, what you call me? was what we were told he was saying), wriggling to escape. In his day, my grandfather would be today's rapper, "Say my name. Say my name! Wear it out!" And we would dance around, "Akung! Akung! Akung!" to his joy. His conversations in gatling gun Chinese must have been amusing too, accompanied always by laughter and punctuated by his "Eh? Eh!"

We didn't understand his language, but we understood his jokes. "Gate," he called me Gate, the nearest his Cantonese tongue could get to Gail. My sister was Helling, and in case anyone mistook his meaning, he would clarify "Se-moke Helling," with bellows of laughter, smoked herring! Clearly, "r" was not to be found on his Chinese tongue. My other sister was "Macket!" or more specifically "Feesh Macket!" He understood more than enough to make puns of our names.

How or why he chose to come halfway around the world from Canton province (today's Guangdong) in southeast China, to Chinidad, will remain a mystery. We presume that he was leaving a place that was becoming more difficult to raise a family. In Trinidad, he raised two families. By the time his Chinese family was settled in one part of Belmont, the Trinidad family was catching up just streets away. He made no secret of either, and all the children - seven by each wife - carried his name.

I must have been less than a year old when he disappeared with me for a day. My mother said when she asked what I had eaten, he was dismissive, "Clix (crackers) and swee' drink. Gate belly full." He said he would take me to China. And I believe if she had even slightly agreed, he would have done just that. I had to be content instead with the bracelet he brought me. H.A.P.P.Y. were the letters on a circlet of Chinese gold disks.

One of the last memories I have of Akung was at a place called the Green Face Bar in Point Cumana. Continuing his free spirited lifestyle, Akung didn't settle in any of the homes he had made. Instead he was running yet another shop, this time with a bar on the side where he sold rum and whisky by the shot, cigarettes by the stick. We were to have lunch with him - did I say he cooked lavish feasts?

On the Sunday, around noon, the shop was closed and we entered through one of the big shop doors painted green. Inside, the long counter was converted to a buffet table. Bowls and chopsticks at one end. A steamer of rice. Bird's nest soup. Vegetables cubed and stir fried in a chow. Giant black mushrooms in a salty "oyster sauce". Roasted pork belly with a crispy skin, chopped with a sharp chopper into bite sized pieces. Jumbo shrimp cooked in their shells. He was a social generous man still wanting to be loved by his family. His "Ham goo mah" received our chorus of "Akung!"

When he died, I understood he had passed away from the effects of too much alcohol and cigarettes. His favorite was the harsh unfiltered Anchor Special in the yellow pack. He always had a lighted cigarette dangling from his lips. Long after, sometimes on the farm, I would catch a whiff of Anchor and sure enough, I hear again, his throaty laugh, "Ham goo mah!" Say my name! Akung!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Belmont Shop

My grandparents had a shop on St Francois Valley Road near Waterman, opposite the girls school. It was the place where my father and his siblings - my aunties and uncles, and a couple cousins - grew up. I don't know if the building still stands. I hardly spent time there as a child, and everyone who did was glad enough to leave. It was no ancestral home, but a stepping stone to independence. The ancestral home I understand is a two story stone cottage in China, that up to the last time my father visited (1999?), still stood near a busy freeway - its walls decorated with old photos of children and grandchildren in Trinidad.

The Belmont shop was up a slight incline from the road. With its doors open, it was all counter, a wide  and welcoming front. But we weren't expected to visit across the counter. Through a side door, we entered the place where the goods were stored, and a right turn through that, the kitchen cum dining-living  area, the heart of the house, cool, dark and unventilated. To the right a single large bedroom. Straight ahead through a feedbag curtain, the shop.

In those days, a hundred pounds of chicken feed came in bags made from printed cotton fabric - floral, paisley, plaid patterns. My grandmother would wash the bags after the feed was sold by the pound (in brown paper bags from envelope small to five pound) and unpick the coarse cotton with which the sides were sewn. The fabric would be used for clothes or curtains; some of it together with balls of the unpicked cotton twine went back to her family in China.

My grandmother was always working. In the shop, a woman who barely spoke English transacted business all day long. She weighed and measured, took money, gave change, and barely smiled. Her hair was always a tight bun on the nape of her neck. Selling everything from salt pigtail to flour, sugar, cooking butter, she wiped her hands frequently in an apron. Inside, there was usually a pot on the kerosene stove. I remember a soup made in a whole winter melon placed in the wok. It must have been simmering all day. But it may have been my grandfather who was the cook.

Usually an uncle or auntie was in the shop too. It was a busy operation. I remember the wooden pigeon holes that held small items - "blue" (used to bleach clothes), clothes pegs, spices - and the shelves with canned or bottled goods. "Credit slips" - pieces of brown paper with names and amounts owing - were also tacked to the shelves. Most of the staples were in drums or containers under the counter. Stiff slabs of cod, crusted white with salt, rested in an open wooden box. Nearby pigtails swam in a barrel of brine. And close to both, a chopping block that was a cross-section of a tree, with a sharp chinese chopper - a whole tail or fish would be chopped swiftly and neatly.

Just under the counter on neat shelves were the brown paper bags, arranged according to size, and stacks of neatly cut brown paper - to hold anything from a a dollop of lard to pigtail or a few ounces of cheese. My grandmother knew exactly which paper to pick up to weigh four ounces of flour, and deftly crimped the sides and rolled the top with two tightly turned ears to seal the package. Shop paper fascinated me - I would try to wrap with the same speed and dexterity and end up making paper boats. I loved the way this paper held the marks of a soft pencil! It was my preference over the slate and its scratchy stylus.

One of the memories I have in this shop. Someone - my grandfather I think - was sick and being ministered to with all manner of pungent ointments, strong smelling brews and a haze of something burning. Not a death bed because he was soon up and about again, but the smell of sickness that was sombre and scary to a young child. The smells of this shop always assailed me by the door. They are probably the most enduring memory: the sticky sweetness of brown sugar; grain scent of feed; rice; the stink of pigtail and cod; all mingled with the smells of old cook fires and spices and food soaked into walls whose paint you could no longer discern. And the smell of the people - dry, papery, damp, faintly oily.

Chinese to me is a smell. I find it in the groceries from Miami to London and Charlotte street. It's the pleasant licorice flavor of preserved prunes; the dust of black mushrooms; five spice powder, star anise, shilling oil and thousand year old eggs. These combinations in these newer establishments are not the same, but sometimes a whiff of something dark and unknown strikes the note and instantly I am back to this shop in Belmont.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Woodbrook shop

I grew up in a shop. Many of my early memories are playing behind or under shop counters. But even before memory, I was told that my father would take me with him to a shop he ran on the top of Laventille hill. Less than a year old, I was content to lie or play in a large toilet paper box, goo-gooed and gah-gahed over by whoever came to "get message" - as shopping with a list was referred to.

So, when we moved to a shop in Woodbrook, corner Gatacre and Baden-Powell, he brought a couple of his helpers from the hill. I think there was a Tallboy, Laglee and a woman they called Red. At  lunchtime everyday, the shop closed until three. This meant closing two pairs of big heavy mahogany shop doors with dead bolts into the ground, and a plank on brackets. In the semi-darkness, while the "boys" slept on top the stacks of hundred pound bags of brown sugar and rice, my sister and I played behind the counter, uncovering the barrels that contained salt butter, Crix and Mopsy biscuits. Later in the afternoon when the shop re-opened, the fresh bakery goods would arrive - slabs of butter cake with pink icing, a large white cookie crusted with sugar called couvertie po cham (literally translated "cover for the chamber pot"), rock cake and bellyful (a kind of bread pudding).

I remember cheese that came in wooden boxes. Pale cheese cut in thin slices or cubes on Crix. People came to the shop to buy a hops and salt butter and salami; and these items were sold by weight like that, two slices of salami, a slap of butter, an ounce of cheese. That was a meal in brown paper. At Christmas, the smell of apples and grapes lifted out of the sawdust from a wooden box was heady as the spice in boiling sorrel.

Our shop was a whole kingdom to three and four year olds. There was the public space on the outside of the counter when the shop was open. We weren't even allowed inside the shop when it was open. (If someone asked us for a sweetie or a bottle of cologne - "Chinee girl, gimme that" -  we would just hand it over - not good for business! It took a bit longer for us to perceive value in the large copper and silver coins, far less the paper notes.) If we were not in school, we would be in the single large bedroom bouncing on the bed or climbing to the top of the wardrobe using the dressing table beside it. The kitchen - another place we were seldom allowed in - was a dim room with a food safe (its doors made with fine mesh to allow ventilation but keep out flies) and a smoky kerosene stove. I think we had a fridge and freezer because my mother made "kool-aid ice blocks" to sell in the shop.

Part of the L-shaped yard was the garage for my father's Vauxhall; the rest featured lines for drying clothes, a piece of galvanize for a "bleach" and tanks for the fish that were my father's hobby. Sheba, a tiger striped brown dog, was always tied in the day, let loose in the night. I think my father promoted her reputation as a fierce watch, and a biter. We weren't allowed to play with her.

Into this environment my second sister was born. I clearly remember the day - though I had to be told later that it was a Carnival weekend. The midwife came to us. My sister and I were put into the car parked in the garage, and told to stay there. Not to come out until we were called. How many times could two small girls tumble from the front into the back seat. How many variations of sitting, lying, crawling, tugging on the steering wheel could there be. It seemed like hours before we were called and shown the new baby sister.

On reflection now, I think it was her arrival that gave us more freedom on the streets. Freedom in the fifties is relative. Remember we had helpers in the shop who always had an eye on us; an uncle - my father's younger brother who sometimes lived with us - and neighbors whose business was to mind the business of everyone else and the children. We spent the waning hours of most days going "round the block" (we were not to cross any streets) in the company of the children who lived on the block - I remember the Constantine, Lewis, Leotaud, Lee Sang families, Miss Steele and Miss Dabreu, and Boysie the coal man.

Living in a shop didn't mean we were more fortunate than others. We lived simply, with a strong sense of order and routine. We provided service in a community. The shop opened and closed at specific times: Thursdays were half day, closed in the afternoon. We were open on Saturdays until late. My father delivered "message" by the box load on Saturday nights. Closed on Sunday. If a customer really needed something, a quiet knock on the back door could do the trick.  Much later on in life when we had moved from the shop to the farm, my father applied the same service ethos. Though we tried to contain business to certain hours, you could buy a duck or some eggs on a Sunday morning as long as someone was at home.