Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Gift of Life

So many horror stories surround hospitals everywhere. Apart from the germs and diseases that you might pick up, they are reminders of illness, death, mortality. We hear the stories and in our hearts are thankful that - for the time - we are spared! Encounters in hospitals - not unlike those in the Trinidad licensing office or almost any public institution - are usually humbling if not aggravating.

The Blood Bank in Port of Spain on a Wednesday morning this week was a pleasant surprise. It's not that they are in an ultra-modern building with up to date facilities to encourage donors. The building is colonial old, its high arching roof soars over slender supports, the rooms below functional but tidy. Or that - as in my college years - you are induced with a chit for a "surf and turf" (translation: lobster and steak) dinner. You get a juice and a biscuit, and an enforced 15 minute rest.

But the process is kept simple and straightforward. The nurses - I saw only women though I was told there is one male nurse - are brisk but kindly and willing to chat nervous donors through the process. I was happy to be considered fit enough to give a unit of blood. The "pinch" was just that; the extraction process five minutes. 

And for an hour of time, you have provided something made by an ineluctable and mysterious process, of time and chemistry, biology and being - a living gift.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Negotiating with Bachacs

It's the spring solstice (March 21) and what a wet and green "dry season" we are having!

I am watching bachacs on my hill. I make the mental note to get some bachac bait before all my young plants are stripped to sticks. I have been watching them for days now. Last week, the dog dug at their hole, furiously, until it was flattened and muddy. Today, there is a new hole less than a yard away. An opening that's perfectly round, lined with leaf litter, and as grand an entrance as one of the domes on the performing arts centre. The parade of ants with bits of leaf or flower continues - without break - to the new hole. They are the same ants, I am sure, that I see a few hundred yards up the hill taking bits of leaf away. Surely these distances compare to a couple miles on the human scale?

What human enterprise is the equivalent of these lines of red ants I wonder. What do we do at the human scale that is persistent, continuous, non-stop?

We too change the face of the earth. We clear cut the forests and then, depending on what we want above or out of the ground, we rearrange the soil to grow crops, or tunnel the earth for what's underneath. In the places where oil was discovered, the land has been despoiled by leaks and seepages. In other places, we have assiduously consistently removed the rock - to build up other places, as construction material, for road beds. Many landscapes bear no resemblance to the forms that were there a generation ago, or even a decade, far less a century ago.

We can't usually determine where the bachacs build their nests. But they do like limestone formations. And when they tunnel under our gardens and homesteads - to the inconvenience of the plants - we quickly get out the bachac bait, or the insecticide, or the kerosene, and make sure that they go somewhere else. It's hard to kill them outright, so encouraging them to move outside our fencelines is usually a negotiation that doesn't mean they won't still eat your rose bushes or soursop trees.

On the human scale, we also mine limestone rocks (Laventille was such a quarry; knolls all over Santa Cruz; the Aripo Savannas) and drill where we expect to find oil or gas. The value of mineral deposits - or human convenience and progress generally - has usually trumped the rainforest, the wildlife, whatever happened to be there that looked like "bush." Bush incidentally has a connotation in Trini for what's useless, unwanted: as in "play bush" in the All Fours card game; or when the Savannah was paved, "it have plenty bush in de country (meaning outside of town) - we don't need it here."

In the end it might be easier to "negotiate" with bachacs than to do so with people who value what can be bought and sold, over that which is means life for the species.

Let us not consider that Asa Wright has won a victory for having had the quarrying "in its view of the Arima valley" stopped. Instead let us be grateful for the opportunity to sit at the same table with the government, quarry owners and operators, and the communities, to begin to negotiate the appropriate use of an island's finite resources. Lest we lose not only the bachacs, the hummingbirds, the manicou, the insects too. We know already that we cannot bring back many others already lost.



Friday, March 9, 2012

A bad break

The tumbling crash from the bathroom was more ominous because of the silence. No "gaaad" or "shiiit" not even a scream. I rushed to see the husband naked on the floor outside the shower. He was supported with his head against the counter, his left arm incapable to holding him up. "I think it's dislocated," he said. I cupped my hand around the shoulder - he screaming - running it down the arm to feel how I might slip back a dislocation. There was nothing to push back into place. The looseness of the bone under the unbroken skin puzzled me for a minute. And then it clicked - broken.

"Can you get up? Can you walk?"
"Let me just lie dong in the bed. I'll be ok," was his response.

"Oh no, we are going to the hospital, right now!" The decision made as the words flew off my tongue. I  repeated it - and louder - as the conviction grew. He became more adamant. "Can't go anywhere tonight, just let me lie dong. Go tomorrow." In hindsight, the pain in his shoulder and arm must have been unbearable

A light beach wrap became a makeshift sling. Getting the jeans on, and a big denim shirt over the shoulder were not easier. And so to the car.

On the way to the hospital, we passed the site of a crash with bodies on the roadside. My passenger only moaned.

Bumps and potholes caused screams and groans. At the foreshore hospital, he was taken from the car by wheelchair directly to the emergency ward. By the time x-rays were done and he was hooked up to an IV drip and installed in a bed, three hours had passed.

Two days later, after three hours in the operating theatre, the surgeon said, "Your husband fought me in there." He could not use the "pin and screws" which he had planned to apply to the humerus bone broken in two or three places. Instead, he had to improvise a plate, screws and wires to hold all the fragments together.Your healing, he said to the husband, would depend entirely on your part. No smoking because nicotine is very bad for bones, making bones brittle in old age and inhibiting re-growth. Alcohol almost as bad.

Three days in the hospital, three days of shuttling between home and bedside go in a daze. I pass the light pole - still standing - on the Saddle Road that cleaved through the speeding car taking three lives. I see the counter in the bathroom unscratched. I hear other news of wanton behaviour - molotov cocktails and a shootout on the Beetham, armed robbery on a street in Diego Martin where we used to live, destruction of forest habitat in the Arima valley. I feel to be already in mourning. I am grieving for the loss of wholeness, feeling the pain in his arm - now in a cast and padded up like an American footballer's - like a personal injury.

The arm will heal, I am sure, with time and care. But it will not be the same - overhand bowling very unlikely. Perhaps this numbness over me will pass. But I feel shattered like that bone, like those forest trees upturned and broken like sticks. I am losing the ground of my being like the birds and animals racing ahead of the bulldozer. And in this instant, I know again the cold breath of mortality.


Two "pictures" of the break
The surgeon's work

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Oil and Chocolate

I remember Debe. Thirty years ago, Debe was an intersection at the end of a trainline for a train that had stopped decades before. But that "trainline" was where - under the guidance of Robert May - we made a beeline for hot poolowrie, cachowrie, doubles and aloo pies. When he knew we were coming to visit the new Palmiste housing estate, he would arrive in the little cocoa house office with greasy brown bags full of the stuff, hot out of the frying oil and hot with pepper.

Debe in south Oropouche is now a bustling town. The trainline is gone.
Selling the same treats: aloo pies, baiganee, cachowrie, doubles

Street food in Debe
Debe sweet seller: jallebis, kurma, barfi and ladoo
"You're late," we'd say as we unceremoniously attacked the bags in his hands.
"Better oily than late!" he would reply. And that's how the meeting would start, with lunch and later a tour of areas being newly cleared. I was there once when an old cocoa estate was being bulldozed. I felt a pang to see the red earth and the upturned trees. But Charlie Brash's vision for Palmiste was a beautiful suburb with wide curving avenues, home sites on gently sloping hills - and that meant clearing nearly everything first. He didn't touch the lovely Pasture with its landmark palmiste trees though, keeping the savannah for the pleasure of the residents.

Brash then, as the principal in the Well Services group of companies headquartered in deep South, past Mosquito Creek - Otaheite (what a lovely name!) - was investing his energy sector earnings in real estate, the start of a project that would continue for another 20 years.

Thirty years later, the Brash oil enterprise celebrates yet another diversification: an old agricultural holding is being revitalised to cocoa and mixed crops, and the creation of a nature park. At the official opening held at Rancho Quemado (located on the Siparia Erin Road past Penal), representatives of Agriculture, Tourism, Forestry and Wildlife praised the initiative. It is fitting, they think, that the energy sector should turn back to support the sector that nourishes us.

Already the area designated for the nature park is equipped with a few (caged) birds and animals - macaws, raccoon, an invisible toucan. There are see-saws for the children and enclosed picnic tables for family gatherings. What creates the ambience though are the tall trees shading the walkways - cedars and immortelles, and a lovely old cannonball tree. Notice as well that this pleasant park is set in a rehabilitated working cocoa estate. Five thousand new trees have been planted. And you should marvel at the hefty pods hanging from the trunks of young and older cocoa trees.
Lofty trees shade the Rancho Quemado nature park

Look for the big cannonball tree: its ripe fruit smell like carrion

Towering immortelle covered in epiphytes

Vines on an old tree

Mosses and ferns in shady spots
Special first day visitors at Rancho Quemado nature centre
For Rancho Quemado - scorched land - is fertile and fruitful. You'll find beehives dripping with honey, laden grapefruit trees, ponds full of tilapia and koi. But most of all, you'll find cocoa - mixed generations, young trees among the old - being harvested for beans to be transformed into the finest chocolate by the Rancho Quemado/ Cocobel chocolatier, Isabel Brash.

It is all experimental, says Isabel - the youngest Brash - but there's magic in the taste of chocolate made of beans from a single estate in the land where "cocoa was once king." This is the island which once supplied the world with the cocoa trees cross-bred to make it a global crop (Trinitario), and whose production of beans - however diminished - is still considered "fine flavour" and highly desired on the world market.
Even slender new cocoa trees have giant pods


The government representatives are delighted by what they call "integration" of the stages of production - bean to bar. They are thrilled that it is taking place here in the part of that country which once abandoned its estates to pursue oil and gas production.

Trinidad's "cocoa culture" once stopped at the beans, bagged and accumulated for export. But in this incarnation of cocoa, new possibilities arise - that we might yet produce and enjoy here in the island, finished cocoa and chocolate products identified by the soils of their origin. And in time, that Rancho Quemado becomes a name of distinction for cocoa and chocolate.