Horizon at Sandy Point

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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Charlotte Street

Walking in downtown Port of Spain is always a walk down Memory Lane. I think I was ten or 12 when I was allowed to visit the bookstore on Frederick Street by myself. The book department of Stephens and Todd was presided over by a small busy man, Lionel St Aubyn. He was always trying to be helpful, but I didn't really know what books I liked yet so the little time I had in his shop was spent browsing. I remember being hooked on some adventure stories by Hammond Innes and I would pore over the different titles before selecting the one for that month. Then I would wait for my Dad in front the store at the pre-arranged time.

Earlier on, when I was five or six, Daddy would sometimes take me and Helen to town with him, to pick up goods. That would have been Charlotte Street. He would leave us in the car with strict instructions not to open the doors. And in this particular memory, we were so hot. Maybe we didn't dare open the windows, but that's not true either because I also remember conversations with curious passersby.

What's your name?
Pudden an tail (because of course we were not to tell anyone our names.)
Where's your Daddy?
He coming back now now (so no one would think we were alone for a long time.)

And the terror because we were sure someone would open the door and come in the car.
And the sweat because we were so hot, maybe from tumbling from the front to the back and climbing back.
And the relief when Daddy did come back and start the car, and we could move and feel the wind in our faces.

At Christmas time, we window shopped, in the late evening after shops closed, when you could park on lower Frederick Street and walk up and down the block admiring the windows of Woolworth, Glendinnings and Stephens and Todd. Special gifts were bought from Excellent Trading higher up on Frederick Street near Park: I remember a jewellery box built like a mini chalet for Helen.

My appreciation for Charlotte Street came later, when as a young adult I would go to the Chinese grocery, with my mother or fatheer, or alone, entranced by cargoes that crossed the seas: preserved fruit in a variety of flavours, swet, salty, sour, peppery, orange-peel, liquorice, sticky; tea called gunpowder; and the things in tins, sweet lychees, abalone, sour pickles, lotus roots, bamboo shoots; black mushrooms and dried fungus called wood ears; dried fish belly that puffed up in the oven; magic mung beans that sprouted in a tin covered by a wet rag; and lapcheong fatty and fragrant sausages steamed on white rice.
Wing Sing, my favourite Chinese shop on Charlotte Street

We never imagined the actual fruit, but delighted in the tastes that made our mouths pucker and our eyes and noses wrinkle.

More recently, Charlotte Street has meant treading the maze of people and cars from east Port-of-Spain. But today, I was pleasantly surprised at the relative order imposed on the maze. The street vendors occupy tents; their wares - produce or panties, slippers or seasonings -  carefully displayed on tables. The vendors pay monthly fees to rent their spaces and tents. It's Port -of-Spain's idea of an open air market, and seems to be working: first by allowing people to vend; secondly, providing an income to the City Corporation; and finally imposing a system and order on an otherwise unruly set of circumstances.

So I stopped to take a photo of the basin of chows: pineapple, mango, pommecythere and plum.
You taking picture and you not even buying?
How much is your mango chow? Give me a bag with green and some ripe.
Twelve dollars (as she proceeds to spike the slices of fruit with  salt, green shadon beni sauce, red pepper sauce).
So where you from?
Born right here in Trinidad, and you?
I from St Vincent; been here long long time.
How long? How old are you?
Her laugh is hard and hearty because I caught her.

As she salted and seasoned mango and pommecythere for me, others were gathering around.
How much for the plums?
Give me a bag of pineapple.
Bags of pineapple, mango, pommecythere, salted and seasoned on the spot for you.

The chow lady from St Vincent

Plums waiting to be "chowed"

Everybody on Charlotte Street is busy: either selling; buying; or scripping (a word we used when we were just browsing). Somewhere in all that commerce and picong, I feel the soul of Trinidad stirring, struggling to stay alive.

Here are some photos from the Charlotte Street vendors market today.

Tents along the roadside on Charlotte Street: vendors may now "rent" space and shelter from the POS Corporation to sell in specific designated areas.

Peppers, hot (above) or sweet

Tonka beans

Soursop from another island

The orange peeler

Avocadoes at centre stage