in the morning is too late (or early depending on how you look at it) to
discover anything new. Yet it was precisely at this hour when the handsome
man decided to take off his green polo neck and reveal his tattoo of
Trinidad and Tobago.
map covered the expanse of his silky broad, deliciously chocolate coloured
back. Over the left shoulder blade a flag and a crest. Tobago nestled on
his right shoulder blade. Port-of-Spain was under his scapula. Cedros
ended below his left Kidney. His spine divided Trinidad in half. Monos,
Huevos and Chacachacare were small circles under his armpit. If you were
in any doubt that it was indeed a map of this country (a foreigner
perhaps) then you only had to glance at the green print in the middle of
the larger map. TRINIDAD & TOBAGO it said with perfect clarity or was
it TABAGO? “When did you decide to have the tattoo done?” I ask the
man who reminded me of chocolate. Five of us were sprawled across the
room. Patrick, the bar proprietor who hides his intelligence and
sensitivity under his cheerful picong; gorgeous Didi, a UWI student is
sensitive, bright and brings the best out of Patrick. Moira, Didi’s
sister who’s back after 13 years to get married in Tobago and rejoices
in being able to talk fast again.
were sated with food and drink, and as the hours passed were more willing
to divulge secrets and drop the masks we wore during the day. The night
belonged to the man with the tattoo, the most reserved of us all.
was in my first year at Manchester University, studying engineering. I
stopped attending classes, stayed in bed for days, reading, smoking and
eating Chinese takeaway. The university psychiatrist called it depression.
Who me? A Trini who passed over a scholarship to lime? A Valsayn boy who
mashed up two cars and travelled the world by the age of 15? You must be
mad. The psychiatrist then said that some people need more sun. After
three hours of sitting under a UV lamp four times a week I felt better.”
does that have to do with the tattoo,” asks Moira who lives in England
for the time being.
on,” he said in the manner of people who are not accustomed to talking
about themselves. He paused taking a deep drag on his cigarette. We
I went away Trinidad was the America of the Caribbean. All of us Trinis
abroad were arrogant because we felt we were the best. My first thought
when I saw the new airport in Barbados was that Trini money was used to
build it. That was at first.
came the culture shock. People didn’t understand me. They called the way
I spoke a dialect. I had an accent. I was foreign. I realised that people
didn’t know where Trinidad was. Those who did, saw it as a small island
somewhere in the Caribbean. That made me sad, protective towards the
place. I had to declare my allegiance to this country that was of no
importance to my host country.
I found out about this man in London who did tattoos and travelled from
Manchester to Edgware Road. It was a small shop on the main road with
typical tattoos stuck on display outside - the dragons and knives and I
love you Mom. As I walked in a customer walked out, he was bare chested.
Two curvaceous dragons covered his chest. The rest of his torso, neck and
shaven head, was filled in with leaves and ivy and abstract patters in
yellow green and red.
woman lay on what looked like a dentist’s chair having a pattern done
around her nipples. She had to do this in several visits because of the
sensitivity of the area. When she left I handed the tattooist a map which
I had just picked up from the BWIA office in Piccadilly. He traced it out
on a piece of paper including the counties and main roads and a flag.
placed the paper on my back and explained that he would do the outline in
black and the inside in colour. He warned me that the closer he got to my
spine the more painful it would get. He drew the map with a needle gun
which would pump in the pigment onto my skin. I was unprepared for the
pain. At one point I wanted to throw up it hurt so much.
he finished he covered my back with gauze to absorb the bleeding. I got up
dizzy and bleeding but happy. I had not only established my nationalism I
had also rebelled against middle class values.
days later in Manchester I took off the bandage and looked in the mirror
and realised the guy had spelt Tobago the way he pronounced it Tabago. I
decided because of the pain that I would not put in the counties roads and
the Northern Range. I went back to superimpose an O over the A in
all laugh. “How did you feel about coming home,” I asked.
young man, initially shy, was now expansive, even voluble.
came home three times a year. Any less and I would need the UV ray
treatment. There were, on average, at least 35 students on the flight. You
look around while waiting to board the plane, at the Africans and Indians
and French Creoles, Douglas and Red People you know yours.
were different and apart from the ‘real’ Asians and Africans you saw
in the departure hall. The Trinis carried themselves in our way - walked
and talked with a certain exuberance and confidence which linked us. For
the first time for the last three months you were surrounded by people who
understood what you said and why you said it. There would be at least two
all fours games going on which would continue on the plane in the back of
the plane we felt we were on home territory. Broke the rules. Everyone
talked to anyone. We smoked in No Smoking, limed in the aisles, consumed
huge amounts of alcohol, ignored the seatbelt signs. We were boisterous.
Barbados on people quieted down. As the plane flew across the Northern
Range, over Port-of-Spain and swung over the Gulf of Paria and headed
towards Piarco I got a heavy feeling in my stomach. You know that song
from Cheers which ends ‘a place where everybody knows your name?’
That’s where we were headed.
don’t you think you are being romantic?” asks one of us, I forget
I’m no longer a child. I get angry over stupid politics, racial divides
and a poor work ethic - but that feeling of painful protection I felt for
my country which I realised was no America but a small struggling island
will never leave me.
today when I return from a trip - the plane doors open and the humidity
hits my face and I know I’m home, my home.”
in the room nods.
thank Patrick and Didi for another evening of happiness and food and talk.
I tell Moira I hope she succeeds in getting her fiancee to live in
Trinidad and Tobago. She wants to live in both islands. As for me, I go
home with the tattooed man in the dusky pink dawn. I like his country.