Confessions of a Trini


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Category: Reflections Date: 03 Sep 95

Three 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.


The 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.


We 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.

“I 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.”


“What does that have to do with the tattoo,” asks Moira who lives in England for the time being.


“Hold 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 waited.


“When 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.


“Then 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.


“So 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.


“A 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.


“He 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.


“When 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.


“Two 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 Tobago.”


We all laugh. “How did you feel about coming home,” I asked.


The young man, initially shy, was now expansive, even voluble.


“I 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.


“Trinis 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 aisles.


“On 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.


“From 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.


“But don’t you think you are being romantic?” asks one of us, I forget which.


“No, 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.


“Even 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.”


Everybody in the room nods.


We 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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur