The wine of Tobago


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Category: Reflections Date: 24 Sep 95

Strains of slow rockers came from the verandah. “I’m not emotional,” declared the visitor from Trinidad. His thin upper lip made a barely perceptible movement denoting superiority - “not like my wife, she gets worked up about places and people.” He was standing at the tip of Bon Accord. Beyond him stretched a wide curve of lawn which rippled out into fruit trees, and a blur of dense foliage. A round burnt orange sun was making its descent into the sea - now a sensuous undulating mass of molten lava. Even after its orange descent into the water, silver lights flash in the darkening water. Sea breeze puffs out his shirt, billows the skirt of his wife who was not listening.


The young man represents reason and logic - much celebrated qualities in sophisticated urban professional life. But how to articulate to the cynical man the essence of Tobago and what makes it different from Trinidad? I could tell him two stories, which I heard in the space of two days.


The first from Trinidad. A man reasonably dressed, but down on his luck, approahces a businesswoman with a reputation for a shrewd mind and a kind heart, and asks for a loan of $60.00 - for a business venture. She makes a deal with him. She would loan him the money. If he returned it, she would continue to help him get his business off the ground. If he failed to return the loan she would not help him ever again. She puts the loan slip aside promising herself that if the man returned the money she would use it to start a fund for struggling entrepreneurs. The good woman never sees him again.


The second, Tobago. A woman under financial strain tells her landlord that she was unable to pay her rent. Six months pass and she lives rent free. Two years after she has moved out the landlord finds all the unpaid rent deposited in his account. The examples are undoubtedly flawed, unscientific, random, financial rather than spiritual but they help to illustrate the essence of Tobagonians.


When you still have on your city eyes - the abrupt movements of a wary protective instinct - an encounter with the Tobagonian is disarming. You will find all your quick dry defenses unnecessary. He is not interested in your insecurites, he is innocent of malice, he doesn’t care to know the rules by which you live and so escape judgment. Whether his innocence is real or put on is irrelevant. What the Tobagonian is protecting is his own humanity. He will not corrupt it by playing your games.


He is able to confer trust on you, by absolutely expecting it. Mark you, there is no studied arrogance in their eyes, simply no subservience - it is not so easy to shatter their reality with foreign cameras and accents. Tobagonian welcomes you but on his terms, that you drop your airs - in any case, a blind eye is turned towards them. But if the visitor does allow himself to be drawn in, to sink into the island, he will discover something beyond reason, a primeval, perhaps irrational sense of liberation from the importance of urban life, removal from networking and hustling and being seen at the right places and being clever or studiously outrageous. In the clear light of Tobago they appear as they are - superficial aspirations. It isn’t that the Tobagonian is ignorant of these aspirations. Living on an island he may just find it easier to be resigned than to strive for desires that cannot survive there, that preclude his way of life.

So a young female hotelier is calmly able to count out a large quantity of money in an open office, cars are left unlocked and brand new houses built without any burglarproof in the plans. On the beach, sturdy children smoothly brown with the sun and matted salty hair, walk home, spitting chennet seeds, unencumbered by adult fears of disaster. Unaware of how rare and precious is their freedom.


In the Scarborough church an afternoon wedding is in progress. Outside, a gentle breeze whispers through the yellow heat and heavy swaying trees. A tall priest twinkling with humour and flashing dimples marries a young couple. His sermon is no provincial “holier than thou” tirade into old time values but words that are vivid, as lush, as quiet as the landscape, a secular inspiration even for the ungodly.


He chooses the parable of the wine that ran out at the reception as his reference, and draws the congregation out to laugh and reflect. The wine, which evokes fecundity, the dance of feet in crimson juicy fruit, potent liquid, heady abandon, is not difficult to imagine. Who could shut out the wine when the priest then uses it as a metaphor for the stuff of good marriages, trust, forgiveness, communication, empathy. Suddenly he turns abrupt - the congregation is the first to hear of a domestic murder. He warns the young couple that they must not allow this wine to run out.


This, then, must be Tobago language. An open celebration of the offerings of the earth - the wine and the capacity people have for making others happy. The island has been, miraculously, largely uncorrupted by materialism - even the wealthy are committed to guarding the Tobago wine - maintaining simple lifestyles, shod of petty prejudices. The smallness can also be stifling. The priest understands it - else why that sudden mention of murder at a wedding? You can see in some a restlessness, loneliness and unsatisfied curiosity, the dullness settling in. Here, a suicide, there a chopping incident. Everywhere the grass is allowed to overgrow, the weed flourish. The discontent cast wistful looks at visitors, allowing them a glimpse into the gap of longing that their lives have become. And hints of being forgotten - like the Tobago Council for Handicapped Children whose building in Signal Hill came to an abrupt halt. The money has run out.


But triumphs like the 70th anniversary of Bishops High School which now has a new science wing, belong to everybody. In the market place, the man selling roasted corn boasts of an upcoming Divali cultural show organised by Jimmy. One marvels at how this well-known Tobago Muslim hosts artists at his holiday resort free, for a Hindu festival. Sat Maraj should meet him.


Just down the road gape huge brown dry heaps of dug up landscape, and half complete structures of artificial colours and elaborate shapes which will be filled in with highly priced city comforts. Looking at these half-made structures, one can’t help thinking of a land that is being slowly bled, mutilated, dried up and moulded into something entirely out of character. They are images succumbing to fantasies of sea and sand so banal and damaging to this precious way of life, one can only pray...don’t let this uncorrupted wine of ease, trust and ready laughter run out. These gaping dry holes and mounds of concrete represent discontent and more likely than not, threaten to suck into its greedy orifice, the wine of Tobago.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur