when you live on a small island such as this (I had a hard time explaining
why it is not on the world map that hangs in my five-year-old son’s
room) it is useful to look at it from the outside in.
when this foreign film crew asked me to show them around, I saw Trinidad
through the eyes of a 38-year-old male producer, a man who had lived all
his life in England. Prior to his visit, we spoke on the phone on the
places and people he wanted to film for an education documentary for
children. One of these was “buildings”. What sorts of buildings are
there here?” he asked. Of course I joked - you can juxtapose the huts
and tapia houses in the country with the “concrete houses” in the
“town”. To my surprise he did not laugh. OK, he said, and I could
picture him jotting down “huts” under the title “buildings”.
arranged with Mark on weekends to visit certain prototypes of families for
his shoot. In any event Mark turned out to be refreshing, easy company
during our long drives. I actually enjoyed bumping along in a jeep in
rural Esperanza, San Rafael, and Siparia in the hot sun on my precious
weekends and later wondered why.
was relatively good-looking, but not earth shattering, there was no
physical chemistry between us but it was invigorating. Why? Well, for one
he walked fast (so I didn’t feel like a freak as I do sometimes on
Frederick Street), was quick, driven, razor sharp, his curiosity
infectious. I didn’t have to play shadow boxing as you do in Trinidad
when you first meet people. By that I mean there was no automatic defence
mechanism that clicked into place. No gentle feeling out of “where the
other person was coming from” and responding accordingly. No stereotypes
to protest against, nothing to gain or lose by stating your political
affiliations. There was no speculating on which of the really wealthy are
drug barons, and who is a racist, and who is a political chameleon and
shaker, who has how many millions from how many bribes, and who was
found myself telling him things I had never even admitted to myself.
“NGOs and unions, of course, serve a purpose. As a young idealistic
journalist I really wanted to interview these people but quickly and with
painful disillusion discovered the awful rot in many of these
organisations. They too have autocratic leaders, sycophantic followers.
You wouldn’t believe the pettiness, intrigue and jockeying for positions
that goes on in the most innocuous sounding women’s groups, for
told him I couldn’t remember the last time I had an open discussion
about homosexuality, the real reasons as to why so many men feel
emasculated enough to bash their wives’ heads in, the self censorship we
practice everyday because we are a small society and someone may use
something against us, the fact that we are a “matriarchal” society
because so many fathers don’t give a damn, and about my belief that
marriage is one of the most unnatural institutions even though I practice
spoke a bit wistfully about his luck that he had access to foreign and
experimental arty films and theatre. Perhaps pretentious to some but
certainly stimulating. I had to admit that the most popular films here are
Kung Fu and third class films of mindless sex and violence. I admitted I
wasn’t too impressed with Madonna in Evita but was also disappointed
that people walked out of the musical, that they’d come to see Madonna
of leather mini-skirts and whips but found Madonna’s portrayal of Evita
I admitted that people with money can sometimes have taste with well
appointed establishments equal to anywhere. But some, although they may
have a lamp from Tiffany’s, don’t have a book in sight to read by its
he talked to me about England. How the cold gets depressing, how it takes
so long to get anywhere after work, that although the money is good you
are sometimes too tired to spend it. That it is true 16-year-olds get
pregnant simply so that they can qualify for free housing, that the
economy was too tied up with the property market.
couldn’t believe how roomy our homes were, even the most roughly
constructed ones. Mark informed me that property worth £75,000 consists
of a tiny flat. Here, for that price, you can live in a mansion.
told him about my awful guilt as a working mother - the times I was not
there for sports day, the nights I couldn’t read to the children and
tuck them to sleep, the homework I never did with them, the frenzied
activity with them to make up for it, my need for time and space and how
crowded I sometimes felt. And he said he wished his mother had more of a
life, which was unrelated to him. Her life. It would have been better for
her and he would have felt less guilty when he wanted to go off and do
things. That helped.
made me laugh. He imitated the rubbery languid slow-motion attention
executed by an army officer at the Prime Minister’s residence. (He could
see them from his room at the Normandie.) And when he looked on with
astonishment at the slow movement of the buttocks of a man or woman
crossing the road in front of our vehicle (not by a traffic light). I told
him about “bounce me na!” In a couple of weekends we covered the
met the brightly precocious “town” boy from Jamaica who played the
piano, and told his examiners the format he preferred, and his wonderful
warm mother who loved nurturing her sons to excellence. And visited the
“country” boy in San Rafael who still danced on cocoa, swam in the
river nearby, and helped harvest his father’s crops. All around
watermelon vines, plump hot peppers, spinach, orange, and banana trees.
helped roll buss-up shut (burst up shirt, I explained to Mark to guffaws
of laughter from the “country” boy’s father) and lolled for a moment
in the back verandah, a hammock whose occupant keeps the parrot company.
No fences or burglar proofing. Your seasoning and vegetables in the garden
there was the church service in Siparia with Sister Marie Therese which
was totally unlike any Catholic service Mark had seen in England. There
were the all-children choir playing steel-pan and the boy doing fancy
notes on the piano, and the guitar and shack shack, and the tapping and
the hymns, the interlocking of hands of the entire congregation. The
Hindus who sat in front of the Black Virgin with their bright Salver
Khameez and Orhinis. Mark said he wanted to convert to Catholicism.
the Baptist church in Sangre Grande the dazzling sight of women in
bleached, starched petticoats and headdress walking down this rural road
flanked by the green foliage under the midday sun stopped us. It was a
Gauguin painting in motion. And this, I pronounced triumphantly to Mark,
is what Minshall put on the stage in Atlanta. It won his heart, he whose
father was a “non-practising” Baptist Jamaican living in England, his
mother Polish communist.
was Mother Viera, hugging and welcoming us (Mark later told me he felt a
world of comfort in that buxom seemingly all-enveloping bosom), the
“service”, clapping of hands, a spontaneously harmonious choir, the
high and low notes blending in, the surprisingly formal continental
embrace during the service. Now Mark was a Baptist.
evening I was to take him through tall cane fields - scaring him about the
rapes, murders, and stolen cars there - to Esperanza village. A pundit’s
home - little India - where joint families live together, the tinsel
bright decorations in their temple at home, the bright-eyed children
secure with their place at home in the village, praying the way their
grandfather taught them, and then getting on to surf on the Internet. This
is old India and modern Trinidad. A visit to the temple. An explanation of
all the Gods. Mark had converted. He was now a Hindu.
the Muslim school, I enjoyed Mark being incredulous that Hindus and
Christians also attended because it was “a good school.” That
religious instruction drew from all religious. And the girls and boys (for
this mingling you could possibly be stoned to death in Islamic countries,
and even in India you would never find a Hindu child in a Muslim school).
the Orisa home, Mark did not see bare-backed savages but an articulate,
elegant and wealthy family which had chosen to follow the Orisa religion,
wear African clothes at all times and live in an African style compound.
Four sets of siblings and children next to each other in large roomy two-storey
flats. Africa in Trinidad. The elders explaining to us as we exclaimed
over this arrangement: “We believe in providing completely for our
children so they can get a head start and do the same for theirs.” Could
you adopt asked Mark’s colleague?
too much religion makes me nervous. It makes me brood, ruminate how by its
very nature, it requires the absolute faith which translates into “mine
is the only true way” and so creates intolerance and dogma and cults,
many of which lead to
bloodshed or suicide like the Hale-Bopp one.
yellow, white afternoon glare pierced through the curtains (I had to shut
it out with black muslin) when the images of Trinidad came at me - Mother
Viera and her Baptists embracing and dancing with me, the Hindus in a
Catholic church, the Muslim school educating Hindus, the pan at the home
of the Orisas.
looking at Trinidad from the outside in, I knew that it can’t happen
here. This is the new world and because we struggle for our own identity
we are able to take bits from the worlds we came in - and leave behind the
baggage of ancient “civilisations” of Palestine and Israel, India and
Pakistan which are divided by hate and blood.
phone rang. Would I “cover Jain prayers at a temple?” Enough I thought
finally. Shake out of this. It is time to let in the light and the breeze.
It was around 5.30 pm. I went to move the black muslin and the entire
curtain rod and curtain came crashing down. “That’s what happens when
you let the world in” was my first thought. And then a sharp intake of
breath as the breeze rushed in. Here is the living art Minshall teaches
us. A coiling fog over the Northern Range and the smell of sweet damp
earth after a shower.
then is the real Trinidad. And it took an outsider and an accidental fall
of a curtain rod to show it to me.