Treasure hunt on a cannibal island


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 03 Dec 98

For Erika Hawkins.


To borrow from TS Eliot:

“This dedication is for others to read:

These are private words addressed to you in public.”



By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,” (Extract from TS Eliots' Burnt Norton)


Sitting outside a Pizza place in St Augustine on a Saturday afternoon, I looked around and saw young people, alone and in-groups, eating and drinking. They were white and red, brown, yellow and black. Their pizzas covered in ketchup received their full attention and they didn’t seem to have anything to say to one another.


Their faces were dull and empty of thought or animation, reminding me of some lines in a TS Eliot poem/ play “Fragment of an Agon” set on a cannibal island.


Among the characters are a man called Sweeney and a woman called Doris.


Sweeney: “Nothing to eat but the fruit as it grows, /Nothing to see but the palmtrees one way/And the sea the other way, /Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf. /Nothing at all but three things.

Doris: What things?

Sweeney: Birth, and copulation and death. That’s all, that’s all, that’s all that’s all, /Birth and copulation, and death.

Doris: I’d be bored.”


I was too, until I discovered many treasures on this island. They are buried beneath the long months of tacky Christmas preparations and ugly ads and mediocre jingles selling this, selling that. They are way beneath the Carnival frenzy and the littered streets. I had to rummage underneath the American accents on the radio, and the cussing on the road. (Not just the vagrants) I had to see beneath the poverty and illiteracy, and the rage of wanting, wanting and not getting. I had to look away from the boy throwing the empty plastic soft drink bottle out of a truck onto an already littered road, and the school girl, her books forgotten, being chatted up by the maxi-taxi driver who would surely give her AIDS. I had to look away from the haughty “society ladies ” who have nothing in their head but contempt and the cocktail party they were going to attend that night.


I had to look away from comfortable business-men who look upon vagrants as little more than dogs and ignoring the growing gap between the rich and the poor, quote the GDP to prove things are ‘getting better.’


Amidst this debris, the treasure I found came packaged in a few special people. I write about them today with the hope that you too will, by reading about them, be brushed by their magic.


If you believe in an energy surrounding people – (we’ve sensed it in its heightened form with very charismatic and high profile people like Minshall and Rudder) then you’ll know what I mean.


But there are others, not so well known, who have around them a ripple of this energy.


Don and Erika Hawkins are two such treasures. Don is in his eighties, and dependent on other people for practical help, but as soon as you see him, he makes you feel as if you are free to say anything and feel anything and its OK.


Around him everyday constraints fall away, and you can be completely yourself – depressed if you want, happy if you feel that way and either way he’s with you. He is not afraid of sadness or weakness which makes you want to face up to your own.


And then its impossible not to love this man whose eye-sight is fading but diligently keeps up with the latest news around the world, literature, history, art – all available intelligence finds its way into his head.


Hundreds of books and conversations reside in Don. Most of all you can tell he has an understanding of the world, which although it is wry, is ultimately humane and indulgent. When he turns to face you, you can’t help but light up, such is the quality of his light.


It is the loss of this light that I fear for in our new generation where even the privileged who could if they wanted have access to books and music and travel, prefer superficial parties, shopping in Miami and penthouses instead.


The sad thing is, average young person in Trinidad, inarticulate, (due to the failure of our education system) filled with nonsense music, sordid sexual encounters, and disaffection that comes from boredom, will never even know that people of this sort, this treasure of another time exists here. Even if they came near it they wouldn’t recognize its value.


This world is fading fast. It is difficult to buy because it is made up of intangibles: of being brought up in homes with books, where curiosity and intelligent laughter is cultivated; where good manners and courtesy are symptoms of a larger sense of humanity towards others, where life is infinitely interesting. It cannot be packaged into a product.


Erika comes from such a world. Around her all of life is heightened.

A rainy afternoon in this cool pre Christmas season and she is ecstatic, feels “ like she is in the midst of a green lush forest”.


She has the passion and smile of a vibrant young woman. Nothing is watery, nothing is half hearted. I keep forgetting she is seventy. “Listen to this, its wonderful!!” she says, thrusting four talking tapes of Vikram Seth’s “A suitable boy”. Have you read this, heard of this? She says proffering, another book, or piece of music, or a brochure on sculpture. If those young people in the pizza place had a quarter of her curiosity I would not fear for this country.


At Erika’s home the phone never stops ringing. She’ll hang up and say with a flush of pleasure:  “that was so and so”- a lovely person from London or Washington, Tobago or Hungary where she was born. She has a family of friends everywhere – her brand of friendship is rare – unconditional, warm, loyal. People hold on to it desperately.


She came here decades ago after marrying Don an Englishman. When I ask her how she feels about Trinidad, she gets looks as happy as if she’s just discovered Maracas bay. “ I love it. This country has been very kind to us. I’ve had wonderful years here.”


Then I look at this place through her eyes and for a while the boredom fades. I see the mist on the hills after a heavy rainfall, and the lights in the sea on the way to Chagaramas, and laugh instead of getting angry over the every-day frustrations of living in a small cannibal island.


The only time I heard Erika say something negative was when we saw yet another decomposing body on the news. She turned to her aunt (her only surviving relative – the holocaust destroyed the rest) and said in French how “gross” it was and told me it devalued human life.


Despite her considerable practical and organizational skills, Erika imparts a wild sense of freedom and possibility. Nothing is boring, mediocre or dreary. Nothing, not sadness, not fear, not illness, nothing diminishes her passion for life.


She once said to me:  “Never say no to life.” I know what she means: 'Don’t let pride convention or fear deprive you of any experience, which would enrich you in some way.'


And so this seventy-year-old Hungarian woman is more alive than many of us. Her energy for life, and love for this country has pervaded Trinidad, and will always remain part of our treasure, amongst our mountains, part of our ocean and in our hearts.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur