Finding a bit of soul in Toco


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Category: Reflections Date: 02 Sep 99

‘The first thing they will do is introduce to someone by saying meet Mrs so and so, she is the wife of the owner of a factory /restaurant /company /gold shop....’


‘There are references from a life lived with voracious curiosity. Nothing real from the soul. Just belly juggling laughter...’


‘That vision in Toco was an analogy for life itself. That life can be as huge as that horizon, risky as the rocks...’


Came back from Toco sun browned and sea tousled and did the first thing computer addicts do - switched it on. I opened this document. It was titled “Bitter”. I read the following with growing astonishment. What could I have been THINKING of? I read my unfinished column:


We perceptually rave to one another and visitors about the joie de vivre of our people. How we have the greatest shows and stews on earth, how we can lime all night, wine like we never christen, with the most beautiful women alive, how there is only one beer (ours), how we have the best duck and dumplings. How we are kings and queens (of costume), rulers of the world and universe (beauty queens), are lords ladies and barons (of calypso).


Tucked away in this corner of the world with nothing to do after our day jobs but go to “clubs”, band launchings and the beach, we are a nation of fantasisers. We dream up, through runaway AIDS, and drug murders, rapes and hangings, robbery and corruption; through abuse of power, through desperate men (menace in their eyes) liming by bridges and corners, through days and nights of turning away ragged women and men from our front and car doors, a carnival. Year after year. We are sailors and jokers, jab jab devils, the hip-thrusting chorus girls, the men with the top hats. We wear crowns, and boots of gold and silver tinsel, carry staffs, and float in feathers. We are grandiose, and flamboyant, bluff and slapstick.


But lord, if good conversation was the stuff that kept you alive, we’d all be dead. Try to carry on a conversation with people you’ve just met. The first thing they will do is introduce you to someone by saying meet Mrs so and so, she is the wife of the owner of a factory/restaurant/company/gold shop/grocery/pharmacy/many chickens. (Not a person in herself.)


You put your hand out to meet these women. They wear precious stones like medals over which their worth should be judged. But where oh where is that soul? Rusting under all that artifice, that falseness. That fact of ownership alone is meant to be so impressive that no further conversation is necessary.


Or meet Mr so and so. He is the CEO of this or that. In one minute you get their entire financial rundown. How much land they own and where, where their children go to school, which public person they are related to and when last they met the Prime Minister.


These are the sorts of people who will never understand the way poetry, travel, music, art, books or real conversation can broaden and deepen your life, make it into a sweet well to drink deeply from. They will never acknowledge that on their death that every one of their possessions will be left behind, that if they’ve never had a real conversation they will not live on in the hearts of those around them.


To these people music is chutney and jump of the soul, and good literature is not Tolstoy but “how to make a million in a hundred days”.  As for whenever I hear the key politics words (Panday... Manning... Robinson... elections...), I run the other way for it is bound to be boring, and delivered in a pompous way.


The other kind of conversation is a loop of predictable jokes which is called ole or s--- talk. This can go on backward and forward, like a tennis ball of cliches, all of which result in a great shaking of the shoulder laughter.


There are no puns here, no subtle nuances; no references from a life lived with voracious curiosity. Nothing real from the soul. Just belly juggling laughter that, even as it happens, leaves you hollow.

That was before Toco.


It was the people who made it special. It always is. This column is not here as a paean of praise to friends, but the universal quality special people embody - made up of rich lives which don’t come from a jewelry shop but from risks taken, books read, people met, travels, great loves and sorrows. A certain bigness. Like Cathy who manages the grace of a 1920s socialite in Toco country where the waves thrash into a rocky cove, and children’s shrieks echo around a garden enclosed by trees. In her black dress or caftan there was a stubbornness which did not yield to the pressures of life, but instead made each day into a memorable occasion.


She entertained dozens of people in that Toco house with conversations that rocked us with laughter and set us to think: from a childhood split between Caroni and England, and about the cat who took her on an astral trip, revealed past lives and miraculously stopped littering.


In that foliage, sunlight and sea-enclosed world, friends sat together, sprayed by the rising tide, shared crayfish with a dozen sea-drenched children, or shared a thought. At night, mattress to mattress, shoulder to shoulder, with salt air on our lips, we watched the full moon being swallowed up by the dark clouds, only to part and release its blue light again. It didn’t matter what we talked about in that moonlight-drenched, raging verandah. There was unspoken closeness there, and perhaps recognition that we would all be there for one another when it counted.


The epiphany (which changed the course of this column) came in the early hours in the morning while ten people slept. I felt fat drops of rain on my face and watched with growing awe at the way the wind whipped the tall palms into shapes: now the palms were bending like a sea anemone, now a giant upside down floating lotus, now a five-fingered monster curling down towards us.


The chorus of crashing waves, a whipping breeze, and the mad rustle of the coconut and palm trees was the accompaniment to this heart-stopping landscape. The sky was pale gray now (dipping into a shimmering black sea), a light backdrop for the inky silhouettes of jagged hills and dancing trees.


That vision in Toco was an analogy for life itself. That life can be as huge as that horizon, risky as the rocks which in high tide and on a ledge of rocks scraped blood from our palms and ankles; as poetic, imaginative and unexpected as the palm trees which transformed themselves into sea anemones, as thunderous as the sky, as exhilarating as the whipping rain, and as filled with faith as were 21 sleeping children and adults in a house without locks.


Unexpected shadows, shafts of dazzling light, faith. This is the stuff of which all our lives are made. No more bitter. Just bittersweet.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur