Panorama torn asunder


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Category: Trinidad Society 16 Aug 09

I live on an island, but my feet had not touched the sand for three years. I had not allowed the sea water to swirl me about. I had not driven to Maracas at midnight to watch the moon reflected in the moving inky slate of water, or wanting to possess the swell of the green hills. The hold-ups, murders, reckless drivers and a punishing degree, kept me away. But after three years, I was going back to the sea. This time, not through rainforest, but on a boat, to a rented house down the islands, snug in the channel between South America and Trinidad.


It was exhilarating, this short ride from Chaguaramas (thick with yachts in this hurricane shelter) to an island on the southern tip of Gasparee Island. The sea played itself as West Indians like to say: green gold waves, as pleasing as a mermaid’s tail, bob and dapple with the sun, then it changes, hardens as dark clouds gather and drill the depths, into a moving slab of cement that can crack the hardiest ship and swallow humans. The people of this country own this, a millionaire’s paradise, I thought, from the verandah, in dazzling morning sunlight and a dolphin’s leap raised delighted screams from the swimming and floating children. I could stay here, without newspapers, the Internet, computers, clocks and calenders, as the days and nights seamlessly merged together.


But the tide could not contain itself. It had news for us. In the form of the garbage, it brought into the small enclave, created partially by a magnificent tall rock (reminiscent of the nearby Gasparee caves, with its dark wizards jutting stalagmites its shallow green pool) and partially by the man-made stairs and wall of the house. The flotsam was a slap in the face to the panoramic beauty about us, the devil in a church, all plastic and glass, large industrial-sized bags, ripped carelessly, bottles, smaller bags, collecting like a Jumbie’s brew. We looked in dismay, disappointed that even here, there was no escape. Everyone looking on had something to say. “The garbage has come from the beaches.” “It has come from the drains in the villages, towns and cities. People throw out their KFC boxes, plastic bags and sweet drink bottles out the window, on the streets. When it rains the drain carries it into the river, and the river brings it to the sea.” “Don’t the people who litter realise that it causes flooding in their areas?” “Plastic takes a thousand years to degrade. In the meantime, the marine life is poisoned, the sea polluted.”


“The Government should embark on an enormous campaign, educate the people, put up signs everywhere. Don’t litter. Use bins. Recycle. Litter creates flooding.” A woman said quietly: “I am so ashamed of being a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. How can I feel proud? We are told we are oil rich; that we should loosen our belts; that we are literate, and developed; that we are Trini to the Bone. If that is the case, why are we so filthy? Why do we have no civic sense? Why don’t we care about the filth in our tiny islands?”


A man answered: “Forget recycling, forget the waste of plastic, paper and glass—the Environmental Management Authority does nothing about it. We accept we will never get there. How can we when we haven’t even got to the stage of putting garbage cans strategically in public places. There are laws, but nobody enforces them. If nobody enforces traffic laws, where do you think that leaves the litter laws?” Someone suggested we start a citizens clean-up group. But no one believed it would get anywhere. Everybody thought of the news of the two men who died on the road the day before. The plastic garbage was crashing about in this poetic area up, floating, forming a circular macabre grin, leaping with the waves with a grotesque playfulness. Then I saw the glove. A long white plastic glove that would cover a man’s right arm, groping its phantom hand in the water. Where did that come from?


I thought of the papers that came with the fisherman that morning. The brutalised face of a Chinese man, the headline of a man murdered in his bedroom. Did the man who bashed him wear the glove? Or was it a gang leader? A rapist and murderer in a country where women and girls often just “vanish.” We could have turned our backs. Pretended the glove wasn’t there lapping at our feet. We do that all the time. We follow our indifferent leaders. Our Prime Minister says we should loosen our belts. And we turn our backs on the old woman who stands in a corner in the supermarket deciding between a can of sardines with a loaf of bread. She can’t have both.


The National Security Minister pretends that crime is under control. So we pretend it is too. Forget about the murder or two a day, and go out at night, take a chance. The Governor of the Central Bank says our economy is under control. We pretend not to see the hundreds of shacks in the East West Corridor, the abject poverty in our rural areas. The Minister of Education says we have over 90 per cent literacy, but the adult literacy NGO says that 400,000 people can only read signs, and we just have to hear the average Trinidadian speak, write, or read to know just how illiterate we are. Down the islands, on the beaches, in our waters, in the forest, and in our rivers, in the villages, in the city, behind gated communities, and high-rise buildings, the glove waits for us. There is no escape from menace of indifference.


Of the Government, of the tired community groups which realise that they will remain powerless, of the individuals who know the voices of an entire country have been silenced. It is only a matter of time that the long arm of the phantom plastic glove will eat through the institutions that now ignore the people, – government institutions: health, education, business. The arm will eventually get at them; eat away at them, and us. If its ugly arm is groping about in the loveliest, the remotest bits of our islands, in our very waters, there is no escape.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur