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November 22, 2002 - TRINIDAD
Yay! I'm a nomad again.
It's been so long since I've written anything from the road that I've
forgotten how to do it. Come to think of it, I've never written this journal
as a nomad because I haven't been one since I started the book...not really.
The writing and promotion don't count as nomading.
I'm sitting in the living room of a house in Trinidad, trying to be a writer
again. Hmmm. Where do I start?
St. Croix. I flew there from Seattle in October to visit my cousin Amanda
and her husband Jonathan. It's one of the US Virgin Islands in the
Caribbean. On one level, it's very US...the postage and the phones are part
of the US systems. I was able to use 800 numbers for nothing as I can in
the US and my US stamps sent letters off. But it is also very different.
The language is English...albeit with a Caribbean accent and enough local
words to make it a strain to understand the street dialect. While the
majority of people are of African descent, there is also a large contingent
of white Americans who have escaped to this beautiful tropical island to
retire, to find new jobs, to luxuriate.
I met one woman who is telecommuting for the company she worked for before
she moved down. And I met a bunch of people who came first as vacationers
and figured out how they could come back to live. Living and working in St.
Croix requires no visas or special permits. It's like living in the US with
the addition of a tropical climate, beautiful beaches, and a lifestyle
mainlanders dream about.
Amanda and Jonathan have been living there for a number of years. Jonathan
owns radio stations. Their home is beautiful, filled with spectacular gifts
from their wedding a year ago. They are definitely contenders for hosts of
the year. Amanda, for those of you who remember the book, is the daughter
of my Uncle Bob and Aunt Elaine ("Aunt" Elaine is actually my age. Bob is my
mother's baby brother. My birth made him an uncle when he was nine years
old.) Bob and Elaine are the ones who visited me in New Zealand when we went
out on the mussel barge.
While I was visiting, Jonathan's stations along with a resort hotel on the
island, sponsored a Halloween party with beach games and food for the kids
of St. Croix....including a bikini contest which I thought had disappeared
forever. (The sexiest contestants did not win.)I had a chance to read some
of my books to a group of kids in witch, fairy and lion costumes...while
they waited for the games to begin.
I met tons of J&A's friends: we entertained at the house and went out with
them for dinner. And we went to a comedy that was done in dialect. Even
though the actors were speaking English, I understood about one eighth of
the words and none of the punch lines.
I stayed for eight days. I was hoping to find a sailboat in St. Croix or
St. Thomas, next door, and hitch a ride, island hopping through the
Caribbean all the way to Trinidad. I figured I could pay the way by cooking
or crewing. But the timing was wrong and after visiting several marinas and
making a bunch of phone calls, I gave up and flew to Port of Spain,
I should mention that my arrival in St. Croix on a small prop plane from San
Juan, Puerto Rico, was a night during a full orange moon. We were close to
the sea and the moon was in and out of the clouds and in and out of the
water during the whole trip. It was an exquisite entry.
Trinidad and Tobago is an independent country close to Venezuela. Two
islands but one country and a singular noun. It was a British colony at the
end and the language is English. The population is mostly of African and
East Indian descent. I wrote in the book about enjoying the feeling of being
a minority..and it definitely works here. There are very few light skinned
folk on the streets.
The people are gentle and very welcoming...and they are eager to reach out
to white strangers. I chose to come here because I was headed for Surinam
and I needed to arrange for a visa. Since I was living, at the time of
take-off, in Seattle, and the Surinam Embassy was in Washington, I decided
to do the deed in Trinidad. My friend Don Northey whom I mention in the
Vancouver chapter of the book, had sent me an e-mail that he was overseeing
a group of 17 Canadian teachers who were going to be student teaching in the
I sort of joined the group,unofficially. Through Don, I read my
books and talked to eight groups of students..in the schools, in a home, and
at the university. What a great way to get to know a place and people.
The kids were wonderful....bright, eager to learn, polite (the form of
address is "Miss"), affectionate. They come to school in well-ironed
uniforms, hair freshly combed and braided, many of the girls sport white
bows. But I can't help thinking that the structure of the buildings works
against the whole point of going to school. In most of the primary schools
there are no walls between classrooms (secondary schools do have walls).
Just one big open space divided by blackboards and some low cabinets. The
noise level is impossible (no rugs, pillows or curtains to absorb the
noise). I had to shout to be heard and when there was interaction, I could
hardly hear their questions or answers. I have no idea how the teachers can
teach and the kids can learn. It seems to me that very little learning is
going on, though somehow the
kids do know how to read. What a waste of potential.
In many of the schools the day begins with a big assembly and lots of
praying. The kids pray in unison....thanking God for everything and doing a
lot of Hail Marys. Depends upon the school, of course. They are Roman
Catholic, various sects of Protestantism, Muslim, Hindu, and non-sectarian.
I love the people here and their music and their food. Because of my
connection with the Canadian teachers (from Simon Fraser University in
Vancouver), I was privileged to have two wonderful Indian meals in
homes...and a third that resulted from Trinidadian university students
giving the Canadian students a cooking class.
Steel drum bands are amazing and the calypso concert I went to was
wonderful. Calypso is more than music; the lyrics are a commentary on
just about everything. The beat is contagious and you can't sit still when
you listen. The words, sung in the lilting, melodic speech of the
Trinidadian dialect and the slang of the island, were a major effort for me
to understand and again, I missed the punch lines. I just sat there getting
a contact high from the laughter I was surrounded by.
I looked up one Servas host, Doreen, a retired teacher of African descent. I
spent two days in her home with her daughter, Wendy, a nutritionist who
teaches cooking and nutrition at a technical school, Ricardo, the daughter's
husband who is a contractor and surveyor, and two grandchildren, Tshanna who
is five going on fifteen. Tshanna is always on, singing, talking, advising,
commenting. Loved her. And Lindy Anne, who is 22 and contemplative and
quietly helpful. Lindy Anne spoke only when spoken to. We managed to talk
about food. She is studying to be a cook.
Doreen took me to her Tai Chi class (I loved doing it; if only I could have
that class every day!) and I worked with the beginners on some pre-Tai Chi.
One night we went to Doreen's Pentacostal church for a service full of Amens
and Halleluiahs and wonderful songs that praised and thanked the Lord. I've
always wanted to experience the spirit that fills the sanctuary when people
really believe. It's contagious. I will definitely do that again before I
Again, the beauty of Servas (www.servas.org) as a way to get to know
people was reinforced. We ate together (I cooked one night), sat around
sharing stories of our lives. I met some of Doreen's friends and was again
reminded that we really are alike....wherever we are from. Doreen's and
Tshanna's voices sang out from the shower.
My little tour of Ricardo's herb garden introduced me to shadow beni (an
herb that tastes and smells like cilantro but looks very different) and
When I returned to Don's, I decided to cook some leafy dasheen leaves for
dinner. Instead of making the traditional dish of calaloo, I just cooked
them like spinach. Big mistake. After two bites both my and Don's throat
began to hurt and constrict. I called Doreen's daughter in minor pain and
discovered that you have to peal the stems or cook it a long long time.
Oops. We survived.
Tomorrow I'm headed out of the city (St. Augustine) for the country. A
friend has recommended a village on the east coast about halfway down the
island, and he has found a home for me to live in. I'll see how it works.
OK. So now I'm in Manzanilla (known here as Manzan) with Carol and Kazim
in the countryside of Trinidad. They too are gracious hosts. I found them
by asking everyone I met if he or she could recommend a home in a village
somewhere on the island that might welcome a paying visitor.
Carol loves to cook, though you'd never know it to look at her. She's tiny.
This morning I ate a great smoked fish salad...tomatoes, onioins, garlic,
hot peper, a little oil and shredded smoked herring.
My first meal here was Kitri...which was made of a kind of local spinach
(not the deadly kind), carrots, okra, pumpkin, dal (yellow split peas),
onions, garlic, black pepper, salt, a cup and a half of raw rice, shadow
beni. Everything was sliced or chopped and then tossed into a bowl. She
started the cooking with about 1/2 inch of oil in a heavy pot. Then she
threw in a couple of spoonsful of brown sugar. Then she threw everything
else in and stirred it in the hot oil for around five minutes. Finally she
added enough water to soften the rice and the dal. She used a lot of black
pepper and it was delicious.
The next two sentences are in Trinidadian English. Me don't have it yet, but
me tryin. Today, Sunday, Carol cookin when me wake up at seven. Every Sunday
her tell me her make a huge meal of calaloo, chicken, dasheen root, beans,
rice and a little salad.
For me the calaloo was the highlight of the meal. It's a sort of thick,
tasty green soup flavored with a couple of little blue crabs and it's
spooned over rice or dumplings or something that has bulk but not much
flavor, like the polenta-like coo coo.
First the crabs are killed and cut up and scrubbed with a toothbrush. She
pounds the shells with a kitchen-rock so the juice can flavor the calaloo
and the eater can get to the bits of meat. Then they're sprinkled with salt
and lots of black pepper and put aside.
Next the herbs and flavorings are cut up and put into a blender. Green
onions (called sives as in chives), a carrot cut up, a bunch of thin thin
stalks of celery, leaves included ( the stems are the thickness of the green
onions), around ten shadow beni leaves (the cilantro like taste), around 10
cloves of garlic which she pounds with a rock, 5 sweet peppers.....and
blended until it's a thick saucy liquid.
She tosses a few spoonsful on the cracked crabs and also a couple of small
onions, some more garlic, a hot pepper and a few little sweet ones.
Then comes the cooking. A half-inch of oil...hot. A couple of spoonsful of
brown sugar. Cut up dasheen leaves (the very ones that practically killed me
and Don). The leaves go into the oil along with some cut up pumpkin, 4 or 5
okras, about two cups of the blender mush, and about 1/8th of a pound of
butter. And then the equivalent of a can of coconut milk, made by smashing
a coconut, prying out the meat and slicing it into a blender with water.
When it's all chopped up, she squeezes the milk out of the mushed-up
coconut, strains out the remaining pulp, and throws the liquid into the pot.
After maybe an hour or so, it turns into a smooth fantastic soup.
We ate it with chicken in a stewy sauce. Altogether we were cooking for
four hours. As is often the case, two women in a kitchen talk and tell each
other their secrets. And so it was.
It is now pouring. We've finished eating a fabulous meal and are watching
an East Indian movie on TV.
A break. Seven days have gone by. I continue to eat great food, most of it
vegetarian. The rain continues; several times a day it pours buckets out of
the sky. I am writing this on my computer, but I have no ISP here, so I will
have to copy all this on the computer in town, twenty minutes from here.
A few observations before I end:
....It rains a lot. Huge downpours that don't last more than 20 minutes.
....Sand flies and mosquitoes are rampant...I'm glad I brought itch cream
and insect repellant.
....Every house has fans.
....Cars drive on the left.
....I sweat the way I did in Bali.
....I carry a bottle of frozen water.
....Cars are old.
....Christmas is big. People paint their houses and make new curtains and
I've been thinking of working on my kids' books again. I brought a couple of
projects with me. It's time to start earning a living. The thought of
starting another adult book is daunting. And besides, I don't have anything
new to say. For now, I'll stick to kids' books. At the risk of
disillusioning some of you, I have to say that if I didn't have to earn a
living, I might never write again. I'd much rather play........or
Ciao for now.