Trinidad (version originale en anglais)
All night the sirens blared and the horns honked as police or ambulances made their way from the “fetes” of carnival in Chaguramas to the hospitals or jails of downtown Port of Spain. “It have only one road in and out and one way at that Rick”, said Ray the security guard on duty at our townhouse complex. “Must have been some shooting Ray” I said,” to account for all that commotion all night long.” “No Rick. De people faint, fall down. That’s all, nothing bad. It have de bacchanal every night now. It carnival Rick.” “That’s good Ray” I said looking at him affectionately and knowing that he didn’t show up for work the previous day because he was drunk at a bacchanal, causing one of my other buddies, Keith, to work not only all night but then again all day too. Ray has one of those striking faces, a mixture of East Indian and African, black as night with sharp features and shiny skin. When his cap is off you can see the net he wears over the main part of his head- I guess to keep his hair straight- and on side, a long pigtail, Rasta style sticking out. Ray is sixty-one years old and Keith is sixty five and then there are two young guys, Boxil and Lynch plus one more, Charles, the boss, who looks to be in his fifties.
They are the crew charged with protecting us and the fifty or so other families living in our yellow-painted, thirty year old compound of townhouses set down like a fort with a green interior space of palms and a multitude of plants, flowers, and a lovely organic shaped old swimming pool. When I go out for my morning walk at 5 am I have to wake them up to open the gate and let me out. Our neighborhood has six independent security companies patrolling it 24/7 and because of that people come from outside the area to do their jogging and walking, giving the place a wonderful sense of community and pleasure. Even at 5 am when I go out to walk there are dozens of people out doing the same thing and many more an hour later. In the evening the scene is repeated on a larger scale and the park is filled with kids playing, pensioners playing tennis, and walkers and joggers enjoying the spectacular weather, watching the day fade as the lengthening rays of the sun light up the clouds in the west. It reminds me of childhood again when things were relaxed outside and safe and people were going about their business in a good mood.
This morning Sita came over for the first time. I saw her enjoin Jovita outside by the veranda as I was reading the paper and gazing out the French doors toward the pool. Jovita was out there filling the hummingbird feeder and scattering some food for the birds. They are a big pleasure for us. The hummingbird feeder stays busy all day with hummingbirds and banana quits and at night whatever juice is left gets sucked up by the large long tongued bats. Sita lives across the compound from us. I noticed her when I used to swim in the early morning back before I got dengue fever. I would see her bring her trash out to the dumpster. She caught my eye because she is about my age and looks like a character from a Fellini movie. She is nice looking but does nothing to beautify herself and, in a way, that makes her more interesting. What’s more, she wears the same faded and colorless dressing gown every day. Every day! On top of her head are four blue rollers meant to create some curl, I suppose, but since I have never seen her without those rollers they might be permanent. On her feet are a pair of flip flops. Sometime earlier I exchanged a few words with her which must have given her the courage to come over and talk with Jovita. Not that anyone needs courage to talk to Jovita, my wife, who has no negative vibes whatsoever. To the contrary, she could bring out the protective instinct in a black widow spider.
Jovita invited Sita in for a chat around the kitchen table as I sipped my coffee and glanced at the paper keeping track of the carnival events and the politics and the murder rate, knowing that we have to keep up more than one killing a day to get to the national average of 500 a year. More than that and we would overtake Jamaica as the most dangerous country in the world on a per capita basis. Just for comparison Vermont has about half the population of Trinidad and had 8 murders last year. The common palliative response to this is, “It does have crime but mostly de gangs from Laventile and over that way.” Not true. Home invasions, deadly ones, happen often and just settling arguments with a gunshot, that happens often too. They also settle arguments with a “cutlass” which is a machete. Some robberies go down like this,’ Shoot him and go through his pockets.’ They don’t even give you a chance. A parent of one of our students got held up at knife point in the mall last week. He gave up his money and then the man said, “Ize gwin kill you anyhow.” He got away luckily, and so did the robber. It’s carnival and on the radio the public service announcements go like this,” Now you decide how much you will drink. Don’t leave it up to your friends. And don’t drive if you have been drinking. Think of the consequences and the trouble you will have. If you are robbed remember material possessions are not as important as human life. Just comply with what they say and give them what they want, at least until you can escape.”
Sita sat down and I could get a good look at her blue curlers and her sharp Indian features, a bit hawk like. She did the talking, covering the carnival and the problems with the roads and the sirens at night but as a true Trini, with acceptance and pride as well as with the concern everyone feels for the problems of the country. Because aside from the problems, it is a distinct and beautiful culture, something unique. East Indian indentured servants worked their way to prosperity here and so did the African slaves. Add to that the remaining whites who go back many generations and are the remnants of English colonialism and it is a rich mix. Mostly it is every color but white. Whites are a very small percentage of the population or so it seems. Maybe they are hiding.
Sita left after a while and I was happy Jovita could understand most of what she said. The accent here is challenging to decipher but very beautiful in its way. I play tennis with some Trini pensioners of my age and golf with a bunch of younger Trinis in the fiftyish age group. They are totally charming, wonderful I could say. Making these human connections takes time. It takes living the life of the country. It takes months and years and this is just as true if you move to any community in the United States as well. Having lived in New Hampshire and then in Vermont I felt that after about five years I was a “known commodity” and accepted but it took all that time.
Last December I got dengue fever from an aedes mosquito. Dengue is the scourge of the tropics. It is endemic here and many places which means it is here all the time and not going away. All around the big warm belt in the middle of the planet there is dengue, or bone break fever as it is also called. Fifty million people get it every year. This mosquito has to bite someone who has dengue and then bite you within seven days. The odds on that seem very unlikely but in a certain area one might be able to visualize how an outbreak of cases could occur. In fact my neighbors, teaching colleagues and Americans, both got it and they live next door. Steve was so bad I would look in on him from the veranda and he was immobile just staring at the ceiling, hardly talking. He had dry heaves so bad his larynx was affected and finally they had to put him on an intravenous drip to put the electrolytes back into his wizened body. Dengue takes you down all the way to where you don’t have energy to do even simple things or even sleep. I had a fever for two weeks. It is accompanied by an incessantly nagging rash. You think you are getting better and then it hits you again. You have to force yourself to eat. If you get the hemorrhagic kind you bleed from the gums, nose and other places as the veins break down. When that happens you go to the emergency ward and spend a couple of weeks in the hospital. Young children die. They die here. They die in Indonesia, and they die in Bangladesh among other places. Global warming has brought the first dengue to Florida and it is moving north. The other bad news is that there are four strains of dengue, so even though you develop the antibody to one, which is how they know you have it, it does not help you with the other three strains. The next bad news is that every time you get dengue it is worse than the last time. Keep the house closed, turn on the air conditioner, and spray the rooms before going to bed. If you get dengue you will fear mosquitos forever.
In the second week of my convalescence I had to move a little. I was so limited and confined it made me crazy. My neighbor, Steve, is a “trailing spouse” like my Jovita. They don’t work at the school. So he is home all day, reading and doing chores. I would go out our veranda door and walk three steps to their veranda and sit, just sit. I didn’t have much to say but just the fact that he knew what I was going through and his ability to “be there” was very important to me. It is something I will never forget. Eventually I started to feel that I had to try and walk around a little.
First I would walk one lap around the swimming pool and back to my reclining chair for another umpteen hours of stagnation, dreading the white night to come with chills and sweats, the clawing rash, and no relief. That is the signal feature of dengue: no relief, a limbo of suffering. Once I could circle the pool a couple of times without wanting to collapse, I walked around our interior courtyard which is full of green grass and banana trees, palms, some hardwood trees, flowering shrubs, and flowers. The shape of the townhouse complex is a U with the ends reaching a fence and a big apartment building beyond that, but just before the fence there is a path which takes one around the other side of the townhouses and I began to walk there, seeing the other residents, their flowers, and always seeing the security men who have outposts on either side of the complex. Every day I walked to a certain corner apartment where a woman had planted the most beautiful hibiscus bushes. Every day it seemed I was greeted by a new bloom. One bloom would fall and I would find it on the ground and another would be blooming. Hibiscus is the most sensual, surprising and exciting flower in the world- strange colors, big, and a big pistil sticking out. It is both feminine and masculine, spectacular and transient. Add to that sight a million varieties of bougainvillea growing everywhere and escaping their yards, climbing over fences, asserting themselves in an endless display of reds and pinks and fuchsias .That is how I got to know and experience my immediate neighborhood and the good people who watch over us. We traded greetings and sympathy developed between us. Before the dengue I was too busy for that, running to the golf course or the gym, going out to paint. Now all of a sudden I was in a very different rhythm that allowed me to see the quiet things, the subtle things, and the immediate things of my life here. Even in my poor health I experienced deep enjoyment from this and it has not abated.
Trinidad is a spectacularly beautiful place with sharp hills looking over verdant valleys, of unbroken rain forest and a multitude of birds and flowering plants, a hundred species of palms and wonderful houses in our neighborhood in a great variety of designs. In the evening we go to the park and play tennis or just sit and sometimes paint while watching kids play cricket or football (soccer). On the streets many people are taking an evening stroll or jogging and people are fishing off a wall a little farther away. We really have the best of it where we are here in Westmoorings on the West Side. Outside our little bubble things get more complicated. Driving, for example, is very stressful because of two things: the roads are not wide enough, not well maintained and have no shoulder and about 30 percent of the people are crazy. The fact that there is no enforcement makes the situation almost beyond imagination. I say this as someone who rode a motorbike for a year in Indonesia and drove for two years in Bangladesh. The other thing, of course, is the crime. “It boo here Rick, (scary)” says Keith, my buddy, my age, one of the security guards. “Don’t you be skylarkin outside this neighborhood, hear!” This topic dominates conversation and editorials in the papers. Nobody knows what to do about it and it has changed not just Trinidad but most of the Caribbean islands.
I want to say a little bit about teaching. It has never been an easy job but it has become more difficult as the years pass, more difficult to motivate students to really engage and give a good effort. Because I teach art instead of AP English or one of the “important subjects” I see the unmotivated ones, the ones who seriously do not want to be in school, who have “issues”. I do my best to help them grow up. A lot of what I do is act as a surrogate parent and psychologist and since I do not have experience at either outside the classroom I just do the best I can. Sometimes I have to be real tough. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I scare my students but I try to be supportive too and I keep coming back to them in a supportive way. By being consistent I win them over. Once they figure out that I am who I am, things change. But it takes many battles to build trust and more now than before. When I started back teaching seventeen years ago I was aware that schools fail more than they succeed. We have been going to school in the same way for over 150 years with very little change and the world has changed dramatically. What we have in private schools now is not education principally but advanced babysitting for the rich. It could be much better, more project based, more making of things, more hands on, more work outside in the community but the whole structure would have to change. And institutions fundamentally do not want to change. The status quo rules supreme.
Students get most of what interests them from the media via U Tube, Facebook, and the web in general. We in education have not found an answer to that. Because we have not been able to harness this runaway horse, popular culture dominates. What kids look at and hear from pop media is seriously deficient and even destructive. I spend some time checking it out so as to know what interests them. Every generation has to be outrageous to its elders but I worry about how low it has gotten.
We are looking ahead to our trip to Bali and Surabaya in Indonesia this summer to spend six weeks and do some “scouting” for a more permanent move the following year. Probably we will miss Trinidad. I am sure we will because I miss Vermont and New Hampshire; I miss New York and I miss Bangladesh. That is the curse of the rolling stone, the expat, but it is also the great pleasure.
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