The Caribbean is a corner of the world, a region, that has witnessed great historical change and upheaval. It is a ‘basin’ where many more of the world’s cultures have come to call home more than the average person knows. Nationalities and races from all four corners of the world populate these strings of islands, large and small and each has its own micro culture and way of life. No one island nation is the same and with Trinidad & Tobago you get two countries, each different than the other in social make-up. Trinidad and its busy harbour city of Port of Spain boasts wealth derived from oil, poverty borne of wont, light given by life and darkness sent to cover sins. In current times it boasts a condensed crime wave that sees its population leaving it and embracing it in equal measure. But the region remains an exotic, romantic idea and a place that is home for many.
Monkey, Sex and Smuggling on Arrival
Frau threw her forty-year-old monkey on top of Sex and ran out of the customs hall to throw up in the nearest toilet. The thick, wet, heat of the tropical night hit us full on as we stepped out of the British Airways jumbo and onto the tarmac. There was to be no relief. It was no breezier at the top of the aircraft steps, where we paused trying to draw a cool breath that wouldn’t come, than it was on the dark spongy stovetop of concrete below. We moved with the two hundred plus passengers from our flight, along the warm tarmac past other huge airliners that landed just before us (and their full complement of passengers and crew), towards the open plan arrivals hall and the unbearable officials at immigration. Frau, her forty-year-old monkey and I had endured an eight-hour flight from London’s Gatwick to Port of Spain’s Piarco on little else but rum cocktails, baby sized complimentary bottles of champagne and Extra Strong Polo Mints.
The heat, the crowd, and the Polo Mints proved too much for Frau and by the time it was our turn with the customs officers, she began to grow faint. She collapsed; briefly, on our ton of luggage just as an officer opened the first bag. I grabbed to steady her as the officer continued, unconcerned with Frau. In the bag, Madonna’s soft porn, metallic covered book, ‘Sex’, was sitting face up on top of a pile of folded white shirts. Customs has tough policies on porn, but it depends on the discretion, or repression, of the officer you get. Frau found her feet and threw the forty-year-old monkey she held, into the suitcase on top of ‘Sex’ and raced out of the hall to be sick. The customs officer looked at the forty-year-old monkey that landed in front of him, pushed it aside, along with ‘’Sex’ and seized instead on the white shirts. He counted them; twelve. He looked up to me, and very seriously asked,
‘Are these shirts for your own personal use?’
In the customs hall they looked for anyone with a lot of anything, whatever it may be. They expect you’re smuggling in goods to sell on for extreme profits, and if you’re Trinidadian, you usually are. I have been at the mercy of these guys before. I’ve rarely known what it is to just arrive, answer something, present your documents, open your bags, shut them and go. Not here. Here they are serious. They mean to be thorough. They seized a gun that I had tried to bring in once before. It was confiscated. All sorts of duties were levied. It was not released from their scrutiny for four days. It was nighttime too, when we came through then, and hot, like now. I was arriving from Montreal with my older brother. I was covered in his vomit. He barfed on me over Antigua. The gun was a cheap plastic replica James Bond 007 toy from Woolworth’s that fired white plastic bullets three feet. It was 1966. I was eight years old, in short pants.
The officers in Piarco’s custom’s hall captured me then and they captured me now, with twelve clean white shirts, and the sweaty one I was wearing. You have to take customs seriously, especially if they are bored or it’s a slow night. They can hold you at the desk for as long as they want, and they do, a lot. It wasn’t like it was a slow night, what with five or more jumbos having all touched down within minutes of each other. What was slow was the customs process. You got the feeling that if they moved faster the chips would fall off their shoulders.
The Polo mint backlash that grabbed Frau unawares in the customs hall snuck up on me too. The customs officer took his time as I tried to remain patient. I just wanted some fresh air. I was sticky, tipsy and tired. To customs I must have looked seedy enough to smuggle anything. Fatigued and blurry-headed I stood by and watched customs go through each of our ten bags. After a quarter of an hour of shirt baiting by the customs officer I was released from the hall, with Frau’s monkey and our messed up bags. I went out to Frau who I could see coming out of the ladies loo. She had finished retching in the toilet, leaving her grilled chicken coach-class in-flight meal to make what it would of the airport’s sewer system.
We made our way out towards the throng of people waiting at arrivals. Standing in front of all the locals was my mother who had seen Frau flit from the customs hall to the ladies loo previously. She walked forwards, towards Frau, with a look of concern and held her firmly by the shoulders; staring straight into her eyes to see just what state she was in. Mum would already know my state having had a lifetime of collecting me at airports. Frau wasn’t yet returning to any colour recognizable as human and we both smelled of stale champagne and flat rum and cokes. Frau could be forgiven considering the excitement of arriving in such an exotic place. However when Mum detected more than the top notes of Polo mints on our breath she knew we were both just trashed.
Standing to the back of the crowd, was my father and my aunt, Joy. Taller than most around them they stood surveying the backs of people’s heads sternly, almost policing them out of our way as they waved us over to them. Dad led us to the parking lot, to a two-car convoy, my aunt’s car and his. Dad loaded bags into both cars saying that he thought we were mad to be giving up our flat in London to come down here.
Mum and Dad had long since kept two homes, one in America’s mid-west and one here. Joy had lived here forever but was readying to finally emigrate to America. When Dad was here he wasn’t touring the United States and Canada with the major league baseball team he was broadcast producer for. When Mum was here she was touring the round of parties and lunches with her friends. Dad tended to repairs and Mum tended to her garden. Dad rummaged around in his workshop out back and Mum rummaged around in the shops. Frau was rummaging around in the back seat desperately trying to lower her window so she could barf, again. Her frenzy made worse by the fact that we were sealed in. At night, in Trinidad, in the dark tropical countryside between the airport and Port of Spain, apparently, we were now told, you have to lock everything, and put up the windows.
The road that leads from the airport to the main highway looks menacing enough in a midnightblack sort of way. In the day it is more welcoming, fringed with tiny village homes, some on stilts with assorted livestock wandering the yards. The highway from the airport runs past all manner of agriculture. There are tracts of land tended by independent farmers who are mainly of East Indian descent. Stalls sell just-picked pineapples, fresh cut sugarcane, and now ketch blue crab brought in from the never far away sea and mangroves of the northeastern peninsula. At night however, Dad insisted, this scenic view, obscured by the humming blackness, was another beast. Third world bandits lay in wait along the highway in stolen cars with guns and cutlasses waiting to rape and rob people from first world countries en route to their four star hotels. He was right, they sometimes do.
Scattered along and up onto the foothills of the mountainous Northern Range, running parallel to our speeding sealed convoy, were the lights of distant dwellings. After some brief pleading Frau was allowed to have her window lowered. Frau stuck her head out but she didn’t hurl. Instead she felt almost better for the cool air that she was finally gulping for the first time since landing almost two hours ago. We heard the crickets in the fields that we sped past. You could occasionally pick up far off thumping beats of bass heavy music rolling down from the nearer homes on the hills. Our convoy travelled past the endless agricultural tracts of land. Joy, in her car with Mum and half our ten huge bags in front with Frau, Dad, me and the rest of our luggage right behind. Frau had her head sticking out the back window at a right angle, lips flapping, teeth exposed, sneering in a maniacal ‘g-force’ grimace. She managed not to spew, but she probably managed to freak out any rum soaked, ganja crazed, crack-heads lurking in the dark waiting to run us off the road and pillage my consignment of white shirts. I wondered if we had done the right thing in coming here. Surely I would feel differently in the daylight in the familiar surroundings of our home… surely.
We arrived at our compound, surrounded by high walls and a gate. The homes in our suburb of St. Claire were all fortress like. It was a leafy suburb as they say, except you could only see the top leaves of the tress behind your neighbour’s walls, for the most part. They should call it a walled suburb. It made you feel the opposite of safe. It made you feel like a sitting duck. Instead of pulling up to our white wrought iron gate, Dad and Joy circled the block three times and switched approaches on the fourth, until they were sure we not followed or were in danger of ambush. Concern for my shirts grew. Once we were inside the compound, we eventually climbed out of the cars and Frau and I wearily made our way up the steps to the front door and waited as my father went through the routine of alarm codes that would allow us into the house. I don’t know if Frau was as apprehensive about our move to Trinidad as I was by now, but when we walked into the front room and found my Grandmother watching a Bollywood film on TV, volume blaring, I think she started to have second thoughts.
Safe as Houses
Crack-Cocaine and Cutlasses
I’d never arrived back in Port of Spain to so much security. In the past I always felt secure. I was born here. Dad was a first generation Trini. His mother was from another English speaking Caribbean island and his father from a French speaking one. Mum was born in America. She could hold no property on the island. As a young girl she needed visas to attend school and live on the island. Her family was Columbian, Barbadian and Scottish. Somewhere floating around is a Chinese gene, complications of history. This was a region of the world that experienced all of the upheavals played out on the far away stages of bigger, richer, countries to the north, south, east and west. This was a country of mixes of Creoles; blacks; browns; whites; reds; European; Indians; Orientals; Syrians; Portuguese and all in between. In the 1960’s it was tourists; calypso; Carnival; cocktails and an oil-rich seabed. Then the oil-rich economy of the 70’s led to building and growth and prosperity followed by coups, crimes and cutthroats.
By the 1990’s it was crack-cocaine and cutlasses. Everyone had more locks, dogs and insurance. Nature has remained kind for the most part though. Hurricanes seldom visit; just their tail ends sometimes, leaving us usually only slightly ruffled, nestled as we are 100 miles south of the customary storm path. The winds of change here are political and social. Those winds are hot and fetid now, and so were we. Frau and I were tired and desperately, desperately wanted to close our eyes.