8 am in Trinidad

I wrote this reflection exactly 4 years ago today (July 10, 2014). Don’t ask me why, but this came to mind. I searched my hard drive, and there it was, in a ‘TRAVEL’ folder. To honour Carnival season in Toronto, here’s a personal essay on a place I hold dear to my heart, with memories that are shaping the person I am becoming. 

It’s 8 a.m. in Tunapuna and a woman calls out for her dog. Its name is Iris and her voice rings with urgency. Minutes before, and minutes after, sirens fill the air. They scream danger in broad daylight as people flock to the market for fresh breadfruit or meat, flies hovering in the heat above each slab.

Inside a home, sophisticated and plush, surrounded by tin roof shanties and Creole houses coloured lavender, robin egg blue and baby pink, there is no urgency and you feel no tension. The world outside, stigmatized by crime, kidnappings, pickpocketers and rape is separate. Foreign women are free from catcalls and terse eyes. You can watch the news without being subjected to reality.

“Out in the streets, they call it merther,” sings Ini Kamoze. “When rhythms spacing out your head.” The concrete is hot, as the sun welcomes a new day in Trinidad. Kamoze’s birthplace may be Jamaica, but it all makes sense in daylight. Just walk around Port of Spain, and you’ll see an array of faces, characters, symbols and surfaces. Behind each of them lie vast experience, historic depth and cultural flavour.

“How many yuh want?” says the doubles lady on the corner, placing two bara on a piece of grey parchment in the palm of her hand. “Channa? Aloo?” Yes to both. She dips her spoon into vats of curried chickpeas and potato, dumps them onto the bara, adds a little chutney, be it cucumber or sweet tamarind. “Pepper?” she asks. All in, it’s an inferno. If you’re somewhat committed, say, “slight.”

And that’s only breakfast – an intro to the gastronomic blend of Creole and Indian cuisine and the event we call “eating.” Curried chicken wrapped in paratha or dhalpuri, its layers sprinkled with dried split peas makes a mean roti. Fill mine with pumpkin, a bit of channa and a bit of aloo. A dash of tamarind chutney. Wrapped in paratha. All is well.

Natural light seeps through a barred window into the kitchen, where a grandmother picks at a roti shell, buss-up-shut. After a series of locked gates, a door is left open to let in the island breeze. Walls are plastered with photographs. Family heirloom pillows grace a couch covered with macramé throws. The Price Is Right blares through the TV, its neon American primetime applause fighting the percussive chutney soca from a car passing by. The day is hot, and bodies become lethargic. Across the street, small children play in the yard of a shanty house. The woman tells me her neighbour’s property has never changed. No progress in upkeep or addition. She says that one of the young male inhabitants is a Rastafarian, who can be seen smoking sinsemilla in his own private space – a tin shed in the backyard. Bricks lay atop the roof to balance the beams below. It’s a wonder that they don’t fall.

Cars drive by, blasting Machel Montano’s latest track. Some bump Drake or 50 Cent. There’s shared cultural elements amidst the varied demographic puzzle in each subdivision and it shines in many ways.

At night, it’s hot. Crickets orchestrate a symphony of song, buzzing in the heat. A breeze rushes in every now and then. As palms brush against the walls of the house, it sounds as if someone has entered the property. Your heart races. Then stops. Races. Then stops. You realize that it’s just the nature of the weather, the vibe of the people, the essence of the land.

Sometimes you forget where you’re going; numbers, names and turns. The next thing you know you’re driving around town with strangers. Full speed down the highway, the windows are down and your hair is a mess. It’s mad hot. The heat is thrilling as Action Bronson plays through the stereo on full. The directions to Tacarigua are blurry as each moment passes. And at that point, you want to be lost for a very long time.

It’s almost midnight in Trinidad. In a partition, you question what you just did and answer with emotion. Push boundaries. Turn a blind eye to the warnings. Life is more real when it’s raw.