Peering Into The Past: Speyside, Tobago

Speyside Estate, TobagoI stood there, reading a sign about who once owned Speyside Estate in Tobago, the smaller island of Trinidad and Tobago. It told me who owned it since 1773, how many slaves they had, and even how much compensation was received for the slaves upon Emancipation.

Context is an important thing – I was standing there, reading this, as people of African descent were keeping the area clean – Tobagonians employed, not slaves, but there was an unsettling feeling that I had just gone back in time. The cars didn’t belong.

It isn’t hard to imagine that the descendants of the slaves were now making a living keeping the area clean – pristine, in fact.  It’s hard to imagine that less than 100 years ago, slaves maintained this Estate. It’s an uncomfortable reminder, one I’d argue is necessary.

It’s necessary to feel that discomfort, I think, as an outsider looking in – a witness across the timeline of Tobago. It’s that discomfort, I expect, that causes people to react in different ways, even going so far as to attempt to misappropriate a history not their own by attempting to speak for those who have their own voice.

I cannot presume to know anything but that discomfort I initially felt as I read that sign and was surrounded by quiet people who gave me a wide berth, letting the outsider look upon their ancestors’ history. I can write as neither someone who owned nor was a slave, I am of different heritages, seafaring and indentured mixed in my blood.

My decision was to not to take pictures with them there, because there was no way I could find to capture that deep feeling I felt when I looked around. It’s all too easy to misinterpret. Some might have called it ‘art’.

At the time, in the moment, I saw it as a disservice to those around me.

I was the one that didn’t belong.

This was their history, this was a history that they maintained, this was something that through the centuries was maintained for reasons beyond me, but left for me to stand there and contemplate.

And it was beautiful. In fact, not having visited Tobago in 32 years, the pristine cleanliness of Tobago struck me, but here at this Estate there was a different sparkle, a tie to a time when things changed in 1833, where the numbers of owned people was noteworthy enough to keep in a ledger to later be reported on a green sign in front of me.

It was a shorthand for an embarassing aspect of humans and our capacity to treat others so… inhumanely.

History and NatureThe black and white history of the bricks was being replaced with the living color maintained by these Tobagonians. They had left here a lens through which to see their history, their culture, in the crumbling bricks of a retired watermill and it’s surrounds.

These scars of our histories are something some wish to remove. I do not hold an opinion on such things when it relates to history not my own, but what I will say is that I have a fondness for scars, I see a beauty in them not for the harshness of the wound but for the healing afterward.

It takes more strength to heal than to wound, and we need to remember what caused the scars to recognize the paths some have had to travel to be who they are, to be who they will be.

That discomfort was a gift.

Thinking about India in T&T.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on Harris Promenade, with mala.
A statue of  Gandhi in San Fernando, Trinidad.

I was thinking about how little I know about India.

The young lady of mixed East Indian and African descent who served me the gyro had called me ‘hun’, an American affectation,  while handing me a Greek-ish food. And there I was, reading an Indian blog entry on resilience.

It seemed appropriate that I be reading her words on resilience when everyone I ran into in Trinidad was busy talking about what might happen at Petrotrin, as if their very lives depended on it. Last week, it was the earthquake, this week, Petrotrin.

The gyro was wrapped tight in a combination of paper and thin aluminium wrap – impossible to get off one or the other completely, so either you bit paper or aluminium. It wasn’t her fault, she just handed it to me – it was a problem of the paper combining with the juices of the gyro-ish food I had. So, being hungry, I opted for getting all the aluminium off- paper doesn’t hurt your teeth.

My own form of resilience in the moment, I suppose.

It’s not often I get moments like that one, out in public yet in a certain silence that allowed clear observation of the world around me. Now that I’d sorted out my gyro, which was really quite good – surprisingly so – I cast my eyes around.

This is South Trinidad. I’ve been spending more time in North Trinidad and the cultures, while similar, are not quite the same. First of all, North Trinidad almost always has better options for things. In that, it lacks the charm of South Trinidad where you accidentally find something nice.

It’s getting better, but there’s still a marked difference.

Petrotrin, which was later confirmed to be closing the refinery, was probably going to be laying off people I expect are largely from South Trinidad. This means that a year from now, I might not be seeing the same people were I to sit in the same seat. Since, by this hypothesis, there would be less disposable income in South Trinidad, any gap between quality and choices between North and South Trinidad would likely increase in size.

Again.

I chewed, picking at the odd piece of meat here and there that fell into my strategically placed foil. It’s Tuesday afternoon, maybe around 1:30 p.m. There’s people outside with loudspeakers talking about the need to learn sign language. Well, if you keep using loudspeakers, I expect so. There were people milling about in lunch lines at this hour, which seemed strange. Where did they come from?

Lunch is typically from 12 to 1, yet there were lines at all the health food places – you know, Royal Castle, Burger King, etc, in a country where people still share information on what to drink, eat, or stick in an orifice to ‘purge’. Not that my gyro was absolutely healthy, but I do have some moral high ground here that I won’t waste – it rarely happens. A spoiler for people: If you have healthy kidneys and a liver, your body doesn’t need much more help except with regular infusions of dihydrogen monoxide.

Water.

Reading an Indian writer, watching a South Trinidad floorshow while eating a fusion in cuisine. For some reason, a lot of my traffic here on RealityFragments, as well as on the Reality Fragments Facebook page, comes from India.

That’s why I was thinking about it. From the outside looking in, being a roundabout descendant of descendants of Indian origin (as well as others), what I know is a collection of reading what Indian friends have written or shared with me. They shared with a depth that was inspiring.

And yet I am apart, but then, as I considered India, India is largely apart from India. It’s this mass of people who turned an imposed language against the owner of it and continues to be a growing economy – even as poverty is visible. Conflicted, yet with a depth to those conflicts that cannot allow things to change quickly in a world that hastens in accelerated ways. I cannot know India.

I know it only from parts, pieces, little anecdotes, some articles, a Simputer, and little else.

There’s more to know, I’m sure. But with so many readers from a part of the world I might insult by only seeing pieces of it on a trip, I spent time thinking about it. And I likely will in the future.

So, for the people reading in that place marked by lines on someone else’s map – thank you for stopping by. You’re appreciated, and I’m returning the favor as best I can.

Earthquake From A Distance.

My fallout from the #earthquake on 21 August 2018 at 5:31pm. I'm in #trinidadandtobago and further from the #venezuela epicenter than most in Trinidad. Jokes aside, significant damage was done closer to the epicenter.
My aftermath, which is not representative of what others experienced. In South Trinidad, I was further from the epicenter.

In South Oropouche, in an apartment I’m about to say goodbye to, the earth started moving around 5:31 p.m.  It was wobbly, and increasingly strong – enough for my bookshelf to move. It walked maybe a inch during the entire incident. Once I felt it increasing in strength, I grabbed my phone and walked out into a clear area.

Earthquakes have a tendency to make some things fall down. Stronger earthquakes have a tendency to throw things. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but I was certain that I wanted no part of being underneath concrete. I updated Facebook, hit Twitter, and waited. It was strong enough for me to walk outside, but not strong enough to do any damage. I knew that this wasn’t the epicenter, and I also knew that it might get worse, have aftershocks, or damage things sufficiently where they might break later.

The Earth stopped moving and updates came in. The first in was from the USGS at 6.8 in Venezuela, the next said it was 7.0, the last said 7.3. People in Trinidad and Tobago who had never experienced an earthquake were freaking out.

Yet in all the time standing outside, I saw not one single soul out on the trace. Everyone was inside. Everyone stayed inside. As if it were rain. A bad instinct. But it was over fast enough in my area.

Everyone on social media in Trinidad and Tobago was acting as if we were the epicenter. We weren’t. What I felt might have been, at most, a 4 – those up North in Trinidad got it worse; they were closer to the epicenter. Someone mentioned tsunamis.

Well, we are close enough to Venezuela that if there were going to be a tsunami, it would have hit by the time mention were made of it.

And all the while, I was wondering at that old system I had thought of and had begun work on all those years ago. Untrusted information was flying. That was the point of that system, to have that trust in the system. Social networks are flailing; Facebook didn’t ask me if I was safe until a while after – I had posted to them that the earthquake in Venezuela also affected Trinidad and Tobago. Whether that was the reason or not (I am no narcissist), I suddenly was asked if I was safe.

If only there were a system designed for that. Meh. They didn’t want it, they didn’t want it.

Well, yes, I am safe. I’ve been through worse, I’ve seen much worse results.

Trinidad and Tobago was lucky. Fortunate. No deaths reported so far. Property damage seems to be limited to North Trinidad. Videos and photos are making the rounds, the most of which seem legitimate – there’s always the trouble with disaster porn.

The sky, despite all reports you might hear otherwise, has not fallen near me. It has affected others much more than me, but it is not for me to write what they experienced.

Plodding Toward Progress

Slow ProgressWe have a tendency to set goals and get tunnel vision – we see everything directly between ourselves and the goal.

Yet everything directly between us and the goal is connected to other things, and those things to other. We forget the circumstances, the environment, through which we try to progress. There is more in our way than we find directly in front of us, and there is more that can help that is not directly in front of us or behind us.

This is the real world – not some facsimile that they teach about when they hand out diplomas and certificates, but a world interconnected. These days, the interconnections themselves are accelerating. Writers have tackled this over the decades, trying to communicate that the world is getting Faster.

Most recently, I’ve finished reading Friedman’s, “Thank You For Being Late” – an appropriate title as I’ve been making my way through various things in Trinidad and Tobago, a nation where bureaucracy can be harvested and exported. On a global level, ‘thought-leaders’, predominantly of the developed world, have the luxury of seeing things above the clouds of the developing world.

And they write about it.

And it’s disconnected from the rest of the world – even people in their own countries.

There’s this growing tension because of that which I would like to think could be healthy – where people aspire toward such lofty goals. And yet, the same ‘thought-leaders’ don’t understand the world that they live in as much as the world they are familiar with – just like everybody else. Reality defies us. And that content spreads like a wildfire around the globe, right or wrong, good or bad, and people see it through their tunnel vision.

We all want things to be better. The problems arise when we don’t agree on what’s better.

The tunnel, though, comes to define people when the world is larger than the tunnel. Where stopping now and then and looking around makes us aware of more possibilities. Where we are not limited to or defined by what we’ve done before. Where we can find a small effort indirectly can bring us so much closer to our goals.

Where even the systems we use to define how we get to our goals should be constantly suspect.

We plod forward when we should dance toward.

A Literary Character

VS_Naipaul_2016_Dhaka
VS Naipaul in Dhaka, 2016. Photo courtesy Faizul Latif Chowdhury, through a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The news yesterday was that Sir VS Naipaul had passed away. Only the day before I had been in West Mall, in North Trinidad, and had glanced at some of his books. ‘Soon’, I thought, since my reading stack is larger than my time to read these days.

When I first got published, I went around to my father’s siblings and got almost the same response every single time.

“VS Naipaul is your uncle, you know. It’s in your genes.”

It was very matter of fact, dismissive and as supportive as I would find could be expected from my family. I retorted every time, “My mother is a writer too.” All of them nodded quietly, dismissively, and went on with their lives.

Clearly, I kept writing. After all,  if he’s my Uncle and that’s their logic to dismiss that accomplishment, all the cousins I know and all the cousins I don’t know also have him as an Uncle. In fact, a lot of people in Trinidad and Tobago are related to him. None that I know of, including myself, actually knew him. He didn’t help me with my homework, or give me a talking-to when I needed it.

To me, Sir VS Naipaul was simply a literary character that existed in the minds of others. Over the course of the years, I read a few of his books. I was told some of his history and life by someone who knew of him and might have met him a few times as a child.

This is the core of the issue I consider when people in Trinidad and Tobago try to claim Sir VS Naipaul. Here’s this author who had the opportunity to leave Trinidad and Tobago with British citizenship. He did. He did well with it. Would he have done as well were he in Trinidad and Tobago? Probably not. He traveled, he lived his life, and that was that.

What did Trinidad and Tobago do for him to get him where he was? And Trinidad and Tobago tried to give him a prize that he declined, which further stirred some negative sentiment. And yet, the Trinidad he left was very different, a Trinidad under British rule. Why wouldn’t he leave given the opportunity? To this day, people still aspire to leave.

My paternal grandmother’s brother, Ram Singh, was this source. So he told me of his memories of the Lion House, of his few meetings with this literary character. That was kind of boring, really, because he didn’t have much to say on the topic other than, “He was always upstairs writing.”

And that’s all I really know. I do know that of the books of his I’ve read, they were good. He didn’t write the sort of things I enjoyed reading, and the Internet will be full enough of his praises.

What I do like about him is that he did what he did on his own, despite what others said or did. And, through references to him, I got to hear more about a very different Trinidad and Tobago. People like Uncle Ram would tell me about how they would ride to Carlsen Field on bicycles to get chewing gum from the U.S. Army base, from well-intentioned soldiers through the fence. He laughed about that when he told me, even as I thought of a poor East Indian boy on a bicycle begging at a fence at a U.S. military installation. I’ve been on the other side of those fences.

It was a very different Trinidad and Tobago. A pre-Independence era, a post WWII era. Rations. Bicycle licenses. Things that they never teach of in school.

In turn, I spoke with Great Uncle John – my paternal grandfather’s friend. In his 90s at the time, he had served as the Master-at-Arms at the Chaguramas base, had been involved in politics in a small way right after Independence… he had met his wife when he was out patrolling on an Estate… and she was washing clothes in the river. I learned a lot by simply listening to him – about how there was so much water at Chaguramas, so many wells, and that the country had water. A man of few words, I would simply sit there and listen to someone who was happy to have someone there to talk to. There was a  time he was working in Port of Spain and missed the last taxi, so he walked to Chaguanas through the canefields, got home at sunrise, showered and went back to work by taxi again.

There are many colorful stories, many literary characters, but right now everyone’s concerned about Sir VS Naipaul – about what he wrote, about how he wrote it, about why he wrote it… just like any other author. In the end, yes, geographically he was from an island in the Caribbean that was then under British rule, and he went on to do great things.

But it wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago better. It wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago more recognized for literature – in this regard, he stands largely alone and as a borrowed literary figure that left Trinidad and Tobago long ago, from a different era, who made his own way as so many others who leave Trinidad and Tobago do. Everyone wants to claim the successes, no one wants to claim the failures.

Einstein noted this sort of thing himself:

If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.

– Albert Einstein.

(Address to the French Philosophical Society at the Sorbonne (6 April 1922); French press clipping (7 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 36-378] and Berliner Tageblatt (8 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 79-535])

There are many literary characters running around Trinidad and Tobago. Sir VS Naipaul was one of them during the British era, but not after.

His successes remain his own. As it should be.

Broken Contracts

Break FreeThere are contracts between people, and there are contracts between lawyers – the latter existing because contracts between people are fragile.

One of the reasons  I haven’t been writing was because I was negotiating a contract – a business deal. It started with a handshake, as so many business deals do. This was a contract between people, between men – me having something someone else wanted, he wanting something I have. The deal was for a certain amount, the deal to be completed by lawyers the next day.

The next day never arrived – instead, I got another representative of the company and family. And, right before Carnival here in Trinidad and Tobago, I was given a downpayment for a price for roughly 70% of the original handshake. I smiled and laughed, knowing I wouldn’t accept that offer, and returned their downpayment after Carnival. I simply showed that I understand the value they placed in shaking hands by returning the favor. I think they got the point.

Now I know how they do business and I can say that they don’t really respect contracts between people – I won’t name them, there’s really no need to. It’s no more than an attempt at a reverse bait and switch maneuver, as basic as that – and what I found was that once I got past that, they had nothing. So I raised my price, and they said they wouldn’t buy – and called me the next day, still trying to get me below the price of our original handshake.

“Do you think you can get that price from anyone in Trinidad and Tobago right now?”, I was asked churlishly. I responded in a firm tone, “Do you think I care?” 

And I laughed, putting it in the hands of someone the next day to deal with. I’ve seen too many contracts broken over the years – more than most, less than a few – to really care that much about a broken contract. I put it in the hands of someone else; I have no patience for people with money saying that the price is too high. Clearly, the value is not – pay the price or move on. 

It’s as if they do not matter to others, as if one’s word doesn’t matter, as if a promise is so easily broken. Trust is not something understood – Honor and Commitment are Gordian knots to be sliced.

And it’s not just business.

Social Contracts

 

There was a time when social contracts were more valued – we find pockets here and there among the rubble of civilization where they are still valued, where a promise or a handshake means something. When someone’s word meant something, when they were careful what they promised.

Now, we gamble on people’s greed in things more and more – not just financially but otherwise, be it emotional or otherwise.

And one thing I have learned over the years is that a world where one’s word is worth something is becoming smaller every year. Marriages, divorces, political promises, government reality, and so on. And because of that we do not trust.

And a civilization where we do not trust is not really a civilization.

A person’s word should mean something. Should. But now, unless you get a witness and everyone signs, it’s empty – expended air lost to the atmosphere, needless noise. And even with lawyers…

We are surrounded by broken contracts.

2018: Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Begins.

UntitledA lone drunk walks down the trace where I live, shouting, “Pay the devil jab jab” at 3 a.m. this morning – lost from a J’ouvert somewhere in South Oropouche, I’m sure, where WASA water flows more slowly than puncheon rum. Where WASA, in fixing things, inordinately breaks something else.

It’s the start of Carnival 2018. There are plenty of people out there right now enjoying all the festivities, and there will be many more. Celebrities like Trevor Noah are around, giving local performers their 15 seconds of fame in the Internet age.

It’s not my thing. To say that out loud, or dare write it, is seen as a travesty by some. But really, it’s not my thing. I haven’t enjoyed Carnival since the late 1980s as a young man full of hormonal energy – not that I haven’t tried, or others have not tried to have me do so.

Right now, photographers I know are out there getting brilliant shots of Trinidad and Tobago’s greatest event. One, Sarita Rampersad (unrelated), even took even more pictures of people on mobile phones, which you can see in an album properly titled (Dis)connected Mas. Global Voices interviewed her in 2016 about the same thing – we can see that it hasn’t had much of an effect on what people do. This year, they went with her ‘Steups emoji‘ which – and Sarita knows this – I see in a different way, as do a few others, but it is something. And a steups is appropriate when selfies and phones are disconnecting people from the most extroverted event in Trinidad and Tobago.

Because that’s what extroverts do these days, too. Where is the line between extroversion and narcissism? There isn’t any; there’s just overlap. It’s also odd to explore in the context of what we decide to share of ourselves. I’m neither, yet I share plenty that I wish to. There is room for exploration here, introspection, and some thoughtfulness.

But it’s Carnival – seen by some to be the antithesis of thoughtfulness. I know better. There are very thoughtful people out there, the vast majority, keeping things fun and real – which should be the focus. It’s escapism that comes from new found ‘freedom’ – a debatable topic if you look around Trinidad and Tobago and the financial chains that burden so many, where the hand that you hold is more often than not the hand that holds you down. That’s global, though.

Yet the news, even internationally, talked about the squelching of a terrorist threat – locally you can see the smoothing over of it; Newsday, Trinidad Express, Trinidad Guardian. The facts are lacking; now 7 men have been held last I checked. One target was allegedly the U.S. Embassy (how original) – internationally, CNN covered the story and put the U.S. military on top of things. Local police are saying otherwise, smoothing that over, while I first read about the potential threat from a British source. It’s anybody’s game. In the end, though, nothing is actually publicly known except how many were held – and one has to wonder why it made the news in the first place until one considers that it creates fear, uncertainty and doubt. That spread like wildfire on WhatsApp groups.

But T&T has short term memory loss, which leads to not being able to remember much in the long term. Until something happens. Or happens again. And then short term memory loss happens again – even in local media. Trevor Noah showed up. What terrorists? How is this not on Global Voices yet?

Never fear. The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service are keeping everyone safe and secure from 8,000 lbs of Venezualan dasheen. The guns and drugs come from the very same place, but the dasheen problem is real enough to local farmers. Unfortunately, because of the lack of dealing with drugs and guns – people have theories on why – the Minister of Agriculture was mocked for supporting the police here even though violent crime isn’t his jurisdiction.

We’ll all sleep better with that contraband dasheen off the streets.

It’s a comedy that writes itself into tears. We won’t even get into ‘tiefing a wine‘, a strange thing given the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, where outfits for Carnival get smaller every year and costs for them go up. Where suggestive dancing is encouraged; where some say only men ‘tief a wine’. We know better. Yes, it can be construed as assault.

Don’t hug me without consent, by the way. With an accusation, I can get you sent to jail for assault.

And until Ash Wednesday jail, Trinidad and Tobago will forget all of this. As it should.

But on Wednesday, will it remember?