Paul and Gayle are taking a year from their roles in Picton and Belleville and will be teaching at the Maple Leaf International School in Trinidad. We will use this blog to record some of our edventures!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Alright, Okay, Stag is a Man's Beer...and other local lessons

Hello!  I'm another guest blogger; a friend of Gayle & Paul's named Kristin.  I'm originally from Belleville, but have been living and working in Alberta since 2008.  After a few years of pushing myself to be better, stronger, and smarter (at work and at play), I realized that I have joined the throngs of Canadians on the proverbial 'treadmill' I had sworn I would never get caught up on.  To quote the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", a book that I brought to help me reach the mind state that I was looking for:

“Is it hard?'
Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes that's hard.” 
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

So, when I was deciding to fly south, I realized that I could probably learn quite a bit from immersing myself in the Trinidad Culture. And it was my goal to have the right attitude and learn as much as I could from the people here.

“(What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness). Familiarity can blind you too.” 
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

As a student on a quest, my eyes were open to learning about three main aspects of Trinidadian life: the food, the language, and the Trini attitude.

First the food - it's fresh (especially the street foods!), it's delicious, it's often fried, and it is a great way to get to know all the cultures in Trinidad and Tobago.  There are Indian, creole, Chinese, , American, British, South American and other cultural influences.  I was told I had to try the curried goat when I came, so I had Goat Roti - delicious.  The Doubles are an experience not to be missed, as well as the Shark & Bake, Sunday Lunch, callaloo ice cream.  I didn't get a chance to try corn soup, or oxtail soup, or the crab & dumplings (there's only so much food you can pack in during a visit!).  But the food was spectacular.  Interestingly, the citrus fruit was out-of-season, and the oranges were kind of green and unappetizing looking, as well as full of big seeds, but if you take the time to peel and sort out the seeds, the flesh was light and refreshing tasting.  And it was lovely to see mango trees, laden with fruit, bananas and coconuts everywhere we went.  The one exception is the coffee - I was shocked to learn that most coffee here is instant, and the real coffee is not very good...except at the Asa Wright Centre where they grow and roast their own coffee beans - I savoured every drop.

Secondly, the language.  There's so much to say about the Trini language.  When I first arrived, Paul drew me a map so that I could walk to the nearest mall and do some low-key exploring while he and Gayle were at work.  And standing in line for some food, I could not understand what the people in front of me were saying - but it turned out that they were actually speaking English!  English, overflowing with local slang, local grammar, and with a heavy island accent.  So everywhere I went, I made a concerted effort to try and keep up with and understand the words flowing from the mouths of Trinidadians.  I was not wholly successful, but in this attempt, I did learn some of the local sayings used regularly here.  I'll try to list a few off for you (insert your own lilting tones, and remember that most T's and TH's are pronounced "D"):

Okay, Alright! (heavy emphasis on the 2nd syllable) - Used to reassure others in tight/sticky situations like traffic

Really plenty (the Really is pronounced "rail-ly") - alot

You godda beat de iron while it's hot - I heard someone in the grocery store say this today because you can never count on an item being there, so you have to buy it when you see it

I dey - I'm fine

We bussin’ a lime dis Friday – We’re going to chill this Friday

Wha yuh for? - What do you want to do?

She’s a bess ting – She’s hot

She vex - She's angry, annoyed

When you reach? - When will you get there? 

Although it seems the language has evolved almost entirely around slang here, I found that if you took the time to talk to someone, and asked them questions, they were very quick to smile, kind, helpful, and willing to share their stories.  While trying my best to hail a Maxi (a taxi van/bus) so that I could take the ferry over to Tobago, I was having no success.  So I asked a lady (who was standing on the median in the middle of the highway) if she could give me some pointers on how to get a Maxi to stop.  She took me under her wing, showed me some of the hand signals I needed to know, and when she asked where I was from and learned that I am Canadian, shared with me that she'd had an exciting romance with a Canadian man in her youth (I'm leaving out quite a few details here...let's just say that Canadians have good 'moves').  

And this leads me to the Trini attitude.  I would like to find a way to go back in Canada while still preserving some of the lifestyle that I learned to adapt to while in Trinidad and Tobago but I'm not sure this would be possible.  It's slow here (almost everything is hand-written, including hospital records and licensing offices which have not gone digital yet).  There's absolutely no expectation to move fast - restaurant servers sit and play on their phones or finish chewing their nails before standing and walking as slow as possible over to your table.  The Trini people are incredibly social - and yet their customer service is very apathetic.  Because of the high crime rate, which is concentrated mostly in Port of Spain, every single service desk, kiosk or sales counter in Trinidad has bars, or a plexi-glass window with a speakerbox or hole to talk through, making it difficult to see or communicate with the person on the other side (nevermind their accent!).  Interestingly, there seem to be almost no racial tensions whatsoever; people here are very blunt and practical about skin colour and ethnicity. The differences between the sexes is also quite embedded in mainstream media and marketing messages...for example, "Stag is a Man's Beer" is the actual slogan of this popular beer.  Trini's are very proud of their island (boasting regularly of it's beauty), and yet they are impatient with their government and government agencies (there's quite a bit of corruption).  When I took the ferry over to Tobago, there was a man ranting because "they" had decided to cancel the 10am and 5pm sailings, so the one and only ferry we could take that day (since I had missed the 6am ferry due to my poor Maxi hailing abilities) was at 1:30pm.  "Put your buts in dem seats, and just be waitin' until we ready" he raved. "Only in Trinidad!"  This is a common phrase to hear here.

Some of my unique experiences included joining Gayle's Grade 12 Health Sciences class on a trip to the Port of Spain Hospital where we saw some very old facilities and practices, as well as some pretty new equipment.  The handling of bio-hazardous waste seemed to be lacking in protocol and procedure, and looking up at the hospital rooms was reminiscent of looking at low-income housing apartment buildings, with an array of curtains and fabrics hanging out the windows.  And while waiting in the main lobby, a man in shackles was walked past us into a waiting room...

I had a very fast (white knuckle) driving tour of southern Tobago (due to the fact that the ferry had, again, cancelled their later sailings, so my island tour was cut short).  I learned about the tradition of giving goats or pigs to a newly married couple, and that Tobago had changed ruling power 31 times - more than any other island in the West Indies!  This is Simon, my tour guide/driver:

Then we went to the Asa Wright Centre where we saw many types of hummingbirds, the manakins (birds) that have the most amazing courting dance that they perform in their lek (the 'meat market' for adult birds only).  This was also where I saw my first agouti - a hare-sized rodent that hasn't really got much of a tail, walks on all 4 feet, and likes to eat fruits and veggies.  We went straight from Asa Wright (a place I'd like to go back to someday) and on to Matura to see the turtles coming ashore at night to lay their eggs.  This was...AMAZING.  Our guide was pretty relaxed and allowed flash photos to be taken while she was laying her eggs, and then allowed us to touch her!  This was a truly jaw-dropping experience.

Finally, my trip was finished off with a terrific tour of the Nariva Mangrove and Bush Bush island where we saw puffer fish right at the boat launch, thousands of crabs running around the roots and mudflats of the mangroves, a rare kingfisher, herons, parrots, and last, but certainly not least, a red howler monkey and a tribe of capuchins.  They were absolutely captivating!

And so my brief journey is coming to an end.  Or as the Trini's would say..."I reach." I hope to retain the warm, captivating, slow vibes that the Trini's have shown me during my stay.  I am so thankful to Paul and Gayle for having me stay with them, and for having shown me how to navigate the culture; warning me about the do's and don'ts while in Trinidad.

“Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive” 
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

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