It must be a good thing if you leave a country with a song in your head, musn’t it? Leave only footprints and take away only memories? That is what it was for Trinidad. The memories were dominated by one song we kept hearing around the place – Nah Leaving by Denyse Plummer.
Here she acknowledges the problems of the country, but then when she weighs them up against the positives, decides that she will not, like so many others, leave the country of her birth – a country she loves – in search of the good life elsewhere.
I had travelled to Trinidad for work to witness at first hand how and why this country is a world leader in Citizenship education. The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is one of the most educated countries of the world, with a literacy rate of more than 95%. This is largely due to democratic access to free education given to all. On the second night there, some adventurous visitors went to check out the bar down the road. It was always so full of raucous sounds of people enjoying themselves and lively music. On the way back the group were held up at gunpoint and everything taken. At least, because it was at the start of the visit, they had plenty of time to spend at the embassy trying to replace passports. Unless, as one canny man did, you had stashed everything in your underpants. Immigration officers should be aware of this before they lick their fingers as they thumb through your passports. We visited quite a few schools and despite a lack of what we would see as modern classroom facilities, they were obviously doing a fabulous job. Patriotism and citizenship were in abundant evidence and echoed Denyse Plummer’s sentiments and presumably supported the combatting of any “brain-drain” abroad. We were invited to the Ministry of Education to meet with the Minister and visited several schools where we were greeted with music – choirs or steel bands. The students were unfailingly polite, full of smiles and words of welcome.
So, if the education system, in particular citizenship education, is so spectacular, then why is there apparently so much crime? A Trinidadian friend told me that it is part of the backlash from colonialism and its legacy of a society divided into haves and have-nots. When I returned to the UK, I discovered that someone at the hotel had taken advantage of the credit card details I left to cover incidentals not covered by the sponsored trip (such as a beer by the hotel pool) and cleaned out my bank account. OK, the bank did cover the fraud, but by the time this came through I had been doing a 12-mile round trip walk to work and back for a month due to lack of funds. I am agreement with my friend who said she was: “hurt to read that this happened to you in my native country. These things happen, even to us, too. Guns, and drugs, and poverty, lead to criminal opportunism, and a traveller is often a walking target. Of late, criminal incidents have become more frequent, especially in Port of Spain and vicinity. Trini is rich in natural resources but somehow its wealth does not trickle down sufficiently. It’s an uneven society with the historical trauma of slavery, indenture and colonialism (various) fuelling the melt-pot. Trini has always been edgy, and not a poster tropical island. I understand it, but do not condone the violence and criminality. In defence, I would say this kind of behaviour is not exclusive to Trinidad. I am not excusing what happened to you, and my heart is saddened for the fear you experienced. The other side of the coin is that Trini is a very creative country with writers and artists coming out of the woodwork, and you experienced some of that, too.”
This is what Denyse Plummer is getting at in her lyrics. There are so many good and wonderful things about Trinidad; these need to be considered equally. I have already spoken of the music. But it was not just Denyse Plummer. We may think of the music of Trinidad and Tobago as Calypso, Soca and Reggae. But there are many different forms. Compulsive, happy music, often with hard-hitting messages in the lyrics, but with a sound that drags you to your feet: cross-cultural interactions have produced other indigenous forms of music including Rapso, Bacchanal, Parang, Chutney, and other derivative and fusion styles. From the busker at the roadside stop by the sea, to the fabulous gig by Black Stalin (Leroy Calliste), to the steel-drum band in school, the music of Trinidad and Tobago, all leave me in no doubt that Denyse Plummer has a very good point. Black Stalin, who has been performing Calypso since the 1960s, was given an honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, for his tremendous dedication and contribution to Calypso music and culture in Trinidad and Tobago. His lyrics against European colonial oppression and demands for better handling of the Carnival are reminiscent of Denyse Plummer’s pride in her culture (albeit from a generation earlier). It was like seeing a classic band, like the Stones, or Bob Dylan and stayed with me.
Still with Denyse Plummer, we can not forget the beauty of the country and the people. Trevor was our driver and became a friend after two weeks. He showed us how to tear open a bar of chocolate (which simply melted in the hot sun) and suck it out like a drink (“This is how we like our chocolate here.”), introduced us to the best coconut seller in Port of Spain and searched out street stalls to try local food. He took us to the Oval and reverently told stories of the times he had seen Lara bat there and was also responsible for getting us tickets to a Black Stalin Gig. The lady from the ministry was a tall, striking woman and she actually bent her knees inside her long dress so she did not look like she was a good foot taller than me for a photo. Here were some lovely people of Trinidad.
Food in Trinidad and Tobago is fabulous. I will let Denyse Plummer whet your appetite…
If, like me, you love spicy food, then Trinidad will be a bit of a treat for you. My friend told me; “We have some weird stuff going on but it’s all good, hot and tasty fusion food.” I can vouch for the split pea and rice, a traditional Trini dish, rich with coconut milk and vegetable stock. My very favourite street food was doubles – normally eaten for breakfast, and a popular hangover cure. They are made with two baras (flat fried dough) and filled with curry channa (curried chickpeas) and various chutneys. Callaolou is a dish with a distinctly African influence, made of young dasheen or taro leaves, okra, pumpkin, onions, coconut milk, pimento, and green seasoning like chives, coriander and culantro (sawtooth coriander). Cascadoux is a fish curry, but being a vege I did not try that.
We visited the famous Pitch Lake down south in La Brea and swum in natural hot water there. You had to know which were tar and which were warm water (thanks Trevor). There was also time to enjoy the wonderful beaches, including the heavenly Maracas Bay.
So how about that? A few photo’s and some music. Not a bad endorsement of a country.
And how could I not give you the song here? Nah Leaving by Denyse Plummer:
Somehow, there is something so very special about this country. I hope my brothers and sisters that way realise this. I’m with Denyse Plummer: the other side of the hill is not always so rosy. Thank you, Trinbago, for the experience and the chance to re-learn this.