Monday, October 27, 2008


Ten Ten
Last year for Aaron’s birthday, he said he wanted a fancy bike. I researched it and asked his mom and grandma if they wanted to all go in together and get him a really nice one. They did and we bought him a Volpe Bianchi 2007. He rode it once and returned it, saying he wanted to do more research. Ten months later, after going in bike shops on a regular basis, as they are quite common in Seattle, he told me he knew what he wanted: A Volpe Bianchi 2008. Soon after, we got our T&T jobs and he decided to wait since we didn’t know what the biking situation here was. So for a year, he’s been teasing me about stealing all of his birthday money. I asked him how he wanted to celebrate this year, and he said: quietly. So I decided to plan a trip to Tobago, quietly. I got 25US$ flights and reserved a room at my kids’ favorite hotel, the Coco Reef. It was more than we would normally spend, but I figured I had to make up for last year. I talked to Jackie FungKeeFung, an administrative lady at the school, about my plans and she asked if I had asked for the Trini rate. No! So, she called back for me and told them I “sounded American” but “was Trini” (and have the license to prove it!). That knocked a third off the price and suddenly breakfast was included.
There were some things to manage before this would work. First, Aaron loves soccer and T&T was playing the US in a World Cup qualifying game the following week. He had reserved tickets already—you have to do that online and then drive an hour out of town to pick them up on the Saturday we would be in Tobago. I called the ticket holders and, like a lot of things in T&T, there were some required steps: show a copy of Aaron’s ID, ticket number from the reservation, a letter authorizing someone else to pick them up, and then that person’s ID and then you’re golden. I asked another teacher, Tom, to pick them up and borrowed Aaron’s passport and practiced forging his signature. Second, the airport is about 50 km away and we’d been told that we shouldn’t drive there, that we should instead have one of the security guards drive us because they didn’t trust the security there. I got Anthony in on the plan and set up our ride. He said it would take 4 hours because of the Friday traffic. But Jackie FKF suggested a more appealing plan—to leave right after school, when traffic would be lighter, have dinner at a Beni-Hanna in by the airport, and then just hop over to catch our flight. So I emailed Anthony to cancel our ride. Jackie also told me that she had meant to warn me before Aaron’s birthday not to do anything too extreme the first year because then there’d be high standards forevermore…
Aaron usually gets up at 5 to read his book and drink coffee downstairs, I usually get up at 6, and we usually leave at 6:15. I woke up earlier Friday morning so I could grab both of our weekend necessities: swimming suits, flip-flops, contact cases, toothbrushes, deodorant. I ran out to the car to put the bag in the trunk. Our house is large enough that I can actually do this without tripping over Aaron, unlike in our old house. Aaron walked in the kitchen as I was getting breakfast and asked if I could smell him. I said no, but he went upstairs and two minutes later, he yelled down, “Did you do something with my deodorant?” “What would I do with your deodorant?” I lied and my face got red. I sprinted out to the car, grabbed it, and put it by the grapefruits just as he walked down the steps. “I left it here?” he said. I turned to the sink. “Guess so—weird. Ready to go?” We got in the car (without deodorant) and drove to school.
I’m getting more excited by the hour. Halfway through the day, Aaron sends an email to about ten of our friends at school: “BBQ Saturday Night at our house! Bring stuff to grill and drink. (This okay with you, Katie?).” I reply all, take him off the list, and write: “Oh, no, he didn’t. We’d love to host, but I’m surprising Aaron with a Tobago weekend, guess he’s still in the dark!, so we won’t be in town. Next week! If you feel like messing with him, now is the time.” By the end of the day, there was a full-on party planned with lots of LOLs. In class, one of my favorite students, a 40 lb. (if dripping wet) British-Indian, a true madman on the soccer field, Dillon, raises his hand and announces that he is going to Coco Reef in Tobago this weekend. I measure up my 6th graders while simultaneously realizing I was too excited to keep quiet after that set-up. “Me too!” I told them, “Friday is Mr. Kaio’s birthday and (some kid interrupted me and said: You’re going away with someone else?!”) I’m surprising Mr. Kaio but you can’t tell!” They wiggled like crazy. Later in the day, Dillon came up to me and whispered, “If I just say Happy Birthday to him, will that give too much away?”
Neither of us have afternoon classes on Fridays, so I head over to Aaron’s room. He’s surrounded by three humongous cakes, candles, and numerous gifts. One cake is a chocolate cheesecake from Alex Bovell, sister of the only Trini to medal in the 2008 Olympics, and when Aaron had asked her where she had gotten it (they don’t have those kinds of things here), she said her dad was an importer. It’s taking us some time to get used to these kids. While I’m there, nibbling, Mr. Ryan, a security guard, comes into the room and says, “You guys ready to go to Tobago today?” Aaron and I look at each other. “Don’t think that’s us. Must be someone else.” I stutter. “You’re the Kaios, right?” “Yes, but we’re not going to Tobago this weekend.” I’m sitting behind Aaron and shaking my head like crazy…but Mr. Ryan obviously has no idea what I am doing. “I’m sure Anthony said to drive you. Here, let me call him.” I can’t think. I’d expected any potential secret-tellers to be 12 years old and therefore easily declared crazy and swiftly forgotten; I hadn’t planned anything for somebody totally legit to ruin the surprise. I start pointing at the door, mouthing, and then whispering, “Get out.” Mr. Ryan is very polite. He repeats: “You want me to get out?” Aaron looks at me, sees me pointing and lets out a big bear laugh. “Looks like we are going to Tobago this weekend!” Mr. Ryan says, “Oh, it was a surprise?”
We drive to dinner in two hours, get a little lost on the way to the airport (turns out the Caribbean Airlines sign pointed in exactly the wrong direction), but make it fine otherwise. Our flight leaves Trinidad at 8PM and we are in our hotel room at 8:37 (definitely got scammed on the cab ride—40$ TT or 6.50 $ US for the 1 minute ride). The hotel is beautiful—peach walls, 6 foot brightly colored paintings everywhere, wicker—and very open with sea breezes, jungle vines, and frogs hiccupping. The food in Trinidad is fine, but it has none of the variety that we are used to. So, it was fantastic to have a British-style buffet breakfast both mornings (including baked beans and toast just like I remember) and to find an Italian restaurant with amazing Tutta Bella-type pizza.
Tobago is very different from Trinidad. The water is turquoise and not polluted. (The last time we’d gone to the Maracas Bay Beach in Trinidad, the guy next to us in the water had finished his beer and tossed it in the water next to him while we cringed.) It’s not humid—there is always a breeze. It’s tiny—we see a few locals twice on Saturday as we walk around the island. It’s got none of the business of Trinidad—so no oil ships off the coast or factories on the coast. Instead, all we can see is white sand and palm trees or small fields with goats and cows. The roads are more like what we’re used to, but still not great for biking. Walking for a few hours on sidewalks around the residential areas is really, really nice. Most of the houses are built so that the ground floor is open—no walls—and the second floor looks like a regular house. People say hi or honk as they pass; the locals seem very pro-tourism. One guy says, “Hi!” and we smile and he says, “Don’t be rude, say hi” and reaches out to pound Aaron. Jeff approaches us and carves our names and his name on a piece of calabash. Imo, who says he’s Peruvian but looks East Indian, sculpts some palm tree leaves into a grasshopper and says all he wants as payment is a smile, which is surely a lie, but he catches us as we come out of the water and literally have nothing. The taxi driver we hire because the sand in my flip-flops has given me blisters talks about how we’re his livelihood and thanks us for coming. It isn’t Disney-like like Puerto Vallarta, full of that twisted balance of machismo & sexism like Argentina, or really industrial like Trinidad. It’s like any island I’ve ever been to—quieter, slower, and quirkier. It’s hard to leave. But I’ve got to say, I’ve never played Frisbee with one of my students in a pink bikini before—I figure I’ve got to start preparing for Carnival at some point.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Asa Wright

This is a nature conservancy we went to our first week here called Asa Wright. It's famous for bird-watching, but check out the flowers!

That's how cocoa grows. Its super slimy white inside covers the beans. This one wasn't quite ripe: tart chocolate!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I adore my day job, but it is tiring. I forget every year how wiped out I am the first few weeks school starts, until I get used to all of my energy going into making reading and writing the most fascinating thing a 6th grader could ever do. We chose our first weekend to travel to the other side (only 30 miles away!) to go to one of the nicer beaches on the island. We woke up early Saturday morning, skipped the market (but made it to the soccer stadium to pick up tickets for the World Cup Qualifying Game, Trinidad and Tobago vs. Guatemala) and then drove east. You’re probably sick of hearing me say how crazy the driving is, but we’re glad every day we get to our house safely. And these one-lane roads were even thinner and windier and had more pot holes than the ones in the city. So that’s why it took two hours.
We were hot and as I’m not yet used to a curried food right when I wake up, I was hungry, too. I was the crabbiest I’ve been in awhile, I remember. We were so excited to lie down and relax on a beach. Just as we saw the sign for Toco, 2 km, our cell phone rang. Our friends, who were meeting us at the beach, called: “Hey, can you come get us? We just got in a wreck.” Everyone was okay, but there had been one of those one-lane bridges on a two-lane road (really, why?), and the truck on the opposite side had been on a hill and hadn’t been able to stop and had not only hit them, but had crunched on top of the car, just inches from the windshield. We flipped and drove back an hour and picked them up. They were pretty shaken up, understandably. No one really felt like driving much after that so we headed to the guest house for the night. It was nice, lots of fans and open areas where we could see parrots!, but I was glad that I saw the mice in our room the morning after and not the night before because my pillow had definitely been made of small, lumpy things not entirely unlike mice. (I know there are other things that are small and lumpy, but after I saw the mouse, I couldn’t think of any.) Suzanne, the owner, was so kind and fed us dumplings and delicious curried crab. Aaron loved the dumplings and asked me to get the recipe. She had a strong accent that I couldn’t fully understand, which is okay because I think I can figure dumplings out. The crabs were good, but I was super hungry, so I hated them a little bit because after all the work of crunching shell-on-teeth I was ready for something larger than my baby fingernail.

The next day, Suzanne hooked us up with some guides to take us on a turtle-viewing tour. To get to the beach, we got to ride on a truck like what convicts ride, kinda like a metal-covered picnic table. Luckily, this one had an open back with a platform and iron bars, so I rode outside and felt like I was wind-surfing. There were lots of potholes that quickly taught me to bend my knees at the right time to absorb them because otherwise, my feet didn’t always land back on the edge where I was standing. There were also vines hanging down from the trees to dodge, so wind-surfing isn’t the most accurate analogy. We walked along the beach looking for turtles for a few hours. It’s fun being with other ex-pats who attended similar teacher conferences because it’s such a crapshoot where you end up: we all almost went somewhere else. But there are times like that beach sunset walk where we look at each other and say, “We could be in Kuwait right now! We could be in China! Qatar! Hah!” It’s pretty resounding that we all feel like we’re in paradise.

The turtles at this beach get to be 8 ft. by 10 ft. Trinidad is famous for them. The guide said the biggest one he had seen was 6 by 4 ft. We found some babies caught in a super polluted tributary. One of the expats is this Canadian, Nick, who has two adorable daughters. He jumped in this water that looked like Guinness, that much foamy white and thick, dark liquid, to save the baby turtles. When he had a handful, he yelled out, “Sienna, Savannah, come help me save the turtles!” And all three of them became my favorite heroes as the girls held out their little 4 and 6 year old hands, all focus and concentration, to their gooey Dad and rescued the tiny black turtles. To save them, you line them up a few feet from the water so that they can smell the beach and know where to return. This is funny because it looks like how you used to try and make ants race—nobody knows where they’re going. But they all eventually made it into the water and the idea is that they’ll come back and hatch after a trip or two around the world.