Friday, September 26, 2008

Let's give this a try!

Okay, here is where we live:

Arrive Alive
The first sign we see when we land in Trinidad is: Arrive Alive. Okay, done. We walk underneath it and wait in the customs line. When we get there we give the man an email we’ve received from the school which says: “We’ve been unable to get your work visas, so when you get to customs, tell them that they will be picked up soon and dropped off here.” He grumbles and walks away with our passports. When he comes back, he asks us if we have return tickets. We say yes and he walks away again. Then he asks us if there’s anyone who can account for us. There’s a phone number on the email, so he calls that and after a little while, says that we can go through. Our bags are there, what is left of them after throwing out half our stuff in the Seattle airport when the baggage requirements became 50 lbs. instead of the 70 the website said. Trinidad is one of the few countries that has an embargo on luggage over 50 lbs. We look for the Kaio/Gilbert sign those taxi drivers hold up as we walk into the humid lobby, but don’t see any. It’s hot and sticky at 8 PM at night, but we see palm trees through the airport windows. We get to the end of the line and there’s no one else waiting for arriving passengers. We didn’t really have a back-up plan.
Aaron goes to try to find a phone and I go wait outside. A man walks right up to me and says, “Katie? So you’re the trouble-maker.” Anthony, the security manager, has the best accent in Trinidad. And maybe one of the most gold necklaces I’ve ever seen. I wonder for a second how he knew me but as I look around I realize I’m the only white person around. We put our bags in the car and he says not to worry about the work visas. He asks us if we’ve been to the Caribbean before and laughs as we say no. He says he was in NY once and loved getting the chance to eat a Burger King burger like in the movies. It was delicious. We start driving and he asks us what we know about T&T. Aaron asks him about the political coup there was a few years ago, when the Muslims, who are the religious minority took over for a few days until they noticed no one really cared and they backed off. He tells us that as a high school student, he liked the chaos that erupted. He tells us T&T is dangerous and we need to get a cell phone and call him at any time anything seems suspicious. He asks if we’re hungry. We are, after a few long flights. He takes us to St. James, a neighborhood that has a beautiful iron-welded sign on a bridged entrance. It’s Sunday night, but St. James is hopping. He takes us to a roti stand on the corner, asking us what kind we want and how much pepper. The two old women behind the counter look like drummers who use found objects to make music. They have about six or seven metal, lidded pots in front of them that they quickly poke into for bits to put on the roti: curried green beans, spinach, potatoes, chicken, chickpeas. Then the roll up the roti like pros and slide them into paper bags. They tell him the price and lift up a towel next to the pots to show a pile of money. He throws down our cash (1 TT dollar=35 cents US) and takes his change from the same spot as they watch. Then we go into a bar with lots of ladies to get something to drink. St. James feels like Mardi Gras because there’s a ton of people and everyone is moving really fast and there’s different loud music coming from all directions.
We get back in the car and drive for awhile longer, talking about soccer and the school and the other 8 Americans he’s had to pick up today. We ask him if he likes the new director of the school and he pauses. Aaron says, “Too soon to tell?” And he laughs loudly and reaches back to shake Aaron’s hand. He starts driving up super steep hills and then pushes a button he has in the car. A gate appears and opens before us. It looks we’re in those driving loops that Holliday Inns have in front of them, or maybe I’m just used to driving up to those from years of stopping in Nebraska in a similar state of exhaustion, but that is where I feel like I am because there’s a long driveway and a huge building in front of us. I don’t take anything in with me. I feel like we’re just going to check in to a hotel. But instead, we walk through an outdoor porch and unlock a gate and then a wooden door and he says: “Do you like it? This is your living room.” It feels like a joke and even more so as I look and there’s a dining room, kitchen, laundry room, all fully furnished with really nice things. Then we see the stairs. We get a little giddy, it feels crazy to be given a gigantic house with comfortable couches and now there’s an upstairs?! There’s three bathrooms and three bedrooms, all decorated with bright Caribbean colors that I love. We’re a little hysterical at this point, like we’re on TV or something, and then Anthony says, “Want to see the pool?” It’s tiny, but it’s a pool with a view of the ocean below us AND the rainforest above us. We ask him when the other 8 Americans are going to arrive and who will get which room and he laughs and tells us to eat our roti and go to bed and he’ll come pick us up tomorrow at 9AM. And we’re just looking at each other and wondering how this could possibly ever feel normal.
Friday Night
Turns out that it’s okay to drive on the wrong side of the road (cars are constantly crossing the middle line, like it’s fun for everyone) but it’s not ever okay to park less than 9 meters away from the corner curb. We went out on Friday night for a school “lime” (Trini for hang-out: “Want to lime?” or “We were liming and he said…”) to a bar downtown. Mid-conversation, somebody interrupts me to say, “Is your license plate something 99? The cops are outside.” No, I tell her, glad, and go back to talking. Aaron comes over to me and says that there’s something wrong with a car outside, we better go check and see if it’s ours. “It’s not—it’s a different plate” I told him. He said we better go check anyway. Good thing because there’s a man in a navy uniform with a gigantic gun (semi-automatic, Aaron says) across his chest standing outside of the driver’s side of our car. We look at each other and know we have to move the car, but both of us had just been liming and drinking. Aaron says: I had two, you only had one, you gotta move the car. Okay. I take the keys and the cop says, “I need your license and insurance.” I tell him, “I’m sorry we parked too close, but we can move it right now.” He repeats his one line again, exactly the same as the last time, and glances around to check the perimeter. Seriously. I hand him my license and we open the door to get the insurance. Our school gave us the cars last week—we were so excited to be handed a car (with AC!) we didn’t double check anything like insurance. Oddly, it’s not there. He asks why I don’t have a Trini license, I tell him we just moved here. I almost tell him that our work visas aren’t here yet, so we couldn’t get a driver’s license, but decide that could only hurt us at this point. As I’m thinking through that, Aaron explains this very anecdote out loud and as we make eye contact he falls silent, mid-story. I look up and see my new principal, Alicia, standing on the opposite corner with the high school principal, John. They’re watching us. They walk over to us and John says, “See you on Monday. Good luck.” And leaves.
Alicia asks what is going on and hops in the passenger side (the curb is really high and we parked close to the curb, so it’s good Alicia is 90 lbs. and 5 feet tall because the passenger door barely opens) to look for the papers. She rifles through things, gasps a little when she sees a purple bag we’d found in the car, and then gets out of the car and giggles at the cop. Then she laughs a little louder and says, “This is a company car and I’m going to have to call the company for the insurance.” The cop says, “Should have the insurance in it.” She giggles again. “Yes.” There’s some discussion about how this is our second week in the country and she’ll have to pay the fine for our not having the insurance in the car since we just got here and we’re American and she’s a Trini. Seems that the cops fully blame her and not us. She keeps giggling. Then she calls Anthony, the security manager from school and tells him to bring the insurance. I hear her say, “Oh, you had a mind to put the cards in the car, eh?” and feel bad for Anthony who is fantastic for many reasons. She hangs up and tells the cops, all four of them with four guns and one lady who is writing down my information from my license on a piece of paper, that the papers will be here shortly. Again, she giggles. Before this, I’d never seen her giggle.
Her husband, Louie, walks up and hears the story and opens the door. Again, luckily, he’s small too, and looks through the papers. I hear him say, “I’m not touching that” as he avoids the purple trash bag. He asks the cops how much longer their shift is and they tell him they have no official hours. Then they start to rant about how he and Alicia are to blame again. The cop in charge leans toward Aaron and I and smiles kindly. He tells us that this is going to take awhile and if we get our car back right now, then we’d have to pay for parking. So we might as well let them take the car and go back and drink some more. Then he says, “But don’t get so drunk that you can’t sign your name.” (Drinking and driving isn’t illegal in T&T, so the standard is if we can sign our name, we can drive. Good to know.) We look at our new bosses. They smile. They take our car and we go back inside. There’s one other guy from the school whose car flat-out got towed, so we high-five as the bartender buys us a round of free drinks. After a while, we get a call saying that Anthony has arrived with the insurance cards so we can go pick up our cars and head to the next liming spot. We walk two blocks and walk up the steps of a bright blue building. There are about 7 cops inside, in uniforms that match the building. One cop, the younger one, seems to be okay with the fact that the insurance papers are mere copies. We learn that the older cop is not okay with mere copies as he starts shouting and pounding the desk, like he’s in Planet of the Apes: “One cannot compromise the law.” He crescendos on the third monkey smash/chorus and storms out of the front room. The young cop rolls his eyes and tells us to go outside to the cars. We get the keys back and it’s a done deal.
As we’re laughing about it at the next bar, I ask a Trini, Rebekah, what the deal with the purple bag is. (It was in our car when we got the car and we just started using it to put trash in. It says “Wonderful World” on it.) She covers her ears and says, “Oh! I do not want to hear about that!” Then she tells us that the only purple bags in the country are from a risqué lingerie store downtown. Other than Carnival, where everyone walks around in diamond bikinis and gropes each other for 48 hours straight, Trinis are extremely conservative (many restaurants forbid tank tops and flip-flops). So, this weekend, we mis-parked, our car got towed, we met some cops (and their guns) who told us to go party, and our bosses think we bee-lined it to the sex shop after 10 days of being in their country.
Saturday morning
The first challenge is taking a left turn off the highway. Not an exit, but a full-on turn. It’s not marked and it’s one-way. If you miss it, you have to follow the highway into another city, Laventille, which is where 9 out of 10 murders in Trinidad are committed. The second challenge is finding parking. It’s not just a matter of finding space, it’s finding a spot where your car will still be when you return. If you show any hesitation or weakness during this process, you are done for. This is because T&T drivers drive offensively, turning any bad situation immediately worse. For example, people park on both sides of the road on a single-lane highway and still, people drive in both directions in the space in the middle that’s left. Yesterday, we were trying to maneuver this situation, plus the whole idea that people are coming really close to you in a direction you are not used to, and as we slowed down to be a tad safer, a family of young and old thought we were slowing down for them to cross the street so they jumped out in the street. I think one of them got nicked—it’s astounding how quickly a tricky driving situation can get immediately worse.
The first section of the market is the meat section. It feels enclosed because of the overwhelming smell of warm meat on concrete and because of the humid, slightly suffocating air, and the flies. But, it’s a wall-less room with a roof. There’s often whole cow on the built-in concrete slabs. Sometimes the butchers are sleeping next to them. There’s something that looks like an enormous fruit roll-up everywhere but it’s actually the skin of a pig. Other things look like big stacks of pig fingers are also everywhere, but since pigs don’t have fingers, I don’t know what these are. We haven’t bought meat there yet.
The fish seem safer since we’re surrounded by water. I’ve never seen live cows or pigs around whereas the fish couldn’t have travelled too far. And, the room smells like meat, not fish. We met the fish lady. It’s like she’s out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story because she glistens and glitters and talks in a sing-song voice. She stands on one side of the concrete slab about six feet away from her much shorter husband. There are rows of red snapper, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, and shrimp in front of her. Everything’s misspelled. As people order, she picks up the fish and tosses them to her husband. He has a tool that looks like a horse’s comb and he begins to scrape the scales off of the fish. He does this against the grain so that the scales, small plastic-looking things, ping as they hit her hair, chest, neck, hands, nose, and eyelids. Each fish takes about 30 seconds to clean, so the iridescent bits waterfall in a perfect arc over the space from him to her. She never acknowledges the scales’ stopping or starting and continues her duties as if she’s no spectacle. I tried to order shrimp, but she gave me snapper instead. Not because of a language barrier, but because she knows fish.
Then there’s a bootleg section. Aaron walks quickly by it always. There’s a bootleg video store by our house. We were psyched to find it. It’s exactly like the Video Station circa 7th grade—Look Who’s Talking and Revenge of the Nerds. And then there’s Hancock and Dark Knight. We rented movies there as soon as we saw it and were ready to become regulars. Then Aaron woke up that night at 4 AM convinced it was a police sting operation. This is because the owner has a newspaper article about the new Trinidadian law sentencing bootleggers and their clients to 4 years in jail taped to his cash register. So no bootlegs for us.
Next, the fruit. There are heaps (the term for quantities of fruit here—the number varies according to fruit) of mangoes, starfruit, avocadoes, coconuts. There are caches of dried beans, grains, lentils. There are piles of tiny bags of spices essential to Indian cuisine: curry, masala, mustard seed, garlic. There are rows of apples with Washington stickers on them. We don’t buy those. The avocadoes are as big as my feet and they’re black and shiny. On our first trip, I asked a guy what the fruit in front of me was and he said “Avocadoes.” Then I asked how much they were. I realized afterward that that wasn’t the smartest succession of questions to ask someone—“The same price as diamonds” wouldn’t be a stupid thing to try on the sucker who didn’t even know what an avocado was. After that, I started to buy from Miss Linda. I thought at first that the woman was calling me Linda, but I realized that she was just the market commentator who dictates the events happening before her: “Miss Linda needs a bag now to put the heap of mangoes in. Miss Linda needs to get some money now. Miss Linda, look in your pocket for some change for the lady.” We also asked what the breadfruit was (think green and lumpy) and were immediately surrounded by older matriarchs with varying recipes about how to cook it. I thought Aaron was just enjoying meeting people, so when he started to buy the requisite salt fish (just like it sounds: fish cured in salt, must be soaked for 24 hours before use to de-salt it), garlic, peppers, and coconut milk, I realized what we were having for dinner. It took about an hour to boil off the milk & salt fish combo used to cook the cubed and spongy breadfruit. It smelled good, but after one bite, we threw the other bites away. Cooking it hadn’t cured the spongy, salty mass we had started with. But all the Trinis crack up that that was the first authentic meal we made—I think it’s probably like our fruit cake, a dish no one really likes but to which everyone feels obligated. Or maybe soaking the fish in water for 48 hours would have made a difference. Everyone just laughs when we ask if it’s supposed to be good.


Lisa said...

Yay! We FINALLY get to see some pictures! You guys have a phat pad down there-I wonder if you'll ever come back to Seattle?????
We miss you guys and keep the pictures and blog spots coming!

much luv,

jenbaum said...

I got so excited tonight when Amy told me about your blog that I canceled all of my Friday night plans to read the whole thing!!!! (Except that moving half-way across the country alone means that I never really had any plans to cancel, so as I picked up my phone to call and cancel them, I had nobody to call!) SO - thanks for providing me with a fabulous Friday evening!!! I am LOVING this already!!!! The pictures are awesome... you look stunning... and I am definitely dreaming of my own life being carried out somewhere far, far away!

PS - aside from all of that, congratulations on the National Boards accomplishment! :)

~ Jen.