Sunday, November 9, 2008


October 28th was the major Hindu holiday of Diwali. We went to Maracas Beach for the day since we didn’t have school. We met up with the Canadian family here (Nick, Gina, Sienna, and Savannah) and then Tom from Indiana about 9 AM. It’s a beautiful drive there; you go through some of the nicer neighborhoods for a bit and then you start climbing up a green mountain, full of huge trees with huge leaves. To the left of the road it is straight down as you drive—a little scary. When you get your first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea with multiple tropical islands, you take a deep breath—it’s too pretty to be scared.
Driving up to the beach, you pass about twenty brightly colored stalls that sell the best version of the local delicacy: shark and bake. We’d heard about it before we got there, and I’d been told by my dietician friend, Annie, that ladies who might have babies should stay away from mercury-filled large sea animals, so I was ready to say no.
It wasn’t hard because it’s fried fish (shark) in a fried pocket of dough (bake). The thing that makes it a little hard to say no is the table of available condiments: cilantro sauce (it’s not cilantro though, it’s shadon beni, cilantro’s stronger and thicker older brother), chutneys, coriander sauce, creamy garlic sauce, pineapple, lettuce, tomatoes, tamarind sauce, cucumber slices, and lots of different kinds of pepper sauce (when you don’t want a lot of pepper sauce, you say: “slight pepper”). When we first got here, some people said “bake and shark” and I thought they were saying “bacon shark.”
It was a little early for fry, so we got in the waves. As soon as we did, it started raining. This is the rainy season now; it lasts from about August until January. Thunderstorms slide through Port of Spain everyday right about noon. They’re immense; I watch them building from my office window (I have an office! With a window!). One time, we watched some of the hill that we live on start to slide a little from the strong rain. Aaron made us come up with an escape plan, or at least discuss one since we didn’t agree about the best plan: he said we should we should get to the top floor of the house and I said we should try to run up the hill opposite us. At Maracas, we hid our towels under a palm tree, not quite as protective as a pine tree, and got back in the water. Gina stayed out and built sand castles with the girls. The waves were the biggest I’ve ever seen, at least since I’ve become five and a half feet tall. One after another, they knocked us around. It was awesome. Nick had a body surfing board, which was fantastic, but we soon put it back on the beach as one after another of us had difficulty with it on the waves we didn’t catch. The hazardous possibility of getting knocked out by the board unfortunately outweighed the fun of surfing on it. Six hours later, through rain, sun, harder rain, and harder sun, we got some shark and bake from the best stall: Richard’s. I got cheese and bake. It’s still a good carrier for the sauces and vegetables. We left Maracas then because we had been invited to Aaron’s student’s Diwali party.

My Trini friends had told me not to wear anything too revealing. I had been wearing a crewneck short sleeve shirt during this conversation, and they said that was too revealing. So I found some churchy clothes and got ready to go. We follow the directions we’d been given on this fancy calligraphed invitation—it’s right by a golf course. When we find it, the house looks like a mall. There’s a giant gate out front and maybe the house is five stories…it’s tall. Karin, Aaron’s student, sneaks out of the wall holding gingerly a gym duffle bag. We greet him, he shakes our hands, and then shows us his puppy he’s hiding from his parents in the bag. I guess it’d be easy to hide a puppy in a five story house. We go in, and the house now resembles a hotel more than anything. The front of it is an area that opens out onto the lawn like a lobby. There are giant bamboo structures with diyas glued on every part of the bamboo to hold all of the candles.
Diwali is the festival of lights. They look like giant spiders—very cool. Karin’s parents come up and thank us for coming. They lead us to the large back yard, which is covered with those tents that were too expensive for us to rent for our wedding in case it rained. There are a few other people there—they can tell we’re Americans and they ask us who we are voting for. These people don’t look like democrats, and knowing the students at our school and how their families own everything in the country, it’s pretty clear they’re not democrats. We both pause, about 10 seconds, and realize that the other one isn’t going to say it, so at the same time, we both say: Obama. Everyone laughs, just a little condescendingly. And the conversation doesn’t really pick up after that. Fortunately, more people start to come and we end up talking to some other parents, many of whom brought their older girls who are wearing those handkerchief shirts that don’t have backs. (I mention this to the girls who told me to dress appropriately and they said: Well, those aren’t the classy girls, are they?) The party has been catered with roti. There are a few kinds of roti—paratha (or buss up shut, because it looks like a “busted up shirt”) is torn and buttery and you use it to scoop up the food in small pieces. This is mainly for special occasions, but it’s becoming more common, I hear—used to be the best place to get some were Indian weddings. It’s really spicy and all vegetarian. The non-Indian Trinis tease by saying how nice some meat and wine would be, but everything’s delicious. Dessert is a buffet of lots of colorful Indian sweets.
Then, the fireworks start. Turns out our students are in charge of the fireworks. They start setting them off in the tiny spaces in the yard left between the wall and the bamboo structures. The fireworks are pretty intense (my kids had told me about the illegal Venezuelan ones they had had imported) so it’s good fun for the 6th-8th grade boys. Parents do some combination of shielding the younger kids, running back in the house, and telling the kids to stop shooting fireworks. The fireworks continue. I’ve never been present to watch the big city fireworks that go 100 feet up in the air start—it’s pretty amazing since they don’t look that different from normal neighborhood fireworks. And it’s a little precarious to watch my somewhat motor-skills limited 6th grade students in charge of them. It’s tempting, as their disciplinarians during the day, to try to carry out the parents’ wishes to stop the fireworks, but no way am I going to try that. As I watch this strange power struggle with the parents definitely losing, I see a gun sticking out of one of the dad’s pants. (I ask the other teachers about him the next day and they said some of the families are in good money and some are in bad money and I shouldn’t ask any other questions.) Shortly after, the kids run out of fireworks and we head home. Everyone is full of curry, but unburned.

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