Our West Indies CUSO volunteer contingent (young adults with university degrees or special skills who had selected to serve in the sunny Caribbean over more distant sunny places like Malaysia, India or Tanzania – about two dozen of us in all) assembled at Ottawa’s international airport on a very chilly morning in early September, 1965. We climbed an outside ladder, waved to our loved ones and entered Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s Canadair North Star. This was not a jet, but a plane powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlin propeller engines. They were proudly termed “turbo-props,” whatever enhancements that meant. Still slow and noisy compared to modern jet planes. Simpler times. It took us 19 hours of island hopping before our 8-member Trinidad contingent arrived at Piarco Airport in Port of Spain, the North Star’s last stop. We stayed at a hotel near the airport. I heard some ska music playing at about 1 AM when my roommate and I dragged our droopy asses past the bar to our room. I left Bill to rest and went off, alone, to check it out. Curiosity trumped exhaustion. Where music is involved, it always does. In fact, I was still high with excitement about the trip and full of (nervous?) energy. Don’t remember how long I stayed in the bar, grooving to this laid-back 1960’s precursor to reggae music but, since that first time, whenever I touch down in Port of Spain I get the same euphoric feeling. Married to my long-time Trini teacher/nurse girlfriend, whom I met in 1966, I return often.
I was the lone Canadian in the town of Rio Claro for the first year. In September 1966 reinforcements arrived. Two CUSO English teachers, Juliana and Mary, got their own quarters near mine, and I shared my new-found digs with a geography teacher from the Vancouver area. George could play cards, cook breakfast and corned beef, and was great company. I taught Chemistry and Math to the form fours the first year and in my second year I taught the form five seniors who wrote their GCE examinations which, in those days, came from Cambridge University and were the same as the exams written to graduate from English academic secondary schools. A fellow named Wilson helped me learn how to teach these subjects and a senior teacher named Clifford became a mentor in many ways. I was made welcome in both their homes immediately on arrival. Wilson’s mom gave me a lesson on how to cook a “curry chicken. How to describe such a delicious meal in proper Trinidadian:
” Boy, dat chicken taste good too bad, man.”
Mr. Turcotte sweet.
This guy, Bob Dillon, can’t sing!
The Spanish influence in her family is strong. Her family sings and plays various instruments together often. They observe a Spanish custom of going from house to house over several weeks during the Christmas season and singing Spanish music in 3:4 time called parang. I have personally been involved many times in such gatherings. Other songs are usually added to the program. Calypso and often English religious songs.
Sereno, sereno. Sereno sera!
Sir, your comings are ill-timed.
Silence in the court!!
Papa Turcotte, Mama Turcotte and the twenty-two little Turcottes.
Strangers in the dayyyy…
Trinis love to tease. They even have two names for it: fatigue and picong. The former term is obviously from the French. Trinidad is a rich language. It comprises all of the English language plus terms from France, Spain, India and Africa. They nail some situations right on the head. Fond of humour, they wouldn’t say something bland, like “The woman made a face to show she was disgusted.” They would more likely say:
Man, she face come like “Who shit dey an’ fowl scratch?”
An especially hot and sunny day might be described by the phrase:
Sun say, “Look me!!”
A Canadian named Lise Winer has devoted decades of study to Trinidad Creole/English, publishing a wonderful dictionary. I could go on, but I was describing my holiday… Anita became a regular passenger on my Honda, so I took off the learner’s L’s. My sister, Anne, visited me in Trinidad in August 1966. I drove Anne from the airport 50 miles to my place in Rio Claro, which was still my place alone because George, Mary and Julie hadn’t arrived yet. Anne waved enthusiastically at everyone we passed on the trip. Montrealers are friendly, exuberant folk… I took her all over the island on the Honda. We visited Maracas Beach and Mayaro Beach.
We spent some time in Port of Spain. Anita joined us for a few days. Anne bought some lovely local pieces of art for my Mom and Dad, who did not come down as planned. That was a disappointment, but I think I understand why now.
During my second school year starting in September 1966 Anita and I explored every inch of Trinidad on the Honda.
Anita knew the names of all the plants, shrubs and trees we passed. We visited remote places like Blue Basin and beautiful secluded beaches in the north, like Toco. We visited the oilfields, Trinidad’s pitch lake and the Morgans, who had moved to a small church in La Brea.
At school I started a chess club and we played tournaments against Bill’s school.
I took up darkroom black and white photography and did some colour slide processing. The school had a competitive four House System and I was one of the teachers in charge of Donaldson House. I had the senior chem and math forms and worked hard to prepare them for their GCE exams in June. The Chemistry GCE had a laboratory exam component which involved titrating an acid with a base of known concentration to determine the acid’s concentration. That scared me, since I had the huge responsibility to ensure that the solutions were correct, or Cambridge might have failed the students. I triple checked them both. I was pleased with the success of my students in the Cambridge exams. Some of them went on into medicine, teaching and politics. Wilson kindly sent me the Cambridge exam news when I was back in Canada.
Time passed more slowly after a while. I did not enjoy teaching much due to my youth, inexperience and perfectionist tendencies. I was 20 on arrival in Trinidad and turned 21 a month and a half later in October 1965; a babe in the woods. I also wanted to continue my studies in a different field but vacillated between electrical engineering (I had been accepted to do this at McGill) and marine biology – an early sign that I would care deeply about the environment. In addition, CUSO had offered me a chance to get my PhD in Organic Chemistry at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Everything was up in the air at that point and it was important to me to get home and sort out my career goals and studies, particularly. Had I loved teaching then, as I later (decades later) did here in Ontario, I probably would have settled down in Trinidad and become a teacher-calypsonian like another Trini teacher did. His stage name was The Mighty Chalkdust. Pretty corny, eh? My handle would have been The Mighty Turk – for sure! I said a sad good bye to Anita and my Trinidad friends. Then George, his friend, Ian (CUSO Jamaica and a real character) and I flew from Trinidad to Georgetown, Guyana to begin a two-month trip around South America pretty soon after school ended in June. I can’t remember the exact day. Maybe my notes will help…