Where my thinking is worked out, often in real time…
South America Trip.2
OK. Still not about South America yet, but I warned you last time. Anyway – if I hadn’t gone to teach in Trinidad in 1965, I probably wouldn’t have done the two month South America trip in 1967. So kindly bear with me, or, if not, feel free to skip to the end of this post or go elsewhere with my good wishes and abject apologies.
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.
The next day we were moved to the Bretton Hall Hotel and waited there for our schools to contact us. Bill and I, fellow bachelors, teaching about 20 miles away from each other, became close friends. We might have been a little reckless, but we wandered Port of Spain together, once or twice even at night, while we were waiting to go to our towns. Being propositioned by local ladies of the night was as scary as it got for us. Bill and I both married, and have remained married, to Trini women. We are like brothers to this day. While we lingered in the Capital the Ministry of Education did not neglect us. One night they took us to an unforgettable show of Trinidad music and dancing. It was my first introduction to the incredible sound of the best of steel drum music. I did not believe our host that there was no pipe organ hidden behind the curtain. Steel band, “pan,” was invented in Trinidad beginning in the late 19th century. A year later I went as the adjudicator’s guest to hear the best and biggest steel bands compete in the annual, prestigious, Classical Music competition in Port of Spain. This expert told me that the tall, bass pans – the full length of a 450 litre steel oil drum – played notes in a register deeper than a pipe organ. I have stood among top-notch steel bands of 100 players while they play. It is one of the most transporting musical experiences one can ever have. Trust me. Recordings do not come close to doing justice to the richness of the sound, but here is an audio-visual treat performed by several pan bands. It starts with the “Archbishop of Pan” from Panorama in 2012. WOW!
Back to theBretton Hall. My posting was the most rural. In the small town of RioClaro, with its population of about 3000, it was a little harder to find suitable accommodation. I eventually was taken in by the local Anglican priest, Brian Morgan, and his wife,Edythe. After a year with the Morgans I was given my own little concrete house, Government Quarters NM-32, about 120 metres from my school. On my first inspection the grass was about 2 feet high (a potential home for poisonous snakes) and a large tarantula was walking down an outside wall. Got that cleaned up and moved in. Grass was cut by hand with a scythe in those days. Much quieter than how we do it here. My school was the RioClaro Government Secondary School.
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.”
During my first year I partied mostly in “South” with a fellow named Donald, who taught me more than a few things about how to navigate the exciting night life in San Fernando, Trinidad’s second city on the southwest coast. Sometimes I spent the weekend there and Donald and I would drive back on Monday morning in time for school. I remember one Monday when one of the students in my first period class said:
Mr. Turcotte sweet.
This was not praise, but an astute, vernacular observation that I was in the throes of a noticeable hangover. Big city dances in Trinidad almost always involved live music with good bands complete with brass sections. The band(s) would break at around 1 AM for an hour and then play again from 2 AM until 4 AM. The one hour of inactivity was when a reveler realized that he was a little sweet. Dancing hid that fact.
Canadian CUSO volunteers, unlike other expats, were encouraged not to live in an expat ghetto but to get involved with local life and local people. This we certainly did. We would, however, visit each other in our local communities from time to time. Some of us went to a reception for our Prime Minister Lester Pearson. I snapped a photo of this humble and very gracious Nobel Peace Prize winner. Scary thought: He looked younger then than I do now.
Joyce, who taught in the North close to Port of Spain, introduced me to Bob Dylan’s music by playing one of his vinyl albums at her place in Diego Martin. My first reaction was:
This guy, Bob Dillon, can’t sing!
Joyce suggested I listen to the words. I got Dillon then. Marlene and Mary Jo had an interesting set up in Arima with some great friends. Meridale stayed with a great family in San Fernando. Ron and Jackie, a married couple, were in Sangre Grande – Sandy Grandy as the Trinis call it. Bill, in Princes Town, was living with his school principal, a Baptist pastor. This cramped his style a little. Bill’s place came in handy sometimes, like the odd time I would get some transport from SF to Princes Town on the way to Rio Claro and not be able to get the rest of the way if it was late. A well directed pebble tossed at Bill’s second storey window would get me a place to stay until the next morning.
Notice the Spanish town names. Trinidad was explored by Columbus in 1498 and was a Spanish colony until 1802, when it was ceded to Britain. Tobago became British in 1814. The two islands became one colony in 1889. Trinidad and Tobago became an independent country on August 31, 1962. After the French Revolution many French planters migrated from Martinique to Trinidad with their slaves and the Spanish permitted them to run plantations. The French Deverteuil family still had a large property near Rio Claro when I was there. No slaves. I visited them once and met Papa Jean Deverteuil. We spoke some French together. Up until then I thought the Morgans, the Irish Catholic priest and I were the only whites in the Rio Claro area. After a while I was myself startled to see a car go through town with white people in it. Rio Claro had a large proportion of East Indians, who were brought to the island to work the land after slavery was abolished in 1834. Bringing indentured labourers in from India continued until 1917. They were promised things that didn’t materialize and, as indentured laborers, their status was, for a long time, little better than that of slaves. On the bi-monthly government pay day, always a Friday, cars would drive through the town playing songs by the very famous Indian singers , Muhammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. The cars would announce items on sale at the local shops, many of which were owned by local Indian families.
The original inhabitants of the Caribbean were two Amerindian peoples: the Caribs (Tobago, mostly) and the Arawak (Trinidad). Amerindians did not take to being enslaved and their population was almost wiped out. My wife Anita’s great grandmother was mostly, if not totally, Carib. Anita is a real callaloo, genetically African, Spanish, Carib, English and even Portuguese.
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.
This musical gift is so special. My favorite arrival in Trinidad was on Christmas Eve 1998. I was teaching high school science and our school board forced us to work up until Christmas to make up for time lost due to a strike. It was the nadir of the abominable Mike Harris years in Ontario. My wife had been in La Trinité for a bloody week! I had to fly first class on December 23, I think, and arrived in the wee hours of December 24th. As I walked out of immigration I heard parang music coming from above – on a mezzanine level.
Sereno, sereno. Sereno sera!
Anita and her family were there livening up ‘de whole place. They had driven over from my nephew Tony’s birthday party in Chaguanas and stayed, entertaining everyone, until my delayed flight arrived. I found myself dancing through the place holding my luggage. It was the absolute best!
Back to 1966-67: One of our group of acquaintances was a circuit judge. He would visit from time to time, since he was dating a woman we knew from the area. One night he slept at our place. He slept in my double bed. George’s was on the other side of the one big bedroom. Round about 2 AM I awoke, startled, as I was not used to sharing my bed. I jumped up and yelled, waking everyone. Our friend told me the next morning that, being a judge, he always slept with a gun under his pillow. I was lucky he didn’t panic and shoot.
George and I played hooky from school one day to attend a regional court session at which our judge friend was presiding. We had a few good laughs and experienced local justice being administered. Our judge buddy enjoyed a casual joke, even during the legal process. One of the trials was a paternity suit against a local police officer. The accused was called three times before he finally showed up about an hour late. Our presiding judge said to the tardy man:
Sir, your comings are ill-timed.
A big guffaw from yours truly precipitated the loud admonishment:
Silence in the court!!
Both years of my CUSO assignment were fascinating. In year one everything was brand new. I was improving by leaps and bounds on my cheap guitar as well as learning to play and sing calypso. I played tennis in San Fernando against a friend named Sheila who taught Spanish at our school. A former international player, Sheila cleaned my clock whenever we played. She kindly said that I showed “flashes of brilliance.” I knew that was compassionate flattery. Sheila got me into a masquerade band for carnival in San Fernando. I had a cheap sailor costume and enjoyed the Jump-up on the hilly streets. So I can say that I played mas’ while I was down there. I took plenty fatigue from Sheila. I remember once she teased me after reading a novel about a French Canadian family that consisted of
Papa Turcotte, Mama Turcotte and the twenty-two little Turcottes.
Then things got even more exciting. Round about May of 1966 I watched a young, brown-skinned woman playing energetically, and beautifully, with a group of her Chinese friends on the beach at Mayaro. Much later I wrote a poem, called Mayaro, about this magical moment in my life. It’s about 7th from the top of my poems page under the same photo of Anita that is shown above.
(Yes, Chinese. I neglected to mention that, apart from the 90% who consider themselves as primarily “black” (45%) or East Indian (45%), there are about 8% of other types that include Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese, English, French… A very cosmopolitan place. ) A large number of Trinis (23%) are mixtures of those main two groups, combined often with a dollop of the other 8%. I am painting a broad, simple picture here.
It took me a few weeks, but I eventually tracked her down (a friend named Manny knew her) and we began dating. Anita taught primary school at Santa Rita RC Scool in Rio Claro. Her name then was Anita Eccles. It has been Anita Turcotte since January 1970, but I’m jumping ahead. When my first year of teaching ended I bought a Honda 90 cc Sport motorcycle in Port of Spain and drove it, learner L’s and all, straight to the dock and onto a boat headed for Tobago. My July and August holiday was not going to be spent without transport. CUSO didn’t allow its volunteers to own cars (part of the policy of not living too ostentatiously). CUSO hadn’t, to my knowledge, banned motorcycles. I decided to buy this thing and ask for forgiveness later, if necessary. Turned out none was needed. After the overnight sail to Tobago I rode it off the boat onto the dock in Scarborough and found a place to stay near the coral reef at Buccoo. I only fell off once in the whole ten days I spent in Tobago. I rode it all over that lovely little island. I climbed waterfalls. On foot – the Honda doesn’t do waterfalls. I snorkeled. On one bike trip into the mountains of Tobago I stopped at a rum shop to buy some cigarettes and a pop. As I walked in the proprietor started quietly singing:
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…