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. Continue reading “South America Trip.2”
OK I lied. We’re not technically in South America yet. This was taken at Mayaro Beach in Trinidad in 1967, the last year that the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. I’m in the white shorts.
Trinidad is less than 30 miles from Venezuela, though. Does that count as South America? This is our group of Canadian teachers who got on Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s North Star plane in September 1965. A couple of Canadians named Bill McWhinney and Terry Glavin had had a big part in forming Canadian University Service Overseas, an organization of people with varied skills who were prepared to go all over the world to do their thing. CUSO (still going; one of Canada’s best kept secrets) was only a few years old when they sent this exuberant group to Trinidad. We were the first group to go there. We happened to be all teachers. This meant, in those young and early days of CUSO, all you needed was a degree or a technical skill you could teach. A couple of us had their Bachelor of Education already. I was one month shy of my 21st birthday when I got on that plane in Ottawa and the only teacher training I had was two weeks of orientation with over 300 other worldwide destined volunteers at York University’s beautiful Glendon Campus in Toronto, Ontario. In that two week period we were also taught valuable things like how not to bite a snake and how to eat roti with your fingers. They put me in charge of organizing activities for the West Indies bound contingent outside of orientation. Among other things we went to the West Indies Federation Club for a dinner (curry goat – yum) and a local Torontonian named Anne took us to then hippie (now expensive shoppie) Yorkville for some quality folk music and cheap beer.
I remember the guitars. The ubiquitous guitars. It was, after all, the sixties. I had never sung or played guitar in public before. I clammed up at the age of 6 when my teacher called my parents, Lou and Angel, telling them that I had a beautiful voice. In Grade One we used to stand in a double line somewhere in the hall and sing hymns like Immaculate Mary. I hated to be singled out and was incredibly shy. So, whenever the teacher passed by I would just mouth the words. At least she didn’t hit me like she did when I innocently sat on my heels while practicing how to kneel at the communion rail for our upcoming First Communions.
In my teen years I developed a love for all the Hit Parade music and would once in a while attempt something like Ray Charles’ What’d I Say while walking to the local deli for french fries and a cherry coke after school. My Lachine, Quebec friends weren’t impressed and let me know. Cruel, perhaps honest, times. I also loved Frank Sinatra. Many a night I sang myself (quietly) to sleep doing one or more of his classy hits, like Nice and Easy. I had purchased a used Harmony dreadnought acoustic guitar at 12 years old and knew the basic nut position chords. The strings were so far from the fretboard on that thing that exploration beyond nut position was impossible. Those elementary skills were the basic musical tools I possessed when I took the train to Toronto from Montreal in 1965.
Orientation in Toronto was my first public performance. The atmosphere in that group was welcoming and non-threatening. I borrowed someone’s guitar in the lounge one evening and played a song I loved: Dona Dona. Here’s the version by Joan Baez I first heard. I hereby confess to a permanent love for her pure voice. After that I was never afraid or shy to sing.
Trinidadians love music. At a community meeting it was not unusual for a person to randomly get up at the end and sing a song. Regardless of the quality of the performance, the audience was warm and accepting. While there I bought myself a cheap guitar and learned to sing and play calypso and soca tunes. I started to listen carefully to bass lines, arrangement and harmony. My favorite calypsonian was then, and still is, The Mighty Sparrow. His songs were funny, frequently aimed at politicians and, more than occasionally, just plain smutty. Here is one of my favorite Sparrow songs, full of double entente and verve: Congo Man. I saw him perform it in his prime in 1966 at Naparima Bowl in San Fernando and he blew the place away.
In August 1967 I got home to Montreal from my two years in Trinidad and two months in South America – just in time to spend a couple of weeks at Expo 67. Later I painted this map on Bristol board and took a 35 mm slide of it so that I could show people the Caribbean islands in my slide shows. Trinidad and its sister island, Tobago, are at the bottom close to big, brown Venezuela. The Orinoco River is also shown. Jamaica is the big, pink island at the top. To give you an idea of scale: Kingston is 1133 miles from Port of Spain. Don’t ask me which are the Windward and which the Leeward Islands. I never got that right.
Oh yeah, this post is supposed to be about South America. Maybe one more on Trinidad first…