Friday, July 9, 2010

Close encounters with death in Trinidad

I often ask myself what would have happened to my parents if either I or my sister died in Trinidad while they were in the U.S. How would they feel? What would they do? What would happen to the surviving sibling? Thankfully those questions did not have to be answered. But they almost were on several occasions - unbeknownst to my parents.

There was the time that I saved my sister from the piercing horns of an ornery goat. In hindsight, it probably was not a good idea to throw stones at the goat while it was eating. But we persisted in the taunting: whinnying, and make noise to distract the goat.

Allana and I stood halfway in between where the goat was grazing and the house. We were pretty much at the same spot where my sister and I tried unsuccessfully to build our playhouse, when the goat decided – enough is enough – and without any warning CHARGED!

His intentions left little to misinterpret. He wanted our behinds.  His little feet and narrow legs were moving with swift speed, dust from the dirt path kicked up behind him, and his little tail waved like a raised battalion flag being marched into battle.

My sister and I reacted with equal speed and agility. We quickly turned and started sprinting towards the house.

30 meters to go.

I looked back and realized the goat was gaining ground on us. I was faster than my sister and she was quickly losing ground to me and that goat was slowly closing the gap.

“Run Allana run!” I yelled in what played out like a scene from Forrest Gump.

I slowed my run enough to grab my sister’s hand to pull her along. At that moment, I made a conscious decision to go around to the side of the house instead of through the front door which I saw was closed. I knew the back door would have been wide open allowing us to dash right in.

20 meters to go.

We cut around the side of the house. The path was narrow with low hanging branches from trees growing off the hillside adjacent to the house. I ran with my left hand extended in front of me pushing the branches away. My right hand held a firm grip on my sister’s wrist. 

We thought the goat would end its chase as we entered the side of the house. I looked back and saw that the goat was still running at top flight speed.

10 meters to go.

My sister and I entered the clearing at the back of the house. Roosters and hens scampered about with some flying one foot of the ground in every direction to keep from getting trampled under our stampeding feet. The goat was almost right on top of us – bending it head slightly ready to gore my sister in the buttocks.

Upon seeing this, I stopped, turned, grabbed my sister and pulled her behind me, raised my leg back and waited and waited. And as it was about to gore me, I pivoted slightly counterclockwise on the ball of my left foot and planted a swift kick on the side of the charging goat’s head with my right. Its left horn closely missing the inside of my right thigh. The goat stumbled to the ground.

This gave us enough time to turn and dive inside the back door as the startled goat regained its composure.

0 meters to go – Safe inside the back door!

My sister and I laid on the floor looking at the goat as it walked off following the trail that had led it to the back of the house. We got up and brushed ourselves off thinking that we just had a close encounter with death. We never did mess with that goat again.

There was another time that my sister almost drowned. Sunday was beach day in Trinidad. My grandmother would pack up food for the day and travel to Maracas Bay beach on the Northern Coast. We would be accompanied by various relatives who would take advantage of getting the young children of the family together.

Maracas beach was a haven for families and tourists on Sundays. Most people took the North Coast road that stretched from the base of the Northern Range Mountains just north of Maraval all the way to Toco – the very northeastern tip of Trinidad. In between Maracas and Toco, there were places where the North Coast road was not paved and was impassable during the rainy season. The road was built by U.S. soldiers in the 1940s and 50s. The two-lane highway wound its way up the mountains and back down as it approached Maracas. On many occasions we would learn about cars that had plummeted down the deep precipices that bordered the road.  

One Sunday we traveled to Maracas to enjoy the sun filled day and bathe in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Every inch of white sand was covered with bodies and sheets. Calypso and Soca filled the air from small radios while children ran and played among the waves and kicked footballs around.  And many people were eating homemade pelau and drinking Carib.

My sister and I were not great swimmers and were always warned about the strong undercurrents and riptides Maracas was known for.  It seemed like every weekend someone was drowning at Maracas beach.

On this occasion my sister and I were playing in waist deep water when a big wave came upon us without warning and engulfed my sister and me. I was thrown off my feet as water rushed passed me towards the shore. Panic enveloped me as I furiously tried to gain my balance and rise to my feet. I rubbed my face with my hand as I slowly started stumbling back to the safety of the shore. I started looking around for my sister but could not see her. I spun 360 degrees looking and yet still nothing. I called out for her but there was no reply.

I then started yelling “Help! Help!” Just then a gentleman from the shore ran past me in a hurry. His legs high stepping the waves creating large sprays of water when his feet penetrated the rushing ocean. He dove straight into a cresting wave, disappeared and emerged swimming to a young girl who was struggling a few meters from the shore. It was my sister, Allana. She was slowly bobbing up and down with her arm flailing as the rip tide carried her out to sea.

He reached her just when I saw the last glimpse of her head go under the water. For what seemed like minutes, the man disappeared under the water and later surfaced holding my sister in his arms. A crowd had gathered around me including my Grandmother and Aunt. The rescuer slowly made his way back to shore where others ran into the water to relieve him of his selfless act and pull my sister onto the dry sand. They laid her in a supine position and one of the life guards started pumping her chest and almost immediately she coughed and spit out water. Dazed, she looked at the crowd and started crying. My Grandmother and I were already by her side reassuring her that everything was okay. We left for home as soon as my sister regained her strength. She was still shaken days later.

We returned to Maracas many times since then. However, we never really enjoyed swimming there since the incident. We found other calmer beaches like Las Cuevas.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Grandfather's funeral

I shed several tears when my Grandfather on my Mother’s side died. However, it was not because I missed him dearly, but rather from the stiff slap I received from my Grandmother that landed squarely on my jaw as my Grandfather’s body was being laid in the ground. My cousin Ken and I had seen it fit to run around the grave site, dodging in and out of mourners and family members gathered to pay their last respect. My Grandmother after several warnings to stop running and be still, stepped one foot back and with the stealth of a ninja cocked her hand back and swung it forward striking my jaw. Her follow through caught Ken square on his forehead at which time she quickly recoiled her arm - and still holding her Bible in the other hand - returned to her forward facing position as if nothing had just occurred.

The strike stunned me and pain shot through my jaw to the top of my head. I had decelerated my trot in an instant. Tears welled up in my eyes and as it reached its maximum staying capacity started pouring down my cheek. I finally stood still.

The death of my Grandfather introduced me to the ritual of burying a loved one in Trinidad.

First there was the wake that we attended in a small house on Seau Deau Road across the street from an open air bar. The brightly orange colored building bore the scars of years of neglect, wear, and tear. The paint on its facade was chipping and the routine noon gathering of patrons seemed to care less about the looks of the drinking establishment and more about the temperature of their beer.

The wake lasted three days – day and night. People who knew my Grandfather traveled from afar to pray with the family and offer their condolences to my Grandmother.

The wake was a festive occasion. My Grandmother and other family members cooked food, bought liquor, and fixed up the two room wooden shack that stood a few feet from the busy two lane narrow street that cut through Maraval village. The same street used by taxis and jeeps to transport people back and forth from Port of Spain to Paramin village located deep in the Northern range. A wooden bench next to the front door often had two men sitting on it, smoking cigarettes, drinking Carib beer, and commenting on passersby. Music from the bar’s juke box blared well into the night with songs by Roberta Flack, The Carpenters, The Four Tops, and many more U.S. groups.  And much to the distaste of my Grandmother, the music often would drown out the prayers given to secure safe passage into the afterlife for my Grandfather.

We had lots of food. There was fish broth, pelau, provisions, callalou, and various vegetables. There were lots to drink as well – rum, whisky, and Carib. Some people who visited the humble abode were unfamiliar to me. But they exhibited no hesitation or unfamiliarity with eating as much as one could devour. As I would come to know years later, there are some people who frequent wakes just for the food and liquor. The food and drink were consumed with expediency like vittles disappearing in front of a ravenous mob. Both men and women lost their inhibitions and spoke volumes of my Grandfather’s life as the night passed and empty liquor and beer bottles became more visible. I knew more about my Grandfather than I did when he was alive by the time I walked into the church on the day of the funeral.

The Maraval RC church where I served as an altar boy was filled with mourners paying their last respects to my Grandfather. The church was three-quarters filled with people. My Grandmother along with my sister and I sat in the front pew of the church. My Grandmother did not shed one tear as she sat three feet from her now dead husband. At the conclusion of the mass, my uncles rose to their feet, took the wooden casket, and carried it to the entrance of the church to begin its long procession to Calvary Hill behind the church where the burial ground was located.

It was a fairly long walk up a dirt path approximately 200 yards. My cousin Ken and I had started playing prior to the funeral and continued as the procession made its way up the hill to the burial plot.

The long trail of mourners reached the plot and people circled the hole in the ground trying to secure good footing on the soft brown crumpling soil. Two men dressed in pants and dingy colored white tee shirts stood over the plot with shovels in hand. By the looks of their clothes, they had just completed digging the hole. Two thick ropes were laid across the hole and held by two men on each end. The casket was laid over the ropes and slowly lowered into the ground as the men holding the ropes loosened their grip. The ropes were tossed into the ground and over the casket as it reached the bottom. The priest said some prayers as people started picking up dirt and throwing it on the casket below. The men with the shovels bent at the waste and started to pick up dirt with their shovels and tossed it on the casket.

Ken and I had started running around the plot playing tag. We were more interested in enjoying each other’s company than standing in the hot sun watching dirt being poured into the ground and listening to mourners bawl. It was on one of those passes behind my Grandmother, Ken in hot pursuit behind me, that I saw my Grandmother’s hand come forward but it was too late to dodge the blow. Like an insect being annihilated in mid-air, my jaw caught the full brunt of the swing while Ken received a glancing blow to the forehead. The fun was over. I stood their crying silently, watched as people made the sign of the cross, sloughed off the main group, turned, and slowly walked back down Calvary hill. My Grandmother gently grabbed my hand and started walking down the hill as the last dirt was poured and the two men started patting the top of the grave site with the back of their shovels.

For the next seven nights, family came over to our house to pray, eat, and drink. Women at first separated themselves from the men and said some prayers on their own. Then they joined the men and continued the prayers for what seemed like hours but was closer to sixty minutes. The seven-day prayer vigil continued every night without fail and was accompanied with a lot of family bonding. My sister and I were made to pray every second looking forward to the moment it ended.

To this day that is how funerals are carried out among the majority of African Roman Catholics in Trinidad and Tobago. When my Grandmother died some years ago, the ritual repeated itself at the wake on the hills of Mazzilli, the funeral service at the Maraval RC Church, at the burial plot next to my Grandfather on Calvary Hill, and the seven-day prayer vigil at my Aunt’s house. Last year, I attended my Grandmother’s (on my father’s side) funeral and participated in prayer on the last day of the seven-day pray vigil. In contrast to my youthful exuberance to play during solemn ceremonies, I cherished the time I spent with my relatives in Paramin last year, bowed my head in deep prayer, celebrated the life of my Grandmother, and wished the moment not to end.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Coming of age story of my St. Lucia Trip (Part 6)

My lips pulled away from Evelyn’s lips. My eyes were still closed and a rabble of butterflies had erupted in my stomach and they were making their presence known.

I had never kissed a girl before. And here I was locked in a small supply box outside the school with Evelyn, my hands on her shoulder, our legs crisscrossing each others, and believing I was in Xanadu listening to an Abyssinian maid sing her joyful song.

“…nine, ten…your time is up!” said voices from outside the closed box that was just big enough for the two of us to fit comfortably in. Their intrusion into my virgin kiss shocked me back to reality and forced me to open my eyes. Evelyn was looking at me as if I had pierced her heart with my tongue and allowed every measure of her love to find the nearest boy – me. Everything moved in slow motion, the door opened, our heads turned in unison to the peering eyes that emerged in the daylight, and slowly turned back to gaze into each other’s eyes once more to acknowledge the reality of what we just shared.

“Thanks,” I said and crawled out of the box that sat atop a similar sized 4x4x4 foot box.

My friends started asking me to tell them the details as soon as my foot hit the ground.  Without paying them any attention, I turned and reached for Evelyn’s hand to assist her in getting out of the box. She was my friend and at that point the most important person who made me happy.

Up to that point in my life, I had never experienced such feelings. It made every dendrite in my body come alive. It was as if I had discovered some unique ability that was hidden deep within me. I realized I was still holding Evelyn’s hand as I walked past my friends whose mouths were agape and eyes wide open.

For the next few days, Evelyn and I were inseparable. We did everything together. Her mother and brother did not seem to mind that we spent every waking hour in each other’s company. Even when I had to engage in Cub Scout duties and activities, Evelyn was not far.

We talked about everything from school, to friends, cricket, and football. She asked me questions about my parents and how it felt living apart from them. She appeared truly concerned and offered suggestions to ease the pain of my separation. I thought she was coolest person on earth.

My male friends were never that curious about my feelings. My conversations with my buddies always focused on sports. How much did Garfield Sobers hit for the West Indies during their test match against England? And how many wickets did Viv Richards pick up?

My friends did not bother with me too much. I believe they too wished they were in my shoes. Joseph had given me a dirty look and cut his eyes on one occasion and I quickly went up to him and told him that if he wanted to talk to Evelyn he could. I told him that I did not want to lose his friendship. I was not being very honest at that point for I would have dropped every friend on earth to be with Evelyn.

The next few days were the happiest I ever remembered being. The girl in the white dress had faded from my memories and the preadolescent clowning of my Scout members was long gone. The green lush surrounding of the school seemed to invite Evelyn and me into a paradise of naïve pleasures. We would steal away behind the school and hide ourselves behind broad banana leaves and embrace.

As time drew near for us to leave, we started to acknowledge the reality of the impending separation. Soon we would not see each other every day or even on a regular basis. Her brother, Erik, was not even in my class and furthermore they lived in Tunapuna on the other side of Port of Spain from Maraval – my village. And she attended Tunapuna RC girl’s school.

In the end, we made plans and promises to see each other as best we could. But we both knew that it probably would take a miracle for us to be friends forever.

The day we left St Lucia en route to Trinidad was a sad day in my life. I felt that I was losing a dear friend. Although we were on the same island it felt like we were separated the same distance as I was separated from my parents.

I felt sad when I returned to Trinidad. My grandmother continued to prod as to my time in St. Lucia. I responded that I had a great time and asked how far was Tunapuna from Maraval.