Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tobago chat

wah g’wan?

You’re asking what’s going on? Well, it depends where you find yourself.

In Charlottesville, at the most northern tip of Tobago, man-o-wah (man of war) birds swoop down and take fish from the sea.

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A man is gutting fish. He throws the remains into the water. You would think that the birds would swoop for these, but no. They continue to circle and dive for the live catch.

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The local bus that brought me to this fishing village left Scarborough so on time – promptly at 9 – that I began to doubt all that talk about there being “island time.”

It’s not a large bus (indeed, the roads north could not accommodate a large bus), but it does fill, at least at the starting point. The men, women and children of Tobago and me.

In many countries (including my native Poland), tight rides on a hot day are bad news for the sensitive nose. Not here. As the woman next to me settles comfortably, so that we form one integral body mass across the expanse of the small seats, I can’t help but take in how cool and fresh she is. And indeed, the same could be said for all. A bus full of fresh and (likely) honest people.

If anyone is to sweat, that would be me. The road, twisting sharply around the mountainous coastline, would be been terrifying had I a chance to look out. But, the custom is to close the curtain if the sun is out. My stomach notes what my eyes cannot see.

Finally, at 10:15, we are at the last stop and I disembark. Right in front of the Charlottesville fish cooperative.

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Some people mind the smell of fish markets, and the sight of freshly caught fish can be equally distressing. I can understand that. But, for some reason, I am drawn to watching and photographing people who fish (longtime Ocean readers will have noted my photos of ice-fishermen in Madison). The bravery, the patience, and here – the speed and physical strength required for a successful catch are fascinating to watch, perhaps because I am not especially adept at any of them.

And so I watch. And after plenty of chat with the fishermen about when, how often, at what point and whom I am allowed to photograph, I am given a tentative go-ahead to take some photos.

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The day’s catch? You’re seeing here mostly Wahoo fish. At other times, I am sure you would see more variety (Charlottesville fishermen supply 60% of the island’s fish). Today, what I see comes off of these small boats:

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Every ten or fifteen minutes, a boat pulls up, men steady it and someone runs the fish up to the co-op. And so it continues.

leh wee lime

You’ll have noted the men sitting at the edge of the coop? They are responding to the national call: we should lime (hang out).

Men do this especially well, but women are fully engaged in it as well. Everywhere, there is liming.

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I take the trail at the northern end of town toward Pirate’s Beach. I am told it is quite beautiful. Indeed. Secluded, with only a path leading to it, with the rainforest spilling down to the water's edge.

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And, oddly enough (this being their high season and a week-end) – quite deserted.

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There is one threesome at the edge of it – an older man, a local, and two women. Eventually the man comes over to chat. He quickly finds out where I am from and how cold it is back there right now (I revel in saying it, it always astonishes). He asks if I am a professional photographer and when I tell him no, just a serious amateur, he thinks a bit and then humbly admits to placing himself just under that. (Usually, at this point, people tell me about the perfect photo they missed taking because they failed to have their camera along. So, carry your cameras!)

Why so empty here? -- I ask him.
Oh, probably because of the elections. Meetings and rallies, that sort of thing. But you know this is one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world?
Ah, rankings. What would we do without them! I do not inquire about the methodology, but admit that it is, indeed, stunning. According to me.

After idling away a few minutes, I ask where he likes to eat in the village. Jabba’s – he says. You know, like the basketball player.

I spend a little more times wooshing my feet in the water and then retreat in search of food. Jabba’s is not easy to find, especially since as I am no basketball whizz and so I have managed to forget the name.

Two women are limin’ by the gate and I go up and try out a few name choices. Do you know where the food shop Sabba’s is? Or maybe it's Rabba’s? After they ponder the possibilities they hit on the correct name and, laughing, they point me to it. And when Tobago women laugh, it is with full use of their lung capacity. Oh, to laugh like that back home! To explode at the hilarity of life! To bellow out mirth! I smile at the unlikeliness of it (cursed northern sensibilities) and walk to Jabba's.

The cook shop (the word used for a food place that is less than a restaurant but more than a food stall) actually has no name painted on the outside. Indeed, Jabba is only a nick name for Irwin Hercules. Peace maker, he tells me. I don’t know why they call me that! But he says it with a grin. One senses modesty here.

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What should I eat? -- I ask. Vegetable soup. I am a vegetarian and so I have made vegetable soup.

Perfect. I am not a vegetarian, but to me, soups with unknown animal parts in them can be scary. I have grown conservative in that way as my travel orbit has extended beyond the predictable.

I watch him fill a bowl, the size of which, I should think, would hold enough to feed a family of four. Not too much! He smiles: I will put in more liquid. Thick liquid, where breadfruit, plantain, yellow chickpeas, yucca and potatoes have made the line between liquid and solids rather blurry.

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I take my bowl to a table perched by the water. My eating companion (the rooster) watches as I manage to eat (almost) the whole thing. This, to me, is the perfect cheap food. The peace maker knows his vegetables and spices. I use thyme, garlic, and our favorite – what you call coriander. And basil. And salt. And I add celery and spinach. (Now wait a minute! You can’t have spinach too! That’s a cold weather vegetable!) Yea, I take what people around here grow in their back yards. So who taught you to cook? – I ask, but I know the answer. It’s always like that. Oh, my grandmother!

meh deh deh

It turns out that when I have been answering (the car greetings) with “I’m good, thanks for asking,” I have been revealing my utter ignorance of local custom. The proper way to say this in TT (a common way to speak of Trinidad & Tobago) chat is to toss out a “meh deh deh.”

I learn this from chatting to Keisha (not her real name, but she is from Tobago and this name is as typical here as you can get).

That I should have a long and bonding conversation with Keisha, is entirely thanks to the Tobago Department of Transport.

Naturally, I had asked back in Scarborough about the return bus.
You have to remember that there is a bus at 12:30.
From Charlottesville? (seems on the early side for me.)
No. From here. You must calculate from this the return. (Curious, since the road, though difficult, is not with much traffic and therefore, rather predictable.) Probably, it will then leave Charlottesville at 2:00, but just in case, you should be at the stop by 1:30.

I am at the stop at 1:25. Along with a German pair, waiting since 11 (they just missed the bus I came on), and Keisha, who had been on my bus. She recognized me. Of course.

The German pair is nervous. What if it will not come? Should we pay the locals (asking price $100) to take us back? We have a flight at 6.

I laugh my newly acquired hearty Tobago laugh. Like clockwork! Of course, living in Heidelberg as they do, they should take that metaphysically, but momentarily, they are reassured.

Keisha knows better. She was raised here and only after a choppy love life did she, at the age of 19, leave for New York. Only to return 12 years later to marry her childhood sweetheart from Trinidad – where she now lives. She is thus an amalgam of cultures. All in conflict with the other.

I could not live here anymore. See those people, limin' on the bench? They have been there since we came.

For reasons that are known only to the driver and possibly his friends, the bus arrives terribly late. And when it arrives, the driver gets off and walks away. The German pair is greatly distressed by this and they wonder if their premature exuberance at the sight of his arrival may have ticked him off (their joy was off the charts visible). Keisha reassures them that he would not have been disturbed. His mind was on the limin' just around the bend.

Keisha stretches in the sun. She missed this greatly back in New York. But she wishes the customer (of buses, in stores) was treated with greater respect here. Wassup. You good? Trinidad -- I can handle Trinidad. Tobago -- I come here to remember, and to see family. Man, this place is too slow for me!

Not for me. Not for the days I am here. (I say this because the bus did come after all, and I did not have to spend the night at the curbside.)

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