Saturday, January 10, 2009

from Tobago: figuring things out

At the beach, the waves reach for my chair again. The leaves of the almond tree provide a partial shade and as the late afternoon sun moves slowly toward the ocean, I think about what I should read. I am enjoying the relative quiet (in Tobago, so often there is the sound of music, sometimes distant, sometimes not that distant). My morning was quiet too – I spent it working – but in the early afternoon I was in Scarborough (the nearest town). Scarborough always feels like you have to have your senses sharp and ready. The sidewalks are erratic and the traffic in the daytime is intense. I am on edge.

The town, in my mind, functions with the idea that you have to get by. You want aesthetic pleasure? Look beyond it. Here, you buy your necessities, take care of your business, pick up your roti and move on. It’s not awful, it’s not even hugely unpleasant. It just is.

I went there in the afternoon because Friday and Saturday are commerce days. The market stalls fill, people come out to do their buying. Watching people engage in the act of purchasing stuff for home, especially fresh produce, is always kind of fun.

It’s a little less fun if you choose to go as I did, in the heat of the day. It’s good to remind yourself that this weather, year-round, can be daunting (though maybe less daunting than what I read of Madison’s weather: the day after I return next week the high is to be 2 F). I watch women carrying their small children and the women are not smiling. Not until they put the kid down.

Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, I see very few very young children. And no strollers. This little girl, looking at the pumpkin and okra, stood out.

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At the market, I am cautious. Vendors are serious here. They need to sell. This isn’t the place for liming: people come, pick out something, leave.

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I pause by a banana stand. Can I buy just two small, ripe bananas? I’m hungry for them. And may I take a photo? Yea, go ahead. The women carefully pick out two ripe ones. How much? Oh, just take them. They wave me on with a grin. I leave them with what I think may be the cost of two small bananas, but what do I know...

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At another stand, a vendor watches me approach. I can tell he would rather I be a shopper. No one is buying at his end of the market. I move past him. There are only so many small bananas I can eat.

By 2 though, I am hungry for real food. Sure, I had scrambled eggs with pumpkin and onions for breakfast and I heaped my bowl with papaya, but that was then.

I go to Eddie’s because it is Friday and Friday is crab and dumplin’ day.

Eddie greets me the minute I crack the door.

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Beardy said you’d stop by. Ah. Beardy gets around. To the server behind the counter -- Give the girl crab and dumplin’! To me – you want some Gatorade with it? (I say okay, but when I see the very green color of it, I decide to stay thirsty.)

I sit down among the many who have stopped by. Mostly men, mostly eating alone. But here’s the question – how do you tackle pieces of hardshell crab? Floating in a sea of thick, spicy curry sauce? On top of three fat, doughy dumplings?

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We all eat quietly, to the sound of the TV playing reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. I do the best that I can with my hands and the little plastic spoon which, in reverse, serves as a good scooper for the hard to reach pockets of crab. At the end, I am a mess. Six hours later, my hands will still smell of crab and curry. I close the Styrofoam lid on the leftover dumplings (too much!), thank Eddie for his wonderfully spiced foods and leave.

The walk home is routine now. Past schools, houses, banana trees.

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I’m used to being honked at all the time, even as I never will understand which honk I’m getting. Most cars that pass me do honk, many drivers will also wave, some will ask – “you good?” (the common greeting here). All these gestures have many interpretations. People honk greetings to each other all the time. I know this man! Honk! Yea, you good?!

It also means – careful, girl, move to the side. And it means – do you want a ride? Everyone’s used to grabbing rides from each other.

For me, it also sometimes means can I show you a good time? Indeed, those words are sometimes thrown about in one form or another. Of course, this too is subject to interpretation. Mostly, I am clueless as to what the honk or wave or words mean and so I wave and say “I’m good!” and walk on.

Past the colors of the Caribbean.

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At the beach, I stuff my backpack when the sun starts to disappear behind this small hill.

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On my way up, I pause at the pool, do a few laps, then retreat to do more work.

It is clear as anything to me that I love mornings and late afternoons here best. And that by late evening, my northern sensibilities set in. I lose the Tobago vibe. I get impatient. The Internet connection here is miserable (and it is a short hike from my quarters) and I spend listless minutes, indeed, hours for access to a line and then for it to actually link me to the world.

And there is still the matter of food that I haven’t come to terms with. Good, inexpensive food is hard to find. Scarborough is not a great place to go searching for it. Most Bacolet guests (who are British and God knows, therefore, not fussy about what they ingest) eat either here, at the Beach Club, or they take a cab to a more remote but interesting eating destination. I have avoided both, but I’m weakening. Cabdriver, take me to…

Tomorrow I’m determined to figure out the buses that sort of sometimes criss cross the island. If I champion public transportation back home, then I should learn to use it here. Even if it means I may spend the night at the roadside. I hear they cancel buses in much the same way we cancel flights out of Madison. Frequently and without explanation.