My recent fixation on health, fulfillment and death, along with a trip back to Miami for funeral activities, kept me from sending this update, so it’s a little out of sequence with what has come before. As you’ll see I’m now fixated on Trinidad again.
Back in the land of Disappointments and Do-Overs
Flying the Unfriendly Skies
We spent three wonderful weeks mushing, schmushing and tushing grandchildren, plus joining friends to stuff our faces in terrific restaurants, all of which culminated in an absolute nightmare of a trip back to Trinidad. We had traveled on n American Trans Air (ATA) charter flight, which we chose for two reasons: one, it was non-stop to New York and therefore would take much less time than changing planes in Puerto Rico or Miami. And two, it was about $150 cheaper than the change-plane American Airlines flight.
It wasn’t that we didn’t notice the small print on the tickets, which read “No duffels allowed.” It was just that we noted there was no definition of what constitutes a duffle. Moreover, when we left on the Trinidad to New York leg, the regulation seemed entirely gratuitous, as almost everyone was traveling with these unbelievably huge, top-loading soft suitcases you could probably stuff a Volkswagen Beetle into. Noting their capacity, we searched out and bought two of these while in New York, only to learn that apparently the No-Duffle rule applies – without exception -- on ATA’s New York end (the operable rule being ”There are no rules in Trini.”)
So when we got to JFK at 6:30 AM for our return flight, there were several ATA minions scurrying back and forth along a tattered line of some 400 souls, all waiting to check in. Their job was to inform us that most of our bags were absolutely unacceptable. Verboten, as per the stamp on our tickets, hadn’t we noticed? This ominous announcement triggered a chain reaction of disbelief, moaning and panic. Gary and I did all the appropriate complaining to (and ancillary begging of) supervisors – all to no avail, other than we were allowed one extra suitcase – five instead of four. But what suitcases were available to us at this late hour?
Aha! We were about to be treated to a singular performance of the capitalist system at its apogee.
Some enterprising usurer had stationed himself and his van at curbside; he was selling ATA-acceptable, suitcases at $40, cash only. This was fortunate only for some of the more moneyed among us charter passengers. (I should mention here that Gary and I were the only white faces – both coming and going -- on the plane.) Seems this Afro-American Shylock buys the suitcases, which sport frames but are ultimately just as soft and flimsy as gym bags, around the corner in Jamaica for about $10 and resells them to hapless ATA passengers: scooping up a fast, clean four-time markup in a matter of minutes.
I railed over the highway (literally highway) robbery for a while, tried (unsuccessfully) to whittle his price down, but soon knuckled under, recognizing his inflexibility, his superior advantage (with our plane due to leave with or without us in less than two hours) and, last but not least, his dwindling supply of these Cinderella suitcases.
We then proceeded to unpack and repack – at curbside check-in -- all of our assorted clothing – yes, down to and including the tea-stained underwear – as well as the treasure trove of boat goodies we’d assembled in three weeks: polishes, waxes, oil filters, bathmats, rugs, towels, vitamins, prescription drugs, clothing and more, much more. This was the first time I was thrilled NOT to have bought the service for 10 dishes I’d contemplated at Bed Bath & Beyond. The second time was when the sample bowl I bought arrived utterly smashed.
Sad to say, after all this frenzied and embarrassing curbside packing, our five bags didn't make it to Trini when we did – along another 175 belonging to fellow passengers. They were shoved off the plane by the 180 already-loaded suitcases from the yesterday’s equal-justice ATA charter flight.
So picture 400 people milling around Trinidad’s Piarco International Airport baggage claim, all trying to identify at least 800 (2 allowed per person, plus special-dispensation people like us) nearly identical, monstrously oversized suitcases that were not only strewn all over the floor but toppling off the baggage conveyor belt into all the waiting people. This climbing, clawing and scrambling went on for the first two hours after we landed. Then, we unlucky baggage-bereft gathered around Rebecca, the sole ATA baggage rep -- a very beleaguered, perspiring and most unhappy young woman, who could not tell us if the bags would arrive that day. In fact, she assured us they would not only NOT arrive today, Friday, but on ATA’s next scheduled charter flight -- Tuesday afternoon. Not a happy proposition when one has 12 pork chops, 8 steaks and one’s Fountain of Youth, stop-those-wrinkles-forever (or at least till tomorrow morning’s application) cow-placenta face cream, all defrosting in the suitcase designated as Freezer Bag. Don't ask which item I was most concerned about because I'll come out looking much too vain!)
Rebecca, we discovered after a lot of screaming for supervisors) was our only information conduit, since ATA has no ground or office staff at all in Trinidad. The thrice-weekly charter flight operation is the lucrative brainchild of a brash (and usually unreachable) local travel agency.
But, since I am now conversant in Trini, and thus know that nobody has any idea about anything, I sensed the bags actually would arrive sometime later: because the ATA supervisor at JFK had offered to put us on an afternoon flight if we chose the entirely untenable option of returning home to repack our luggage.
Thus, Gary and I stayed in the Piarco airport. We had some drinks and a snack with Cosmos, a local taxi driver who's apparently blind and seems to have the hots for me. He’d been waiting for us since 1PM. We then met the BWIA flight arriving at 7PM, at which time we were treated to similar mayhem in baggage claim: zero bags from our ATA flight arrived. So Cosmos carted us off to a fairly decent Chinese restaurant – (no footsie under the table, for those of you who may be wondering – where we had dinner and limed some more. (A word about liming later.)
We returned to meet the 10 PM World Airways flight from JFK. Now there were hundreds of people outside customs waiting in sweltering Trini heat for the World and the midnight American Airlines flight behind it. More tough luck for us: the very self-important Customs official -- who was flexing bureaucratic muscles, demonstrating his absolute power over us -- refused us entry into the air-conditioned baggage claim area until all the arriving passengers on World and American were cleared.
To make a disgustingly long, hot story as short as I am capable of making it, we did not get our bags and clear customs until 1AM -- and didn't get back to the boat till 2AM. The meat was in various stages of meltdown but I quickly repacked them and threw them into the freezer, deciding the stricture against refreezing was a 1940s wives’ tale .) The cow's placenta, alas, was in far worse shape, though I managed to rescue maybe 28 days worth of the four-month supply. After that I'll return to looking like an old crone whom only Gary and the inexplicably smitten Cosmos can appreciate. (I’m wondering, did Dorian Gray have a sister or can I claim that title?)
The savings in time and money we’d anticipated had completely evaporated. Between the two non-stop ATA flights it’d taken us a total of 25 hours, instead of the promised nine. Plus, we’d thrown away $160 for the assorted pieces of giveaway luggage that now clutter our cockpit, plus $100 US for Cosmos’s services, which should have cost $26, plus the assorted rum punches, spring rolls, roast pork and gloppy Shrimp Foo Yung he’d ordered. It occurs to me suddenly that maybe I’m NOT the main attraction here, Though I’m reassured by the fact that since we’re back he’s still plying me with his inedible coconut breads – stuffed with those waxy, super-sweet dried bits that stud fruitcakes -- and his homemade Callaloo soup -- whose consistency can only be compared (sorry about this) to medium-consistency snot.
Special Orders Don’t Upset Us
Anyway, we're now back in Trinidad, AKA the Land of Disappointments and Do-Overs -- where having work done continues to turn into an object (or do I mean abject?) lesson in shattered expectations and should-never-have-been-dreamed good ideas...
For example, we returned to find the gelcoat repair on Lulu not yet finished. The cosmetic trim–replacement work on our dinghy was about 1/4 done after 3 1/2 weeks, and the edges of the new trim cut with the skill level of an un-medicated Parkinson’s patient, which considerably diminished purpose of the facelift. Every one of our re-stuffed cockpit cushions were lumpy and oversized, as if the obliging Indian upholstery shop owner, David Mahibir decided to turn them into a Chesterfield sofa instead of just simple, serviceable slabs of canvas. We'd also given David a dinghy cushion to duplicate. But, alas, it seems he’d virtually folded, our old foam into the new cover, which was some 2 ½ inches smaller than the space it fit into. Hard to believe, when he had all the original parts right smack in front of him, right?
Yet none of this is atypical. It seems hard to screw up the way the Trinis do, yet they confound you by doing it with such ease, even agility.
Everyone who’s spent any time here tells newly arriving boatowners that they absolutely must supervise every worker who comes on their boats, but sometimes you’ve got more than one person working at the same time. Sometimes you simply can't anticipate what to supervise about or which thing to watch over. And you can't exactly sit at the side of someone's sewing machine...
Each and every contractor is always willing to do his work over, though that doesn't necessarily solve any of the problems of not knowing any better. Really, it's not that these people don't work hard or that they are trying to get away with something: after all the national slogan – painted large and red on an airport banner – is “Together we aspire. Together we achieve.” Well, they’ve got the first part down pat, anyway. It just seems like their nimble fingers and willing hearts are sabotaged by limited IQs or wandering attention spans. It’s as if their brains function like strobe lights – bright flashes of insight followed by total darkness.
Understanding completely out of the question, we yachties strive for some Zen-like state of acceptance. So far only one person has even come close. This enlightened one says she laughs whenever she hears the boat, “Asylum” hailed over the radio. At first I applauded her detachment -- until I recalled she and her husband do 98% of their boat maintenance themselves.
Gary likes to encapsulate Trinidad in a sandwich – which is entirely fitting, considering who he is. We eat frequent lunches at our marina’s restaurant, an establishment with a gorgeous harbor view and the utterly uninspired name “The Lighthouse.” There’s a sandwich Jackie, Mel and I have taken a fancy to. Or at least, we’d like to: a pleasantly plump chicken wrap – grilled slices of chicken, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese and a garlic dressing wrapped tidily in a tortilla and cut into four manageable pieces. Drizzled – I should say glommed -- on top is the culinary equivalent of an eight-lane superhighway of garlic dressing. This hackneyed bit of ornamentation totally prevents you from picking up the damn thing to eat it, unless you don’t mind wiping your fingers on single-ply toilet-paper-quality, cocktail-sized paper napkins, universally in a hot pink color, that shred all over your white shorts, leaving them pink and white polka dot. Between the four wrap sections on the plate is a glob of salsa topped with sour cream. This additional accumulation of sog, in addition to being personally unappealing -- cilantro being virtually the only spice my overeducated palate can’t deal with -- further glops up the eating process and bodes ominously toward completely ineradicable red-orange stains on your pink and white shorts.
Now, during the eight weeks we’ve been here, we have special-ordered this Chicken Tortilla from a variety of Lighthouse wait-staff using approaches ranging from dulcet Louisiana-style pleading to vociferous New Yorkese fury. We order it without any dressing on the exterior of the wrap and we always explain why – so we can actually pick up the thing and eat it. We also ask to have it delivered on a plate all by itself, without the salsa, and ask to substitute cole slaw -- served in a separate dish. Again we explain that the cole slaw runs into the flimsy tortilla, making it impossible to pick up and eat.
I wish I could report that this concoction has ever arrived as ordered. (Of course, Jackie always further complicates the situation by ordering hers with no dressing inside – this instruction they usually manage to accomplish but it means that Mel and I never get the dressing we wanted inside ours.) Should we happen miraculously to succeed in getting no dressing on the outside, we invariably either get the salsa --or the slaw if we’re lucky -- on the plate, snuggled up against the body of the wrap like a hot-to-trot virgin bride.
Let me also say that this restaurant offers a similar sandwich: roasted vegetables, chunks of goat cheese, and garlic dressing stuffed into a pita that is cut in half – yet another clear example of basic finger food, but even harder to manage than the wrap because the vegetables are only to happy to jump out of the wide-necked pita half -- especially when your hand slips trying to hold onto the slippery package. Once again, we have rarely succeeded in keeping the dressing off the pita’s sides. But the newest affront – and one totally consistent with our experiences here – is that in the recent new Lighthouse menu, the sandwich still appears exactly as it always has – Roasted Vegetable Pita – only they’ve discontinued the actual pita entirely and, instead, encase the vegetables in a tortilla folded in half to look like a pita. Which it doesn’t. How quintessentially Trini.
But isn’t it a perfect equation to realize that when we order the pita sandwich, even without trying to change it, we know in advance absolutely, just in case we’d refused to learn the lesson of the last eight weeks, that it will come in wrong!
Gary combats these problems like dressing overcoats, salsa saturation, disappeared pitas -- and indeed the perils implicit in ordering any Trini to do anything out of the ordinary – by ordering right off the available menu. And, you’ll remember, always the same thing: a Swiss Cheeseburger with French Fries. Healthy, nutritious, good for him -- if not physically then, in this case definitely, mentally.
Naturally he’s had to give up ordering it medium rare.
I don’t want all this to give the impression that I hate Trinidad. It’s more like I’m deliriously ambivalent. The island and the people especially are possessed of an idiosyncratic, lackadaisical charm. For starters, Trinis are good to look at – especially the women. Intermarriage between blacks, whites, Indians and a variety of South American Indian strains has brought chiseled features, wide-set eyes and some extraordinary skin colors. I love listening to their rhythmic speech -- tinkly like wind chimes -- and their amusing locutions: “I’ll be down de boat presently.” ”Tonks, Skip.” (Thanks, skipper.)
The island’s status as unrivaled Caribbean headquarters for Carnival, Calypso and pan (steel) bands, makes for a light-hearted people who love story-telling and having fun. It also explains one of their most endearing habits: liming.
Now, liming is something Trinis truly excel at: in fact, I think they may consider it their true calling, their main purpose in life. It certainly seems to be the national pastime.
Liming is roughly the same as the American “hanging out,” lately abbreviated to “hangin’”
Liming takes the form of telling the latest jokes (usually the stuff my generation heard in third grade); analyzing the hot new Calypso; planning Carnival costumes or simply “rattling down someone’s ears.” This last translates to what Gary does to anyone willing to engage in a political discussion with him – except in Trinidad it’s never about politics, which is probably the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. (And, based on my observations of the recent Democratic Convention, holds just as true back in the States, where the sizzling après-speechifying topics were Tipper and Al’s publicly televised French kiss and Hadassah’s impossible nose.
The word liming we’re told, derives from the hordes of scurvy-ridden sailors who used to arrive on Trinidadian shores sorely in need of Vitamin C. They would gather in bars drinking whatever it is they drank and sucking on limes – Trinidad’s primary, and maybe only, citrus crop.
Driving along any local strip of neighborhood at night means threading your car through clutches of people liming at open-air bars spanning both sides of the street. Or if you happen to be out even at 2:30 in the morning, (as it was our misfortune to be returning from the airport the other night) you will find the parking lots of big discos totally full, with the overflow extending hundreds of feet from the entrance in either direction along the road. The people inside may be dancing their little hearts out, but if you ask them the next day what they did last night, they’ll tell you they were liming.
Actually, as far as I can tell almost any conversation at all is considered liming. The other day, I was asking the 20-year-old who cleans our boat interior on Monday, Vanessa with the twinkling smile of even, pearl-white teeth and the shapely body covered with the velvetiest of ancestral Indian skins, about one of her other employers. When Gary asked what we were up to, Vanessa replied, “just liming.” Even the taxi driver who drove us downtown to a local restaurant said, after giving us an introduction and defining the parameters of liming (there are none) told us that we’d just been liming with him.
I’m describing liming now and hoping the word will soon be adopted in North American parlance. We can then rid our speech of the unappealing – especially to us older folk with the overstretched skin -- word “hangin’.” After that I’m going after people – even radio show hosts -- who don’t “say” things, they just “go.” And after that I plan on taking on the nearly ubiquitous, “Have a good one.”
But until that time, all of you have exactly that.