Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The West Indies

I know these types of entries are way better with pictures, but it may be a couple more weeks before I get them all sorted and downloaded. I've been back for a month, so I figured it's time to get this bad boy up on the blog! Pictures to follow, promise.
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Karla and I returned from the West Indies a few weeks ago, where we stayed with her relatives in Trinidad (and also took a couple days to ourselves in Tobago). I pretty much knew how to spell ‘Trinidad” and that’s about it before my jaunt over there. Karla’s father was born in Trinidad, and though he passed away many years ago, she’s still made several trips over to the TT Republic to visit her relatives and connect with her roots. I was honored and touched that she invited me along, especially since she hadn’t been back in 13 years. And so much can change in that amount of time – people, places, memories, our perspective and take on things. I knew she was looking forward to some time to herself – to spend in her father’s room, to hold those cherished conversations with aunts and cousins – but I also knew she wanted to share that piece of herself with me. Some of you know that our friendship goes back a few years, and that we met in the hospital room of a mutual beloved friend about to pass away. I remember being so touched by her soothing voice, her gentle touch with Dwight, and it makes sense that we would share this Caribbean adventure and dive into blood and history and ancestry. Something about it rang true, raw.

Where to start? Karla and I spent lots of time….walking. We were joking that we both slacked on working out the entire time we were over there, but we more than made up for it with the several miles we put in by foot most days. The sun would beat down upon us – about 93 degrees Fahrenheit consistently – and we just chugged along with our water bottles, sunglasses, and slathered layers of sunscreen. I was thankful for all the delicious hours spent under that unique, beating sun: our day at Maracas Beach, for instance, maybe my favorite beach moment ever. We strode out into the thick, salty water and let the crashing waves deliver us back to shore. How fun body surfing is! I’m terrified of sharks (phobic about it, actually); I was assured there weren’t many sharks in that neck of the Caribbean so I took a chance – I know, big deal! – and swum out past where my feet touched. The bartenders at the hut-shack had great 80’s music playing. Who doesn’t want to hear Michael Jackson letting loose while you’re enjoying a magnificent moment next to locals and other tourists in that great expanse of blue-green?

Karla and I went to two bird sanctuaries, one in Trinidad and one in Tobago. Through a fluke (we thought we were going to the forest preserve part of the Trinidad sanctuary), we ended up at the Caroni Swamp on one of their boat tours. About twenty passengers and the guide took the motorized boat down the swamp, and we were witness to a caiman (alligator), boa constrictors in the trees, crabs climbing up vines, and the national bird – the Scarlet Ibis – settling into the branches and dashing across the sky like a phoenix. In mangroves of trees at sunset, at certain times of year, the Ibises flock down (note to PDXers: similar to the swifts at Chapman Elementary) and perch in the trees for the night. As dusk thickens, more and more Ibises flood the mangroves, and even after they’re settled they’ll readjust themselves, thus looking like giant flowers that are rippling with magic. The Tobago sanctuary was more modest in comparison, but the story goes that the same gentleman has been feeding the various species at 8:00am and 4:00pm everyday for something like 25 years. His true love passed away, and he picked up where she left off with carrying on this tradition on the island.

Side note: this lovely Canadian couple in maybe their 70’s gave us a ride to the Tobago sanctuary after we stopped into a resort for directions, curious how much longer we had to walk. They said to us, “We’ve been coming here for twenty-five years! We know right where that sanctuary is.” And just like that we hopped in the back of their rental car, and they told us Mennonite jokes (and they are Mennonites). Want to hear one? “What does every Mennonite woman want?” Answer: “Two men a night!” After the husband told this joke, the wife – wearing a hat with huge plume feathers – decked him in the shoulder hard but lovingly. Lots of people on the islands make extra cash by being “cabbies” in their spare time; we were told which kinds of license plates to look for, how to make sure we weren’t being overcharged, etc. One of my favorite memories of taking a “private taxi” is when Karla and I left Argyle Falls, this beautiful waterfall and trail in the forests of Tobago. We’d just had a delightful venture up into the forest, biting into this sugarcane a local gave us, chatting with locals and taking pictures and watching fish dive for breadcrumbs in the shallow pools of the waterfall. Tired and hot – and wondering if we’d missed the bus back to our hostel – we got a private taxi to drive us. We squeezed in next to uniformed school kids and watched the cliffs, all those slivers of the Caribbean peeking through as we wound around the twisty turns. I felt like I was in a game of Super Mario Bros. or something: Watch out for falling rocks! Don’t take the turn too quickly because of oncoming traffic! Don’t get too close to the side rail or you’ll plunge into the water! Make sure you don’t run over that chicken or goat in the road or you’ll lose all your gold coins!

We relied so heavily on the kindness of both family and strangers during our visit:
*Karla’s cousins and their spouses who (for only one of a million examples) took us our first night for coconut water, where you watch the guy or gal at the cart chop off the top of the coconut with a machete, and then you drink the juice and scoop out the jelly inside for a snack
*Mahendra, Kathleen, Sacha, their dogs Pepsi, Bruce Li, Jet Li, and their cat Pancakes, whom we stayed with – I adore you all and so appreciate your hospitality, our chats, the Roti and doubles, our Scrabble game out on the patio!
*The almost mystical woman who hailed us that private taxi in Tobago
*The hilarious family who ran the hostel, and the teen girl blasting Dirty Dancing’s “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” and singing along (and, yes, I sang along – and danced – too!)
*The middle-aged Trinidadian woman at the waterfall who chatted with me about New York, where she used to be a nanny, after she offered me portugals (orange-like fruit) for “me and my wife”
*So many more

One of Karla’s cousins has an amazing spouse, K, whose brother passed away from an ulcer complication while we were visiting. It struck home – so unexpected – and we’d just been spending time with K for our first couple days. She and D (and their daughter S) were the ones who picked us up at the airport and got us settled right off the bat. Karla and I attended the funeral, which was a Hindu service. I’ve always been fascinated by India, and pyres, and different ways of grieving and seeing our loved ones on to the next chapter, whatever that may be. How heartbreaking – and beautiful and culturally awe-inspiring – to be witness to this, to not only offer support but to stand outside of it all and take in the differences (watching someone burned vs. watching someone lowered into a ground in a cemetery in a Catholic service) and also take in how much more connected I felt to this type of grieving. The family members were active participants in “releasing” him, his body & soul. After the personal family ceremony and prayer rituals back at the family home in the country, the brothers placed him in the hearse, after which we all followed in our cars, much like many religions do here in the U.S. He was adorned in garlands of flowers over his white robe. At the pyre grounds – essentially a picnic looking area, with a huge parking lot, stream, benches, and roofed area with extra seats – the brothers lowered him next to the pyre. The pyre itself was wood blocks built up on four sides, with room for him to be put inside at the proper time. A sheet of wood, with a bonfire-looking collection of logs, was placed on top of the structure. The family said more prayers, and there was chanting in Hindi, with people playing drums and other instruments, and at the appointed time the brothers picked him up, placed him inside the pyre, and took turns lighting the corners of it with the torch. The family stood closest to the pyre, with other mourners standing behind them. The music crescendoed as the flames took hold. Soon everything went up, turning into a roaring fire to see him off. I had questions: Did they purposefully build the pyre this way so you can’t really see him actually going up in flames inside? Will the smell of burning flesh ripple over the crowd? (Answer: No. But I’m not sure if it’s because of a chemical they may have had in the pyre or because the wind was blowing in the opposite direction that day.) People soon started filtering away, getting back in their cars. The family stayed, crying and holding one another; one sister even got so hysterical that she fainted into another family member’s arms. Karla and I waited for D, S, and the others that were riding with us. Then we all went back to the family home, where before we could step foot inside for the “wake,” we had to perform a certain ritual. A family member greeted us, poured water on our hands from a jar, and we had to wash our hands then touch several of his belongings on this chair – a knife, a plate, certain kinds of powder that looked like sage. Then we bent down and touched a piece of the wood used in the pyre, and then washed our hands again. Then we were offered a sip of this juice – thick, nectar-like, tasting like peaches or apricots – and finally we could step inside and share stories, dinner, card games. What a blessing (I hope that doesn’t sound weird and is taken in the right vein) to be able to share in something so profound, humbling, and true to the way I view grieving, loss, and passage.

Throughout my time in the West Indies, I couldn’t help but think back to my last big traveling adventure, Alaska, and draw comparisons. What I came to is that my soul feels more in tune with Alaska – I have a kindred connection to its mountains, wild life, people that is more “me” – but how going to Trinidad & Tobago was needed. Traveling there helped me step outside my comfort zone and experience a shadow-self that was necessary. For one, Caucasians are in the minority (maybe 5%-ish), with most of the citizens being of East Indian or African descent. For another – and I can say this easily now only because nothing bad happened – I’ve never been so hyper-aware of my surrounding because of the high crime rate. Most of the murders in “TT” are gang-related, though there’s some god-forsaken percentage of white American tourists that are mugged that makes roaming through NYC’s Central Park in the dead of night look like the safest thing on the planet. There were a couple instances where I was discriminated against for being white and American. One was in a pizza parlor where everyone in front of me was waited on by the guy at the register, but when it came to my turn he barely acknowledged my presence and his coworkers gave me apologetic looks and took my order. Then he purposefully charged me for things (so I believe) but didn’t give them to me, etc. Interesting – and essential – to experience what so many races experience here in the U.S.! I’ve been discriminated plenty for being gay throughout my life, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been so blatantly discriminated against for my race. Finally, I must mention how much I loved the juxtaposition and clashing of cultures and religions – Spanish, British, French influences and architecture and languages, Hindi temples next to Christian churches, giant billboards all over with “REPENT SINNER – JESUS DIED FOR YOU” type lingo next to carts selling statues of Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva. Though I felt overall more in tune with Alaska, the flipside is that I also feel aligned with Hinduism maybe more than any other organized religion. Thus, my last two Big Adventures are Yin and Yang to one another, completing some kind of intangible whole.

Karla, thank you for such an amazing adventure. I’m blessed to call you a friend. I’m so glad we found Turtle Beach, where you traveled with your family all those many years ago, where we waded in the water along the shoreline, took pictures of pelicans diving for fish, and you got to hang out with the Rastas as the sun set. And I love that we went to the panyards in St. James/Woodbrook, and how that kind gentleman let us in for free to the private party for the football [soccer] convention! That was a perfect Saturday night: listening to the band play the steel drums, partaking of free drinks and dinner, enjoying one another’s company surrounded by good energy and frivolity and hospitality. Here’s to you, Karla, and to your father, the rest of your family, and our amazing trip together!

Love to All,