Friday, August 9, 2013

Identity Challenged

As is customary whenever I hear a Caribbean-ish accent nearby, I always enquire.

"Whey yuh from boss?"

The responses vary from the common, "yard" (Jamaica if you didn't know), V.I., Guyana, Grenada, etc, to the not  so frequent, Bahamas, Bermuda, Tortola, among others.

The conversations then typically follow the inter-island communication template:
  1. How long you been here?
  2. Why'd you leave home? 
  3. Married? Pickney?
  4. Work?
The most recent exchange was a youth at the gym, a Bahamian (rare in Atlanta); but the conversation didn't quite go as expected. When he enquired about my home island, my response of course was "I'm a trini." His next question threw me:

Are you actually from Trinidad or are you really Tobagonian? O_O 

I don't think I've ever, had that question posed to me before.....good one buddy. 

It's been years since last I pondered the issue. I've always been aware of certain, subtle differences between both islands but have always tried to focus on my identity from a national perspective. When asked, I'm not Trinidadian or Tobagonian, but simply, Trinbagonian. 

But that mindset just ignores the very real fact that we are very different peoples. But how does one identify as Trinidadian or Tobagonian really? There are a few key areas, that we differ: language, culture, racial mix, culinary traditions and the urban/rural spread just to name a few.

To anyone paying attention, the most obvious difference is the accent. Yes, Tobagonians sound slightly different. Though it is not always noticeable, there is a bit of an accent, especially when speaking to someone from the back country, places like Speyside and Parlatuvier. 

Because the island's history differs from that of Trinidad, Tobagonians also have a much different cultural identity from that of their larger island neighbour. Tobagonians seem to impart cultural norms that closely mirror African traditions but things like goat racing during Easter weekend are uniquely their own. A heavy emphasis on African-inspired cultural traditions also gives an idea of the primary racial make-up of  the island which unlike Trinidad, is predominantly black.  

Which brings me to my next point. I used to think I was dark-skinned; all that changed when I met a black Tobagonian. I've been sunburned before, and even then, I wasn't anywhere near as dark as the rich, inky black hues prevalent on the island. You only think you're black.....gawd damn.

Why the lack of racial diversity you ask? You'd have to look into the island's history. Indentured labour programs post the abolition of slavery, led to a very diverse mix of races and cultures in Trinidad. Indentureship skipped Tobago entirely and as such, the island remained populated primarily by descendants of the island's original African slaves (hence the heavy influence of African traditions on all aspects of Tobagonian society). 

Even their food is unique. While they do cook very much the same foods as we do in Trinidad, there are a few important differences. The trini version of dumplings for instance, is a light, yet firm boiled flour concoction. Tobago dumplings on the other hand are tough enough to bring down an aircraft when thrown but you haven't lived till you've eaten a plate of Tobago crab and dumpling. 

To me, their variations on everything I've grown up eating, from pelau to ground provisions and stew chicken, has always been heavier, more flavourful and much more intense. This is probably why one may often hear Tobagonians referring to trini foods as flat or bland. 

But the intensity of their culinary traditions is tempered only by the general laid back nature of their people. Unlike the very urban and considerably more developed (by developing nation standards) western neighbour, Tobago is considerably more rural. Even in the capital, it isn't uncommon to see goats tied up on roadways and front yards. Their pace of life is significantly slower than the frenzied, party-crazed trinis across the way and Tobago will probably always remain the place, trinis go to relax. 

Yup, so whilst I haven't thought through these things in a while, Tobago does have its own unique identity but make no mistake, when asked where I come from, my response will always be Trinidad AND Tobago.

D.Trini J.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Etowah Indian Mounds

Most of my galavanting throughout Georgia is typically planned long in advance. By the time I actually make it to a venue, it's only because I'd already done my research weeks prior, read the brochures, perused the websites, etc. But every now and then, I experience something new completely by chance.
Two statues discovered on site. 
As it happens, I found myself in Cartersville one Saturday morning, assisting a friend. The town most often associated with the Tellus Science Museum (sorta like Fernbank, just impractically far away), had the feeling of a quiet little hick town that had been pulled suddenly into the 21st Century.

I'd really planned on driving out there, quickly doing what I'd been asked to do and immediately driving back but, an experienced knock-about-ist myself, my brain is constantly on the lookout for those handy, brown-coloured highway markers, the tell tale signs of nearby intrigue.

It was these same highway markers that pointed me in the direction of the Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site, 54 acres of land that were once home to several thousand Native Americans for more than 500 years.

Established sometime in 1000 AD, it's believed (hopefully through some very thorough archaeological investigation) that the site was actively used until sometime in 1550, coincidentally not long after the coming of the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. Please feel free to draw your own conclusions as to what happened then.

Etowah is largely regarded as the largest intact example of Mississippian culture anywhere in the south east. The Mississippians being a prehistoric indigenous Native American culture pre-dating the Cherokee and Muskogee (Creek) Indians who came centuries later. I'd visited Rock Eagle Effigy earlier which is thought to be at least 1000 years older than Etowah and built by yet another group of prehistoric Indians (the Woodland Indians).

 There are supposedly six mounds on the site, only three of which I could actually see. The first, creatively named Mound A, the largest of the three, most likely where the chief or high priest lived. Mound B possibly housed a lesser noble and the third and much smaller Mound C was a burial mound.

Standing 63 feet high, the primary mound is the prehistoric equivalent of a modern day 6-story building, made entirely of packed Georgia red clay.

Mound A as seen from the defensive ditch. 
The other two mounds are smaller by comparison but no less important especially mound C, the burial mound where most of the artifacts housed at the nearby museum were uncovered. It's also interesting to note by the way, that only the first two mounds are original. The burial mound had been completely excavated down to its base and had to be rebuilt by volunteers. Including the work done at the burial mound, only nine percent of the entire 54 acre site has been excavated.

It is very often said that you can tell a lot about a society by how they treat their dead. As such, most of what is known about the site's former residents was discovered at the burial mound. It is here too at Mound C, that archaeologists uncovered the two 125 pound stone statues presently housed at the museum (see pic above).

The Etowah Historic Site is definitely worth a visit. Apart from the mounds, the site features a stone weir/fish trap built in the nearby Etowah River, a 10 foot deep trench built either for defense or for mound building raw materials, and a thatch hut painstakingly rebuilt by volunteers. Nature trails and a museum filled with artifacts round out this unmistakably rewarding experience.  

Personally, I think the true value of Etowah is in being able to see, feel and experience the works of ancient peoples in the very places they lived their lives. The fact that the fish traps in particular are still here today still blows my mind. It's a bit of a drive, but I highly recommend taking some time to go see this place.


Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site
813 Indian Mounds Road, S.W.
Cartersville, GA 30120

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sea bath

To this displaced trini, Summer means only one thing, salt, and lots of it. My island heritage practically demands that I soak in sea water twice a month; this temperate Georgia climate and its geographic isolation however, make such goals a tad bit difficult to achieve.

Panama City Beach, Florida
The nearest body of salt water to Atlanta is the Atlantic Ocean via Savannah, Georgia; a four hour drive away.

Imagine having to drive 4 hours each time you wanted Richards.

Or perhaps only being allowed to go Maracas 6 months out of any given year....exactly, you'd kill yourself. 

Better yet, imagine a world where the only "beaches" within an hour's drive, were man-made beaches, on freshwater, man-made lakes with trucked in beach sand......unreal.

But this is the world we Atlanta-based trinis endure. I take it you noticed I said the nearest beach is 4 hours away. Notice I didn't say nearest "good" beach. 

As popular as Savannah's Tybee Island is among Georgia residents, it's waters are a cloudy green, brackish brown, similar to taking a sea bath in Icacos or Guayaguyare, with nearly as much driving, just without the bad roads. 

For Store Bay-esque beaches, one needs to leave Georgia entirely and venture further south. Miami predictably is Florida's most popular beach, but is easily a ten hour drive away (3 fill-ups in each direction.....hell no). For Atlantans, the pleasures or north-west Florida and coastal Alabama are only 5 to 7 hours drive away.

 Panama City Beach is tops on my list of absolute favourite beaches. With the right combination of distance (1 tank),  drive time (4.5 hours) and a varied mix of additional things to do, PCB as it's affectionately known, can't be beat.

Destin, Florida.......heaven on earth. 
The list is extensive: deep sea fishing, parasailing, mini golf, water park, Gulf World (think SeaWorld), theme park rides, go-carting, and of course just simply laying on the beach.

For all these reasons, it's practically impossible to get a room there during the Summer, not unless you plan on spending the rent money on two nights. 

Another popular beach option for Atlanta residents is Destin, another hour west of PCB. Unlike Panama City which I do every Summer, this was my first trip to Destin. Amenities abound as the city offers nearly as broad a range of activities as Panama City but also includes an outlet shopping plaza (because on occasion I do vacation with women) and calmer, far more pristine waters than I'd ever seen at PCB. Honestly, the water was so clear I could see each of my toes wiggling on the sandy bottom in 4 feet of water.

It's a pity that Caribbean expats are forced to travel so great a distance for a commodity that most of us lived barely 30 minutes from. But this is the life we've chosen and as such, can't justify complaining about. Honestly, to make this really work, all that's needed now is a decent bake and shark, two doubles vendors and a parlour on a corner and it'll be just like home.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Suitcase Saga

Believe me when I tell you, I will NEVER lend another suitcase to anyone as long as I live. that that's out of the way.

The saga begins 11 years ago when I'd first moved to the US. The summer of 2002 was fraught with anticipation as after 20 years living in Trinidad, I was moving away. That anticipation was tempered a bit when I'd started packing bags. I'm not entirely sure who to blame for this, perhaps bwee baggage handlers, but let's just say that after years of  travelling, my hand-me-down suitcases had long since seen their better days.

Putting it lightly, I boldly set foot in the US brandishing a pair of suitcases that looked like they'd survived Vietnam.....barely. Needless to say, I tossed the offensive things the instant I got settled in. Fast forward to the summer of 2004, armed with my first real pay cheque, I purchased a matching 5-piece set of Ricardo Beverly Hills suitcases and travel bags.

No more ugly suitcases, no more rolling behemoths, never again would I be the one at the carousel too embarrassed to acknowledge his own bags.............but I got maybe one good trip in before the dotishness started.

In 2007 my parents came to visit but before I continue, let me explain something. There is this pervasive thought among trinidadians that nothing either made in Trinidad or available for purchase in Trinidad, is of any worth and as such every effort must be made to buy things in the US when possible.

I'm sure you've seen this with visiting relatives when they come to visit; what do they spend their entire trip doing? SHOPPING.......and they shop like there's no tomorrow. And not regular shopping either, they buy everything: Pringles, Snickers, Chex Mix, Planters peanuts, etc. Then they zone out on appliances, stoves, microwaves, refrigerators, etc. You know what else trinbagonians seem to like go crazy for? Underwear. I swear more Hanes leave this country in the bags of islanders than most would care to admit.

So yes, summer of 2007, my parents came to visit and by the end of their trip, had amassed a volume of shopping bags the size of a small hill. Now let's do the math, two adult airline travelers, two checked bags a piece is 4 checked bags; bags that were already filled to capacity when their trip began. So what exactly was the plan for getting all the junk back home?

Precisely........ one my sexy, brand spanking new, Ricardo Beverly Hills suitcases.

The promise to speedily return my beloved traveling bag didn't do much to assuage my concerns but I figured heck, it's my parents right, how bad could it get? They returned it alright, or rather they returned with it the following year on a subsequent trip, and packed it right back up and took it back home with them a second time. By the following year I was beginning to hear "what suitcase?" and was then forced to borrow an ugly, beat up suitcase the next time I traveled. I never saw my beloved traveling bag ever again. I almost lost another bag that a sibling managed to misplace for two years before randomly running into it somewhere.

So guess what, going forward, anyone needing to borrow a suitcase from me, tough shit, I'm not lending any out, find a Walmart.