Last Tuesday evening, I spoke to my Auntie Sonia on the phone. "I'm coming to pick you and Alex up early tomorrow," she said. "You need to take some pictures of real Trinidad."
I was very excited about this: Auntie Sonia used to be married to my mother's little brother, and she is one of my favourite people in Trinidad. In addition to just being a wonderfully down-to-earth person, she feels like a kindred spirit: after years as a bank executive, upon retirement, she decided to try her hand at painting. Turns out, she's really good at it -- one of my favourite paintings that we own is by her, and she now exhibits all over the island.
And you know how I love a good corporate-exec-turned-artist story.
Auntie Sonia now lives in north central Trinidad, and wanted us to see her home, she she picked us up bright and early Wednesday morning, and we started out. She drove us over the hills on Lady Young Road, where we stopped at the overlook to view all of the capital, Port-of-Spain (because there's nothing Trinidad loves more than an overlook)...
... and proceeded through the small towns outside of Port-of-Spain.
As she drove, I snapped a few photographs through the window, and needless to say attracted a bit of attention as a result. One photograph in particular, however, illustrates the time-honoured Trini pasttime of "sootin'." All countries do this, I suppose: a construction worker whistles at a lone woman passing by, or eyebrows are waggled at a young girl in a mildly salacious manner; but in Trinidad, sootin' is an art form, carried out relatively indiscriminately and with wild and gay abandon. It works like this:
Generally, the man in question, when he sees a woman he deems worthy of a ... soot? ... he makes a noise similar to one made by a person who is trying to get the attention of another to tell a secret.
Then when the woman looks over, he blows a kiss. You know, like so:
It happens constantly to every woman in Trinidad, and can get dead annoying. Most self-respecting girls and women learn to ignore it, and for the most part, it's harmless; in fact once you've left the country for a while, in retrospect, the concept is pretty amusing.
Okay, perhaps not. In any event, however, it does make for an interesting photograph.
Suddenly, Auntie Sonia asked: "Would you like to go visit Mount St. Benedict?"
Having been so recently the target of an unsolicited soot, going to a monastery seemed like a capital idea. "Absolutely," I said. And so we went.
Mount St. Benedict is one of those places that you instinctively know is a sacred place, even before you know it is on consecrated ground. It is a Benedictine Abbey, founded in 1912 by Brazilian monks, in the Northern Range of Trinidad.
So, of course, there's an overlook.
When I was a kid, it was also a boarding school; however, the boarding school is closed, and Auntie Sonia tells me that many of the monks have passed away. However, the ones who are still there continue to do Sunday masses, operate small retreats on the beautiful grounds, and ... and this is the awesome part ... make organic yogurt which is sold all over the island.
Man oh man, this is some good stuff. If there was a way to pack crates of this stuff in my carry-on bags, I totally would have. And there is nothing like sitting on top of the hill, quietly taking in the scene as the monks go about their business, while nearby other sightseers are enjoying their yogurt along with you. Once we'd finished, I decided that I needed to patronize the gift shop, to take something with me to remember this visit. And since, as I've mentioned before, I like to travel with a rosary, I decided to buy a new one, to retire the old one my mother gave me (which keeps coming apart):
After I paid the kind woman in the gift shop, we continued our journey.
On our way to Auntie Sonia's house, she mentioned that she wanted to stop at the market. Markets in Trinidad are much like farmer's markets are in the United States -- except in Trinidad, up until relatively recently, it was the only way to buy your foodstuffs. In fact, when I was growing up in Mayaro (on the southeasternmost corner of the island), this was the only way to buy food, unless you wanted to make the 2-hour drive to the capital to go to a proper supermarket. Nowadays, Mayaro has a huge supermarket grocery store, but the sights and smells of a good local market still take me back. And now, in Houston, where farmer's markets are a relatively new and somewhat cool trend, it's strange to think that back in Trinidad this used to be our way of life, and for most people, still is.
So we stopped at the market at Tunapuna, and there I managed to get some of my favourite shots of this trip.
"Come! Come take a picture ah de sal'fish, come!" I turned to see a woman proudly holding up a large salted codfish.
Trinis make a dish called buljol from saltfish, one which is related, I think, to the Portuguese bacalao. I don't mean to brag, but I make a mean buljol. It's a dish we usually eat at breakfast time, with fried or roasted bake, and often a slice of avocado on the side (or chopped up in the dish). It's one of my favourite dishes, and taking this photograph reminded me that it's been a long time since I've made it.
I must rectify this situation at once.
Auntie Sonia bought some watermelon ("Sweet, sweet fruit! Fruit like candy!" called the vendor) ...
... and then stopped by some dasheen, a large root vegetable that tastes something like a potato. My favourite part of the market is how the scales are still the ones they used when I was a kid.
Once we were finished at the market, we headed to Auntie Sonia's house, and had a really great homecooked meal, using some of the fresh vegetables and fruits we'd purchased at the market. We talked and laughed, and Auntie Sonia caught me up on the political situation on the island, under the leadership of our first female Prime Minister. All too soon, it was time to tidy up, and head back into Port-of-Spain.
As we were leaving, my eye caught a small painting on a table, of a small traditional Trinidadian home.
"Auntie Sonia, is this one of yours?" I asked.
"Yes, do you like it?"
"I love it," I said. "It's so very Trinidad."
She picked it up and handed it to me. "Take it," she said. I started to protest. "No, take it. My gift to you. To remind you of this day."
I smiled and thanked her. It now sits in my office at home. And she's right: it's a wonderful reminder of that day.