random thoughts: the eyes have it

Those of you who have been coming to Chookooloonks for a while know that I'm pretty passionate about photographing portraits (and for those of you who might be new to the site, here's Exhibit A).  The reason is entirely because I love faces.

I mean, I really love faces.  Faces are just so amazingly beautiful.  And I'm not just talking about wide smiles, or awesome crows' feet, or dimples, or cleft chins or gap-toothed grins or interesting beauty marks, either.  I mean, those are great and all, but those are just the icing on the cake.

For me, it's all about the eyes.

Whenever I take a portrait, I usually prefer to "shoot wide open" -- setting my camera lens so that it takes photographs where only a small slice of the photograph is actually in sharp focus; the rest of the of the photograph fades into a buttery, soft blur. Not all photographers do this, it's just a quirk of mine.  And whenever I do this, I always make sure that the sharpest focus is on my subject's eyes.  They say "the eyes are the windows to the soul," but I think they're more "portals to the heart."  The eyes are everything.

And so, after having photographs of tons of faces, I've come to believe the following:  if you want to convey a truly meaningful expression of kindness, look the person dead in the eyes, and smile.  It works wonders.  Do this with your loved ones, do this with the guy at Starbucks, do this with the gas station attendant, whomever.  Practice it a lot.  Do it today, and then try doing it every day.  People will start to think that you're this incredible flirt, just because you're taking a moment to be respectful and kind -- it's that rare a thing to see.  But you and I know that this isn't about flirtation: it's about letting people feel seen.  I honestly think that if everyone made a practice of doing this, there would be straight-up world peace.  No joke.

On a related note:  you know all those magazines and TV commercials and billboards advertising quick ways to look better/appear younger/be more beautiful?  Yeah, forget those.  Just do what I said in the paragraph above.  It'll instantaneously take years off, you'll look awesome, and it costs nothing.

Really, really.

And with that, Happy Love Thursday, everyone.

Images:  The beautiful Lisa Warninger, creative mind behind Urban Weeds blog.  We met in Portland earlier this month, and it was a real treat for me: I love her commitment to showcasing individuality on her blog, and it was an honour to photograph and be photographed by her.  Photographed with my Nikon D300, 50mm lens: aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/500, ISO 200.


SongWaiting for the end by Linkin Park

a mission statement







Writing yesterday's post was sort of tough:  although I sort of vaguely had an idea of what I try to accomplish here on Chookooloonks, it was the first time that I actually tried to sit down and codify how I felt about the work that I want to accomplish.

As I drafted the post, I kept thinking about my friend Erin Loechner, who, not long ago, wrote her own "mission statement" on her blog.  As one of her commenters said, it's a really soulful one. While crafting yesterday's words, I kept wondering what my mission statement would look like, if I tried to write one.

And so I did.  Here are the words that I want to live by, but also create by, as Chookooloonks.com and all my related work evolves:

I will engage in the relentless pursuit of real, uncontrived beauty, in every form.  I will illustrate that beauty is everywhere, even (and sometimes especially) in the most unlikely places.  In so doing, I will work tirelessly to counter negativity, violence, sadness and desperation, and join forces with those who celebrate positivity, peace, kindness and joy.  I will convince the skeptical of their uncommon beauty, and I will create tools for helping the weary see the beauty in their own lives.  I will provide hard, irrefutable evidence that there is good in the world, and I will be fiercely dedicated to showing how beautiful our planet really is, one image at a time.

That oughta do it.

 So, question of the day, while I'm thinking about it:  what do you stand for? Inquiring minds, and all that.  And if you've actually created a mission statement, by golly, do share!


* * * * * * *

By the way, thanks much for all your comments yesterday!  According to Random.org, the winner of the signed copy of The Beauty of Different from yesterday's post is Dreadpiraterach, who said, "That was such a resonant post for me Karen. Thanks for sharing it & for the opportunity to win your lovely book!"  Congratulations!  Please keep a look-out for an email from me, requesting your snail mail address. And for everyone else, stay tuned: there'll be another book giveaway next week.



Images:  Photographed with my Nikon D300, 50mm lens.  Inspired by the images of Kari Herer, as recently shared on Design*Sponge.  You can buy prints of Kari's beautiful work here. aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/320, ISO 500.


Song: Suddenly I see by KT Tunstall

on quiet activism (and a giveaway)

As part of their "It only takes ONE mom" campaign, ONE invited me to contribute some thoughts on activism for their site.  The following is my submission.  I hope you enjoy it.  And of course, I hope you consider becoming a member of ONE (non-US folks click here).


A few weeks ago, the good people at ONE sent me an email, asking the following question:

"What made you decide to become an activist?"

I'll admit right now that when I read those words, I quite literally choked on my mug of tea.  Me, an activist? I thought.  Aren't activists people who engage in loud protests, long marches, and risk getting arrested, firehosed and tased?  Trust me, as desperately as I might wish the opposite was the case, I've never considered myself that brave.  Surely they had made some mistake.

But ONE really wanted an answer, so I felt like I needed to respond.  In a somewhat uncharacteristic moment of openmindedness on my part, I allowed for the possibilty that perhaps it was I who had too narrow a view of activism; and so, I decided to do some research. 

Pretty quickly, I came across this definition:

Activism (n): intentional action designed to bring about social change

On pondering this concept, something within me stirred.  I might not be a placard-carrying protester, but I do feel strongly about bringing about social change.  And I have for some time.

You see, several years ago, perhaps when I became a mother (but then again, maybe after), I started to become seriously disenchanted with the media in general.  I harbour no illusions about the fact that there are bad things that happen in the world, events about which the media certainly has the responsibility to inform us; however, I couldn't help but feel that often people who have access to the media -- news organizations, of course, but also corporations and even individuals -- were starting to relish the communication of negativity and ugliness.  Crime and gore and wrongdoing, and even sickness and sadness and desperation were quickly becoming entertainment. Magazines and billboards seemed to delight in screaming what was wong with us, and what we needed to do to "fix our flaws."  Reality television, exposing ugly sides of life, was becoming more commonplace than uplifting programming, and even bloggers and Tweeters and Facebookers and other individuals employing social media seemed to enjoy complaining and kvetching and snarkiness to the exclusion of all other expressions, often solely in the dogged pursuit of ever-more followers. 

And inexplicably, we all seemed to be lapping this up.

To be clear, I'm not immune: I do love a good wry observation or a sarcastic joke, and my friends will tell you that I have certainly been known to make my own.  Also, to reiterate, I am not so naïve that I don't understand that negative things happen.  That said, I just flat do not believe that the world is that bad, or people are that flawed:  in fact, thanks to my camera, I believe that the world, with all its people, is still an uncommonly beautiful place.

And so, with intention, I set out to prove it.  I wrote a book called The Beauty of Different, illustrating that people, in all their shapes and colours and sizes and genders and orientations and insights are empirically, inarguably beautiful.  I share photographs every weekday at Chookooloonks, often of small, seemingly insignificant things, because I am fiercely dedicated to showing how beautiful the world really is, one image at a time.  I pursue my goal of photographing 1000 faces.  I travel as often as I can, capturing images of beauty that are different from those which surround me at home, and try to share them as much as possible through social media.  And, of course, I cannot wait to travel to Kenya with ONE, to photograph and share the beauty of that country and its people, not to mention the good that is arising from all the work the organizations for which ONE advocates are doing there.

So, perhaps I'm not an activist in the stereotypical connotation of the word. But in my quiet, persistent, everyday way, I strongly hope to counteract some of the negativity that comes at us constantly by maintaining a corner of the internet dedicated to giving readers hope and the courage -- yes, the courage -- to remain positive.  It turns out I really do believe in acting with intent to bring about social change, if doing so helps people realize that there is good in the world, and more importantly, there is good within themselves, despite what they are being told. 

Besides, I'm also wildly convinced that by simply changing our outlook, we can all help make the world a better, more beautiful place.  In our own uncommonly beautiful ways.

* * * * * * *

In an unrelated note:  today's June 28th, and as it happens, July is my birthmonth.  To celebrate, I had decided that starting July 1st, I would, over the next few weeks, be doing a few giveaways of The Beauty of Different; however, given the subject matter above, it seemed like today would be a better day to start than the first. 


Simply leave a comment below, wherever in the world you might be, and I'll pick one commenter at random to win a signed copy of the book.  I'll do this once a week until I leave for Kenya.

Thanks, everyone!


UpdateOn a related note, the really beautiful Jen Louden is featuring me on her blog today.  Please go pay her a visit -- I'm so honoured that she included me in her wonderful work.


Image:  Photographed with my Nikon D300, 60mm micro lens.  aperture 3.5, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 640.


SongThere's hope by india.arie

starting to prepare for kenya

Since returning from Trinidad, I've started to shift my attention to the next major trip in my life: to Kenya with ONE.org.   I've got a flight or two between now and when I leave on July 23rd; but they are domestic flights, requiring far less preparation than the 9,000-mile journey to Nairobi from Houston.  This is the first international trip to a destination I've never visited before that I've taken in years; as a result, like I was telling my friend Mark last week, I don't remember the last time I was this excited/nervous about a journey.

So my preparations began in earnest last week by sending my passport off to get a visa, as well as getting a series of innoculations/vaccines.  I had to go to a special travel clinic to get them, and I ended up getting four shots.  It was no big deal.

(I'm totally lying.  Embarrassing admission:  I hate shots.  Hate them.  The last time I had to get vaccinations, I cried. Big ol' crocodile tears, man.  I wish I was kidding -- it was so humiliating.  But this time, I didn't cry, not even a little bit!  I will say that the yellow fever vaccine, however, was the worst of the bunch:  it stings like mad, and then two days later, OH THE ITCHING.  After about 12 hours, I was actually ready to chew my left arm off, coyote-style.  But the itching and nasty red welt that appeared have subsided, and now I'm just waiting to see if I have any side effects from the series of oral typhoid fever vaccination pills I'm in the middle of taking.  I'm told it's possible I might get a fever during the time between the third and fourth dose, which is pretty much exactly when I'm writing this.  So far, so good. ((An aside: despite following doctor's orders to the letter, shouldn't I be concerned that there's live typhoid currently sitting in my fridge right next to the food we eat?  Shouldn't I be living in a bubble for the next few days to protect others from infection while I'm taking these pills?  Wasn't Typhoid Mary called that because of the wildly contagious nature of the thing?))

But I digress.)

Anyway, I suspect that over the next few weeks, as I start studying up on Kenya and Nairobi and Kisumu, I may feel compelled to write a few posts about some of what I learn, including the books I read, my packing lists, etc.  I hope you don't mind.  To be clear, ONE isn't asking me to write any preparatory posts -- the posts that I do write as part of my relationship with them will be clearly marked as such -- but this is such a wonderful adventure I'm about to embark on (one which I'm still having a hard time believing is not a dream) and so I'd love to share it with you.

And of course, since I know many of you have traveled to/lived in Kenya, any tips would be greatly appreciated. 

Seriously, I cannot wait to take you along with me on this trip.


UpdatedHere's the OFFICIAL official announcement about our trip to Kenya!  And yet, I still think it's all a dream. 


Image:  A streetside market stall in Tunapuna, Trinidad.  Photographed with my Nikon D200, 50mm lens, aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/2000, ISO 500.


Song: Makeda by Les Nubians

photograph 1000 faces: the world of possibilities edition

Finally, I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention the World of Possibilities event and Giselle Hudson, who made it possible for Alex and I have this beautiful trip to my tropical homeland.  The truth is that without Giselle, we might have gone another year before making it back home (which is, I now see, a crying shame).

The story goes that Giselle was surfing the web, and came upon my friend Brené Brown's amazing TEDxHouston talk (seriously, if you haven't watched that yet, you should).  Giselle followed the links to Brené's site, and at some point through her surfing, found a link to Chookooloonks.

With a name like Chookooloonks, that has to be a Trinidadian, she thought to herself.

(Incidentally, a lot of Trinis find my site by stumbling on the name, and knowing instinctively that I'm a Trini.  I love this passionately.)

One thing led to another, and Giselle invited me to Trinidad to speak at her World of Possibilities conference.  It was really an elegant evening:  about 50 women attended a really great dinner at Joseph's Restaurant in Maraval, Trinidad (my old stomping grounds), including a few friends:  brilliant journalist and writer Attillah Springer (a sweet friend from when I last lived in Trinidad, whose words always keeps me up to date with the country's political goings-on), and new friend Tracy, who has always been so supportive of me on Twitter.  There was sisterhood (and even a bit of singing!), and it was a really lovely time.

As it happened and absolutely coincidentally, Giselle had already planned a trip to Tobago the same time we had, and the group she was traveling with had breakfast at our hotel the morning we were leaving, so I was able to get a few portraits.  I tell you, this entire trip was about things just falling into place.

Dr. Marcia Reynolds, from Arizona, was the keynote speaker of the World of Possibilities event, and her talk was so insightful.  Author of the book Wander Woman, she told tales about how she completely transformed her own life (and seriously, her story was riveting).  It was really an honour to be speaking alongside her, and I sincerely hope we keep in touch.


Marcia traveled to Trinidad & Tobago with her best friend, Vickie Sullivan.  Vickie is a speaker's coach and branding expert, and the word I think of when I think of her is "light."  She sparkles.  She's so warm and friendly, and it was a true pleasure to meet her.


And finally, Giselle's partner, Anastasia.  Anastasia is actually an American who moved to Tobago many years ago and never returned. She's one of those people who, as soon as they're in your presence, you're inspired to take a deep, cleansing breath.  The words that immediately come to mind when I think of her are "calm" and "peace."  And so I wasn't shocked in the least to find out she's actually a massage therapist at the Kariwak.   I bet she's great at her job.

With that, a thousand thank-yous to Giselle for making this trip happen -- I can't adequately express how grateful I am.  And hopefully, after this week's posts, you're all inspired to visit my homeland.  In fact, I'm so moved by how many of you expressed interest in a creative retreat in Tobago:  I'm actually really energized by your response, and am already making plans. Stay tuned.


SongOrdinary people by John Legend.  This song was wildly popular in Trinidad when we lived there in 2005-2007, and will forever remind me of home.

kariwak village holistic haven & hotel, tobago

The night before Alex and I left for Trinidad, we were out for a family dinner with Marcus, at an outdoor restaurant.  At some point after the meal, while Alex was playing with some other kids in the nearby green space, I absent-mindedly checked my phone for any new email, and found the following:

Hey Karen,

I comment on your blog occasionally ... I love your perspective on life and your journey so far and I think alot of people over here will love it too. While I am thrilled to see this event happening in Trinidad and hope that it is totally packed out, I have to ask if it is even a remote possibility that you could come over to Tobago, even if just for an afternoon, to do a talk for our local crowd, which is a pretty diverse and incredible bunch if I do say so myself : )

[...] And why you would want to do this...

[...] Kariwak is an incredible place, not just because I grew up there and still am lucky enough to work there but because it attracts the most incredible people. The space you would speak in, the main Ajoupa, was actually first used (unofficially inaugurated) by the Dalai Lama! How cool is that?! And in it's regular life is the venue for everything from yoga classes and retreats, meditation, storytelling, women's circles and weddings. We are committed to hosting transformative speakers and thinkers, and you would definitely be one of them so it would be our pleasure to find a way to make something work [...]

Love and blessings for a safe journey and a wonderful week in the homeland! (and just in time for julie mangoes too - great timing!)

-  Tanya

I actually stared at my phone for a few seconds, stunned.  "Marcus," I said, "You're not going to believe this."  I showed him the email on my phone, and watched his eyes widen as he read.  Finally he looked up at me.  "That is incredible," he breathed.

You see, Marcus and I were very familiar with the Kariwak Hotel.  In fact, when we lived in Trinidad, any time we took a long weekend in Tobago, we'd make sure to save one night for walking to the small, intimate Kariwak for dinner.  Cynthia Clovis (who co-owns the hotel with her husband and who, it turns out, is Tanya's mom), is famous for her amazing culinary expertise, and under her watchful eye the hotel's open-air restaurant features some of the best meals on the island.  It's a magical place, and Marcus and I have longed to stay there -- but because it's not located on the beach and we were usually traveling with a toddler, we never had.  "One day," we used to say, "one day, when Alex is older, we're definitely going to stay there."

And now it looked like the opportunity had just fallen in my lap.

I quickly replied telling Tanya how thrilled we would be to come, and a week later, as Alex and I exited the Tobago airport, the beautiful face you see above walked up to greet us.

I'm pleased to report that Tanya is as warm and welcoming in person as she is in her email; and truthfully, the same could be said for the Kariwak.  The rooms are simple without much adornment or superfluous amenities -- for example, they are air conditioned (thankfully), but are simply appointed, and have no televisions or wifi -- nonetheless, they are absolutely spotless and instantly feel like home.  The hotel staff is incredibly friendly, and without exception make it their mission to ensure that you are comfortable as possible.

And the grounds, people. Oh, the grounds:








As Alex and I were walking around the gardens (and I was shooting as fast as my camera would let me), this happy face walked up to me:

"You have bubbles?" she asked.

"Um, what?"  For a fleeting, irrational moment, I thought perhaps she suspected I was gassy or otherwise flatulent.

"Bubbles," she said, still smiling.  "You look like the type of person who always has bubbles floating from her."

I'm still not entirely sure what she meant, but it didn't matter: she was pretty bubbly herself.  Further conversation revealed that Linda was the head gardener, primarily responsible for the vegetable garden.  The Kariwak grows almost all of its vegetables and produce organically on site, and any dinner you eat there likely was harvested that very day from the garden.

So, of course, I asked Linda to give Alex and me a tour:







I'm telling you, this place is magical.

The event that evening was so lovely, too:  I presented in the main ajoupa (the one where the Dalai Lama also spoke, heaven help me), and the atmosphere was casual: about 30-40 people came, sitting on yoga mats and we were all barefoot, and it was certainly the most peaceful time I've ever had when doing a talk.  The next morning, after breakfast, Alex and I were really sad that it was time to leave; however, I made myself a few promises:

1)  The next time Alex and I visit Tobago, Marcus will be with us.  Also, no way we're staying at the fancy beach resort and just coming to Kariwak for dinner -- from now on, we're going to be all about the Kariwak, and just make the 3-minute walk to the beach as necessary;

2)  Also, next time I'm going to take one of Tanya's yoga classes (she's the certified instructor at the hotel); also, I'm going to learn more about Tanya's fantastic community-based organization, Save our Seaturtles (SOS) Tobago (Facebook page here).  Readers who have followed Chookooloonks for years know that Marcus, Alex and I used to visit the north coast of Trinidad each year to see the nesting of the giant leatherback turtles; Tanya's conservation organization protects the turtles who nest in Tobago.  My next trip, I'm definitely going to learn more; and

3)  Finally, I've added #108 to my life listhost a creative retreat at the Kariwak.  Wouldn't that be amazing?  I'm thinking photography, journaling, writing, art, with workshop leaders, yoga, lots of beach and hammock time built in ... what do you think, would you be interested in coming to something like that?

Yup. Definitely a life list item. I'm workin' on it.

So, deepest, most heartfelt thanks to Tanya and her mom Cynthia for having Alex and me as guests at the hotel, and an equal dose of gratitude to their staff who made us so comfortable (especially the lovely Siobhan, who kept Alex and me in Kariwak Koolers for the duration of our stay.  I drank more of that amazing concoction than I think they were prepared for, man.  Heaven).

And of course, if you happen to be planning a trip to Tobago, I cannot recommend Kariwak enough. 


Did I mention this place is magical?


SongBassman by Mighty Shadow.  I haven't heard this song since I was Alex's age.


Updated:  If you do think a creative retreat here would interest you, please leave a comment below.  This won't commit you, I'm just trying to gauge interest.  Thanks!


coco reef, tobago

Last Friday, quite unexpectedly, Alex and I found ourselves on a plane to Trinidad's sister island, Tobago.  The story of how this came to be is one I'm saving for tomorrow's post; but suffice to say that when one is presented with an opportunity to go to Tobago, one leaps at the chance.

Tobago is only a 15 minute flight from Trinidad, and is pretty much exactly what you think of when someone says the phrase "Caribbean island."  Where Trinidad is bustling and industrial, Tobago is quiet and tranquil.  When Marcus, Alex and I lived in Trinidad, we would try to get to Tobago for long weekends as often as we could afford, and whenever we went, we would stay at Coco Reef Resort.   We chose this hotel not because we loved the rooms or great service (though, of course, we did), but because when you're going to the beach with a toddler, you want somewhere safe, and their enclosed cove, where the water is as still as a sheet of glass, was perfect for our little Alex and her water wings.


This trip we didn't stay at Coco Reef (again, more on that tomorrow), but when we landed, Alex and I decided to walk over and have lunch at Coco Reef and swim in the ocean in front of the restaurant.  We, unsurprisingly, had a wonderful time.  There were tons of fish, and our little Alex is now our Big Girl Alex, so we took fins and a snorkel, and she was able to really get into swimming in the ocean (no photos, unfortunately, because I was swimming right next to her -- the water is deceptively deep out there).  But even given our awesome time, I have to say that while I never enjoy traveling without Marcus, it was here, my friends, when I missed the man like a madwoman.  Being on this beach where so many family memories had been made, it just felt somehow wrong for us to be there without him.

(Incidentally, Marcus and I celebrated 9 years of marriage this week.  So this fact might have had something do with why I was particularly pining for him, as well.)

Anyway, Happy Love Thursday, friends.  May you spend some time this summer somewhere that's special to you and the people you love.


SongMissing by Everything But the Girl


(On another, unrelated note: please be sure to click here to see some thoughts I've recently had on being an individual, on BlogHer's Own Your Beauty.)

auntie sonia, mount st. benedict and the tunapuna market

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. 

Kind of.


Sort of?

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.

SongOne Love/People Get Ready by Bob Marley.

grandma the great and her garden

Our second full day in Trinidad (after having gotten our beach fix), we headed southeast to Champs Fleurs to visit my grandmother, or as Alex calls her, "Grandma the Great."  This is my dad's mom, she's 93 years old, and I want you to listen closely when I say:

Her mind is as sharp as a tack. It is sharper than mine has ever been, or ever will be.

As long as I can remember, Grandma has spent every free moment she has doing every single kind of puzzle that has ever been put to print.  She does every level of crossword, every type of sudoku, every word search, and she even does these really frighteningly obscure ones that are actually long division math problems, except each number in the problem is replaced by a letter, and your job is to decode the letters back into numbers.

I know.

She is so obsessed with these puzzles that each one of her (count 'em) 9 children, and many of her grandchildren (myself included), makes sure to bring her a new puzzle book whenever we visit.  So Tuesday morning we all headed out to her house, puzzle books in tow.

As I mentioned, she's the mother of nine children (my dad is #2), and when we arrived, my aunt Alma (#3), who we call "Auntie Aqui" was there ...


... as was the baby of the family, Auntie Lystra (#9).


It had been several years since Alex and I had seen Grandma and Aunties Aqui and Lystra, so it was particularly good to see them.  And as often happens when you haven't seen family for several years, the old photo albums come out...

... at which point, Auntie Lystra immediately pointed out a childhood photograph of my dad:



DUDE.  At the sight of my dad, Kermitt W. Walrond, PhD, one of the most proper men we know, as a 2-year-old dressed in a romper, barefoot (I didn't even know my dad had feet!), with -- wait for it -- his hair in braids, Alex, my mom and I FELL OUT.  We could not stop laughing.   Dad stared at us with a vaguely injured expression, but reallyMy dad?? 

I'm still wiping away tears.

And then, to add insult to injury, Auntie Lystra tried to braid his hair again ...


Sadly, it didn't work.  Alex may never get over the disappointment.

After we pulled ourselves together, Auntie Aqui took us for a tour of Grandma's little garden.  Allow me a moment to say that the only people I have ever seen give the British a run for their money when it comes to gardens are we Trinidadians.  It is a rare person who does not have lush hibiscus or bougainvillea, or fruit trees of various kinds in their gardens, and my grandmother is no exception.  There's a mango tree:

(Incidentally, I owe an apology to Trinidad.  My daughter ate all of the ripe mangoes in the country, and now I fear there are no more left. Seriously, I've never seen a kid eat so many mangoes in my life.)


There is also an avocado tree (which we Trinis call "zaboca"):

The avocado you see above is about one-third grown -- when it's ripe, it will be about the size of Alex's head.  I remember when I was a child, the first time I saw the little shriveled black fruits that are passed off as avocados here in Houston supermarkets, I felt deep, deep pity for Americans who have never eaten a Trini avocado.


There's also a lime tree (for the making of rum punch, don't you know):


And there's a sugar-apple tree.  I've actually never had a sugar-apple.  I hear it's really sweet, which, you know, I would've assumed from the name.


There are peas, coconut trees, a couple of pomegranate trees, and the list goes on and on, all in a garden that is really no bigger than the one we have in our home in Houston.  And, as she has done all my life, Grandma grows various orchids as well:



But my favourite plant that Auntie Aqui showed us was Wonder of the World:

As Auntie Aqui was showing us this plant, Mom told Alex and me that when she and her sister were little girls, they would take the leaves off of this plant, and scratch the names of various boys in their classes in each of the leaves, and then put the leaves in a dark closet.  This plant's leaves have the distinction of growing new little plants out its edges (like so), so in a few days, my mom and her sister would return to the closet to see which of the leaves had sprouted, and this would tell them which of the boys was going to be their boyfriends.

"Did you ever scratch Kermitt's name in a leaf?" asked Auntie Aqui, referring to my dad.

"No," Mom replied, pensively. 

Which, when you think about it, is not that surprising, given the romper, bare feet and braids.


Song: Jean and Dinah by The Mighty Sparrow

good friends, good times & maracas beach

A couple of days before Alex and I left for Trinidad, my phone rang.  It was my friend Gail.

Gail and I have known each other since I was 15 and she was 14.  We were students at St. Joseph's Convent, Port-of-Spain, and she's one of the few classmates I've kept in contact with; when Marcus, Alex and I lived in Trinidad during 2005-2007, Gail, her husband and her son were some of our closest friends.  Since that we left she's had another child, her daughter Catherine, and we hadn't met her or seen any of the rest of the family since we moved to Houston.

"Karen," she said, "the kids are dying to go to the beach, since it has been raining a lot here lately.  When you and Alex come, we'd love to take you to Maracas."

I didn't even hesitate to take her up on her offer.  Maracas Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Trinidad, located about 15 minutes' drive from where we used to live.  It was the beach we most frequently visited.

Alex and I arrived late Saturday night, so Gail and I made plans to head to Maracas early Sunday morning.  About 10 am, she appeared with Christian and Catherine, and we started our journey along the windy road, through dense rainforest, up over the hill and back down to the coast, on our way to meet Gail's sister, Nicole, and her kids, for our day at the beach.

The morning was dry and the weather was looking promising; however, on the way, we stopped at a popular overlook, where I snapped a picture in the direction of Maracas.

"Dude," I said, quietly, so the kids wouldn't hear.  "This is not looking good."

"I know, I know," she responded, equally quietly.  "Don't worry, it will pass."

We got back in the car, and continued back down the hill.  By the time we got to the beach, however, the rain was in full force.

The kids were silent.

"Gail, maybe we should go back," I said.  "We can swim in the pool at my parents' place."

"Don't worry," Gail insisted.  "It will pass.  Let's go get a shark-and-bake and you'll see."

Now, shark-and-bake (or, sometimes, "bake-and-shark") is a quintessential Trinidadian sandwich that, as far as I know, is almost exclusively eaten at Maracas beach.  "Bake" is actually and paradoxically a fried bread...

... and to make a shark-and-bake, you split open a bake, put a piece of fried shark in between, and slather it with all kinds of sauces, chutneys, and various vegetables.  It is horrifyingly bad for you, and one of the most delicious things you will ever want to eat.  It is, seriously, a slice of heaven.  And you don't have to take my word for it:  Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods once featured it on his show, and the man was thrown into a severe state of ecstacy as a result (start at 5:20 to see him practically weep with joy).

So, shark-and-bake time it was.  We bought sandwiches for all of us, and sat in the car so we could stay dry while we ate... then, miraculously, after we were done and just as Gail had predicted, the sun came out.

Needless to say, the kids perked right up.  So after hurriedly slapping on some sunscreen on the kids (though I totally forgot to put any on me!), they rushed into the ocean.







Needless to say, the kids had a whale of a time.  We stayed there for hours, until finally fatigue started to set in, and it was time to go.  But on the way back, we stopped at the overlook again, so that I could redeem myself with a proper Maracas bay shot:

Thanks so much, Gail.  As I told you repeatedly that day, getting battered by the waves and inadvertently snorting Maracas beachwater was the perfect reintroduction to Trinidad.


SongLoca by Shakira, featuring Dizzee Rascal