Trinidad and Tobago: My Homeland of Incommensurable Contradictions
On My Love-Hate Relationship with the Place I Call "Home"
TW: Discussions of Violence, Murder and Sexual Assault. This article's not worth sacrificing your mental health for so if those topics are particularly traumatic for you, please click away.
"I'm from Trinidad." Blank stare, polite smile but I see the cogs turning in their mind as they grapple with the strange name of a place they've most certainly never heard of before.
"Trinidad and Tobago. It's in the Caribbean," I amend gently.
Their eyes light up as tentative recognition flashes across their face. "Oh! Is that near Jamaica?"
My heart sinks a little but I'm gotten accustomed to this response. "Well, not exactly. It's off the coast of Venezuela. Two twin islands but one country. It's a beautiful place with stunning tropical beaches, amazing music and a rich melting pot of different cultures, people, food and festivals."
This description is burned into my brain. I've repeated it excitedly so many times since my move to Canada in 2018 for university. If I had a dollar for every time I've had the above interaction, I'd be retired somewhere on a private yacht. Lately though, these words leave a foul taste in my mouth. They feel hollow, stripped of meaning and strangled coming out, as if my body is actively fighting against the urge to say something my heart knows is untrue.
Presently, this is being written in the aftermath of the disappearance and gruesome murder of a 23-year old woman in Trinidad. On her way home from work, she was taken and her body unceremoniously dumped in one of the many forested areas that pepper our beautiful islands. In December of 2020, an 18-year old girl was reported missing after she didn't show up to her grandmother's house, only for her naked body to be discovered some days later. An autopsy revealed that she had been brutally beaten, stabbed multiple times about the body and raped by a gang of men. In 2016, a 20-year old was discovered, her rotting corpse stuffed into the freezer of a popular retail store after she had a job interview there. We are in 2021, the retail store is still fully operational, no leads, no suspects, no justice.
These are not isolated events. In fact, since finding the remains of the 23-year old yesterday, I've seen numerous missing persons posters on Facebook, parents begging and pleading for the safe return of their daughters. My heart aches for their suffering 6000 kilometres away and I feel it as if it were my own. These crimes underscore a dangerous truth that we as a country have neglected: the pristine beauty of our islands is conditional and serves to mask the underlying and unaddressed societal ills plaguing our people.
A Cascading Waterfall of Problems
There's a popular saying in my country: Trinidad is not a real place. Typically this is used whenever something absolutely ridiculous occurs that wouldn't happen anywhere else. A politician says something out of pocket regarding another's hairstyle, wife or alleged alcoholism. A woman goes viral for complaining that the house she received for free from the government is too far away and meme nation has a field day. The entire country begins to take a hurricane warning seriously only after the KFC location that never closes even on the holidays suspends service.
I prefer to think of the phrase as a symbol of our cultural vitality and an embodiment of the lightness and fullness of life that permeates the fabric of the islands. Levity and humour blanket our daily interactions, connecting us in spirit to every Trinbagonian everywhere. We are neighbours. We are friends. We are family. Connected and in sync like the rush of water, racing over the edge of the precipice at Maracas Falls, colliding with jagged, mossy rock below to create something breathtaking.
Or at least that is the dream that we sell ourselves. More accurately, we are the cacophony of sound, the strained voices, struggling to be heard against backdrop of the deafening fall of water. In Trinidad, our connectedness is an excuse for hiding our transgressions. Mothers, relatives, friends know that their sons are murderers, rapists, robbers, wife beaters and say nothing. "That's my son, he was an angel, never do nothing to nobody" said in tears on the 8 o' clock news when these men inevitably meet a violent end has become code for "he was a menace to society and a monster."
I’m thankful to have lived my childhood free from these experiences. Barring a break in to my home that resulted in the murder of my uncle (I slept through it), my childhood was virtually untouched by this systemic violence.
Baking under the scalding sun. Drawn out games of hide and seek. The time we played so hard that we managed to topple a 100-pound door. Days spent bathing in the river next to Ma’s house in San Juan. That time Kurlan almost got snapped by a crab. Birthday celebrations and Christmas celebrations. School dodgeball games, Maths lessons and that one time I met a classmate in a field behind the school to fight about something that I don't even remember now. In my mind, there was nothing more than this. There was an apparent expansiveness to life back then that was extinguished as soon as I hit puberty and started looking less like a girl and more like the woman I would become.
The memory of the images above is forever etched into my mind. After a standard field trip to Mount St. Benedict with my classmates for English Tea Time, I set about commuting home like I typically did. I lived an hour away from my secondary school so I would take the bus (we call them 'maxis') back and forth everyday. My mind didn't register this action as something particularly dangerous and I never felt unsafe. I was 16 at the time and I'd done it for years.
Head leaning against the glass, I remove my earphones which had been blasting Green Day and greet the man that approaches. He nods furtively and sits down. I promptly pop my earbuds back in, crank the volume up and resume looking out the window, watching the passing green fields.
Twenty minutes pass and I feel his hand forcefully skim the side of my ugly, teal green uniform skirt. Not one to be easily spooked, I don't think too much of it and naturally assume that he was reaching into his jeans pocket for his wallet and accidentally touched me.
My silence carries across as consent apparently because he immediately begins rubbing down the side of my leg, his hand moving hungrily while his hips shift closer to mine, closing the distance between us. Annoyed, I swat his hand away and elbow him pointedly. That only seems to encourage him. Suddenly, my knee length uniform skirt is lifted until it's now mid-thigh length. Absolutely terrified, my heart hammering out of my chest until I could feel the force of my heartbeat in my ears, I press the stop signal on the bus and clumsily rush over the man's leg, attempting to free myself from the corner he had boxed me into. It wasn't my stop and seeing as I had no money left, I ended up having to walk 30 minutes to get home. At least I was safe.
The funny thing is though (depends on your definition of funny), I was commuting with two of my friends and my younger sister almost a year later and as I began to explain the aforementioned experience, immediately all three of them exclaim "I know him! He did that to me too!"
"Yeah! He usually goes in all the maxis harassing school girls. Everybody knows him."
"Then why do they still let him on the maxis?"
A nonchalant shoulder shrug.
Who would we tell though? What would we say? And who would care?
The View From On Top
The people on top make excuses. A new woman is found assaulted and they say: What was she wearing? Why are you wearing that "pum-pum" shorts? You have to dress better because you see how many men around there. Careful when walking on the street. You can't just go in any taxi. She was looking for that, do you see her Facebook posts?
A body is discovered dumped along the side of a cliff and the first words out of our politicians' mouth are "Women need to be safe." Be safe. As if we are deliberately trying to be unsafe. Thoughts and condolences are offered as if they can heal our brokenness. Sexual offenders are routinely let off the hook because police officers can't deign to attend court hearings to give testimony.
When you're on the top, these things don't affect you as much or at all. Money is a permashield against misery. You can look down and see peace, misinterpret the chaos.
When I was younger, my family would make a twice yearly trip to Las Cuevas Beach. You'd drive and drive for ages up a hilly precipice enclosed by rocky green-land on one side and the vast, endless ocean on the next. About halfway there, we'd always stop and take pictures at a look-over, admiring the view. There was silence, an eerie kind of beauty, the smell of sea salt punctuating the air. For a moment, looking down, it was almost too easy to get lost in the etherealness and forget everything else. In those moments, I best understood our politicians.
Outside Looking In
I no longer live in Trinidad and Tobago, although I miss it dearly. I miss my family. I miss the heat, particularly now that it looks like this in Canada:
My heart longs for my mom's home cooking. For the bacchanal, humour and life that permeates every fibre of my country. For the hours spent laughing and "carrying on" with my friends back home.
My love, however, is compounded with hatred, disappointment and deep sadness. I hate it because I want it to be better and I think we as a people deserve better too. It's a weird contradiction, loving and hating intensely and equally. In spite of its many shortcomings, I feel the urge to passionately defend Trinidad and Tobago from those who would criticize it, even though I criticize it relentlessly myself. It's like when someone says something foul about your sibling. "Hey, I can say that because I know them like that. You don't." It's a kind of rose-tinted lens, a yearning to see the good even when overwhelmed by the bad.
How does one reconcile love and hate? Love for what my homeland was, what it could be and hate for what it has become. My home is beautiful but broken too. Like most things worth loving.
"I hate you because I love you, and you let me down." - Unknown