Thursday, January 21, 2010

Common Dogs (Life in Trinidad)

By Nicholas Stix

Trinidad Series, Part I
Toogood Reports/A Different Drummer
September 26, 2000

A dog sits in the road, and hearing us approach, casually peeks over his left shoulder, as our car swerves out of its way, into incoming traffic. A man “bounces” (knocks fists), black American style, with his two-year-old grand-nephew. A 12-year-old boy wears fubu jeans. All these are representative images of today’s Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, yet each requires a second look.

Take the greeting. The man is not black, but “East Indian,” meaning of Indian descent. In “T & T,” the greeting has none of the racial significance it has in America. As for the jeans, they exhausted the boy’s meager earnings as a contractor’s helper. The much cheaper, no-name jeans imported from nearby Venezuela just aren’t in style.

Trinidad & Tobago really is a lush, island paradise. It is hot (86-95 degrees) year-round, mosquitoes, flies, and ants are plentiful, the soil is fertile, and most people are poor, by American standards. But though it produces bananas (called “figs” by the locals) that are sweeter than most you’ll find in the States, T & T is no banana republic.

In 1962, Great Britain granted independence to the new Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. About 80 percent of this nation’s 1,250,000 citizens is split evenly between “West Indians” of African and “East Indians” of Indian descent; the balance is a melange of French, Spanish, Chinese and other minorities, and various mixes thereof.

(The vast majority of T & Ters are Trinidadians; residents of Tobago call themselves “Tobagonians,” with the second syllable accented as “bay.” The media have created the generic term, “Trinbagonians,” but no real people use it. Civilians identify themselves as “Trinidadians” or “Tobagonians.” The only commonly used term combining Trinidad and Tobago is the phrase “TT dollars”; only politicians, journalists, academics and businessmen ever speak of “the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.”)

The demographic mix was created largely through generations of battles pitting Spanish, French, and English colonial powers against each other, and whose legacies are apparent in the street signs. The West Indians were brought here in chains, the East Indians as indentured servants. The slaves were emancipated on August 1, 1838, while the gradual freeing of indentured servants, who were first imported in 1845, lasted until 1917, according to historian Bridget Brereton of the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies. The indentured servants had to buy back their freedom.

(Although the terms suggest that the East Indians were more free than the Africans, many were Shanghaied, as were great grandmothers on both sides of my wife’s family. Already married, they thought they were going on day tours on boats in India among groups of married women, but were instead kidnapped and taken to Trinidad, where they were forced into second marriages with strangers.)

In small towns, skinny “common dogs” (mutts) wander aimlessly in the road. They may be strays or kept dogs—not that you’ll want to find out. Although the family dogs are friendly after their fashion, unlike Americans, T & Ters generally keep dogs neither as spoiled, affectionate, domesticated playmates nor as trained killers. The dogs feel the same way.

A family primarily has a dog to keep robbers at bay. Owners do not waste money on dog food, let alone pet boutiques or dog salons, and usually feed their dogs table scraps alone.

Most Trinidadians in the south sleep so soundly, that they awake unaware that dogs were barking, and roosters crowing intermittently through the night. My father-in-law, for instance, accepts the apparently universal rural folk wisdom, that you can set your watch by the rooster crowing at dawn. Folk myth is more like it! His next-door neighbors’ roosters will sometimes start crowing continuously at 4:00 a.m., sometimes at 2:30 a.m., and sometimes they will crow all night, especially a gamecock they own who sounds like a rooster who’s had his neck wrung, and who seems to want to provoke the other roosters into crowing all night, every night. They ignore him, probably because he does not sound like a real rooster.

Not all “Trinis” sleep as soundly as my father-in-law, however. One occasionally hears of an enraged, sleepless neighbor tossing a barking dog a piece of poisoned meat.

My father-in-law notes that, as many families keep “fowls” (chickens), if one permits one’s dogs to run free, they will invariably snap the necks of the next-door neighbors’ chickens, eating some, and gratefully presenting the rest to their owners. My mother-in-law observes that in such cases, she must go out and eliminate the trail of chicken feathers that her dog, Lion, will have left in his wake. Otherwise, she will have to pay the neighbor a hefty restitution fee.

In the towns, you’ll pass a mix of beautiful, bright new cement houses and faded, wooden shacks that look ready to collapse, often adjacent to one another. Unlike America, rigid class distinctions dividing entire neighborhoods are the exception here.

Rich or poor, almost all of the roofs are made of the same, corrugated tin and zinc hybrid that T & Ters call “galvanize.” Similarly, whether rich or poor, virtually all houses outside of the cities are built on stilts (be they cement or wood), due to the uneven landscape. Having seen houses on flat land built the same way, I don’t think the local builders know any other way.

Huge satellite dishes commonly stand in front of tiny houses. People whose state-provided electricity quits on them five or six times a night, and whose state-provided water sometimes gets shut off for days on end (while being turned back on at night), can nonetheless see everything on TV we can. And even without “dishes,” everyone can see American broadcast TV reruns from recent years on government TV. And so, my 14-year-old niece’s favorite phrases are now, “Duh!” and “Whatever.”

Some might call that progress.

Speaking of which, a sobering scene awaits drivers on the highways leading to and from the northern, capital city of Port-of-Spain, where the carcasses of freshly killed dogs litter the shoulder. The dogs must have taken their more genteel, small town assumptions about driver behavior to the more fast-paced highway. They learned too late, that progress is unyielding.

(Postscript, 2010: According to The Boss, I was wrong in describing Indians as “East Indians”; she maintains that that description applies to Indians in India, and that “West Indian” is the proper term for Indians in the West Indies. I have seen “East Indian” used on occasion to refer to Indians in places like Trinidad, but was probably influenced by hearing the term “West Indian” used exclusively to describe blacks, growing up on Long Island. In Trinidad, people typically refer to blacks as “Negroes,” and Indians as “Indians.”)

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