By Natalie Williams
Returning to my homeland of Trinidad and Tobago after seven years living overseas, including nearly two years in vibrant but volatile Egypt,
can best be described as witnessing arrested development.
It was also a long overdue, invaluable opportunity to reflect on what I’ve been missing while abroad.
On a personal level, “going home” was a bitter-sweet feeling.
Even as I write, I still cannot decide whether I mean this as a good or bad thing.
More specifically, I am wrestling with whether a month in the Caribbean has left me inspired or depressed. Bear with me, dear reader.
In December, the Wise One and I and our son Justin spent our first Christmas in the Caribbean in six years.
Our first weeks were spent soaking up the glorious climate, sea breezes and simply relaxing in beautiful, thriving St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Later, we journeyed to Trinidad and Tobago to spend time with my parents and to enjoy a long overdue Trini Christmas with close friends and relatives. (These were blissful times spent eating good Trini food, visiting familiar beaches and spreading the love around the place.)
It was bad enough that even before we landed in the region, we had to “do battle” with warnings about the dreaded disease called Chikungunya, which continues to torment communities in the Caribbean.
Armed with a small arsenal of every insect repellent known to Arabic, African and English pharmacists, we hoped for a month in the Caribbean without contracting the dreaded Chik V - a mosquito-borne virus that is debilitating and so horribly painful that we’re told one’s fingers and toes curl up like chicken feet.
And we did survive without getting the disease, despite starting our vacation in Bequia, the largest island in the Grenadines chain, which officially has the highest number of cases in the entire Caribbean.
Even now back in Cairo, I still thank Allah for protecting us, despite getting many mozzie bites, as it continues to make headlines, with Canada recently issuing a travel warning to its travellers because of this dreaded mosquito plague.
The fear of getting this disease was the single biggest drawback to going home.
Once there, we discovered that the national obsession with re-telling the horrors of the victim’s plight had its compensations. Most times, the storytelling came in true Caribbean style, mixed in with folklore, cold beers and cocktail nibbles or while consuming street food we hadn’t enjoyed for years.
Bustling St Vincent
Back in the noughties, my family and I lived in St Vincent for four years on what was a wonderful diplomatic posting.
We moved on in 2006, leaving behind lifelong close friends.
It felt good to return eight years later, largely because of the reunion with our dear friends, but also because the island felt alive.
It bustled with energy, with purpose and intent.
Things were happening. A new international airport was rapidly being built. So too were new restaurants in the capital, Kingstown, charming waterfront eateries such as Café Soleil.
National infrastructure was being upgraded and young people were getting jobs at newly opened medical universities and even small spas thriving on the island.
I should add it was not all fun and games in SVG.
Within a day of our arrival, there was a horrific accident when a car ploughed into a political meeting, killing one high-profile party supporter and injuring 11 others.
Shocking and sad enough, but as this tragic accident became a political football - with the most grotesque links being made between the political allegiance of the dead man’s family and government leaders - St Vincent felt very small indeed and the atmosphere made it seem the most polarised island in the region.
It was simply refreshing to see the daily collaborative spirit and inclusive way of life between Vincentians and skilled workers from Taiwan, Cuba and, more recently, Ecuador – all of whom assimilated deep into island life while working together to construct St Vincent’s new international airport.
To witness first-hand the laughter, partying and camaraderie of the men and women of the Spanish Caribbean with their local brethren was heart-warming.
Caricom may be a dead duck, according to some, but ordinary working-class people are keeping the spirit of the community alive.
We left SVG with a sense of well-being, filled with positive hope for the region - that here was a population collectively working hard to better itself and with every intention of achieving nationalistic goals, even if divided by the politics of the day.
Trinidad and Tobago, by contrast, felt strained.
It seemed stuck. Not necessarily stuck in time, for there were some signs of progress and development: not just in the capital, Port of Spain, but in other larger cities, with new road layouts, a newly built beautiful sea-front boardwalk, and one or two refurbished local hospitals.
Yet Trinidad seemed to have an arrested development (physical and psychological).
Many times I asked myself whether my homeland was bogged down on a path of pursuing the Western trappings that I consider incongruous in an island struggling with high unemployment and huge disparities between the rich and poor in society.
Trinidad is a land full of expensive cars, a high-priced housing market, massive homes and penthouses without garden space.
Let me add to that list: expensive private health-care hospitals; snazzy-looking supermarkets with precious little local fruit and vegetables on offer; blinkered radio programming; no real growth in the local television programming; nor any sign of local movies from great local books - despite the island bursting with creative talent and a thriving literature festival, Bocas.
It all seemed a very strained lifestyle for what is the richest island in the Caribbean
by far, with its natural gas and oil resources.
When I think back, one example of this presented itself immediately on our arrival in Trinidad.
After disembarking and clearing customs with several pieces of luggage, passengers (locals and foreigners alike) are greeted by airport baggage handlers declaring: “This trolley cyant [can’t] go no further than this front door, mister.”
There is not a single luggage trolley available to passengers to push their own luggage to any part of the airport – whether to a waiting car or to a local food chain or bar in the airport building arrivals area.
How could a country as rich as TT offer no trolleys (paid or free) for passengers’ use at its international airport? [Editor’s note: porter services are available].
Trinidad and Tobago's abiding redeeming factor is the Trini spirit – that ebullient love of life, food, music and all things pleasurable.
In every home where we spent time, families and friends and sometimes complete strangers were caring, kind and generous.
They shared food (and fine rums), jokes, gifts and most of all, they dished out that world-famous fun-loving spirit of Trinidadians, which is indeed alive and well.
The diversity of the cultures on the island is also so beautiful to experience.
At every Christmas
and New Year's party, it was joyful to see white man dancing with black woman, Venezuelan grinding on Indian, Chinese holding hands with Syrian, Indian kissing Portuguese.
And this diversity was mouth-wateringly evident in the cuisine we enjoyed everywhere on the island.
By contrast, in my adopted home of Cairo
, which sometimes rivals New York as the city that never sleeps, food “ain’t nutting” to write home about.
To be fair, the largest city in Africa, with its toe in the Middle East, has enough wholesome dishes and local foods to enjoy on numerous occasions, but Cairo is sorely lacking in authentic cuisines from around the globe.
After all, there’s only so much baba ganoush and koshary (a mixture of pasta, lentils and chickpeas) that one can eat.
Sadly, this reflects the fact that Cairo and Egypt
as a whole lacks noticeable diversity in its population of 90 million people.
There is no real immigrant community here, unlike New York or the rainbow nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
So in this Egyptian capital city, cooking Italian or Thai food for public consumption appears unworkable on a mass scale.
All through our Caribbean travels, one thing was clear: the people of the region are resilient and inspiring.
They can weather the metaphorical storm with an optimistically carefree lifestyle, though there may be little or no money in their pockets.
For ordinary folks, it's all about warm, generous, genuine hospitality, living in the moment and enjoying afresh every day that comes with each dawn.
And that is one irrepressible quality I hope always to encounter in the region, no matter how long it takes me to return.