Thursday, 24 December 2009

If you can, have a tropical Christmas.

If you ever have the opportunity to spend December in the tropics, I suggest that you take it. I vacationed in Trinidad during the holiday season in 1982 and it was a singular experience to say the least.

An immigrant family from that Caribbean island became members of the house church which I attended in Edmonton. When their father visited the city, he was so impressed with our congregation that he started his own home-based church upon returning to the hamlet of Diamond Village. Two women from our congregation visited their's and were thrilled by their experience. I felt pleased when I received permission from Stephen, the son of the man who founded the Diamond Village church, to stay at his home for a month. A hotel would have cost too much and I wanted to live with the people, experiencing their way of life.

As I travelled by plane to Toronto, where I would connect with my flight to Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain, I wondered if I would have to sleep in a hut or similar primitive structure. I knew they spoke English there but not much else about the country. I had a lot of time to wonder about my host's village during the twelve hour flight.

The first thing I noticed as I exited the aircraft was the strong smell of grass. I've heard that people who live in the Arctic often have the same experience when they visit southern Canadian cities during spring. Then Stephen introduced himself. As he left to fetch his car, I sat on the curb in front of the terminal and soaked up the warm sunshine while admiring the palm trees.

Houses in Trinidad were not primitive hovels, as I feared, but modern brick and wooden structures. Stephen lived in a two-story home which was divided up into three suites. The residents had electricity, though a truck did knock down the line to the house and we were without power for three weeks. Apart from buying ice from an ice factory to keep the fridge cool, and though the children missed watching television, we managed quite well with candles and oil lamps. In addition, I bought a battery-powered wall light for my bedroom.

I noticed early on that there was no hot water tap in the shower. When Stephen said the cold water was warm enough, I discovered that he was right. It felt like when a person first steps into a public swimming pool. I grew accustomed to the bracing temperature, feeling invigorated by the time I finished.

Staying with my friend and his family meant that I had to adapt to his schedule. He worked as a contractor so we only went places during his down time. These were often church-related events. Stephen and his relatives took me along to do mundane chores such as shopping as well. I found the latter to be fascinating. The various towns and cities we visited had both modern shopping malls and outdoor booths, often side by side. The decorations inside the mall had me scratching my head. It seemed most incongruous to have displays of reindeer and snow in a land which had no experience of either. Seeing beer sold in the grocery store was also a shock. That was never allowed in Canada. We did go to a few tourist places, such as the beach at Los Iros Bay, but our trips were mainly to local shops.

Since Trinidadians drive on the left side of the street, I kept walking to the wrong side of the car. After three weeks, I finally became accustomed to sitting in the left front seat. I soon felt as if I actually lived in Diamond Village instead of being a mere tourist.

I also adjusted to the accents of my friends and their different expressions. When I arrived in late November, I needed to concentrate or I would lose the gist of the conversation. By Boxing Day, when I left for home, I could follow their discussions easily. My friends also used sayings such as "just now" differently. That meant immediately to them, not recently. When the water supply was interrupted for maintenance, Stephen told me that the pipe was, "locked off." They also said that the ice in the cooler was "burning" my hand. I suppose that makes sense if one has never felt cold as we do.

Instead of lights and tinsel, some Christmas trees had coloured cotton ribbons draped on their branches. Many families had artificial trees since shipping Evergreens to the caribbean was expensive. Whether they were decorated Trinidad style or as in North America, presents were always left under them.

After the Christmas morning service, my friend's family and I opened our gifts. I received a lovely short-sleeved carnival shirt, complete with drawings of steel drum players, printed all over it. I wore my present, which fit well, all that day as we feasted.

Everybody ate the family's traditional Indian cuisine but the spices were placed next to the dishes instead of being mixed in. My hosts understood that I would appreciate not having my tongue catch fire. As a result, I had no difficulty with what I was served. The oddest thing that I ate during that vacation was shark meet. It tasted a bit like beef and had a grainy texture. I also thought it a treat to eat coconut meat out of the shell and drink its milk. Though the bananas on Stephen's tree in the backyard weren't ripe, I was amazed that they grew upwards, not hanging down as I had imagined. Stephen also kept ducks and we ate both them and their eggs. With the variety of tropical fruits and unusual soda pop flavours, I never lacked for interesting refreshments.

The sunlight seemed strangely dim when I returned to Edmonton. When a friend drove me home from the MacDonald Hotel, I absent-mindedly walked toward the driver's side before realizing my mistake. I soon adapted again to living in Alberta but I never forgot how nice it felt to wake up in summer-like conditions, to enjoy the warm breeze wafting through the windows, and the exotic scent of Trinidad's foliage after a sudden downpour.

I wrote more about that vacation in my upcoming memoir, How I Was Razed, which should be in print next November. I have previously published When a Man Loves a Rabbit (Learning and Living With Bunnies) and Deliverance from Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School) which you can read more about at the Inscribe writers group website. E-mail me too if you want more information on my memoirs.