Letters to my sons.

Trying to explain the world to two very small children.

The Story Behind The Picture. J’Ouvert 2002.

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J'Ouvert in Arouca 2002
ME in 2002.

So here I am, stood in the spare bedroom at number 24 in Arouca, so drunk that I can hardly stand at 8 or 9am in the morning, covered in paint and grease. How did that happen?

It starts on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday in 2002. I’ve been roped into going to Trinidad Carnival. I’m told it’s great and I’ll have a good time. And as a dutiful fiance I have got up at stupid o’clock to catch a flight from Heathrow to Bridge Town, Barbados and then onto Piarco, Trinidad. The flight is long and I don’t remember much about it except that we were buying duty free cigarettes for Grandpa Ken. The amount allowed was two cartons but it was buy two, get one free. So we did. We are about to clear customs with one extra carton – in my mind because it was free we shouldn’t need to pay any tax on it. Tax is a percentage and any percentage of zero is still zero.

11 hours after leaving London we are in the new Piarco airport, the one Basdeo Panday had been banging on about last time I was there, despite the fact it was massively over budget and, more importantly, not finished. Panday is no longer PM, Patrick Manning was handed the PMship by the courts after an electoral tie.

The passport control people have the same attitude as last time – “give them a uniform and they think they are Hitler” – as the saying goes. No smile, no “hello”, just inane questions – why are you here? The temptation to launch on an existential musing is great but I resist. “Carnival” I answer. She looks at me in a strange way – at the time I thought it was a look of contempt. I will learn later what that look was. Then the grilling regarding where I’m staying, who lives there, why do they live there etc etc. I pull out my Palm Pilot and before I can look anything up, my papers and passport are stamped and I’m in the country.

Then we wait for the bags. And we wait. My body is telling me it’s 10pm at night but the clock says 6pm. The air conditioning, that was so good in the passport control area, isn’t as good in this bit. And I’m starting to get warm and a mild case of culture shock. The bags eventually arrive, ours are almost last but this works in our favour as the queue to clear customs has almost evaporated. And then, there we are, at the front and the man is talking to us. I can barely understand him, my ability to translate Trini to English is not up to conversational level yet. He really looks glum, he clearly doesn’t want to be there. Mummy answers his questions, he is happy and waves us through. He doesn’t mention duty free cigarettes, so neither do we.

We walk into the main area and a man tries to pick up our bags from the airport trolley. I ask him not to but he is very insistent. He explains that the trolley can’t be taken past a few metres from where we are stood. I tell him that I’m happy to carry them. Mummy is looking for Aunty Helen, see’s here and I pick up the bags and off we go. Mummy’s bag is very heavy but I pretend it’s not as I don’t want to give the porter the benefit of being right. For the few TT$ he charges, I really should have used his services.

I say hello to Helen, bags go into “Colours”, her Nissan, with bright colours down the side and a quick hop to Arouca to drop the bags, say “hello” to the family and then straight off out to a party. A quick drive down the motorway, we turn off and we are at a blocko – a street party where the street has been blocked off. I’m hungry and they have food but not a lot of it is veggie. I find some salad and breads and have a beer. I can’t remember how long we spent here. Then back to Arouca and I was very tired so I went off the bed. I’m not sure how long I slept until Mummy woke me up with an egg sandwich in one hand – ordering me to line my stomach – and a half bottle rum in the other. Time, for me at least, has stopped but it was dark so anytime before 6am Trinidad time. And now we were going to J’Ouvert in Arouca. I don’t remember who drove us and where we were dropped. All I remember was a handful of guys with buckets of paint and grease and they dirtied me, and the rest of the group, up. From head to toe. I’d played “dutty mas” once before at Nottinghill Carnival with Pure Lime and it wasn’t an altogether fantastic experience – it had rained and Mummy had gone missing on the route. By the end I was cold, wet and dejected. I was hoping for better. Once we were all painted up we wondered off some where and I had my first swig of rum. The bottle went round and came back empty. Luckily the owner of the local rum shack had decided to open up and a few more bottles were bought. Then it rained. For the first time in Trinidad I felt cold as I huddled under the eaves of a house. This was going to be Nottinghill all over again, wasn’t it? The rain shower lasted only a few minutes and a few minutes later all evidence of it had evaporated – literally. I was onto my second bottle of Stag, dry and warm and off we went to join the parade.

Loud music, more Stag – and the odd Carib – more rum and loads of people doing the same thing. I have no idea how long this went on for but I recall that we did either two or three laps and the booze was flowing like water. Eventually it started to get light – so it must have been around 6am – somewhere close it was raining as a magnificent rainbow appeared. Which triggered me and I cried a little with joy and thanked a god I don’t believe in for promising not to kill us all again. I think we walked home and once the photos were taken we went into the back yard to be hosed down and cleaned up. I then retired to bed and slept for rest of Monday and until the early hours of Tuesday. Mummy kept waking me every few hours to administer water and some soup. I did manage to spend some time asleep with my back uncovered and the mosquitoes did their worst. My back ended up looking like a pizza.

I’ve use the term “we” a lot – I genuinely can not remember who was there and wasn’t. I was there, Mummy was there, Uncle Keith was their and because I remember the photograph in the newspaper, Aunty Hazel was there. Your cousin Tricia was there. I think Uncle Hayden was there and it’s possible Uncle Hazley was there. I’m sure more people I know where there, but I just can’t remember. If I can find the photos then I’ll confirm.

My first ever J’Ouvert was brilliant and an experience that defines and almost certainly “opens” another chapter of my life. It was the point that I starting bonding with Mummy’s family and started to get an understanding of the history, the culture and the people of Trinidad. And with that understanding I got a deeper understanding of Mummy herself. It wasn’t just the day that opened, it was also my mind.

P.S. My miserable Nottinghill was a one off and I’ve had many brilliant experiences since with Pure Lime.
P.P.S. The passport control woman’s facial contortions were a mixture of jealousy, I bet she was working for the whole of Carnival, and pity, as I’m sure she knew I wasn’t up to it.

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May 22nd, 2020 at 10:22 am

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