Caroni Criollo

A large envelope came one very damp day at the beginning of summer, what the first world would call “spring.” We just say rainy season in Trinidad – because it rains torrentially, and the hills are verdant and plentiful with waning neon poui trees in their final bloom. Pouis bloom three times during the dry season, the last one signifies the beginning of the wet. I like green things; I always look forward to the rainy season.

The paper was fresh and floppy in my hands due to the outside humidity, like a newly caught fish. I opened it with the full knowledge that I’d been accepted. The big envelopes usually meant you got in; the smaller ones were a bad sign. No point wasting good brochures if they don’t want your tuition money.

I ran into my parent’s room; they were lying on their bed watching whatever Sunday movie was on TV.

“I got in!” I yelled.

A soaring whoop came out of their mouths as they sprung from the mattress and we all got lost in the excitement.

In the weeks that followed and after the revelry dissipated, I quickly realised that getting into a US university wasn’t the hardest part, the student visa allowing me to enter the country would prove to be the biggest bee in my bonnet. Immediately, everyone I knew was sharing their procedure for getting through unscathed at the US embassy. We all had a horror story about that place.

“Don’t go to the American girl, she hates Trinis,” said my cousin.

“The guy, in the far left booth, is nice,” said my friend.

Of course, someone else knew someone’s mother who worked in the building, a connection that would be useful if shit hit the fan. Which it probably would, getting a US visa right off the bat was a rare occurrence.

Despite this knowledge, I went prepared for victory; I dotted all the “I’s” and filled out the towers of paperwork the spiky U S of A throws at all aliens, trying to bamboozle us before we even approach the glass partition.

The waiting area at the US embassy in Port of Spain is beyond archaic; it’s probably been that way since American troops overtook the island decades prior. A large open room was built alongside the embassy building, full of rows of chairs pushed next to each other with a small army of fans blowing hot air onto the waiting patrons.

Facing the crowd is a row of glass windows, with fate seated behind, waiting to give you the coveted key into the first world or take it away with a grin, always a little one. 

Upon entering, you wait in line alongside the building, staring holes through the old Anglican church across the road, drowned in the frantic sounds of rushing traffic as it careens around Queen’s Park Savannah up the street. We’re all in this line; red, white, black –it’s also one of the few moments when any class distinctions are nonexistent. We each realise that none of us is particularly attractive to the superpower we’re trying to get into. We’re equally low ranking sorts to the Yankees.    

Once you finally enter the actual embassy, phones are taken, and the copious papers all neatly organised in a manila envelope are checked. Americans are vastly untrustworthy of everyone; they think we’re all out to get them.

I brought a book and settled down towards the back clutching my cache of paperwork, which contained every detail of my life and records of every penny to my family’s name.

I sat next to an older lady; she had patches of white powder smudged up her neck and chest and was dressed beautifully in a flowery blouse and skirt that swept just above her ankles. Her hair was wrapped in a bun atop her head. She’d brought a Chinese fan with her and was furiously swatting it back and forth in front of her face, trying to gather as much surrounding air and she could. It was an unusually heavy day.

“It’s hot ah?” I remarked.

She stopped fanning and turned my way, sizing me up with her eyes.

“Mmmhmm,” she replied, continuing her manmade breeze technique. I picked at a page in the book I was reading, Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys.

“What do you need a visa for? You’re not American?” she asked suddenly.

I looked up, “No, I’m Trini,” I said, not that shocked by her inquiry. It wasn’t the first time.

“You are a Trini?” She asked, turning her entire body in the chair to face me.

“Yes, Madam,” I said.

A laugh escaped her throat, a kind of shocked chuckle that made me feel the way it usually does, like shit.

“But you look like someone from foreign!” She exclaimed. I could feel an audience of onlookers’ form around our little conversation. Trinidadians love an intrigue.

As I was about to reply, I heard my name called and sprung out of my seat. I walked to the front, and the tired guard in the corner directed me to my window.

“Please don’t let it be the mean woman, please,” I muttered to myself.

It was her, and she hated me the moment I crept up to the altar, but I did what I always do at the US embassy, grovel and worship.

She didn’t make it easy. The only unofficial exchange we had was when she’d seen my grandfather’s picture when it fell out of my files as she was rifling through them. I’d forgotten it was there; I usually used it as a bookmark.

“Who is this?” she asked holding up the photo.

“My grandfather,” I said.

She regarded me then looked back at the snapshot.

“This is your grandfather?” She asked.

“Yes Madam,” I replied.

“Okay, then,” she said nodding her head as she placed it in the drawer in front of her for me to retrieve. 

In the picture, my grandfather had dark skin. He was holding my brother up as a baby, all white-blonde hair and peachy toned. They didn’t look related. His was a deep sallow, brown with forests of wiry, black hairs on his arms and prolific, inky hair on his head. He would comb it back every morning into a side part; there was also a wave to it so the strands would ebb and flow against his skull like rolling dunes in the dead of night.

He worked in the sugar, as a manager at Caroni Ltd. deep in the heart of Trinidad’s sweet country. Every morning he went to work from his and my grandmother’s home in Brechin Castle Estate, on land, originally containing a 19th-century plantation that enslaved ninety-six men and women. Eventually, it became a settlement built for the paid employees of sugar production both foreign and domestic.

The houses were hard alabaster concrete, aloft on green pillars dug into native pitch and hallowed ground. With vast surrounding meadows housing the bones of those who turned the earth. On sweltering days, the fresh pitch would melt into your shoes leaving tacky, black patches burned into the rubber soles that stayed forever.

    Grandpa gardened every weekend and walked every morning, down the road to the golf course with a teak cane that belonged to his grandfather. “If dogs rush me,” he would say. He wouldn’t hurt them, just tap on the asphalt to shock them into submission. It usually worked.

Decades before, his grandfather, Henri would sit on the front patio of his house on Dere Street in the heart Port of Spain, watching his brood scramble on the thick grass out front, while tapping the cane to the floorboards to check for termites. That cane was used for all manner of pests.       

My brother and I usually stayed with my grandparents on weekends. We’d sleep in my father’s childhood room under thin muslin sheets and touch the magic lamp next to the bed to snuff out the light. I would devour Reader’s Digests with stories of mountain lion attacks and alligator bites far from my reality. That happened in the States; I would think, my alligators are nice. 

There was a pod of caimans that lived in the backyard; we weren’t allowed in the tall grass because that’s where they slept during the day.

On weekend mornings, Grandpa would take me out to the banks of the pond with plastic bags full of dripping gizzards and chicken entrails, tied in a neat knot, and I’d watch as he reeled a bronzed arm back and flung the parcels into the water ahead. A show of reptilian frenzy would commence where the bag fell.

“He probably choked every caiman in that pond with plastic bags,” my uncle said years later.

Later in the day, his pelt deepened in the hot sun as he squatted on a worn, wooden garden chair, tugging at carrot stems while milling around the grass in worn black slippers and carrying a giant crocus bag, picking corn, pineapple and pigeon peas from rows and rows of crops in the backyard.

At dinner, the kernels would spit juice once teeth dug into the flesh. Nothing better than fresh corn.

I was never hungry with grandpa.

He let me eat pea pods from the massive Barbados Pride in the front yard, suck nectar from Ixora flowers lining the road and scoop jelly from the center of the coconuts he cut down himself.

Thick leaves of Spanish Thyme grew under the sugar apple tree that no longer bloomed, and the smell dominated the neighbouring foliage. I’d cut bunches to take upstairs to my grandmother for green seasoning, along with a Rubbermaid jug full of newly hatched coconut juice, balancing my parcel carefully as I crept up the patchy, lengthy concrete stairs that ran alongside the house.

Weekends in Caroni were cherished because it was hidden from the outside. Full of wild things and soil that raised me. When I grew up, my childhood seemed frozen in amongst the perennial, whistling cane. When I grew up, I realised the caiman were never mine. Nothing lasts.

“Denied, you’re missing these papers…” She started listing out other forms I had to fill out, I didn’t hear her. I stood there holding back the eruption waiting behind my eyeballs. I could hear the metallic thump of the stamp as she defiled my pile with angry red marks.

I turned around and made my way to the exit to retrieve my belongings. I had a few weeks and could come back to try again.

“You can reapply up to three times per year,” she said. Three times, three blooms. 

I soon walked back out with papers in hand and brushed past the lady I was seated next to before, she craned her neck to learn my plight. 

“You are not leaving us yet,” She whispered with a smile upon seeing the red slashed across every piece of my life on paper.

No I wasn’t, but I would eventually. I smiled back, wished her a good afternoon and walked outside to the dense air sitting atop Port of Spain like an old dog. 

I would try again, and again. They would have to let up eventually. Nothing lasts.

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