Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Flat Stanley Goes to Maracas Beach - Post #4

Trinidad is an island. Islands have beaches! I spent the day at Maracas Beach.

Maracas is known for its great beach AND for its great sandwich - the "Shark and Bake." This sandwich is made from shark. Real shark. Yum! Trinidadians love to put hot pepper sauce on their food. I had my sandwich with "light pepper" but it was still pretty spicy.

I built a sand castle.

I walked on the beach.

This guy was selling cotton candy at the beach. You'd think it would get sandy but not if you eat it fast enough.

The weather was great.

This nice man was selling souvenirs.

I like the beach a lot.

Trinidad and Tobago was great! Next time I hope Alex comes here with me.

Flat Stanley Goes to Panorama - Post #3

Steel pan (or steel drum) is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. As part of the annual Carnival (Mardi Gras) celebration, steel pan bands from across the country compete in Panorama - a contest which names the best bands. The semi-finals were held this weekend.

Outside the contest, there were lots of food stands set up selling Trini snacks - fresh coconut water was my favorite. The guy cut it open with a machete. Other snack foods are roasted corn, doubles - which are sort of a hummus sandwich, and roti - which is an Indian burrito.

My favorite band was the Silver Stars. They were great! They practice in a pan yard that is outside. You can go and visit them during their rehearsals anytime you want. It always feels like a party there. Trinidadians speak English but they have some different words for things. They call parties "limes." I like limes!

Flat Stanley Visits Port of Spain - Post #2

Port of Spain is the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad is an island. Tobago is an island. Together, they make one country. In the center of Port of Spain is the Savannah. This is a big park and I saw kids playing soccer and cricket and flying kites. Cricket is a British game that is a little bit like baseball. Trinidad and Tobago used to be a British colony just like America was. They got their independence in 1962 but they still like cricket.

This spaceship-y building is one of the newest buildings in Port of Spain - it is the National Academy of the Performing Arts. You can see concerts there and they have a music school for college students inside.

Some of the prettiest houses in Trinidad and Tobago are decorated with "gingerbread." It's not the kind you eat at Christmas - it is the pretty wooden decorations on the outside of the houses. There are palm trees everywhere.

This cool red building is Queen's Royal College - one of the oldest "High Schools" in T&T.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flat Stanley Visits the U.S. Embassy - Post 1

Hi! I'm Flat Stanley. My friend Alex sent me to Trinidad and Tobago to visit his Aunt Debbie and his Uncle Dan. Trinidad and Tobago is the southernmost island in the Caribbean - it is just 7 miles away from Venezuela in South America and it is a whopping 2038 miles from Cary, North Carolina.

Trinidad and Tobago's flag is red, white and black - this one is my size.

It took me three weeks to travel here. My first stop was the U.S. Embassy where Debbie and Dan work.

I met Ambassador Beatrice Wilkinson Welters. She was very nice.

I lost my passport on the way here but Uncle Dan helped me get a new one.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gator Park Airboat Ride - Florida Post 1

In January, we spent 10 days in Florida, where it was cold. When I was a consular officer, people would tell me every day "I don't want to live in New York - it is too cold" arguing that this was proof that they would not overstay their visa. Now having spent 10 days in Florida where it was in the 40s at points - we too were eager to come back to Trinidad where it is high 90 low 78 nearly every day.

Among the highlights of our trip to Florida was an airport ride in the Everglades. I do not know how riding on an incredibly noisy boat with ear plugs came to be considered a good way to see nature but it was great fun.

Sometimes the boat would slow down and we could then see alligators and birds, who must be used to the boat.

Invaders Panyard

Although Carnival peaks with the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (which is when people are wearing costumes and dancing through the streets) - it is already Carnival season when it comes to music.

Last week we headed to the Invaders panyard - a co-worker's brother is the manager of this steel pan band. On most any evening you can drive around Port of Spain and hear music coming from panyards. These are empty lots filled with instruments and everyone is busy rehearsing for the annual competition "Panorama". The newspapers are currently filled with angry editorials about evenly split between criticism that steel bands have become too obsessed with the competition and criticism against the Ministry of Culture who has cut the payment to steel band players from 1000 TT (about $160 US) to 800 TT in a cost cutting move.

The great thing about the panyards is that you are welcome to hang out and listen to the rehearsals. Take a look at the video below- you can see that Invader's youngest pannist is 10 years old - their oldest members have been playing with the band for 50 years.

Invaders' arranger (the person who turns music into a pan orchestra arrangement) is from New York but comes down each year to help them arrange their Panorama entry. Just like all Carnival costumes need to be new each year - all Panorama songs need to be new each year. Thankfully, during the rehearsal the band also played one of my favorite old Trini Calypso numbers called Lorraine, which is the story of a Trini guy living in New York who is cold and missing Trinidad. It is also the theme song of Caribbean Airlines, Invaders' sponsor.

LORRAINE LYRICS (song by Explainer)
Taxi, Taxi
Airport Kennedy

[Verse 1]
Lorraine, you better wake up
Ah need ah jet plane to take me non-stop
Ah cyah stay in New York City
When there is sunshine and pan in my country
Lions is de place with de jammin'
With Kaly-Ann and Charlie's Roots clashin'
Everyone happy partyin'
And I'm freezin' in Brooklin, Darlin'

Lorraine doh cry ah leavin
Ah cyah miss dis jammin
With all dem steel band beatin
And woman background shakin
If de bug bite yuh baby
Then you could come and join me
Inside Catelli steelband
Jammin wit some man woman

[Verse 2]
Lorraine, girl take it easy
I don't mean to hurt you baby
The coldness makin me shiver
And back home, it hot like fire
That is why I say de next jet plane
Must take me to Port-of-Spain
Where all my fans are waiting
Preparing for J'Ouvert Morning, Darlin'


[Verse 3]
Babe, my mind is made up
Airport Kennedy will be my next stop
Doh cry and try to convince me
Because meh suitcase done pack already
And if you start feelin lonely
And mas fever vibrating yuh body
Just make ah quick reservation
And touch down in de land of steelband, woman


Doh cry homey
Yuh go see meh Ash Wednesday

[Chorus] (repeat til end)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Our Christmas Letter...

We sent out a Christmas letter right before Christmas. We decided to use T&T stamps to add to the charm. No one, however has yet reported "I just got your Christmas letter." We are hopeful that they are still on the way and you'll be able to see the cute cards and envelopes which feature a sand man and an octopus man (instead of snowmen) and a Christmas tree made of sorrel (local holiday drink).

If they never arrive, we didn't want you denied our news and glad tidings - so here is this year's letter ...

Merry Christmas from Trinidad, the southernmost island of the Caribbean. The pace of life is so slow and laid back here that it took us two years to write a Christmas letter, and out of respect for local customs, it will arrive late, and we will blame the rain or the prior government.

Christmas season actually began in late September, as stores began selling sorrel drinks (tastes like cranberry) and radio stations switched formats to the traditional holiday music called parang, which originated centuries ago thanks to visiting musicians from nearby Venezuela. The songs are festive, guitar-strumming jug band serenades, all sung in Spanish by non-Spanish speakers to non-Spanish speakers (the British took Trinidad from Spain in 1797). Curious? Search YouTube for “Lara Brothers” and have a listen. Venezuelans we have met in Trinidad are themselves puzzled by the tradition, as there is no such thing as parang in Venezuela. Imagine Cubans singing English sea shanties, and not understanding a word of it, and only at Christmastime.

Without the sorrel and musical cue, you would have no idea Christmas is a-coming, as Trinidad lacks the traditional four seasons we heretofore took for granted. Located just six degrees north of the equator, our temperatures are steady year-round. Low: 73. High: 94. Sunrise: 6:30. Sunset: 6:30. If you refer to “spring” or “fall”, you get a quizzical reaction, probably very similar to our reaction to the regular use of “fortnightly” in conversation. Trinidad has other seasons: rainy, dry, cricket and carnival.

Carnival season begins the day after Christmas and it’s all-consuming in Trinidad. The actual carnival parades are March 7 & 8 in 2011, the same time as New Orleans Mardi Gras. However, the festivities begin long before that. January and February are chock full of fetes (French word for party) thrown by carnival bands (analogous to Mardi Gras krewes), all-night parties with live music intended to drum up costume sales. This is the costume you will wear on parade day. Unlike New Orleans and Rio, Trinidad’s carnival is a participatory event. Few people come to be spectators, and there are no floats. The costumes are expensive (banks here offer Carnival loans), but they are your all-you-can-drink “ticket” to the all-day parade, giving you permission to march with your band, complete with a sound-system truck, ample security, and of course, access to the “wee wee wagon”, a flat-bed trailer full of port-a-potties. Trinidad carnival is the largest of the Caribbean, and having participated is a big deal to locals. This is a standard conversation with a Trinidadian you’ve just met:

Trinidadian: How long have you been in Trinidad?

You: (your answer does not matter)

Trinidadian: Did (will) you take part in Carnival?

Us: We played Harts.

Trinidadian smiles and has newfound respect for you.

Carnival also brings competitions for soca, pan and calypso artists every year, and you’re not permitted to rely on old favorites, all music must be new each year. The most coveted prize for a soca artist is for his/her song to be chosen as “Road March” the song blasted from each band’s speaker truck as the band parades in front of the judge’s reviewing stand. Bands change their costumes each year too, so you won’t be able to sneak into the parade without buying this year’s model. This year, Carnival will be back on the Savannah (the Trini equivalent of Central Park) – this return is a really big deal but we don’t understand why.

Trinidad voted in a new Prime Minister last spring, er, cricket season. This was indeed an exciting time to be living here. For starters, the election itself came by surprise when the old PM – in a daring move – dissolved parliament and called for elections in six weeks. That’s right, the campaign lasted just six weeks! The two sides wasted no time. The incumbent party – per tradition – got busy paving roads, repairing bridges, opening up public housing (all of the things government is expected to do, that is, but don’t seem to happen otherwise). Meanwhile, the opposition produced scathing political ads for the TV news, featuring some of the island’s most famous calypso artists, disparaging the administration for corrupt construction contracts, rising crime rates, and neglect of the neediest. This was quite a shock to us after serving in the Kingdom of Jordan, where you can be arrested for criticizing the monarch! The gamble turned out poorly for the incumbents, and Trinidad elected its first female Prime Minister. Per the British system, she was sworn in the day after elections. No lame duck administrations here!

Outside of elections, one of our favorite pastimes is watching cricket. No, really! Granted, we don’t have the patience for a full 5-day “test match”, but the cricketing world – adjusting to the shorter attention span of the new millennium – introduced “Twenty20” a version of the game that is played out in just 3½ hours, with players taking greater risks and thus, more action. We’ve been to several matches in Trinidad, and we attended the final Twenty20 World Cup match in Barbados. Our fondness for cricket earns us a measure of respect from Trinidadians, although cricket purists insist that Twenty20 isn’t real cricket.

We have used every one of our leave days this year and have been able to travel to Panama, Barbados, Grenada, Curacao (the world’s newest country), and home to the U.S. We had hoped to travel to St. Lucia but then Hurricane Tomas hit the island hard. We canceled those plans despite the hotel’s reassurance: “we expect to have our running water back soon.” We hope to visit a few more islands although this requires a great deal of patience and faith in a pretty dodgy airline. We highly, highly recommend Panama – monkeys and jungle cruises (like at Disney World but better) are just twenty minutes outside of a real city with good restaurants.

We both got “tenure” this year – which like the academic equivalent means we are now very hard to fire. Dan continues working as the American Citizen Services officer and Duffy is currently the interim press officer. We both have come to loathe weekend phone calls – for Dan they often mean another American drug mule died or was arrested. Duffy’s calls are reporters seeking a quote on the latest brouhaha, and a new brouhaha seems to emerge every fortnight, like clockwork. Although she rarely dispenses quotes, they keep calling. Our jobs do mean that we have been all over the island – it is just 30 miles by 50 miles but roads and traffic make it seem bigger. People rarely move from one town to another and so they speak about other areas as if they were distant lands “I really like South – the people are so hospitable.”

We are spoiled by our apartment’s view of the Gulf of Paria – including Venezuela. We can also see South from here. Postcard-worthy beaches are less than an hour’s drive from our apartment, and Trinidad offers impressive birdwatching. Our favorite way to see birds is to take a swamp boat ride at sunset, and watch flocks of scarlet ibis come home for the night.

Please come visit – we expect to be here until August and then we will move back to DC for two years. Visit us there too. Wishing you the very merriest Christmas.