Trinidad – Traces (Session 03)

For the final session of my Trinidad-series I decided to set off to discover Trinidad and Tobago’s Spanish and British colonial heritage as well as the cultural-material imprint of the nation’s immigrants from East India. A named this session “Traces” to reflect on the palimpsest-nature of Trinidad’s post-colonial social fabric, which presents itself in material forms in various points of the country.

Traces (2014, Trinidad)

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Wet prayer cards lain on the ground besides the paved trail leading to the Hanuman Murti Temple in Trinidad. Prayer cards function as both the material artifact of religious self-expression and tokens of memory and remembrance.

 

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A withered billboard displaying Guinness, the imported Irish beer from the British Empire in Moruga, the southernmost village on the isle of Trinidad. Although the advertisement still stands in the remote village, Guinness can only be bought in the larger towns’ and cities’ supermarkets. Behind the board, the towers of an old Jesuit church are visible. The Baroque edifice marks the spot where the first Catholic missionaries set foot on Trinidad following Columbus’s third voyage to the Caribbean in 1498.

 

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Written sign on the metal railing of a roadside boutique. Besides major retail store chains, such as Hi-Lo, small markets and similar metal shacks are the distributors of common goods in Trinidad.

 

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Barbed wire on top of the fence surrounding the campus of the University of the West Indies, near Millner Hall, the dormitory building which hosted our group of students from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Similar security measures have been imposed on various governmental and private buildings and properties. Due to the high crime-rate in Trinidad, the colonial legacy of physical boundaries is still prevalent throughout the tropical landscape of the young nation.

 

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The T.M.L. Majid Mosque in Saint Joseph is the largest Muslim temple in Trinidad and Tobago, which provides space of worship to a relatively small East Indian Muslim population. Indenture workers arriving from the Bengali region of colonial East Indies during the 1850s and 1870s had been generally of Hindu affiliation. However, Muslim Indians have been recently accompanied by North African immigrants, also Muslims, who now occupy this large temple in the earliest settlement of Trinidad (Saint Joseph was inhabited by Spaniards as early as the 1520s).

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Popcorn Chicken vs. the KFC Festivity: Interrogating Colonel Sanders on the Theme of the Suspected Appropriation of the Trinidad Carnival

First, let’s get the title straight. Hear this: two Hungarian students fly off to Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost twin-island state of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, 10 miles east of Venezuela, 30 miles north of Guyana, formerly British Guiana. You only get turquoise-blue water around Tobago. In Trinidad, the western coast is black of tar and frequent oil spills. The southern coast’s waters are thick of the Orinoco-mud. The Atlantic side is as rough is it can get: a shoreline eroded by the meters each year can testify to that. The north coast: you get far better waves than on the Big Sur in California, but you have to cross the mountains to get there. It’s that type of shoreline – tropical fauna covered cliffs crashing into the water with smooth beaches forming intermittent bays – on which Columbus stepped out in 1492, ensnarled by a booming Vangelis-scented bass organ soundtrack. I actually used to listen to this very album on my way there, riding the Maxi Taxi, just to get in the mood.

(Actually, Columbus only reached Trinidad in 1498. He never stepped on shore to avoid being left behind by a hungry and mutiny-poised crew. He saw three adjacent hills on the southern shore of the island, thought about the holy Trinity, hence the name. A last bite of etymology: if you think of Tobago, think of tobacco.)

The local shaman, head of the Carib community of Arima, called piai in Arawak, asserts that these two students are the first Hungarians ever whom he saw entering the rainforests of the Northern Range. Perhaps we even managed to do our share of the first-Hungarians-ever-to-set-foot-on-[insert place name here] project.

The Hungarian girl assists a psychotherapist of East-Indian origin at a girl’s home, where young girls, sometimes below the age of 10, are kept as a result of their criminal record, a juicy little list of theft, murder (yup), and rape (yupp). The Hungarian boy has an internship that allows him to spend entire afternoons shooting pictures of cows grazing in a graveyard.

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is young, younger than my father, who is not at all old. Mid-aged. It has 1.3 million inhabitants, half of which is filthy rich, while the half which bites mud each day. Imagine the GINI index. Due to irrationally overhyped government subsidies, gas is around 1 dollar per gallon or 65 HUF/l. Temperature is a constant 95 F or 35 C. Means of finance is the Trinidadian Dollar, an artificial currency pegged to the USD. 10 degrees north of the equator makes a 6-month wet and a 6-month wet season throughout the year and a stable 12-12 hours of daylight and nighttime. Half of the population comes from West Africa, the other half from the Bengali territory in East India. People are either called Jeremy Cumberbatch or Ravi Ji. 150 years of imperial British rule had its impacts: they drive on the left, only import Cadbury cacao, and deduct serious points from your essay at the University of the West Indies if you play hard on the serial comma. All cars are “pre-owned” and imported from Japan. Probably this is the only place on Earth where whoever has a refurbished Suzuki Swift is king.

So what about the title? KFC is everywhere. Colonel Sanders’ omnipresent gaze staring from the side of KFC-buckets haunts the place and puts me in an act of revolt: I listen to one of my favorite guitarists of all time, Buckethead, the entire day. This guy used to have an actual KFC-bucket on his head during live performances with “KFC funeral” inscribed on a yellow band around it. He used to call KFC the chicken-holocaust. I used to gobble my Twisters at Király utca back in Budapest, but in Trinidad I was merely coping with the idea that in certain ways Trinidad is a slaughterhouse for all of us, Trinity-bantams.

Carnival is the well-known pre-Lenten event every February or March, found all over the Caribbean states but most prominently in Trinidad. After Venice and Rio, the Port of Spain version of it is the most attended Carnival-event annually in the world. It literally draws over a million people. This year, KFC found the revenue of its two-storey facilities, which are open 24/7 (yup), unsatisfactory. In response to that it penned an entire anthem to facilitate literally all of its commercials pertaining to Carnival. This anthem was the “Popcorn Chicken.” The chorus ran as follows: “Pop-corn chick-ken. Feel yuh riddim. Pop-corn chick-ken.” (32x) Locals call this a “creative process,” undertaken by their favorite company. I viewed it as highly problematic act of cultural appropriation.

Let’s go even further back in universal and Caribbean history. Carnival was supposed to be an act of resistance. Similarly to the mocking quality of farce and commedia dell’arte in France and the Italian city states during the Middle Ages, the Caribbean slave population – through the appropriation of the pre-Lenten masquerade tradition employed by their own white and mulatto (Creole) slave owners – represented its own way of celebrating emancipation through a mask parade. They played percussive music, donned costumes, paraded through their streets. The parade began at 3-4am in the morning and lasted late in the evening. The appropriation of “mas” meant that slaves mocked the upper-class masquerade balls by using the same costumes but parading on the streets, electing their own new “king” and “queen,” and creating alternative personalities through mas-roles – generally based on certain personality archetypes -, such as the “Midnight Robber” and the “Blue Devil.”

Today what you do when you want to participate in Trinidad Carnival is pay around 500 USDs for a pretty but ill-fitting costume that barely lasts until the end of the day and also pay another set of beefy fees in similar chunks to participate in a mas-band (band of people wearing the same mass-fabricated costumes), where you get your drinking truck and music trucks guiding you along the hot streets of Port of Spain.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun. But it’s not what it was used to be. It’s not revolt. Perhaps against the cumbersome rhythm of everyday life. Meanwhile, KFC sound systems boom the Popcorn Chicken anthem with an ear-ripping volume.

But here we were, still young, tanned within an hour, headbanging to Bunji Garlin’s hit “Truck on the road.” It was a song about trucks on the road.

Personally,  I couldn’t pretend that my inner journalist-slash-social-critic wasn’t working in me. I couldn’t not see how the post-colonial struggle in Trinidad and Tobago railed off its initial trajectory of resistance. The problem is: forming a nation on an island which served as a colonial sugar and tobacco factory for centuries, hosting a mixture of displaced ethnicities, would have been a hard enterprise anyway. In the age of post-nationalism, where cultural myths, identity-narratives, and national artifacts have been – respectively – decomposed, fragmented to bits (bytes) of neutral data, and physically destroyed, such enterprise is even harder. And not just for a struggling young nation. But for all those ex-colonial powers in Europe, as well as for the less fortunate countries, such as Hungary, which are in serious need of reevaluating their cultural and political assets (sic!) within the global context of information society.

A Story to Tell

This year’s first post from us, Trinity-students, will mark the caesura of our Kellner-year: it leaves space for hindsight with which we can recollect our memories of the first four months in Hartford, but it also yields perspective on the new semester in the Caribbean. We have a story to tell. Let’s start at the very beginning.

Hartford. Not many earlier blog posts deal with the town itself, and the two of us, Márta Korom and myself, Bernát Iváncsics, the two Kellner-scholars residing in Connecticut’s capital this semester, had always wanted to hear more about this urban environment surrounding Trinity College’s campus. Generally, it is dismissed in discussions due to its tarnished 19th-century fame and its letdown neighborhoods. True, the city founded in the 1640s and the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Samuel Colt and his arms factory, J.P. Morgan and his hotel-size mansion, as well as many other industrial tycoons and artistic individuals, now gives home to the descendants of Puerto Rican tobacco-workers, Serbian immigrants, and other significant minorities. Sometimes it’s hard to get by trying to speak English, since Spanish is preferred. Hartford, however, is a thriving community, with Labor Day’s marches; Columbus Day flags; posh West Hartford districts; the oldest towns of the United States as neighbors (Windsor, Farmington); a 100-years-old carousel in Bushnell Park; a golden-globed Capitol where the US’s (and the world’s) first ever written state Constitution was kept; the beautiful bank of the Connecticut River; and of course, Yale’s sister university founded in 1823: Trinity College. If we consider the city a text in which history and ethnicity is inscribed diachronically, the etymology of “text” offers the allusion to “texture,” the quilt fabric of the city in which the synchronic co-existence of multiple cultures intertwine.

America is mind-blowing for a European newcomer. Hartford was and is the truly representative city for us here. During our fall semester, we have travelled to Boston, New York, Washington DC, Baltimore, Cape Cod, Newport, Springfield, Storrs, Willimantic, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Chicago, and the Hudson Valley (almost passing by Bard College in Annandale-upon-Hudson). We have roamed Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, Illinois, the state of New York, the District of Columbia, and the state of Ontario by plane, car, and bus. Wherever we have been, the secularized and polarized fabric of the cities, a scape similar to Hartford’s, was present: New York’s Harlem right nearby Upper Manhattan with Columbia University’s campus and picturesquely cliff-frontiered Morningside Park; the huge Chinese gate in DC’s Chinatown only a couple of blocks north of the Capitol, the main building of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress; Toronto’s Chinatown, in which the official street-names are inscribed first in Chinese, then in English; Boston’s downtown, where in a Wendy’s we were told not too kindly by a black man that “we need some color;” in Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, where 50-year-old white transvestite men roam the streets in latex during Halloween, and coo at me and our French friend; the dawn that dries up the dew on our rented car near one of the beaches of Hyannis, in which a Hungarian boy, a Hungarian girl, a French boy, and a Chinese-American girl from Kentucky sleep under their blankets taken from Vernon Place dormitory: the same sun dawns upon JFK’s summer house only a mile away on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Hartford contains east coast America in a nutshell: the colorful forests of the New England fall share frontiers with nylon-covered tobacco-fields; the Wadsworth Athenaeum’s free Magritte-, Picasso-, and Mondrian-collection is surrounded by the commercial waste of Burger King cups on the street; Hartford’s St Joseph cathedral, with the largest continuous stained glass window of the world (imported from Paris) neighbors the controversial expansion of the health insurance company Aetna with it’s oversized (and thus mostly vacant) parking lots and its appropriation of historical neighborhoods. And the list goes on.

But America is mind-blowing on an even more profane scale: the nail-gunned roofs and wooden planked walls of the American “common house” (I had to look up this term) with their front yards either stuffed with Virgin Mary altars (Latino district), or US flags, Halloween corpses and remote-controlled singing Christmas trees (Dyker Heights, Brooklyn). The huge MACK trucks, the yellow school busses, the over-sized SUV’s gurgling up gallons of cheap and poorly refined 87-octane gasoline. The pharmacy and bank drive-thrus, the Dunkin Donuts’ on every corner, the malls, the king sized items in Wal-Mart. The contempt in the eyes of an African-American sales clerk in Walgreens, staring at my all-too-white face after the self-checkout machine messes up my purchase, and the fake joviality of the ex-Bosnian bus driver who converses with Márta in Serbian. The cordiality with which a psychology professor of Trinity College and UConn invites us for Thanksgiving, an event where three families sit at a table, eat themselves to death, joke about the massacre of the Native Indians (hence: “Thanksgiving”, and “do Canadians have Thanksgiving? They probably eat beaver.”), enjoy Oscar, the pug’s presence with his scar on his rear after a rectal operation, and have their best time in their lives – an evening which leaves all of us dorm-students a bit moody the next day, longing for this warm family event (but we are dorm-students all the same, and so we stroll the same beer-ponged and alcohol-drained corridors of Vernon Place).

American college-life is another culture shock, even for an American Studies student. The cooperation and the response of professors, the work-load, the commitment. It does work in the long run. And it works especially when accompanied by the immense facility of the Raether Library and Information Technology Center, where we have followed the path of many other previous Kellner-scholars at Trinity as shelvers, inventory-makers, and circulation desk assistants. Sometimes it takes multi-tasking: one hand scanning, the other holding my e-reader, my ears squeezing the old Sennheiser earplugs for music, and my forehead leaning against the library shelf to hold me while I am sleeping. 4x3x10 pages of final papers, 2-hour naps. Meanwhile, we reserve our accommodations, organize our flights, hop into the car for our next road trip, and try to reach Cave for our pre-midnight sub sandwich and Starbucks coffee. Sometimes we do chill on the porch of Vernon Social, drinking cheap Californian wine, quarreling about the open-container law with campus safety officers but enjoying our time all the same. Avicii bass tracks boom from nearby frat-parties, and I do have to send a girl back to her dorm when she sips on my cigarette with the burning end in her mouth. Then it’s Sunday morning again, 4 am, and I have two 900-word Trinity Tripod articles to write until 11 am. I am a journalist, too, and I listen to people: to the competitors of the Federal Reserve Challenge in Boston and DC, to Jewish memoir-authors in the Smith House, to the DJ’s in the Mill, the Latino girls in Summit Tower, the German girl in Mather, and the Indian guy on the George Kellner Squash Center courts. The mascot of Trinity College is a masculinized bantam, and Trinity-students do in a way take up the attitude: they are harsh and eloquent. They are entrepreneurs. I drain myself with the workload, but I try to keep track. And I write their stories.

And… this is the end of our first post. From now on, we will frequently update the blog due to a new chapter in the experience of Kellner-scholars at Trinity. For the first time in the history of this scholarship, we embark on a Study Away program in Trinidad and Tobago, more specifically in the town of St Augustine, a satellite of the capital Port of Spain. Study Away programs so far have been impossible for Kellner-participation due to administrative reasons, but we’d like to work on altering that. From January 20, 2014, we will report on our experiences in Trinidad, as well as in Limón, Costa Rica. Although our planning of a long west coast road trip in the US for the summer is already under way, we believe that we have already managed to catch a glimpse of the cultural diversity of the US, and this experience has lead us to the realization that the American continent in its globalized and postcolonial context can hardly be narrowed down to the US itself. Trinidad, already closely tied to the US by its propane gas economy and direct cargos to New Haven (!), is interestingly following the route of Puerto Rico, the heavily Americanized island of the Caribbean region. Our study in Trinidad and Costa Rica will hopefully serve as a useful appendix to understand where the US is today in terms of its ethnic and cultural constitution. Our photojournalism-related internships at the University of West Indies in St Augustine, into which we are preparing ourselves to enroll in a couple of days as exchange-exchange students, will try to follow the critical-mindedness of photographers and journalists of the 40s, 60s, 70s, and 90s sponsored by the Guggenheim fellowships, such as Jack Delano and his son, Trinity-professor Pablo Delano.

PS.: A similar thirst to explore the American continent led us to invest our round-trip fees back home into a Mexican road trip this winter, where 4800 kilometers through dirt roads and mountain villages captured by revolting insurgents have taught us some important lessons. Why is there a Wal-Mart in the shantytown of Mexico City, and why is the Navidad edition of Oreo biscuits the cheapest of all products? There is a great political and industrial struggle today around the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean is part of it. The US, although unwillingly admitting it, is also part of it. This is controversial postcolonialism at it its best, and we dive for it. Trinidad’s historical layering of multiple political occupations unfolds into a synchronically displayed tableau, and we will be there to witness it.