Post 283.

All you have to do is walk around with your eyes open. Words said to me by Lloyd Best, one of the now-deceased founders of the 1970s Tapia House movement for a politics that empowers everyday people, not political elites.

I was already following this path, but have lived by these words since. With your eyes open, you can understand much more about our geography and its history.

Take the road from Grande to Point Galeota, and take your children with you. First, your drive through Sangre Grande and Sangre Chiquito (Big Blood and Little Blood) marks the path of slaughter following the Arena Uprising by Indigenous people in 1699, and their subsequent massacre after killing the Spanish Governor and priests.

Eight-four were captured on the run, sixty-one were shot, the rest were tortured after revealing that they were beaten by priests forcing them to attend Catholic services and to labour in the encomienda system. Later, twenty-two were hanged and dismembered, and the women distributed as servants.

Just past the slope to Manzanilla, named by the Spanish who thought they saw “little apples” on the trees, Nariva Swamp begins to emerge on your right as the ocean flings itself onto the shore on your left. It’s in Nariva Swamp, on the sacred Manatee Island, that the surviving Indigenous rebels were caught.

Full of biodiversity and village history, the Swamp became a protected wetland in 1993 after marches and protests against the effects of illegal rice farming, organized and led by women such as Molly Gaskin and Karilyn Shephard of the Wildfowl Trust. It’s hard to imagine such public protests to protect our ecology today.

You might buy watermelons at the side of the road, in front of the villages of Kernahan and Cascadoux, which began to be populated during the second World War when Trinidad was providing food through its ‘war gardens’. In 1999, I was a researcher documenting the lives and beliefs of those villages and, led by Andrew from Cascadoux Village, scaled the cliff-sides of Point Radix, over the ocean, exhilarated and barefoot.

Andrew later fell while picking coconuts, leaving him disabled. Even while remaining positive, as I visited him while Ziya went up to the mud volcano bubbling behind his house, he talked about how the PNM government took away his food card when they came into power. “It was so little money”, he said, “I don’t understand why”.

It’s a UNC constituency, so these things happen. The PNM also closed the Guayaguayare fishing depot, a glossy, windswept compound with storage facilities for fishermen which was opened by PM Persad-Bissessar in her day and with much ado. Why would they so completely lock the local people out?”, I asked UWI historian, Professor Brinsley Samaroo, “because that’s politics”, he said, reminding me just how little we effectively fight for our rights in the face of party leadership and their practices of punishment and reward.

Guayaguayare means the “clashing of waves” and Ziya, my seven-year-old, was keen to visit a place she’d heard about in an often-played, slow love song to the area by Trinidadian musician Drew Gonzales and his award-winning band, Kobotown. One day, going to Guyana, Zi may visit Georgetown’s famous sea wall, and recollect our own small island version.

Still open are the old green and blue grocery shops of John Lee Lum who, at the turn of the century, helped found the Guayaguayare Oil Company  along with Randolph Rust, from whom Rustville gets its name. Rust drilled the first successful oil well, and looking at the thick mangrove tentacles embracing Pilot River, you wouldn’t know that early drilling took place there.

To the left are rigs and tankers out at sea, and closer in is Point Galeota’s centre. Ziya stood contemplating two wells pumping out the compressed fossils below. As sohari leaves danced nearby, I wondered if the crude oil she saw in black pools around the pumps was a sign of our times, their presence soaking into our land. Perhaps, all – the fossils and the money – will be gone when she reaches my age.

If she keeps her eyes open to enough for long enough, she’ll connect those very pumps to Galeota’s tiny South-Eastern wealth, and sea level rise that will almost certainly claim Manzanilla’s coconut trees, the anaconda-like Mayaro road, and all this history.

Then, she’ll be left to picture chip-chip gathering, and the spirituous silk cotton tree at the mouth of the Ortoire River, in her mind’s eye and from childhood memory.

Post 141.

The bliss of snaking through Manzanilla’s coconut trees was enough to make the drive worthwhile, but the community spirit that I encountered in Mayaro was, unquestionably, the highlight of the day.

I was there to give a talk for International Women’s Day, being celebrated for the third year in this little corner of South-Eastern coast, adding to the other events happening all over the country all through March, and continuing to honour an agreement made by over 100 women from 17 countries in 1910.

Always socialist in its politics, International Women’s Day originally aimed to strengthen women’s protests against exploitative working conditions, their participation in politics to advance their rights, and their knowledge of those women who came before, who unapologetically resisted regardless of what was expected of them because they expected more for themselves.

This Saturday was no different. Carla Walcott, granddaughter of Clotil Walcott, was there, continuing to call for domestic workers to be considered workers under the Industrial Relations Act and to labour under decent conditions of employment. One women’s group spoke passionately about tending to women’s loneliness, donating to those unable to make ends meet, and listening to the ones trapped by abuse. Men spoke about their realizations that full emancipation of a people is not possible without full equality for all. Girls were being mentored so that they develop ambitions that defy the limitations of their gendered and geographical realities. How humbling to remember that it isn’t petrodollars that keep us together, it’s the cooperation and commitment shown by many unsung individuals, who step out of crease for those more vulnerable, simply because they are people who care.

I hoped to tell stories, those of my great-grandmother, grandmother and daughter, those of students at UWI, those of ordinary Indian and African women who had their own ideas about their desires and dreams, and who collectively organized housewives, the unemployed, the hungry, the anti-war, the oil and sugar workers, and the not-yet unionized. Even if only the words leapt off the page, I wanted to name Haiti, Cuba and Grenada, so that we remember not to forget their stories too.

In the end, it wasn’t my stories that defined the evening. It was the story of Pearl, a woman from Mayaro who told me about the trials of raising her daughter on her own, struggling to build her house, and ensuring that her child traveled to St. Joseph’s Convent daily and later could finish her degree at UWI. Pearl’s combination of exhaustion, pride and recognition that, with her daughter grown and gone, she now had to define herself anew is the story of so many mothers, including my own. Pearl wrapped me in a hug as soon as I stepped out of my car because she read my stories each week. Connecting us is what stories do.

This is probably why Suzanne from the Heart of a Sister Foundation told me that she planned to publish her own story, titled Happily Ever After. Not because there is ever a fairytale ending, but because even when there isn’t, we can make do and do well, even encourage each other. I drove away after making Mr. Mutota and the South African High Commissioner promise to tell me their stories of NJAC in the 1970s and mobilizing against apartheid in the ANC.

In the darkness, Manzanilla’s narrow road seemed to hold these histories in its breath, like a flute waiting to be played. Mayaro retreated, leaving me its stories of struggle and community, and its spirited refrain as a call and response to more than one hundred years of International Women’s Day.