Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Waiting for rain

Watching the oleander outside my window nodding in the dry season breeze, thinking of imaginary islands, reading The Loss of El Dorado, wanting a fresh cup of tea, listening to jointpop in my iTunes, ignoring the stack of page proofs near my left elbow, trying to remember the exact temperature of the Essequibo at Kurupukari where thirteen months ago I swam under an early moon, waiting for an email from across the sea, wondering how I've got to be thirty years and almost eleven months old....

Monday, March 20, 2006

phagwah chowtal

A chowtal group from Montrose performs at the Phagwah celebrations at Aranjuez Savannah, Sunday 19 March, 2006

Yesterday afternoon I drove out to Aranjuez with Georgia and Jonathan to join in the Phagwah (or Holi, as it's known elsewhere) celebrations there. I'd like to write a short, ruminative essay about the experience: our arrival, dressed in pristine white; our discovery that we'd missed a bee attack; the nice man who gave us our first dousing with abeer, then handed us bottles of the purple liquid and bags of powdered dye so we could join in the fun; the nice woman who in a matter-of-fact, motherly way smeared my face with green; the young scallywags who took every opportunity to soak us long after we were purple from head to foot; the small chowtal groups who performed, followed by a dance troupe who did a couple of Bollywood numbers (I kept hoping they'd play Babla and Kanchan's Hindi version of "Hot Hot Hot", just to close the circle and complete the New World experience); the friendly special attention everyone seemed to pay us, as though they didn't want us "strangers" to feel left out in any way; the young man who was sprinkling everyone with talcum powder, just like a Carnival fancy sailor; my longing for a pichakaree, the tubular device you use to squirt abeer on people; and ending with our departure, brightly stained and all but indistinguishable from everyone else in the crowd, a nice little allegory of--something or other.

But offline deadlines and distractions continue to mount, so the above summary will have to suffice, plus a small selection of photos here (I had my camera in a Ziploc bag most of the time, for the obvious reason). Attillah's also posted some photos, from the celebrations at the Nagar site in central Trinidad (start here and move backwards), and Georgia's posted photos of her dye-stained fingers after the event.

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A housekeeping note

I've rather ignored this blog lately--combination of post-Carnival exhaustion and real-world obligations--but I have managed to post a few recently published things over at "Choosing My Confessions", including a review of Rupert Roopnaraine's Primacy of the Eye from the February Trinidad and Tobago Review; a review of Caryl Phillips's Dancing in the Dark from the March/April Caribbean Beat; and "Talking about StudioFilmClub", a dialogue with my friend Leon Wainwright, from the March Modern Painters. I've also finally got around to posting some photos from Guyana last July and August here at Flickr.
Hao Wu, Chinese filmmaker and blogger and Global Voices Northeast Asia editor, was detained by Chinese authorities on 22 February, and has been held since then without charges. Please visit the Free Hao Wu page for more information about his case, and consider linking to spread the word online.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

On the train from Dublin to Cork, 27 April, 2005, thinking of home

He discovers Ireland is flat as Barbados
and green as a Berbice paddy.
He wonders how many sheep it takes to mow these hills.

He thinks, this place could do with a few volcanoes.


Scott McLemee says, "Kiss Me, I Might Be Irish".

Saturday, March 11, 2006

heart that sings banner

Banner from the "Heart That Sings" section of The Sacred Heart, on display at the Callaloo Company mas camp at the victory party on the Saturday after Carnival

Carnival over nearly a fortnight. Physical aches and pains lasted just a few days, but I still don't feel like I've caught up on sleep. And I find myself drifting in what I can only think of as a gentle post-Carnival depression--the excitement ended, the adrenaline flow cut off, the electric charge suddenly dropped--and mild dry-season March blinks through its days, and I find I haven't been able to arrange my mess of impressions and remembered emotions into anything resembling a narrative.

I was in the Savannah on Carnival Friday night to see Minshall's king cross the stage in the semis--the story that night was that Kerwin Paul, who had played Son of Saga Boy in the prelims, was replaced by another first-timer king, Brian Pantin. Carnival Saturday I kept my head down, kept quiet, trying to conserve strength. Dusk on Dimanche Gras found me sitting in the Phase II panyard, enjoying the breeze and the sunset light and the impromptu duet two tenor pannists were playing a few feet away. Then back to the Savannnah to watch Minshall's queen, Miss Universe, cross the stage again in the finals--this time, for all of five minutes I was part of the crew, when Alyson Brown thrust a piece of equipment into my hands, until someone else grabbed it away.

I slept maybe fifteen minutes that night, then at two in the morning I was out of my house with a flask of coffee and a bag full of eight-foot lengths of aluminium wire and cloth strips, soon transformed into devil's tails, equipped with nine-volt batteries and torchlight bulbs: taillights, which bobbed behind us as we chipped, mud-plastered, through Woodbrook, across Park Street and down St. Vincent Street to Independence Square, where we met milky dawn. At seven we drove out to Macqueripe to wash the mud away. The beach was still almost deserted and the sea was icy and dark. And from the lack of sleep, low blood sugar, and the shock of the cold water, I was briefly and abruptly sick, retching on the shingle. But as I knelt there, eyes closed and shivering, I couldn't help thinking this was somehow appropriate, a part of the J'Ouvert ritual, the preparation for the two days to follow--physically expelling whatever was before, because this was new and now: Carnival was here.

I got home just in time to greet the two friends who had flown down from Newcastle and were staying with me till Ash Wednesday. We all collapsed into various beds, and it's true, J'Ouvert morning sleep is the sweetest sleep you can imagine. At noon we were up and heading out to join Minshall, dressed in white and decked with red sashes. We found the band at the Savannah, creeping towards the stage, many friends and acquaintances in the throng, and perhaps I imagined it, but everyone seemed a little perplexed but delighted to have made it here once again. Our sashes were in the air as we danced across the stage between the near-empty stands, then we were on our way down Victoria Avenue into Woodbrook, moving slowly, thinking of the exertions still to come. We left the band at Adam Smith Square as the sun was going down, and drove out to Chaguaramas to peep at the last-minute flurry of activity at the Callaloo mas camp--painting, carving, rehearsing.

Tuesday morning we were at the Savannah at half past seven. The band was assembling along the pitch just across from Queen's Royal College, all black and red and silver flashes from the elaborate metal helmets. The first ten minutes everyone seemed nervous--would we be able to manage these three-foot-tall "samurai" helmets all day in the blazing sun? But they turned out to be surprisingly wearable, a trick of balance, not weight, and within an hour we were all moving as though we'd been wearing them all our lives. I was struck by the way the costumes "told" you how to wear them, how to play the mas: the wide "cowboy" chaps encouraging a legs-apart swagger, the helmets forcing you to keep your head upright, your eyes focused directly ahead--we must have looked like an army dancing down the road, our red flags fluttering overhead, and that, after all, is what we were supposed to be, an army marching to battle for what Minshall called The Sacred Heart of Trinidad and Tobago.

They told us we were meant to cross the Savannah stage "early" on Tuesday. No one believed this, and no one was surprised when we turned west on St. Clair Avenue, in the opposite direction. Adam Smith Square, Victoria Square, South Quay--by now it was early afternoon, and we left the band for an hour-long break in Woodford Square, sprawled out on the grass.

It must have been five o'clock or so by the time the band started squeezing onto the Savannah track by Memorial Park, and we must have spent an hour creeping forward the last hundred feet to the foot of the stage, but I didn't notice the time, I was so caught up in anticipation. We edged forward, trying to stay in our sections, trying to figure out what was going on, then someone ahead shouted, up to the stage, now! And we scurried, and finally we could hear the music and knew the performance had started. Later I would find out about all the little and big things that went wrong offstage--missed cues, missing props, miscommunication among the crew--but from the moment I was within sight of the stage and the white halo of the lights, disbelief was suspended, and anything that happened was meant to happen, and everything was magic--or everything was mas, which might be the same thing.

I heard an aria on the loudspeakers--"O Mio Babbino Caro"--and saw the "diva", a dancer twenty feet in the air with a long white skirt, gliding across the stage. Then what sounded like Japanese martial music. By now I was on the ramp, but still couldn't see onto the stage, there were so many people crowding the edge. I don't know how I realised it was time for my section, "The Heart That Sings", to go on, but somehow I did. They were playing "Heart of a Man", "our" song, and huge banners like ships' sails were billowing above us, and I was about to cross the Savannah stage on Carnival Tuesday at dusk, Minshall's traditional hour, my first time, and for a few seconds I actually thought I might start crying, but then I was on, and the stage was enormous and open before me, shimmering with sailors' powder, the lights were so bright I couldn't see the stands, and I realised I had been waiting almost my whole life for this, and then I felt a surge of joy, and all I wanted to do was wave my red flag and dance. So I did.

Was I two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes getting to the other side? It wasn't long enough, so I turned around and went back on, and saw Son of Saga Boy loping across. I danced back to the end of the stage, and still I didn't want to come off. Then the Shiv Shakti dancers in their little white "moon" suits came on, and the music switched to what sounded like a Hindi folk song, and dozens of people who'd already left the stage came back on to see what was happening, and we made a semi-circle near the dancers to watch. Someone started stamping the stage in time to the music, and then we all were, stamping the boards and pounding them with the standards of our flags, and it sounded like an army on the march, wonderful and grave. Then the Dame Lorraines came on with the twenty-foot phallus, and Miss Universe with the "Hearts of Hope" behind her, red pennants high in the air, our last hurrah.

And then we were all on the western track, heading out of the Savannah, and it was all over, it was night, only hours remained, and it felt like a whole city just wanted to wring a last few drops of joy before Carnival was finished again. We were chipping down Victoria Avenue once more, and I felt jubilant. But Mr. Minshall, sitting in the back of the crew truck, looked haggard and grim. As I passed the truck, I caught his eye, and I waved and blew him a kiss. He blew it back, looking unsurprised, and he had no idea who I was.

The band was heading for St. James, but we left them on Tragarete Road, around eight, and the walk up Maraval Road to QRC, where we parked, now seemed a great trek. We were hungry and nowhere was open. We ended Carnival in an air-conditioned KFC, surrounded by beaded and be-sequinned masqueraders.

Now here I am, Saturday morning, a week and a half into Lent, wondering what it all means, what next, where next, and how to get started.

Attillah Springer, writing in the Guardian today about wanderlust:

We leave for various reasons, most of them having to do with what T&T can't do for us. We go and give our best to the metropolis. We contribute to mystery Babylon. We go, most of us, for the milk and not necessarily the cow.

And then we come back here, only for small doses, soaking up all the sweetness. Falling back in step with rhythms familiar and necessary to our survival.

I can't say if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I can't say if I am right or wrong to feel, after two months, that I've had enough.

Must shake off these post-Carnival blues. Time to get--in every sense--moving again.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

nicholas self-portrait 10.03.06

Self-portrait without glasses, 10 March, 2006

I've worn glasses since I was seven. I think I even have my very first pair still hidden in a drawer somewhere. I've never seriously considered switching to contact lenses. After (hum of arithmetic) twenty-three years, my specs have become an extension not just of my body but of my personality--I think of myself as a person who wears glasses, and I feel naked--incomplete--less myself--without them. (Taking them off also makes me hard of hearing--an inverted form of synaesthesia?)

I'm also extremely short-sighted--without corrective lenses my range of vision is about four inches. So not only do I rarely take my glasses off--I also can't see myself in a mirror without them, and I have pretty much no idea what I look like without those frames perched on my nose. And it's never occurred to me to be photographed--or to photograph myself--spectacle-less, so that I could finally see what my face looks like unobscured.

Till this afternoon.

Strange, slightly vertiginous idea: I may actually look better without them.

(Trying to take a self-portrait with a camera lacking a swivelling viewfinder is an exercise in trial and error--factor in not being able to fix your eyes on the lens, and you get a series of shots that are either woefully or artily out-of-focus and off-centre.)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

nicholas at the savannah

I interrupt my Carnival week blogging break to post this self-portrait, taken on Carnival Tuesday morning around eight o'clock, as Peter Minshall's band The Sacred Heart was assembling in the Savannah opposite QRC. I didn't snap many photos that day, but there are a handful in this Flickr set; see also Georgia's photos here (including shots of me in full "Heart That Sings" regalia and again on Park Street just past the Victoria Square stage)--and this shot of an innocent blogger being assaulted by two jamettes outside Lapeyrouse Cemetery on Monday.

Now that the Carnival madness is past, I'm scrambling to meet deadlines and see some colleagues at the 25th anniversary West Indian Literature Conference, which opens at UWI tonight--while nursing still-sore joints and trying to catch up on sleep. Some sort of blog report on the events of Carnival weekend will appear here eventually. Meanwhile, here's a roundup of Carnival season blog coverage that I compiled for Global Voices last Friday.

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