Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"In the virtual world of the Internet, size and distance ought not to matter--people in small, far-flung, obscure corners of the world can, in theory, create a presence as big as anyone else's. But in practice, the slow acceptance and partial understanding in much of the Caribbean of what the Internet can be used for means that, online, Caribbean culture and ideas don't have a presence proportionate to our vitality and originality; and on the World Wide Web, 'Caribbean' continues to be defined by outsiders--a simple Google search turns up ample evidence.

"But blogging, by its very nature--its immediacy, its flexibility, its ease of access even to those with limited technical knowledge--offers the possibility for ordinary Caribbean people to tell their own stories and debate their own definitions. From Derek Walcott to Lloyd Best, our thinkers have long argued the imperative for Caribbean people to understand themselves on their own terms, in their own language, in their own context. The blogosphere is an opportunity for us both to engage in a boundaryless regional conversation and to talk back to the world, asserting our identity and independence.

"Is this conversation happening yet, or are we still clearing our throats? How are our bloggers answering the hard questions about Caribbean identity, about what 'Caribbean' can, could, and should mean?"

--This is the "abstract" I wrote a few months back for an event called "Global Voices, Caribbean Accents: A Roundtable on Blogging in the Caribbean", which is part of the programme of the Caribbean Studies Association's annual conference, currently ongoing in Port of Spain. The theme of this year's conference is "The Caribbean in the Age of Modernity", and Alice Backer, the Francophonia editor for Global Voices, had the bright idea that a panel on blogging would fit in very neatly. Alice drafted Georgia and me for the roundtable, but unfortunately at almost the last minute she had to drop out. Luckily, Attillah Springer was willing to leap unto the breach.

So tomorrow morning at 11.15 in the first-floor seminar room at the National Library in Port of Spain--a couple of blocks from the CSA conference headquarters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel--Georgia, Attillah, and I will have a decidedly unscholarly, free-form public dialogue about the current and potential roles of blogging and other forms of participative web media in the Caribbean. A special-edition Caribbean Free Radio podcast--incorporating interviews with various CSA members which we recorded this morning--will debut, we'll talk about our personal experiences with blogging and about the Caribbean blogs we think most interesting, and if the library's wi-fi and audio-visual equipment are as spiffy as we've been told, we'll stage a fully multi-media event, including live access of webpages on a big screen and who knows what other marvels. (It would be super if a member of the audience came equipped with laptop and decided to liveblog the proceedings.)

We'll post detailed reports afterwards, including selections from our notes and links to all the blogs and other sites we refer to during the roundtable. There was talk of a Skypecast, but we may have quite enough on our hands already....
D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?; or, The journey not the arrival matters

It is Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago, the anniversary of the landing of the first Indian indentured immigrants in 1845, the day when we officially commemorate and celebrate the origins of close to half the country's population.

As far as I know, none of my ancestors was aboard the Fatel Razack, the ship that brought the first 227 immigrants across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic; but Caribbean bloodlines are complicated, so I could well be wrong. Still, I can't help thinking today--in between reading a big stack of magazine proofs and putting in an appearance at the CSA conference in downtown Port of Spain--about the long, often arduous, sometimes improbable journeys that all our ancestors endured to end up in this bewildering little corner of the world that is the Caribbean.

In my younger days I made some effort to trace a family tree, and of course I've heard stories from older relatives about eccentric predecessors, and discovered in obscure history books an occasional name that I know I'm linked to somehow. One of my great-aunts owned a little volume printed in France some time in the nineteenth century describing the early genealogy of the Pantin family--my father's mother's family--from which I know that some of my far fore-parents were Breton nobility. There were Pantin estate- (and slave-) owners in Trinidad since Spanish days. I know I also have some de la Bastide and Ganteaume blood. Laughlin is an Irish peasant name that suggests descent from the Viking raiders--the lochlanns--of the Middle Ages. One of my great-great-grandmothers was an O'Connor. My father's father's mother was Venezuelan--the family name was Pulgar, and I know nothing about it. My mother's mother's family was solid English lower middle class--my grandmother's maiden name was Main, you can't get more solid than that, and her parents were low-ranking colonial civil servants. My mother's father was born in British Guiana, the illegitimate son of an unnamed mother described on his birth certificate as "coloured" and an unnamed father who family tradition says was one of the Seaforths, Guyanese plantocracy of German derivation who changed their surname to something more English-sounding around the time of the First World War.

I suppose I wish I knew more about all these various lines of descent, knew more names and places and dates. But, for the most part, when I think of personal ancestry, of "roots" or "routes", anything further than three generations back is an abstraction. I can see how the choices and opinions and actions of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents have influenced or determined various elements of my own life. But those old ladies and gentlemen of five generations or five centuries ago? Characters in a story. I suppose I wish I knew exactly when my ancestors first arrived in Trinidad, and maybe a few days' research at the National Archives would turn up some answers, but I find I'm far less interested in the moment of arrival itself and far more interested in the new journey that "arrival" begins--in the process by which wanderers, exiles, prisoners, and explorers make of the disjecta membra of many old worlds something new and strange and perhaps, in the original sense of the world, wonderful.

We reach. And the journey now start.

Bon voyage to us all.
The talented Marlon James has started a blog. Yes, I am happy.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

I was startled, about an hour ago, by a phone call from Georgia in St. Kitts, with news of significant activity from the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat--lava dome collapse, ash eruption. (See her two blog reports here and here.) The airport in St. Kitts, it seems, is currently closed due to all the volcanic ash in the air, which reduces visibility--St. Kitts is about sixty miles from Montserrat. (Bad news for St. Kitts, which is preparing to host its first ever international cricket match on Tuesday.)

The Montserrat Volcano Observatory website seems to be down at the moment, along with most other Montserrat government websites, so I decided to ring the observatory to find out what's really going on. I had a quick chat with the observatory director, and then with the head of the emergency department, which has issued two official press releases for the day so far.

The first release, at 10.30 this morning, announced "increased activity" at the volcano, with the collapse of the lava dome at about 7.20 a.m. and a pyroclastic flow which reached the sea on the eastern side of the island, with "heavy ashing". It's expected that this could go on for several hours, and there is some threat of explosive activity and more pyroclastic flows. There is also some threat of tsunami activity triggered by these flows reaching the sea, and small tsunamis have apparently been reported already from Antigua and Guadeloupe (the nearest inhabited islands to Montserrat). The people of Montserrat have been advised to stay indoors and "remain vigilant", but there is no immediate danger.

A subsequent release, at about midday, contains an advisory from the Chief Medical Officer that people with asthma and children under the age of five should be removed to the northern end of the island due to ash and "a level of gas" in the air.

Some of Montserrat's telephone exchanges are currently down and power has been cut to some areas (the volcanic ash conducts electricity), which might account for so many of the websites being inaccessible.

No doubt Georgia will report further this afternoon on the state of things in St. Kitts, where people must be fairly worried about what all this will mean for the cricket!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Something on the governor's head,
Nobody see, nobody tell.

My great-aunt Elaine used to sing this little verse to me when I was very young--always accompanied by her actually putting something on my head, a handkerchief or a toy or whatever small object she had at hand.

I've been thinking about these lines lately--I suppose I've always assumed they're from an old folk song or calypso--but they're unknown to Google, at least as of right now. Does any of my readers know this verse or anything about its origins? It must date at least to my great-aunt's childhood in the 1920s.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The night crowded with empty directions,
centuries in the Trades.

At thirty-one my boy John Keats
was dead six years, halfway a saint.

The years were "brass" upon his tongue.

Darkling I listen
to the first movement (allegro)
of the second Brandenburg Concerto,
boastful, full-throatful,
a golden bird hurtling as to the stars,
joyous voyager.

You have gone too far--
The pink house crowded with empty rooms.
--where are you?

Dear John,
enough is enough.

Please come home.

Nothing is forgiven.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:8

He waited an hour in the lounge of the Georgetown Club for a cup of coffee, while his headache ripened. The kitchen often treated requests for things like coffee as inconsiderate surprises. The waiter, when he brought up the cup on a tray, was sullen and silent, and the coffee was weak and lukewarm. He drank it quickly, and felt a sudden longing for greenery, for fresh foliage on which he could rest his eyes.

He walked down Camp Street and across Regent Street, and the air felt heavy with dust and the exhaust of cars. At Vlissingen Road he waited many minutes before he could cross to the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

Just outside the old green-painted iron gate there was a huddle of hucksters with trays of biscuits and sweets, and three or four taxis waiting to whisk tired visitors away, their drivers asleep on their half-reclined seats, all the cars radios on at low volume. He was flushed and thirsty from his twenty-minute walk in the late afternoon sun.

From the gate, a long avenue lined with tall royal palms stretched down the length of the gardens, at least a mile, it seemed; he couldn't see to the other end. Not many people were here today. The hedge along the avenue seemed dusty, and the lawn that sloped on one side towards the famous manatee pond was muddy, with big, dirty puddles in the grass. Two or three children stood beside the pond flinging handfuls of grass into the water, but the manatees didn't appear; the uprooted grass floated slowly to the middle of the pond, and the children wiped their dirty hands on their clothes.

On the other side of the avenue of palms was a sort of paved terrace with a ring of six pools around a seventh pool in the centre, where water lilies and water hyacinths grew in the murky water. This terrace led in turn to a set of low steps and a strange low pavilion: President Burnham's mausoleum.

He'd heard this pavilion described as spider-like, with its concrete buttresses like legs jointed to the roof, but he thought it looked more like a crab, paused in mid-scuttle, watching motionless until the observer looked away, when it would race for the safety of its hole.

The northern and eastern sides of the mausoleum were open. He walked up the steps and into the pavilion's shade. The southern and western sides were enclosed with thick walls, decorated with bronze reliefs maybe eight feet tall and sixteen feet wide, depicting events from Burnham's life. He appeared as a political prisoner, watched over by British soldiers, talking politics with fellow captives; as an orator, standing at a podium blazoned with the initials of the political party he founded; as the author of Guyana's system of proportional representation. In the second relief the grateful people of Guyana--farmers, miners, soldiers, all bearing the implements of their trade, tools or weapons--paid homage to their leader.

The mausoleum's pillars were painted purple, which someone had told him was the colour of Burnham's personal livery. But the sarcophagus that stood in the centre of the pavilion was the most striking thing. It was faced with slices of quartz or some other glass-like rock, green so dark it was almost black; the pieces of rock looked dangerous, wet and sharp as a knife. Set in the stone base was a bronze medallion with a palm tree and a black caiman; this was Burnham's personal seal.

He had read that Burnham had wanted to be embalmed and displayed in a glass coffin, and when he died, twenty years before, his corpse was flown to London for this purpose, for the attentions of expert embalmers. But someone thought better of this plan, perhaps, or else the embalming had somehow failed, and now Burnham, if he really was entombed in the sarcophagus, was sealed inside concrete and solid rock, protected by the slices of dark quartz and an ornamental chain barrier.

He had heard many stories about Burnham, about his eccentricities and brutalities and the whims by which he ruled Guyana in the last years of his life, and every day in Georgetown he heard new stories; everyone old enough to remember Burnham had a story. At state dinners, he was told, Burnham would ask his wife in Latin to pass the salt, just loud enough for all the guests to hear. He had renamed the chief bauxite mining town, fifty miles inland, after himself, giving it his first name, Linden--a name that suggested green delicate trees, not the dull orange of bauxite dust. And there had once been a rumour, he read later, that Burnham also planned to rename the mango; in Guyana it would thenceforth have been called the Burnham apple. Or perhaps Burnham never thought of this at all, but it was close enough to what people believed about Burnham for the rumour to have spread in spasms of excitement.

On his deathbed, someone else told him, Burnham had asked--his last request--for a taste of sweet condensed milk, a few drops on his lips. In the worst years of his rule, condensed milk was banned; no one knew how to make it in Guyana, and merchants were not allowed to import it. Other imported things like wheat flour and powdered milk were banned also, in the name of national self-sufficiency.

"And that was all because the American ambassador got Burnham angry one day, you know. You ever heard that? It was when Burnham was pretending to be this big socialist leader, and travelling everywhere talking about solidarity with this and that, and nationalising all the big firms. The American ambassador had a meeting with him and said, Mr. Burnham, you better stop talking like this. Remember you depend on imports from America to feed your people.

"Well, that was the wrong thing to say. Burnham was a haughty man and he didn't like anybody to feel they could dictate to him. Burnham said, I depend on America? Not any longer. And then he banned the importation of all those things--we used to say he banned all the white things, flour and milk, and even cement to build, and white paint for houses, and toothpaste. You couldn't buy Colgate in Guyana. People used to smuggle it from Suriname or Brazil.

"We had to make bread and roti and everything with rice flour. If you got a little bit of wheat flour, you would save it for a special occasion, to bake a birthday cake or something. And milk was the worst. Because we hardly have dairy cows in Guyana, and in those days we didn't have refrigeration to store it. People used to line up for hours at the shops if they heard they had some milk, just to buy a little bit for their children."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Plans for the beautification of Georgetown and surrounding areas in time for the World Cup are to be scrapped since it has been ascertained that the targets are unattainable.

Plan B will now go into full effect. This is based on the concept that tourists greatly enjoy a full blown Third World experience than the boring type of poverty where a country's citizens can afford to eat fast food almost every day but don't have any minutes in their cellular phones.

Several studies based on questionnaires of tourists returning from holidays in Least Developed Countries have shown that first time visitors gain a greater appreciation of their own countries' comforts and also become aware of the need to alleviate poverty around the world.

Guyana's secret "Plan B" for the 2007 Cricket World Cup has been leaked! It includes the creation of special DWZs (Designated War Zones) in Georgetown, a Downtown Chaos Initiative, a major conceptual art project by Christo, and the establishment of an SRC squad:

The Simulated Random Crimes (SRC) squad will patrol the city at night looking for areas where tourists congregate after matches, and then stage melodramatic shootings.

Meanwhile, my sources tell me that Trinidad and Tobago's own secret "Plan B" involves the construction of dozens of skyscrapers in Port of Spain by next year in the hope that after three-four Caribs the cricket tourists will start to think they're actually in Dubai. Each skyscraper to be clad in highly reflective glass, of course, so that the glare of the sun coming off them will blind everyone and make it impossible to notice the bad roads, drainage, schools, health care, etc.--just as Riverside Plaza for two decades and more has dazzled people driving into Port of Spain from the airport, so they don't notice the slums of Laventille in the hills behind.
Inside the People World Wide Web....

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"It's ten years or more since I heard this story from B. Long enough for me to have reinvented parts of it, so maybe it's as much my story now as it is his.

"He was hiking overland to Kaieteur with a friend, a hike of four or five days, with a plane to meet them when they arrived at the top of the falls. It was the rainy season. They were carrying a tent to sleep in at night, and all their food.

"But it was raining heavily up in the mountains, and a couple of days into the trip a river burst its banks and flooded all the surrounding country, and they found themselves trapped on an elevation by the floodwater. At first they thought they would wait it out--they had enough food for a few extra days, and they expected the water would go down in a day or two. But it kept rising, and their patch of dry ground shrank slowly, and finally they ran out of food.

"They decided to swim. If they stayed put, they would starve, but five--seven?--ten?--miles away there was a village on higher ground. They decided to try to swim there while they were still strong, before hunger weakened them.

"They left most of their belongings behind--clothes, equipment--except for a compass. They wrote letters to their families on pages torn from a notebook, and wrapped them in plastic bags, in case they drowned and their bodies were ever found. And they put these letters in the small rucksack B. strapped to his back. He also kept the volume of Shelley he had with him--a classic B. touch, his just happening to have taken Shelley along on that trip--because, he told me, if he drowned he wanted to have Shelly with him, to have the book, wrapped in plastic, found with his body.

"Then they started swimming. For long stretches, where the water grew shallower, it was more like wading. And of course they could cling to the branches of trees to rest. And all around them all sorts of forest creatures--insects, snakes--were swimming also.

"Once, during the long swim, B. was some strokes behind his friend. All he could see of him was his head and neck, bobbing in the water. Then B. noticed that his friend's head and neck were covered with what looked like a fine red veil. It was hundreds of tiny red spiders, descended from a tree, perhaps, stealing a ride to dry land.

"B. was about to shout to his friend, tell him about the spiders, when he realised: he looked back over his shoulder, he passed his hand gingerly over his own head. Of course he was covered with the spiders also.

"He never told me about arriving at the village, how long it took to swim there, what the people thought of this dramatic appearance of two young men, climbing dripping from the flood. His story cut to their triumphant return to Georgetown, and then to his friend's return to Oxford, where he was a student of some sort.

"This was the punch-line of the story: his friend returned to Oxford and was describing his adventure to another friend who studied tropical diseases. This other friend, the pathologist, immediately grew excited. He asked for samples of blood, urine, stool. He discovered a new bacterium--or some such minute organism--previously unknown to science. It made his career."


Subject: half-remembered stories
Date: 15 April 200-

I've been turning over in my head a story I remember you telling me ten, eleven, twelve years ago, about getting trapped by rising floodwater on an overland trip to Kaieteur & having to swim to safety with nothing but a copy of Shelley. I'm wondering how much of this story I remember & how much I've invented.

Subject: RE: half-remembered stories
Date: 17 April 200-

I swam out of the floodplain near the base of Kaieteur with a secondhand copy of Shelley in a Ziploc bag. T. had ditched some Garcia Marquez and we'd thrown away our food supplies (rice, red beans, farina) and gambled on making do with a box of glucose. I looked at the Marquez books and couldn't bear to abandon Shelley like that. I decided to take his poems with me as we swam out. I will never forget the short walk into the floodplain.

We swam through a flooded forest (briefly) and I remember hidden branches rubbing my legs and belly. This actually felt reassuring at the time. Dozens of spiders jumped out of the overhanging branches and ran around the top of T.'s backpack, in front of me. I brushed them off and had one of those Hollywood moments when I looked back to see a whole colony of them scampering around on my own backpack (and neck and shoulders). We found shallow water near the river and were soon able to walk the rest of the way with no difficulty.

Our trip lasted nine days in all, three of which were spent in nonstop rain, moving away from the regular track beside the river and getting lost in the bush. I started to worry when a large tree fell over about ten feet from my hammock one afternoon. We had a sombre talk and I tried to write a will. Annoyed by some large green flies, I ate a fistful of raw garlic in the afternoon sun and couldn't sleep above my own smell. The flies responded as though sweated garlic was a pheromone. We spent two days alone at the top of Kaieteur, writing stupid comments in the guestbook. I lost a stone in weight and remember the delight of a large steak at the Arawak when we got back to Georgetown.

I remember howling monkeys at night and strangeness of the night's sounds against the deep, almost interrogatory silence of the forest. Too often I had the unfashionable thought that it would all be much better if somebody cleared this jungle away and put up decent houses, a cinema, a mall... anything I couldn't get lost in. The porknockers we met had a wonderful phrase about "eating a house"--people dismantled unguarded houses and used them for firewood. I also remember that they called gold "the mineral" and they talked of it like a woman, particularly the way it gleamed at the divers from the dredges.
I am sometimes a cloud waiting behind your eyes....