The music, the vibe, the people: All about… Trinidad {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is by Annique Joseph, a Trini native from Claxton Bay. She grew up on the island and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2010 with her two children to live with her mother. She currently works as a clerk in the Pennsylvania State and Finance building.

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When I learned about the Caribbean in school, no one really knew the difference between Trinidad and Tobago. What are the similarities and differences between the two islands? We are two different islands with the same government and currency, but we are definitely different places. People in Tobago have a bit of a different accent, a little bit more like the island of Grenada. Tobago is a bit more of a tourist attraction because they have the picturesque beaches and scenery, but we have all the petrol.

Speaking of accents, all Trinis speak English, but it’s not quite the same as what we speak in America. No, definitely not! If I’m at work, rambling on, and speaking in a normal Trinidad accent, no one understands me. They think I’m not even speaking English. I think one of the problems is that we speak a lot faster than Americans do. Another problem is the different words. “A lime” or “liming” means a social gathering, hanging out and talking, or just going to a club and dancing the night away. Basically, there are a lot of words that a Pennsylvanian wouldn’t understand.

Word order is sometimes different, too. Right. We would say, “The bottle have a yellow label” instead of “the bottle has a yellow label.” Or we say, “Rain fallin'” to say that rain is falling.

And you switch the word order, too. When I was in Trinidad, your mom would often say, “Where Peter is?” when asking for her brother instead of “Where is Peter?” Right! We also say, “What today is?” when asking about the date. But I think in Trinidad, we generally have a good way of speaking. When you are asking someone how they’re doing, they never say, “Fine, thank you.” We usually say, “Not too bad,” which is more true than all the time saying, “Fine.” It’s hard to pass ten to fifteen people at work every day and say, “How are you doing?” when no one really stops in to give you a real answer! All the same, the American way of greeting has kind of grown on me.

Another great part of Trinidad is the Carnival in February right before Lent. What’s that like? Oh, I’ll just have to take you there. Let me put it this way. It is the greatest show on the face of the earth. I think it’s extra ordinary, the music, the vibe, and all of the people, just coming together to dance and celebrate. There’s all the costumes, makeup, music, everything. It’s about relaxing and enjoying yourself — not lying on the beach relaxing, but just relaxing with people and having fun. It’s a fantastic experience that you need to have.

Emmancipation Day. August 1, 2010.
Emancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

There are Carnivals all over the world, so what’s different about your Carnival than, say, the one in Brazil? In Brazil I think the people get a lot more naked than we do while still being able to enjoy themselves, while in Trinidad, I believe there’s laws against that. The entire “Carnival season” has police on duty for 24-hour shifts. This ensures that people have fun but stay safe, although there can be interruptions at times.

How long is Carnival season? Well, Carnival basically starts from the day after Christmas. We call it “Boxing Day.” A fete [party] is also held on the said night, and then things kick off from there. After that, almost every weekend, if not every weekend, is a fete leading up to the two big days. And then the week before Carnival has a fete every night. The Friday before Carnival is called Fantastic Friday when the groovy soca and power soca competitions are held. And then on Sunday night is the calypso competition and the “king and queen of the bands” competition.

What’s the difference between soca and calypso? Soca is real upbeat and dancing music, although “groovy soca” is slower and “power soca” is faster. Both make one feel like jumping and prancing or simply grooving to the rhythm of the beat. And calypso is more of a melody with words about the government, politics, and sometimes things that are happening in the country.

How do the official days of Carnival go? The official days are Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. On Monday morning it starts, most of the time around sunrise. That’s called jouver’t, pronounced joo-vay. There are groups playing old mas and dressed up in traditional mas costumes, like the midnight robber or the blue devil. Then there’s the mocco jumbie — that’s people on stilts. Then there are the bands, all dressed up in different matching outfits, sometimes old, sometimes new. They do mud mas, which is when they throw cleaned and sometimes colored mud or paint on themselves — or on anyone else who looks too clean. So if you’re a spectator, please wear old clothes and be prepared to return home dirty! The bands in the parade, all differently owned, are judged for creativity and leave the streets around 11-12 o’clock noon to give way for the original mas players. There’s the masquerading of the bands on Tuesday as well when people come out in their costumes to play real mas. That’s when you sign up months in advance for a particular group and wear a costume made with a particular costume designer.

Costumes can be expensive, right? Oh, definitely. One can be anywhere from 3000-8000 TT dollars (about $500-1250), according to the band leader or the designer.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.
Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

What do you miss most about Trinidad? Carnival is when I really miss it. Other than that, I miss being outside. I miss it being warm all the time. I miss bare feet and not having to wear so many clothes. In Trinidad, you can go out and call on all the neighbors or just visit a friend, and nobody asks you why you didn’t bother to call first. You can just stop by. In Pennsylvania in the wintertime, you’re inside and you’re inside and that’s it. Also, in Trinidad, you can just go outside and find your own food — that is, if you have a sort of garden. You can dig for yams or pick the green figs from the tree or pick some dasheen bush to make a dish. Go pick some mint for tea or just to season a piece of meat. Mango season? Go outside and pick a mango off a tree. My idea of tea is picking leaves off the bush, putting them in a pot, boiling the life out of them, or letting it draw (sit there for awhile, as the old people would say) and adding milk and sugar if you choose to right before you drink. That’s a fair idea of tea.

Trini countryside. August 2010.
Trini countryside. August 2010.

In the US, most people like Jamaican food, culture, and music. What’s the difference between Trinis and Jamaicans? Trinis tend to be way laid back. “Trini time” means that you’re half an hour late to just about everything. We also have the greatest music here: soca, calypso. For me, the best kind of music is the steel pan. In the days of slavery, they had to make these songs up with rhythm and taste.

What about the difference between jerk seasoning in Trinidad and jerk seasoning in Jamaica? There’s a difference all right! People cook it differently.

There’s also a difference between Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S. and KFC in Trinidad. Yes. In Trinidad, KFC is spicier and more flavorful than it is in the U.S. But there’s kind of a competition. We either eat KFC or Royal Castle (which consist of the same type of food), but they both have their customers. I personally like Royal Castle’s pepper sauce, although Trini pepper sauce in general is too hot for most Americans.

Bread, rice and pepper sauce, and fried fish. August 2010.
Bread, rice, and fried fish. August 2010.

What’s it like, growing up in a place that’s surrounded by water? Well, I can’t swim, but that doesn’t matter because you’re not living in the water or anything. One can go to the beach all the time, but you can get tired of it. When people say, “Hey, I bet you’re always on the beach,” it’s like, “Been there, done that.”

Good point. Here’s another way to look at it. Does growing up on an island make people more or less likely to leave it? We get tired of it eventually. A lot of people travel for work, because $1 in the U.S. is worth $6 in Trinidad. It isn’t unusual for Trinis to get out, travel, work, and send money back home, just to build a big house, to buy a nice car, to buy a piece of land and/or take care of their family. But if it wasn’t because of work most Trinis would want to travel anyway too. We sometimes feel the need to want more out of life, just like everybody else, and there’s just too much of the world out there to see.

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