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Sunday 26 January 2020
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Back street paradise

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There is a residential part of Tobago that I appreciate for its peaceful old-style charm within rapidly changing environs of new malls, big houses, commerce, speeding cars, sirens.

Sometimes, early on mornings, while it's still cool and before roads get busy, I hop on my bike and ride to get there.

On quiet back streets I encounter chickens, dogs, sheep, goats and few people — sometimes men on bikes, well dressed, sweet-smelling adults walking out to "catch car" for work, pairs of neatly uniformed schoolchildren heading early for school, sometimes a man tenderly polishing a vehicle and elderly folks pottering around, feeding yard fowls, tending to plants or sitting on the verandah reading (maybe) the Bible.

These elders are like ancient trees, with roots running generations deep into the community that has sprouted from the seeds of their influence. How could anyone dare to consider uprooting them?

More than simply "houses," the structures I ride past are better defined as "homes"—humble, well-kept places of belonging, where inhabitants have built and nurtured lives and left legacies.

I don't know what goes on behind the walls and closed doors, but tendrils of people's lives reach out to me as I cycle—mouthwatering breakfast aromas...incense...puffs of "herb"... devotional music... Radio Tambrin...strong soap scents declaring scrubbing, laundry, or bath time.

Saying good morning to people generates varied responses — grunts... mumbles... "Good mornings"... or nothing at all.

Children are usually the ones to say "Good morning" clearly, sometimes cheerfully—either in response to me or first. I have a theory about children who say "Good morning" first. I feel they are most likely being brought up in a household where elders/grandparents also live. They are, therefore, of the few still raised to have a basic measure of manners, respect and discipline.

Sometimes I see men ritualistically leading their sheep or goats to graze. Once I met a black and white goat, walking alone with an older man. The goat was so statuesque and handsome that I had to stop my bike.

It greeted me as a dog would, head nuzzling affectionately into my extended hand.

"What are you going to do with him?" I asked the man. He told me that some people from Trinidad were interested in purchasing him to make curry goat for an event. They were to confirm within a week.

Something stronger than vegetarianism moved me to save this beautiful creature from the plate. I told the man, "I will buy him tomorrow" — not knowing the price or (when I heard it) where I would get the money. Was $2,200 the actual cost, or did my earnestness to save his life inspire inflation?

Friends and I pooled funds overnight to purchase "Billy", as I called him. He currently lives on Orange Hill Nature Ranch, now one of a herd of goats, who are beloved pets to Josefa Patience, owner and manager of the goat dairy farm. Guests visiting the farm for tea at Josie's "Café Cream Cheese Yogurteria" greet and play with Billy, who loves nothing better, having been relocated to paradise.

Paradise — a word often applied to Tobago, is accompanied by tourism cliches like "stunning beaches"..."diverse wildlife"...generations of history".

Is it still paradise when "stunning beaches" look out to dying reefs and tourists can be beaten and robbed at gunpoint while sunbathing...when blackboards standing before sidewalk restaurants are gravestones bearing overhunted names of our "diverse wildlife" — iguana, tattoo, agouti...when "generations of history" in the community where I ride on mornings are at risk of being uprooted — to make way for an expanded airport terminal that could be built in a viable alternative location that requires little or no relocation of residents?

Not wanting to see Billy become curry is similar to my feeling of not wanting to see generations of treasured homes and families being unnecessarily demolished... peaceful, bike-friendly back roads being bulldozed to rubble and dust... to construct a "state of the art" terminal for tourists seeking the simplicity and charm that could be destroyed to make way for their arrival.

Elspeth Duncan is a Tobago-based writer, Kundalini Yoga instructor, musician, filmmaker, animal activist—among other things.

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