GROWING UP WITH TOBAGO
By Anthony Milne
For a long time now, blurred rum-drunken Great Race weekends in Tobago have been unavoidable annual attractions for Trinidad Warrahoons. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I was one of those Warrahoons. You slept where you fell and didn't know or care where you woke up. These were the Bad Lime.
A few will still remember the glory days of Crusoe's Drinking Team: Cooky, Agos, Ken and "Faster" O'Brien: friends, mutual bodyguards who would do anything for a joke and sometimes end up in a fight. Life, after all, was itself just a stupid joke.
If you felt well enough in the morning, you could get breakfast at Uncle's. If not, you had a couple cold beers first. What a contrast this was to the first time I went to to Tobago with my parents when I was three, in 1954, to stay in a rented house at Store Bay. The house was near the old tamarind tree that survived the transformation of south-east Tobago from village and pastureland to the site of a multitude of hotels and guest houses of every description. This is the relatively inexpensive side of Tobago. Go to Mount Irvine, Grafton Road, Pleasant Prospect and along the main road to Turtle Beach, and you'll find the real money.
I stopped being a Warrahoon when I went away to university in Canada. When I came back after my freshman year I was another person altogether. The Bad Lime showed up at Piarco to greet me, to hear about foreign adventures and Canadian rye whisky. At the airport in those days you could look through the louvres at the foot of the stairs to the Waving Gallery and see passengers going through immigration.
"Officer!" Cooky shouted when my turn came to pass. "Don't let that criminal through, he have drugs!" And the Bad Lime burst into laughter, cheering and shouting corroboration to Cooky's allegation. Back then 'drugs' meant weed or hash--in extreme cases mescaline or LSD. No one had heard of cocaine. The Bad Lime were rum-jumbies, swore by alcohol and despised the early experimenters. In Liberal Canada it was the cool age of mind expansion, peace in Vietnam, draft dodgers, those who had been to Nam and returned, long hair, the death of God and the Beatles. For me there was nothing besides the Beatles, John Lennon in particular. The Bad Lime didn't see or understand right away that I had reverted to the quiet literary creature I was at fourteen, or what it meant to have seen snow for the first time, never mind enduring a Canadian winter, or taken your first toke of hashish.
Now the beauty of the Trinidad countryside was suddenly revealed to me. Alone at the Caura River I said things to myself like, "This is the very beauty Wordsworth spoke about in his poems."
New friends turned up, Fam in particular, and Ian, Eliana and her sister. Fam was already working and had a car in which we sped up to JB's on weekends. Alcohol, the most dangerous drug in the world, was now anathema to us. We sat in Fam's car smoking and laughing deliriously, making acute observations on life. Once, we discovered Lord Vishnu lying face up along the Northern Range.
"We are prophets!" Fam shouted. "We are prophets!"
I was less excited, having just recited for his benefit part of a lecture from Religious Studies 102.
On the weekends there was JB's, the first discotheque we knew of, run by Johnny Boos who died so young. JB's with its whirling, flashing lights and heavy music. Soon I met Eliana, who had once talked to Lennon through her fence when he was staying with Abdul Malik, and amazed him with her cuatro. I met her in Tobago. Fam and Abry, and the blond Bajan Eddy went over for the Great Race weekend. We stayed away from the orgy. We set up our tent in a field in the Crown Point area near to a tap, cooked over a fire, lay about in the sun or in the cool of the tent, all of us thoroughly and meditatively stoned. Fam and I found Eliana and her sister, and paradise.
Then there was trouble. God knows how. I am careful beyond belief, but I hadn't been the buyer. We were summoned to the home of one of Fam's father's friends, a straight but practical and understanding man towards truant young men.
He had heard what we were up to. He implied that the police knew as well and stressed that we had very little time to correct the situation. We left thanking him, perhaps a bit more afraid than we needed to be. Nevertheless, we decided that concerted action was necessary. But not without one last ceremony.
The entire supply was fed to the sacred fire while we performed what we imagined to be an Amerindian ritual, gathering 'round the fire and inhaling as though we had just run a 100-metre race.
The blond Bajan and I stayed on after Fam, Eliana, her sister and Abry went back to Trinidad. Bage and I decided to break camp and see more of Tobago. The friendliness of the people was uncanny. They proudly spoke their minds without the inferiority complexes of Trinidadians, immigrant Trinidadians in particular.
We got on to a Public Transport Service Corporation bus bound for Charlotteville, where we never had been, passing Bacolet, Roxborough, Speyside on the way. We were planning to camp at Charlotesville beneath a bridge, when we were invited by friendy villagers to use the community centre. A day or two later we left to make the long journey to the Scarborough dock, then to Port of Spain.
That was just the first of many adventures in Tobago. The next summer I was back, renting a small Yamaha 50cc and staying with a friend who lived near a bakery. Utterly carefree after a gruelling year of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Philosophy of Literature, the wonderfully fresh local bread and butter meant putting on several pounds. In spite of this, in spite of the rain and the muddy tracks, I travelled into cool, high hills that I remember as if in a dream. Sometimes my old friend Derek met me there, and we rode pillion, laughing as we slipped in the mud, falling into ravines when we weren't hauling that incredible little bike over logs. We rode through forests with crystal-clear streams, and looked down on steep, rolling pastureland, the sea beyond, without a clue to where we were.
After college I was a dirt-poor articled clerk. I borrowed to buy a Yamaha 175 trail bike. At the start or end of study leave I often went to Tobago, by myself, camping at Blackrock under plastic. Once I got so attached to the villagers there that when I got home I had to make a call to the public telephone in Tobago just to hear their voices again. Another time I slept on tables under the umberellas at Mount Irvin's public beach, and once at almost deserted Englishman's Bay. One night I came to a place called Culloden, where the people spoke with an accent that sounded Jamaican but was impossible to understand.
After I started to work out of Tobago for Trindad Express in July 1981, everything was different. There were public affairs to cover, the Assembly, local and national elections, frantically filing my stories to Trinidad, always staying with a veteran journalist who covered Tobago affairs. But I still did some travelling on my own, and wrote about that as well.
A couple weeks ago I was back again, on holiday, and managed to get invited to a function at the President's house where he has was enjoying a working vacation. There must have been a sense of his having arrived in an island he was born in, and in a strange way I shared that feeling.
(Anthony Milne <email@example.com> was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)