Trini Time (Year 2 Part 2)
How to pick up and incapsulate our second month in Trinidad? It was such a whirlwind and it’s hard to piece together and believe everything that happened now that I’m back in my little garden airstream home in Oakland! When I left off last time I had just injured my knee again and Claire and I had just moved down the hill to the little apartment behind Jody, Mike, and Nalini’s dance studio (where we stayed last year). If you haven't read Part 1 please scroll to the bottom and click "older" to get to it...
Nalini had turned the space into an art studio since our last trip so we had a good amount of cleaning and organizing to do in order to settle in. They let us stay for free again so we bought them a mini fridge and a little 2 burner stove and made some general improvements on the place in exchange. And then we spent a whole lot of time in there at first because we were both injured and were basically out of the game for a whole two weeks.
After I tweaked my knee for the second time we took about a week to heal (Claire’s back was acting up too) and I was just barely feeling good enough to perform on stilts for Chutney Soca Monarch, which is a competition for the king or queen of the Indian version of Soca music.
The scene is very different from the regular Soca scene and is more concentrated in the South, which is where the competition was held. Mike had to do a pretty elaborate rigging system that would allow Louise to be suspended on her hoop in the rafters and then drop down in the middle of Nishard M’s (the artist who had hired us) song. Jody and Nalini had another bellydance gig that night so the logistics of getting there on time were complicated. They ended up dropping us off and then getting to their show late, which meant they wouldn’t be back in time to help us get ready and be our handlers backstage (most of the stilt walkers here use handlers to get them up on their super tall stilts from the ground and to make sure they can navigate backstage quickly). We didn’t think much of it because we aren’t used to using handlers…but when we went to get up on our stilts we noticed how wet everything was from a thick fog that had rolled in. I should have known to be more careful. I stood up just fine and then went to walk across this ridiculous puzzle-piece plastic walkway that they had laid out backstage and I didn’t realize just how slippery and uneven it was. I took one step onto it and instantly slid down into a half split, landing square on my right hip and bending my left injured leg a little more intensely than was good for it. I sat there for a moment collecting myself and then a few security guards helped me up. I was in a bit of shock and trying to asses how much damage was done, but was determined that the show must go on. I took a few shots of rum and some ibuprofen and felt good enough to safely get on stage for our 1 minute act. We met some of the other Moko Jumbies backstage (including Junior and his group who we had been trying to connect with before we were to play carnival with them) and they offered to help us on and off stage, which was very reassuring. We got through the performance just fine (we basically just flanked the stage with Trini colored silk fans for the end of the song) but a pretty huge hematoma had started to form on my hip and I was in quite a bit of pain. The next week revealed a bruise the size of a softball that changed shapes and colors every day and was quite sensitive to the touch. My left leg was a little sore but no more real damage was done, thank goodness....but it’s been over 6 weeks since the fall and I still have an extra hip on my right side! Everything happens for a reason though…
When Jody and Nalini returned they did their best to get us out of there quickly, but I was moving rather slowly. Then, part way through the drive home we were passed by a car traveling at an alarming speed. He swerved very quickly back into our lane and lost control, nicking the bumper of the car ahead of him and sending him into a tailspin that resulted in him flipping off the road. We stopped and somehow he emerged unscathed out of the upside-down car, was clearly not sober, and was acting very rude and dismissive when Claire tried to help. We didn’t stick around for the other driver to give him a piece of his mind. When we pulled away Nalini remarked that had I not been moving so slow on the way out it could have easily been us involved in the accident. So I suppose I took one for the team.
I’ve come to realize it’s a totally different experience to live somewhere for 2 or more months than it is to visit for a few weeks. When you’re visiting for a short time there isn’t much space for real life challenges…you only have so much time and you try to do it all and make the most of it…maybe there’s a hard day or two but it usually passes quickly. But with a longer stay you begin to feel the natural ebb and flow of life more intensely, and in my experience there’s often a bit of a lull in the middle of the trip. Our injuries definitely induced quite a downturn in energy and fun experiences for a good two weeks. It was necessary for our healing but if you know me at all you know how hard it is for me to not be active, and specifically to not dance, for an extended period of time. Two weeks isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but when there’s high energy Soca dance music playing literally EVERYWHERE (from the grocery store, to the bank, to the girls catholic school next door) it’s especially frustrating for me to not be able to move my body. Being in this state and sharing a really tiny space presented one of the first major challenges for my relationship with Claire. We have been very close friends for nearly 10 years (and last year we even celebrated and honored it with a “friend wedding” on our collective half birthday) and sure we have had our little disagreements or tiffs, but they usually result in one of us saying “We’re having a fight!” and the other agreeing, and then we apologize and it’s over and done. This was different because both of our little quirks and annoying habits had no other outlets and we came face to face with the frightening reality that we could get away with not treating each other with our usual amount of kindness and compassion, yet still know that the other person would continue to be there for us. We have had to consciously choose, again and again, to fight against that tendency and face some of our shit that has only really come up with family members before. Being friend married ain’t no joke…and this felt like our first real test. It took some time…and it didn’t really feel resolved until the end of the trip (Tica Tornado flew in for the last couple weeks and it was non-stop as Carnival season really hit!—more on that later), but we eventually both took responsibility for our part of the tension, forgave each other, pledged to do better, and started working out more tactics to gently call each other out when those bad habits surface. I feel so grateful to have a friend and partner in life who I can do this work with and who continues to challenge me to grow in my capacity for empathy, love, and compassion.
One thing that helped save us toward the end of our two weeks was an incredible dive into the music scene in Trinidad. We had started playing around with some ideas with our friend Mark who we met in the salsa scene, and then one day right after my fall we made plans to continue our foray with him. But instead of taking us to his fancy apartment he drove us out of the city and took us to see his friend Azikiwe, who he insisted we meet. Before we knew it Claire was singing for him and he immediately started pulling up tracks he’d written that still needed a vocalist. That day we started two songs, one a sort of sweet and strange pop song, the other a Soca tune that he had pitched to other big artists but had never found a good fit for...until Claire came along. I was originally not very happy about being there because I was in a lot of pain from the fall, but Azikiwe and his brother are both hardcore cyclists and they gave me an anti-inflammatory pill that helped a lot, especially when washed down with rum. Once I was feeling better I sort of got into the process too and suggested edits and ideas as well as I could with my limited knowledge of music. We made a great team and the experience was very exciting, especially since it was a long time coming. One of Claire’s goals for the trip was to really try to get her voice out there. We started by recording a couple videos of her singing, but recording in a nice studio with a producer that has worked with all the big Soca artists was a whole other level we weren’t expecting! After only two sessions we finished two awesome songs and are scheming about how to drop the Soca song for next Carnival season.
A topic that I only sort of touched on in my last post became much more real and frightening in our second month in Trinidad. The violence against women has been out of control this year and there were so many horrific reports of women being kidnapped, raped, and killed. It didn’t help that the prime minister himself came out and publicly said that women need to be more careful when picking their partners! Complete disgusting victim blaming from the head of state! The closer we got to Carnival the more the energy intensified. The catcalls and harassment on the street were already bad and hard to deal with (the women there tend to mostly ignore it and move on) and they only got worse. Then one night our friend Khary, who is an incredible Chef and culinary teacher, and I walked with Claire to the Savannah (the big open space inside the huge roundabout like 3 blocks from the studio) and she wanted to stay longer than us to help her Pan band get on and off stage. We offered to come back to walk her home later but she insisted she was fine and we learned a hard lesson. I’ll share it with you in her words:
Monday, February 13 2:11 AM Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
I got into a verbal altercation with a man tonight. It was 2AM. I was walking home from Panorama Semifinals where I assisted "Birdsong Steel Pan Orchestra" in maneuvering their many bulky, haphazardly pan carts onto and off of the competition stage. Walking home alone, not fearful. Just aware. I noticed a tall man in a white shirt who had taken all of the zig-zaggy turns that I had taken. In order to avoid leading this potentially ill-intentioned person straight to my home and slumbering best friend, I went straight instead of turning left onto my block. I saw some men gathered outside of the brothel that is right around the corner from our house, which made me feel safer only because I knew some of them were bouncers whose job it is to protect the women working inside from men who are dangerous. One of the men who I believe was exiting from patronage there began speaking to me. I said "Sir, please don't talk to me" he continued to say XYZ and I continue to say "Please don't talk to me." "Please just keep walking."
Then, a man sitting in the driver seat of a car parked outside the brothel on the opposite side of the street began to talk to me.
me: Please don't talk to me.
him: Why shouldn't I talk to you?
me: Because I politely asked you not to.
him: What are you doing out here anyway, why don't you just move along?
me: Sir I can stand wherever I choose to stand.
him: Why are you still standing here? Is it me you like, or my friend?
me: You obviously have NO idea what it's like to be a woman walking alone at night. I came over here because I thought someone was following me. How does that make you feel?
him: You don't look that good. You're not sexy enough for someone to follow you home.
me: (at this point I'm loud AF) How dare you. Women are harassed, assaulted, raped, and murdered every day. IT DOESN'T MATTER what we look like! It doesn't matter what we wear.
him: Why are you still here? You must want some big black cock. I like snowflakes.
me: I feel sorry for all of the women in your life. I hope you don't have children or contact with other people's children to teach them this terrible behavior. Your mother would be ashamed of you.
I am proud of myself for standing my ground, standing up to him and not letting him push me around with his words or his intentions. I feel angry. At myself. At him. At the bystanders. At misogyny. At male privilege. At men. I feel upset. I feel afraid. I am afraid that every time I go out I will worry that he or someone he knows will be watching. Waiting. Plotting retaliation. I wish I would've taken his photo. Recorded his image and hateful attacks. Photographed his car and license plate. I am worried. I'm worried I'm overreacting. I'm worried that to not worry, would be stupid and naïve. I am afraid to tell my community here for fear that they will feel unsafe by association to me because of this incident. I feel shame. I feel ashamed of my big mouth and it's potential to put me in serious danger. I feel ashamed that what I did doesn't feel all-the-way-ok. I feel ashamed that it felt good to give him a piece of my mind.
I feel ashamed.
AND I feel good.
I'm hesitant to talk about it, but I MUST. My hunch is that the only way to combat harassment and misogyny is to SPEAK OUT about it. Tell our stories. Raise our voices. NOT be quiet.
That was a pretty big wake up call and afterwards we made sure not to walk alone at night any more. In retrospect there are always so many things you could have done different/better but in the moment you just have to do whatever it is makes you feel the most empowered. Claire’s approach tends to be much more aggressive and hands on than mine and sometimes that was challenging for us to navigate when we were walking together. I tend to watch how the local women handle things and follow that model because at least it’s what the men are used to and hopefully won’t provoke them into more aggression….but who’s to say, really, what keeps you safer? There are no good options.
A week or two later we were with Rian at a play at the NAPA Building (a huge arched performance art building that now houses part of the university and was right in between us and the Savannah) when we received a call from a very flustered Jody. Her and Nalini had just been held up at gunpoint as two men tried to steal their car, in their own driveway! Luckily the car had one of those automatic ignitions where the key just has to be nearby and after a bit of a scuffle the guys realized the keys were going to be hard to find and Jody and Nalini were clever enough to use that moment to attract enough attention and make enough noise to scare the robbers off, but not before one of them hit Jody over the head with his gun. She called to make sure we were in a safe place (so damn sweet) while they tried to find the men with the cops. We were scared to walk home but found a group of kind men at the university who offered to give us a ride home. Fucking terrifying.
On a brighter note, people are starting to wake up to the issues women are facing and are beginning to come together to raise their voices and actively fight this mentality. We were able to connect with an awesome spoken word group called the Two Cents Movement, and they eventually put us in touch with another group called Together Wi who was working with the incredible legendary Soca artist Calypso Rose to spread the message behind her hit song “Leave me Alone.” It turned out a lot of badass women who are also involved with The Lost Tribe were part of this and shortly after Tica arrived we got invited to join them on stage on stilts for the finale of Calypso Rose’s big show. We had drummers, some other traditional carnival characters (I was in between two Jab Jabs cracking whips! It was pretty wild! More on that later...), an awesome spoken word artist leading chants, and a ton of other dancers and creative leaders. It was a really awesome experience to use art to inspire social change in this way. Later that week we had a really sweet “Galentines Day” gathering with our amazing friend Nicole and a couple of her badass lady friends. We spent hours drinking wine and eating sweet treats and sharing stories and wisdom and advice about our success and failures at navigating this world as independent women!
As soon as the Tica Tornado arrived we kicked back into full gear! She only had 2 weeks and was ready to go hard. Luckily we had (just barely) recovered enough to keep up! Rian generously picked her up from the airport and that night we went out to the Army Fete, one of the biggest carnival parties that is actually put on by the army. We danced there until 4 or so in the morning, slept for about two hours, and then woke up just in time to get a ride out to this adorable little farmers market called the Green Market for the first “Salsa at Sunrise” event, put on by our awesome friend Paul who started an amazing salsa community in Port of Spain.
Somehow we danced there for hours, then Khary took us to the beach to begin his birthday celebration. There was lots of wine and shenanigans and we met up with our awesome friend Dexter and his crew. Tica took a power nap and we covered her with sand to keep her from sunburning and then somehow we managed to go out again that night without a rest to get some dancing in at Paprika. Another night of almost no sleep and then we woke up early again to get on a small speed boat and go exploring “Down de Islands” with a couple awesome old friends of Dexter’s. We were all super haggard and the weather was not the nicest so we mostly posted up on a dock, drank more rum, of course, and explored some of the fascinating little islands from there with our amazing group of friends. It was so beautiful and relaxing to get out of the city and the carnival madness for a moment! We also made a trip to the 3 pools waterfall again-a beautiful 15 minute hike (of course we insisted on dragging along a cooler full of booze and even swimming upstream with it!) to a quiet water sanctuary.
And it’s a good thing we did because…the next week was mostly a crazy blur of fetes and carnival preparations. Kes Tuesday stood out though, because Dexter went to school with Kes (one of the biggest names in Soca) and his brothers, who are also in the group, and was able to introduce us to his brother Hans who is the musical director for the band. I had re-choreographed our stilt dance piece to one of their songs and he was really excited to see it.
At the end of the week we made a super awesome video of it on Jody and Mike’s roof with help from Claire’s amazing pro photographer friend Mandela and sent it along to Hans.
Unfortunately it was a little too late in the season to make anything happen with them this year, but we are talking about how we can collaborate next year and possibly when they are on tour!
After the crazy friday when we filmed our stilt video, performed with Calypso rose and then met Dexter and Ayo at a cooler fete until early in the morning we gave ourselves a full day off to make sure we were ready for the real Bacchanal of Carnival!
We had spent a good amount of time at the venue known as Paprika and made friends with the owner. He offered us an opportunity we couldn’t refuse to play Jouvert in Togas with them (a wild and mischievous middle of the night celebration that was originally created by the slaves who were not allowed to play “Pretty Mas” carnival during the daytime because they had to work in the sugar cane fields…so they made their own night party and now it has become a big part of kicking off the carnival celebrations…people throw paint, mud, clay, chocolate, oil, and all sorts of things all over each other and by dawn most people are unrecognizable and absolutely ecstatic!) so we took Mike and Jody with us and had quite a time. Claire and I didn’t stay out much past sunrise because we knew our injuries needed a little rest…but Tica kept going straight through!
Monday is sort of like a practice day and most bands don’t go full out. A lot of people wear t-shirts and now there’s a thing called Monday wear and a lot of women (and some men) spend quite a bit of money on a smaller scale additional costume. Lost tribe had a cool concept where they gave everyone blue fabric to somehow incorporate into their costumes as a tribute to the Jab (a masquerade character who’s body is often fully painted and who is “armed with ropes and chains and whistles…one has to pay compensation to the Jab Jab or else be jabbed” or taunted with these items. Originally it is said that former salves began using “burnt sugar cane to paint themselves black and greasy as a commemoration of their freedom.” Often you will see these characters painted blue and described as the “blue devils”). They also gave out sandwich boards on long poles and encouraged people to share a message with the world. I was surprised to see many signs about Trump (unclear whether foreigners were carrying them or not). We decided to wear our “Leave me Alone” t-shirts again and continue to spread that message, especially since carrying a sign on stilts is no fun.
We finally got to play a little bit with the other Moko Jumbies from Junior’s group, but about an hour in (which is all we’d agreed to do on stilts) there was a crazy downpour and Claire’s stilt toe cap wore completely through so we decided to get down. I’d had my fabric draped over my shoulders and flying above my head and it managed to turn me quite blue in the rain…so I ended up painted blue like a Jab unintentionally! We stuck around for quite a while, enjoying the live Laventile Rhythm Section who was on one of our trucks and added so much energy and vibes to our group! Then we ran into our old friend Seitu who was out taking photos and he gave us a ride home to rested because Tuesday is the real deal and starts at 8 am!
Claire ended up having to play Tuesday on her 2 foot stilts because we couldn’t switch out her toe caps without the proper tools. Rian stayed with us overnight and we woke up waaaay too early to start getting ready. We must have been much closer toward the front of the parade than last year because we crossed several judging points and got to the main stage very early in the day. We were originally toward the back with the rest of the Cutta section (we kept joking that we looked like tall flying bananas, but the costumes were so beautiful, especially up in the air!)...
...but it took a long time for people to trickle in so they moved us toward the front behind the dancers (this was the first group I’d seen that actually had a choreographed dance performance presentation and it was so beautiful!).
We adapted some of our stilt choreography and used it to cross the stages-it felt awesome to be bringing in a new element that people don't often see there! Just as we were finishing the most epic moment of crossing the stage there was our friend Mandela, and he managed to get some beautiful video footage of us (you saw it mixed into the stilt video). Shortly after crossing we got down and took a break for lunch in a big park. It was hard not to loose the momentum but food was very necessary, especially after all the rum we’d consumed! There was a little rain on and off but not too bad-mostly it was refreshing. We got a late start after lunch and had to catch up so we didn’t make it back up on our stilts before we crossed the Socadrome. Rian was in a different section but wanted to cross with us so we disguised her in part of our costume and away we went, excited for an opportunity to interact more with people on the ground!
And then we continued on, into the dark. Claire got back up on her stilts for a bit at the end, and I tried but the energy felt too intense and people felt too drunk for me to feel safe on my 3 footers. It was interesting because we kept sort of switching places with the other Moko jumbies….they were up when we were down and so on, so we didn’t really get to play with them much. Things finally started to wind down and we dragged ourselves home, exhausted but also elated and filled to the brim with all our lovely experiences from such a beautiful day. The colors, the costumes, the music….it was all just overwhelmingly charming and positive and alive.
And just like that the energy shifted and it was all over. We got in a couple more beach days and finally spent some time with our friend Dandy, who we had played Mas with on stilts the year before, and his friend who was a cop (interesting to hear his perspectives on things). Tica headed home and we spent as much time as we could with friends before we had to leave. There was one last fete…called Las Jam…that’s put on by Tribe. It was pretty ridiculous but really fun…basically a bunch of people come out in parts of their costume and pretend like it’s Tuesday all over again as they circle the Socadrome with music and drinks and try to get back in the spirit. We dragged a reluctant Rian with us and had a grand time! Two days is not enough!
And then we held a pretty epic going away party at the dance studio…salsa, soca, lots of rum of course, and lots of fast winin’! It was so sweet to have so many of our new friends together in one place….so many beautiful powerful women, a bunch of super woke and amazing male friends, our N9 dance/circus family, and our beloved new salsa community.
We were already talking about making plans and buying tickets to come back before we even left…so it seems this is becoming a yearly adventure! Trinidad and Tobago has officially stolen our hearts...