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Crab and Callaloo – Letter from Trinidad and Tobago

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Tue Feb 17, 2015

Dear Chester: I am writing to you from my hotel room in Trinidad. I just returned from visiting my aunt who lives in Belmont, on the fringes of Port of Spain proper. The appointment of this hotel is a stark contrast to the surroundings I just left. It is on the water’s edge along Wrightson Road and from my room balcony I have a panoramic view of the Gulf of Paria, South Quay, some of the Beetham Highway and the buildings at the southern tip of Port of Spain.{{more}}

The hotel is very modern; on entering the lobby one instantly gets a sense that the people who mingle in it are neoliberals, the Thatcherists or neoconservatives of the Caribbean. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense. It is that sort of place though, one which beckons the upwardly mobile.

Riding the elevator to my room is like a Star Trek experience. “Beam me up Scottie.” In my room, I feel insulated from everything that is happening in the rest of Trinidad and Tobago. It is like being in an ivory tower. The room has a mix of modern amenities: a large flat screen TV; a spaceship looking coffee maker; a small fridge stocked with drinks and knick-knacks; a bedside telephone; and a work desk also furnished with a phone and an ornate reading lamp. There are two layers of curtains; one is heavy and dark and the other light and thin, a veneer to what exists beyond the fixed panel of glass behind it. The striking feature of the room is a frosted glass encased shower next to the king-size bed. It makes the room feel like an urban spa.

The balcony is of particular interest to me. It is pretty small and if one is acrophobic, then going to the edge is not advisable, especially from nine floors up. The view is full of paradoxes. From this ultra modern hotel I can see the main port, badly in need of refurbishment. Strewn across it are old rusty and defunct vessels that have not sailed in years. The water is foul and the floating debris makes it look like a dump. Yet, yesterday I saw the T&T Spirit gracefully gliding to its dock. This is the inter-island ferry which goes between Trinidad and Tobago. It has the capacity to carry 765 passengers and 200 cars. It is just over 97 metres long and can get up to speeds of 40 knots. It makes the journey between Trinidad and Tobago in just two and a half hours. A fast ferry it is indeed. Even more amazing is the fare. A return ticket is TT$100. I shudder to imagine the level of subsidy provided by the T&T government in this enterprise. Does it sound like some sort of largesse to you? What about using some of that oil money to fix or relocate the port?

Looking a bit further southeast, there is Sea Lots. The residents are mainly squatters living in abject poverty. I don’t imagine there are a lot of neoliberals mingling there, suffice it to say that amongst the squatters are industrial installations. Sea Lots is a crime ridden community and I can’t help but wonder how a hotel such as this one is meant to improve the lives of those people who live in such squalor and hopelessness. Is the task of poverty alleviation being tackled by the presence of this hotel? On the surface, one can argue that it provides jobs; it provides a place to host seminars and conferences; a comfortable place where business people are meant to stay and negotiate business deals that should result in more money being pumped into the economy, creating economic growth as it were. This growth should mean more money to tackle poverty alleviation; but does that really happen? Are the people who stay here, conducting these big money deals, just feathering their own nests? Do they have a social conscience or the conscience of a liberal?

Chester, the bigger question I suppose is: Does any of this modern development redound to improving the fortunes of poor people? How does one create the nexus between both? Ironically, some of the conferences and seminars hosted here are meant to address the socioeconomic development of the region. I wonder if this ivory tower provides the atmosphere to generate seminal ideas in that respect. To quote C.L.R James, a son of the T&T soil, “Technological discoveries are the spermatozoa of social change.” I believe he is right and the Internet is a prime example of that; but there is much work to be done to bridge what goes on in this modern urban high tech hotel and the squatters literally just up the road in Sea Lots.

Dining at the hotel is interesting, a mix of Trinidad cuisine and contemporary American/European food. Yesterday, while having buffet lunch, the server was putting some curried chicken on my plate. After one large spoon, I motioned to her to stop. She said to me “but dah is not plenty,” to which I replied, “it’s enough.” She looked at me quizzically, as if not being convinced that I would be satisfied with what I took. How many people you think understand the concept of enough? For sure, ‘enough’ is never a point reached in a system of unbridled capitalism.

By now you are probably wondering how I ended up staying here. You know I can’t personally afford it. The room prices are beyond my budget and a Carib beer, brewed and bottled right here in Trinidad is TT$36 at the bar. An organization which has access to funds from the World Bank and the IADB is hosting a three-day seminar here. They paid all my expenses to attend, including air fare, accommodation and per diem. There are about 60 of us from different islands of the Caribbean attending the seminar. Everyone had their expenses paid. Indeed, a heavy investment in us. We are meant to be agents of social change, something like the spermatozoa CLR James wrote about. Do you really believe that when we leave here the majority of us will advocate and try to bring about real social change? Will we attend to the problems in our own countries that give rise to the social conditions experienced by the people in Sea Lots?

The architecture of this hotel is impressive and it is nice to be accommodated here; but what about the architecture of our future in the Caribbean? George Lamming said that “the architecture of our future is not only unfinished; the scaffolding has hardly gone up.” I don’t agree with that in a wholesale way; do you? I believe much has been done in St Vincent and the Grenadines and indeed the Caribbean, to address positively our socio-economic issues, especially those which deal with poverty alleviation. That notwithstanding, there remains much more to be done.

I must stop writing now and savour my last sip of neat 1919 rum. I hope to go to bed with an imbued sense of optimism, despite the many paradoxes of life in the Caribbean.

Your Crab & Callaloo counterpart,

Tony Regisford