Trini Culture through Puerto Rican Eyes
It’s easy to think that I know how daily life rolls in Trinidad after three years of living here. I’ve got the routine, day-to-day stuff down cold… like roti lunch just once a week (because I know one buss-up lunch equals one full hour of cardio come Carnival time), a working knowledge of intrinsically Trinidadian varieties of limes (I like car limes best), and knowing how to take directions based on landmarks rather than street signs.
However, a recent string of visitors (my first visitors since moving here) shook me out of that. As my sister and my friends took in the sights with fresh eyes, I recalled my first impressions with a bit of nostalgia, and a fair share of amusement, and remembered what struck me most in those early days here, before I felt my Puerto Rican self become a Trini.
Three days into being here, my husband and I hit the road for Maracas. The road and the rainy season downpour were truly breathtaking, but what I remember most is the sound of the radio that day. What was up with the starting and stopping of songs and the airhorns? Why couldn’t I hear a song, uninterrupted, from beginning to end? “Because people like hearing the beginning of a song and getting psyched about it”, a new acquaintance with a radio background casually informed me later.
It was surprising and completely unlike any radio vibe I’d ever heard before. In Puerto Rico, radio DJs do their chat thing at the start of a track, and then let the song play out. The same goes for everywhere else I’ve been, including the US, Spain, Canada, and England.
I was also bemused by the fact that no song ever seemed to be played to its end. I once timed how long each song was played – one minute, twenty-seven seconds was the best I got. Most clocked in at under a minute. Was this because DJs had short attention spans? Maybe. Was it because it was important to promote as many songs as possible during the radio time during the allocated season of that kind of music? Very possibly.
This brings me to the idea of music “seasons” in commercial radio. Why couldn’t I listen to Parang in August, if I so felt like it? Why did radio stations chuck away Soca immediately after Carnival? And few,,three weeks after Carnival? From 94.1 all the way through to 96.1, 96.7, 99.1 and everything in between (with Radio Tambrin and CT 105 being two of the few exceptions), this is the story.
Nowadays, I’m down with the general cycle: January to Carnival – Soca, R&B, Hip-Hop, Dancehall and Reggae throughout the rest of the year (with the occasional Soca sneaking in around September), a slight portion of Soca chunes during the island Carnival season, and Parang from October to Christmas. I can deal with this – as long as my Soca grooves don’t get interrupted by Dancehall in February.
Getting used to driving on the left was nothing compared to figuring out how not to get killed, while driving. Last month, as my sister sat, statue-like, in the back of the car gaping at the cars whizzing past – and in front, and to the side, and behind – us, I was reminded of how chaotic the law of the Trini road looked at first.
And yet I drove and got used to it. The hand signals may not be like those anywhere else in the world, but they make sense once you start using them (or at least seeing them). No brake lights on so many cars? Not great, but it has made me a much more alert driver.
Here’s the thing: despite the undeniable look of total bacchanal, there is a finely organized kind of chaos to driving in Trinidad. As aggressive as the driving might seem (and I admit that I revert to my Catholic school days and do the sign of the cross when I hit a highway on a Friday night), there is a paradoxical politeness in that aggression that is not found in other places where drivers are notoriously aggressive. I have never ever been let into a lane of traffic, while driving in my native Puerto Rico, without seriously risking car damage. Here, I know that, eventually, I will get through.
In the first, six months of my time here, most of my interactions involved me saying, “Could you please repeat that?” at least twice. It was mortifying. Nowadays, I get the accent (most of the time) – and if I hear a Trinidadian accent anywhere outside of Trinidad, I get positively giddy because it’s the accent I hear in my head, when I think in English.
Trinis are considerate conversationalists too. Chatting with people, I often notice a slight shift in their accent – and the way they express what they are going to say changes to take into account the fact that I may not understand the phrases that they’d use if they were speaking to another Trini. I thoroughly appreciate their efforts (subconscious or not) to include me in a conversation.
However, I sometimes get more knowledge of Trini expressions and syntax from what I read – be it literature or social media – than from what I hear spoken around me or in the more traditional media outlets, which slant towards more standardized language (if not “the Queen’s English” or “Yankee freshwater” accents and phrases).
In my years of globe traipsing, I’ve never come across richer language use anywhere else. It’s true. No one tells a story quite like a Trini. Though it’s not my birthright to preserve, the Trini turns of phrases I have heard and read make me militant to my conviction that this language MUST be preserved and celebrated. (Not that inadvertently dropping “It have…” when speaking to friends even remotely counts as preserving the language, on my part; but I’m working on that).
It makes me want to wear a button that says “Talk to Me In Trini”, because the richness of this country’s language across all levels and contexts is something that I cannot get enough of, and which should be impressed upon anyone new to the islands.
So, those fresh eyes… I need to keep them wide open. Maybe I need to pretend that I have visitors more often, because I don’t want to take any of what is so fresh and unique about this country for granted.