Port of Spain day 2

Sunday, 22 November 2009:

Although Trinidad’s climate is similar to Singapore’s and Malaysia’s, its urban response to climate is quite different. Unlike Asian cities, the capital, Port of Spain, is not characterised by rows of shophouses with a continuous covered arcade. Instead, the town is an agglomeration mostly of stand-alone buildings each within its own compound and behind chain fences or high walls. Typically, the buildings are just two or three stories. There are at most five or six streets where shops are joined by party walls and open directly onto the street, rather than stand back from it. Even then, the shops seldom provide an extended roof to cover the walkway in front, so sidewalks are completely exposed to sun and rain.

Some office buildings in Port of Spain

On a Sunday, just about everything that’s not a church was closed. I walked five hours through the civic and commercial centre and saw not a single shop open. No convenience stores. No newsagents. Even a gas station I came across was closed. Nor were there restaurants or food shops open for business. Except one: a KFC, and it became my only option for lunch. A hobo stationed himself at the glass door, holding it open for anyone who entered, hoping for a tip.

A combo meal comprised three pieces of fried chicken, a small pocket of french fries and about 300 ml of coke. There was no coleslaw, which I think is standard for KFC meals in Singapore. I may be wrong about that though, since the last time I went into one in Singapore might have been 3 years ago. I also noticed that there was no wash basin to wash one’s hands, which surprised me because I thought that would be standard restaurant layout as determined by the franchisor.

Still, the combo meal cost TT$35, which is about S$8. In other words, here’s a country with a per capita GNP perhaps a quarter or a third of Singapore’s, and fast food is no cheaper. Sans coleslaw, it might even be considered more expensive.

Typical downtown street, Port of Spain

The lower GNP per capita shows. Besides looking somewhat colonial, the town also looks poorly maintained – crumbling culverts, corroded drainpipes, buildings that last saw a lick of paint ten years ago. Seeing hobos every 100 metres didn’t help the general impression either.

The only cluster of young people seen enjoying themselves were at the nearly-completed-but-not-yet Performing Arts Centre. It is a steel and glass monstrosity totally out of scale from its surroundings, but the broad expanse of stone paving around it has already become a favourite spot for young Trinidadians skating and dating. Here and there, workers were still putting in the finishing touches. I looked a little closely at them and noticed something. I remarked to Marcus:

“The workers are Chinese. They look like they’re from China.”

“They ARE from China,” he said. “This whole thing is being built by China.”

“But they could employ Trinidadians, couldn’t they?”

“They can’t afford to because they have to meet a deadline. If they use locals, they wouldn’t be working on a Sunday,” he said quite casually, even though he was referring to his own people. “Even on a normal weekday, half of them might not come back to work after the coffee break.”

I walked up to some workers and verified with them that they were indeed from China. Some had been here 3 years working on  this project; others less. The life’s hard, they said.

“But how about the money?” I asked them

The whole group broke out in laughter. “Not bad, not bad.”

About Marcus. Fullname: Denison Marcus LeelOu. I first spied him across the street as I walked past a church.

“Take a picture of the church,” he called from his side of the street.

“I have,” I lied. “Took it when I walked by earlier.”

“There’s an even nicer church over there,” he said, pointing to something past the next corner, saying this as he crossed the street towards me. “By the way, I’m Marcus,” he added, extending his hand. “Where are you from?”

And so we got talking. When I said I was from Singapore, he said he had been there a few times. He was in the US Navy, and his ship sailed around Asia quite a bit. He repeated the usual “Singapore’s so clean” bit and added that the girls were beautiful.

“You mean the ones at Orchard Towers?” I asked, with the intention of leading up to “but they’re not Singapore girls”. But didn’t, for there was no flicker of recognition from him to the name Orchard Towers. I made a mental note of that. Had he really been to Singapore? Was he ever in the US Navy? He was now a security consultant, he said, and the next few days would be busy for him, what with all the dignitaries arriving for the Commonwealth Summit. I gathered that he was a bodyguard and fixer for hire, from the way he spoke about how foreign delegations used his services to show them around town or find them good restaurants and nightclubs. This especially as Port of Spain is unsafe for walking.

I didn’t entirely believe his description of his work. It was a little too much in terms of self-promotion. But he did direct me to rather nicer streets where pretty houses could be seen, to Mahatma Gandhi Park and to a rather interesting colonial cemetery. To that extent he was useful.

Steelpan music school

We walked past a steel pan music school – actually just a one room affair – and like many people in the Caribbean, Marcus simply said hello to the owner, and next thing I knew, I was invited in to look more closely at the steel pans. A teenaged boy and a slightly older girl were practising, and I got to asking the boy about the instrument, while the owner/teacher happily took a break and got himself a cigarette and a drink.

Each steel pan can make about 12 – 13 notes, and a musician typically works with two pans. They are all tuned differently; the girl’s pans were “Treble” and the boy’s were “Double Treble”. Like good musicians, they have to learn to read music scores. They boy pointed out which line of the score he played from.

Boy practising on steel pans

I asked how much a pair of pans might cost. “About TT$7,500,” the teacher said. Wow. That’s like S$1,700.

“DO you have a set at home to practice with, or do you have to come here to practice?” I asked the boy.

“I come here,” he said. “But she has a set at home,” referring to the older girl behind him.

I took a couple of pictures, said goodbye and moved on. Marcus stayed with me. Was he just being friendly? I didn’t think that was all there was to it.  I was pretty sure he was going to ask me for money at some point. My guess was that he would ask nicely; the chance of him suddenly turning aggressive was low, I figured, because in trying to impress me, he had shown me a pass with his name on it – that’s how I know his full name. It was a pass that allowed him to board the ship Logos that had recently docked in Port of Spain.

He was useful in that some parts of town had rather too many hobos for my comfort. Having him with me meant that the hobos did not approach. Yes, but I could be setting myself up for a bigger disaster.

A street vendor - one of the few signs of life in downtown Port of Spain on a Sunday

Still, my instincts told me he was trying to sell his services rather than rob. He kept referring to how, should I and my fellow delegates want to go out on the town after a conference day, it wouldn’t be safe to do so without a guide. That sounded quite reasonable. He also tried very hard, too hard I think, to impress. Every 20 minutes or so, he’d call somebody or pretend that he was receiving a call from somebody (I never once heard his phone ring) and carry on some conversation (fake?) about scheduling his work and clients over the next few days.

As it got past 4 o’clock, I slowly made my way towards my hotel. We amicably agreed to part, but not before he slipped in the word “fee” in a sentence declaring how much he enjoyed the pleasure of my company.

“How much do you want?” I said quite bluntly, but with a smile. “And how much do I think it ought to be?” I said, with a bigger smile. To cut a long story short, we agreed on US$25, for about 90 – 120 minutes of his time.

I don’t begrduge that. He was pleasant enough company, he showed me a few interesting places in an otherwise uninteresting town, and he kept the beggars and homeless drifters away from me. And I do understand that people need to be streetsmart to get by when times are hard.

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