For people who grow up in the north, waking up on Christmas morning in darkness is taken for granted, as is having a white Christmas. For those who grow up in Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), and the Caribbean in general, a green Christmas with the sun rising early is the norm. Given the choice, I would always prefer a green Christmas, as I feel that abundant light and warmth are more in tune with the spirit of the season.
This year, I decided to take a break from the cold and darkness and head home to T&T for Christmas. No longer an option is the convenience of boarding a plane, taking a 5 ½ hour snooze, then waking up in T&T. The journey from Yellowknife takes double the flying time from Toronto, but depending on the flight schedule, it can take an entire day. Unlike Toronto, there are no direct flights from Yellowknife to T&T (nor to many other places), so the journey must be made in 3 stages: Yellowknife to Edmonton or Calgary, then to Toronto, and finally to Port of Spain, the capital of T&T. But for a Trini Christmas, it’s worth travelling for thousands of miles and for hours on end.
On the day that I left Yellowknife, the temperature was -31°C, so I practically skipped out of town, happy to leave the cold behind. My feet are extremely sensitive to cold, so I can’t afford to leave my winter boots at home and travel in light footwear, as many people do. Simply walking from the aircraft to the terminal can be painful in the wrong footwear. So in winter I always travel in a sturdy pair of boots, although not my heaviest pair. When I arrived in Edmonton it was a tolerable -12° but Toronto seemed to be playing a practical joke at 8°. My feet were actually uncomfortably hot, which never happens to me during winter. I had about 9 hours to spare in Toronto, so I found a last-minute deal on a rental car and headed to Yorkdale mall for some Christmas shopping. With tons of sales in the offing, and a week to go before Christmas, the mall was a madhouse. I’d imagine that there were more cars in the car park than there are people in Yellowknife. The first thing I did was to outfit my sweltering feet with a pair of light, unlined boots and thin socks. Then I picked up a few gifts, popped by the health food store, stopped for a quick visit with a friend and headed back to the airport for the last leg of my journey.
We arrived at Piarco airport in T&T on a rainy morning around 6am, which is still dark at this time of year. After I had passed through Immigration, I walked by a member of the airport staff who was bundled up in a sweater, with a thick scarf wrapped multiple times around her neck like a boa constrictor. She shivered and commented on how cold it was. Everything is relative: when you’re accustomed to 30° temperatures, a drop to 23° feels chilly. Add air-conditioning and rain to the mix and it’s positively freezing, relatively speaking. When I lived in T&T, I too would have been shivering under those conditions. Now, after many winters, the threshold for my shiver response has risen, although it’s still not at a terribly elevated level.
We were the only arrival at that hour, so in less than half an hour I exited the terminal building, to be greeted by the sun rising, revealing mist hovering over the verdant hills of the Northern Range. Places have their own unique smells and sights. For me the smell of T&T is its rich soil, which smells stronger in the rainy season, and the sight of T&T is its lush greenery. The greenery is always a welcome sight, after weeks of landscapes that are blanketed in a monotonous white. The climate in Yellowknife is very dry, and after the even drier air on the airplane, the humidity of T&T was a relief to my skin.
An hour later I was at home, but despite several sleep-deprived nights under my belt, I couldn’t sleep during the day. By nightfall I was a zombie and I hit the sack early. The sound of insects and frogs at night can seem quite loud when you’re not used to it. Even though I grew up with it, after long absences, I’m always very aware of it on the first night, after which I become re-acclimated and I cease to hear it.
December is the end of the rainy season, but it was unusually wet this year. During my trip it rained every day except for 2 days, and some days were overcast for the entire day. However, it was warm, liquid rain, not freezing rain or ice pellets, and it didn’t rain constantly, so I didn’t mind it at all. I love to hear the big, fat warning raindrops as they hit the ground in advance of the shower, to smell the hot asphalt as the rain meets it, to watch the showers approach from the distance, and as the rain comes down in torrents, to hear the din of it on the roof. I always find it strange that when I’m at home in Canada, I don’t know it’s raining unless I look out of the window or go outside. Other things about being back home that contrast with my second home: lukewarm water coming out of the cold tap, as opposed to water that feels as if it’s been in the freezer, and must be mixed with hot water if my fingers have to be in it. Also, my favourite: chocolate that bends when I break off a piece and melts instantly and flavourfully in my mouth, versus chocolate that must be snapped off, the taste of which never seems to meld with my taste buds in the same fashion, or at the same speed.
Christmas is a hustle and bustle inT&T, with stores, vendors in the markets, on the pavements downtown, and beside the roads all competing for the consumer dollar. My favourite roadside stop are the fruit vendors. They display their merchandise on anything from a table that fits in the back of a pickup to covered structures that are erected as practically permanent fixtures. There is nothing to beat fresh fruit that has been ripened in the sun. At this time of year, one can typically find bananas, paw paws (papayas), pommecytheres, portugals and pommeracs, even some mangos. Apples, pears and grapes are also present, a traditional Christmas import. I’ve had enough of those in Yellowknife, so I gorged on local fruit instead. On a trip to the mall, I came across a childhood treat, chan pui mui, dried plums Chinese style. I took a trip down memory lane and added a bag of it to my “things to take back”. It was one of those purchases that are based on nostalgia more than need.
2 days before Christmas, after much procrastination, I made pastelles with family members. Pastelles and black cake are Christmas staples in T&T, and are part of the reason that I come home. Christmas without either of them is like Thanksgiving without turkey, elections without mud-slinging, playing football without the ball, or driving without a steering wheel. In short, it wouldn’t be Christmas. Pastelles are made of cooked ground meat (beef, chicken, pork, or a combination thereof), to which are added various spices, plus ingredients such as olives, capers, pimiento peppers, sometimes raisins, depending on the family recipe. The meat is placed in a flattened circular shell of moistened cornmeal, which is folded over it to make a rectangular envelope of sorts, and the entire thing is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It takes a lot of time to make, which is why very often people will get together as a group to make them. A traditional Christmas breakfast in T&T is pastelles with ham and sweetbread, a heavy coconut bread with candied fruit.
Christmas came and went way too quickly, spent in the usual fashion: liming (hanging out) with friends and family, eating way too much, and vowing to go on a diet when it was all over. I had my fix of all things Trini that I miss while I’m away, which always helps me to gird my loins for the winter that awaits me. All in all, it was a good Christmas.
On my trip back to Yellowknife, at the top of the line for checking in with Westjet, a rather young-looking agent aasked me to put my luggage on a table so he could search it. I had packed some fragile items very carefully, so I was not thrilled about them being disturbed. I assumed that searches were random, but I was told that it was airline policy that for all flights from the Caribbean, it was required to hand-search the luggage of all passengers. Evidently we are all considered drug lords or drug mules, until proven otherwise. After digging around in my suitcase, the agent discovered my precious preserved plums, and proceeded to unwrap one of them. When a senior agent asked what he was doing, he replied that he was checking to see if it really was a preserved plum. I told him that he might as well eat it and prove it to himself, because I wasn’t going to eat it now that he’d unwrapped it. When we arrived in Toronto, an agent with a drug-sniffing dog was waiting for us, to add insult to injury. I found myself wondering whether the dog could smell any drugs on people who didn’t pack their suitcase themselves, or who packed it and then took a shower before going to the airport, i.e whether it was really worth the inconvenience.
Copyright © Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini 2012. The use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner are unauthorised and strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.