3 min

Paradise depends on where you sit

I'll miss the hail-outs, not the homophobia

Imagine my double-take when I saw one of those Commercial Dr patio umbrellas with the word CARIB emblazoned on it.

I’m no great beer drinker myself. But in my country Trinidad a beer, quite simply, is a Carib. And for a moment, I missed home.

It’s not that I miss individual things or events. Rather, it’s how those things and events mingle and merge, establishing the social and cultural familiar — a way of being that is, in a word, Trini.

Translation: loud, contagious, bend-at-the-hips laughter; very little personal space between two or more people having a conversation; and lots of arm-holding and shoulder-slapping when a topic or joke is particularly sweet.

Being a Trini also means being prepared to laugh at yourself and others. It means being proficient at steupsing (the particularly dismissive sound made when sucking-tongue-against-teeth) reserved for things or persons deemed idiotic and beyond hope.

Think politicians.

We also think nothing of hailing out good friends, even not-so-good friends with vigour on the streets, arms waving elaborately out of car windows to catch people’s attention, and an accompanying, “Ehhh, how yuh goin’?”

We’ve even been known to hail out folks by ethnicity — guaranteed not to go down too well among North America’s politically correct.

“Racism,” some say.

“Relax,” they’ll hear. “Have a Carib. We jus’ kicksin’.”

That there seems to be an element of almost every ethnicity in every Trinidadian — thanks to generations of interracial marriage and relationships — can make the racism argument an exercise in futility.

Trinis can turn most events, even devastating losses — like failing to beat the English or the Australians at cricket (serious business in the Caribbean, even with a Carib in hand) — into reasons to fête.

I miss hearing at night my neighbourhood steelbands — orchestras of 100 players each — preparing for competition at Carnival.

Waiting for sleep to take over, I try to figure out what band is playing, a challenge made difficult by the reverberation of sound off concrete walls, diffusing it until harmonious chaos hangs in the night air.

I also miss the deafening roar of tropical rain trying to blast a hole through the roof.

Why am I here then? Why, people wonder, have I left paradise?

Paradise is one of those loaded words with annoying and often jaw-dropping assumptions. When I lived in Texas, a neighbour once asked if he could buy an island in the Caribbean. That people see my home as a playground for sale never fails to amaze me.

At any rate, paradise is in the eye of the beholder.

More precisely, how you arrive at your idea of paradise depends on the criteria you use.

When I decided to leave Trinidad for Vancouver almost six years ago, I made much about returning to school and journalism. I left the fact that I’m gay out of the menu of reasons I gave for leaving home again.

Islands can be the equivalent of small towns: shifting or being just so much out of the “right” social boundaries is alienating.

As easy and comfortable as it is to be in a place where everybody knows everybody, it is also confining.

Throw in religion that wields a powerful influence on personal identity and family life, and being queer is no paradise.

I do not fear for my life there. And I haven’t had cause to. But anti-gay social and legislative cues, in their own subtle ways, are enough to keep many gay Trinidadians silent.

So you make a choice.

I chose to leave. I wanted to experience simple things, like kissing and holding hands in public without being harassed, or going to a dyke march and a Pride parade.

I also love knowing I can be in a place where queer lives have a fighting chance of being reflected in curriculum, that same-sex relationships are recognized in a myriad of ways, that hate-crime designations can be invoked. That I can write about it all — and just be.

I’ll miss the things that make Trinidad paradise for me — the steelbands, the raucous hail-outs, the humour. But I’m glad to be here… and have my Carib, too.

— Natasha Barsotti is the staff reporter at Xtra West.