I remember in senior year of college in Miami I had a friend who visited his then girlfriend in Trinidad. Upon his return he reported “full of stray dogs.” Mind you during this time I had not returned to Trinidad for years, and had quite forgotten about stray dogs and stray humans. So of course I went on the defensive – “there are SO many things to see and do in Trinidad,” I reprimanded, “how could you complain about stray dogs?!” We left it at that.
Fast forward six years after this conversation – I decide to return home. And upon my first revisit to Port-of-Spain, after the tour, doubles, pineapple chow, and general melee, I noticed (to myself)…wow, there ARE a lot of stray dogs, and a lot of stray humans too. And because I was so previously bored with myself and my left-behind comfort zone, this wild living, where dogs ran in wolf-like packs and vagrants ruled the parks actually excited me….for the first three months.
For this musing, the vagrants take center stage. One of my friends from a very clean, orderly part of the US asked me “what is a vagrant”? The good ole Oxford Dictionary states – “vagrant: a wanderer, idle rover, vagabond, idle disreputable person.” In the general scheme of things this meaning could entail a homeless person, who has normal faculties and abnormal circumstances, or someone who is not quite there in the membrane and has no significant relations to lock him in a room. For Trinidadian vagrants, the word idle is correct. The words “stark raving mad” were left out.
I’m going to speak of Port-of-Spain’s vagrants. The capital is again being picked on as it is where I have made most of my adult observations in Trinidad. There are some vagrants who have enough faculties to beg; the example I gave before about “Fats” the very fat vagrant down Independence Square who hangs outside the food court and demands your lunch falls under the “faculties” category. And then there are those who I believe can see in four or five dimensions – and not in a “Light” way.
What has happened is the non rehabilitated “mentally challenged” individuals previously nestled in the insane asylum in our St. Anns hills, came tumbling down to the Port-of-Spain valley, escaping when they can to add color to an already colorful capital. No matter how many times the government, the asylum officials, and even family members try to get them inside, they get out. And by doing so, they give us stories to tell.
My special vagrant haunts lower Maraval, my favorite sub-urban area in Trinidad. He’s very thin, and the last time I saw him, he was wearing a micro mini gold sparkly dress, holding an umbrella, rain or sun. Before this he wore a bright pink robe. And he babbles, smiling furiously to himself – it sounds something like “eh bleh bleh bleh, eh bleh bleh bleh.” But he could talk – crafty one. One fine Sunday I stopped at a doubles (street food) vendor, and who comes up babbling? Goldy. As soon as he reaches the stall though, he says with a poker face and crystal clear voice “can I have one please.” Some guy shooed him and then he continued up the road, babbling furiously.
I remember one day while taking a stroll in Independence Square another vagrant was having a loud conversation with two spaces of air, turning side to side. I decided to listen in from a safe distance. Apparently it was his non-existent mother and some other relative and it was an argument about…shoes I believe. Man, you leave home to be a vagrant and still these people can get your goat! And then there is “Jesus.” I’m not sure if he’s a vagrant or some mad fanatic or both, but there is this man who jogs 3+ miles around the Queens Park Savannah, barefoot, in a loin cloth looking short pants, who has groomed himself to look exactly like…well…the popular depiction of the crucified Lord. Very creepy.
There are so many more many stories. True stories about love (nah, lust) between a vagrant and a respectable banker during one Carnival season, those about vagrant intimate relations actually blossoming in the streets of San Fernando, many about attacks from vagrants with passing through the cities’ streets. In Trinidad, there are even mistaken identity vagrants. One day I sat ‘round the Savannah with a friend eating snow cone (sweet shaved ice), observing people. From a distance we see this thin, withered looking man, in beat up sandals, washed out brown denim shorts and polo. And I say “oh, look at this vagrant,” and my friend says “but this vagrant has an IPod,” and we exclaim “this vagrant is not a vagrant!”
Trinidad is a land of freedom and creativity, displayed in both our sane law abiding citizens and in our outlaw strays. Actually, while there are many vagrants who became thus due to family problems and drug abuse, there is a surprisingly large number who went off from being way too genius. Creativity gone wrong, really. Any Trini could tell you the story of the brightest student in high school or university who went mad after exams, and is now walking the streets ranting equations. And anyone who has undergone the Old School education system in Trinidad would empathize – pushed to the limit. And some never come back. There are actually stories of super brilliant students truly becoming possessed by the characters they studied…and I believe it.
This is why no two development plans are the same. An urban planner who is not culturally aware may assume that Port-of-Spain’s vagrants are homeless. Thus the answer would be to remove them from the city and shelter them – this solves the problem. Or it may be said that drug use runs rampant among vagrants and a drug rehab program will solve the problem. Various governments have tried both ways, and these programs work. But there is something underlying that is yet to be unearthed – and I think it’s the problem of creativity gone wrong. Suppressed creativity, forced creativity, to the point that now all these people want is the ultimate freedom – to roam and babble as they please. Quite frankly it may be more fun to talk on an imaginary cell phone and direct traffic with a wall-fan blade (like the vagrant in the city of Arima) than it is to be stuck in Monday morning traffic on the way to a boring job.
Since the V Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad in April ’09, our stray friends, human and canine alike have since decreased. I’m glad for the city. But I’m grateful to the mad, free ones for the stories.