Last week I introduced you all to Irene and Mathura. The week before we had just entered the squatter village. Today we will just stroll back inside and lime around at their house for a bit. Their house is back down the dirt road a good ways from the paved road. In Trinidad most people have some sort of fence around their house and property for a variety of reasons. Most folks have dogs for security. The fences also provide some measure of the same. In more permanent buildings, which are most often made of concrete block, the fences might be more like walls and may have metal spikes or broken bottles embedded in the top to discourage folks from climbing over them. In the squatter village, fences are less common, though no less needed. As with other material things it's an issue of cost. Mathura, however, has managed to put together a high fence of various materials. When we stand at the gate and call to them it understandably draws attention from the neighbors. Who are these American people shouting at Mathura's gate?
As soon as some of the neighbors who know us well recognize us they come running. Innocenta is glad to see us and fetches a couple of coconuts from her tree so she can share with us all. she might not have sweet drink to offer us but in the hot Trini sun the water from a nut is more refreshing. A bit of coconut trivia: coconut water is a naturally rehydrating drink of superior quality to Gatorade of Pedialyte or anything commercial. It has also been used in place of blood plasma. Amazing, no?
Ok, back to the visit. Mathura adds a couple of his own coconuts to the mix. Most often folks drink the water right from the nut but since we have more people than nuts he is opening them and pouring them into a pitcher so we can share. The concrete slab he's using is the foundation he poured for a block house. Currently the family is in a wooden house but security in a wooden house is always a bit of a challenge. Little by little he's working toward a better future for his family.
After all the coconut water is gone it's a treat to split the nut in half and scoop out the soft white jelly from inside. I have to admit that's my favorite part. I like it much better than the way most Americans eat coconut which is to wait until it's dry and brown and then flake up the hard meat inside. Gimme the jelly from a green nut any day. Usually you just chip off a sliver of the husk to use as a spoon but Irene and Mathura's little girl is happy with a real spoon.
As I mentioned last week, the family raises their own fowl, as do many Trinis. Irene is scattering a little bit of feed so she can catch a duck to sell to our friend Joy. Irene would gladly curry the duck on the spot but we'd like to make sure she can afford to replace the duck we will eat tonight so we negotiate a price.
Irene ties the legs of the duck she caught. What the picture can't even begin to capture was the mad chase around the yard, under the house, behind the foundation, with 4 or 5 kids and 3 adults in hot pursuit of one terrified duck.
The exchange is made and the duck's time wanes. In a couple hours it will go from wandering around Irene's yard to plucked, gutted, and curried in Joy's kitchen. I don't know if it is still the case but when we lived in Trinidad a common sign advertising good places to get a chicken or duck for your Sunday dinner was "PLUCKING AND GUTTING SATURDAYS." You'd go out, point to the bird in the yard that you wanted and pay for it. After the deal you'd head to the produce market to get your vegetables and fresh seasonings. On the way home you'd stop by the pluck-n-gut and be handed a still warm but fresh bird carcass ready for stewing or currying for your Sunday dinner. Yes, you could get chickens and parts at a supermarket but a lot of people still preferred this because they knew the bird was as fresh as could be. In the tropics that is a fairly important consideration.
Before we leave, we snap a quick picture of Irene and 4 of her 7 children. They are a wonderful family and special friends. Again, they are posing on the foundation for what they originally intended as a new, more secure house. Joy has spoken on several occasions of wanting to hold regular classes in the village in order to reach more of the children who can't get to school regularly. We can only transport so many ourselves and understandably, many parents don't want young children taking taxis. Giving an allotment for taxi fare doesn't mean it will be used for such. Remember there are a lot of hard choices to be made daily between taxi fare, food, and clothes. Joy has been looking for a good place to locate the school program. Irene and Mathura have offered the use of the foundation for a building to be used by Joy. They very much want their own children and the other children of the village to get good schooling. They see it as a win-win situation. Joy would compensate them for the foundation already built so they could continue to work toward having a better home. The school would be available to the rest of the village. The problem rests with maintaining security since having a "school" with valuables inside could expose the Mathuras to greater risk from bandits.
The other issue no one has really discussed is that as squatters they don't own the rights to the land and later in this same year the government will push to relocate everyone in this village. You may think this is an improvement but no one in the village sees it as such. Their homes may be somewhat crude by our standards but they were built by their inhabitants. The people dug their own gardens. They formed a sense of community. The place the government wants to relocate them to is a sterile piece of rock where nothing grows. Let me tell you finding any place that is less than lush with vegetation in Trinidad is a real challenge. The government had to search long and hard to come up with that sad lot. The houses are concrete ovens which all but bake their inhabitants alive due to the way they retain the sun's heat. I had the opportunity to respond personally to the Prime Minister's wife over this issue. It's when Joy told me I had real belly. (Go ahead, you know you want to read about me telling her off...nicely...)
My visit on this trip was 14 years ago. Ten years ago the village still stood.