Trinidad – The Journey Home

In November dad’s contract was cut short and he decided to cruise home to England rather than take the plane.

A few days later we found ourselves on board the Shaw Savill Line, s.s. Athenic bound for the UK.  The weather on departing from the port was, of course, tropical but a few days later the weather in the Atlantic was wintry so we didn’t stay above deck for long periods of time.

The journey sticks in mind as on 22nd November we heard over the tannoy that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.  It came as a shock and we felt a bit out of touch with the outside world.

Mum was seasick for two days and my sister tripped on a large deck step, needing medical attention as well.  We had cabin service but mum was given anti sickness pills, so we were soon able to enjoy the wonderful food on offer.  Meanwhile I had friends on board from the Texaco club swimming days so I had sophisticated teenagers to spend time with.  They had previously lived in India so were quite worldly for their age.

One afternoon mum and I sat on the deck overlooking the sailor’s quarters. It was a laugh a minute as they entertained us with their off duty antics, telling lewd jokes and dousing each other with buckets of water. It was all very Frankie Howard style.

The highlight of the cruise for me was the Captain’s Dinner except for the ballroom dancing, when I kept treading on the Chief Officer’s toes.  I blame him as he introduced me to champagne!  The food was excellent and plentiful.  I experienced my first cream tea on the ship and managed to avoid any seasickness.

When we docked in London in midwinter it was a bit of a shock and at Liverpool Street, we all bought winter coats before getting on the train to Essex.  Mum got a faux ocelot and looked really glamorous with her long auburn hair.

We stayed in Essex for a little while with dad’s relatives and first treat on the list was fish and chips next to the Elm Hotel in Leigh-on-Sea.  We then headed back north to our home in Staffordshire.  I returned to my school in Polesworth until dad was offered a job on a desalination plant in Kuwait, but that’s another story.

Life in Trinidad Part Four

After the burglary, dad decided we needed a guard dog. He set about looking for one and came across a Trinidadian policeman who had two trained boxer dogs he was no longer able to keep. So suddenly the house was full with large dogs, one red and one brindle.  The postman was too scared to deliver our post and just threw them over the garden wall.

A replacement for Anita had to be found and dad brought home an Indian woman who was so beautiful as to seem a threat to mum.  The next interview was for an even prettier Indian woman with silky hair down to her thighs.  I don’t remember her spending much time cleaning.  Her favourite room was the bathroom using talc all over the floor and standing in front of the mirror for ages.  When it was time for dad to drive her home, she opened the front passenger door and helped herself to the seat next to dad.  Anita would either sit in the back seat or volunteer to walk home with her umbrella.

The reception awaiting dad on his return home was not good and soon Anita was reinstated as cleaner, adviser and babysitter!

I found Anita great company, like an auntie.  She taught me to dance to West Indian music, a sort of sedate version of twerking.  Her craft skills were good and she showed me how to make plaited placemats out of dried banana leaves as well as pleated velvet cushions.

We’d go to the supermarket in San Fernando once a week for the groceries but they also had a fascinating array of American crockery, China with bamboo patterns.  Wooden glasses with bamboo patterns. Mum couldn’t resist adding something to the trolley every week.  I still use the steak knives with bamboo handles she bought.

bamboo-knives-2

After the supermarket we looked at the menu of the local Chinese restaurant.  I’d never eaten Chinese before but mum worked in a Chinese restaurant in Southport, Lancashire in Northern England as a teenager.  I don’t remember what was ordered but it was rather spicy to my innocent palate. I soon saw it as a regular treat.

I did my schoolwork early in the day, meaning much of my day was free for sun bathing in the beautiful garden.  One afternoon whilst my sister had a nap, mum and I sat quietly sunbathing and sucking frozen peas, a habit we developed to cool down. Mum said to me, “Don’t move, but!.”  3 seconds later I was indoors escaping some harmless but large snake and a very large lizard on the opposite side.

I missed my school friends and loved the postman throwing those blue airmail letters over the garden wall.  My friend from primary school Gillian Bazan wrote nice newsy letters about Jersey where she moved to after she was 11 years old.  When we lived near Tamworth, Staffs we had Saturday sleepovers every week. We kept corresponding until after she married and became Mrs Le Motee.  My other friend Maria Dutkiewicz went to my school, Polesworth High and kept me up to date on school gossip and school trips I was missing.  In my absence there was a school dance and I was really put out that I was missing things with my friends.

One Sunday we decided to skip Mayaro Beach and head for Maracas Bay in the North of the island.  It was a long way to go for a swim but worth seeing and reputed to be the best beach in Trinidad. To a 12 year old, the waves seemed incredibly high.  Dad was well out at sea and calling me to join him when I was caught by a high wave which tipped me into a ball rolling under the water in the sand.  I thought I was drowning but managed to right myself and rushed back to the safety of the beach.  I didn’t go back in the water that day.

Life in Trinidad Part Three

After three weeks at the hotel mum and dad moved into a rented house. I think it was up San Fernando Hill.  Mum wasn’t dead keen on the position as it was rather lonely and being on the edge of a rainforest, full of snakes, millipedes and super sized lizards.  The other refinery wives lived on a nice estate provided by the oil company.  It was rather lonely for her as dad worked long hours. There was a house either side of us.  One neighbour had an Alsation dog which bit dad one morning on his way to the car in our drive, so he had to have a rabies jab just in case.  The other neighbour used to sit on his balcony playing the guitar and singing Andy Williams songs.  He was pretty good.

All the same, mum and I would have preferred to live with the other oil refinery families next to the Texaco Club which had a massive swimming pool set amongst closely cropped grass.  We did go once a week but it meant staying all day if we hitched a ride with dad both ways.  Sometimes we would get a taxi and on one occasion mum mentioned to the driver she had bad ear ache since the long plane journey.  His advice?  “Madam, you need to fry a few cockroaches and then pour the oil in your ear!”

If dad was off work we would laze around the pool a bit and then he and I would swim as mum wasn’t a swimmer. He taught me to dive from the top board. I only did it once and it was a long drop finding myself at the bottom of the pool but I soon came up.  I had my first proper burger there as anything American seemed to be the thing.

On Sundays, we’d drive through sugar cane plantations to Mayaro Beach on the eastern side of the island to laze under the coconut trees and swim in the Atlantic Ocean.  Soon locals would climb the tall Palm trees to collect coconuts, hack the top off and provide a straw. Service with a smile.  The water was quite choppy and the beach sandy and clean.

One Sunday we saw a man in the middle of the road next to the sugar cane walking on the spot near a rather large tarantula!

Most Sundays we were joined by a colleague of dad’s and his girlfriend.  They had a row pretty much every time we saw them and the man was a sulker and wouldn’t speak to his girlfriend for days.

I always enjoyed the longish drive to the beach, as there were so many fascinating sights and sounds.  Many of the houses in Trinidad were built on stilts, supposedly to make it harder for the creepie crawlies to enter the house.  No idea if that worked but our house was on ground level.

Mum employed a lady to help around the house, Anita, a middle aged Trinidadian who always brought an umbrella, not matter what the weather.  One day Anita found a shoelace snake at the front door.  She swiftly chopped it in several pieces and rushed to the back door.  She told us when you find a shoelace snake at the door, you will always find one at the other door and she was right.  It was sitting on the back door step.

One night Anita was babysitting me and Sandra.  We were sent to bed at varied bed times as I am 10 years older than my sister.  At some time during the night we were burgled.  Anita said she was asleep!  Mum and dad were out at the Naparima nightclub dancing the night away.  We used to put white powder on the floor to kill the millipedes (not much chance of that) and when they got home, mum and dad saw footprints leading to Sandra’s bed in their room, obviously checking she was asleep.  There was sugar everywhere, as Anita filled her umbrella with sugar to take home!  So Anita had to go.

This led to several changes in our San Fernando household.

 

Life in Trinidad Part Two

In June 1963, we left our home in Amington, Staffordshire and set off to Grandma’s bungalow in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.  Dad stayed a couple of days with his mum and brother before flying to Trinidad to start his new job on an oil refinery and left me, mum and baby sister Sandra, then just 2 years old, in a B and B in Westcliff-on-Sea close to Gran and Uncle Syd.

Most days mum would take me and Sandra to buy new clothes as dad’s company had paid him an allowance to kit us out in new summer clothes. Exciting times as at 11 years old I was just beginning to take an interest in my appearance.  There was the bright yellow striped dress I nicknamed “the deckchair.”  Then the one that got away, brown and orange floral as instead I chose the “post office” dress which was white with black and red stamps dotted around.  We shopped for good quality in Hamlet Court Road and cheap and cheerful in Southend High Street. I remember it raining a lot.

Dinner in the B&B was a lot of fun.  My sister was popular with the elderly guests, shouting “You’re a right wreck” from her highchair to anyone who would listen.

Mum didn’t feel she could cope with the journey on the train to Heathrow, having two young children in tow, so we got a taxi to The Mount Royal Hotel as it was then known in Bryanston Street, Marble Arch, London. I don’t remember much about it, but it was my first time in a big London hotel and it was such an exciting time.

The following morning we took a cab to Heathrow airport.  I had never been to an airport before and was impressed by the escalators of all things. We boarded a BWIA flight and I sat by the window, beginning my great love of travel and airplanes. The first stop was Bermuda.  The pilot circled over the pristine white beaches and blue ocean. We were allowed to enter the airport for a drink and when

we left the plane it was like stepping into an oven with a hairdryer blowing at the same time. Young people nowadays are more likely to have flown since being a toddler but to me, back then, it was like stepping into another planet!

I had a Coca Cola and all too soon it was time to board the plane, but not without starting a collection of napkins from Bermuda and BWIA.

A couple of hours later we landed in Antigua where we had time for another drink but mine tasted like calamine lotion, not that I have ever licked calamine but it certainly smelt like it!

About one and a half hours later we landed in Bridgetown, Barbados. My sister was asleep so mum decided to stay on the plane.  However I felt unwell so the cabin crew took me off the plane and put me in an air conditioned room in the terminal with a fan. Walking back to the plane I was aware of a very warm breeze.

A short while after take off we hit a storm and the pilot decided to return to Saint John’s in Bridgetown.  Eventually we took off for our destination of Piarco airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad, arriving after dark. Dad was there to meet us in the arrivals hall and we headed to the upside down hotel, http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/trinidad-and-tobago/hilton-trinidad-and-conference-centre-POSHIHH/index.html

I enjoyed my first prawn cocktail in the restaurant and squealed when I realised I was sharing the shower with a praying mantis. It was also my first proper shower as we had a bath at home.

Map-Trinidad_and_Tobago

I don’t remember anything about breakfast but we got in a cab to drive to San Fernando and it was thrilling to see banana trees for the first time (there was no colour TV back then). I saw so many amazing things, roadside stalls selling exotic fruit and coconuts, little naked children cooling down under outdoor showers.  Eventually we arrived at Todd’s Hotel in San Fernando where we stayed for 3 weeks to look for rental accommodation close to dad’s job at the oil refinery. Time passed very pleasantly at Todd’s and occasionally mum and dad let me stay up late for an hour after dinner to listen to the steel band.  I remember the early evening sunsets. One minute it would be light and within 5 minutes it would be jet black, the palm trees black against a bright orange sky.

Most of the refinery employees lived on the Texaco estate in lovely properties but dad fancied something up the hill for more independent living and less clicky!

Living in Trinidad Part One

I was born in Southport, Lancashire, in Northern England and moved south with mum and dad.  When I was 5 mum fell out of love with my dad, a Chief Engineer in the Merchant Navy. If anybody recognises him, I would appreciate information as he has been presumed dead for years and I have no history.  I believe he was married before mum to a woman in the Netherlands, and I may have other siblings.

Mum got together with my stepfather, a man she met in The Peter Boat pub in Leigh-on- Sea, Essex  one evening whilst out with her mum, my nana.  His mum gave them a caravan and their life together began.

Although travel had featured largely in my young life, as my stepfather was also an engineer, trained by the Merchant Navy, we travelled with our caravan to wherever “dad” was working..

We lived on Holmbush Farm in Sussex, just outside of Brighton for about a year, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Macclesfield in Cheshire and Amington in Staffordshire, where my younger sister was born.  I was no stranger to moving home, but one day, “dad” came home and said “Have you heard of Trinidad?”  I hadn’t but looked it up on the world globe I had received as a present one Christmas to help with my geography lessons.  It was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South America.

When I told my schoolmates and the teachers, they were just as mystified as to where I was going but promised to keep in touch with blue airmail letters (no instant internet back then, the letters took a minimum of 5 days to receive and were very welcome).  The teachers organised 6 months homework for me, so that I wouldn’t lose touch with the British curriculum.

“Dad” was to work on an oil refinery in Pointe-à-Pierre just north of San Fernando in Trinidad.

Maldives, Me and You, a Poem

In my dreams, I wake and walk

Across the room to lift the blind

No need to think or even talk

Just feel your presence close behind

I open the blind to let the sun glint through

Then turn around to stare at you

You catch my eye and I pull the cord

Letting in the sun and the sound of water

I wander out of the room built on stilts

Shadow of palm tree on water
Shadow of palm tree on water

 

Wearing only my bronze silk nightie

Then I sit on the steps and swish

My tanned legs in the calm waters

Here we are in the Maldives

The sun beating down on my shoulders

So early in the morn

Must get dressed and go to eat

Fresh fruit and eggs with

Orange juice and coffee

All laid out on pure white linen

Cannot wait to start our day

I bend over the chest of drawers

Looking for my shorts and vest

When you approach me from behind

Encircling my waist with two firm arms

I reach up and take your hands

You kiss my neck and whisper

Words of love

I feel your strength and tender touch.