Preserving Old Traditions
The oil that makes Trinidad a rich country is both a boon and a bane. The money that comes from this resource offers a quality of life that is generally better than that of other Caribbean islands, and in fact, those at the top of the class structure are very rich indeed. Another benefit is that the use of computers is making it easier to preserve and warehouse documents dating well back into the eighteenth century. New structures, like the National Library on Hart and Abercromby streets in Port of Spain, are a marriage of architecture and technology seldom seen even in the United States.
However, the downside to all this ready money is that, not surprisingly, mechanization and modernization have replaced many old traditions, but for the efforts of a few intrepid, and not a little stubborn, souls like Mr.
Felix, a village leader of Brasso Seco, in the hills above Arima.
Brasso Seco (which means “dry branch” in Spanish) was once an enclave rich with cocoa plantations. Driving up the narrow mountain road, you’ll find more than a few cocoa drying sheds in various states of decay. Largely inhabited by Creole descendants, the village is tiny, spotlessly clean, and has a lovely open-air schoolhouse for its thirty or so children.
Among the main products once produced for local use in Brasso Seco was cocoa sticks, used for cocoa tea. Other local delicacies include “buccaneer” smoked meats, and fruit wines.
Working with the Trinidad Industrial Development Corporation, Mr.
Felix and a few other villagers provide demonstrations on local cooking methods and cocoa processing. Among these is a view of a cocoa shed, a building with a pitched roof that rolls back on casters to expose the cocoa beans to sunlight. Later, the beans are polished in a process called “dancing the cocoa,” in which one walks through the cocoa barefoot, rubbing the beans under the soles of one’s feet to bring them to a high polish. The beans are then roasted and ground for cocoa sticks.
We enjoyed freshly made cocoa tea at Miss V’s home after she demonstrated the cocoa-stick-making process. Our visit took place just after school hours, as Miss V and her family are the village schoolteachers and administrators. We sipped cocoa tea, and enjoyed talk of the Old Trinidad, including a lesson in the local Spanish still spoken by many of the elders.
While there I was lucky enough to re-experience something I had forgotten some time ago, when Miss V’s grandnephew stepped into the house for a short visit and she greeted him by saying, “God bless you, Marlon.” Long ago, it was common for a younger person entering an older relative’s house to be greeted this way. Although practiced little today, it’s one of the sweetest memories I have of visiting older folks in Trinidad when I was a child.
In Tobago, efforts are being made to preserve West African traditions, and demonstrations of African-style weddings sometimes take place. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can still get a glimpse of an old mud-brick oven in someone’s yard, the once-preferred method of baking bread for poorer people without ovens or even kitchens.
Trinidadians of East Indian descent are well known for the preservation of their heritage, which, interestingly, has remained static over the 150-odd years that they have been denizens of the island. In speaking with friends who hail directly from India, I’m often struck at how much more modern they are in their religious practices and view of family dynamics.
Despite such pockets of cultural preservation, Trinidad as a whole is heading dangerously close to cultural subjugation to computers and televisions. As time wears on, Trinidad’s population will no doubt continue to struggle with the double-edged sword that is modernization—my only hope is that technology is used to its best advantage in the preservation of a culture whose rich and unusual mosaic is not found elsewhere in the world.