Archive for July, 2008

Yes, Columbus?

The things that change our lives! I just received an e-mail from a distant relative in South America — deliberately, no country named. She lived in Tunapuna, Trinidad, once and I spent time at her mother’s, long ago.

This person did what was then the unexpected thing: she married a Muslim gentleman. Even though those were days before jihads and “the clash of civilizations,” there was a degree of acknowledged awkwardness and the couple eventually fled Trinidad for the safety of South America, Pilgrim fashion.

Years later, the increasing restiveness of politics there produced awkwardness of another kind, so much so their children thought it prudent to clear out. So now one is in Florence, the other in Barcelona, likely to change continents.

And now, centuries later, we have South American Trinis seeking Europe! Columbus, are you listening?


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About Ric Hernandez

Born in Arima, Trinidad & Tobago, now in Show Low, Arizona, after a life in journalism and advertising in the Caribbean.

Music: Baroque. Old-time calypsos. Pan. David Rudder. Cello soloists. Ballet music. Classical trumpet. Scott Joplin. Erik Satie.

Reading: Remembrance of Things Past. Dance to the Music of Time. The Henry James travel pieces. English essayists. Enigma of Arrival. Walden. Thomas Moore’s Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. The New Yorker. Serendipitous reading.

Interests: Photography. Architecture. Motoring. Tibet. The American Southwest. The Caribbean. Home Life.

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Quick takes

The trick is to pick up on these flashes that assail us, perhaps oftener than we realize.

Pouring over the Chinese menu in Port of Spain’s Singho restaurant, reconnecting with the art of ordering by portions, we were revisited by a simple gesture, proffering of the hot towels!

Unremembered until that moment, sight of the steaming towels brought a flood of recognition and, with it, a quick surge of love for everything — including where we were and what we were doing. Satori, almost!

And later that day, at the Falls, the elegant Westmoorings shopping mall, Janice roaming, I was relaxing on a bench at the foot of an escalator, idly soaking up the casual parade. Suddenly a pleasing ache, not at first recognizable, began to take over. It was a whisper of sound trying to disengage itself from ambient noise and the background music.

And there, unbelievably, it was: Anna Netrebko’s beautiful soprano voice, above the buzz of the moment, and Song to the Moon. Enchantment!

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Asa Gudmundstotir

She is probably the only Icelandic woman ever to set foot in Trinidad, and likely the only one to settle down and make it her home. What’s more, Asa Gudmundstotir and her English husband, Henry Newcombe Wright, chose the untamed highwoods north of Arima known as Lalaja to lay down roots in 1946.

In that last sentence is the genesis of today’s widely known Asa Wright Nature Centre. But to make a good story, Asa and Henry didn’t actually start the centre. The centre came about largely through the efforts of Don Eccleberry, bird lover and painter.

In 1953 Eckelberry visited Springhill, the estate that evolved into Asa Wright, and painted birds of the Arima valley. It was to be published as “A Trinidad Galaxy” as the centrepiece of the March/April 1967 Audubon magazine.

Four years later, with Henry gone and Asa ill, Eckelberry negotiated the purchase of Springhill on behalf of what would become the Asa Wright Centre. For his role in what became Trinidad’s — and the Caribbean’s — first nature centre, Eckelberry received the 1976 Florida Audubon Society’s Award.

As a boy growing up in Arima I knew Asa Wright, as we used to say, by sight. I didn’t have a clue who she was, or that she was linked to any important organization. I would see her driving past home on Prince Street in an ancient and listing Land Rover, her hair untidy, she comfortable in a signature loose, housecoat-looking dress, bags of cocoa beans showing at the back of the vehicle, no doubt on the way to be sold at the Marlay & Co. depot, near the Dial.

I couldn’t imagine her as a beautiful young nurse in England, during World War II, as she appears in Looking Back, Looking Forward, the 40th anniversary booklet of the Centre, by James Fuller.

Although I happened to be in Arima in June, I didn’t make it to Asa Wright. You could say, though, I was there by proxy, through the eyes of a friend of my advertising days, who visited with his wife, from Virginia.

Jay and Carolyn Brown spent 8 days there just recently, he told me, with a group from the U.S and they met Richard ffrench: ffrench, who had done so much for the island’s ornithology with his widely acclaimed “A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago.”

Instructive, I find, that so much was happening just up the road from us in Lalaja; things of interest and import to the metropolitan world, of which we in Arima were quite innocent, not to say ignorant!

There is a story about Asa Gudmundstotir, and I don’t know if it is true. Supposedly when husband Henry died, Asa wasn’t of a mind to have him depart just yet. So she bought herself a goody quantity of ice.

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Return of Rufous

It’s mostly about the yard these summer days. The poplars back of the garage, put in not quite two years ago from the neighbor’s stand, are now taller than I am, and confident enough in their growth to be putting out shoots of their own. Left alone these shoots will translate into tiny trees, becoming the makings of a little grove.

The four cottonwoods, planted around the same time, are even taller, their leaves lush, branches beginning to hint at reaching out to each other with the pleasing prospect of forming a green buffer that side of the yard.

All this is new to us, coming from the Caribbean, where things grow whether you want them to or not. But the blooms here are now in a jaunty mood, creating a happy summer feel.

Above all, Rufous is back! Rufous is a hummingbird with attitude, and some other qualities that make him special.

He is “farse” in the Trinidad sense, behaving as if the feeder is his personal preserve, scaring off hummers legitimately seeking a sip, and “fast” in the sense of speed, easily allowing him to outmaneuver other hopefuls.

But what a beauty he is. A bright orange-red that makes him seem a golden flash in the sunlight, a red spot on the throat like a thoughtful cravat. I am thrilled he is back from winter quarters in Mexico, ready, unlawfully or not, to stand guard over the watering hole.

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A section of the past snuck back into play yesterday in the form of a sizable bubble-wrapped, air-expressed package greeting us when we came back from the gym. It was the nameplate of the advertising agency that occupied our waking dreams for many years in Trinidad. It was from John Citron in Cape Cod.

John and Ellen were scaling down, moving into a new home, and they thought they should pass the Trinidad plaque back to us.

There are many lives in that plaque. It used to hang out at 25 Queen’s Park West until we moved the office to the Long Circular Mall, nearer our big client, Nestle.

John was comptroller for the New York office that spawned representations in the Caribbean: Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and, in its various manifestations John traveled the world cocking a quizzical eye at the books.

Janice and I passed the old building the other day in Trinidad, tarted up now as a radio station, its dignity entirely forfeited.

But it was where the table tennis board resided in the huge garage back of the building, and the source of some pride as our team, me included, reached quarterfinals in a national commercial company tourney.

From my office on the top, or second floor, you could see the oyster man we would visit across the road, between struggles, to imbibe the stinging sauce and sweet Caroni bivalves, sitting on the rooted bench, one of many that dotted the periphery of Port of Spain’s premier public playpen.

It was where, also, we often worked through the night in those Trojan days.

It was fun for me working in the Puerto Rican office, which I did from time to time, on loan, when they needed cheap labour. One Canadian manager even wanted me to transfer to Puerto Rico; denied, of course by my office in Trinidad, but which would have done wonders to the Spanish part of my heritage.

Jamaica was different, apart from Red Stripe and patties, with a remarkable team of creative people, some of whom went on to do serious things.

Easton Lee, the film producer, later turned out to be a playwright, published some poetry and, for good measure, became an Anglican priest.

And Lorna Goodison. In another incarnation she continued to scribble, emerging as a major Caribbean poet, publishing titles like To Us All Flowers are Roses, I am Becoming like my Mother, Tamarind Season, Traveling Mercies, Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems.

She wrote short stories also, and as if underscoring a wider range of creativity, illustrated some of her poems with her own artwork.

Girl, you really did it, and I am proud to have worried with you finessing advertising copy for Berger Paints in Jamaica.

The nameplate was also a flying carpet, taking Janice and me all over, in seminars of management people from across the globe, meeting in faraway places to celebrate how good we were and to hear and see what was new emanating from the combined brain of brilliant brethren.

The first one we went to was in Florida, where I got ill during a dinner from Ed Roncareli’s cigar fumes. The Breakers was a warm up for Florence in Italy, Marbella in Spain and Cerromar in Puerto Rico. We met some really great people, too, including Enrique Marti, who ran the Puerto Rico office and who died in a motor accident in Paris, while celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary.

John’s gift of memory was also the device that gave Janice and me opportunities to meet the wigs, big and small, of Colgate, Nestle, American Airlines, Republic Bank and Royal bank, in whose vineyards, another Hernandez generation, Skye, puts in time today.

Those were the days, my friend!

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I’d tried for years to get in touch with Lolita after that time in Trinidad when she visited us at our place in Glencoe. Then, out of the blue, there was an email from her!

“I caught up with you,” she wrote, “in the Trinidad Express through articles about your travels in the U.S I tried to connect with you after I saw the article you wrote about me a couple of years ago, but I must have had the wrong email.”

And I had written about Lolita, a cousin of mine, and the book she had written, having stumbled upon reviews on Google about “Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant.”

“Lolita’s writing,” one reviewer wrote, “is greatly influenced by the rhythms and language of her Trinidad and St. Vincent ancestors.”

They had shut down the Clark Street Cadillac Plant where Lolita worked, and she had reprized the anguish of fellow workers, in 12 stories, which, when I finally got to read them, made me agree with the admiring reviewers.

Ah, but where to find Lolita! Here was a genuine writer in the family, somewhere in the U.S, with no clue of her whereabouts other than the fact that she lived somewhere in Michigan.

I was therefore overjoyed to get the note from her, happy too, that she was heading for some time in Trinidad and that, incredibly, she was going to stay in Mausica, where I spent some of my schoolboy days.

I hope she and daughter Skye will be able to connect and they both will get to know more about this wandering family, and that not long hence, Lolita will visit us in Show Low and she’ll let me in on the St. Vincent link, of which I am entirely in the dark.

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