You know the saying those who forget history are doomed to repeat it? This weekend I found a book by the wife of a former British Embassy staffer who'd been posted to Trinidad in the early '80's. It was extremely instructive that little walk down memory lane and in the spirit of learning; I have three questions for you fellow Trinis.
What was the topic on the front page of the newspaper?
What public utilities failed to provide consistent service?
What exactly was missing from shelves?
The answers in a little bit. Ms Keenan actually enjoyed her time in Trinidad though she was troubled by various misfortunes during her family's time here. She managed to catch the spirit of our island, though originally living in a gated enclave in North Trinidad, her children attending St. Andrew's School, she eventually moved to a less cloistered atmosphere and really got down to the business of living in Trinidad. In her memoir she speaks of the warmth of the people and the general excitement that always buzzed; her descriptions of life here would actually hold up today. Hmm, is that good or bad?
In 1982, Penguin sang, ' A deputy essential, to keep your livin' vital. " Bring back memories anyone? Remember this was the "Big 80's". The clothes were oversized, new wave music was what teenagers listened to, break dancing was still a happening thing and we girls knew tons of fella's who belonged to groups like "Warp Crew". Madonna was HUGE. I was already in high school at the time and my life was characterised by having to get up at 6:00 am to leave home to get to school due to the horrendous traffic jams. Later on it would be 5:30 am and out of the house by 6:00 to catch the bus otherwise you'd be late. What's changed in twenty-six years? Now you have to leave home at 4:30 am to get anywhere on time in many part of Trinidad. Ah, the cost of progress!
My mother would be ripping her hair out trying to keep us in food and clothing due to constantly rising prices of everything. After the excesses of the oil boom "70's where "money was no problem', we found out how much a problem it was when we didn't have any. The country was held in thrall by the IMF and World Bank, colossal loans that we could barely repay, huge building schemes came to a grinding halt and people were handing their house keys over to the bank and walking away. In the '80's we had the negative list, monetary controls where you had to apply to the Central Bank to get your Travel Allowance which was only given once a year. I cannot tell you how many "gifts" I sent to various children of my parents friends and even employer during this period since that was also a once per year "external gift allowance".
I remember too the shortages, at any given time you could not get onions, garlic, cheese and powdered milk on the grocery shelves. In some places if you were a valued customer the MANAGER would go into the back storeroom and graciously bestow upon you a six-inch block of cheese as though conferring a Knighthood. Apples, grapes and pears, hah! Let them eat oranges, grapefruits and mangoes became the cry. Mixed peel for your fruitcake, try made out of green papaya. Is any of this sounding familiar?
What about "Telco Poops"? To answer the questions posed above, CRIME was the number one story, surprise, surprise. On any given day the water and/or electricity would be turned off and your phone, should you be one of the fortunate to actually have one, would be dead. Ms Keenan alluded to the potholes in the road that took months to fix, hmm, like the four that we brave to get home every evening? You learn to be really cautious after it rains, if you fall in you'll probably drown! In the years since Ms Keenan and her family have moved on from Trinidad we seemed to have learnt little.
Last week while trying to eke out my limited grocery dollar, I was circling the shelves in HiLo like Jaws looking for a victim with my list. There were no onions save the manky, oozing, foul smelling bulbs curled up to die in a corner of the veg aisle. Lots of expensive foreign, whoops, local fruit and veg though. Imagine ELEVEN dollars for THREE little starch mangoes, WTF. The milk shelf was almost completely bare and I overheard one pretty young thing entreating a "bag boy" to have a look round the back for her. Ah, the good old days have returned people! Cheese is now a whopping $20 bucks for a tiny block. There were a lot of empty shelves, was it actual shortage or profiteering since rumour had it that prices of rice and flour were going up again the next day? I don't know but I do know that when I got home with my loot, I found that the power had gone AGAIN that day, there was no water, but that's not unusual, it gets turned off three times a week, when it rains, more. I no longer have a landline but b-Mobile required three tries to get a call through because, " all circuits are busy now". Eh?
What's the other old chestnut - the more things change, the more things stay the same.