“There’s Trinidad, and Tobago: One country, two very different islands, two very different places. One island is what you expected when you arrive wearing flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt, all greased up with cocoa butter; the other ain’t about that at all.”
– Anthony Bourdain
I’ve always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s travel series, from No Reservations to Parts Unknown. Although most of what he focuses on is the food, what I like about him is that he doesn’t fall for the PR stunts many countries perform for him. Instead, he often asks probing questions about social issues, history, politics, and culture. Like any good travel writer/TV host should.
Recently, CNN’s Parts Unknown aired an episode about Trinidad and Tobago. I have a love/hate relationship with my home country (like many other people do with theirs) so I was curious to see how he would react to the proverbial “melting pot” of the English-speaking Caribbean.
I was also very happy that Bourdain didn’t visit during Carnival because that’s when Trinidad and Tobago really puts on a show. Instead, he explores it during its quieter time, when Trinbagonians are doing humdrum, everyday things.
The food and the people
Parts Unknown focuses on getting to know the food and people of Trinidad and Tobago. It talks about the islands’ colonial past and migrations (forced or otherwise) of Africans, Indians, Lebanese-Syrians, Chinese, and Europeans. However, the episode fails to address the perspectives of the indigenous First Peoples, Chinese-Trinidadians, and the “local white” community, each of which has contributed to the food and culture of Trinidad and Tobago.
One of the best parts of the show is the explanation of Trinidadian invention, the steelpan (not steel drums as you non-Trinbagonians like to call it). Local journalist Kim Johnson and pan genius Lennox “Boogsie” Sharpe give Bourdain a great overview of the history of the instrument and the pan side, the atmosphere of the panyard (complete with corn soup), and how the sounds of a steelband come together to create what Bourdain calls “a symphonic wall of sound.”
Bourdain also shares a meal with dance professor La Shaun Prescott. She briefly explains Trini concepts like liming (hanging out, with or without beer) and wining (a circumvention of the hips that means more about freedom of expression and less about sexuality). Prescott also claims that wining erases social stratifications in Trinidad as rich and poor do wine together. Obviously, she hasn’t been to any of the island’s expensive all-inclusive parties for the haves rather than the have-nots.
The Singh family also offer a tourist-friendly narrative of the two islands. They explain that Trinidad and Tobago isn’t “consumed” by colorism but is one of the most “harmonious” nations in the world with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population bound together by the glue of food.
For this family, it’s “Trinidadian first, Indian second” because of the disconnect between Indo-Trinidadians and the Indian subcontinent during indentureship. Despite this assertion, I know many locals who continue to call themselves Indians even though they’ve never lived or even been to the “homeland.”
Apart from that, the river lime hosted by the Singhs had an authentic vibe with the mandatory curry duck cook up. However, it was the first time I ever saw people cooking paratha on a heavy tawa by the river but I guess if the Singhs do it, then others must do it as well!
Bourdain also shares a family meal at the upscale Bayshore home of business tycoons, the Sabga-Abouds, where one member boasts that the Syrian-Lebanese community is the “most powerful, almost the most powerful” on the island.
At Muhammad Muwakil’s home, Bourdain samples oil down, pastelle, and snapper. I especially liked the exchange between Muwakil and his granny, emblematic of so many grandchild/grandparent relationships in Trinidad and Tobago. Imagine granny was giving Muwakil pressure because he didn’t offer his guest ice in his glass!
Bourdain also tries souse (pig foot pickled in chadon beni, onions and hot peppers and topped with cucumbers) with stick fighters. There, he meets the eccentric King David who embodies the bad john image of a stick fighter/calinda veteran.
Although much of the program focuses on Trinidad, the last few minutes end at Store Bay, Tobago, where Bourdain crunches crab and tries cou cou and callaloo with Calypso Rose. The calypso queen explains that her music is the salve that helps locals deal with their everyday problems and that “making beautiful things in enough.”
What about the drinks in T&T?
There are a lot of shots of Carib bottles and some dark Stag bottles with a brief appearance of an Angostura rum bottle on one table. One local even boasts that his signature drink is Grey Goose and coconut water while another touts rum and Coke as the locals’ beverage of choice, to which Bourdain replies, “But the rum’s supposed to be really, really good here? What do I want to mess it up with Coke for?” Touché! I was a bit perplexed why the home of some of the world’s finest rum and bitters, House of Angostura, is not featured but you never know what goes on behind the scenes.
You win some, you lose some
Bourdain also doesn’t seem too impressed with local favorite, doubles, a chickpea curry and fried bread sandwich. Instead, he remains concerned about the “seepage” of the street food through its thin, wax wrapping paper, asking whether he should “suck the paper.” What can I say? It’s an acquired habit that locals have grown accustomed to and some do lick the paper!
Bake and shark also does not make the cut. Maybe it’s because its merits have already been sung by Bizarre Foods host, Andrew Zimmern, as one of his top ten fish sandwiches ever in the world.
A darker reality
No one, especially locals, can dispute that Trinidad and Tobago has a crime problem. When Bourdain asks people about it, he gets a host of responses.
The Sabga-Abouds says that the cause is gang warfare and a diminishing middle class. Mark Bassant, a local crime journalist, explains that drug trafficking has contributed to the explosive crime problem. Muwakil, of the band Freetown Collective, adds that the crime situation and ISIS recruitment is not because of poverty but because of exclusion and social stratification in a country where the 1% runs everything (like everywhere else in the world).
When Bourdain comments whether Trinidad’s Carnival culture is used to “narcoticize the people into being satisfied with the status quo,” Muwakil says that everything on the island, including its music, is used to “pacify” the people into believing the lie that Trinis are supposed to be “fun-loving” in spite of an otherwise grim reality. Very true words.
The final analysis
Bourdain explains that although there is incredible diversity in the food of Trinidad and Tobago, life doesn’t always work out as well as with food. He says,
“No island in the sun is paradise on earth, however it might look from the concrete blocks, glass cubicles, or wood boxes we may live in. And all the dancing and music and great food in the world can never hold together, by itself, what would keep us apart. What might look like a utopian stew of ethnicities and cultures living together under swaying palms is of course a far more complicated matter. But Trinidad has done better than most and in proud and unique style.”
On the Parts Unknown website, Bourdain also states:
“There is always the danger of finding oneself in a warm, friendly bubble when making a show in a place you’ve never been. Without exception, everyone I met in Trinidad and Tobago was warm, friendly, kind—and very proud of the place where they live. But the crime stats and the relatively large number of disaffected young people who’ve gone to fight alongside ISIS in the Middle East are indicators that someone is not being taken care of—that some problems are not being addressed—and that there is another Trinidad outside the view of our cameras. So approach with care—and a healthy degree of skepticism. Life is complicated. Trinidad is complicated.”
Very astute, Bourdain (and the guy doesn’t even live here)!
In other words, fellow locals, quit boasting that God is a Trini, that we’re a rainbow country, and that we jamming still. It’s not the truth we claim it to be and we have to agree with Bourdain that it’s a “far more complicated matter.”
What did you think of the show? Share your comments below!