Mr. Trump in Trinidad

Jesse O’Reilly-Conlin

On the east side of Port of Spain, just beyond the samans and banyans of the Queen Park Savannah, lies the city’s original suburb: the community of Belmont. Just up from Jerningham Avenue but before the Circular Road, right in the neighborhood’s heart, sits a particularly big guesthouse painted in a particularly light blue. I stand at the metal gate while the landlady unlocks it and invites me in.

“How was your flight from Toronto?” she asks.

“Long. A toddler kept the entire cabin awake.”

She does not really listen as she displays my apartment in great enthusiastic motions. Among the mustard-yellow walls and calendars proclaiming Jesus’s unconditional love hangs a small television set, whose screen remains dark. She takes the remote, aims at the monitor, and presses on whichever buttons her bony and adroit fingers land. The television stays dark.

“I’m sorry. The maintenance man said he fixed it,” she says.

“It’s fine. I do not plan on watching television.”

She pays me no mind, scribbling down the WIFI password, which she notes with a sly grin is her birth year. She is African Trinidadian and is older than her country’s independence. She herself has witnessed her country blossom from a former Spanish and English colony to an independent country. She has a long history.

I studied Caribbean history in graduate school, and whenever I visit the region, I am always struck by the diversity of the islands and the seemingly endless variety of such small places. My Jamaican-Canadian supervisor told me she studies the islands because they have acted throughout history as laboratories in which parts of Africa, Europe, South Asia, and indigenous cultures were mixed together to create something new yet familiar. The Caribbean has seen every form of labor regime, every type of government, every religious system. The islands are worlds onto themselves. Under the hot Caribbean sun, cultures have continuously grown, mutated, and evolved.

"Be careful you don't burn," she says, pointing to my white arm.

I follow her through my apartment and into the living room and kitchen, both of which are modest, efficient, and unassuming spaces. Her humble clothes are stained with paint, and her hair is tied tight. In the kitchen's corner, beside the fridge and behind a curtain, she has stacked a half-dozen empty paint cans. Carnival is in a few weeks, she says, bouncing and shooting across the floor in a torrent of energy curious for a woman of her age, and she has been busy painting her walls in a spectrum of colors, preparing her guesthouse for the flood of Carnival guests she expects in the coming weeks. The Caribbean is color, she says and points to one apartment coated in lilac shade. Despite the heat, she does not sweat.

Her stature is diminutive yet muscled, her movements spry. They reveal a wisdom that comes with practice and routine, of dogged diligence and discipline, of doing the same thing indefinitely until it appears correct and effortless until it seems that there could be no possible alternative, no other way. She speaks so fast and appears uninterested in my questions. I stop talking and just listen.

She says she is healthier than people twice as young as she. It is her diet. She only eats greens, no sugar. No soda. None of its chemicals. She says that when guests leave soda in their rooms, she uses it to clean the toilet. She laughs. She eats only natural things. A basketful of grapefruit is posed beside the sink, and she snatches one and tears its skin with a stubby, sharp knife. Sprinkling a little baking soda on the fruit, she says, helps stomach aches. She sorts through a plateful of leaves, from which plant she cannot identify, but uses them to make tea. Turmeric. Ginger. Lemon. She trusts products of the earth. Green things and chilled water fill her fridge. 

Obesity and diabetes ravage the younger generation. She pronounces those foreign words with such vehemence that they sound unreal, fabrications, products of a fevered imagination. She laments for this junk food generation, laments for their perpetually tired, unworked bodies, clunking through their days in lethargic and lazy motions. Not her. She eats only what gives her energy. She switches on the kettle. She is interested only in energy, only in what can keep her going deep into the night. She drops a teabag in a mug. The kettle whistles. She glides over to it, dumps the hissing water onto the bag, and with a spoon, presses the bag to the mug’s side, releasing its contents and dyeing the water a soft green. And when she sips her tea, a warm nostalgia must take her, I think, reminding her of simpler times, of regal Union Jacks and unscrupulous land barons, a childhood filled with chewing raw tannia, plundering avocados, and plucking cocoa pods. She mourns, I feel, for a lost country, for simpler times and clearer rules.

She leans over the counter and has her chin resting in her palm. Tense and edgy, muscles wrought and ready, she sips her tea as I do mine. The silence does not last, though, and when she finally asks the question, I think it is one that has occupied her mind and body for weeks, maybe months, a subject she has long philosophized over.

“What do you think of Donald Trump?”

She appears at first reflective, and I am ready to articulate my dislike of the man. I have my arguments and adjectives in line, but she responds herself, as if her question were rhetorical, to herself only and to no other.

“I like him,” she says.

Her serene mood snaps, and the mania comes in great waves. My eyes can no longer follow her. She paces. She darts. She jitters. And it follows from there, the long harangue, a stream of vitriol so unfocused, so blurred, that it sounds of possession, her words divorced from her human mind, coming instead from a divine presence, she a mere prophet fulfilling providence. She has become a conduit, a portal, for a skittish spirit hell-bent on restoring the idyllic past, the pastoral and bucolic fields of a forgotten youth. She softly advances as if to whisper a forbidden notion or to share some family secret, then retreats again and flays her arms to the ceiling.

Eight years ago, she had a vision that Obama would destroy America. Her church group laughed at her, but she told them just to watch that black man. She pounds the counter and points her finger at me. She says that Obama should have never stirred trouble in a white man's country. And Black Lives Matter? Terrorists, all of them. And in the next breath, he's a seditious Muslim, born in Indonesia and a secret CIA operative. She has a confident gloss in her eyes, a robust pride that says she alone has held the truth for these long eight years. Look at the evils he has brought to America, she goes on, more gay marriage, more abortion. He has rebelled against God's will. Look at the millions of dollars he has given to the Palestinians, to Hamas, and Hezbollah to support the lie of Islam. Look at how he has thrown the Israelis under the bus. She looks at me hard, unflinching in her obstinacy, a resolve solidified over her seventy-plus years. But Jesus, she says, does not forget. Every day she prays that Obama will spend the rest of his days in federal prison. Hillary, too.

Her movements are unpredictable. She turns and strides toward me. It’s a disgrace, she says. She comes closer, stealthy, and says there were two gay men in the White House for eight years. And she nods to confirm it, suspecting my disbelief and incredulity. She shakes her head in deep sadness. It’s true, she says, Michelle’s a … but her words fumble and are audible only to her. A disgrace, she repeats, but Jesus does not forget. A smile forces itself across her face. The evangelicals knew what Obama was doing, she says, and they elected Mr. Trump. Jesus has brought Mr. Trump to save America’s soul.

Mr. Trump. She never forgets his title, his affectation, and would never demean his aura with a given name. It would be unbecoming to disrespect the anointed one in such a haughty way, and messiah he is, for he shall deliver the world to the outstretched hands of the devout lying prostrate on the floor who promise to cut away the sin. She becomes emotional whenever the monosyllabic Trump—her tongue teething and pushing that first tough and riotous consonant into the world—streams from her mouth. Mr. Trump. Her voice rises, and her fists clench while she purls across the tiles. Mr. Trump. The great redeemer. The great restorer. The great avenger. Mr. Trump.

I want to interject but cannot. I am stunned, speechless. Her anger mesmerizes me. Her fury paralyzes me. I simply watch. I try to digest her, to understand her. I am in her home, a guest in her country. I only listen. Listen.

She spits out a long list of grievances in sentences that darken, disappear, and then are resurrected in new, hateful light. She despises the liberal Hollywood conspirators, flown in from LA with their dirty money, for undermining Mr. Trump's presidency, the sanctuary cities for housing illegal terrorists stealing resources and votes, and the FBI for alleging election tampering and sullying Mr. Trump's name, and Germany for welcoming refugee rapists, Muslims most of them. She promises that Merkel will not finish the year as chancellor. She breathes. Only a brief respite. Alert. She is always alert.

And when she reluctantly takes her leave, to go watch her YouTube videos, she pauses at the foot of the staircase and tells me that I should take a stroll to the Savannah and try some street food, maybe sip from a coconut or lick some ice shavings.

*

Outside, I feel lighter and free from her gaze. I walk Belmont’s tight streets and past its colorful homes. The roads twist and curl with little mind to order. Smaller alleyways careen and bend unexpectedly; others die at the foot of gates reading "Active Driveway. No Parking." Cars squeeze past me as a dreadlocked father tells his daughter, twirling in her school uniform, to jump in his jeep parked nervously on the sidewalk. The space is intimate; in fact, there is little space to speak of. Neighbors talk over fences and through hanging palm leaves and hibiscus bushes. The talk is of nothing of great importance: Carnival, cricket, calypso, the weather, which in this later hour, is refreshingly pleasant.

I replay the community’s history in my mind. Its first residents were West Africans rescued from the stowage of slave ships by the Royal British Navy after the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. Oyo, Yoruba, Asante, Fon—these freed men and women took their traditions, the music and magic, and planted them in Belmont, in Trinidad, in an area they called Freetown. After emancipation in 1834, more freed men and women came from the now-abandoned coffee and sugar estates to Belmont, looking for opportunities stronger than coffee seed and a life sweeter than sugar cane. Belmont itself was old sugar grass and, in its stead, sprung shacks, shanties, and settlements.

The afternoon breeze wafts the smell of gasoline over the caged shops and St Margaret’s steeple toward the Levantine hills further east, which at night twinkle with other scattered homes up along Lady Young Road, housing the great, great, great-grandchildren of freedom’s first citizens. Staring at a gutted, crumbling old home, I remember how difficult it is to align history to people’s faces.

I stroll along Queen’s Park Way past the National Gallery and Museum, housing all the treasures of Trinidadian history and culture. I walk through Woodbrook along Ariapita Avenue, with its cafes, Chinese restaurants, and Jerk establishments. With much trepidation, I cross the endless traffic on Tragarete Road and enter Nelson Mandela Park. Children jump through playsets, men and women strike tennis balls, and families laze on the grass. I visit St. James, with its streets named after Indian cities, where many South Asian workers settled after finishing their indentured contracts and where churches, temples, and mosques stand as neighbors among a melee of bars blasting music of every note and instrument, the restaurants serving roti and curry, shops selling sofas, beds, and refrigerators. I circle the Savannah, with its massive willows, branches hanging over the pathway, and watch the men dressed in white playing cricket with the sun dropping behind the wickets and the boys kicking a football around and the girls doing short sprints, and notice the colorful huts and tents lining the pathway readying for Carnival.

Later, back on the verandah, twilight low in the sky, I push the key into its hole, and before turning it, she emerges from behind the ferns and asks what it is I got up to. I tell her about my afternoon but mainly about the beauty of the Savannah. She tells me about the Magnificent Seven—a series of ostentatious colonial mansions on Maraval Road on the western edge of the Savannah—and about how the city bought the Savannah from the Peschier family in the early nineteenth century and how the family is still buried there. She says that in the evenings, vendors gather under the trees and sell grilled meats, coconuts, and oysters. She says that during Carnival, the Savannah is filled with people and is madness. She does not go near the park. Roads are closed for people, and her narrow little lane becomes packed with screeching cars and the noise of revelers. She says I must try the oysters before I leave.

But she becomes anxious and agitated again and paces with unswept thoughts. I try to direct her to simpler subjects, but she bends away and loses herself in that hyperbole. She decries the judges fighting Mr. Trump's executive order barring citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering America. She despises them and notes in mocking derision that Mr. Trump will have the final word. Then she stares at me a moment longer than usual, and it seems that one thought has settled and has become still and sharp. Something happened in Canada, she says. I close my eyes and fiddle with the key with a greater sense of urgency. Yes, I say, six Muslims shot dead in their mosque in Québec City.

After that, I stop listening, and I know I should not. I know I should challenge her. I know I should confront her stereotypes, challenge her prejudices. But I do not. Instead, I say yes and ok every few seconds while I struggle to open the door. I hear her, but I do not see her. I put her words away and want to hold instead an image of her helping her granddaughter with homework, of her playfully admonishing me for eating junk food after I earlier complained of an upset stomach, of her laughing and talking with neighbors and colleagues, of her attending church for hours and visiting her gravesite, which she cares for with a holy fastidiousness. I want to see this instead of her simmering rage and resentment erupting every other sentence, her hunting fingers and bellicose hands grabbing and clawing at air, and her mind drowning in acute antagonism from anything that ruffles her planted and natural things. But I do not see it. I want to put her in my order of things, but she will not fit.

I do not ask why. And I do not ask how. I do not reconcile these images of hospitality and hatred, of love and loathing. I do not tell her that I took a picture of Queen's Royal College, from where CRL James graduated. I do not tell her I passed an office of the People's National Movement Party that hangs a giant photograph of Eric Williams. I do not tell her I paused for a moment outside Derek Walcott's Trinidad Theatre Workshop just down the street on the corner of Norfolk and Jermingham. And I do not tell her that in my bathroom, there was a cockroach, the size of a baby's fist, that sat near the bristles of my toothbrush, sat there under the light and the gaze of my eyes and did not shift, sat there obstinate, brash, and daring, tempting me to succumb to a baser and brutish self.


About the Author

Jesse O’Reilly-Conlin works as an editor at Demeter Press, an Ontario-based publishing house, as well as a freelance editor for Scribendi. He has a bachelor's degree in history and English, a MA in history (both from York University, Toronto), an MFA in creative nonfiction (University of King's College, Halifax), and a MA in refugee protection and forced migration studies (University of London). He is currently a Ph.D. student in the Humanities Program at York University, Toronto. His writing has appeared in Cargo Lit Mag, Cold Noon: International Journal of Travel Writing and Travelling Cultures, and Folio Magazine. For Folio, his story “Istanbul Gone” won the journal’s 2018 Editor’s Prize for nonfiction. His first travel memoir, Visiting Africa: A Memoir, was published in November 2021 by Demeter Press. He has traveled, volunteered, studied, and worked in over 115 countries.