Confessions of an expat – Sometimes it does grow on trees

There’s one in there somewhere: an avocado tree provides its fruit with perfect camouflage.

Mangoes all over the ground as I walk the roads near our house. But the tree in our garden? Finished. Harvest has been and gone at Chateau Morvan. The trouble with mango trees is you get all you’re going to get all at once. So one day you’ve got buckets of them under water to try to keep them until you fancy one again and the next day the tree is bare. We had so many that when the guy came to fix the phone line and asked if he could have one for his daughter I gave him a shopping bag full.

The issue now, though, is avocados. Or rather one avocado. The only one left on the tree. It’s half a mile in the air and so well camouflaged that every time I look it takes a minute to locate it. But today is the day and I have plans for it: plans involving Worcestershire sauce and a knife and fork. Cut it in half, mash it up and splash some of the spicy brown nectar on it. It’s the easiest starter in the world, but the kind of thing that impresses people if they’ve never come across it before.

They’re funny things, avocados. Rock hard for most of their life, perfect for about two days and then garbage. Of course I could go to the shop and get one, but when you’ve got a tree right outside the house, spending money that way seems wrong.

So there it hangs, dark green and seductive (and there aren’t many things you can say that about). In the house we had when we first arrived in Tobago there was a pool in the back yard. An added bonus about that was that swimming pools tend to come with a long-handled net for sweeping leaves out. And if you angle them up instead of down, you’ve got a perfect avocado grabber. Wave the swaying pole in the right direction until it pops under the fruit, give a sharp tug and you’ve got half a meal right there.

The house with the pool is way in the past, though, and therefore avocado retrieving devices have to be improvised. What we have here is a long aluminium strip with an l-shapedprofile, as if it were for protecting the edge of an interior wall. Maybe that is what it was made for, but in its retirement it has languished, unloved, in our back yard, covered with dirty sand. Now, though, in its twilight years it has been given a chance to be useful again. With a wire coathanger attached to one end like a noose, it is a humble masterpiece of homemade avocado-picking  technology.

The trouble is, the object of my hunger is a long way up and even my flimsy metal friend can’t reach it.

Where is my 13-year-old tree-climbing son when I need him? Now 22 and living in Barcelona, as a matter of fact. Which leaves his old man to perch precariously on a bar stool and fish in the sky, more in hope than expectation. My wife, the reviver of a plan which I had already considered and rejected, has the vital job of holding the stool while I risk my neck. Aren’t women supposed to be the cautious ones?

It has to be done. You can’t live in such a bountiful place and be deterred by such a piddling obstacle as height.

Madam seems to think it will be a doddle: thrust the device skywards at an angle of perhaps 70 degrees and it will garotte its target like an 18th century brigand who’s just swum ashore with a dagger between his teeth. My superior grasp of the situation includes the words “no” and “chance”, which doesn’t go down well.

So, while she abandons her stabilizing role in favour of getting a good look from a distance and offering left-right-up-down advice, I poke the tool with as much accuracy as randomness will allow and the coathanger snags a branch. My adviser is excited and urges me to shake it.

I shake. Leaves flutter and suddenly a pear-shaped heavy object loses its grip on the branch and plummets to the ground.

It’s undamaged and hard, but nothing a couple of days wrapped in newspaper won’t cure. Or buried in flour, or whatever old wives’ tale you favour.

This is the life. Free food, and nobody was hurt during the capture. Maybe I should borrow somebody’s pool-cleaning net and sit on a rock at Bacolet, dipping it into the sea and returning with some magnificent, nutritious and free fish for the main course.

There’s a worldwide boom in avocado prices and a gang in California was recently busted for a $300,000 avocado heist, but hey, we’ve got a tree that produces them for nothing. Pity it seems to be closed for the season, that’s all.

Confessions of an expat – Venezuela through the back door

guiria 2

It was time to leave Tobago and money was tight as usual. The plan was to go to Venezuela, and that meant via Trinidad. The boat from Scarborough to Port-of-Spain costs next to nothing and if you don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn, it’s quite a pleasant trip. So that’s what I did. It was always a slightly strange feeling, because I had been on the vessel before on the other side of the Atlantic, when it ran between the Channel Islands, England and France.

The first time I got on it in Tobago I just thought, “I know where the restaurant is, where the bar is and where the toilets are. Weird.”

I had checked out the options for Trinidad-Venezuela and they consisted of a very expensive flight or a ferry from Chaguaramas to some little town in the middle of nowhere. It was cheap, and even cheaper if you paid for a day trip and just didn’t come back. The girl on the phone assured me that wouldn’t be a problem, but it seemed unlikely to me. What about Immigration? Wouldn’t the Venezuelan authorities have spotted this loophole by now?

On the other hand, the country was in a mess and people were trying to get out, not in.

After a night in a cheap hotel I took a taxi to Chaguaramas and the driver helped me with my two suitcases, backpack and guitar.

The girl in the ticket office, who might well have been the one on the phone, reassured me that the day-trip idea would work.

“With two suitcases and a guitar?” I protested.

“They won’t notice,” she said.

The ferry came in and it was like a little party boat, with a dance floor and small, high, round, chrome-rimmed tables bolted to the floor, each with four stools similarly rooted. In Guernsey we call it a booze and cruise: it’s a floating party that just gets you out on the ocean wave, maybe to a smaller island for dinner, then back.

This one wasn’t full of revelers, though. Just a week before Christmas, it was heaving with Venezuelan women going home after earning a living doing who-knows-what in Trinidad.

All the seats were occupied, or that’s what the women indicated when I tried to sit amongst them. I didn’t believe them, but it’s hard to argue in a foreign language with a group of brassy, hard-as-nails sex workers who want to spend the voyage lying down. I hung around, perched uncomfortably on the solitary vacant stool.

As time went on they took pity on me and I was permitted to sit in the middle, surrounded by rough, savoury-smelling but not unattractive hard cases. It was like a women’s prison summer outing. Some were probably very nice and not so tough if you got them individually, but here they were a gang, and this was real life, not a 1950s American film featuring a tart with a heart.

Like most places, Guiria doesn’t feel like the center of the world, but it’s a gateway to part of it

After two hours of this, a wave of excitement swept through the gathering as we approached land and I joined a queue to disembark. Then a  small party of Immigration officials came aboard and set up a makeshift desk at one end. The queues reshaped to face them and we stood like that for 20 minutes while rumours spread that it was some kind of health certification.

Then the officials, who looked as though they had been handed a uniform each and told to go on the boat and do something – anything – stood up, moved to the other end and sat down again. We duly turned in their direction and gradually the line began to move and passports were glanced at and stamped.

My Cell Block H friends were nowhere to be seen, perhaps knowing better than the uniforms what did and didn’t need to be done.

All my worldly goods and my day-return ticket went unnoticed as I stumbled onto Venezuelan soil. All that remained was to find a taxi, since all of the waiting ones had been spirited away by the women.

It’s the sort of set-up the government must know about and tolerate. Sometimes, though, it pays not to ask questions.


Confessions of an Expat – What exactly are the West Indies?

This is most people’s idea of the West Indies


The idiot’s guide to the Caribbean

A recent brief trip to Barbados started me thinking about the whole Caribbean area and how it sees itself, as opposed to how the rest of the world sees it.

The UK thinks there is this group of islands called the West Indies.

It’s all Christopher Columbus’s fault. He was trying to get from Spain to south Asia, but ended up in the Caribbean. Easy mistake to make. Just fail to turn left when you come out of the Mediterranean and you are heading across the Atlantic ocean, bound for the wrong continent.

Columbus would have been better off going overland, as it happens, but he wasn’t to know that, so he did his best and, when he found land and didn’t know where the hell he was, he assumed he wasn’t far away from his desired destination. If he was looking for clues from the local population, he may have noticed something Asian about the eyes of the Native Americans.

“Anyway, we were looking for the Indies [i.e. something to do with India] and we’ve found a place with vaguely Asian-looking people so let’s call it the West Indies. Strayed a bit there, Mr Navigator. Pull your socks up – but we can’t be far away.”

Nowadays, some people refer to south Asia as the East Indies, which also helps to disguise Columbus’s enormous miscalculation. He hadn’t even found north or south America, as it happens. But none of these places had names, anyway, so he could call them what he liked.

Some 400 years later, the English, having muscled in on the ‘New World’ and given the locals everything from organized sport and commerce to fancy foreign diseases, started playing cricket against the West Indies, and that was the British perception up to the middle of the 20th century. Cricket is the only sport in which the Caribbean nations compete as a group and under the name West indies. Usain Bolt comes not from a generalized WI but the highly specific Jamaica.

(It should be understood that England is part of Great Britain (and if you add Northern Ireland, it’s the United Kingdom), and therefore British can mean English, although it can equally indicate Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people.)

After the Second World War they ran out of bus drivers in London and, the British population having been depleted by casualties, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing some West Indians, mainly Jamaicans, over to help out. Global integration was on its way (although it has been a frustratingly slow and antagonistic process).

But xenophobia (in both directions, mind you) is by the by. Air travel suddenly made it possible for the British to visit the tropics on holiday.

Americans have a different story to tell, but all I really know about that is that they call the Caribbean nations ‘the islands’ in a rather proprietorial way.

For us Brits, we couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sand. Not that we don’t have our own, but unfortunately the thermostat is stuck on a low temperature for most of the year.

What we knew from cricket was that in the “West Indies” there was Barbados, there was Trinidad and there was Guyana. Yes, Guyana. Well known (to cricket fans only) players such as Basil Butcher, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai were all part of the West Indies team that toured England in the mid 60s, and then came Clive Lloyd. All Guyanese. All playing for the Windies. And therefore Guyana must be an island in the Caribbean, right?

Wrong, actually. It’s a country in South America. Pardon one’s ignorance. And anyway, Guyana, along with Suriname, doesn’t consider itself part of South America as much as part of the Caribbean.

Culture was on its way, too. Bob Marley gave the world a kind of music that would be loved everywhere.

Memorial for the man who put the jam in Jamaica

There was a hit pop song in the UK in the early 70s, complete with faux-Caribbean accent,  that went ‘Oh, I’m going to Barbidas, blah blah blah, oh, lots of pretty palm trees… in the sunny Caribbean sea.’ It was a catchy tune and the British music-buying public are susceptible to a bit of holiday daydreaming a la Y Viva Espana.

Now Barbados is known by some as Little England, and from my brief  visit I can confirm that there is certainly a lot of British influence – and the people I met were not sullenly resentful of white people, which sadly can be the case in other islands.

So the British perception was that the West Indies was Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica.

Then came the ultimate Caribbean cricketing hero, Viv Richards, and we heard of Antigua, because that’s where he is from. And people started getting married on the beach in St Lucia. And there was Grenada, the spice island. The Caribbean map was taking shape.

The Caribbean is the blue bit, so any of the green bits that touch it can – and do – call themselves part of the Caribbean.

But that’s where it stopped for most people. We knew about the Bahamas, but we didn’t necessarily know where they were. Tobago? Never heard of it. Curacao? Somewhere in China. Aruba and Bonaire? Figments of your imagination, old son (although the Dutch know where they are, because they made the most impact there in colonial times). Antilles, Windward islands, Leeward islands? You’re just trying to confuse me.

Guadeloupe? No, that’s a kind of melon. Cuba? Off the coast of Russia, mate. St Kitts and Nevis? That’s a home for stray animals in south London.


Confessions of an expat – Exotic bureaucracy

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Former British colonies have a way of hanging on to bureaucratic procedures that existed in the bad old days. When officers from Great Britain were out there showing the world how it was done, it was all about doing things in triplicate, using hand-written forms and that technological marvel, carbon paper, and although that has largely disappeared in the UK now, places such as India and certain Caribbean islands cling onto it. It’s as though if you don’t follow strict rules the world will fall apart.

What also has to be overcome in certain parts of the world is the need of people in positions of even minimal authority to be obeyed without question. So it was that when I wanted to cancel my car insurance in Tobago I was confronted with Miss Bureaucracy. I went into the insurance broker’s office and explained what I wanted to do. She was in her 20s physically but in her dealings with the public she was a grumpy old woman.

“You’ll have to bring in the certificate,” she said.

I fished it out of my pocket.

“That’s a copy,” she said flatly. “It has to be the original.”

I explained that I didn’t have the original because I had already sold the car and the certificate was in it.

“You will have to bring in the original,” she repeated. It was like dealing with a primitive android whose circuitry was faulty and couldn’t get past this little stage.

Then I had a brainwave. There was only a short time till it expired anyway. What if I didn’t cancel the policy at all? What would happen?

She didn’t like this idea.

What would happen?

“Nothing,” she admitted, as her colleagues looked up from their desks and stared at the preposterous foreigner who was challenging the very fabric of their world.

“Okay, then, we’ll just forget about it,” I said, and left the office.

bureaucracy 2

This business of selling the car was to prove more problematic than I had expected. I had found a buyer with ridiculous ease, and as an added bonus he was a mechanic. He didn’t even check the thing over before he bought it, because he spent his life sorting these things out. You can never tell with an old car, but he had been for a trip in it, it seemed okay and if something went wrong, he could fix it anyway.

He was a remarkable man: many in his position would have used their superior knowledge to haggle with me.

Never before had I sold a car without someone lifting the bonnet and saying “There’s an oil leak”.

As it was, he offered about 10% less than I was asking, which was an arbitrary figure anyway, and so he’d got himself a bargain of sorts.

He even gave me the money in cash, which I thought would be the easiest way. But that was where the process ceased to be easy, because it is where bureaucracy entered the scene.

The bank didn’t like it. I had offered them a wodge of TT dollars which I wanted to pay in (not take out, mind, but pay in). They wanted to know where I got the money. Sold my car, I said. Get a receipt, they said. I pointed out that that wasn’t the way it worked. The buyer had the car, I had the money.

I went to see my buyer, got him to write out a little note explaining the transaction, and went back to the bank with it.

Not good enough. Now they wanted to know where he got the money.

After another trip to the buyer and the bank, I got him to come in with me. He had withdrawn the money from his own account at that very branch a few hours before I took it back and tried to put it in.

Yes, I know, it’s a big bad world out there and money-laundering is a real phenomenon, not just something you hear about on TV. And if I wasn’t laundering money, I must have got the money from selling drugs, mustn’t I?

It gets up everyone’s nose to be treated with suspicion. If this had happened to a black Tobagonian in England he’d have been screaming ‘racism’ and the bank would have had to issue a full apology and give an assurance that no such prejudice would be tolerated.

So to all those people out there who like to do things by the book: respect. May your death be as well-ordered as your life. But there are a couple of words I would like to share with you. Flexibility is one. Sometimes things don’t go as you expect and you have to adapt to the new circumstances.

The other word is negotiation. Particularly in a situation where there is no actual winner and loser, talking and trying to smooth the way can save everyone a lot of aggravation. Being dogmatic can cause wars. Negotiation is what ends arguments.

Saying “I am the boss and you will do it my way” only puts you on a ladder one rung below a bigger boss. I know that’s how it works in the army, but in everyday life? We’re more civilized than that, aren’t we?




Confessions of an expat – don’t choke on the bones

roti 1
Handle with care: this roti looks soft and harmless but there coule be a chicken’s broken ankle in there

It was a bar by the beach at Pigeon Point, Tobago. We had only recently arrived in the island and were keen to try things out. Including the food. I had been looking up some of the oddities that were advertised, such as Buss up Shut. Apparently that was originally bust-up shirt, but given the Trini-speak treatment, and that is what it looks like – a shirt that’s been mistreated. And it’s a kind of roti.

Okay, what’s a roti?

To those not from Trinidad and Tobago, trying to understand their version of English, roti sounds like the past participle of the French word for roast. But no, it’s not a roast anything.  “It’s a… it’s kind of hard to explain,” said the very pleasant Indian-heritage woman who appeared to own the place. But the people over there were eating one, so we had a look and decided to give it a go.

The basis of the roti is a flatbread, like a chapatti or what in some countries is called a wrap – a soft piece of bread rolled up with some kind of filling.

roti 3
Highly skilled: they make the dough big and work it with sticks

I ordered a meat one and was taken aback to be warned that it would contain bones and I should be careful. The thing about getting used to another culture is that you have to tread carefully. In England I would have helpfully suggested that they take the bloody bones out – which I still don’t think would be an unreasonable request- but if that’s the way things are done, then who am I to argue?

In some countries butchery is an art, with carcasses taken apart by skill rather than brute force. But there are also places – Venezuela is one and this seems to be another – where all that’s required is a heavy meat cleaver and some muscle. Instead of disassembling by separating the bones at joints, they give the thing a hefty whack that no leg can withstand and abracadabra: two pieces of meat – plus shards of spiky, dangerous bone.

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Tasty, satisfying and messy – like a lot of things


One of life’s simple pleasures is watching people do something very well. It doesn’t really matter what they are good at, and butchery is as valid as sculpture or even accountancy. But wielding a sharp, weighty instrument instead is what gives butchery a bad name. It’s why when we say something was butchered we don’t mean a nice job was done, we mean it was the work of an unskilled, unsubtle person or a thug. There’s a horrible scene in The English Patient where a Gestapo officer takes someone’s thumbs off with a knife, but at least he does it skilfully.

But back to the roti. The fact that it is coming to be regarded as the national dish should not be taken as a criticism of TT food. There are plenty of local specialities that rarely make it onto the menus of posh restaurants, but the same could be said of many countries. In fact, the nations that do have a variety of famous dishes are the exception, rather than the rule. France remains the king of the food world, while Italy has taken the humble material that is pasta and come up with variations adorned with meaty sauces that can be found in every town from Alice Springs to Ankara.

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Eat in or take away

As for the rest of us, we’re comparative amateurs. What has the mighty USA got to call its own? The hamburger, that’s all. England? Roast beef, and maybe fish and chips. Spain? Paella.

It’s all poor man’s food dressed up. Paella might sound like a treat when you didn’t grow up with it, but all it was originally was a load of yellow rice with whatever was available at the time. In a restaurant you might find it loaded with seafood and meat, but 100 years ago Senora Gomez was lucky if she could find a handful of peas and a few scraps of leftover chicken to throw in, so she will have made damned sure the rice was tasty enough to appease her ravenous family.

India has done a good job of using a few herbs and spices that may have been used originally to disguise the taste of dodgy meat, while the Chinese have built a worldwide reputation on the distinctly unexotic monosodium glutamate. Obviously there are talented chefs who can whip up a chop suey or a curry that is on a culinary par with coq au vin or the most exquisite seafood salad, but there aren’t enough geniuses to go round.

There is nothing wrong with local food, wherever you are. It just might not be what you are accustomed to. You might, for instance, have a natural dislike of choking or breaking teeth.