The pound had dipped almost to the level of the euro, so I decided that the time had come to change my emergency American express cheques. I waited around at Scotiabank for an inordinate time, only for the teller to tell me that they didn’t cash TCs, despite the rates displayed on the screen. He sent me up the road to Republic Bank where the queue had swollen in the meantime.
I signed and handed over my 120US in twenty-dollar cheques, grinning sheepishly when the cashier looked at me.
“They’re worth a lot more in Thailand.”
She pushed them back at me. “Fill in the date”.
This was followed by a yellow form, and then a pink one. The process took a good ten minutes.
The whole morning was taken up with banking and shopping. I figured since I would stay at Pearl’s for a week, I might as well pick up supplies.
If somebody would build a northern-style supermarket in Port of Spain, they would make a million bucks. And I’m not talking TT. There are no shops other than the service station in a two-mile radius around Pearl’s, and while almost anything is for sale along the streets, it was impossible to scare up a single vegetable.
According to my map, the Central Market was supposed to be just past the ferry terminal, but I walked past a long wall concealing a tall building with no sign of any entrance or activity. If this was the market, it must long since have closed.
I turned back.
A woman dressed in an orange overall came running across the sprawling Beetham Highway.
“Where are you going, dear?”
I shrugged. “The market. Is there—”
“Oh, it’s just past the traffic lights, dear!” She pointed at a distant set of traffic lights past the wall. “You turn left, you can’t miss it.”
I grimaced “It’s quite a way, eh?”
She beamed and turned back to the oncoming tide of traffic. Had she risked her life just to give me directions? On the back of her overall it said something about highway patrol, so I supposed she was used to it.
I increased my pace in the hope of reaching the market before I thought better of it. The highway woman might be watching.
Two guys who were laying bricks—making the mysterious wall even higher—grinned at me and said something, but they were friendly and I waved at them.
A car stopped next to me. I made the gesture for ‘I’m staying in the area’, but the driver wouldn’t have it. She lowered the window.
“Honestly, I’m only going to the market.”
She looked blank.
“By the traffic lights.”
“There is a market?” She shook her head and waved impatiently. “Never mind that, get in.”
“Get in” she cast a nervous glance around. “This is not a nice part of town!”
“Thank you. It’s very kind but it’s really not far.”
“This is not a nice part of town,” she said again, then smiled. “It’s my last good deed of the year!”
“There’s always tomorrow,” I said, and winked.
The lady driver made sure that the market was open before she let me go on. I promised her that I would be careful.
There were next to no cars parked outside, which I took as a bad sign. Inside the hall there was only a collection of food stalls, half of them closed. Does nobody do their own cooking here?
I walked through it and entered a second hall which was a vast, empty space reminding me of Tsukiji fish market (closed when I went there). Maybe this was the fish market and it only operated during the early hours of the morning.
I walked through that as well (it was in fact the meat market) and came to another hall, darker, the wall openings obscured by tall boards hung with clothes. I passed stall after stall selling T-shirts, trousers, dresses, skirts, socks and underwear until I came to the very end. With more light streaming through the wall I could at last discern about half a dozen vegetable sellers which apparently supply the fifty thousand inhabitants of Port of Spain.
But I had my tomatoes and cucumbers and onions, at last.
I ran across the Beetham highway while six lanes of traffic stopped at the invisible traffic lights, wondering if I would be razed down if they should change. They didn’t.
Once I’d caught my breath I saw what the lady driver had meant. This was a slum area. I suddenly realised that I would stand out like a sore thump.
I stopped some distance from the buildings, wondering if a route taxi would come, but the cars all drove on by and I didn’t want to draw undue attention, so I shifted the shopping bags in my hands and trodded on.
A man cycled past without stopping, returning my greeting with a wave. There were no jeers. The few people outside, mainly women, all smiled when I said good morning. This might have been a slum, but it wasn’t Charlotteville
None of the cars stopped all the long way down to the ferry terminal. There is never a system in place when you need one.
The Goat Index doesn’t work in the Caribbean, where goat meat is valued and the animals are carefully tethered or fenced in, but the Pavement Index is a pretty safe bet. I narrowly avoided falling into a gaping hole, and—deciding against balancing on the narrow lip of concrete that lined it with my slippery flip-flops—stepped out into three lanes of traffic to walk past the large puddle in front of it. I practically had to jump clear over the final couple of metres. The way it looked like, I wasn’t merely ready to kill for a salad, but to die for it.
Once past the hole and the St. Ann’s River flowing underneath it—separating the slums from the city—the mood changed. An airship glided overhead, into the space between the towering high-rises with their tinted windows. The scene reminded me of Watchmen.
I found the vegetable sellers on my way home: all lined up on Charlotte Street. Row upon row of stalls offering fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, spring onions, celery, peppers, pumpkins and root vegetables for about half of what they’d charged me at the market. The prices were clearly displayed.