Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A Tale From Trinidad

I was recently looking through a few old files on my desktop computer and stumbled across a tiny file dated in 1990. Intrigued by the date, I opened up the file and it contained an account of a business trip to Trinidad. I was obviously bored at the time and decided to write about a couple of strange and funny things that happened to me during that trip.

I’ve travelled quite a lot through work but sadly I haven’t written too much about experiences in foreign countries. I think I might start posting a few over the coming months. First I shall relate to you a mildly amusing but potentially disturbing incident from that file that occurred on that fabulous Caribbean Island sometime in Summer 1990.

In July of that year, there was a coup attempt in Trinidad; the Prime Minister and most of his cabinet were taken hostage. The siege lasted six days. I travelled there a month or two later. At the time, although life had started to settle down, there was a government curfew that began at 6pm sharp and lasted until 6am in the morning. Anybody caught violating the curfew was arrested.

I was staying in a hotel and was being looked after by a customer, who ferried me to work and back. This guy, whom I shall call Alfred (not his real name), was brilliant; he was a laid back friendly fellow in his fifties and had the most infectious laugh imaginable. Our working hours were cut short because he had to get me back to the hotel and get home himself before the curfew started. Usually we left work at around 3.30pm; our journey usually took around 30 minutes.

Alfred owned a real old banger of a car; a Ford Cortina that had seen many better days. The bodywork was held together by the rust and the engine sounded as if it was on its last legs. Yet Alfred was proud of his car and insisted that it would survive for many years to come. I had no reason to disagree. Why would I? Alfred was confident. I ignored the rattling engine, the grinding gears and shaking doors. Alfred’s car would ensure that we arrived at work in the morning and safely back home well before the curfew began.

What I didn’t know was that Alfred’s car had one fault that I was unprepared for. Alfred only informed me about it when it was too late.

We were on our way back from work when Alfred’s car began to splutter. I looked across, ready to ask what the problem was, but saw from the way Alfred was uncharacteristically grinding his teeth that there was something seriously wrong. The car gradually slowed down and stopped. We were still a few miles from the hotel and the curfew was an hour or two away so I had no reason to worry. Or did I?

Alfred acted as if he knew exactly what the problem was. He opened the car door and lifted up the bonnet. I got out of the car and joined him at the front of the car and we both looked at the engine as if we knew exactly what the problem was. Of course I hadn’t a clue but I nodded sagely, as men do when confronted with engine problems. I assumed Alfred was in control of the situation.

With the curfew drawing ever closer and a solution to our predicament seemingly moving further away, Alfred eventually swallowed his pride and made a confession.

“I can’t work out what’s wrong,” he said, “and we are running out of time. Fortunately, I have a friend who is a mechanic and will be able to fix it in no time. He only lives about five minutes away. You wait in the car.”

I believed him. I sat in the car and waited as Alfred strode off in the direction of a housing estate.

I waited ...

… and waited ...

… and waited.

It started getting darker and darker. The curfew was getting closer and closer. After half an hour, Alfred finally returned with a look of concern on his face. The mechanic was unavailable because he was staying with his family on the other side of Trinidad. My heart sank.

“Can we walk or get a taxi?” I asked hopefully. Alfred was beginning to lose his composure. He chose that moment to tell me what was probably wrong with his car.

“I think I know what the problem could be,” he confessed. “My fuel gauge doesn’t work and I normally guess how much petrol there is in the tank by filling up after a certain number of journeys. But I have been picking you up and dropping you off at the hotel, so I have lost track.”

Fortunately, there was a petrol station about half a mile down the road. Once again I waited in the car as Alfred retrieved a petrol cannister from the boot of the car and trudged off down the road looking totally despondent; he walked as if he were carrying the entire world on his shoulders.

The curfew drew nearer and nearer. Soon Alfred returned with his container full of petrol, looking a bit happier. I, too, was relieved and hoped that I would soon be back in the safety of my hotel room. But fate was about to deal us a heavy blow.

Alfred successfully transferred the contents of his petrol cannister into the fuel tank and deposited it into the boot of his car and sat down in the driver seat, slamming the door with gusto.

“Right!” he said. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.”

I looked away, eager to leave this place. It was then that I noticed something else was wrong. Turning slowly towards Alfred, I realised that he was starting to panic. His hands were frantically slapping his chest and desperately rooting round in his pockets.

“The keys!” he said. “I’ve lost the damned KEYS!”.

Then suddenly it dawned on him where they were.


With his dignity in tatters, Alfred was totally helpless. He was desperate and distraught and had no clue what to do. He searched his mind for inspiration and there was none forthcoming. With the curfew drawing ever closer the situation was becoming desperate; the car had broken down, Alfred had wasted a precious twenty minutes staring at his engine, he had wasted another thirty minutes anxiously searching for the only local person who could help, only to realize when it was too late that he was at fault in the first place. And now he was walloped by the final insult - just when hope was about to reward him, he had messed up in the most idiotic way and locked his keys in the boot of his saloon car.

I watched this normally cool guy fall to pieces in front of me in the most comical fashion. And at the most inopportune moment possible I was struck by the laughter bug. I still don’t understand why because as far as I was concerned we were in trouble. I had nothing to look forward to but possibly spending a night in a prison cell and I was sitting next to a man who was disintegrating in front of me. This poor wretched man was not only a customer; he was my host as well – and I really liked the guy. My role in Trinidad dictated that I treat Alfred with respect and professional courtesy. Giggling uncontrollably would not create a good impression, especially given the circumstances; we were a couple of miles from my hotel; Alfred had a further mile or two get home himself; the curfew was approaching faster than a speeding bullet; the situation was completely hopeless.

I had to make a monumental effort to discipline myself. My hand instinctively went to my mouth and I squeaked, attempting to control the gales of laughter that were rising within. I bit my finger in an attempt to haul myself from the pits of violent hilarity. Thankfully, Alfred was oblivious to the raging war of emotions I was fighting as he had his own internal battle.

He leapt out of the front of the car and into the back, wrenching open the door. I watched as he transformed from a laid back, fun-loving, kind man into a desperate, half-crazed animal. It was like watching Dr Jekyll turn into Mr Hyde or Bruce Banner become “The Hulk”. With inner strength, summoned from the very depths of despair, he grabbed hold of the back seat of the car and pulled at it with all his might. Unable to resist the force of a madman, the back seat began to give way and somehow Alfred managed to force his arm into a gap. He probed fiercely for a good few minutes, his face dripping with sweat and his teeth grinding in frustration. His perseverance was rewarded and eventually he miraculously managed to locate his keys. All of the time, I was grasping my midriff and stifling the gales of laughter permanently lodged into my throat.

Meanwhile, Alfred triumphantly returned to the front seat and, once again, slammed the door. “NOW, we can go!”, he exclaimed jamming the keys into the ignition; except the car was not playing; it had decided to throw its toys out of the pram and give up completely. I could almost hear it saying “I’m going nowhere mate!!”

Alfred was beyond despair. His anger had completely taken control of him and he was physically shaking. He was like a volcano waiting to erupt. If I had lost control of my ability to contain my laughter at this point in time, I’m sure he would have beaten me to a pulp. Alfred once again stormed out of the car, without a word, and marched resolutely in the direction of the garage.

My own internal struggle to conceal my amusement was finally over. I guffawed so loudly that for a second I thought Alfred would hear me as he marched away from the car. Mucus sprayed outwards as I burst out laughing. The inside of the windscreen in front was bombarded by a mixture of snot, tears and saliva. I completely lost control of my emotions. My face turned a bright shade of red and the already fragile Ford Cortina, shook violently as I completely deteriorated into a mucilaginous, giggling wreck covered in a mixture of sweat, dribble and snot. All I could hear was a wailing, whooping racket echoing around the confines of the Cortina as I shook with laughter. I no longer cared about our plight. My brain was totally submerged in an ocean of hysteria and refused to come up for air.

Unlike me, Alfred had somehow managed to assume a level of authority over the rage and terror assaulting him and decided to phone his family to come to our rescue. By the time he returned from the garage, we had both recovered and I had cleaned the layer of sweat, snot and spit from his windscreen with a bottle of water and handkerchief.

After a further twenty minutes of waiting, Alfred’s daughter arrived in her car and we left the comatose Cortina to spend a night on the main road to Port of Spain.

In the end, it was a close call; I arrived at the hotel with about twenty minutes to spare. Thankfully, Alfred lived about ten minutes further on and also made it home in time.

I am convinced to this day, that if Alfred had seen me laughing he would have beaten me senseless. It is a tribute to his character that he managed to think straight and extricate us from our predicament despite fate conspiring against us and my contribution being thoroughly inadequate. I am eternally grateful.

And if you ever get a chance to read this, Alfred, I can only apologise for being attacked by the laughter bug at the worst possible time and being about as much use as a chocolate teapot just when you needed the most help. I would reveal your true name but I am too ashamed. You conducted yourself with dignity despite the traumatic circumstances (something I can’t say for myself). I’m sure this post will also explain why your windscreen was spotless when you returned from the petrol station – and why your precious Cortina’s suspension was ruined.

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