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LOOK SOUTH

When the dark light of winter paints everything a dreary grey and the wind cuts through your layers as if you were naked and you’re thinking its not even December yet, it’s time to look South for a little Christmas fun in the sun. Trace your fingers along the archipelago of islands that is the Caribbean, well past the popular tourist hangouts of Jamaica, Barbados and the ever increasingly accessible Cuba, all the way to the very end, stopping just short of the South American mainland and you will arrive at the twin island paradise of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s colourful colonial past leaves a rich legacy of Spanish, French, British, Indian and African influences all of which live on during holiday celebrations.

FORGET AMAZON

It’s a week before Christmas and the once exclusive Trinidad Country Club in the upscale Maraval neighbourhood has been transformed into the latest edition of Upmarket. The parking lot is full as I run from my car to avoid the sudden drizzle. Pop-up markets like Upmarket have seen a meteoric growth on the island over the last 5 years. Selling everything from homemade soaps and body scrubs to handmade greeting cards, tree ornaments, candles and even gourmet jams, deliciously decadent dark chocolates and spicy hot sauces, pop up markets have become an alternative to costly mass-produced imported gifts at Christmas time. And while Santa was a no-show on this particular Saturday, the Bearded Trini was there to offer us handcrafted beard oils and stache wax.

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CARIBBEAN CONCOCTIONS

Ask any Trinidadian—or Trinis in the local parlance—what is the drink of Christmas and they will tell you “sorrel”. This deep crimson drink is both tart and sweet and amazingly refreshing and is enjoyed throughout the Caribbean. The appearance of vendors with their pick up trucks full of sorrel—parked illegally—at the intersections along the major highways heralds the countdown to Christmas. This brew is made by boiling the flowers of the sorrel (also known as the roselle) plant and then sweetening with molasses rich brown cane sugar and seasoning with orange peel and cloves. It’s traditionally enjoyed in a tumbler with lots of ice as an invigorating thirst quencher but can also be mixed with local Angostura rum and fresh mint to make a wonderfully potent mojito with a twist.

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AN UNLIKELY PRESENT

Opening a pastelle is like opening a present on Christmas morning. I cut away the string and unwarp the banana leaf to reveal a flawlessly smooth golden yellow dough. As I cut into the pastelle, steam rises, and I can smell the rich blend of thyme and pimento peppers. I bite into the spicy savoury filling and for a brief moment I am six years old and its Christmas morning. Like the Mexican tamale, the Trinidad pastelle is made with masa harina or corn flour. It is filled with meat usually pork (but modern healthier versions may contain fish or chicken), raisins, capers, olives and a unique blend of Caribbean seasoning and spices. Unlike the tamale which is an everyday staple, pastelles as almost exclusively eaten only at Christmas time.

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SAND BOX

On Boxing Day, while North Americans head out looking for sales and Brits are tuning into Premiere League action on their tellys, Trinis are packing their beach coolers with ice cold Carib beers and heading to Maracas Bay. During the second world war, part of Trinidad’s west coast was annexed to the US Government to serve as a military base for it’s Caribbean operations. This denied residents of Port of Spain access to the popular Chaguramas beach so the Americans generously cut a 12-mile road through the scenic mountains of the North coast to Maracas Bay to satiate local beach lovers. Like the Queen’s Park Savannah, Maracas beach is a microcosm of Trinidadian society; young and old, rich and poor, prime minster to pauper all gather here to “get a little sun”, body surf in the warm Caribbean Sea and talk about upcoming Carnival fêtes and the latest political scandals. It is a place to see and be seen. This Boxing Day “cool down” would not be complete without lunch from one of the many beach vendors selling the famous fried “shark and bake” sandwiches although international pressures and education campaigns are beginning to help drive more sustainable food choices such as shrimp and kingfish to protect endangered global shark populations. So hang up that parka, and stow away that snow shovel you bought on sale at The Home Depot last week. Pack lightly, bring sunblock and remember to turn off the water before you leave. Because while your friends and neighbours back home are dressing up to face the winter chill you’ll be stripping down to shorts and t-shirts and digging your toes into the hot tropical sand.

Story originally published on Exposure 5th January 2016

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