Water, My Love

In this trying time, I’ve been missing water. According to my astrological chart, I am mostly water influenced, predominated by the subaltern intensity of Scorpio (by element and modality) and peppered with air (found in both my sun and rising), two earth and two fire elements. My moon, too, lies in Cancer with all its putative intuitive, watery resonances. For a long time pre-COVID-19, I’d foregone driving to the beach and sinking into the warm Gulf Coast waters because I couldn’t trust that the water wouldn’t infect somehow, wouldn’t meld into a small, open nick somewhere, festering and ultimately eating me alive. Too many horror stories of flesh-eating bacteria abounded in the news. Oh, to submerge myself in some saltwater now.

People’s perceptions of someone “from the islands” not knowing how to swim, are fascinating and strange. I’m countering stereotypes on two fronts: blackness and Caribbean; not that others’ assumptions should matter that much, but peeling away stereotype shows how systemic racism in the U.S. (including redlining and environmental racism) is one contributing factor, but also not every island is pocket-handkerchief-sized with the ocean mere footsteps away, as I’ve had to inform people — even another Caribbean (coughs: Bahamanian) person. The easy geographic access that so many folk presume is a given for a person from the Caribbean, isn’t always there.

In Trinidad, non-coastal living meant we drove well over 45 minutes to get to a beach which you needed a car or other vehicle for, and the mythos of being thrown into the ocean to learn the ways of water was unheard of to me. My father who grew up in landlocked Tunapuna can swim but my mother from Georgetown, Guyana, cannot swim. Mummy says we went to the beach loads and down de islands when my siblings and I were small, but I have no recollection and I grew into an adult unsure and unsavvy in the ocean. Schoolmates and I hiked from Lopinot to Blanchisseuse in primary school, and I of course, doused myself in the river which in hindsight was quite dangerous because I could hardly save myself if a strong pull came for me.

I knew, like one person with a swimming pool who was a family friend, then one other that I met at camp during July-August vacation. Her father was a doctor and being invited to her birthday pool lime as a teenager was one of the coolest events I’d experienced at that time. I couldn’t swim but still I went in, splashing about, drenching my plaits and playing Marco Polo with the others. I did attend a few swimming classes at the Y in Port of Spain when I was small, but I never continued, never acquired skills. During the hosting of an exchange student from Martinique, we frequently went with the program to a hotel pool around the Savannah and she tried to teach me to float, assuring me it was easy, but I was unable to master it, sinking anytime she removed her guiding palms.

One could also say that access to professional swimming lessons in many parts of the West Indies has an element of class privilege as well, honestly. But that doesn’t preclude West Indians from being water-people and enjoying river baths and sea excursions replete with food, music and drinks. West Indians being in and around water are never actual indicators of their swimming capabilities.

To counteract some of the aforementioned, plus realising that I need to be in water, added to the fact that I definitely miss out on stuff when I can’t get in (such as a friend’s birthday party sailing from Chaguaramas when nearly everyone jumps in the ocean, but not one to place trust in life jackets out in the deep, I remained, waving sheepishly from the bow) — consequently, I’ve been learning to swim for a few years now. Nowadays, I desperately miss the heated pool, the challenge of coordinating (sometimes with flailing) my body’s movements in weekly lessons. Life sometimes gets me anxious and harried and water helps to soothe that.

I miss the blue space: the expansive sky overhead, the water encasing my sun-soaked skin. And now I can easily float! Otter-like, titties thrust skyward. There is a natural spring next to the pool, beyond a fence that’s fed by the churning Hillsborough River, teeming with fish, dotted with herons, anhinga and turtles. Rarely, I’ve seen two manatees and once, a mid-sized alligator’s tail swishing through the surface. But all the city pools are closed due to the pandemic and there’s no telling when they will reopen. Besides touch starved, I water crave, wet-lipped for aquamarine blue to submerge myself under. I have to make do with baths, drawn hot and laden with Epsom and essential oil drops. Still, I am grateful to have a tub that I can clamber into and soak. It’s my one reprieve from the water that I miss so much.

In Trinidad Carnival, water mixes with mud or chocolate or blue or other coloured paint to aid in the transfiguration of skin and self; it is an integral ingredient in masking and unmasking, in being reborn anew during parties’ early morn drenching or J’ouvert mas. The advent of water fetes in the late 80s lead to a roster (both seasonal and throughout the year) including Watercolours, Wet Fete, Great Fete during Great Race, and Soaka (to name just a few) which use water and wetting as a signature aspect of the event. Over the years there have been harsh criticisms and letters in the papers decrying the wanton spraying of water — a precious commodity — in fetes. How wasteful, how slack. But if promoters paid for their gallons to unleash and cascade all around, said others, what difference did it make?

On an island where water tanks are a necessary requirement, did we flagrantly dispense it because we were surrounded by it? Because we are deeply acquainted with water’s bounty of renewal and healing? To go a wet fete to be stush, to preserve your hair or clothes or brand name shoes, is an exercise in futility. As the old adage goes: “yuh cyah play mas and fraid powder.” My first J’ouvert parties were in Florida, nuff water and paint but still, as a friend pointed out to me, not a real wet fete, not like one at home back in de day or currently. Having missed attending those of my teenage years, I didn’t have much else to compare to and none of the epic adventures of my friends’ classic wet fete tales.

Water, literal and metaphorical, is found in our music and mas. Peter Minshall’s magnificent and groundbreaking River. From André Tanker’s “River Come Down,” to Xtatik’s “Water Flowing,” to Iwer’s “Water,” to Sanelle Dempster’s “De River“– all classics. I grasped that Dempster was not referencing any actual river — one day years ago, this hit me like a tonne of concrete blocks — but I now see glaringly, an extensive sexual metaphor of juices surging, flowing, “running coming down”, like, well, a river. This outpouring is stirred by the directive to “paddle in, paddle out, push yuh paddle all about”, and “push it in, push it in, take it out.”

This year saw Patrice Roberts and Nessa Preppy’s earworm “Splash” paying homage to water and erotic juiciness with each observing, “wet gyal, what de man dem prefer / drip-drop when I wine and bubble / body wet like river, baby — splash.” In the video, both Patrice and Nessa, seen through a View-Master, look like soca-water-nymphs; all taut bodies and exquisite melanin, they writhe and frolic inside the pool. They are carefree, gorgeous, self-assured. All woman and water.  Woman is water and like they sing, “sweet, sweet juice.” The water — oh, the water — coupled with unbridled joyful vibes are everything my life needs right now.

Photo credit: trinbagoculture via Tumblr. “Coastal Drives, Trinidad and Tobago,” unnamed photographer. Used under a creative commons license.

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