It’s not every day that I wake up cursing.
Last week I took the ferry to Tobago. It wasn’t quite the Middle Passage or the sinking of the Titanic, but it was horrendous nonetheless.
Arriving early in the morning, we saw a queue of people slowly inching up the stairs towards the vessel, looking tense.
“Is this what it was like waiting for the Windrush?” I wondered. But these people were wearing flip-flops and baseball caps, not jackets and trilbies.
As we board, a group of people are screaming at another group.
We are disappointed all the good seats are taken and sit next to a man with “gold” rings on every finger and “gold” jewelry on every other conceivable part of his body. He is feeding his two-year-old daughter salted crisps, telling her to eat them one at a time.
A tense-looking woman is reading a book called The Morning After. The blurb on the back says: “His victims will take his secrets to the grave.” A cheery read, no doubt.
“Nice baby. Don’t take up that. Leave that. That’s garbage. Don’t start that. Daddy will clean you up when you finish,” says the gold-laden man.
At the food kiosk, the hot dogs are partially submerged in cloudy water. Hops are in abundance. The bacon is more rind than meat.
The baby grows restless as we sail down the islands. The dimpled water glistens. Four generations of one family, great-granddaughter to great-grandmother, cuddle up beneath blankets on the floor to sleep.
The swaying motion of the boat begins. I look around us at the various characters.
“These people will puke. I guarantee it,” I say.
Rounding the horn of Chaguaramas, the sea grows choppier. We fall into an extremely fitful sleep with our necks contorted against the glass. We wake with neck-ache approaching Scarborough, Tobago.
“There’s bits of sausage in the sink,” a woman says as she exits the bathrooms. We disembark.
Two days of serene relaxation later, it’s time to return.
The return is worse. On the way out we sailed on the T&T Express. Coming home it’s the T&T Spirit. Neither moniker is appropriate.
“This is an absolute disgrace,” I mutter, as we survey the Spirit. Every seat is coated in years of grime. Seat covers have been ripped off, revealing velcro strips, matted with fluff. We stalk the passenger deck looking for signs of civilisation, or at least cleanliness.
Rounding the corner we see passengers scattered in seats and the smell of stale vomit hits us. We backtrack and canter back to the non-sick-smelling area.
Unbelievably, the queue for the cafeteria stretches into the distance. The couple next to us have hot dogs, egg sandwiches and cups of coffee with straws in them.
The pervading smell is of damp carpet and cat litter.
“How has it gotten to this state?” my girlfriend asks, appalled.
“Probably from people being sick,” I reply.
I’ve never seen anything quite like this. It is reminiscent of the 1980s ferries that travelled back and forth across the English Channel, but much, much worse.
I’ve never seen this lack of sanitation outside of the Middle East. I’ve stayed in dirty, flea-ridden budget hotel rooms in Jordan and Syria but accepted it as part of the backpacking experience.
This is T&T, an oil-rich state in 2014.
Life jackets are shoved into plastic bags under seats. Port Police officers wear suicidal expressions. Weaves, almost plastic in appearance, are everywhere.
A fat man snores at deafening volumes, waking himself up intermittently. Another man wears a pro-drinking T-shirt which reads: “The liver is evil and must be punished.”
An eight-inch television monitor blackened with smudges, mounted upside-down on the ceiling, shows the safety video then an ad informing us that: “Drug trafficking is illegal...If a bag bursts inside you, you would be dead within two hours.”
The cartoon face of the drug mule contorts in agony.
The public address announcements tell us not to tamper with the safety equipment.
In some ways I hope the ferry will sink. Anything would be better than this.
I think of the portraits of Cadiz, Kamla and Carmona in the terminal, smiling down at us, and wonder if they have ever gone through this.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this column. Perhaps it’s cathartic. Perhaps it will help me come to terms with the ordeal.
Perhaps it’s simply a warning to other people never to take the ferry to Tobago under any circumstances whatsoever.
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