Around the Christmas holidays, I was looking up videos on Youtube when I found one for “Trinidad Black Cake”. It was published by a cooking channel called “Tasty” and featured a recipe prepared by a first generation Trinidadian-American named Kwesi. Along with the instructions and ingredient measurements, which included a warning about the alcohol content, he tells the viewers a little about his family and how the making of the cake is an integral part of their Trini-style Christmas celebration. As he savoured the finished product, he said that it felt good to share his culture with the rest of the world. It was a really nice video; Trinbagonians viewing it from abroad would appreciate this visual “taste” of home. And there's “no doubt” that our country could use a little positive exposure for a change. But, as if the fates were listening, I recently came across another video on Youtube that featured Trinidad, only this time…the story it told was nothing to be proud of.
On January 31, “KelownaNow”, a news outlet for the city of Kelowna in Canada's British Columbia province, uploaded an interview with a local resident who described his harrowing experience during an “unexpected” stay in our country. Mr Brian Doubt, a Canadian citizen and proprietor of a business that sells military-themed items, stopped off in Trinidad on a brief layover on his return trip home after visiting Guyana. According to his account, he cleared immigration and was attempting to enter the departure area when several “inert” bullets, which had been fashioned into keychains, were discovered by airport authorities at the security checkpoint. Despite his attempts to explain their harmless nature, he was arrested and charged with possession of ammunition without a licence and attempting to board an aircraft with ammunition. He ended up spending a week at the Remand Yard prison before being released and was ordered to pay $5,000 (TT) in fines. For further details, please read the article on page A4 of the February 3 issue of the T&T Guardian, or you can look up the interview on Youtube.
There are no illusions about the deplorable conditions at our local prisons. But hearing it being described by a foreigner, especially one with the evolved sensibilities of the developed world, does make it something of an embarrassment. The Russian novelist and philosopher, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once noted that, “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” However, this isn't a column about reforming the prison system, nor is it a criticism of our slow and overwhelmed judicial process. My concern is how Mr Doubt's situation escalated so quickly and to such a serious extent. After all…here was a traveller simply trying to get to where he was going. And though caught with items deemed illegal under our laws, regardless of their inherent banality, there was no “mens rea” (Latin: guilty mind; legal concept: the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime). Let me be clear—I am not making excuses for him; ignorance of the law is not a viable defence. Furthermore, let's be honest, were the situation reversed, and a Trinidadian citizen was arrested in Canada for something he/she considered trivial—let's say, smuggling a bottle of highly-flammable puncheon rum to make black cake—the customs agents would have acted in accordance with their nation's laws, no questions asked. That being said, I'm wondering why our authorities didn't exercise some common sense in their dealings with Mr Doubt.
Trinbagonians know what's in store for them when interacting with civil servants or visiting public offices. Airports, however, are a different environment because they also service foreigners; to put it another way, it ends up being both the first and last impression a visitor to our country will have. It makes sense that airport staff—immigration, customs, security etc—should be mindful when interacting with travellers who may not understand our particular social proclivities. The incident involving Mr Doubt made me recall another disgruntled visitor who shared their grievances on Youtube. Kanwer Singh, whose nom de plume is “Humble The Poet”, is a Sikh Canadian lyrical artist and YouTube personality, visited Trinidad twice: in October 2015 and February 2016. Even though he enjoyed the trip itself, he said that he was hassled on both occasions by airport security during his departure. Because of his appearance, having a full beard and wearing a turban in accordance with Sikh religious practices, he suspects that he was being profiled, something he admits to being accustomed to. But he also alluded to a lack of professionalism by the officers who singled him out and conducted the search of his carry-on baggage. In the video, he sarcastically said that if he ever plans to visit again he will book a one-way ticket because the airport security seems to not want him to leave. I don't believe he has been back since.
I would postulate that videos like Kwesi's, despite its short length and simple content, market T&T in a unique way. They showcase aspects of our country in an honest, straightforward format that appeals to a new type of traveller looking for authentic experiences. But they are also a double-edged sword as well. Because negative videos, like Mr Doubt's, can do just as much damage as well. Our country already suffers from a reputation that lingers somewhere between deficit and detriment. The last thing we need is the narrative that T&T is a terrible place to visit. Mr Doubt's situation could have been easily rectified by confiscating the items, issuing him a firm but respectful verbal warning, and sending him on his way. Instead, as a result of his incarceration, he is putting out the message that Trinidad, once a wonderful place, is now rife with crime and corruption and preys on unwitting tourists. We shouldn't take for granted the weight that word of mouth carries and the far-reaching effects it could have. And the opinions of this “one Doubt” can quickly and easily turn into many.