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Helping hands


Living & loving the Caribbean lifestyle, with James Fuller

Hospitality and a tradition of helping strangers are fine Caribbean characteristics but sometimes, even if the actions are well intentioned, those good intentions are lost on the recipients.

Many years ago, as an Englishman recently welcomed into a West Indian family, I spent an evening with a newly inherited aunt and uncle. West Indians love to educate newcomers, and my uncle saw before him an inviting blank canvas and a long evening ahead. Having covered topics ranging from Caribbean politics to shady family members worth avoiding, the mention of a potential purchase of a pair of jeans saw us veer off into high fashion.

“Nah, nah boy, yuh doh need to buy nuttin’ – ah hav’ clothes, real clothes,” proclaimed my uncle. “Ah doh need dem again. Come, come,” he said, beckoning me, his eyes narrowing to slits as a broad grin broke out across his face.

Before I knew it, I had become the star turn in an impromptu casting for Caribbean’s Next Top Model. My uncle evidently had some wardrobes to clear, and the hallway became a runway.

“Try dis… an’ dis, boy.”

A flurry of tight-fitting, crotch-defining garments were strewn around, but my eyes widened when the white jeans and white shoes came out. It was Alan Partridge meets 1970s West Indian discotheque.

“Yeah, dat lookin’ good, dat wot ah talkin’ bout.”

“Yes, it fit de bambam nice an all so,” offered my aunt as I felt a hand smooth the contours of my right butt-cheek and then cup it. At this point my eyes couldn’t get any wider.

Food is central to Caribbean culture. Just how central it is has also been a steep learning curve. One morning, when trying to leave my mother-in-law’s house, having been lead-lined with more helpings of roti and baigan choka than was good for me, a gentle lilting voice called me from behind.

“Walk wid some food nah.”

A hand of overripe fig from her yard had been fashioned into a vast banana bread, and it wanted using up.

“Come, come nah. Walk wid some food,” she repeated, offering a hunk big enough to sink a battleship. My sagging shoulders were met with fixed eyes. Is there a look in the world that says: ‘we can do this the hard way or the easy way’ quite like that of a West Indian matriarch? If there is, I’m yet to experience it.

If resistance was futile with relatives, so it has proved with complete strangers. The Caribbean man, it seems, is genetically incapable of passing a reversing car without taking charge. I’m no Lewis Hamilton, but I do feel that after 20 years of driving I can affect a passably proficient reversing manoeuvre from a front drive. I’m clearly very mistaken.

As soon as reverse is selected, a man will miraculously appear in the rearview mirror, barking commands like a drill sergeant, and waving arms with the authority of a New York traffic cop.

“Come, come, come!” he shouts.

“Turn hard nah, hard, hard,” he continues, pausing only to cuss passing drivers who fail to stop at his command.

It’s not that I necessarily mind the assistance, but the exasperated tones with which the instruction is delivered imply incompetence on a mammoth scale.

“Right, right, yuh good dere,” my self-appointed mentor will say finally, before – with a nod and a world-weary look suggesting that helping inept motorists is his life’s burden – he’s gone again.