Adventures of long trip across the planet (II)

SO from a pleasant stopover in Paris, a sinister pursuer from the Dominican Republic at the airport of hostile Venezuela to the shameless bribe-soliciting by immigrant staff of the South American country’s foremost point of entry, there we were in beautiful Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) — thinking we had finally arrived for the jamboree that is the Twenty20 cricket World Cup.

Enock Muchinjo

Due to pending general elections in the potentially volatile country, a lively twin island nation of one million and 300 000 people — homeland of the great Brian Lara and his footballer friend Dwight Yorke — Trinidad & Tobago was not part of the big party happening across the Caribbean.

T&T’s incumbent prime minister, Patrick Manning, was facing the sternest test of his authority since initially coming into office in 1991, his popularity waning due to widespread dissatisfaction over rising crime and corruption in the Caribbean’s wealthiest country.

Even the country’s vibrant Afro-Caribbean community, the traditional support base of Manning’s National People’s Movement (NPM) — a group of people slightly outnumbered by T&T’s population of Indian descent — had turned against the once admired leader.

Manning had his back against the wall, judging by the messages on street posters and inscriptions seen on the drive from Piarco International Airport in T&T’s capital city Port-of-Spain.

“Patrick Manning Must Go, Patrick Manning Must Go!”
Back to the cricket, Zimbabwe’s team, which was our main interest, was based an hour-and-18 minute flight away in Guyana, where the African side would play its two Group B matches.

Despite a quick e-mail to the travel agency back in Harare upon settling in Port-of-Spain at night, notifying them of the great oversight that saw us stuck in cricket-less T&T, it was clear that we were not going to make it to Guyana in time for the first match against Sri Lanka.

This was incredibly disappointing because Zimbabwe — a team then beginning to show signs of recovery after the most difficult period in its history and now ably coached by Englishman Alan Butcher — gave its fans back home reason to believe before the tournament.

Prosper Utseya’s men had defeated both Australia and Pakistan in two pre-tournament warm-up matches in St Lucia.

Because of a big time-zone difference, reaction from the travel agency in Harare took several hours, and by the time we saw it — complete with an unadjusted travel itinerary and an apology — we were already watching Zimbabwe’s opener against the Sri Lankans on the large dining room television of our modest but comfortable lodgings somewhere on a corner of T&T’s gorgeous capital city.

Battling Zimbabwe were duly brought down to earth by Sri Lanka, losing the rain-affected match by 14 runs on the Duckworth-Lewis method after their innings was reduced to just five overs.

Out of resourcefulness, we however were able to file good copy back home to our respective stables, because Trinidad & Tobago is a great cricketing place. The election fever sweeping across the nation had not totally distracted T&T’s attention from the sporting fête taking place elsewhere in the West Indies.
Our scheduled arrival in rainforest Guyana was on the morning of Zimbabwe’s second pool game against New Zealand, aboard one of the little Caribbean Airline airplanes.

The early editions of T20’s World Cup were relatively short, because the tournament had fewer teams then. So it meant if Zimbabwe failed to produce a special performance to beat the Kiwis and give themselves the chance of progressing further in the tournament, it also meant a short tournament for the travelling press corps. We would have to return home on the original travel itinerary, which initially included just the group stage, though subject to adjustment if Zimbabwe qualified to the Super Eight phase.

We had arrived in T&T at night but now in daylight, on the drive to Piarco Airport, Port-of-Spain looked even more attractive.What also draws your attention is how this country celebrates it sports stars in their lifetime. Brian Lara, retired at that time, and Yorke, now coaching the Soca Warriors — T&T’s national football team — were still the leading sporting heroes of the country at the time.

Massive street billboards promoting tourism and advertising other services were graced by huge images of the country’s best current sportsmen, such as West Indies’ Trinidadian cricketer Ravi Rampaul.

One of these famous sporting stars, during that time, was Kenwyne Jones, the Sunderland striker once hailed as his country’s next biggest thing after former Manchester United star Yorke.

Ato Boldon, the four-time Olympic sprint medalist, already had a stadium named after him.We flew out of Port-of Spain early in the morning, carrying only our equipment and leaving behind the rest of our belongings in T&T, from where we would embark on the long trip back home.

Guyana is not an island. It is on South American’s North Atlantic coast, sandwiched between Venezuela and Suriname with giant Brazil propping it up from underneath. But Guyana is English speaking, in every respect part and parcel of West Indian culture. Its largest population groups, about 40% Indo-Guyanese and 29,3% black, share a common love for cricket.

But it is not anything like Trinidad & Tobago, evidently much poorer, but no less captivating.Cheddi Jagan International Airport is located in another town 41 kilometres out of the capital city, Georgetown. It is a typical small developing country’s airport, as basic as they come, its terminal perhaps only twice bigger than Harare’s Road Port bus terminus.

Whilst we went through airport procedures, the West Indies squad, neatly dressed in their tucked-in maroon golf T-shirts an tailored black trousers, also landed at Cheddi Jagan. Their Group D with England and Ireland was also to be based in Guyana for the first pool stage. You really feel the West Indies guys’ presence wherever they are, and they are well known across the cricketing world for the swag with which they move and carry themselves.

West Indies cricketers are the premier sports stars of the region, and as you would expect, they were promptly shepherded through customs, like the VIPs they are, and quickly left as they had arrived.

Our cabman from the airport was an easygoing young man, whose accent was even deeper it took quite some skill to pick up.The drive to Georgetown’s Providence Stadium was long, and we had decided to head straight to the match venue lest we lost more work time.

The highway got narrower as you got closer to the capital, and you could not help but notice the wet climate of the country, in the midst of construction sites on either side of the road.

One particular feature on the landscape as you drove further into the interior told you that you were well and truly in cricket country, but then a less affluent country compared to elsewhere in the cricketing world where the gentlemen’s game is revered.

I tried but lost count of the numerous cricket stadiums on the way, rundown and some almost abandoned, pavilion roofs falling over, concrete terraces and basically everything else around crying out for major refurbishment after many years of neglect.

I assumed these used to be the home grounds of many rival cricket clubs at the peak of the game in the Caribbean. If you considered that this was in Guyana alone, it gave you the idea why the West Indies was a dominant force back in the years, and then looking at the dilapidated facilities in 2010, why the team was now a pale shadow of its former self.

To the contrary, Providence Stadium is one of the better international venues in the entire region. When we arrived, Zimbabwe’s assistant coach, Stephen Mangongo, who was the first to recognise us, exchanged pleasantries and commiserated with our ordeal on the road.

In the media zone, we stumbled upon no less a doyen of world cricket than Sir Clive Lloyd, Guyana’s greatest sporting son. He was in the company of Trinidadian Ian Bishop, and both gladly granted snap interviews.

Another defeat, losing by seven runs to New Zealand, meant Zimbabwe was out of the competition and going back home. We covered the post-match press conferences, and remained behind in the press box to file a few stories back home.

Getting stuck into work before securing overnight accommodation in Georgetown was nearly a costly mistake (England and Ireland also played at the same venue after Zimbabwe’s loss to New Zealand).

Guyana was one of the places to be in the Caribbean that night after the two games, with all the night spots filled to the brim, and calypso music reverberating throughout the city. Never expect subdued merrymaking when England’s Barmy Army is in town!
Nearly all the hotels in central Georgetown — not a small city by Caribbean standards — were fully booked, including the budget backpackers.
Unable to intimately experience the post-matches fanfare, and with time fast running out to get somewhere to stay for the night, it got increasingly worrying because check-in for our short flight back to T&T, from where the long trip home would kick off, was 5am the following morning.

After crisscrossing Georgetown, with all its British colonial architecture, we finally found somewhere on the outskirts of the city where the cricket tourists had not invaded in full force. Though the area was mosquito-infested, the quiet hotel was just okay, safe and sufficiently comfortable for a few hours of sleep before our young friendly driver fetched us at around 4am for the 41-km trip to Cheddi Jagan International Airport.

On the road to the airport so early in the morning were a number of old commuter buses full of locals, most of them sleeping deeply on the trip and looking weary—on way to shifts mainly in the sugar, rice, timber and coconut producing industry.
“They work hard, these guys,” voluntarily commented our driver after noticing our curiosity. “They come from far!”
Back in T&T, which was to be our home before beginning the trip back home the following day, election campaigning was reaching fever pitch.
Prime Minister Manning was under serious pressure from the People’s Partnership coalition. The alliance was led by the United National Congress (UNC) party, led Kamla Persad-Bissessar, a woman of Indian origin who would succeed Manning as leader of the country after the coalition won a landslide majority in parliament.

Firmly behind Persad-Bissessar in the victorious coalition was Jack Warner, the controversial former vice-president of world football governing body Fifa, then a senior member of UNC, historically an Indian-dominated party.

During our leisurely taxi drive in Port-of-Spain, winding down after an eventful past few days, we listened to the car radio as the tough-talking Warner campaigned throughout the country to garner support for the coalition and his party boss Persad-Bissessar.
In his addresses, Warner relentlessly attacked Manning, promising servant leadership and a far better T&T if he and his coalition colleagues assumed power.
Our driver this time around, a polite Indo-Trinidad and supporter of Persad-Bissessar, was named Anthony Ali. We however found him rather stereotyping, especially with regards to the problems affecting his country, such as gun violence and drugs.

He blamed immigrants for the vices affecting T&T, particularly those from the poorer Caribbean nations. Gas and oil-rich T&T is a haven for over 110 000 illegal immigrants, with some coming from as far as India, Bangladesh, Filipino and Nigeria.

To illustrate his point, Ali gave the example of a notorious neighbourhood located within an extensive area of Port-of-Spain called Laventille. In Laventille, you find the infamous hot-spot for crime, named John-John, a place so ungovernable that police stations, according to Ali, close at 8pm because even the cops cannot guarantee their own safety during the night.

Violent rival gangs lurk around John-John all the time, and often innocent people are fatally caught in the crossfire whenever the terror groups clash.
Could we take a tour of John-John? We enquired rather jestingly. Of course not! We would probably not come out of there alive, came the chilling warning from our protective driver.

The closest and safest zone to see John-John, which is mostly situated on a hilltop, was the tourist-favourite bar and restaurant area at the bottom of the highland, from where you could sit back over a beer looking up, wondering just how precarious everyday life might be for the folk up there.

So on the last night of what had been the best destination of an action-packed trip, we sat there on the balcony of a charming little pub — viewing an unusual spectacle and savouring the best of the local brew — letting everything go but then not forgetting that we still had to clear the Venezuela hurdle again.
l This story is an extract from a forthcoming book on the history of black cricket in Zimbabwe.