The Colgate Scene
May 2005

Two sides to an island

Junior Vicky Lowe spends some quality time with three resident boys at the Cyril Ross Nursery in Tunapuna, Trinidad. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

The light shines on a skinny little girl not older than 2. Her short hair is in braids, but her medium brown skin looks to be of an Indian and African mix. She is too young to understand a game of musical chairs that is being played by the older children, so she wanders around the room, eventually walking over to me. I'm sinking into a soft couch. You can tell the springs have been put through too much use.

I befriend this little girl as she calmly sits in my lap until an older boy moves in and tries to push her out. I attempt to break up the fight and end up carrying her off to play. Without speaking, she points to where she wants me to carry her. I make up silly little games to play, picking her up, tipping her over, and letting her squeal and laugh with delight.

I am volunteering at Cyril Ross Nursery, located off the main highway in the village of Tunapuna, Trinidad. I've come here several times before with Eleonore, Malissa, and Vicky, three other Colgate students on the West Indies Study Group. Cyril Ross isn't much from the outside, just a small pink house with a pink metal gate. When Professor Kenneth Ramchand, our faculty supervisor, brought up volunteering at Cyril Ross, we had imagined a hospital-type environment with sick children who needed special care. But to the 30 or so children ranging from 1 to 14 years old who live at this makeshift orphanage, AIDS clinic, and school, it is their home. Cyril Ross is like the story of the little old woman who lived in a shoe. The "Mommy" nurses are like that woman with so many children everywhere that she didn't know what to do. Kids are running around, grabbing at our hands and hair, and yelling and screaming. They climb into our laps, put their arms around us like little Don Juans, and fight for a moment of our attention. They are bursting with energy; they don't seem sick at all. You would never think that these children are HIV positive.

It is hard to picture living a life being HIV positive -- or worse, living as an orphan because your parents died from the same disease that you now have. This is the reality that these small children must face. Discrimination against those with the virus pervades the society and Cyril Ross has become, in part, a school because the children were asked to leave other, government-sponsored schools. Parents were refusing to let their children sit in the same classroom with a child who has HIV.

The sadness isn't in their sickness, but in their desperation for affection. These kids are dying to be loved. Going there makes me forget about whatever has been going on in my life. I have never felt more needed by anyone. Holding that little girl, I can tell that at that moment I mean the world to her. Staring into her big, brown eyes set in her small frame, you realize how menial everything in your life is. Here is an orphan with an incurable virus that will one day probably kill her, but there is happiness in her face, so much happiness. This contradiction between the reality of her life and her joy in life is something I took away from living in Trinidad and Tobago; one's outlook on life sometimes has more bearing than the life itself.

Seven-year-old Andre (center) guards his place between rounds of musical chairs at the Cyril Ross Nursery. [Enlarge]
Many people don't know that these are the most southern of the Caribbean islands off the coast of Venezuela, or even that English is the native language. To others who are slightly more informed, the islands are a beautiful honeymoon destination with soft sand, blue water, and intense sun. There is so much natural beauty, with palm trees that spread out like fans, color-saturated flowers, and many different kinds of hummingbirds. Island life is slower, at least in comparison to the uptight, fast-paced world of the United States. The people don't worry about time; in fact, Trinis make it a sport to relax, have a drink, and not really worry about anything.

But step outside of the all-inclusive hotel, away from the predominantly white European and American tourists, and you get a fuller look at the country. As our dear taxi driver in Tobago told us, "Where there is good, there is bad," but the flip side must also be true. Where there is bad, there is good. Even with the AIDS epidemic that the children of Cyril Ross and so many people in the Caribbean must face, there is hope and the chance for happiness.

I didn't go to Trinidad to experience the beaches or stay out all night clubbing. I went to Trinidad to encounter a world outside of the "Colgate bubble," a different perspective in a culture unlike the one in which I grew up.

-- Laurie Chin, a junior peace studies major, spent the fall of 2004 on the West Indies Study Group, directed by Kenneth Ramchand, professor of English, emeritus, and sponsored by the Africana and Latin American studies program. Ramchand, a native of Trinidad, is a senator in the Trinidad and Tobago legislature. Students study the history, culture, literature, sociology, politics, and economics of the Caribbean region, taking classes at the University of the West Indies. Some, like Chin, also participate in community service.

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