PORT OF SPAIN – It is 9.30 on Sunday night, and somehow they still haven’t run out of the charcoal or toasted coconut and ash ice cream flavours.
Charcoal, the sleeper hit of the day, is a frosty confection dark as night but with a flavour as bright and cheery as the crisp Trinidadian sunlight. The lines at Mama’s ice cream stall are long but patient.
Over at the Guadeloupe stall in the food court, they’re fresh out of lemon chicken, a French Antilles fried staple now the delicacy of the night, best served with profoundly seasoned rice.
People navigate the thick forest of families and friends, taking selfies with familiar backgrounds in strange places. The clock tower of Bridgetown’s Parliament buildings is brightly lit but cut down to human height. In plain view is the Independence Arch but oddly enough, so too is the ornate green clock and fountain of the Circus, the icon of Basseterre, St Kitts. To the southwest is the brightly lit facade of St John’s Cathedral, Antigua.
And through the portals of Stabroek Market, buzzing people disappear, to find crafty and ingenious vendors selling everything from concrete clocks to multicoloured leather bags.
But this is not Georgetown’s famed market, nor Basseterre, St John’s and Bridgetown but the Streets of The Caribbean, a collection of shopping and activity arcades behind one-dimensional replicas of iconic Caribbean structures.
Here, the whole Caribbean is assembled in one space. For one week only, all o’ we is one.
Only CARIFESTA Grand Market can achieve this perfect, harmonious unity in a region fractured by factions, prejudice, parochial politics and languages.
It is in ‘Stabroek’ that two cheerful Barbadian women in lime green polos are swarmed by the curious and the conscious, eager to get not only skin-care tips but beauty products that promise to leave them with kinder, gentler skin.
It is a half-hour’s flight and three-quarters of an hour by road to cosmetologist Liena Babb, 40, but a wondrous world away from her Bank Hall salon, Lieshua’s Beauty Studio. There, she crafts her own line of soaps, lotions and potions made from natural ingredients – neem, aloe vera, turmeric, ginger, moringa, more – now laid out smartly on a white-clothed table. But here, she also dispenses advice to world-weary, skin-wary customers from across Trinidad and the rest of the region.
Best friend Tania White, with 15 years’ banking experience under her belt, was determined not to leave Babb – “chief cook and bottlewasher” – to come alone to manage the unusually-coloured currency and market to the multicoloured traffic of would-be customers passing by her pop-up store. Tania’s self-announced position: “Sales”.
And those “really, really, really good” sales on this first full night of the Grand Market have already beaten expectations. Frankly, they admit, they had none when they set off for Port of Spain as part of the Barbadian contingent to the cultural biennale.
“This is not even half of my product line,” says Babb of her brand Lieshua, the result of blending her name with her son Joshua’s. The products also include the Mantion range of products for men, including beard oil and manly scented soaps.
“We thought that most of the people would have just want to have an idea of what was in [a soap], where we came up with the idea,” says White. “But our Mango with Pomegranate is amazing as a bestseller locally and here.
“They’re also in love with our Orange Cranberry, Oats and Honey…
“The Turmeric,” chimes in Babb.
White finishes her best friend’s sentence. “They love the turmeric (soap)… the Neem and Aloe, the Charcoal and they love the men’s line, too.”
Culture Minister John King, leader of the Bajan delegation to this 14th edition of CARIFESTA, had already come through and visited the booth, leaving with the Mantion men’s soap, with its citrus and musky varieties, and soaps pairing hibiscus flower with vanilla, orange with cranberry. The duo insists on telling me he paid for his items. “He’s our biggest investor,” White says proudly.
It’s the biggest stage yet for Babb, who has already won the accolade of ‘Best Booth’ at the Girlfriend’s Expo back home.
She only spent a day at the troubled Bridgetown Market this Crop Over season, reaping greater success with the Friday outings at the Pelican Market that has seen a revival of fortunes at the Pelican Crafts Centre.
CARIFESTA, Babb says, has given her another chance to not only peddle her wares but also put her cosmetologist’s knowledge to work advising customers, many of whom come with cares about sensitive skin and experiences with harsh or ineffective store-bought lotions and potions.
She is keen, she says, not just to make a sale but help her client-of-the-moment find the right solution to their problem.
And in this regional event, she uses a word rarely if ever heard with such certainty by Barbadian entrepreneurs, let alone independent businesswomen. Acceptance.
Babb had more words for what CARIFESTA had done for her business in a day: “Knowledge. Communication. Interacting. Being able to explain my story is what attracted people to the product.”
White says that even those who didn’t buy remarked about the quality of the packaging and the presentation of the product display.
Says cosmetologist Babb: “I have had clients that would have had issues with dry scalp, dry skin, or psoriasis or acne.
“So what I would usually do is go home and mix up something for an individual.”
As time went on, customers would urge: “Why you don’t just make this stuff and sell it? Because they realised it was working, they realised it was good so then I started to do my research… the neem plants, what turmeric does, what moringa does… specifically natural stuff.”
Armed by educational courses both locally and online, her formulations emerged, each targeting “a specific need”.
She explains that moisturising would require her cocoa or mango butter, neem for sensitive skin, and on and on she went creating new items that led ultimately to her full range of skincare products.
The duo’s next horizon seems to be to find a willing buyer to distribute their products, or perhaps even serve visitors at hotels – in Trinidad, some suggest to them. White senses buyers were around their booth; she could tell by the very specific questions these unidentified patrons asked.
Babb chuckles that she’s left half her product line at home in Bank Hall, including her entire range of nail products and other items she uses in her salon.
But she comes back to acceptance – the “overwhelming of how they accepted the product” as visitors to the booth embrace the products and the knowledge base that backs them up.
“So even they’re acknowledging that you know and you’re not just ‘wanna sell the product’; you’re addressing the need.”
It’s near closing time at 11, and cash and product still change hands at Lieshua’s Beauty Salon – Port of Spain popup branch. The currency is Trinidadian but the takers come from across 20 nations of the Caribbean Community and associate overseas territories.
For one week only, all o’ we is one. (BT)