T&T&T (Trinidad, Tobago, and Turtles) – Trinidad & Tobago

T&T&T (Trinidad, Tobago, and Turtles)

Trinidad & Tobago

Hiking in the Grafton Bird Sanctuary, Tobago
Hiking in the Grafton Bird Sanctuary, Tobago
It is difficult to decide whether this story belongs in the Caribbean or South American section of BootsnAll. Technically, Trinidad is the southernmost Caribbean island, but it is just seven miles from Venezuela and actually used to be part of the South American continent. And just as the filing of this story is rather random, so was our choice to visit Trinidad & Tobago. After an incredibly intense year of school we need a break, but resorts and cruises do not appeal to us, and simply lying on the beach drives us mad. I wrote an e-mail to my ex-boss, who is from Trinidad, and he described the country as a unique blend of nature and culture.

Without much thinking, we bought a pair of tickets. We didn’t have a chance to plan our trip because of exams, and we just barely had time to book a room in Tobago and Trinidad, to reserve a car on both islands, and to buy a guidebook for the country. As to planning when and where to go – we decided to figure that out on the spot. As a result, this turned out to be a spontaneous and surprisingly wonderful trip.

Our last exams of the semester, two days, and here we are in the airport. A day before the flight, we realized that we are going in the beginning of the rainy season, and the internet weather forecast predicted ten days of rain. I am in general an optimist and was hoping that it would be similar to the Amazon – a few minutes of a downpour and then sun again – but when we landed in Trinidad and saw the wall of tropical rain, my confidence was shaken. Visibility was negative, and the two hours that we were waiting for our connecting flight to Tobago, the rain did not let up. Luckily, as we landed on the island that Defoe head in mind when writing Robinson Crusoe, there was no more rain. After a few hours we were watching the sunset, and real clouds did not make another appearance until the day of our departure for New York.

That the weather delayed us in the airport was for the better; we started chatting with a Trinbagonian who gave us her phone number and promised to show us some of her favorite beautiful spots on the island. Indeed, there are beautiful spots in Tobago – the whole island is one beautiful spot in the ocean. If I tried to describe the scenery with words, it would be way too flowery and wouldn’t do justice to the island. Suffice it to say that as we were driving behind this woman on the fourth day, my wife and I both exclaimed, “Let’s buy a house here!” Now, for people who instead of money have huge student loans (with only a prospect of more studying and bigger debt) and who have never repeated a single trip to the same place, such an exclamation can be indicative only of temporary insanity, induced precisely by the indescribable beauty of Tobago.

But if we did have money, it would be hard to argue against owning property on Tobago. In contrast to other Caribbean islands, T&T is not of volcanic origin. As a consequence of just recently splitting off of South America, the rainforest on Tobago (the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere) and the Trinidadian jungle are full of not just birds but also mammals. The country is also lucky to be positioned below the hurricane belt. Most importantly, compared to others, T&T virtually sees no tourists. This isn’t accidental but is likely the result of huge oil reserves that make T&T the richest Caribbean nation. The lack of tourists means that just as the coral reefs surrounding Tobago, the culture and life of the locals are largely untouched.

For those who like adventure, the Trini roads are a huge plus. The issue isn’t the left-side driving – you get used to that quickly and only the only difficulty is showing a turn without activating the windshield wipers. Nor is the issue in the winding mountain serpentines with two-way traffic where barely one car can fit. The fun comes from the fact that the definition of a road in T&T is pretty much a contiguous network of potholes, with rare patches of asphalt. And when you find a truck coming at you on one of these roads, on the “wrong side” mind you, the only way not to die of a heart attack is just to continue driving with your eyes closed, hoping that the truck driver is a magician. We are both agnostics, but on these roads, we had a very strong urge to pray to someone.

I realize that relaxing on Tobago is not the same as living there. Still, because of the coconut-strewn beaches, the tastiest hand-picked mangoes we ever had, and the amazing views, being there felt unreal. Often, finding ourselves as the only animals in sight on the beach of some bay, we would be breathless from the surrounding beauty. I used to think that such views were the product of imagination of artists working for tour agency brochures. And while snorkeling together, squeezing each other’s hands at the sight of a school of fish dashing from one coral to another past us, I some times felt as if I was watching a movie about someone else.

On the fifth day, despite more than half of the vacation being in front of us, it was very hard to leave Tobago, and we were afraid that we devoted too little time to this island. After landing in Trinidad and after an hour of exhausting traffic to the capital, we finally made it to the home where the owner did little to help our transition from Tobago. Though she was extremely nice and hospitable, she managed to scare us so thoroughly that we almost went back to Tobago. She said that under no circumstances are we to drive on our own in Trinidad – shootouts and ransom kidnapping are rampant – and, “Why would you want to drive here? If you’ve seen Tobago, you’ve seen Trinidad, with the only difference that Tobago is prettier.”

Sunset at Blanchisseuse, Trinidad
Sunset at Blanchisseuse, Trinidad
In a sense, everything the hostess told us was true. In the last ten years, there has been a number of shootouts between drug gangs. The proximity to Venezuela and lax patrols have turned Trinidad into a transit point for drugs from Colombia. And in the past few years, kidnappings have become a popular business. Being the neighbor of Venezuela also means that there are no coral reefs around Trinidad – the volume of fresh water from Orinoco kills the reefs, and diving and snorkeling are only possible on Tobago.

Yet, we prefer to view things in a slightly different light. If you aren’t selling cocaine, the gang shootouts do not concern you. With respect to kidnapping, tourists are a waste of time – you don’t know where to request ransom, and from us in particular, the only thing you can get is the loan to the US government. The kidnappings are carried out on relatives of local tycoons, and overall, T&T is very safe for tourists. And while there are indeed no coral reefs next to Trinidad, the island has its own gems, and missing these in favor of Tobago is criminal.

Instead of colorful fish, Trinidad’s contrasts come from people – 40% are Indian, 40% African, 18% mixed, and the rest are mainly Chinese and Lebanese. Having lived in New York City for many years, I am still not sure that we have ever seen an offspring from an Indian and Chinese couple. As my ex-boss prophesized, “You will meet some of the strangest combinations and some of the most beautiful people anywhere.” And it it’s not just the people – the cuisines have mixed the same way. In San Francisco and Berkeley, it’s easy to find a good Indian or Ethiopian restaurant, but in Trinidad, you will find curry in African dishes and African spices in the Indian ones. We tried more unique and tasty concoctions in five days in Trinidad than in a whole month in Paris. As for the local roti, we became so addicted that we had pretty serious withdrawal symptoms upon return to the US. The only solution has been to find the Trinidadian roti shops in Brooklyn and Oakland.

The nature in Trinidad amazed us no less than the Tobagonian. And in addition, we had the incredible ability to experience days where in the morning we are hiking in the jungle, in the afternoon drinking British tea with scones at a monastery with radial views of almost the whole island, and then finishing off the day with a steel pan concert. You often meet Trini pannists in the subways of New York, but an orchestra of steel pans is a whole other story. When you hear a caprice of Paganinni or Hungarian dances of Brahms, it suddenly seems that the composers wrote their works exactly with steel pan in mind.

But we did not spend all our time according to the above schedule. In the middle of the visit, we dared to visit a two-kilometer beach on the opposite side of the island. I say “dared” because six hours of sheer horror on Trini roads are not a light undertaking. There must be a very good reason for such an act.

Upon our arrival at this beach, we were eagerly greeted by super-sadistic mosquitoes. We thought that we learned to ignore these in the Amazon, but the Trini mosquitoes turned out to be incredibly aggressive. We spent several hours of the afternoon under a net on the bed. Even this was of poor help since any accidental contact with the net was immediately punished with a series of bites. After a while, there weren’t many spots left on us for the mosquitoes to sample, not much blood left to drink, and so by the evening, we were finally able to disregard these monsters.

We got the permit for being on the beach after sunset, as this is a protected area that is in general off limits in the evening. And as soon as it got dark, just as in vampire tales, we began to see slowly emerging from the ocean, ancient dragons – leatherback turtles. In late spring and early summer, they leave the water to lay eggs in the sand. The length of such a turtle is between 1.5 and 2 meters, and they weigh between 400 and 1000 kilograms. The turtle spends two hours on the shore, laying around a hundred eggs. Even though the laying trance is about 10-15 minutes, the rest of the time is spent on digging of the egg chamber and about forty minutes in the end go to camouflage.

We didn’t sleep the whole night. Swinging in a hammock and smoking ganja, a local told us, “Why would I want a TV if I spend every evening watching these turtles?” It’s not hard to understand him; by three in the morning, the whole beach was sparkling with the moonlight, reflecting off of the backs of the leatherbacks. By the morning, several hundred turtles had laid eggs on the beach. A few times, we were lucky to spot the baby turtles, having burrowed their way through a meter of sand, clumsily making their way to the water, for the first time, in a long chain of 70-80 hatchlings. In spite of the dogs and vultures, most of these will make their way to the water, but on average, only one out of the hundred eggs will survive to become a mature turtle.

“Crying” leatherback turtle (secretions protect the eyes from the sun) in
egg-laying trance, Grand Riviere Beach, Trinidad
We had many plans for the next day, but we cancelled them after this night. It wasn’t because we were tired but because we needed time to process what we had seen. We both felt that it would be impossible to observe anything else that day. Even had we seen nothing else in T&T but the turtles, the trip would have been worth it.

After returning home and offloading the pictures onto the computer, we painfully sensed what a tiny fraction of the T&T experience these pictures convey. Of course, pictures never capture everything, but in this case, the feeling was much more acute. Most of the time we spent watching fish, and though I accidentally was underwater with the digital camera in a river in Bashkiria, I dared not repeat that in sea water. I don’t know how to take a picture of a steel pan symphony or the evening racket of parrots in the jungle I have no image of the sound of the waves in the night. A picture of a unique dish isn’t very tasty. The saddest of all is that I have no image the best aspect of T&T – interaction with its wonderful, open, hospitable people.

If you are planning to visit T&T, send me an e-mail at newyorklenny at yahoo dot com and I would be delighted to give some recommendations.