32 Fahrenheit to 32 Centigrade

Thursday, 8th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebie Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

It was 4.30 in the morning yesterday when David collected us for the dark but uneventful drive to Heathrow. The temperature as we reached London was -3 degrees. Today we understand the M4 is blocked by snow so it is fortunate we left England just in time.

As we passed through security control our bottle of water was confiscated! We attempted to drink the contents on the spot as we particularly wanted to keep the container and only the water was considered a lethal weapon. However, 1.5 litres proved too much for us but once through controls, within sight of our abandoned bottle, we were able to buy a replacement at £1.50! Duh!! Furthermore, the duty-free in the departure lounge was selling gin in potentially dangerous glass bottles like it was going out of fashion!

The Caribbean is four hours behind the UK so it was still daylight as we landed briefly in Antigua around 6pm local time. As we approached across a ridge of hills the rest of the island seemed flat and sandy with tin roofed buildings, acres of sugar cane and rather a lot of swamp. Once many of the passengers had disembarked we continued to Trinidad, flying low over Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia.

Trinidad looked green as we approached from the north, the coast of Venezuela a few miles beyond. We flew in across the rain forest where we are now staying. A haze of orange covered whole areas of the forest and we have since discovered they are the flowers of the Immortelle tree, one of which is blossoming just beyond the porch where we have breakfasted this morning. In the harbour of Port of Spain, the island's capital, we saw huge cruise ships moored. Floating hotels waiting to take most of the rest of the passengers on our flight, for a luxury exploration of the Caribbean.

Immortelle Tree at the research centre

Not for us such indulgence! Soon we'd sorted out our car hire, filled our wallets with Trinidadian dollars (12 to the £) from the cash machine where our first problem was that Karl's card refuses to work, and were heading along the main route in the darkness out of the capital towards Arima, the nearest town to where we are staying. All hire cars here are automatic so I was only too glad to leave the driving to David who is familiar with then and knows the roads completely.

In Arima Ian and I were delegated to sort out supper and left in the busy street outside the take-away pizza place while David and Karl rushed around the supermarket buying tonic water and lemon to accompany their duty-free gin and breakfast essentials for this morning.

The research station stands isolated in the forest five miles north of Arima, along a badly metalled, steep, twisting road. It is riddled with potholes and heavily laden as we were with four adults and accompanying luggage, made for a very bumpy ride. A flood of light from a moth trap above us in the trees indicated we'd finally arrived. We were greeted by the rasping din of unseen cicadas and the flapping of a giant sized fruit bat skimming around our heads. On the wall a scarab, the size of a baby's fist, had been attracted to the moth trap.

Scarab beetle

The building is constructed entirely of huge planks of local hardwood and has existed here since 1895. The new roof is lofty, the bare wooden floors cool to walk on and without glass in the windows air circulates easily keeping us cool and comfortable. It is essentially a research station with no refinements. Fridges exist side by side for the kitchen and for keeping specimens. We learned pretty quickly which was which! Our room is simply furnished. We have a bed! It's too warm for anything but a sheet and there is an old, but functioning shower for general use across the corridor. It even has hot water though is hardly needed! The kitchen has cold water and the cooker is outside the building in an adjoining, open-sided lean-too. So far we've avoided using it. There are a couple of Postdoc' researchers from Nebraska also staying and we got to know each other at the table in the large communal room where we ate pizza and refreshed with gin and tonic.

Simla Tropical Research Centre

It had been a long day and we were all only too ready for a sound night's sleep as the night air drifted through the insect screen at the unglazed window and the screech of nocturnal creatures continued throughout the night.

This morning we woke to the sound of rain! This is supposed to be the dry season but we are told global warming is to blame. Personally we reckon it's our friend Rain again. He came with us all around Europe and has now followed us across the Atlantic in the aircraft's slip stream! So far temperatures have been very pleasant. Reputedly 29 degrees, but in the forest it is fresh and comfortable. As we ate breakfast by the open doors to the garden, with the rain teeming down and two humming birds that had somehow made their way into the house flying around in the rafters, pawpaw, mahogany, immortelle trees just feet away, it at last began to feel that we'd arrived in a land very different from anything encountered in Europe.

Flambeau butterfly in the garden

Trinidad lies about 10 degrees north of the Equator, on a similar latitude to Sri Lanka. So far though, it has been far cooler and fresher here than we found it in Sri Lanka. Trinidad is a smaller island and enjoys a pleasant coastal breeze from the Trade Winds and deep into the forest the canopy of leaves keeps the temperature fresh and cool.

Mid morning the rain disappeared and the sun burst forth, so we drove down the potholed track to the winding route down into Arima. The town is a hubbub of traffic, cheerful shouting and thumping music. Nowhere is more than two storeys high, frequently only one. Many shops have tin roofs and there are deep open drainage channels along the roadsides. A massive one way traffic system circuits the football stadium and open space in the town centre known as the Savanna. It is anything but a pretty town but with the sun shining and everyone wearing happy, cheerful faces it was impossible not to enjoy a stroll around the market, piled high with strange fruits, flowers, vegetables and fish. The cheerful stallholders were only too happy to explain to us what they were and how they should be used. Red sorrel flowers were on sale and we were told they make a refreshing infusion with spice and sugar. We took the easy option and bought a ready-made carton to try. The man on the fish stall explained each kind of fish, where they are caught and how to prepare them. Nobody pressed us to buy and everyone wished us a happy stay. A lady sat on a wall crocheting hats which were all for sale. Young men wore their dreadlocks tied onto the top of their heads, sometimes tucked into these brightly coloured hats. A hindu sadu slept on the pavement across a doorway. People just left him to it. There was noise, dust and traffic chaos but it felt wonderfully safe, laid-back and happy. Everyone was willing to chat but there was absolutely no pressure to buy. We passed a statue to Lord Kitchener, late king of Trinidadian calypso and greatly revered here. On his head a mocking bird had just landed.

In the vegetable market

Please do not disturb

We were on a mission to buy David his very own cutlass to hack down the jungle in his search for ants' nests. The hardware shop sold everything from chilled drinks and cut glass bowls to formaldehyde, lino and a choice of at least three different brands of cutlass. The one we selected was actually made in the UK but you'd be hard-pressed to find one to buy there. Here it is quite routine. The rest of the morning we wandered the streets and shops of the town with David clutching his cutlass, armed like a pirate of the Caribbean. Nobody seemed to care, Back home you'd end up in jail faster than you could say "machete", charged with carrying an offensive weapon. Nearby we found a hairdressers specialising in dread locks. I'm now seriously thinking of having my hair braided and maybe extended before we return home as it seems a suitably eccentric thing to do!

David selects his cutlass

While the men went shopping for pawpaws, limes, rum and other essentials of daily life I wandered along a side street looking at the tiny open fronted street cafes, little more than shacks, though spotlessly clean. They all served lunches but it was still early and the cafes empty. Seeing me reading a menu at the entrance the owner invited me in and explained all the dishes for sale, the different kinds of roti (sort of filled roll) he sold as well as cooked meals. Several places had cow heel soup on the menu of the day. I asked what it was and the man's wife explained it's made with cow heels (what a surprise) that it's all full of gristle but is good for you and makes you strong! They were a lovely couple, asking where I came from and how I'd got here. Really friendly and not the least expectation that I'd consider buying anything.

We returned to the tropical research centre for lunch before driving up to the Asa Wright centre, four miles up the valley from here, during the afternoon. On the way we stopped to gather fallen fruits by the forest wayside – wild grapefruits, nutmegs wrapped in their red strands of mace, green coconuts filled with milk, cocoa pods and coffee.

Nutmegs and mace

Cocoa trees with pods

The Nature Centre, like Simla is constructed entirely from tropical hardwoods. There the comparison ends for while the reaseach station is basic and run down, the Asa Wright centre caters lavishly for enthusiastic bird watchers and is beautifully constructed, furnished and managed to provide an excellent standard of accommodation. We joined the guests with glasses of iced grapefruit on the cool wooden veranda and watched as humming birds fed on nectar from the feeders just inches from where we sat. Below on the lawn, surrounded by bushes, the bird tables swarmed with the most beautiful Trinidadian birdlife in a plethora of brilliant, iridescent colours including the tiny purple-backed honey eater with it's bright yellow legs and the orapendula (yellow tail) with its hanging nests suspended from a nearby tree. As we watched the birds a three foot long lizard crossed the path and a couple of agoutis emerged from the bushes to feed on the fruit peelings that had falled from the bird table. Agoutis are related to guinea pigs and are the size of an average dog with long back legs and pink ears.

At the bird table, Asa Wright Centre

At the bird table, Asa Wright Centre

Humming bird feeding, Asa Wright Centre

Nests of the Orapendula, Asa Wright Centre

Huge lizard at Asa Wright Centre

Agouti, Asa Wright Centre

View down over the forest

Ian and I decided to walk the five miles back down the hill to Simla, accompanied by the staccato morse code sound of the cicadas, while David and Karl drove off ahead to set up their scientific equipment for catching moths and butterflies and preparing for the arrival of the first ants' nests. The walk took us ages as we stopped to examine the hundreds of new plants we discovered on the way – massive, tall bamboos with stems several inches in diameter, banana and plantain groves, acres of hillside covered in christophanes. (These are a kind of courgette exported to China and used to thicken jams and chutneys.) As we descended to Verdant Vale we passed a roadside shack, the recreational centre, where the brown-skinned young men of the village, wearing baggy pants and a huge mass of dreadlocks, gathered to drink a Carib beer together on the steps. Everyone waved across at us calling "hey Man" and we were almost tempted to join them. Every vehicle that passed us hooted and waved. We are quite bowled over by this friendly, open, attitude that asks for absolutely nothing in return.

Bromeliads and lianas in the rain forest

Bananas growing wild near the Simla Research Centre

By the time we'd climbed the track up to Simla and stopped to watch a trail of leafcutter ants, it was 6pm and dusk was falling. Karl had set up his moth trap for the evening and David had discovered the first of his ants' nests, a year old colony of the right size. As we sat in the garden drinking iced guava juice, eight Amazonian parrots flew overhead squawking to each other as they returned to roost. An electric vibration gradually began from somewhere above us in the forest, it was the croaking of thousands of toads. Later we discovered one as it waded its way across the grass. As with so many of the creatures here it was huge.

Young ants nest, Simla Research Centre

Giant toad, Simla Research Centre

In the evening we were joined by the two post-doc researchers and we all went down into town for supper at the Chinese restaurant. The meal was good, the staff very friendly, but it seemed strange to be served Chinese food by a chocolate brown Trini lady who called us all darlin's!

Friday, 9th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebie Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

We are beginning to know more than your average tourist to Trinidad about the reproductive habits of moths and the social structure of leaf-cutter ant colonies. This morning we found several butterflies along with the butter in the fridge. Apparently it calms them down, making them easier to handle, so Karl placed them in there for a few minutes, the fridge for specimens having been filled with Carib beers, gin and tonic water.

Torrents of rain this morning had destroyed most of the moths lured to the trap overnight and most of the rest had been eaten by birds. Leaving Karl to potter around with his butterfly net for the morning we accompanied David to the Arena forest in search of ants nests. Ian helped locate nests and learned how to weald a cutlass as he helped David dig-out the huge queen ant, eggs, some of the fungus garden and hundreds of worker ants. Sometimes, if the nest was more than a year old, there were large soldier ants, capable of drawing blood with their sharp pincers. This was obviously dangerous work, suited only to men, so having watched the first nest dug up and safely transferred to a margarine tub, I decided it was time to learn how to drive an automatic car and pottered off for a drive along the track through the trees. I soon got used to the car and stopped on the edge of the forest at a little village of tin roofed simple dwelling houses where goats and chickens scratched in the front yards or along the roadside. The village was busy with women and children. Several people were gathered with containers at the communal water tap and a wooden shack served as a general store and bar.

Leaf-cutter ants

Moving the ants to their temporary new home

After a couple of hours searching and digging, four nests had been successfully collected and the menfolk were soaked with rain and perspiration. With temperatures in the 30s David's mind was more on a cold drink than digging out further nests today. So we drove through to the far side of the forest towards St. Raphael with it's roadside rum shop. On the way, deep in the forest we found a whitewashed memorial church and a plaque commemorating the massacre of several Spanish priests by the Amerindians in 1699 following a dispute concerning the location of a proposed church.
Site of the Arena Massacre of 1699

On the edge of St. Raphael was David's regular refreshment stop at a shabby wayside bar where the drink is served in the bottle through an iron grill and the barstools are chained down to stop them disappearing. "Hello ant man, how you doing? You back again?" exclaimed the barman as we ordered our beers and joined several local men drinking white rum on the benches by the dusty roadside. One young man arrived, wearing only shorts and wellies, waving his cutlass in general greeting and reaching through the grill to help himself from the rum bottle despite the protestations of the cheerful barman that "he be stealin." Anyone walking into a bar in Britain like that would have the place empty in seconds but here it was accepted behaviour.

We returned to the research centre for lunch. Karl was ready to set up facilities for his butterflies to start laying eggs and David needed to open his ant boxes and allow the colonies to re-establish themselves after their traumatic move.

Desirable new residence (if you are an ant!) Simla Research Centre

So we left the scientists busy enjoying themselves all afternoon, and decided to walk down to the road in the hope of catching a route taxi into Arima. Once on the road we started walking hoping to wait in some shade. However, no minibus came and we continued walking for two miles before one overtook us. He refused to stop, shouting something out to us we couldn't understand. We've since discovered there is no scheduled service along that route but if there are empty seats on chartered buses drivers will usually stop. We were just unlucky. So we continued on, stopping to talk with a lady and her four gorgeous dark brown children with mops of black curly hair. She was horrified that we'd walked so far and assured us we'd never make it to Arima. Every vehicle that passed us waved and hooted but nobody thought to suggest we might like a lift. Then we met our fellow guests at the centre, the two post-doc researchers from Nebraska. They were returning by car from a muddy but happy day observing guppy fish in a nearby river and offered to drive us down into Arima. By this time though it had become a matter of pride for us to walk the whole way. A couple of miles further on we passed the cemetery on the outskirts of Arima where Lord Kitchener the calypso king is buried.

View over Arima

We were eager for some cool shade and a drink when we finally reached the town centre so returned to the friendly little café I discovered yesterday. The lady recognised me and served us large glasses of grapefruit with ice and turned on her electric fan to cool us off. She was fascinated with Ian, saying he looked just like her friend's husband Larry, he was white too! She even got her mother out from the back of the café to agree with her! Personally we reckon that as we are the only white people we've seen in Arima, it's probable that we all look the same to Trinis!

Refreshed we set out in search of internet access. Everywhere was full with queues waiting. Eventually we found the public library which had free but slow internet access and we at least had time to read our email. The library was air conditioned but the stock was limited and nothing had yet been computerised. It was very well used though with school children in their neat uniforms occupying many of the seats.

Hot air hit us as we emerged back into the street. A nearby electronic sign informed us it was 34 degrees at 6pm. This is winter here! We have to say though, that it feels much more comfortable than similar temperatures in Sri Lanka or central Europe last summer. We'd never have been able to walk five miles or more in such heat there as we've just done this afternoon!

The streets were chaotic this Friday evening. There were stalls selling cheap clothing, snacks, fast food and tatty bling. They lined every roadside and the entire town was out enjoying themselves. What they were actually doing, it would be hard to say. Sitting or standing around, chatting, listening to blaring music that must surely lead to hearing problems, drinking beers in open fronted shacks with dark interiors, or sitting in the endless traffic jams through all the main streets with their windows down and their stereos up. All this, in Trinidad, is known as liming – the art of doing nothing really well. They are world leaders in it here.

We'd arranged to meet David and Karl for supper in town. When they arrived we fought our way through the crowds to a different Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately eating out is not really a Trini custom outside Port of Spain which caters more for tourists, and there is no choice. By the time we leave here we will probably have done the rounds of all that Arima can offer several times!

We discovered our first non-European manhole cover, and the first we've seen anywhere in Trinidad! Normally there are just holes or gratings or open drains. As we stopped to photograph it a happy man rushed up to us, patting us on the backs and shaking our hands. Perhaps he thought we were from the local council sent to sort out the sewers!

US drain cover found in Arima

On our return we went to look at Karl's bugtrap laid out on the grass with a huge lamp overhead to attract the moths. Just below sat the fattest, wartiest toad we've ever seen. As soon as a moth came within range, it's tongue shot out, there was a gulp and a happy smile on the toad's face. Karl's face was less happy! We left him raking up courage to shift the toad. Five thousand miles to carry out research and it can all be ruined by a hungry amphibian!