Oil birds and oil drums

Saturday, 10th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

This morning we revisited the market in Arima with its astonishing variety of vegetables. Today we discovered ocra or ladies fingers, cassava roots and yams and watched a cutlass wielding stallholder hack the tops off coconuts for the refreshment of customers happy to tilt back their heads and let the sweet water inside pour down their throats. Next time we will take a bottle and ask him to decant some for us.

Coconut man, Arima

We then drove to the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine on the outskirts of Port of Spain. Here David showed us where he spent several years working in the 1970s and we visited the library. It seems well appointed with large computer suites and complete back-runs of the major bibliographic tools. Hopefully they also have access to these online now. We were a bit taken aback to see instructions prominently displayed for self-preservation and evacuation in case of earthquakes. We'd not realised Trinidad was subject to them.

University of the West Indies, St. Augustin

For lunch we bought "doubles" from a stall at the entrance to the University grounds. Doubles are a couple of rounds of soft dough filled with dhal and chickpeas topped with a mild curry sauce. They were cheap and very tasty – if rather messy when we ate them later beneath a shady tree on the hill high above the town at the imposing abbey of St. Benedict. The site afforded views right across the plain towards the Caroni swamp with the Gulf of Paria beyond. The abbey church had a colonial Hispanic feel and is quite recent. The air up there was wonderful with a gentle breeze to offset the sun's heat.

View from the Abbey Church, Port of Spain

Abbey of St. Benedict, Port of Spain

On our way back we were dropped off in Arima to use the internet while David returned up to Simla. On arriving he found poor Karl in a state of agitation. One of the huge trees by the doors into the garden had suddenly fallen down while Karl was nearby attending his butterflies. He could have been seriously injured and needed to spend the rest of the afternoon lying down recovering from the shock with several Carib beers!

Meanwhile, back in Arima we enjoyed the air-conditioned internet shop for a couple of hours. We've discovered even the computers here go in for the national pastime of liming and work just as fast as is absolutely necessary and no more!

Street scene in Arima

Returning to the heat and noise of the crowded streets on a Saturday evening we sought out the maxi-taxis travelling to Port of Spain as we will be without any transport again tomorrow. A helpful young man wearing not a lot but a rather nice, clean bath towel to hold up his dreadlocks explained how the buses worked and where to go for them. We thanked him and he gave a cheery smile and told us we were welcome. Later we saw him collecting empty bottles from street bins to return and get money on them. He explained he lived on the street, sleeping there overnight. He was definitely not begging and it was a matter of fact statement. He accepted it and got on with earning what money he could without actually having to work! Employment doesn't seem to be a problem. There are jobs advertised at the entrances to many shops, though some are only for wrappers at the counter. (We assume it's packing rather than dancing.) However, we have been asked several times for dollars today but not at all aggressively. A lady overhearing me being asked for money turned on the young man with "Hey you, go take a walk!" and he did. Someone else warned us to take care and not to go down side-roads alone as it was getting dark. The greatest risk we run is of going deaf from the volume of noise everywhere in Arima. Most shops have ghetto blasters fixed to their entrance doors blasting out pirated cds on maximum volume all day. It's the noisiest place we have ever visited.

We have finally managed to borrow a mobile from Mike up here at the centre and have made contact with Nisha's parents who live in Couva. We will go to visit them next Wednesday. (Nisha is from Trinidad and married Lucas, the nephew of our French friend Genevieve from Caen. We have known him since he was a small child. He and Nisha now live in Paris and Nisha has learned to speak French and cheerfully adapted to a way of life unbelievably different from here. She is almost more excited about our visit here than we are!)

Sunday, 11th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

We were dropped in Arima from where we took the maxi-taxi into Port of Spain. The route runs along the course of the disused railway and is reserved exclusively for public buses, taxis and official vehicles. All other vehicles and stopping taxis use the snarled up, congested main road. As the maxi-taxis, which carry around a dozen passengers, are all privately owned and the fare regulated, the faster the driver can reach Port of Spain the sooner he can return. The route therefore is something of a race track and the journey took just over 30 minutes for 5 Trinidad dollars (about 45p)

It being Sunday, the streets of Trinidad's capital were relatively calm. From the Catholic cathedral came the sounds of Sunday mass with a sermon, prayers and hymn singing. Further along our walk we discovered the Anglican cathedral, also crowded with worshippers, the service being broadcast over a tannoy system. Shortly after we heard the sound of voices raised in religious song and peeped into what we assume was a Baptist church. It was packed with people singing their hearts out, swaying to the music, walking around, slapping each other on the back and helping themselves from a water dispenser just inside the church door. Several ladies dressed in red wearing labels saying "usher", came to welcome us and invite us to take a seat. We explained that we'd been attracted by their wonderful singing and one of the ladies then hugged us with delight!

Catholic Cathedral, Port of Spain

Anglican Cathedral, Port of Spain

As we continued our walk we were approached by an elderly man in long shorts, baggy tee shirt and baseball cap. He was from yet another church we'd just passed and was anxious that we should come to no harm during the forthcoming carnival. He told to put our faith in God and warned us of the evils of drugs. He spoke of deaths of young boys in the Laventille area of the city at the hands of drug dealers and the Trinidadian Mafia. He told us he always left the carnival at 6pm, returned home and locked his door as it was at night the worst dangers happened. He said he'd always been a follower of Lord Kitchener, the calypso king, (as he said this, his whole body started to sway to an imaginary rhythm) but even for the calypso he'd not attend the carnival at night. He then joined his hands together and prayed we would have a safe time at the carnival! (Indeed, we saw a dirigible flying over the town, which is loaded with sophisticated cameras, recording street activity. There were posters up explaining it was for public security. We've also noticed a large police presence on the streets. They carry rifles and wear flak jackets, even in this heat!) As abruptly as our friend had appeared, he suddenly shook our hands, announced he was going back to his church and disappeared!

We were making our way towards the Savannah, the huge grassy area to the north of Port of Spain where the bands were rehearsing for the carnival. Dozens of steel bands had set themselves up under corrugated iron sheeting to give shelter from the brilliant sunshine and were busy going through their music. From a distance it was a cacophony of noise but with so much space to spread out on, we could listen to each band as we strolled between them, lingering longest at those placed near shady trees rather than in the open savannah. Impossible not to be excited by the vibrant rhythm of the drums and the loose-limbed swaying of the players. There were a few other white people gathered for the free concert but mainly the audience were friends and supporters of the bands. There were female and mixed bands and many also included children. The playing continued for most of the day and was obviously enjoyed by everyone – a granddad in a baseball cap dancing to the rhythm with his tiny granddaughter wearing a carnival scarf. We were each given a bright headscarf to show our support for the banning of cigarettes at the carnival.

Rehearsing for the Carnival, Port of Spain

Rehearsing for the Carnival, Port of Spain

Fun for everyone, Port of Spain

On their way to the Savannah, Port of Spain

Around the edge of the savannah are a few old colonial buildings in a style known locally as Gingerbread. Constructed mainly in wood they have a fretwork decoration and in their time were very attractive buildings. Now though they are nearly all sadly neglected, some even hiding behind barricades of rusty corrugated iron. Further along on the western side we saw the "magnificent seven" a series of elaborate buildings dating from 1904, largely built by plantation owners.

Gingerbread house, the Knowsley building, Port of Spain

One of the "Magnificent seven, Stollmeyer's Castle, inspired by Balmoral, Port of Spain

Angostura Bitters is perhaps Trinidad's most famous export, Port of Spain

Office of the Prime Minister, Port of Spain

We found a seat in the shade and bought a plastic cup filled with crushed ice and topped with fruit syrup from a street vendor. It was horrible! But it was wet and cold so Ian stoically struggled his way through his. They were popular with the locals though. A police car drew up and three hot uniformed police approached the vendor. Fortunately all they wanted were slushy ices to cool off.

Queuing for ices, Port of Spain

Next we visited the botanical gardens. Along with a couple of Americans who joined us later we spent two hours being guided around the large park (set up in 1818 by the British Governor Woodford) by a very knowledgeable guide. He explained the medicinal or culinary properties of almost every tree and plant in the grounds, many of which were indigenous but including species from Australia and Africa. In the grounds too, are buried the early British governors of Trinidad. It is questionable whether they really deserved the honour still paid to them by the Trinidadians as in their time slavery existed here.

Natural colour of Eucalyptus bark, Botanical gardens, Port of Spain

Formal gardens, Botanical gardens, Port of Spain

Chaconia, National tree of Trinidad,
Botanical gardens, Port of Spain

We had been on our feet in baking heat all day with nothing to eat or drink so we were exhausted as we made our way around the far side of the Savannah and back down into the town again, passing the smart, modern, national library of Trinidad on the way. Back in town we found a non-descript but air conditioned burger bar for some chilled water, a shared chicken burger and a seat! Unfortunately such mundane restaurants are the only places that combine all these requirements. Street food is authentic and good value but there are no public loos, nowhere to sit and it is searingly hot on the streets with deafening music blaring out on all sides. Even most of the bars, where you cannot buy food anyway, vibrate to the thumping crash of the stereo at the door.

National Library of Trinidad, Port of Spain

Sunburned and footweary we walked slowly back to the bus station and piled into an overfull maxi-taxi back to Arima. As already mentioned, these are privately owned and have individual touches. This one had a notice thanking passengers for their patronage and asked God to bless and keep safe each and every one of them. It also had a very loud stereo playing Soca music all the way back. (Soca is a sort of hybrid music combining elements of Soul and Calypso, hence the name.)

Back in Arima we rejoined David for the final few kilometres back up to Simla in the cool of the forest.

Monday, 12th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

It's not as hot here as we found it in central Europe last summer but we keep being told we should not do too much and cannot expect to function here at the same pace as in England. This is extremely frustrating as we will never be here again and want to do the very maximum we can during our stay. Unfortunately our companions are less active than us and already know the island, so are content to chat science and drink chilled beer all afternoon. We are in the difficult situation of having only one vehicle between us – they are very expensive to hire and none available anyway as it's carnival time. David needs the car to collect ants each morning and is then exhausted, needing to spend the afternoon recovering. We've been trying to plan our day to fit around David and to use public transport but we are reliant on him for a lift down to Arima before we even start. This morning David left us at the Asa Wright centre before going off on an ant foray. He didn't return until 1.30 by which time we'd walked most of the way back down to Simla. One of the guides at the centre told us we shouldn't walk along isolated forest roads on our own as it's not safe and we should phone for a taxi. Without a telephone at Simla and no mobile we don't really have any other option than walking. During the morning we accompanied some American bird-watching enthusiasts on a guided tour to visit a rare nesting colony of oil-birds in a cave down in the chasm of the river. We are now becoming quite knowledgeable about Trinidadian birds as well as ants, butterflies, plants, shrubs and trees. The oil-birds are curious in that they hunt by night although they are purely fruit eating. They also have a simple system of radar enabling them to negotiate their way in and out of their roosting cave and through the trees to the canopy where they seek their food. Their closest relative is apparently the nightjar. They are called oil-birds as the early Amerindians would hunt the fledglings, twice the size of the parent bird because of their rich diet, and render them down for their fat, to be used in cooking and lighting. (Those bird-watching enthusiasts following this, we did the trip especially because you told us to! Unfortunately we have no decent photos to make you envious as using flash would have disturbed them on their nests, constructed on ledges along the side of the chasm.) Once adult, the birds tend to migrate to Venezuela and learn Spanish - according to our guide.

Oil birds roosting in their cave.
Taken from a photo seen in the Asa Wright Centre

We spent further time on our own exploring some of the nature trails around the centre. Apart from the abundance of exotic birds there were numerous very large heavy lizards stumbling their way through the undergrowth, and other, more agile and brightly coloured ones, glimpsed as they shot across clearings. As the morning progressed it became so hot we returned to the open balcony of the wooden, colonial house where, surrounded by brightly coloured birds, we sat in comfortable armchairs, sipping cold drinks and reading novels by the famed Trinidadian writer V.S.Naipaul.

All you ever wanted to know about oil birds
Busy Lizzies growing wild on a tree trunk in the forest, Asa Wright Centre

Butterfly at the Asa Wright Centre

Giant lizard in the forest, Asa Wright Centre

Palm Tanager, Asa Wright Centre

Undergrowth in the forest, Asa Wright Centre

Cocoa pod in the forest, Asa Wright Centre

Terrace at the Asa Wright Centre

Back at Simla David and Karl collapsed exhausted from their expedition into the Arena forest with nets, shovels and margarine tubs. We at last had our first chance to use the car. Unfortunately it was almost out of fuel so we were obliged to drive all the way down into Arima to refill it. By that time there was insufficient time to do anything more than drive up towards the north coast through the forest. We never reached the sea as it would be dark long before we could have returned home along dark, badly metalled forest roads with frequent steep drops down to one side. As it was, night fell rather quickly, just as we negotiated the potholed track up to the house in the forest we call home. A generally frustrating day but at least we know how to handle a car with automatic transmission now.

Later we all drove down into Arima to buy chick pea doubles, sold on the street, for supper. The town was noisier than ever and heaving with people, roads had been blocked off and on every corner were steel bands busy practicing for the Arima carnival. Right across the country there will be frenzied, noisy chaos over the coming week.

Rehearsing for the carnival, Arima

Tuesday, 13th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

Today seems to have been the hottest day yet. We spent it down in Port of Spain where we have been on our feet most of the day and we are exhausted. Fortunately, although the heat in the streets is suffocating, most of the buildings have air conditioning so we spent time cooling off in the National Library's heritage collections and the museum. Both are devoted to the history and culture of Trinidad. Although the heritage library is smart and modern, the resources are all on closed access so we could not judge their extent. There are some microfilmed newspapers but the bulk are with the National Archives and the one microfilm reader was not working at the time of our visit. The collections serve an area and population roughly the size of Devon so are reasonably comparable with the West Country Studies library formerly managed by Ian. There was also a special exhibition on the Carnival and its history.

Heritage room, National Library of Trinidad

We have been surprised to see how security conscious the country is. At the locked gates of the school in Arima are uniformed guards and nobody is allowed to enter without an appointment. At the library in Port of Spain our bags were taken and locked away, we had to explain why we wanted to enter and sign the visitors' book. A notice warned that nobody could take into the heritage library more than six sheets of paper and a pencil. Later, at the museum, a uniformed guard was on the entrance desk. They were all friendly but it is rather worrying that they are thought to be necessary.

For lunch we found an unostentatious vegetarian restaurant and take-away frequented by local office workers. A lovely lass with a bright red headscarf tied over her braided hair served us from hot trays behind the counter. We could have roti. No other choice was available. That was fine. Our plates were filled with a selection of lightly curried vegetable dishes – mango and pumpkin with chick peas, green beans, curried potatoes and dhal or lentils. These were served with a roti – a dark brown flat bread served hot with crushed chick peas inside, used for mopping the sauce from the vegetables. With this we had freshly crushed grape juice with loads of ice. The bill was 47 TT dollars, (about £2 each). Incidentally, all eating places in Trinidad are unostentatious. Generally they are not good at all, very ugly and usually Chinese, pizza parlours or KFC. Local cuisine isn't really served, except from stalls on the streets. It has been one of the disappointments of our visit.

Next we visited the museum. On the way we passed the same church where we stopped to talk on Sunday. Our "friend" recognised us and came to chat again. This time though he asked if we would give him a few dollars as he was suffering from leukaemia and hadn't eaten much recently. He says he's a rare blood group and there are difficulties getting a match for the three monthly transfusions he needs as people are so wrapped up with the carnival they are not turning up to donate blood. He's had seven transfusions so far, paid for by his church, and he has to report there daily to see if a match has been found for him. He also said nobody over fifty is allowed to donate blood. There is no way we know whether what he says is true but he looked frail and unwell so we weren't going to refuse him and he seemed quite happy with the little we gave.

The museum was cool but with nowhere to sit, and we were exhausted, hot and sticky. A wash in the "bathroom" as they call it here – wish it really did have a bath – improved things and when we found a free iced water dispenser on the staircase our cup of joy overflowed! The museum collections covered all aspects of Trinidadian life but it all seemed quaintly dated with faded photos of cocoa and cane sugar plantations, workers and owners. There was an art gallery of works by native artists, a natural history gallery of the flora and fauna of the rain forests and savannas of the country, a gallery depicting the origins of West Indian music and the development of steel drums. It seems when the British ruled here they banned people from using drums and gradually alternative instruments were produced and refined so that a different musical genre developed. There was a temporary exhibition in the process of being set up but we were allowed to look anyway. It is devoted to the Carnival with hundreds of photos from previous years and dozens of extravagant costumes, some so elaborate they need wheels to enable them to be worn in the parade around the streets. One of the photos amused us. There are no racial taboos here concerning skin colour and Black and White Minstrels seem to be part of carnival life. Here though, they paint white on their black faces just as we used, in the bad old days, to paint black on our white faces.

In a park opposite the museum, in the full glare of the afternoon sun, children were practicing their marching skills, presumably for the carnival. Walking slowly back across the town towards the bus station we explored a shopping arcade in an old colonial style building. Inside it was very modern with an escalator, smart clothes shops, internet access and a couple of quite nice cafes. We bought a small packet of Trinidadian digestive biscuits simply because they were called "Devon". We told the lady at the counter we came from Devon and gave her a spare bar of chocolate we'd bought in Exeter called "Trinidad" which caused us all considerable amusement!
Left right, left right, Port of Spain

A genuine Trini manhole cover! Port of Spain

Typical houses, Port of Spain

The Red House, seat of Parliament, Port of Spain

Back at the maxi-taxi terminal we discovered it was rush hour and the place packed solid with commuters, all of whom seemed to live in Arima. Taxi's only take around a dozen people and several were arriving every minute. Order was maintained by uniformed traffic police though generally everyone was good natured and considerate. We asked if there was a queuing system which made everyone around us laugh. It was explained you just get into whichever one you can, whenever you can. So although we always seemed at the front until a vehicle arrived, we immediately found ourselves at the back until it was full, when we were once again at the front. Strange that! When we finally did get on it crawled all the way to Arima even on the priority bus route. It was completely congested. However, thanks to the tannoy in the bus and the driver's personal taste in music, we are now initiated into "Chutney", a style of West Indian music previously unknown to us. We finally reached Arima thirty minutes after the time we'd arranged to meet David to buy supper and get a lift back up to Simla. Happily for us he was still there.

This evening excitement was caused when we discovered a spider in the toilet. It turned out not to be a tarantula but similar in size. Mike also discovered he was sharing his evening shower with a scorpion!
Safely containerised!