Making new friends

Wednesday, 14th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

Here I am in the jungle with six men around and not a whiff of a rose for Valentine's Day from any of them! Indeed so intense has their conversation been concerning guppy fish, beetles, ants, butterflies, manhole covers and maps none of them even realised what day it was anyway!

Today David decided his back was too painful to drive down to Couva with us so he and Karl spent the day at Simla and we had the car to ourselves for an entire day!! We were visiting Nisha's mum and dad, Shirley and Nazir whom we'd never met but knew a lot about from Nisha. (I suppose meeting Shirley on Valentine's Day is rather a coincidence if you think about it.)

We left lots of time to arrive and decided to drive cross-country rather than down the motorway as it would be quieter and show us far more of the countryside. Our route took us through isolated dusty villages where children and dogs played in the road and young men in baggy trousers and long tee shirts lounged outside the rum shop. There are a surprising number of very heavy lorries to be encountered on these rural roads and they have really broken up the road surface so that it is pitted and potholed and in places has crumbled clean away. Navigating these lanes is a slow, jolting and very painful business. We passed fields where white cattle egrets scratched for insects. Large, ragged vultures hung in the sky overhead. In the distance the forested central mountain range showed clear against the unrelenting bright blue sky.

Northern Range seen from the Central Range

As we moved south west across the island the roadsides were filled with sugar cane and there is a processing factory on the edge of the town of Couva.

Sugar cane field near Couva

It took us a couple of hours to reach our destination and a little longer to locate our host's home as road signing is almost non-existent here. We found it by chance when Ian knocked at a house to ask directions only to be happily embraced when the door opened. Surprisingly we'd actually found the right house! On the front is a little shop where Shirley sells ice cold drinks and essential supplies to the neighbours and children taking part in sports activites on the savannah opposite the house.

Nazir and Shirley's house

We've spent a very happy day and had great kindness lavished upon us. Nazir discussed Trinidadian politics and the social difficulties the country is facing as we barbequed chicken in the shady garden where banana, coconut and mango trees flourish. Ironically, as David spent the day relaxing at Simla, Nazir complained to us about the countless ants' nests that infest his garden! He also warned us of the dangers of moving around alone in a country where people get kidnapped and even murdered just because they are white and assumed to have money. It all sounded very scary but as visitors, so far we have felt perfectly safe and everyone has been friendly. We will heed his advice however and be wary.

Cutting coconuts for coconut water

Shirley prepared a range of dishes to accompany the chicken and we ate in the cool of the house where a welcome breeze blew through the large open room designed to keep out the overpowering heat of the day. With our meal we drank fresh coconut water straight from the nuts gathered in the garden. Ian and Nazir drank theirs slightly laced with rum. Nazir has suggested we go stay with them for a few days while David is ant hunting, and he will show us parts of the island visitors don't usually see. Shirley has lent us her mobile phone so we can contact her or phone for taxis if we need them, and life suddenly seems a lot more manageable. We don't really want to spend another hot day in Port of Spain at the Carnival when the streets will be packed, the calypso tents suffocating, we will almost certainly be pestered being on our own and white in such crowds and it will be well nigh impossible to get a route-taxi back to Arima afterwards. So it is highly probable that if it doesn't inconvenience Karl and David, we will find a way to get down to Couva for a couple of days to spend in the friendliest possible company and go with our new friends to see the carnival at Couva instead.

The afternoon passed so quickly we realised it would be dark before we got back, so we took the motorway routes rather than the broken back lanes. The road surface on the motorways is fine but at rush hour it is completely snarled up. It took us three hours to get home, most of it in darkness. It's been a lovely day though and hopefully we'll have more like it soon.

Thursday, 15th February 2007, Simla.
William Beebie Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

This morning David wanted to search for Bachacs (leaf-cutter ants) up the Lopinot Valley. It runs along the far side of the ridge from the Arima Valley where we are staying but it's rather a long drive down and round. We accompanied him as far as the village of Lopinot leaving David and Karl to continue the few miles further to the dead end at the top of the valley.

The village is something of a showcase for Trinidad and considerable money has been spent improving both the road up to Lopinot and the village itself. There were a team of gardeners sweeping, cutting back along the roadsides and generally giving the village a cared for look. It developed during the 18th century as a cocoa plantation and was the last place in Trinidad to abandon slavery. The house of the original French plantation owner, Lopinot, is in process of restoration and has been for several years.

Plantation owner's house, Lopinot Valley

We have heard much grumbling from Trinidadians who complain of Government corruption. One claim is that the money for the restoration work on the house at Lopinot has been released but has been diverted along the way. This seems to be the case with many projects. Contractors are paid to carry out work and they then employ the cheapest labour and materials. There appears to be no control over quality and even if work is completed it is substandard and a few years later starts to disintegrate. Road works and buildings are two of the worst cases. Everyone tells us the country is awash with money and the government is dead set on turning it from a Third World country to a First World one by 2020. To this end it is undertaking massive building projects, encouraging commercial enterprises, building major highways etc, with cheap imported Chinese labour. This does little for the unemployment problem, the education system, the health service, rural isolation and deprivation and the general transport infrastructure. It causes indignation and racial tension amongst the electorate. The government is ethnically divided between members from African and Asian background and nepotism is rife. In reality the Rainbow Nation where races and creeds intermix and live harmoniously together is an over-simplification. The government is aware of public anger but ignores it.

The Lopinot Valley is rather isolated and there is a strong Spanish influence. We met a very nice, assertive lady happy to chat with us. She told us she was president of the village council and a school governor. She also managed a little café at the top of the village. Her brother gave guided walks around the area and talks on the ecology of the valley while she arranged accommodation and meals for those attending. She invited us into the shady café garden and over freshly squeezed orange juice explained she was from Spanish/Amerindian descent and was determined that the valley would retain its old traditions such as the Parang – the performance of Spanish Christmas songs with violins and maracas, rather like wassailing in England. She showed us some of the instruments used and then explained how she could make drinking chocolate from cocoa beans using a pestle and mortar. Once a week she taught the children of the Catholic primary school opposite the café to speak Spanish and traditional Spanish dances. She even showed us some photocopies made in England – presumably of Treasury papers - detailing every slave working on the cocoa plantation at the time of emancipation. It showed that the slave owner – a successor to the original Lopinot – took pains not to divide families, keeping children and parents together.

Maquette of Parang players, Lopinot Valley

Children at the village school, Lopinot Valley

Gardening lesson at the school, Lopinot Valley

Apart from the tombs of the Lopinot family in the village cemetery, there is still much evidence of the former plantation. Wild cocoa trees abound with cocoa pods lying by the roadside. As a result of our recent visit to the museum in Port of Spain we were able to recognise several old drying lofts. Once the beans are extracted from the pods they are left to ferment before being spread out on flat lofts to dry in the sun. There are sliding roofs on metal rails that can be moved across to shelter the beans when it rains.

In the village cemetery, Lopinot Valley

Original drying loft for cocoa beans, Lopinot Valley

By now it was time to rejoin David and Karl who had acquired only one more nest after toiling in the hot sun. We returned to Simla for lunch where we discovered a colony of nomadic army ants invading one of the outbuildings.

Army ants at Simla

In the afternoon David and Karl decided they wanted to attend a seminar on bugs at the University of the West Indies. As we had no transport to do anything else, we accompanied them to the campus and killed time sheltering from the heat in the air conditioned University Library. Later we drove up to the Monastery of St. Benedict on the hill where we were served Trinidad's answer to a Devon cream tea. A little black nun served us with pots of Ceylon tea, slices of cheese with salad and fruit sponge cake with honey as we sat on the covered terrace overlooking the garden with a cool breeze moving the hot air around.

Descending down into the dusty, untidy, ugly streets of Tunapuna on the main route between Port of Spain and Arima we stocked up on shopping before arriving at the home of David's English friend Alison where we had been invited for supper. The meal was delicious and gave us the opportunity to taste such typically local dishes as calaloo, plantain and corn pie. Alison's son – also an entomologist – and his Trinidadian wife were there, so while the men talked bugs, the ladies – and Ian – discussed local politics and Trinidadian literature.

Friday, 16th February 2007, Simla. William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad
We were allowed exclusive use of the car today as David went off with a researcher he met somewhere who is studying mosses and was prepared to help him dig up more ants nests. The toll of nests now equals fifteen so he's gradually getting there. Karl declined our offer to take him with us for a day on the north coast, preferring to remain in the shade of Simla and act as midwife to his tiny caterpillars as they climbed out of their egg cases.

So we took the steep, broken, twisting road, little more than a track really, up through the luxuriant forest that forms a dark tunnel that is delightfully cool. Lianas brushed the windscreen and occasionally, as our route curved and dipped we caught glimpses of the steaming leaf canopy across the valley after the early morning rain. Eventually we reached the ridge at 1,800 feet and started the decent on the far side towards the sea at La Blanchisseuse. At the speed we needed to drive to preserve our axle, it took a couple of hours to travel a mere 35 kilometres. We saw nothing but a few battered trucks and jeeps owned by people living in isolated hamlets of a few equally battered shacks. As we passed we noted satellite receivers on the corrugated tin roofs. However, the only source of water seemed to be from the waterfalls and streams where we saw several people filling their containers. (The only water supply we have here at Simla also comes from a stream higher in the forest.)

From the forest road

A house in the forest

Eventually we emerged on the north coast and it is indeed very lovely. Soft pale sand skirts a bay of clear, blue water. For a backdrop there are the green ridges of the northern forests and the beaches are fringed with shady palm trees. The village of Blanchisseuse does not have a great deal beyond a church, a club for the local fishermen, a couple of rum shops and a shack that serves as a vegetable stall and grocery store. Unless they are very extravagant, wealthy properties, most places in Trinidad look shabby and dilapidated and Blanchisseuse is no exception. Dogs and chickens clutter the roads or scratch, each in its own way, beneath the palm trees between the road and the beach.

The coast at Blanchisseuse

Forest right to the sea

We turned west and followed the badly maintained coast road to Las Cuevas, a beautiful beach for bathing and with very few visitors. You need to be determined to reach it and most people would approach it from Port of Spain. After we had strolled along the sand, shaded by rocks and palms, it suddenly started to rain as only the tropics can. We ran back and took shelter in a concrete shed without glass that acts as a café. Here we ate kingfish with salad and chips and looked out over the sea as the rain poured down outside. We'd planned on dining on "shark and bake", a Trini beach speciality, but "no bake today man, all you take kingfish and chips." So we did as we were told. (Incidentally, we don't always understand everything that is said to us, charming as it sounds. Compared with the perfect enunciation of our newscaster Trevor Macdonald, born in Tunapuna, this is a different language!)

Las Cuevas

Beach at Las Cuevas

As we watched, just off-shore, a dozen pelicans were fishing, flying up and down across the bay before suddenly closing their wings to dive like missiles straight down into the water, surfacing with the next course to their lunch. Overhead black vultures glided without effort, sometimes alighting in the palm trees or on cliff tops.

A curious bird is the pelican, its beak holds more than its belly can

Vulture on the north coast

The rain soon eased and the sun steamed everywhere dry in minutes. We continued along the coast to the more popular and busy beach of Maracas where we discovered there were several white, or rather red, people sunbathing amidst the local lads playing football and children skipping in the surf. The road leading out from Port of Spain is reasonable to this point so it is a popular trip out away from the dust and hassle of the city. Views along the coast from above La Vache Bay are quite stunning with thick tropical vegetation to the very edge of the sea.

The coast above La Vache Bay

North coast looking west, Venezuela in the distance

Maracas Bay

For our swim though, we decided to return to the more isolated beach of Las Cuevas. Even Ian has to admit that he enjoyed his first swim in the Caribbean! The water was pleasantly warm and the waves and breaking surf surprisingly powerful. It's an odd feeling though, being the only white people on the entire beach. We felt quite uncomfortable. Everyone around us was a wonderful shade of deep velvety chocolate while we resembled a particularly anaemic shade of vanilla ice-cream. People were friendly enough provided we accepted cries from limers of "Hey white man, how you doin' okay?"

Too soon it was time to start the long drive back through the forest after a really lovely day. There seemed more traffic on the track at this time in the afternoon so we were frequently edging past each other with drops down into unseen leafy depths in the jungle.

Returning to Simla

David's new friend joined us for supper after a successful day anting. He told us he is studying the reproductive system of moss in Trinidad for the next two years and treated us to a truly fascinating insight into the sex life of mosses. Apparently some species are beginning to turn hermaphrodite and his specific area of study is directed at the maintenance of sex in the liverwort!! Never a dull moment here!

Found on our car this morning

One of Karl's moths disguised as a leaf