Fire and Brimstone

Saturday 17th February 2007, Couva, Western Trinidad
This morning David dropped us at the airport where shortly after we were collected by Nazir and Shirley who are hosting us for a couple of days and showing us around this area of their country. Just before we left Simla there was high excitement. A lady guest at the Asa Wright Centre had accidentally stepped on a six foot long bushmaster snake (aka mapepire). She'd been bitten and rushed to hospital as this is one of the four species of dangerously poisonous snakes to be found in Trinidad. (There are also boa constrictors that hide in the huge bamboo trees that abound in the rain forest around Simla!) It was not thought that the bite was too serious and the snake had been killed by a guide with a cutlass. It was packed up in ice and brought down to Simla where the warden intended keeping it in the deep freeze for research purposes. As we left he called after us to say he'd prepare a barbeque for our return, which bit of the snake would we like to eat! We hope he was joking!

One very dead mapepire

Laid out, showing markings

It has been a lovely experience being in the company of Nazir and Shirley and they have completely spoilt us. Nazir drove us around the edge of Port of Spain which was holding the first day of its carnival. It was the day for the children and the parades we saw as we passed were very colourful. There was an amazing amount of noise involved!

We headed for the far north-west point of the country to the Chaguaramas National Park from where boats leave to travel down the islands that lie between the coast of Trinidad and Venezuela. We paddled in the sea and collected a few pieces of broken coral washed up on the beach. They lay in profusion looking very much like a weird collection of old bones and giant mammoths teeth!

Jill on the beach with Shirley and Nazir

Ian at Chaguaramas with Nazir and Shirley

View over Port of Spain from Lady Young Viewpoint

For lunch we drove to a modern, air conditioned shopping mall on the Long Circular Road. There really doesn't seem to be anything that parallels our idea of a restaurant or café. It's either roadside shacks with take-aways, pizza parlours, uninspiring Chinese shops, KFC or Subway. In the shopping mall however we found a pleasant if subterranean, air-conditioned place serving Creole food that was quite delicious. We even had it served on plates! Most places serve it in polystyrene boxes and give you a plastic fork even if you are eating on the premises! Of course there are never glasses or even straws with the bottles of drink you are served. We opted for cassava roots steamed in coconut milk and presented in a delicious yellow coconut sauce, served with shark, accompanied with calaloo and a bottle of chilled water. It was incredibly filling! Why Shirley found a huge box of iced American donuts irresistible after that we cannot understand! They are currently in the fridge here as nobody has yet felt hungry enough to eat them!

Shirley and Nazir run a local shop so our next stop was the cash and carry to restock on soft drinks. Such places are probably similar the world over but for us it was curious to wander around such a huge warehouse and notice that here it seems popular to purchase huge bags of frozen pigs tails and bottles of white rum. The wine section was practically untouched but at around £9 a bottle it's not surprising! We have simply given up on all alcohol except Carib beer since we have been in Trinidad.

On our way home we stopped to visit the Hindu temple at Waterloo on the west coast a little north of Couva. This area of the country has a high population of Indian origin whereas up around Arima it is primarily African. In this area, following the abolition of slavery, Indians were brought in on an indenture scheme to work the sugar plantations. The scheme amounted almost to slavery as the Indians were contracted for a certain number of years and replaced the slaves. The only difference was that they were not owned and at the end of their contract they could either have their fare paid to return to India, or be granted a plot of land of their own to remain in Trinidad. Most opted to stay. Shirley and Nazir are third generation descendants. Neither are particularly religious but while Shirley comes from a family of Hindus, Nazir comes from a Muslim background. Even at the time they married it was difficult as the Indian Trinidadians have tended to keep themselves to themselves rather than intermarrying with other religious sects or with the African population. Even within the Asian community marriage between religions was not acceptable in the past, though now there are no real taboos here in Trinidad.

Under British rule the Indians were discouraged from following their own religion. One of them was imprisoned and fined heavily for attempting to build a Hindu temple at Waterloo in the 1940s. On his release he declared that even if the British owned the land, they did not own the sea. He spent the next twenty years carrying stones on his bicycle to construct a little temple a few metres out into the sea. It was later destroyed by the sea, by which time the British had left and a government project helped to rebuild it. It is a very peaceful, pretty place, standing amidst mangroves, surrounded by a smooth sea reflecting the orange of the setting sun. There are fluttering prayer flags on long bamboo poles and brightly coloured statues surrounding the building, shrines to the different Gods – Shiva, Ganesh, Kali and Hanuman. Just on shore, near the temple, a smouldering fire was evidence of a funeral pyre earlier in the afternoon. Hindu cremations always take place near water. The following day the ashes would be taken and scattered on the sea.

Hindu temple in the sea, Waterloo

Shrine to the god Shiva, Waterloo

Hindu gods on the walls of the temple, Waterloo

Prayer flags in the sea, Waterloo

Sewdass Sadhu, who built the original temple, Waterloo

The temple with a funeral pyre in the foreground, Waterloo

We returned to Couva and all showered away the sticky heat of the day before struggling to find room for Shirley's roti with spiced pumpkin, sausage and eggs with onions. From the town the sound of carnival could be clearly heard so we set off to walk into town to see the fun. The house is very securely barred and everyone we meet seems frightened of theft and attack. Because of the shop this is an additional worry and there are internal bars at all the windows and iron grills outside every door. Shirley discovered a pane of glass had been removed during the afternoon and although the internal bars prevented entry, it worried them both greatly. Nazir used to work as a policeman and is only too aware of the high violent crime rates in Trinidad related to drugs and alcohol. They decided it would be unsafe to leave the house unattended so Shirley stayed while Nazir drove us down to the town. Once there the streets were packed and many people were very drunk indeed. The noise was seriously deafening, the car shaking with every thump of the base music blaring from the tannoy systems the length of the main street. Already, inside the car, we were attracting attention and we had absolutely no desire to get out. We would certainly have been pestered and deafened. Several people were too drunk or high on drugs to get out of the road and staggered around in our way. We got the flavour but were happy to return home and watch the finals of the steel pan bands live from Port of Spain on the TV. Around midnight we all went off to bed where we slept peacefully under our mosquito net.

Sunday 18th February 2007, Couva, Western Trinidad
In daylight we discovered the missing pane from the louvered window. It had been carefully removed and placed to one side. Naturally the confidence of our hosts had been shaken and they were reluctant to leave the house unattended to take us out for the day. Being Sunday their daughter Prudie and her husband Roger agreed to spend the day at the house. So we set off together down to the south of Trinidad, passing through the industrialised areas of oil refineries, steel works and cement factories as well as several small towns – California and Point de Pierre. None of the towns in Trinidad are particularly attractive to our eyes being frequently shabby and run down with large billboards, rubbish in the gutters, broken bottles and packs of emaciated dogs. They are also very noisy with blaring soca music and many of the male population liming on the streets with bottles of alcohol.

Crime is an increasing problem in Trinidad

Industrial landscape south of Couva

Our destination was the pitch lake at La Brea. As we skirted the coast we could see Venezuela on the horizon. As we reached the village of wooden houses, amongst the woods the road became really bumpy and distorted. This time there was a very valid reason. The whole village is constructed at the edge of the lake and the pitch bubbles up, twisting and moving the ground so that the houses are quite prone to move gradually down over the edge of the lake.

Pitch lake at La Brea

We'd jokingly said it would probably look like a giant sized car park, and at first appearance it was so. The lake is one of only two or three naturally occurring sources of asphalt in the World and Trinidadians refer to it as the eighth wonder of the world. They claim the asphalt was first successfully used by Sir Walter Raleigh to caulk his ships. The lake appears to be a subterranean mud volcano that throws up the pitch, a form of liquid coal. It rises to the surface and forms a thick crust resembling elephant hide which is permanently warm but can generally be walked on, except at certain points where it remains liquid and viscous and impossible to remove if it gets on your skin. People could walk onto the lake unaccompanied but we had a guide called Neil to show us around and we were glad we did. Recently someone accidentally stepped into the melted pitch and was sucked down, rather as with a quicksand. He was in fact rescued but spent weeks in hospital recovering from the damage the pitch had done to his skin and internal organs! The lake is estimated to be around 55 metres deep with enough pitch to last at least three hundred years. The surface is soft and yielding. We wouldn't want to stand too long in one place and poor Shirley was wearing heeled shoes which kept penetrating the surface causing spurts of gas and liquid to sizzle out. When it rains, water gets into fissures in the pitch and forms small craters where methane and hydrogen sulphate bubble through from below. People often choose to bathe there as a cure for skin complaints. Shirley has a persistent rash on her arm so happily coated it in yellow sulphur or brimstone and filled a water bottle with the green/yellow water to bring home to try washing with. Beside the lake stands a rather ugly factory where the pitch is taken, when scraped from the surface each day, to be refined into pure asphalt for exportation world wide. Around the edge of the lake grow pretty mauve, pink and white lotus flowers and trees bearing cashew fruits and nuts.

Sulphuric water gathers on the lake, La Brea

Shirley coats her rash with sulphur, La Brea

Peeling off the top asphalt layer, La Brea

Most of the world's asphalt is processed here! La Brea

Viscous pitch, La Brea

Cashew nuts growing around the lake, La Brea

We had intended to continue to a nearby mud volcano, but first Shirley rang home to check all was well. It has astonished us just how anxiously people here live and how nervous they are of crime and attack. The news was bad. Arsonists had ignited the grass in the field adjoining their home and the flames were fast spreading towards the house, fanned by the breezes that until now we have regarded as one of the redeeming features of the country, helping to mask the hot, humid climate. Prudie had rung the fire brigade who told her all vehicles and firemen were attending similar fires started elsewhere around Couva. Roger and Prudie were busy hosing the grass around the house in the hope of holding back the flames.

Nazir broke Trinidad's speed record all the way home. Quite something for a law abiding ex-policeman! As we arrived ash and smoke were blowing towards the house and there was a loud cracking from the fast approaching band of scarlet flames as they encroached across the field. Grass fires are probably not terribly intense but it really was a horrid experience to watch the flames drawing nearer every minute to the house and to be unable to do anything much about it. We moved flammable things from the garden and Nazir took over from Roger spraying water along the boundary of the garden. The fire was within feet of the lawn, crawling with long red tongues through the roots of the waving grass, when the firemen finally arrived with beaters. Wetting the grass had certainly helped and just as we really thought the flames would reach the house the fire was brought under control.

Roger tries to hold back the flames

Nazir takes over

Even Ian does his bit

Firemen arrive in the nick of time

Safe at last! Thirsty work for the firemen!

So fears about danger to property are not unfounded! How awful to live with so much anxiety and to feel it is impossible to ever leave your home completely unattended. It could have been far worse if Prudie and Roger had not been house sitting!

Everyone seemed to take it in their stride. Once the danger was over we all had a drink, including the firemen, and Shirley and Prudie set about cooking a wonderful meal as in the panic we'd all forgotten about eating during the day. We sat down to Creole chicken, red bean stew, rice, vegetables and salad. A magnificent meal!

In the evening we watched the Calypso finals of the Carnival and our hosts explained the political jibes or sexual implications behind the words. Without their guidance it would have been fairly meaningless to us but the music was pleasant enough anyway. Finally they televised some of the costumes live from Port of Spain. They were indeed lavish, costing thousands of dollars to produce and up to 30 ft wide by 20ft high! A glittering array of brightly coloured fabrics, sequins, feathers and glitter.

One of the costumes for the 2006 carnival
displayed at Piarco airport

Monday 19th February 2007, Couva, Western Trinidad
This morning we were woken at 4.30am by the start of the carnival. It opens with what is known as Jouvert or "dirty-mas." Generally it is an excuse to sling mud and paint at anyone who comes within range, play ear-splitting soca music over tannoys mounted on the backs of lorries that drive slowly around the town, dress up in fancy costumes and show off in front of a panel of judges who will choose a king and queen of the carnival according to the quality of the display. Shirley warned us that at this event, anything goes short of displaying your private bits and she was pretty well right! One entrant quite angered us when he appeared on the platform with a live cockerel tied to a string and danced frenziedly to the music, throwing the bird into the air and pulling it back on its string to rub it around his genitals, ensuring everyone knew he had an active cock. Crude, cruel, pointless and ugly. There were also several transvestites, one very much a "ladyboy" the other more like a pantomime dame wearing a bra and miner's helmet.

Celebrating Jouvert at 6am. Couva

Shirley and friends celebrating Jouvert, Couva

Cracking whips on the street during Jouvert, Couva

"Wining" we discovered is rolling your hips around and crushing them very tightly into those of your neighbour in the crowd. This is all done rhythmically to the pounding music and as most people were covered in mud and not wearing very much, was quite a spectacle for unaccustomed visitors like us! Many of the parade events were of a political nature mocking the police, the health service, the indecisions of the government and the general malaise and corruption throughout the country. Much we didn't understand, most seemed very badly expressed but some of the home-made banners were really rather clever.

Amongst the better displays were a crowd of people wearing skull masks and dressed in white. They all carried scythes and cutlasses. (Cardboard this time we were relieved to discover!) They represented jumbies or disturbed spirits that are eventually destroyed by other spirits representing Death. They carried banners claiming "4 whom the bell tolls." Of course it was all accompanied by the same winding up, fast loud music and the platform shook as the crowd joined them all on stage. This habit is part of the festival and known as "Jumping up". Other displays were far worse and it all degenerated into a noisy, muddy, chaotic shambles with everyone jumping up and down and waving beer bottles at 7am. The streets were filthy and there was a mass of broken glass but the entire town seemed to be thoroughly enjoying itself. For us though, it was all a bemusing chaos completely lacking in finesse.

Not particularly grim reapers, Couva

4 whom the bell tolls, celebrating Jouvert, Couva

Jumpin' up with D band, Couva

Well dressed Trini workman! Jouvert, Couva

Ladyboy in her best frock, Jouvert, Couva

Waving home-made political banners on the platform to pounding music is all part of the fun at Jouvert, Couva

We returned to the house for brunch and the noise continued the entire day. On the way home Shirley invited us to visit the pluckin' shop. She explained that live chickens are kept in a run and you select one. It is then pushed into a metal cone so its head sticks out the end. This is chopped off with a cutlass and the still kicking bird thrust into the plucking machine. Finally it is gutted and cut into pieces to take home. We declined the invitation!

Chickens and metal cone at the Pluckin' shop, Couva

In the garden we chopped down a sugar cane and cut up pieces to suck. Shirley and Nazir really like it but to me it was like sucking very sweet chewey wood. On the television we watched the main events happening in Port of Spain. The costumes looked quite spectacular but again, the only sound was of the same blaring soca tunes selected for the festival. Right across the country, in every town and village, similar parades and music were taking place. If friends in England had their windows open they could probably have heard it! It rained in torrents during the afternoon and we all took the opportunity for an afternoon sleep to be on good form for the evening performance known as "pretty mas."

Our hosts' home

Nazir peels the sugar cane

Shirley chops up sugar cane

Tropical rain shower with burnt field beyond

Around 7pm we returned to the filthy, wet town centre filled with paper plates, cups, bags, half eaten food, cans and bottles to watch the colourful, evening spectacular. People had been drinkin' and winin' all day and there were some drunken sights around but generally it was good natured and we felt quite comfortable despite being the only white people around. We found the noise, chaos and lack of style as awesome as the morning experience. Nazir used to have to control these events when he was a policeman so he didn't really enjoy it either, but Shirley was obviously very happy and having great fun. The first display we saw was a mixture of children and adults, each doing their own individual thing to the music, jumpin' up, winin', hip wriggling, running around the stage and doing heaven knows what. It's quite beyond us to describe or explain it. Dante's Inferno is the expression that comes to mind!

Pretty Mas, Couva

Next we were treated to the best event of the carnival. Stilt-walking jumbies! Huge characters strode down the street, white and ghostly with long flowing robes and skulls for faces. They danced amongst the crowd waving their long legs in all directions, swaying and writhing to the music as only people of African origin seem able to do. It was scary, clever and completely fascinating. If the music had been less painful we could have watched them for hours. Eventually, to our relief, our hosts took us home. It has certainly been an experience and hopefully our ears will eventually recover, but one thing is for sure – we'll be taking ear plugs should we ever attend another carnival in Trinidad!

Stilt-walking jumbies, Couva carnival

Stilt-walking jumbies, Couva carnival

Tuesday 20thth February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

This morning Nazir had already been out to buy everyone spicy doubles with chick peas and lentils, baiganees (aubergines in batter) and saheena (fried spinach pancakes) for breakfast. This is the local equivalent of our full English breakfast and set us up for the rest of the day!

Both Nazir and Shirley accompanied us back to the airport to be picked up by David and Karl. On the way we were taken to see the nearby sugar plantation and the original sugar factory, now abandoned. Nearby stands the imposing house of the original factory manager, set in beautiful parkland and now partly restored as a golf club for wealthy Trinidadians.

Approach to the disused sugar factory, Couva

Abandoned home of the factory manager, Couva

We saw roadside banners proclaiming sugar was the area's livelihood and condemning the government for ending subsidies for the industry after this year. Workers have been strongly resisting mechanised harvesting of the cane, insisting hand cutting ensured local jobs. Such methods are no longer economically viable so the new Tate and Lyle factory is also closing down and next year the fields will lie abandoned and the entire workforce on the land and in the factory will be without employment. It means the probable death of one of Trinidad's historic staple industries at a time when sugar prices are at a high because of its use to produce ethanol.

At the airport we said our farewells to Nazir and Shirley who have done so much to make our visit to Trinidad special, giving us an insight into the lives and customs of the ordinary people of the country. We enjoyed our visit enormously. Thank you both very much.