Village school in the rain forest

Tuesday 20thth February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad. (Continued from previous entry)

Once we'd met up with David and Karl we set off to explore the East Coast which we followed down from Matura to Mayaro. We purchased shark and bake, the traditional seaside meal of a cornbread roll filled with fried shark and salad topped with hot chilli sauce. Together with a beer it made a delicious lunch on the beach beneath coconut palms with the shallow white waves breaking on an empty sandy beach that stretched endlessly right down the east of the island.

Beach party for the elderly, East coast near Mayaro

Coconut trees along the beach, East coast near Mayaro

Empty windswept beach scene,
East coast near Mayaro

Off shore oil rigs, East coast near Mayaro

The afternoon was interspersed with squally showers and bright sunshine. There was a permanent warm wind that tossed and bent the thousands of coconut trees to be found here. As we splashed in the receding waves, dozens of little fish were left on the sand where they rapidly flipped their way back into the waves. These are anableps and have eyes with split lenses that enable them to see both above and below the water at the same time. Higher on the beach we collected pretty small flat sea urchins known locally as sand dollars. Unfortunately they turned out to be very fragile and most have now turned from dollars to pieces of eight!

Can't resist adding another one, East coast near Mayaro

Anableps in the receding waves, East coast near Mayaro

Sand dollars, shells, corals and other treasures
gathered from Trinidad's beaches

We were eager to see one of the very special sights of Trinidad, not known about, even to most people living here. High in the rain forest at Brigand Hill stands a lighthouse, set back from the sea on the easternmost point of Central Range to the north of Nariva Swamp. Here there are still a few red howler monkeys to be found in the wild. They are new world monkeys with prehensile tails and bright red coats. The area is difficult to approach and not normally open to the public. The lighthouse keeper remembered David from previous visits and permitted us to enter the site and climb the lighthouse steps. From here we had a spectacular view across the Nariva swamp - Trinidad's most inaccessible nature reserve and home to caiman, boas and even anacondas! Special permits are required to access the area. From the lighthouse we searched the tree canopy below us for ages before Ian spotted something red amongst the trees. It turned out to be a mother howler with a tiny baby she was feeding. Nearby we then saw a young one from an earlier birth. These three were however, all we saw. Nevertheless, there is a magic in seeing such creatures in their natural habitat and we were really fortunate to find them with so much forest to roam in. It is to be hoped the few remaining here will continue to live peacefully in the forest but it seems there is no law to protect them and they are being hunted to extinction because of the taste for bush meat.

View from Brigand Hill lighthouse over Nariva Swamp, East coast

Howler monkeys in the wild, East coast

Young howler monkey in the wild

There are two sides to a coin. We've shown you the lovely bits. However, the greater the natural beauty of a country, the more it seems to be abused by its population. Below is a photo the holiday brochures won't show but which we feel is, regrettably, an equally valid view of Trinidad. Just out of range of some of our pictures you can see countless eyesights like this.

Estuary of the Nariva river, East coast near Mayaro

Wednesday 21st February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

This morning we had the use of the car for a couple of hours while David and Karl were each occupied with their projects at Simla. Our map showed a village isolated high in the forest about fifteen miles from here so we set off to discover it. The route wound through the forest towards the north coast before branching off for ten miles along a broken road that led to nowhere beyond the village of Brasso Seco. On arriving we found several people washing clothes around the pump in the centre of the village and a formidable water buffalo tethered in the field beside the village bar.

Water buffalo, Brasso Seco

Nearby was the Roman Catholic church and as the door was open we looked inside. There was an Ash Wednesday service for the village school in progress and all the children peered around at us. We slipped quickly away but a teacher followed and invited us to return and listen to the service with them. The Principal of the school welcomed us from the altar and after the service the children sang a special hymn for the visitors. They all looked adorable, clean and smart in their blue and white uniforms with red hair ribbons for the girls. After they had filed out and walked up the village street back to school the two lady teachers invited us back to see the classroom. Even here, in this isolated mountain village there was a uniformed guard on the gate! We were taken into the airy classroom with its open sides and the children gathered around to talk to the strange white visitors. We explained we came from England, did they know where it was? There was much head shaking so we explained it took ten hours on the plane and it had been snowing when we left England wearing thick coats but we didn't need them now with all the warm sunshine they had here. Their teacher asked if anyone had ever seen snow. One young lass shot up her arm to say she's seen it on television! Another little girl was blind but here there is no special medical treatment or education for such children. Her teacher said since her parents had been persuaded to send her to school she had improved greatly and frequently answered questions correctly even though she had to remember everything she was taught and relied on other children to help her, leading her around the school and village. The school is one big room with four teachers, housed in temporary premises in the community centre while the school is being rebuilt. Children are grouped by age and the areas separated by blackboards. With sixty pupils the noise is rather loud and teaching conditions are not ideal.

Children in church on Ash Wednesday, Brasso Seco

Primary school classroom, Brasso Seco

The teachers themselves included two sisters and a brother. They lived with their mother in the house beside the school. They asked if we would visit their mother who would be very pleased to unexpectedly have someone to talk with during the day and would take care of us. One teacher put a monitor in charge of her class and took us over to her house and introduced us to her mother, a delightfully friendly lady in her seventies. Leaving us in her care, the teacher then returned to the school.

Our hostess immediately made us feel comfortable. Our heads were reeling at the way our visit had turned out. What we expected to be a pleasant time-filling interlude visiting a village had changed into a warm, friendly, wonderful experience giving us a deeper insight into life in rural Trinidad than any visitor could hope to experience. She showed us her wooden home, simply furnished, spotless, cool and comfortable. A cool terrace overlooked the lovely front garden filled with bougainvilleas in pinks, reds and oranges and there were citrus and coconut trees. Inside, the window openings were hung with pretty curtains but several lacked glass or indeed frames as they were unnecessary in such a warm climate. On the wall were several family photos showing the three teachers at the school next door as they grew up. Our hostess explained her husband had recently died but that she kept herself busy baking cakes and snacks for the children at the school and that she ran the school tuck shop. Her children lived at home, as did her 25 year old grandson who drove one of the maxi-taxis for the village and was their link with the outside world. She talked about the village and its history and how the mobile phone had completely changed the way village life had developed since a transmitter was placed above the village – unfortunately right next to the school and they had only since learned of the possible radiation risks to children of such masts. She sat us down and served us fresh grapefruit juice from her garden with slices of iced sponge cake topped with sugar crystals from a batch she'd just prepared for the schoolchildren! We talked so easily with her that it was a surprise to realise it was time to return to Simla. We left after exchanging kisses, clutching oranges and grapefruit from her garden she insisted on giving us as gifts! We feel so honoured that complete strangers could treat us with such charm and warmth for no other reason than that it is in their nature. A truly moving experience.

Our hostess and her grandson outside their home

We collected Karl on our way past Simla and went down to lunch in Arima where we joined people crowding into a restaurant serving roti and buss-up-shut for lunch. With guidance from the staff we ended up with rather nice lunches consisting of curry, chicken, potatoes in coconut sauce, mango chutney, green beans and warm, pancake-like bread. We returned to Simla mid-afternoon and David joined us for a trip to the Caroni swamp, an area of mangroves and overgrown waterways covering some sixty square kilometres, designated a nature reserve. We travelled on flat-bottomed barges through the dark shady channels between the massed dangling roots of the mangroves, frequently encrusted with oysters, while fiddler crabs, tree crabs and land crabs clambered around the trunks and branches.

Mangrove swamps, Caroni National Park

Looking up, just above our heads we saw a tree boa coiled around a branch, fast asleep. We searched unsuccessfully for spectacled caiman until eventually the swamp opened out into a lake where we were able to watch as the birds flew in to roost in the mangroves for the night. There were black cormorants, blue herons, white egrets and scarlet ibis. These last are the gem of the swamp and arrive at sunset in their thousands. They are quite large and really are a vivid scarlet. As they land to roost in the green leaves they look like bright blossoms on the trees. It is a magnificent sight. Too soon however, dusk turned to night and we were obliged to return as quickly as possible through the mangrove channels, our pilot scanning the nearby roots with a powerful torch in the hope of seeing a caiman. It was dark before we reached the landing stage.

Tree boa, Caroni National Park

Lake and Northern Range, Caroni National Park

Scarlet ibis returning to roost, Caroni National Park

Thursday 22nd February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

We had use of the car today so headed to the far north eastern tip of the country at Toca. The roads are in a parlous state so progress was slow as we twisted our way between potholes and oncoming vehicles doing likewise. We are very impressed with the friendly way Trinidadians drive. Okay, on the main highways you are sure to be overtaken on the hard shoulder and many of the vehicles are battle scarred, lacking headlamps and bumpers. Generally though, there is much give and take and everyone takes their time.

The road follows the coast right to the NE tip and then westwards towards Matelot where it peters out. Further along it starts again at Blanchisseuse but the only way between the two places is a two day hike on foot along the coast. Toco therefore is an isolated fishing village with a lighthouse and we wonder how the inhabitants cope with the practicalities of living so cut off from the rest of the country. The coast is something of a surprise. It is wild and rugged with the sea rolling in as huge white breakers that crash over rocks just off shore before surging onto the clean sandy beaches edged with dark green vegetation, palms and coconut trees. Such seas are not at all what one expects of a Caribbean island where the holiday paradise of Tobago with its calm waters and delicate coral reefs can be clearly seen just a few miles offshore. Several of the beaches along here are used by turtles which come ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand. We saw almost nobody on the beaches today and generally they were much cleaner than those we saw recently further down the east coast between Manzanilla and Mayaro. They were though, dangerous and quite unsuitable for swimming.

North east coast near Matura Point

North East Trinidad, with Tobago in the distance

Protecting the beaches where turtles lay their eggs

With nowhere open near the beaches to eat or drink we continued to Sans Souci before returning to Cumana where we discovered a new, cool and clean restaurant that answered all our needs providing us with cold drinks and the dish of the day – chicken, lentils and macaroni pie.

Convenient lunch spot with specific rules and an unusual address

Coast at Cumana Bay

A hot wait in the car while the cement set on the only bridge across the river

Further along we decided to try the tourist experience when we discovered a very smart spa and nature complex at Salybia. It reminded us of the Taj Exotica in Sri Lanka, being a wonderfully cool, luxuriously appointed complex with a shady terrace overlooking a bright blue pool with a bar at one end and waterfalls to each side. It was set in beautiful gardens leading down to the sandy bay with a vista of the turquoise Matura Bay stretching to Manzilla point. We relaxed in cane chairs on the veranda admiring the view while we were served coffee by a smart waiter who looked askance at the heap of dried sand falling from our feet over the polished wooden floor. Fortunately for us staff assumed we were resident guests and our hour of luxury cost us 17TT dollars - around £1.50.We decided against pushing our luck using the swimming pool - though nobody would have realised - and asked if we could pay to do so as outsiders. We were told we'd need day passes at £20 each but it would include drinks, meals, jacuzzi etc. It might have been good value if planned as a day out but not for an impromptu bathe.

View from the patio at the Salybia spa and leisure complex

It was 6pm by the time we returned to Simla to join the various researchers here for supper. David had been on a successful ant hunting foray with his liverwort sex therapist, and they were excitedly discussing the sighting of an ocelot at the nearby reservoir and wondering how to get closer to such rare Trinidadian wildlife. At this point Ian joined in the conversation naively suggesting that the best way to titillate an ocelot might be to oscillate its tit a lot, but as he wasn't a scientist he may be wrong!

Friday 23rd February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

At last there is a sufficient quota of ants safely gathered in. There seem to be far more nests than we expected, and collecting them has taken David almost the entire time of our visit. This has been rather frustrating for the rest of us as our only means of transport has been unavailable. Karl is less mobile than us and has spent far longer than he ever imagined "confined to barracks" here at the centre. At least for us it has been possible to be dropped off on bus routes as David goes off on a foray and we have been able to find our own way about. Thanks largely to Nazir and Shirley we have managed to have a very enjoyable and varied time. However, there have been a few problems with staying at Simla without our own transport or telephone as we like to discover how a country ticks and to be free to make our own plans. We've certainly enjoyed the unusual experience of living so close to nature though and it's cooler up here in the hills.

Today we all decided to spend the day together, enjoying the beauty of the north coast. Neither David nor Karl have ventured very far from Simla since we arrived and were keen to see the coastal scenery. The day has been enjoyable but the pace rather slower than we are accustomed to. Basically we visited most of the same places as last time and enjoyed another swim at Las Cuevas beach. There were no pelicans today and the sea seemed calmer until Ian got knocked down by a sudden large wave. As I stood laughing I was pulled under by a huge wave and carried way in to shore before being pulled way back out again. My head hit the bottom and I feared I'd never surface again! It was quite frightening.

National flag, Trinidad

Bourganvillia near Maracas Bay

Probably the only photo of us together in Trinidad! La Vache Bay

Trees stripped of leaves and wide track cleared by leaf-cutter ants, northern coastal road

David said he knew a good restaurant in Blanchisseuse with fantastic views. We were a bit disappointed as the rest of us fancied shark and bake and a beer on the beach. Things are not always as you remember them and unfortunately, although the view was indeed fantastic, we had to wait well over an hour for our meal to arrive and when it came it was not what we'd ordered. We suspect they had to go off in search of the fish as they'd not actually expected anyone to arrive for lunch today! There were some American diners there with us and we all shared their bag of plantain chips together as we waited with rumbling tums to be served! The service was slow and sulky, the portions small and served in relays. The bill, for Trinidad, was astronomical and we all felt very irritated and still hungry when we left.

We returned over the northern range along the broken twisting route through the rainforest. Seeing a bachac's nest near the roadside David decided he had room for an extra ant's nest in his luggage and stopped to excavate. Ian and I were longing for some exercise so left the car and walked on ahead up the road for a few miles before they caught up with us. It was extremely cool and pleasant walking under the thick canopy of trees but we are more wary now, looking carefully at the verges and up into the overhanging bamboo in case there are snakes around.

As we passed the Asa Wright Centre we turned in to watch the humming birds, motmots and mocking birds taking their evening feed. We pooled what meagre resources we still had after our lunch and scraped together enough for coffees all round. It is such an enjoyable experience sitting watching the sun set over the green-clad mountains with dazzling, iridescent birds feeding and gathering nectar almost within touching distance!

Humming bird feeding, Asa Wright Centre

Inches from us! See its tongue?

We learned too that the guest bitten by the Bushmaster snake recently is still in hospital and her liver has been affected. However, her blood is now starting to coagulate again which is a good sign and she should be well enough to be flown back to Denmark in a day or two.

Frog by moonlight, Simla

Saturday 24th February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

Our visit is gradually drawing to a close and we are winding down. We are finding it increasingly difficult to discover new things we can do from here using public transport or walking. We started the day with a mini-trek into the forest in search of brazil nuts. They grow on huge trees, all together in husks the size of large coconuts that fall to the ground, scattering the nuts on contact. Nearby a dilapidated outbuilding has been taken over by a colony of bats that fly around Simla at dusk. It's an entire ecosystem with giant cockroaches that live off the bat guano covering the floor. We didn't go in! It smelt too high and was pitch black inside where the bats were flying around!

Brazil tree with ripening nut case, Simla

Brazil nut case, Simla -
you'd notice if one dropped on you filled with nuts!

Bats at home, Simla

David dropped us in Arima on his way to visit a friend and collected us during the afternoon on his return. We were relieved to find the town is much quieter and more civilised now the carnival is over and we spent quite a pleasant few hours browsing the cheap, friendly, shabby shops. We searched in vain for any evidence of adult book buying. Even in Naipaul's Book Store all they stocked were a couple of shelves of abridged, brightly-coloured cheap children's story books printed in a style reminiscent of our own childhood. Most shops had no idea how to display their wares and clothes and shoe shops were all cheap and cheerful. "Fashionable" clothes were generally displayed on white rather than black mannequins and might consist of skimpy tops and skirts for women and calf length baggy combat trousers with long, brightly coloured loose vests, baseball caps or maybe a hoodie which is all normal street wear here.

Most clothing is sold on the streets like this

Typical street scene in Arima

We coped for a couple of hours with the really slow connection at the internet shop. Fortunately the air conditioning made up for our frustration. Later we went for lunch at a crowded, cheap restaurant where we queued to be served and ended up with huge plates of dasheen in a curry sauce with chicken, rice and salad. It was really cheap and we enjoyed watching a policeman come to the door and shout out a car number as he waved his truncheon, because someone had clogged up the street traffic, parking at random while he ate his goat roti!

Maxi-taxis, Arima

Once David returned we drove to the edge of the town where there is a small ethnic museum. Arima is the only place left in Trinidad where there is still evidence of people being direct descendants of the original Caribs who lived on the island before Columbus arrived in 1498. The museum is small with a few examples of cooking and fishing tools, faded photos of deceased Caribs, pieces of pottery and a dug-out canoe. Wall panels tell something of their history and the building is a reproduction of a Carib dwelling built on a wooden frame, the external walls built from tree trunks, with coconut fronds for the roof, mud internal walls and frames of woven leaves which act as room partitions. It is dark and cool inside. Two hopeful limers at the door tried to get 20US dollars from us for entering, claiming they'd had to open the building specially for us! They disappeared when we told them we knew it was unattended, free and open all day every day and we didn't carry US dollars anyway!

Carib hut, Cleavers Wood, Arima

Sunday 25th February 2007, Simla,
William Beebe Tropical Research Station, Trinidad

Today has been our last full day. Karl spent it in the relative cool of Simla hatching out the last brood of butterfly eggs and David declared his intention of visiting his friends in Tunapuna to say goodbye and return the mobile phone he'd borrowed. He dropped us down in Arima and we took the maxi taxi into Port of Spain. There is a national speed limit of 80 kilometres an hour and along the priority bus route there are signs limiting vehicles to 65 kilometres. Our driver was having none of it! Across the windscreen was a sunshield emblazoned with the statement "In God we trust" and that's what he did! Straight down the middle of the highway, overtaking everything on the road, not stopping to pick up passengers, the windows wide open sucking in the hot damp air and the speed indicator needle hovering around 120km as we tore through built up areas where mothers with small children were trying to cross the road! Of course the minibus had no seat belts so we shut our eyes and with white knuckles clutching at the seat in front, we concentrated on the "soothing" Indian music coming from the in-car sound system. The driver's trust was well placed, God was on our side today and we must have beaten the all time record for the journey between Arima and Port of Spain!

The heat in the city was suffocating. (Away from Simla the temperature hasn't dropped below 30 degrees throughout our stay here). We walked slowly up through the town and across the Savannah to the zoo in a mop-up operation to see all the creatures of the Caribbean we have missed in the wild. We spent a very pleasant day marking off spectacled caiman, ocelots, fer-de-lance snakes, anacondas, macaws, parrots, tarantula spiders, lots more agoutis and their relatives the pacas, Brocket deer, quenks (wild pigs), otters, capuchin monkeys, tortoises and turtles, numerous species of fishes and lots more red howler monkeys. These were more sociable than their relatives in the wild at Brigand Hill and they set up an awful racket howling when we told them we'd seen their relatives who sent their best wishes! Their howling, when in the forest, can be heard up to three kilometres away – unless DJs are playing carnival music!

Macaw, Zoo, Port of Spain

Untitilated ocelot, Zoo, Port of Spain

Captive howler monkeys, Zoo, Port of Spain

Agoutis are cuties, Zoo, Port of Spain

Spectacled caiman, Zoo, Port of Spain

Quenks, Zoo, Port of Spain

We were weary by the time we left the zoo. It took over an hour for us to walk slowly back to the bus station by which time we were exhausted. The return bus journey was nearly as terrifying and we reached Arima so traumatised and hot we headed for the nearest bar for ice cold beers. Bars in Trinidad are not the friendly, sociable places they are in England and all have an iron grill to protect the barman. You pay your money first and he will then pass the bottle through the grill to you. We were lucky today and found a battered stool each amongst the hundreds of bottle caps at the counter where we drank directly from the bottle. Glasses are never provided. Around us crowded the young men of Arima with their braided hair, large trainers, huge baggy trousers and equally large vests. The place was somewhat lacking in finesse but as good as you will find anywhere in Trinidad, except for the tourist hotels.

Typical bar, Arima

We met with David and Karl for supper in town. Everywhere except the Chinese place was closed and we couldn't face that yet again. So we ended up with Kentucky take away! It will be a long time before we will want to taste pizza, Chinese or KFCs once we return home!