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Trinidad #6

The Ecstasy and the Agony

Flag of Trinidad & Tobago

June 2011

I entered our biannual vacation to Trinidad with enough pent-up wanderlust to scale Mt. Everest. I wanted each day to be packed full of activity and adventure, or at least some kind of new and extemporaneous experience, never a dull moment. Ok, I’m a realist, I know there will still be dull moments, but I wanted to minimize them, look for new ways of seeing things. As usual, I wanted to be transported to some other place. Indulge the Columbus of my soul. “Let no vacation day go to waste” is my mantra. Even though this was my sixth time to visit Trinidad, I had lots of ideas, lots of plans for micro-adventure to fulfill. I could make it work, no problem. I would not be thwarted by the circumstantial impediments that discourage ordinary people. The Jumbies (spirits) would not co-opt my carnival reverie! After many times in the past, not getting to fully take hold of my desires for adventure in Trinidad, I was determined to boldly go and not relent until I’d accomplished many of the items on my list.

Click here to see photos of our trip at flickr.com

To make a long story short, the first four days of the trip were great. I’d done some new things, like trekking around Linda’s home place in the tropical woods, ala Man v. Wild, and the planting fields used by her brothers, like never before (I love the nature and biodiversity of Trinidad). I bought a bicycle and tried it out, riding to the top of the mountain quarry and down to the Internet Café, to the surprise of a lot of people and dogs along the way. And I explored San Fernando, solo, on foot and in the car. All success so far--but on the fifth day (the first Saturday), I found ecstasy and agony.

Paddle power and peddle power. On Saturday, Linda was busy with projects around the house, so I wanted to casually slip away to drive up to Williams Bay (west of Port of Spain) to go to the one and only place in Trinidad where you can always kayak, any day of the week, year-round, and possibly bicycle, at the only bike rental place I know of (which is only open on the weekends). The two places are only a short distance apart at the bend in the road at Williams Bay.

Getting away was not going to be easy, because Linda never wants me to go anywhere in Trinidad alone. As a result, I was preoccupied with explaining getting away and not thinking enough about what I needed to take to wear whilst kayaking. I really, really should have put more thought into that! In hindsight, I should have taken something to completely cover my legs and feet. Instead, I thought I could get by with a t-shirt, shorts, hat, sunglasses and a bandana to tie around my neck. You see, I knew from experience that I had to protect my neck, shoulders and back. I got terribly sunburned in 2003 on my back and shoulders, so I have always taken precautions since then, but my legs had never been burnt much before, even after kayaking for an hour at Williams Bay in 2007. But that was earlier in the morning, and only for an hour. Keep in mind, Trinidad is only 11-degrees north of the equator.

Anyway, I made it to Williams Bay (64 kilometers from home) in the car, without a problem, and I had two glorious hours of kayaking on moderately choppy waters, exploring a boat dock, with poignantly named sailboats, like “Done Talking,” “Gypsy Winds,” and “Fine By Me.” I watched young people sail in mini sailboats, and kept encountering the same two dragon racing boats, with a coach shouting loudly to his rowers. Seeing tall cactus growing on the cliffs and rocks of the shoreline was unexpectedly gripping, and floating over a half-submerged shipwreck while snorkelers were swimming below exploring the wreck, was genuinely spooky. On the way back, I observed three people wind surfing, lots of swimmers, sea birds, pelicans, and I spotted the bike rental place and strained my eyes to see if it was open. It was open, so I paddled over and shouted to a man nearby, asking if I could rent a bike, and he said, “Yes, we rent bicycles here.”
“I’m coming right over,” I replied, excitedly!

All the while, I’d been kayaking with unprotected legs and felt nothing of it. When I changed clothes I noticed a slight reddening of my legs and feet. But the harshness of the bright sun and salt water take time to develop. UVI (ultra violet index) means a lot here. In hindsight, I wish the two men at the kayak place had been less concerned about the safety of my car and more concerned about my legs. If someone had warned me, I’d have asked for a sheet or something to cover with. Even a potato sack would have been good to get inside of. At least, I wish it had occurred to me, whilst on the water, to take off my life jacket and put it over my legs. That would have been very resourceful at the time.

Next, I went to the bike hut (not its real name) and met Robert, the owner. He had some real nice, blue Fuji mountain bikes for rent. Finally, I had found a good bike to rent! There were trails and roads throughout Tucker Valley (an old citrus plantation long ago), just across the road, and though it was still a hot, sunny day, I’d at least get numerous opportunities to bike in shady areas. I biked for two glorious hours, taking in the Chaguaramas Golf Course (which was built by the U.S. military during WWII), with some side trails to old army storage shelters built into the hills, like nuclear fallout shelters, and one to Edith Falls, which was dry at the time. I saw young women clearing the fallen bamboo with machetes. The bike handled the roots, rocks and fallen limbs like a dream. “I could do this all day,” I told myself. In hindsight, I wish I had, instead of kayaking!

On the way back to the bike hut, I rode to St. Chad’s church, a ruin, and walked around inside and observed the spooky cemetery on the side, which looked like a Voodoo scene right out of Live and Let Die. Then, I saw a 5-6 foot alligator sunning itself by a stream. All together, I was very impressed with what I saw and did today. It was a wonderful day—except for the exceedingly awful throbbing sunburn I began to experience once I got home…

For those two hours of kayaking on Saturday, I had to spend six days convalescing with the most everlastingly painful sunburn I’d ever had.

Convalescence. I had to stay partially or fully reclined at all times, or else it would feel like a thousand red-hot needles pricking the tops of my feet and lower shins. I never realized before how sensitive and vulnerable this part of the body is, and how much weight it must support. Equilibrium was essential. As soon as I tried to set one foot to the floor, the equilibrium would be upset and blood would rush up and down my legs, inducing a kind of pain that felt like a nail shooting through the foot! And on top of that, several hundred other painful sensations broke out around my knees and thighs, just to add insult. It got worse day after day.

Sunday, somehow I managed to go to church and KFC for lunch, but by Sunday evening it was worse. On Monday, it was worse. On Tuesday, it was worse. On Wednesday, it was still as painful as ever. Linda decided to go to the pharmacy and get some antibiotic pills, and we applied Aloe-Vera, Calamine, and triple antibiotic cream on the wounds, daily. This meant that Linda was driving the rental car, which she’d never done before. I couldn’t get out in my condition. I could see what it was like to be an invalid.

“Second degree burns,” Linda said, consulting an old first-aid book.
“Think a burned marshmallow,” I said.

I must have said hundreds of times, “How could this happen to me? How could I be so vulnerable?” I’m usually quick at bouncing back, but the equatorial sun of Trinidad is extreme, and I was a fool to kayak without covering up. It’s much worse than swimming, because when you’re swimming, at least you are in the water and mostly standing up.

Trying to be positive. On the up side, I got to read and spend some quality time with my laptop. As I usually get very little time to read, I tried to take advantage of this opportunity to read some books. I finished reading a book I’d brought from Motlow College Library, and a couple of books from the old bookcase in the house, including Best West Indian Stories, compiled by Kenneth Ramchand (1982). The West Indian stories were very interesting, culturally, and mostly from a Trinidadian perspective. I could be housebound for a month and never put a dint in the bookcase at Linda’s home place!

I also read a good bit of Encyclopedia of World History by Paragon Publishing (2005), loaned to me by Linda’s cousin Theresa.

My daily routine became mostly reclining, eating, and getting up to go to the bathroom and bathe. The getting up part was absolutely excruciating…until Thursday evening, when it apparently passed the tipping point and felt slightly less excruciating. Friday, it was a little less swollen and I could stand up and walk a little better. In the afternoon, I decided to get out of the house for the first time since Sunday and drive down to the Internet Café. Reanna went with me, and I checked my email for the first time since the previous Friday.

Since I had gotten sunburned, a tropical depression was sending more frequent showers to Trinidad, and it was wetter than the first week we were in Trinidad. Heavy downpours were more frequent. Meanwhile, guests arrived for the weekend, and we had seven people spending the night in the house. And Linda and her Brother Kenneth’s renovation projects around the house, cooking, and the TV’s constant blaring sound of the two channels, kept things lively.

Sports on TV were worth watching at times, including intermittent cricket coverage of India v. West Indies, and the FIFA under 17 Football World Cup being broadcast from Mexico. No Wimbledon coverage was available, however.

The second Sunday, I wore sandals to church, for the first time in my life, I think, because I couldn’t put shoes on due to the swelling of my feet. It was painful, but I got through it, and rested most of the day.

Monday, June 20, was Trinidad’s Labor Day Holiday, and I got out early and got some items at the store, a fruit stall, and some gas. This went well, and my feet were showing signs of real improvement, but since it was rainy, off and on, I didn’t do much the rest of the day, however, until Monday night, when my German Brother-in-law, Juergen, was due to arrive from Germany. I was conscripted well in advance to go pick him up at the airport. Kenneth went with me and this went fine. Juergen was waiting for us for a short while, and I got a quick ATM.

The Grand Excursion. The next day, Linda, Reanna and I embarked on a big trip, by Trinidadian standards, to the extreme northeast part of the island. This marked the first time ever, in my six trips to Trinidad, that we have gone somewhere to spend the night, apart from Linda’s home. We spent two relatively care-free, relaxing nights in Grande Riviere on the north coast. Not knowing what to expect, we found a hotel called, Acajou, which means “hard wood” in French. Something about the carved wooden sign caught my attention and drew me to it.

Although it wasn’t air conditioned, it turned out to be ever so charming, quiet, and private. We were the only customers the first night, and only one other family, an Indian family, spent the second night. The staff was friendly, and we got to know each of them by name. This was not a traditional hotel, but like a mini resort, with individual cabins, a separate restaurant that was open to the side, with a view of the Grand River and its lagoon at the confluence of the sea. Plus, there was a private path to the beach, and the whole grounds were landscaped with the most lush and attractive plants and flowers I’ve ever seen, bordered with drift wood, stones, and wide paths of finely crushed rock. The entire atmosphere was perfect.

No TV’s, no radio, hardly any traffic, and very little obtrusiveness was what I was looking for, and we found it. It restored my sanity. The whole package was appealing, but what really sold us was the unique cabins, each a well designed, raised off the ground, slightly oriental looking unit made of lots of teak wood and a consistent theme, plus clean beds and bathrooms. Our cabin had a large four poster bamboo bed, with netting, and a loft with two single beds. Reanna was very enthusiastic about the loft, but after one night sleeping in it, she was begging to sleep on the big bed downstairs with Linda, and I had to trade places the second night. The loft was a bit cramped for me, but I didn’t mind too much. The cabin was a pure joy to stay in, despite the lack of A/C, for its high airy ceiling, and beautiful view out upon the deck in back, which included a hammock.

The food was definitely above par at Acajou. We had two dinners and two breakfasts and each was different, for they had a menu and kitchen staff that was pretty good in my opinion. It was a bit expensive, true, but considering how remote this was, they don't have a lot of access to food supplies. I had Bake n’ Shark and Caribbean rub chicken. My opinion is not based on much experience, I’ll admit, since this was the first hotel we’ve ever been to in Trinidad, but I have been to several 2, 3, and 4 star hotels in Europe, in the past.

The first night, we were encouraged to go watch the sea turtles lay eggs on the beach. This is a very special natural occurrence that has been happening here for eons, and Trinidad is one of the foremost locations in the world for this. People come from lots of countries to witness the female leatherback turtles spawn, which is part of a long distance affair, between the waters of eastern Canada, where they feed, mate, and then return, as though by mental imprint, to Trinidad (the place of their birth) to reproduce. It’s a mystery, but the certified guides have it all figured out how to introduce and educate visitors to this miracle.

There was an interesting mixture of people who made the trek all the way here to see the turtles. There was one family that appeared to be Anglo-Trinidadian, with two small girls. I’m not sure, but I think the father may have been American. We didn’t actually get to formally introduce ourselves, which is a pity, because they grew tired early and returned to one of the other hotels. As it stands, I’ve still NEVER met another American in Trinidad (except on the plane), and this does seem a bit strange to me.

Eventually, after an hour or more of standing on the beach in the darkness, listening to Lynn, our guide and his excellent commentary on what the turtles (three in all) were doing, my feet grew very tired and sore, with the sand digging into my tender wounds, and we returned to Acajou. We were ready to hit the sack.

Overnight, it rained very hard, and continued much of the morning. As sometimes happens, when it rains hard, millions of water flies suddenly appear and start flying at you. They only live for a few hours, but are annoying. We caught a break in the rain and walked to breakfast. I had scrambled eggs and sausage. Then, we drove the 13 kilometers west to Matelot, the end of the northern road and since it was raining and the town was very hilly and congested, we had no choice but to head back to Grande Riviere. I’d wanted to see the end of Matelot, where the bench trail continues west. It’s possible to hike the unpaved stretch across the top of Trinidad, but since a power line was down and workers were trying to repair it, we didn’t have any room to park and look around. What a bummer.

Back at Grande Riviere, the rain stopped and Reanna and I hit the beach to walk, wade, play, etc. The water was actually cooler than I’d expected, due to all the cloudy rain, so I didn’t swim. I was somewhat protective of my feet and relieved that the sun was behind the clouds. Instead, I focused upon making a physical map of T&T out of rocks. This marks the third trip in a row where I have made such a thing, and each time it has been different. I chose a lot of smooth round and oblong rocks and arranged them in the shape of the T&T and I was pretty satisfied with it. I made it away from the main crowded area, beside the confluence of the river and the sea. You could see the spot from our dining room at Acajou, and I’m sure that I saw some people looking at my rock map whilst we dined at supper that evening.

The next morning, we finally met the manager, a Swedish lady, and checked out at 10:00AM. We drove east to Sans Souci and on to Toco. Sans Souci wasn’t much to look at, but I thought it was interesting to go there, primarily because I went to Sans Souci Palace last summer, in Potsdam, Germany. How symmetrically correct. This Sans Souci is declared to be the Trini-surfing capital by Rough Guide. At Toco, we went to Galera Point, to the Lighthouse. I went there in 2007 with some young men from the church. The lighthouse was built in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It was under renovation. I went to the point to see the view, but it wasn’t so good due to cloudiness, and you couldn’t see Tobago across the channel. How disappointing!

So we continued on, westward, and went all the way up to St. Benedict Monastery, established in 1912, by Benedictine monks from Brazil. This was interesting, but did not take long since there wasn’t a lot to do there except look around a bit and gawk at the view. We ate a lunch snack in the canteen, which consisted of yogurt that they make at the monastery, and some cakes.

Then, we drove into Port of Spain, on the Eastern Main Road, surprised at how light the traffic was. It didn’t even occur to us until later that night that today was Corpus Christi Day, another national holiday. No wonder the traffic was light. We took the Lady Young Highway bypass around eastern and northern POS, where there is an amazing overlook spot of the capital. We hadn’t been to this view since 2005, so I took lots of pictures. Then, we drove down to the Queen’s Park Savannah and did a lap around it, plus stopped and walked for a good bit in the park, which we hadn’t done before. It was very relaxing. Then we drove home.

The rest of the trip was spent mostly close to the house. I tried riding my bicycle a couple of times but rain and apprehension about my blistered shins and feet made me extra cautious. I did manage to ride up and down the ridge a few times and visit some people. A note about bicycling: bicycles used to be a big form of transportation in Trinidad. All the old photos of towns seemed to show people bicycling. Today, there are still some in the villages, and even some recreational bikers who ride in groups and don proper biking attire. I don’t do that myself, I’m just a solo rider with khaki shorts, a t-shirt and a helmet.

Our next to last day (a Saturday), the three of us went to San Fernando and shopped on the high street for a bit. I found a nice picture book, called Trinidad & Tobago by Air, by Robert Davis that I bought, with wonderful aerial views. On our last Sunday, we visited the Matilda Church of Christ, south of Princess Town, a young congregation of only two-years, and Linda’s cousin Theresa went with us.

Conclusion: this trip to Trinidad was a mixture of ups and downs. Fortunately, we had three weeks—generous by American standards—for we needed time to accomplish things. Plus, my trip would have been ruined by the sunburn if it had been shorter. Even Linda got a painful rash, and my brother in law, Juergen, hurt his back cleaning the pool. No pool this time; too little water in the reservoir. Trinidad is always intense, with its cultural diversity, crowded conditions, learning experiences and unpredictable weather. I didn’t get to boldly go and be transported as much as I wanted, which is usually the way it goes. When Roger plans, Trinidad laughs.

Gas is cheap in Trinidad, but we ended up driving only 635 miles, the least ever, due to my convalescence. But at least we pushed the boundaries to see more of north Trinidad that we had not seen before. Grande Riviere was an idyllic place that exceeded our expectations. The day we drove there, I kept thinking, if this place is any good why isn’t there any traffic going to/from there. “Where are all the people?” I wondered. Well, it was a remote place, alright, and also quiet, but we were going mid-week, after a holiday, and quiet can be a beautiful thing.

Something about Trinidad always gets my goad. I'm an expert on its unforgiveness, but I don't mind learning. I’m not a big fan of carnival—Trinidad’s biggest festival—and neither is Linda. What’s the point, I’ll never get to go there in February or March to see it, but I always hope to have my own private carnival of sorts when I visit there. Its foreignness, and the natural allure of its ecology is so powerful. Trinidad is always enticing to my adventure intellect; my travel ethos, but the Jumbies always interfere with my carnival reverie. The End.


See Map A | Map B
Go to Trinidad #1; Trinidad #2; Trinidad #3; Trinidad #4; Trinidad #5