Sunday, August 23, 2009

School Starts Tomorrow

We’ve been taking advantage of living in the non-resorted Caribbean. We make and eat slow breakfasts, finding ourselves lazily drinking coffee and bird-watching (Aaron just bought a humming bird feeder and a seed feeder for other birds so he’s been trying to wean the regulars onto those). When we finish, there’s some reading to be done. In the afternoon, right when the rains fall, we start to get itchy for some activity. It would make more sense to be outside during the sunny morning, but I’d rather be wet than be woken up by the alarm clock if I get a choice.
There’s a 10 mile hike round-trip up to a Doppler tower that we often walk/jog up and jog/run down. At some points, on clear days, we can see the southern tip of Trinidad, poking far out to the west, and the multitude of islands between the north and south. Up at the top, there’s a sign that says, Congratulations! Any and all encouragement helps. There are always vultures, called cobos locally, on this hike, and sometimes we see howler monkeys, the little reddish-brown ones that sound like grizzly bears as they hop from tree to tree. One time, an orange-winged parrot flew right by us, just under eye-level and we realized that they are much more intricate up-close. More than just the sqwuaky, green couples that fly above us during out weekly ultimate Frisbee games, on top they are actually mini-rainbows with orange wings with purple streaks.
Another option is to bike the 20 K route between Macaripe, a quiet, small cove of a beach deep within Chaguramas and the end of the peninsula. We usually do this for a few hours. Aaron recently found a hilly trail from Macaripe to the Chaguramas Golf Course. It’s 5 K both ways of jungle ridge-running at its best: bamboo splitting around us, mini streams and giant roots to jump over, and once we heard owls hooting. Then, we change into swim suits, tricky when you’re covered with sweat, and descend down the steep and tilted stairs to the beach. More often than not, there are circles of senior citizens, heads bobbing in the water near the sand. Sometimes there are toddlers chasing the waves as they crash. On weekends, older kids come and play soccer on the beach. It’s a perfect spot for getting wet in the Caribbean Sea. We swim back and forth from one side of the cove to another—300 meters maybe? Hard to tell. It just takes a couple minutes to swim one way, but we get to watch schools of fish swim with us (which sometimes is cool, but sometimes is nasty when you can’t see or feel anything but fish). I wear regular swimmer-goggles, but Aaron and Tom wear scuba diving masks and snorkels, and if you ask me, look kinda dorky. But, yesterday Aaron saw a huge Southern Stingray (Effin huge, he says, at least 8 feet, maybe 11) on the floor of the ocean. Tom saw a Spotted Eagleray, the rays that are covered in white polka-dots. And I see the same parrot fish every day, the iridescent ones, except once I saw a turtle.
Easy days include one or two activities, or maybe yoga at my favorite yoga studio in the world: Moksha Yoga. Big days include the biking, running, and swimming/snorkeling. Thursdays are Ultimate Frisbee days. Rest days include more reading and more cooking. Friends here, Trinis, are surprised we didn’t stay in the states all summer. But I feel very lucky to live in the Caribbean and get to play in its massive, natural playground.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wild Fowl Trust

Oil plays a major role in Trinidad’s economy. There are international oil companies everywhere to exploit this natural resource. The Petrotrin Compound resembled Microsoft—houses, tennis courts, soccer fields, churches—anything a person could want. It’s as if someone living and working there one day noticed that there were fewer animals and birds and created a haven to atone for the destruction of so many natural habitats. The Wild Fowl Trust surrounds two small lakes and serves as a breeding ground for endangered, almost endangered, or important species like Trinidad’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis.

It took Aaron and I three hours to walk around the 2K loop because it was a birder’s paradise. Beyond that, we survived a frantic five minutes where we heard wild splashing not more than a foot away from us. Three times in a row, we must have woken sleepy caiman, which made us run like the three stooges into each other.

Maracas Waterfall

The same group that did the hike-a-thon a few months ago organized a hike to Maracas Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Trinidad (91 meters). The hike to the falls is quick—about 20 minutes. As soon as we reached the base, we saw sliced watermelon on the rocks in front of us. Nobody moved to get some, though, so we stayed put and just wondered why they were there.

At first I thought it was the sprinkle of the waterfall, but as we started up to the top of the falls, I realized it was rain. And for the next six hours, it poured, with the water pressure sometimes outdoing our shower. What we climbed for the rest of the day was neither hike nor trail. We scrambled up the mountain, pulling ourselves up on vines and branches, trying to avoid the prickly ones (sometimes the prickles are three inches long!) and the rotten ones (when we couldn’t, we’d find our legs knee-deep in the stink of brown jungle compost). We went through as many Romancing the Stone and Rambo jokes as we could think of—and then the lightning started. And then a lady dislocated her shoulder. And then it became clear that the path was murky as we wove through the jungle, sometimes left, sometimes right.

When we reached the top, we tried to keep the rain out of our eyes long enough to see the foggy green below us. And then we started to get cold because we had to stop and wait, in the wind and rain, for everyone else to get there (slower yes, but possibly smarter too, since I had almost broken my ankles ten times by now). Hypothermia in the tropics didn’t feel likely, but after a few hours of being soaked, who knew? As we started back down, Aaron suggested to the leader that we split into two groups. He replied, “Well, I didn’t put markers on the way down because two other guys were supposed to come. I’d wanted to test them and see if they could find the trail down. But they didn’t show up today.” Guess the joke was on us.
The “trail” down was a tributary; the only way to maneuver it was to not care about taking unknown and blind steps and just trust we’d find something solid to hold our feet. We slid down the rushing staircase, sometimes stumbling into larger, roaring rivers. (This is where all of our Goonies jokes started.)
At one point, as a young girl crossed a large river, she slipped. I jumped in the water to try to grab her but I didn’t get far because I, too, felt my legs lose out against the charge of the river. Her brother reached out and luckily made contact with her shirt collar. Otherwise, I’m not sure where she would have stopped. In their struggle to get her on her feet again, her pants started to slip and she wiggled, letting go of her brother, to keep them on her waist. I like pants as much as the next guy, but when it’s pants vs. life, I’ve gotta go with life and I yelled at her to hold onto her brother. Eventually, because of his iron grip, he was able to haul her, pants included, to the other side where she collapsed like a kitten. The rest of us set up a human chain a little further up to make it a little safer for others to cross. A short while later, we made it back to our cars. And just as we did, the sun came out.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Year One

Of Our Life in T&T Is Complete. And we're looking forward to the next one...

To celebrate, we went to go see the live taping of T&T's Best Dance Crew. Kids from all over the island were competing for the title; it was fantastic to see such a high-energy performance live.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Aaron’s been itching to bird. So he scheduled us to take a kayak tour of the Oropouche River with Sham and his company, EcoSense. Tom, Aaron and I left the house at 5 AM to meet our friends John and Annika for a quick batch of road-side breakfast doubles before following Sham’s perfect instructions to The South. Directions in Trinidad are often things like: take a left at the Rasta Man on the 3rd corner or take the right the block before the last fruit stand. People say The South here like it’s a comparable distance to getting to the southeast of the US from the northwest. It’s actually about 70 km. Still, once we see it, we realize that the exaggeration seems about right; San Fernando is about as different from Port of Spain as Baton Rouge is from Seattle. There’s one road to get there from Port of Spain. Life is slow; people are kind. The Indian culture is stronger here—we see multiple colorful temples. Thick green dominates my view instead of the polluted grey of POS. Even the vegetation is different. Sham points out two fruit trees and tells us to ask our Northern friends if they’ve ever had them. “They won’t even know what they are!” He says, confirming the distinctions between Trinidad’s north and south.

We met up with Sham right by an Indian crematorium. You could see the stripes of dry grey ash climbing down the yellow cliffs to the sea. Fishermen ambled past the prayer flags into the opaque water with long white nets and bags, collecting sardines and crabs. We carried the kayaks down a muddy decline, tricky, and jumped in them (the less graceful ones of us got a bit more soaked than the others). We kayaked underneath a bridge and then entered a small river bookended on both sides by black mangroves, their long limbs reaching toward us, Tim Burton style. When we reached a fork in the waterway, Sham asked us if we wanted to go interesting and risky or normal. Annika was outnumbered and we headed toward a much narrower passageway—kilometers of close-knit slimy branches, brown water, and the anticipation of new birds. Sometimes as we glided through, we got stuck on dead logs invisible underneath the water and sometimes we got stuck on the arched branches on top of the water; both were equally offensive because the only solution was to grab onto the muddy branches and pull your way out.

Sham promised birds and boas; Aaron had his binoculars ready. We saw two yellow-chin spinetails building a nest together and one turkey-looking wattled jicana let us get really close.

There were also some stunning yellow hooded blackbirds (Aaron’s thinking about a tattoo) that played hide-and-seek from our cameras in the high grass. After passing through a sluice gate, we were forced to turn around when we reached a hyacinth plant roadblock taking up the entire waterway. Going back under the sluice gate some brown butterfly like things flapped around our heads. On further inspection we realized our passageway had awakened some sleepy looking bats.

On our way back, the rain started to pour and the lightning started to crackle. We hesitated, holding our metal paddles, but then Sham cruised past us and so we followed. Pulling the kayaks out of the water and up the even muddier incline was harder in the hammering rain. The car alarm on our keys had gotten wet and now refused to disable our locks or car alarm. So, soaking wet, we tried to pull the right fuses to stop the incessant noise. After only one Nope, not that one, Aaron got it and we could think again.
Sham took us for lunch, goat roti and cokes, and told us about how he had started training to be a lawyer to try and make some changes in how Trinidad’s industries are allowed to affect the natural environment. Then he asked us if we wanted to try to see some macaws. We dropped off our car at his mother-in-law’s house and hopped in his 4x4 and drove to what seemed to be More South, to a honey-bee maker’s house and estate.

Sham told us that this land had been a European coffee and cocoa plantation 100 years ago. We walked through a trail thick with mosquitoes and greenery until we heard a toucan and saw Woody the Woodpecker.

On the way, we tried to convince Sham to do the kayaking part of our next adventure race, Coast to Coast (26 mile run, 60 mile bike, 20 mile kayak). When we told him the distances, he said, No way. We got back to his parent’s house and he disappeared for a second. When he returned, he handed me five perfect mangoes, and told us to drive up to the brand-new aluminum smelter and look professional so we could get inside and see the destruction it created. As we said good-bye, he told us to give him a call and he’d give us a deal to rent his kayaks so we could train for the race. And then he mumbled, And maybe I’ll go with you, just to see…which made us think he might actually consider kayaking if we left him alone for a bit.
On our way to the smelter, we stopped to see the world’s largest natural resource of unrefined pitch (asphalt once it’s refined). We’d heard what an ugly scene this was (an industrial pitch lake, so, a factory and a parking lot?!) and our expectations were low.

Pretty, it was not, but I was enthralled by its alien landscape. The pitch just grows, renewing itself by the minute. A thick, dry skin forms on top so you can walk on it. But every once in a while, my foot found a smooth, pillowy spot and sink in a little. Or, I’d step on a little mound that flattened under my weight. (It reminded me of when I used to rollerblade in the summer and I’d have to watch out for spots where road workers had plugged holes in the road because those fat, soft circles arrested my spinning wheels and sent me flying.) I’d never seen anything like it; I had no idea this was how asphalt originated.

Our guide, Cyril, showed us all the tricks of the lake: plants grow on the top soil (if you pull out a plant, you’ll see how dry the roots are underneath, so the only water comes from the rain, not the earth—crazy!), how to touch the pitch but not have it stick to you, the beautiful natural shapes and forms created by the constantly revolving pitch, the gasses bubbling from the deep bellows, and the iron-red, algae-green, and oil-colored pools, all with different medicinal purposes (the milky, silky sulfur is said to be an age-defyer).

The pitch eats whatever is in its path in its constant process of regeneration.

And of course Aaron was happy to see the Royal Terns and Large-billed Terns while I was mesmerized by oil-as-art.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Our next trip to St. Lucia will be the bomb

Southern St. Lucia boasts many fantastic things to see and do. But we goofed up a few times and our trip wasn’t quite the smoothest Caribbean excursion yet. We flew into St. Lucia’s southern airport, not knowing there were two, even though we’d booked a week-long hotel stay in the north. So our first mistake led to a 100US$ drive late at night to our hotel. We’d chosen Rodney Bay because we wanted to see St. Lucia’s version of Carnival in the nearby northern capital town of Castries, but soon we learned that the diving and hiking (all we wanted to do) are in the south, while the crowded beaches and expensive restaurants are in the north. And, even though Caribbean islands are small, travel from one end to another is usually tricky, expensive, and full of potholes.
Our second mistake was thinking that a country of 166,000 would host a party comparable to what a country of 1.3 million did; seeing St. Lucia’s Carnival led to a mild redefining of the celebration. There were some similarities: rum, dancing, tiny bikinis. But there were more differences: size (St. Lucians revel in groups of about 50, while Trinis parade together in the thousands) and music (St. Lucia’s soca asked you to tap your foot, while Trinidad’s soca inspires full-bodied wining). The last truck that we saw got us up and dancing, and as it drove by, the announcer said, “Let’s hear it for our visiting DJ from Trinidad!” Ah ha. We realized all Carnivals are not equal, and what we loved about Trinidad’s had a lot more to do with our love of Trinidad than Carnival. Our third mistake was visiting S. Lucia during their hurricane season. Most days, it poured rain (including during Carnival, which helped to cool everyone off, but decimated the aesthetics of the costumes, floats, and make-up).

Our fourth, and perhaps, largest mistake was misunderstanding how deeply a tourist economy can affect interactions with locals. I understand why it happens, but it takes some time to get used to relationships informed more by caricatures and stereotypes than anything else. One guy chatted us up for awhile and then offered to take us to Martinique, a smaller island 20 miles away. I expected there to be a price tag, of course, but I instinctively started walking away when he named his price: 1000 US$. We tried to explain that we didn’t have that kind of money, but he didn’t seem to hear us and only repeated and repeated the virtues of travelling on a private boat. Well, sure! Aaron’s favorite was when the trainer in the workout room at our resort turned off the soca and turned on Sting when Aaron walked on to the treadmill. “I’m an alien, I’m an illegal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York,” just doesn’t have the same kick as “Super Blue” by Faye-Ann Lyons. This only slightly trumped the beach vendor who took one look at Aaron before calling him a “F***ing German” before stomping off in the opposite direction. It’s given us a lot to think about in terms of travelling. And being white.
The days we got to the south were great. We went on a dive to a ship wreck in Soufriere—the amount of plant life and fish life that had developed in just 20 years was impressive. Some guys we met diving invited us out to the Fish Fry in Gros Islet; I was worn out, but Aaron went and got his fix of hanging out in crowded streets and listening to music.

We hiked to Pigeon Island, an important fort in the 1800s when France and England battled for St. Lucia.

We climbed up Gros Piton, the volcanic spire nearly 3,000 ft. above the Caribbean Sea. The shorter one, Petit Piton, is about 40 m shorter. Together, they create a stunning view accessible from all over the southern portion of the island. It was a gorgeous and quite vertical climb with denser vegetation than Trinidad. The town below Gros Piton, Fond Gens Libre, (“Valley of the Free People” in the French-based patois spoken on St. Lucia) puts the tourist fees toward maintaining the town and the trails. Goats and pigs roam around the mango, calabash, and papaya trees throughout the small village.

The botanical garden in Soufriere was also beautiful—lots of new plants and some familiar ones with fun Lucian twists, and beautiful humming birds.

We snuck into the fanciest resort I’ve ever seen early one morning as we drove down to hike the pitons. We sat down in the restaurant to have coffee, just to spend more time there, and walked around the spectacular grounds. As we went to pay, they told us that it was on the house—guess a couple cups of coffee didn’t warrant the effort of charging us (but those water guns on the table came in handy when the hungry tanagers tried to grab some sugar from our table).

So, next time we go, we’ll stay in the tiny, charming southern town of Canaries. We won’t go during the rainy season. And we’ll have to try to compare places to Trinidad less…