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.

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