The most southern of the Caribbean (or West Indies) islands, Trinidad & Tobago is a whirling, lively mix of ethnicities, cultures, music and business. Discovered by Columbus in the 15th century, this dual nation of islands celebrate separate histories and present-day development priorities but the same vivacity for life and good times.
In Trinidad, the Spanish established their settlement in 1582 and over the next two centuries they, along with the French, imported slaves from West Africa to cultivate tobacco and cocoa plantations. The abolishment of slavery followed the British invasion in 1797 and the importation of indentured workers, mostly from India. The country eventually became a republic of the Commonwealth in 1976.
The discovery of oil and natural gas in Trinidad has brought instant wealth and prosperity to the island but also accusations of corruption and complaints of under representation by East Indian communities. A recent spike in drug related crimes has led to community unrest casting a blanket of doubt on the judicial and policing capacities.
Tobago's early history is a separate story. Colonized later than Trinidad, it changed hands several times and became a base for pirates raiding ships in the Caribbean. Like Trinidad, slave labor established thriving plantations which slowly crumbled following a string of natural disasters. Tobago has since set its rebuilding efforts on tourism.
I arrived during Carnival 2K9. Socca music throbbed in the streets of Port of Spain. Women shook and gyrated in beaded bikinis and vendors sold pungent curried dishes on every corner. Steel pan players beat captivated rhythms into oil drums, Japanese cameras clicked incessantly, and the atmosphere cracked with electricity and rum! It was wild, unadulterated and absolutely captivating.
Thankfully, the organizing committee ear-marked Wednesday as Carnival Cool-Down and what seemed like the entire parade of masqueraders headed to Maracas Beach for one last *lime and for further recovery, I also visited the Asa Wright Nature Center, known worldwide for it's bird species, research station and numerous hiking trails.
To see the other more tranquil side of Trinidad, I traveled by bus thru the center of the Island, along the coast, to the small nearly catatonic fishing village of Toco. Here I stayed with Mr and Mrs Bravo at the Sea Sands Camp, a true gem of a guesthouse. The down-to-earth, extremely welcoming couple operate this bunk-bed style camp for groups of surfers and school children most of the year, serving their guests three square organic meals per day, with all the ingredients coming right from their garden or from the community itself. Mrs Bravo is a herbalist and sells home-made noni wine, teas and local remedies. Mr Bravo harvests sea-moss, known for it's medicinal properties and sold in dried or jelly form. Friends of the good-humored couple drove me along the northeastern coastal road, which ended in Matelot. We visited the Grande-Riviere Beach where 100's of endangered sea turtles come every year to lay their eggs, which are religiously protected by a local group of volunteers.
Although Trinidad's oil and gas industry has left tourism low on it's priority list, it is the challenge of finding your way around the Island that makes it so appealing. It forces you to approach the people around you, striking up a conversation that may last for hours, which is how long you'll be waiting for the bus.
A 2 1/2 hour ferry ride brought me to the port city of Scarborough on the tiny island of Tobago - a truly laid-back paradise with beer, beaches and sunshine as the order of the day. At the bus station, I met a wonderful couple from Kingston Ontario, who helped me find a guesthouse in Charlotteville, located at the Northeastern tip of the Island. After a one and half hour bus ride along winding picturesque coastal roads, I was there, looking out over the secluded country-side village nestled behind the sparkling aquamarine Man-of-War Bay. Fishermen dragged nets, heavy with herring, onto the beach. Expats and the trickle of off-the-beaten-track tourists strolled the badly paved roads, rubbing elbows with smiling locals and squatting rastas. I felt at home here, and spent 5 days exploring the hidden coves and beaches in the area, hiking to magnificent view-points and easily making friends along the way.
Prying myself away from peaceful Charlotteville, I ventured to the opposite side of the Island, to another small fishing community known as Bucco - home to the infamous Sunday School, a sly title for a weekly street party that includes local music, food, crafts and of course, the always popular rum-punch. From Bucco, I visited Mt. Irvine Beach, a local surfing mecca and got my first taste of gnarly dudes catching rad waves. It was also in Bucco that I stayed in my first hostel (there is a serious lack of backpacker establishments in the Caribbean). In 4 days, I met 2 guys from Scotland, 1 from England, a woman from France living in French Guyana and an American man who sold everything he owned and has been travelling for 5 years, circumnavigating the world 3 times! That is part of what makes traveling so fun and at times, even enlightening.
For another taste of island flavor, I moved to the tourist epicenter of Tobago. A sea of tourists met me as I stepped of the bus and onto the busy streets of Crown Point. Another Hostel, more travelers and great beaches, I divided my time between Store Bay and Pigeon Point two picture-perfect stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters but a good lime was never far away, as the area offered plenty in the way of street cafes, bars and clubs. I finished my 2-week stint in Tobago in a flurry of party hopping and beach chair lounging.
I returned by ferry to Trinidad, for a final day of souvenir shopping and a tour of the Caroni Swamp where the nesting of hundreds of scarlet ibises, the national bird, is an unbelievable act of nature. Entire tree stands turned from green to red in a matter of minutes, as these majestic birds return everyday to roost in this one particular area.
Trinidad and Tobago mesmerized me with it's national pride, love of music and liming, culinary treats and ethnic diversity and because it remains low on the tourism radar, it makes it that much more appealing and memorable.
- lime: a word used throughout the Caribbean referring to people hanging out, partying or simply being unproductive. We' just limin'!