Trinidad & Tobago Desfinado
Oct 30, 2007
David Rich 1000 Words
$6 TT=$1 US
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO DESFINADO
Check any atlas and you'll easily spot Trinidad and Tobago, island nations slightly off the east coast of Venezuela at the top of South America. Trinidad and Tobago are situated in the extreme Southeast corner of the Caribbean, placing them quintessentially on island time while they busily tend to business, rendering Europe habitable by hosting the origins of the Gulf Stream.
T and T host the world's first or second wildest carnival the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, appropriately described as T N T. During carnival the prices of rooms double while clothing shrinks to strategically placed sequins. Competing Mas camps, the midwives of Carnival, had begun designing carnival floats and costume gear when I visited in October of 2007, five months of planning on how to mount a few sequins, employing skills that would embarrass Frederick's of Hollywood and which keep T and T remarkably up-to-date, yet slightly out of kilter.
Wonderful old houses of gingerbread, fretwork bargeboards, graceful balustrades, and foliated fleur-de-lis decorate Port of Spain suburbs, particularly on the west-side in Woodbrook, my favorite place for accommodation. Downtown is adorned with stone cathedrals, an embarrassingly Scottish-motiffed police station, and rarified mansions, now tumbledown, fronting expansive Queen's Park. The Archbishop's House, a clumsy pile of Italian marble and hot-pink granite is capped by a jarringly contrasting copper roof streaked with green. Adjacent is Whitehall, a pile of white that looks like moldy and melting wedding cake, used as U.S. military headquarters during WWII. Next to Whitehall sits the most outrageous of Trinidadian concoctions, the Killarney, or Stollmeyer's Castle, a failed fairy-tale of ochre brick, its character accurately described by the architectural historian, John Newel Lewis: A German built a bit of an untypical Scottish castle in Trinidad and called it by an Irish name, perhaps more than slightly higgledy-piggledy.
Sprawling Queen's Park is bordered by extensive botanical gardens and a spiffy, small zoo with a worldwide selection of mammals, birds, and reptiles. Any open area is deadly in the direct Caribbean sun, but come 4 p.m. the park is crammed with picnickers, footballers, spooning couples, and mom and pop stands of the almost innumerable juicy ethnic foods.
The many distinct and succulent T and T cuisines stem from an unmelted pot of singularities, originating in Africa, India, Europe, China, Latin America, and France, offering a ravishing selection for the taste buds. Fabulous eating establishments inhabit every corner of the islands, ranging from bake with fish or eggs, Indian rotis and curries, buljol, and smoked herring to conch or crab and dumplin', shark, pelau, stewed lentils, and macaroni pie with callaloo. Yet the most popular place for the locals to eat is KFC, where lines stretch out the front door, definitely way out of kilter.
Fueled by two-piece meals, combination plates, and 18-piece buckets TT is a land of festivals and excessive noise, the birthplace of the calypso that bristles with witty and satirical lyrics shimmering with illusion, mockery, and double entendres. The pinnacle of this art is more straightforwardly practiced in the heart of downtown at Woodward Square in the central gazebo and in adjacent calypso tents, featuring fiery political, religious, and other off-the-wall embellished flourishes that make up the warp and weave of Trinidad life. The political and other rhetoric provides a lively forum for all, assuming you can get a single word in edgeways.
The Limbo (how low can you go?) and the steel band with pan and drum were invented in Trinidad, the latter in the east Port of Spain suburb of Laventille. The result is unceasing noise and more noise, raucous Festivals which include such as the appropriately-named Shouter Baptist Liberation Day every March, a group that should obviously again be re-persecuted in order to preserve the eardrums of the unsuspecting.
Merely walking down any boulevard in Port of Spain is detrimental to hearing health, every corner stocked with emplacements of giant speakers sending Bose-strength shock-waves through the atmosphere like flotillas of acrobatic jets simultaneously breaking the sound barrier. Legions of hippy-dippy rappers moonwalk the avenues, shuffling and singing in time to omni-present music. Even the night crickets are musical, sounding like tiny silver bells stretching to infinity.
True peace and quiet reigns in Tobago, a comfy 2 ½ hour ferry ride from Trinidad, subsidized by the government to cost a mere $17 roundtrip. Though the locals seem particularly susceptible to sea sickness (and ocean swells can be distressingly topsy- turvy) the trip is well worth the minor time investment because of Tobago's excellent snorkeling, glass-bottom boat rides, and scuba diving on its gorgeous coral reefs.
Tobago is a mere 25 miles (40 kilometers) long by 5 miles (8 kilometers) wide, but because of the narrow, winding, and roller coaster-roads it takes at least two hours to drive its length. The idyllic north coast is chock-full of colorful fishing villages such as Charlotteville and Castara Bay, and deserted beaches with historical names ranging from Bloody Bay to Store Bay, the latter named after early Dutch settler Han Stoer and conveniently located within strolling distance of the airport and the best accommodations on the island.
Tobago's interior is the Forest Reserve, the oldest protected rain forest in the western hemisphere, a treasure of mist-shrouded greenery dripping with bird and animal life and tumbling frigid waterfalls. But the real treasure is the locals themselves, the most laidback least money-grubbing in the known world. I can think of no other place on earth where I can stroll the most popular beach, say No, I'm not interested in taking a glass-bottomed boat, and the Rasta-fellow says, No sweat, bro, and how you like our island? Well I must say I like it just fine, though it's undeniably Trinidad and Tobago desfinado, slightly out of tune.
When You Go to Trinidad and Tobago: Flights to Port of Spain from Caracas cost less than $200, specials from New York from $300, and Miami about $500, all roundtrip, and the locals speak English, sort of. My favorite guesthouse in Port of Spain is Ana's Place, 5 Ana St., firstname.lastname@example.org, just west of downtown in Woodbrook, offering two apartments with full kitchens, large living room, spiffy bath, and 100 cable channels for $30 a night, $40 for two. Similar accommodation is available for about the same price on Tobago near Store Bay at the VIP Apartments.