February 25th, 1997
It's now been two weeks since Carnival. My feet have finally stopped aching but the music, the colour and the energy of carnival in Trinidad will stay with me a very long time. My daughter Lisa arrived last Saturday and we have spent the week sight seeing and of course, shopping. She has met a few other young people and tonight is off at the Yacht club socializing. Twenty two years old and dad is still waiting up for her. We are anchored in the bay in front of the Trinidad and Tobago Yachting Association along with well over a hundred other cruising boats. The anchorage is calm with a pleasant cooling breeze, the almost full moon peering through the clouds. The music and laughter of a small group of local teenagers drifts across the water from the nearby beach. All in all a rather nice way to spend an evening in February.
Though peaceful and serene now, the beginning of the month was anything but quiet! First let me tell you a little about Trinidad's Carnival and then I'll tell you about our experience. Carnival is not an event you come to see, there are no postcards depicting carnival, we don't see ads on American TV enticing us to come to Trinidad for Carnival. Carnival is not a tourist attraction; Carnival is for Trinidadians, it is a celebration of their culture and music that we foreigners are privileged to be invited to participate in. To experience Carnival you must join in and be a part of it.
The experience begins shortly after Christmas when the Pan bands begin preparations for the regional competitions that will bring the best together for the Panorama finals held the day before Carnival. The Pan or Steel Drum is a Trinidadian invention. It's roots lie in the drums of Africa and the deep need of a people to express themselves musically. Pan bands from all over the country rehearse in their 'Pan Yards' where visitors are invited to stop by either informally or attend one of the many 'Parties'. The Pan bands are often made up of upwards of one hundred musicians of all ages. The instruments range from the shiny stainless steel tenor drum to the full size bass oil drum. A Pan band is a mobile band, all the instruments are mounted on metal framed carts where the musicians walk and play under a decorated tin roof as the cart is pushed through the streets. A percussion section which includes a conventional drum set and a variety of accompanying instruments and musicians is usually raised on a platform several feet above the rest riding on automobile size tires. This is no regular, sedate symphony orchestra, when the band starts playing the lively Pan tunes the musicians jump around and this entire collection of odd vehicles seems to take on a life of it's own, jumping, bouncing and dancing to the unique island music.
Trinidad is also known for Calypso and Soca music. Competitions in these categories are also an important part of Carnival. Calypso is the traditional folk music of the island. The songs are sung to simple tunes and the lyrics pass on a message on a variety of subjects from infidelity, "Tell me where you been last night Caroline " to politics "Jail them before it's too late, jail all these black market reprobates. Mudder, John public can't buy, they raisin the price of booze up too high". Soca on the other hand is all in the music. The lyrics are often more dance instructions "Put your hands in the air", "Stomp to the left, Stomp to the right" and of course "Jump and wave". Soca music however, is infectious; It's impossible to just sit still and listen. Many Soca tunes are written specifically for the road marches that are a very significant part of Carnival. In the road march the soca music is played from the platform of a large flat bed truck at very high volumes while the truck moves slowly through the streets followed by hundreds of dancing revelers.
In the weeks leading up to Carnival everyone visits the various Mas Camps to make the decision which Mas Band to join. Mas is short for masquerade and the band, not a musical group but is more like a Band of Indian. Each band has designed costumes and displays the various styles at the Mas Camps. When you decide on a band you order your costume from those displayed. The costumes can range from those of the 'Blue Devils' which are very little more than blue paint to those of Peter Minshall and his band 'Tapestry' which are incredible works of art more home on a stage or in an art gallery than in a parade.
Carnival itself begins just after midnight on Carnival Monday morning with 'J'ouvert' or the 'Mud Mas'. Band members gather in various parts of town in costume and parade through the streets in a road march following the big flat bed trucks loaded with speakers and playing loud soca music. As you may have expected the word 'Mud' has some significance. In this early morning parade barrels of mud and water paint are carried by the bands and few if any can avoid being smeared with the mucky mess. J'ouvert ends around 10:00 am Monday morning. Monday Night Mas is basically more of the same but this time without the mud and paint. The bands march through the streets from seven or eight Monday evening till two or three Tuesday morning. Carnival culminates with the huge 'Carnival Tuesday Mas' or 'Pretty Mas' when tens of thousands in the most beautiful and elaborate of costumes participate in a parade that begins just after sunrise and ends after the last band crosses the stage at the Queens Park Savanna well after sunset.
We arrived back in Trinidad on the 4th of the month and had missed a lot of the activities leading up to Carnival (next time I would stay in Trinidad from Christmas on). Soon after the anchor was set we were off to join a Mas Band. Many of the cruisers had joined the band "Desert Rats" and for us neophytes this seemed the best way to start. The rest of the week before Carnival we attended several competitions including Panarama, the steel band finals, and the competition for Carnival King and Queen where the most elaborate costumes are judged. We had invited our friend Marianella from Puerto Cabello to join us for the week and very much enjoyed seeing her again. For me one of the highlights of Carnival was on the night of Panarama when at 2:00am we sat in the chartered "Yachties to Carnival" bus half asleep, waiting to return to the anchorage when I looked up to see a familiar face walking down the aisle towards us. My very good friend from Ottawa, Frank Caesar, a native Trinidadian, who has for years tried to get me to come for Carnival decided to pay us a surprise visit. Frank and his family arrived at 9:00 that evening and after getting the family settled at his father's home in San Fernando, Frank headed into Port of Spain to Panorama knowing we'd be somewhere in the crowd.
Carnival Queen entry
Carnival Queen winner
Carnival King entry
Carnival King winner
Sunday before Carnival was a quiet day but everyone was itching with anticipation of the days to come. We spent the day with Marianella visiting with friends then after dinner tried to get a bit of sleep. Ok, so I'm just a big kid, I have looked forward to this Carnival for so many years it was like Christmas eve when I was six years old! I couldn't sleep a wink. Just before midnight we dressed in our costumes and headed into shore. The chartered bus took us downtown to our starting point where we joined hundreds of other 'Desert Rats' for the road march. A Pan band provided some lively music as the group assembled and the mobile bar dispensed copious amounts of thirst quenching, inhibition suppressing rum punch. By 2:00am the big music truck roared to life and off we went dancing through the streets of Port of Spain. I really can't describe this in words, this mobile party of thousands is something you must experience for yourself. In Trinidad you don't "go to Carnival" you "play Mas" and that's what we all did.
Ready for j'ouvert
Marinella's one girl pan band
J'ouvert road march - follow the leader, leader, leader...
By Monday morning when the bus arrived to take us back home it was very hard to keep our eyes open. Victim to exhaustion, sore feet and rum punch we had a lazy day and decided to forgo Monday Night Mas in favour of dinner aboard 'Syncronicity' with our friends Tom and Judy and an early night to bed.
Somewhat revived we rose early Tuesday morning and headed into Port of Spain to the Queens Park Savanna to see the highlight of Carnival, 'Pretty Mas'. The Bands started to cross the Savanna stage by 8:00am and continued throughout the day finishing after 8:00pm! Tens of thousands of people participated. All in the most beautiful costumes. The most spectacular costumes were those of the band 'Tapestry'. The designer, Peter Minshall is well known throughout the world and has designed costumes for such events as the Olympics. His costumes for this year's carnival stood well above the rest. Hundreds of thousands of meters of flowing fabrics combined with such simple, common items like wire mesh, paper and plastic spoons coloured in gold and earthy brown tones. The magic created by Peter's deep understanding of the nature and people of Trinidad, his imagination and artistry were nothing less than moving, living works of art. A gallery entitled "The Tapestry of the Islands" unfolded before us as his band of masqueraders crossed the stage.
The Saturday after Carnival brings the very best to the stage of the Savanna in
"Champs in Concert". There is so much going on before Carnival that it is near
impossible to attend everything. The 'Champs" show brings all the winners to the
stage along with samplings of the many costumes from the Children's Carnival held a week
before Carnival and from the various 'pretty mas' bands. Combined with the Calypso and
Soca winners and winners in the numerous pan competitions it made for a very entertaining,
albeit long, evening. At the end of the evening Carnival 97 was over but will certainly
not be forgotten. At the first few bars of a number of this years soca tunes from the CD
player Evelyn instantly begins a road march dance and is off around the boat
"Follow the leader, leader, leader, follow the leader"
March 6, 1997
The last two weeks we have played tourist. This last week with our visitors Bernie Coyne and his partner Lynn Squires and the previous week with Lisa. As I have mentioned before 'Cruising' Trinidad is done with four wheels and running shoes. So, we rented a car. After picking up the keys and inspecting the car at the rental agency I spent a few confused moments sitting behind the glove compartment in the left hand front seat trying to find the steering wheel. It had been a long time since I'd driven a car but really, was my memory that bad? The steering wheel is supposed to be on the left side right? Well, not only are the steering wheels on the wrong side of the car I soon discovered that they all drive on the wrong side of the road here too. I now understood why when I had carefully looked both ways and stepped out onto the street I often heard horns blaring and tires screeching and found myself staring at the front bumper of a bus. To top it all off, after a year of zooming along at 6 knots (6.6 mph), 30 miles per hour is totally out of control! Boy, am I going to have some adjusting to do to return to 'normal' life!
We began our sight seeing tour heading north into the high coastal mountains. We followed the narrow winding roads climbing ever higher up the valley. Each twist and turn offered picturesque views of the towns along the western Gulf of Paria coastline. The vegetation became more lush and green the higher we climbed. Suddenly, as we rounded one more blind curve, we were over the ridge and looked from high above onto the beautiful, blue Caribbean sea. Even from this distance the scene was not peaceful as wave after wave pounded and surged against the rugged coastline. The northern side of the mountain range is covered by a tropical rain forest and huge ferns and dripping vines hang over the road which has a very tenuous hold on the steep mountain slopes. The views along the coast are breathtaking. As much as I wanted to photograph each new scene there are very few places where we could safely stop. The road is hardly wide enough for two cars to pass with only a mountain on one side and a cliff on the other. Fortunately there is one 'scenic lookout' where we could stop to admire the view and take pictures. While stretching our legs we enjoyed fresh coconut water sold by a local vendor and were entertained by a calypso singer.
Blue Basin waterfall
La Vache Bay on Trinidad's north coast
From the lookout we continued on to Maracas Beach. This picture perfect beach is one of the largest and most popular in Trinidad. We stopped for a swim and some poor attempts at body surfing in the large breaking waves. After our swim we treated ourselves to lunch at the equally famous "Richard's Bake and Shark". Bake is a deep fried pastry somewhat like pita bread that is cut open and the shark is just that, deep fried, battered shark. Topped with spicy sauces this sandwich alone was worth the drive (It has always given me some satisfaction to eat something that given the opportunity would rather be eating me!). Maracas Beach was as far as we got with Lisa as several days of heavy rain had caused mud slides that had closed the roads beyond this point. A week later, with Bernie and Lynn we were able to continue along the coast to the small town of Blanchisseuse where the coastal road ends and we traveled south through dense rain forest climbing once again to the ridge high above sea level.
North coast near Blanchisseuse
On our way back to Port of Spain through the Arima Valley we stopped at the Asa Wright Nature Centre. The Nature Centre is a privately owned resort deep in the mountain forest. Numerous trails are set through the 98 acre property where guests can walk either on their own or on guided tours. The area is home to over 25 species of birds and a vast array of plant and tree life. We were too late for a tour but enjoyed a brief stop at the main lodge where we watched and photographed hummingbirds from only a couple of feet away at special feeders positioned around the verandah.
With Lisa we drove to the southern end of the Island to visit the 'Pitch Lake'. The drive along a modern 4 lane divided highway took us south through the Caroni Swamp region, across the savanna or flat lands of central Trinidad where the road was lined with miles of sugar cane plants waving in the breeze then through San Fernando, the centre of Trinidad's oil and manufacturing industries. From San Fernando we traveled west along the coast of the Gulf of Paria to the small town of La Brea. As we approached the town we could smell the pitch or asphalt and noticed numerous houses sitting at seemingly odd angles. Some homes and building had in fact collapsed. Every home no matter how small or run down did however have a well paved driveway. The pitch lake is actually a lake some 250 feet deep. Part of the lake is exposed and part runs under the soil that the town is built on . Though it is possible to walk on the surface of the lake if you stand in one place for a few minutes you begin to sink. The trucks used to harvest the pitch do not stop moving. Even while waiting for the dump truck to return from the processing plant on the edge of the lake the front end loader continually drives in circles to avoid sinking. Apparently objects that sink into the pitch will reappear some 100 years later as the natural current of the lake carries them down and back up to the surface.
Lisa disappearing into the pitch lake
On our return trip to Chagaramus we stopped at the Caroni swamp bird sanctuary. There is one tour each day that starts at 3:00pm and returns just after sunset. The large open boats carry visitors through the maze of canals in the mangrove swamp finally arriving at a central lake just before sunset where we watched the Scarlet Ibis return to their nests for the night. On our tour through the swamp we saw many colourful birds, several Boa Constrictors who were also watching the birds but for a very different reason, and even an alligator. A rather forbidding place for us humans, the swamp is home to an incredible variety of wildlife.
Boat tour of the Caroni Swamp Bird Sanctuary
As I mentioned, Trinidad has only a few anchorages among the islands to the north west. As Bernie and Lynn were missing the very best of the ice sailing season back home we couldn't let them leave with out just a bit of sailing. We left the anchorage at TTYA and motored through the larger anchorage past the large marine facilities of Peake's, Power Boats, IMS and Crew's Inn. These boat yards accommodate the hundreds of boats that haulout each year for repairs, painting and storage. We continued the five miles further to Scotland Bay where we anchored for the night and remained the next day to swim and enjoy the sunshine in this quiet, relaxed bay. The following day we sailed through the Boca out into the Caribbean. We sailed about five miles out on a course to Grenada. The winds were good, about 18 to 20 knots, the seas were a bit bumpy but not at all bad and our course would take us the 75 miles in good time. But, unfortunately, this was not to be . this time. So we reluctantly changed course and headed into Chachacacare Island.
Chachacacare was, up until a few years ago, a leper's colony. Now abandoned, the houses, hospital and Nun's residence's are slowly being reclaimed by the forests. After a peaceful nights rest and a leisurely breakfast we went ashore to explore the remains of this surprising large community. Many of the building are beginning to crumble but many of the larger structures like the hospital, laundry and residences are still in good condition. Walking along the pathways through the now empty homes it is easy to feel an empathy with the souls that once came here through no choice of there own and with no hope of ever seeing their family and friends again. Suffering from a disease that would slowly claim their bodies and their lives and for which there was no cure. I wonder if those former residents appreciated the natural beauty that surrounded them or if this was only a prison with invisible bars? As we walked, the squeaking of old floor boards and the occasional door or shutter slamming in the wind gave the island an eerie feeling. An interesting place to visit by day; you would not find me walking those paths at night!
Nun's residence Chachacacare Island
View of the anchorage at Chachacare from shore
Chachacacare Bay from the Nun's residence
Path to the village - Chachacacare
It is now the wee hours of Friday morning. Later this morning we will return to
Chagaramas for Bernie and Lynn to catch their early Saturday morning flight home and to
prepare for our simultaneous departure from Trinidad to head up island to St. Lucia. The
breeze seems to have lessened a bit from the previous few days. The sky is ablaze with
stars and my one early morning companion is splashing about in the water around the boat.
This is the time of year when the giant sea turtles return to Trinidad waters to feast on
the ample supply of jelly fish. My companion has been dining while I am completing my
letter. Every few minutes I hear a splash and in the water a burst of bioluminescence
betrays her position as her powerful fore-arms propel her down into the black waters in
search of another translucent delicacy. Occasionally my attention is drawn by a rather
solid thump on the hull as she swims around and beneath the keel. I have very much enjoyed
the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Trinidad these past few weeks but my nighttime
companion and this beautiful anchorage remind me of the peace and tranquillity that only a
secluded anchorage or night passage can instill in the soul. It is time to move on, like
my turtle friend, with my protective shell around me, in search of all that life in this
beautiful Caribbean sea has to offer.
Best wishes to all.