The Ballards - Trinidad & Tobago







 

The best holidays are always those where you get the chance to be as un-touristy as possible, preferably staying with a local and not in a hotel. This is when you really get beneath the surface of a place.

We have a good friend who comes from a well-connected family in Trinidad, who lives in England (and makes a very good living in Computer sales) but has roots back in the West Indies. In 1987 we persuaded him to show us Trinidad and Tobago. My friends flew in from the UK and I joined them from Illinois where I was living at the time, and we joined up in Port of Spain.

 
 

Coming through Immigration was an experience: it was hot, dark, and I was a bit jet-lagged after three flights and assorted connections. We had been given Landing cards during the flight and it became apparent that I had forgotten my friend's local address in Port of Spain. So, when my turn at the passport officer window came I (expecting a friendly welcome from this ex-British colony...) got the 3rd degree:
"Where you staying, Mon?"
"Well, actually, my good man, I don't remember the address........"
"So you's not stayin' in a hotel, then?"
"Er... well... no, actually...."
I'm pretty sure he had me down as a terrorist or drug-smuggler at this point.
"So, come on, who ya stayin' with?"
"Er, well...."
(feeling a right pratt by this point)
"....actually, the Quaminas"
(how the hell was he going to know them from Adam?)
"Oh, well why di'n ya say so?" says suddenly-friendly Mr Passport man, who proceeds to write in their address for me on the Landing card (from memory!), stamps the passport, waves at the Customs guy and I'm out of the airport in 20 seconds, with luggage. For once in my life I felt like a VIP.

We spent the first few days in Port of Spain. It was so hot, we spent a lot of time in the pool. Even in the evenings it was so hot that within 30 seconds of exiting a cold shower you were as sweaty as you were before you had the shower.

 

We had a Nissan estate for trundling around in, with air-conditioning. The ambient air was so humid that whenever we started the car the air-conditioning would immediately fill the car with steam before getting going.

 

Trinidad is not tourist-Caribbean. The local inhabitants are not very tourist-friendly; they are more interested in getting on with their own lives.
However, it's one of the few truly racially integrated places I've ever been to: a combination of a British colonial past and a peaceful transition to local government in 1962 left a good working infrastructure and a liberal racial attitude. Elsewhere I might have worried about being the only white guy drinking in a bar full of black people, but not here.

 

Hangin' around on the streets of Port of Spain and doing not a lot but drinking Carib beer (endemic in the Caribbean) and eating roadside Roti, is known as "Liming".
All Trinidadian males go through a Liming period in their late teens, some never entirely recover.
But the roadside Roti, a steaming mix of spicy vegetables and meat in unleavened bread, cooked on a spirit stove, is uniformly excellent. Being hot and spicy, hygiene is not an issue, and we never had problems.
But it's not something you'd do if you were a tourist.

The worlds shortest pressurised jet flight begins at Port of Spain Airport. A BWIA (But Will I Arrive?) Boeing 727 that had to have done more pressurisation cycles than Boeing's test structure thundered down the runway, climbed to 10,000ft then immediately descended to a eyeballs-out, full reverse-thrust and maximum braking stop 4.7mm from the end of the Tobago runway exactly 14 minutes after brake release.


I swear the nose of the aircraft was over the beach, only the nosegear was still vaguely on the tarmac of the runway designed for Piper Cubs. Round we went, the maingear creaking and rumbling over the coral, and back to the airport building, where we all piled in to a Tobagonian taxi.

Tobago is smaller than Trinidad and a great deal more rural. The pace of life is very much slower (slower than anywhere I've ever been, including the canals), and all are very laid back.

Since our visit, the runway has been massively extended, allowing 747s direct from Heathrow to touch down without becoming salty reefs off the end, and this is a shame because I'm sure the tourist industry will ruin the island, and it will become just another West Indian beach and watersports island.

When I was at school, we learned Geography from Cambridge University Press World Geography books printed in the late 1950s: all hard covers and British Empire trappings.
Some of them still had countries like Nyasaland and British East Africa in them: African colonialism and its asociated kleptocracies had yet to make their mark on these frozen instances of seemingly authoritative reference. The books were as interesting for their dated and stilted language and black and white glossy pictures as they were for their educational abilities.
I whiled away many a happy geography lesson (where we were meant to be learning about sedimentary glaciation or some other such rubbish) flicking through these books and wondering what these countries were really like.

One of the items I remembered from these books was about the Great Trinidad Pitch Lake. Apparently, scaffolding poles and tractors left too long on the surface slowly disappear in to the pitch and emerge, years later, twisted and torn by the huge internal pressures of the lake.
I always though this was fascinating (far more interesting than the physical geography of Devon which we were meant to be concentrating on....) and when, 25 or so years later, I went to Trinidad, I jumped at the chance to see the lake for real.

We drove down through the centre of Trinidad via the one dual-carriageway the oil money allowed them to build before it ran out. Nowadays, driving down it is like some apocalyptic post-industrial Hollywood film: the skeleton of the industrial era rotting away through lack of maintenance; plants growing through the tarmac, and the odd chunk of embankment sloughing away cutting off the slow lane. Rusting oil barrels delineated the section of road physically missing: apparently they had been there for several years in 1987.

The dual-carriageway ran out very suddenly and we were back to the frankly appalling roads endemic to the island, populated almost entirely by beautifully maintained but mind-bogglingly mediocre Japanese saloon cars.
They had flashing light strips running up and down the doors, across the bonnet in KITT-like strips, hundreds of Earthing strips down the sides, immaculately maintained chromed wheels and tyres far too big for the wheel arches, furry dice, sunstrips, spoilers, multiple whip aerials. Obviously Paddy Hopkirk had done a job on these guys...... You were left asking "yes, but why? I mean, a Toyota Primera?".
The lake was down a very long track and had not seen a tourist in many a year. Thus it was entirely undeveloped: no fences or Visitor Centres. It looked like a big lumpy roadway, and was very slightly spongy to walk on. Being impervious to water, rains collect in any hollow, and being black, it absorbs the heat so these freshwater traps are great for swimming in: like baths.
They were mining the pitch as we looked on: the tractor would keep moving very slowly, and you could see the tyre marks it left. Presumably if it stalls, they write it off.......

My favourite was the Trinidadian method of emerging from a T-junction to turn right.
The first car (they drive on the left) stops in the approved position and waits. Following cars don't queue up behind this car, but to the left of it, revving their engines.
By the time a gap appears in the traffic there may be a line of perhaps 12 cars ready to go all at once, stretching across the road, across the gravel run-off, and on to the grass.
Actually, it's very efficient, if a little dangerous, as they all go at once and at high speed, accompanied by quantities of gravel and grass. Third World driving....