Friday, January 09, 2009

Tobago stories


Caribbean colors

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1. The Bacolet Beach Club (my home for the week) is the brand new wing of an older, family inn – once called the Old Donkey Cart (morphed eventually into the Half Moon Blue; each name has a story, but that’s probably not what you want to read here. Of more general interest is the fact that you can get good rates because things are still so new. And they know that once you come, you’ll be addicted, like the humming bird that keeps coming to this place for the sugar water because it cannot find it anywhere else).

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2. Tobago is not a cruise ship destination. Until the 60s, it wasn’t much of a tourist destination either. But, the hurricane came and destroyed much of the agricultural base. They rebuilt, but with an emphasis now on eco tourism and longer-stay guests. A cruise ship will dock about once a week and it is an event, heralded up and down the island: “the cruise boat is in today!” People brace for it.

3. Tobago, especially on the more populated end of things, is safe, even for solo women travelers. The angry man of last night appears to be a tolerated town crazy. Harmless, I am told. Knife in pocket notwithstanding. Just a little angry, that’s all.

How do I know all this? And so much more? I spent the morning hours in the company of Mr. Stafford “Beardy” Taylor.

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If yesterday was the orientation, today was immersion. Reflecting back on my first day here, I decided I needed time with a local person who knew the island and was willing to answer my many, many questions about it. Mr. Beardy. You need Mr. Beardy – I am told.

I chatted with him late in the day and told him what I would like to see in the space of about five hours (I know he charges for his time and I know what I can afford). He listened and said – I’ll pick you up at 7:30 in the morning.

And so we loop the southern half of the island, Mr. Beardy and I. And, except for a few pauses for soca music and cell calls from a needy aunt plus a handful of friends (yea, Pundin, wha’ happenin’…), we talk. By early afternoon, when I am dropped back at Bacolet, I know a lot about him and quite a bit about Tobago, and he knows a lot about my views on God, ghosts, children, men who wear pants halfway down their rear ends, ecotourism, and food.

We are on our way to Fort King George (so many invaders!). Mr. Beardy talks about the way traffic moves here. An old man told me two things, he says. Always try to make people like you. We toss this around for a bit. What’s the second thing? Don’t get hungry.

He means hungry for a confrontation. On the road, Mr. Beardy drives with an attitude of benevolence. Yea, man! - he’ll shout with a wide grin out the window to the car he just let through on a tight stretch.

So, in the towns, why are there two parallel green (or red) lights on an intersection? I ask. In case one burns out! It may take a while to repair. In the meantime, you have the other one!

From the Fort, we get the views toward Scarborough and, on the other side, to the coastline beyond.

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We’re back on the road now. We pass a hospital, schools, more schools. I get a lecture on each one. A clinic in every town. There, see that? A school for the average students. With average teachers. 90% of parents would not want their child to go there. In all of Tobago, free books, buses and lunches for students. And so on. Tobago isn’t hurting for services. At least, not for another several years, Mr. Beardy says. When the price of oil drops below $40 per barrel, we’re in trouble (Trinidad is the one island in the Caribbean that has a refinery).

Scenically, what stands out on this drive is the lushness of the hilly landscape. Outside the tiny towns and villages, the vegetation is over the top gorgeous. Forests and flowers.

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And the fruits -- what's in season now? -- I ask. Now we are finishing with oranges and we have ripe watermelon, papaya and banana. You lucky people. I want to say we have hoop spinach in Wisconsin year round, but I think he wont be impressed. What’s the coldest it gets here? Oh, we can get down in the middle of winter nights. All the way to 26 C (that would be 73.5 F). I tell him our January high can be 26. In Fahrenheit.

Mr Beardy knows that I want to see the birds that are so much part of Tobago’s sound system (I don’t know which is louder – the local Cocrico…

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… or the beat of soca music.)

We head to the Grafton Estate, where his friend Sampson gives nature walks for birdwatchers. We don’t hike on this day, but even a few minutes here are rewarding. The blue gray tenager makes a repeat appearance and I am tickled to see these yellow breasted sugar eaters, because they are my breakfast companions back at the Inn, even as my occasional traveling companion has chosen to sit this one out.

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…and to their surprise, we get a real friendly visit from the gorgeous blue crown mot mot.

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I could do a post on the birds of this place and nothing more (there are so many!)…

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… but someone dear to me has rolled her eyes at my recent obsession with spotting birds and so I’ll move on to the next stop – Plymouth. From here, you can see the beaches where the huge leatherback turtles lay their eggs in spring.

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…and Mr. Beardy, liking my legal training and incorrectly assuming that this makes one clever with puzzles (Mr. Beardy’s dad was a lawyer and Mr. Beardy has a high regard for the profession), throws a local legend at me as we stand by the grave of a young lass of 24. How can this be, he asks me, pointing to the inscription on the tombstone?

She was a mother without knowing it and a wife without letting her husband know it except by her kind indulgences to him.

Turns out she had spells of amnesia and died in childbirth and he had spells of drunkenness which messed with his memory and no, I did not guess instantly, only after I’d been given hints of such telling force that a lightbulb finally went off for me. [He was a sailor! What do sailors do?? – Mr. Beardy asks, surprised that a lawyer should not know all. Fish? Go away? Get sick? Have other women? Hoist sails and get beaned by the mast? Oh, right! Get drunk! Of course.]

Out of Plymouth now. We drive up to another place – a home of a man who loves the birds that migrate through this island. The (passing through) hummingbirds come in from the forest to feed in his yard. As we pull up, two large dogs lope toward us.

Dogs here do not like Black people, Mr. Beardy tells me.
You’re joking. Aren’t dogs colorblind?
No, they really do not like us. You watch.

We get out of the car. The dogs bark and growl at him. Me? They run over wagging and whining to get my attention. I give a quick rub behind their ears.

It’s because white people like you treat them so well – like they’re important. (He says this as I offer sweet words of friendliness to the pooches.) We just treat them like dogs.

You’d think I would feel all happy with the idea that dogs like me, the visitor, the interloper. But in the evening, as I stroll the streets of Scarborough looking for street food (more on that later), a stray mutt circles me and follows closely and I am cursing my whiteness. Strays, in my mind, are, in many countries, more dangerous to the passerby than street bums and muggers. And here I am, with the cruise ship gone and if you take Mr. Beardy’s word – the only possible dog pal out and about. A helpful group of (liming) girls make banging noises at the dog and eventually the bitch wanders off.

We look for the humming birds. They are here alright. And they are breathtakingly beautiful.

You come at a good time, Mr. Beardy says. They just appeared again this month.

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And now we are on a winding road that cuts through the edge of the rainforest. We’re along the opposite shore, where the pace is even quieter, gentler.

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Mr. Beardy is having a wonderful time being gracious to buses and cars that appear to face us head on as we spiral our way around the hills.

And here’s the thing – these hills, green as anything, are also alive with the splash of color of blooming trees. We have more blooming trees than any other Caribbean island! – Mr. Beardy says this confidently so that I actually believe him. And I’m seeing them – bright orange and gorgeous. That’s the Immortal tree. Parrots eat their flowers. And up at Plymouth? That was the Flamboyant. It just finished its blooming period.

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We round the corner and I see a village by the sea. Castora.

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Someone told me that Castora is especially pretty. Even more laid back. A wider stretch of sand, gentle Caribbean waves. A place where fishing brings in more money than tourism. At the fishing coop, the men wait for the boats to come in.

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Smell that pot? I nod. Is it illegal? Yes, but police don’t arrest for smoking. And the smoker will show some respect when the police come by and put out the pot. And you know, we are not really a nation of smokers, he says. And it’s true. I rarely see anyone smoking cigarettes.

Mr. Beardy gives me time to stroll (and get my pants wet in the warm, gentle waves) and grab a coffee. Okay, I cannot resist. And papaya pineapple juice. And an egg sandwich.

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I am smiling. And relaxed. I am also late for my meet up with Mr. Beardy. I have found the Tobago pace.

Up the mountain we go now, crossing the rainforest, through quiet villages…

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...wait, why are we stopping? I always stop here if I pass by. It is Tobago’s best bakery. I pick up a coconut drop (they look like our scones, but they are more delicate).

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Of course, one is not possible. We pick up several and I head back home (with a request for another meet-up Sunday evening: more on that later).

Having blown my day’s sums of TT dollars on the morning spin, I am left with street food for dinner. Doubles (fried bara breads with chickpea curry and spicy chutney) from one man's van, sugar juice from here:

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...and finally, oddly enough, Italian ice cream from a tiny little café in town.

I’m not sure if this really constituted a meal, but if I want to try Tobago’s snack food, this is one way to do it. Cheap and tasty does not mean light and insignificant. It is curious to me that men here tend to be tall and gaunt and women tend to be large. Mr. Beardy noted this too as we passed yet another handful, liming by the side of the road. They have a baby and then they eat too much, he told me. I asked him if maybe the ideal type here was differently drawn than, say, in the States. He shook his head. It’s not good and our foods are good but heavy, he said, reaching into the bag for another bit of the coconut drop.