The truth about islands is that they stand aloof. Unlike other masses of land, a laid-back, easy-going vibe appears written into their constitution. Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad — with its clichéd yet eloquent set of golden sands, tropical breezes and swaying palms, has an abiding party-around-the-clock-and-around-the-year rhythm.
Before Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) each year, the West Indian Carnival ups the volume and the intensity of the let-your-hair-down scene — with its days and nights of non-stop dance, soca and calypso music acts, bands prancing down the streets and the out-and-out orgy of gyrating hips and energy sweeping Port of Spain.
But the salient feature of Trinidad, is that whatever time of year you choose to visit, the party-hard ethic, illustrated eloquently at carnival time, flows as fast. Beach gatherings, annual harvest and fishermen’s festivals, even a collection of a few locals in a picturesque spot with a bottle of rum are sufficient reasons for the folks here to blissfully dismiss time.
Maracas bay, one of a multitude of stunning beaches along the coast, is a typical socalising or in Trini-speak “lime” venue. Here, there are competing blues of sea and sky, and a mouthful of bake-and-shark — a fish sandwich doused and dressed with mustard, mayonnaise, garlic, chadon beni, pepper sauce, lettuce and pineapple. Clearly, Trinidad is one of the best reasons to have got out of my city, my clothes, my self. When I think about it, I could have chosen to go to Rome and stood there applauding armless statues or figurines of long-gone popes, but am instinctively more charmed by this tapestry of humanity dancing atop a cliff-face in the most attention-seeking clobber.
But the enviable quality of the island really lies in its success in embracing competing poles of culture and nature, the hedonistic and the harmonious. There’s a deep cultural heart to Trinidad that can be felt in the whimsical architecture along Queen’s Park West, and pondered over in the National Museum and Art Gallery, with its extensive collection of everything — from the geological history of the island to colonial era canons to Trinbagonian art. It can be tasted in the ever-popular street food — from corn soup to pelau to pholourie — all speaking volumes of this intensely multi-cultural land. Culinary influences, just like other cultural infusions, came as an outcome of European colonialism, West African slavery and East Indian indentured labour.
The steel pan concerts around town fascinate me. Seated alongside is an Indian who appears anoyed that I am focussed on the sound of the steel pan — that originated here using drums fashioned from oil containers brought to the island. That, and the fact that I am swooning over Soca — the melodic sound of calypso fused with percussion in pan yards, but have bypassed the pocket of Indo-Caribbean culture in Carapichaima.
He drives me, with the impossible-to-avoid friendliness of the people living here, to Carapichaima, in central Trinidad. The Waterloo temple, an onion-shaped dome structure situated at the edge of the land surrounded by sea, flanked by prayer flags planted in the water, is a welcome mat for any adventure here. Close at hand is a larger-than-life at 26-metres tall Hanuman Murthi, which is the largest representation of the Hindu monkey god outside India.
But the Holy Spirit in this trinity of must-dos is really the Indo-Caribbean museum. It was born of the collaboration of local and expatriate contributions, and offers illuminating insight through artefacts and documents, into the lives of those Indians who came to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations as indentured labour or educated men-in-service in the 1830’s. The museum’s knowledgeable curator is always near at hand to give further context to any question you may have, from a painting you see hanging on a wall, to the psychological importance of the sugarcane crop on the Indo-Trinidadians here.
Another peaceful foil to the chaotic is the 15-minute boat ride, past the holiday home of the rich and the restless, past a line of pleasure boats and yatchs, away from the mainland to islands like Gaspar Grande. Not even the unusual route towards the Gasparee caves on the island, past tan-trees with names like ‘naked-Indian’ owing to the colour of their peeling bark, nor the diversity of forest fauna are sufficient to prepare you for the spectral wonder that lies ahead. In the cathedral-like caves are green-tinged stalactites and stalagmites, reflected in the turquoise pools of water to bathe in.
Above the pools, fruit bats dance vigorously. From where I stand, under these domes wrapped in silence and contemplation, the town seem light years away. The rear of the caves are home to rock formations named in accordance with the shapes they represent. In this unfolding stillness, we examine every figure with forensic care, trying to guess at what they are — The Lovers, Buddha....
Outside, bird afficionados zoom in on a scarlet ibis and majestic mot-mots. While in the wee rest-station above the caves, explorers share tales of their adventures. Some talk with shining eyes of visits to secluded beaches, where they had front row seats watching nature’s opera unfold.
Leatherback turtles laying their eggs on beaches, hatchlings stumbling their way to sea appear to have moved many pens and souls. Grande Riviere, the name several travellers are scribbling furiously upon their must-see lists, is one of the islands’ top turtle nesting sites.
The biggest shopaholic I’ve ever met tells me that she’s packed her bags with Caribbean titles from the eclectic “Reader’s Bookstore”, plundered the shops for high-quality cocoa and coffee, gone to town buying soca, rapso, chutney, steelpan and unusual new music at Crosby’s on 54 West Main Road. She went on about the abundance of locally-made souvenirs — from woven-palm grasshoppers to carved driftwood. Yet, she said, it’s really the peace born in her as she walked the islands, explored caves, combed undeveloped beaches, swam in rock pools and captured rainforest on film, that she’ll carry back most dearly.
Which is why, perhaps, classifying Trindad as a fun-and-sun loving nation, in the face of its multi-facetedness and ability to hold contrasts, only scratches the surface of what an adventure it can offer. The adventure really begins to unfold only when I look beyond the cliche.