Touchdown in Trinidad

I slid the window shutter upwards as the plane dipped. The first inklings of the new day were barely visible. The pitch black horizon below and starry night sky above were dissected by the narrowest arc of crimson daylight. Let the adventure begin, I thought.

About half an hour later, I was practically the last person left in the Arrivals processing area at Piarco International Airport. Even the staff had all but disappeared as they finished their evening shift at 6am on Saturday morning. After an unofficial escort to the cash machine that skipped Customs, baggage check and every other national security measure, I returned to Arrivals, secured my Visa Waiver and was stamped in. The large, bearded official behind the counter looked up and handed my documents back. “All good, thanks Adam. Welcome to Trinidad and Tobago bwoy.”
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Going DDI

Growing up hearing about my cousins and family located on the southernmost Caribbean island, I knew I’d have to make it over someday. My grandmother often complained about how laid back they were, “ They think life’s just one big, bloody carnival out there”, romanticizing part of the Trini lifestyle every time the place was brought up. Seeing that life from here in the capital, Port of Spain, I realize that it takes a bit of time to get used to it.

The island is a diverse and animated place. Rugged mountains with tropical rainforests rise above slums plagued by poverty and violence. Huge industrial boathouses lie a few miles from pristine coconut palmed beaches. Shady characters line up behind wealthy businessmen,  both seeking a fix of tasty goat curry.  But a vibe unites these contrasts and flows through the blood of the people. It’s as thick as the air is humid. You feel like it instructs you to relax and “jus keep liming ‘til the next party maaan!”

Trinidad and Tobago’s culture is reflected vibrantly though its unique history. In the space of 500 years, a lot happened – indigenous Carib and Arawak tribes were discovered by Columbus and the Spanish before the French, Dutch and British took turns at ruling. African slaves and Indian indentured servants were brought in during the colonial era to work the land. Chinese, Portuguese even Middle Eastern migrants joined the party over the years with full independence from the British eventually coming in 1962.

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Residential street in Port of Spain’s west.

Since then, attempted military coups have been crushed, a smattering of European and North American expats have settled and impressive industrialization has led to some of the cheapest fuel in the world (around $3 TTD or $0.50 USD per liter) despite a minimum wage of $12.50 TTD (around $2 USD) per hour. Over 90% of the population is literate, tertiary education is provided free up to a Bachelors Degree and the nation has a steadily expanding tourism sector. T&T was actually removed from the list of “Developing Countries” by the OECD in 2011.

Life in and around the capital Port of Spain, has only two speeds for its 50 000 residents – slow and very  slow. It’s a pace at which I feel pretty comfortable and one at which we can all learn to chill out a bit. Things get done, only when they really, really need to get done. If you need to have everything sorted, completed and ready to go yesterday – then you gon’ learn some patience bwoy. Here, pleasure takes precedence over business. When it comes to partying, playing or having a good time with friends, the pace of life increases and folks ensure that these duties are carried out properly, with a burst of energy, flair and the famous Trini stamina.

The social calendar is focused around one of the biggest Carnivals in the world and the dry season (January to June) ensures good weather for the fetes and parties leading up to it. The cuisine is influenced by African, Indian, European, Chinese and Lebanese cultures and this amounts to some explosively flavoursome food. Football and cricket are almost as popular as Trinbago’s endemic music genres – soca, calypso, chutney and parang. In fact, the Steelpan, which comes from this small island, was the only acoustic music instrument invented in the 20th century!

DSC_2148A panyard – fine tuning the steelpans before the Carnival finals.

Driving in Port of Spain is an experience. The roads are often run down, potholed and full of obstacles including chickens, pedestrians, other vehicles and piles of debris. Yet many cars on the road are only 2 or 3 year-old Japanese imports. Indicating is usually done by waving your hands and using common courtesies are optional; using your horn and getting to your destination as quick as possible are mandatory. I’ve been told by several people that obtaining your drivers license has more to do with who you know and how much you need to pay them, and less to do with whether or not you can actually drive. To combat the terrible traffic congestion, the government recently repainted road signals, reversed the direction of hectic one way streets and banned roadside parking in busy areas like St James. This caused utter chaos and was quickly reversed, with the attitude for the whole experiment basically being, “well, it was worth a shot”. Drink-driving breathalyzer tests were only introduced in 2009. If you can survive driving in Port of Spain, I feel like you can drive anywhere. But barely half an hour out of the city and you find another world.

Only a few after touching down early on that Saturday morning, I found myself swimming in a waterfall pool in the middle of a rainforest, relaxing after a mildly strenuous hike. The mountain ranges that run parallel across the island’s north from west to east, provide some spectacular scenery and hiking opportunities. This particular hike, up to Rincon Falls was just what I needed after two days of sitting cramped up in planes and at the airport. Another hour later and we were liming at one of Trinidad’s best beaches – Maracas – where 20 foot palm trees welcome the warm Caribbean Ocean. Half an hour to the west of P.O.S and one hits Chaguaramas, a port where yachts, powerboats and fishing vessels bob about and where several party venues like O2 and Pier 1 are found. Chaguaramas is also the departure point for going DDI (Down Di Islands), for those sailing out to raft up near one of the 13 western islands.
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Rincon Waterfalls

Calling Port of Spain a melting pot will always be a cliché. Yet I find it’s the way that the melting pot continually bubbles up with new flavours and reinvents itself again and again that stands out. My first taste of Trinidad and Tobago certainly hasn’t disappointed – sweet and sour, cool and spicy all at once. The people share a fun-loving, laid back and happy-go-lucky attitude that you feel is ready to burst out into a party at any moment. And after adjusting my hearing to understand it, I find myself thinking and talking in the infectious accent. With Carnival 2013 only a few days away, its time to catch some sunshine, lime and perfect my wine.

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Las Cuevas Beach

3 Essential Trini Terms:

Bachannal – Mass confusion, craziness, party atmosphere, commotion.
Eg – “ I cyah escape di bachannal!”

Lime  – To hang out, to relax casually with friends, to loaf around somewhere . Used for any get together
Eg – “ We gon’ be liming by di beach all day”

Wine – A seductive style of dancing, gyrating your hips in a circular movement, often to Soca music.
Rolling your waistline in a sexual fashion. Can be done alone or with one or more people.
Eg – “She was wining on every man las’ night!”

4 thoughts on “Touchdown in Trinidad

  1. Adam, this is fantastic! You’ve really captured the culture of Trinidad in such a short time. I can’t wait to hear all about your Carnival experience.

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