BootsnAll Travel Network

Archive for December, 2008

« Home

Trinidad: How to get around

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008


Figuring out the maxi system in Port of Spain can be confusing, although it doesn’t look so at first sight. Some of the platforms at the terminal—adjacent to City Gate Bus Station—display signs that say ‘loading only’ or ‘offloading only’ from ‘6-9 a.m.’. For some unfathomable reason, no maxi would leave for San Fernando until eleven.

I discarded my plan to head to La Brea (for the Pitch Lake) and decided to divert to Chaguanas instead.

it was curiously quiet. I had taken my time over breakfast (cheese crackers and ChocNut) and arrived at the terminal around a quarter to nine, but it would have made no difference if I’d been earlier. The commuter traffic seemed to be strictly one-way.

At nine o’clock sharp, the maxi diverted to another platform where ‘offloading’ had just finished and ‘loading’ presumably began. There were no waiting passengers.

While the engine idled—fuelling the aircon—I considered my plans. The PSTC was running a range of affordable ‘Know Your Country’ tours at weekends, and I was armed with a list of destinations but little else. The Caroni Bird Sanctuary was obviously top of the picks, but the scarlet ibis fly in to roost at sunset and the sky was still overcast in the evenings. I would have to wait and see if the weather improved towards the end of the week. The rain season was due to come to an end.

Touring around Trinidad by maxi was supposed to give me some pointers, as well as allowing me to select a place to stay during my final two weeks. Probably not in Chaguanas where robberies and street crimes had got so out of hand in the run-up to Christmas that the mayor had made a public appeal for people to stay away. The shopkeepers wouldn’t have thanked him, nor would they have welcomed the rogue street vendors who blocked their entrances and sometimes colluded with the robbers (turning up the music to conceal the screams). The police was overwhelmed and the army was getting twitchy.

I mulled this over while we stood on the hot tarmac and waited. The radio was tuned to a risible Eighties station, and I began to regret my decision to travel soouth, looking at columns of red-banded maxis that drove past our solitary green-banded van.

Maxis willl leave when they are full. They don’t stop to pick up en route in Port of Spain. Maybe I should go back to the PSTC. The buses here were likely to run more frequently than in Tobago. But the terminal was forbidding. There were no posted schedules (not even vague ones) and the information booth didn’t look like it sold tickets. The attendant kept her windows firmly closed to preserve the aircon and I didn’t really want to go back and ask.

But when Lady in Red came on, I had enough and jumped out of the van. We had amassed all of three passengers by then.

The ticket booth was a hole in the wall next to the stairs, but the fare to San Fernando was a bargain 6 TT, which is less than quoted in the LP. The tickets are indeed interchangeable—the 2TT ticket I had bought to get from Crown Point to Scarborough was valid here—which made me feel a little richer.

The San Fernando bus left from a corner of the terminal where there was no shade and no benches. There was a long queue. I wrote my notes standing up, glancing longingly at the paper that lay at my feet, but the bus came in twenty minutes. It was a big, bendy job which would be full. People would have to stand, but—unlike in Tobago—boarding was orderly.

Why were there so few maxis? We passed hundreds of empty, parked red-band maxis, but no green ones.

At San Fernando, I looked in the wrong direction, lured by the sea. San Fernando is industrial and there is nothing much to see. The fish market opposite the bus station is a sordid place.

I turned back in the vague hope of finding a grill that wasn’t mainly a bar and was approached by a maxi driver before I had taken more than a few steps.

“Pitch Lake? This way!” He made a sweeping motion and the door of a brown-banded maxi glided open to admit me. A row of them was parked opposite the Sea View Restaurant.

Maxis are more relaxed than buses. People boarded with snacks and cold drinks and one bloke clutched a bottle of beer. Someone offered nuts for sale through the door. Soca music was playing, but quietly.

The drunken bloke made up for it by holding forth at full volume. He asked for a piss stop when we’d come half-way. I glanced at my watch: it was just past noon. Given that it was New Year’s Eve, he may have peaked too early.

The Pitch Lake

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

sinking grass bushel

I know this is what they all say, but from afar the Pitch Lake really doeslook like a parking lot, albeit one dotted with puddles and bushels of grass.

The area was fenced in and two tour guides stood at the ready to pounce on me, should I come any closer. But I didn’t care, I’d made it. I could take my snap and leave.

This felt like the end of a marathon.

Hector and Vincent weren’t too put off when I declined their offer of a tour. Ten US wasn’t a bad price, but I really couldn’t afford to pay that on my own. My secret hope was to tag along with a group and split the fee.

Vincent jumped up and sped towards a turning car. He waved at us, then signalled the driver to turn in and park a short way further down. He was on the job.

There is a fence around the lake, but no gate. It appeared to be publicly accessible. If I could get a little closer, I might get some better pictures.

“Don’t walk on the lake,” Hector warned. “It’s like quicksand in places. People die.”

“I know. I won’t—not without a guide.”

I got half-way to the turn-off—marvelling at the pitch that was encroaching on the path and rippling around the plants even without any visible source, this far from the lake—when Vincent called me over. He was consulting with a bunch of Indians.

“You walk with me,” he said, not waiting for any objections from the group. “Come.”

So I did get to tag along, but in my hurry not to cause any delays I missed a lot of good photo opportunities. If you want to see what the lake really looks like—and get a description of it from a better writer than myself—you could do worse than checking out this link.

Richard Seaman (above link) has found the words that escaped me on that day. The lake is almost like a living thing: oozing, warm and soft. It yielded under our steps like the skin of a giant beast. It oozed with imperceptible slowness, reminding me of a snail uncurling from its shell, wrinkles and grooves caught in a snapshot as they are unfurling. It even breathes. Vincent poked a finger into the soft pitch and prodded, opening a gas pocket like a tiny crater. He demonstrated that the pitch is riddled with holes, like a sponge.

“Otherwise this would be an active volcano,” he said.

In the rainy season, the lake is covered with small lakes and water-filled furrows. The water is almost golden with dissolved tar and smells of sulphur. Vincent swears that it would heal anything.

“Grazes, acne, mosquito bites—”

“Really?” I interrupted. “I could bathe in the stuff.

That got a laugh and I washed my feet with a bottle he had scooped up from one of the pools, but I didn’t have any actively itching bites that day, so I can’t attest as to whether it works.

Tiny fish dart between the furry algae that line the underwater walls. There was an amazing amount of life. Despite their pending peril, grasses grew crass and green between the black folds of pitch. Dragonflies perched on them. Vincent said that there were no mosquito larvae (“they can’t breath the toxic air”) but I saw a tiny waterbug, no bigger than a pin head.

“In six months they all die,” Hector said. “Here we get six months of sun and six months of rain. In the dry season, the water evaporates. Within three days, the pools will be filled again with pitch. Pitch is lighter than water and it’s pushed aside.”

At the bottom of every one of the mini lakes and furrows, we could see seams of fresh pitch oozing forth, as well as sometimes another substance that was creamy white. I wanted to ask, but the others were hurrying on. Vincent had stopped by a shiny patch, gesturing us all to stand back.

Most of the lake is covered by a leathery layer commonly referred to as ‘elephant skin’. It is peeled back and discarded when the pitch is mined. For some inexplicable reasons, part of the lake stay soft and you can draw strings of tar with a stick ‘like taffy’ as RS puts it.

Even on the dry patches we had to watch our step, as the lake constantly expels twigs and tree trunks, bits of a forest that may have been swallowed thousands of years ago. The wood is bone-dry and—as Vincent put it—as light as cork.

We had to come to the end of a fascinating tour. It was a bit like walking on the surface of another planet. I drank in the rich green of the wetland that surrounds the lake as Vincent went to pick a few flowers “for the ladies” (me and a teenage girl). Feeling sheepish at having intruded on their tour, I offered the others the bag of rose apples that I had bought from one of the street vendors in lieu of not taking him on as a tour guide.

When we shook hands I gave Vincent my card and twenty TT. I had noticed that this was what the others had paid per person. He didn’t say anything.

On the way back to the road, I stopped over at his and Hector’s patch to thank him again. I was gushing, because it had been an unexpected treat. I had regarded the Pitch Lake as a glorified parking lot: something that has to be ticked off on the list of sights in TT, like the Tower in London (not that the Tower is a glorified parking lot, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been there).

“One of Trinidad’s true surprises,” I said.

Port of Spain: The Hunt For Vegetables

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Central Market

The pound had dipped almost to the level of the euro, so I decided that the time had come to change my emergency American express cheques. I waited around at Scotiabank for an inordinate time, only for the teller to tell me that they didn’t cash TCs, despite the rates displayed on the screen. He sent me up the road to Republic Bank where the queue had swollen in the meantime.

I signed and handed over my 120US in twenty-dollar cheques, grinning sheepishly when the cashier looked at me.

“They’re worth a lot more in Thailand.”

She pushed them back at me. “Fill in the date”.

This was followed by a yellow form, and then a pink one. The process took a good ten minutes.

The whole morning was taken up with banking and shopping. I figured since I would stay at Pearl’s for a week, I might as well pick up supplies.


If somebody would build a northern-style supermarket in Port of Spain, they would make a million bucks. And I’m not talking TT. There are no shops other than the service station in a two-mile radius around Pearl’s, and while almost anything is for sale along the streets, it was impossible to scare up a single vegetable.
[read on]

Return To Trinidad

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Port of Spain harbour 1

The Lonely Planet isn’t really aimed at backpackers; it’s aimed at people who travel around in hire cars and don’t mind dropping 50-100US for a night’s accommodation.

What would make travel around Trinidad stressful is my tight budget. I might not get to see all the sights, but I came here primarily to immerse myself in the Caribbean vibe and to get away from the dreary, long, dark, wet UK winter—especially the Christmas madness and the month-long national January hangover that follows. Everything else would be icing on the cake.

As the ferry passed the island, it appeared that the whole of Trinidad was shrouded in clouds so dark that I could barely make out the outline of the mountains against the sky. The weather front was not moving.

I got a good drenching as I walked up the street, but it wasn’t enough for me to don the rain jacket. I hate wearing rain gear in the tropics. If you’re not doused from above, you’re steeped from underneath, in your own sweat.

I went back to Pearl’s. Not only was the weather lousy, but it was too late to travel on. They welcomed me with open arms and had my old room ready. I counted my remaining cash and negotiated a weekly rate of 100TT a night. There would be no extravagances.

There was practically a travellers’ convention going on. I wondered if all these people had read my blog. They were doctors—three Germans and one Dutch—here on training (“We get to see stab wounds and gunshot victims!”).

They hadn’t read my blog, but they had a better guidebook.

Curtis da Ice Cream Man

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Bus Terminal

I was picked up by a guy who introduced himself as ‘Curtis da Ice Cream Man’.

It was just after seven thirty, but I had headed to the bus stop late, after making the abrupt decision of going to Scarborough early, rather than waiting for the local internet café to open at nine. There was no telling whether the bus had already been or was on its way.

An hour-long wait (or longer) did not appeal.

Curtis swung open the door of his 4WD.

“How much?”


For a moment I was torn, but after yesterday’s spending spree I felt that I couldn’t waste any more money. Besides, it wasn’t fair.

“The usual fare is five,” I said. “If you take other people.”

He hesitated.

“Twenty-five dollars is my breakfast money. If I give you twenty, I’ll have five left to eat!”

He laughed. “Get in.”

For a long time there were no other people to pick up.

Curtis asked and I told him about my Christmas. About the drunken lewd men of Charlotteville.

“Oh man, you should have called,” he said, as if I was psychic. “Curtis would have come to the rescue!”

I smiled, but only for a moment.

“I’ll show you a good time, baby. Waddya say?”

At times I wish I had a hidden recorder to catch the dialogue, but I think you get the gist. He knew that I was going to Trinidad, and he wanted to come with me.

He was even going to pay for the guesthouse.


The bus overtook us as Curtis slowed to a stop to pick up other passengers. At least he was going with the flow. More likely he would have done so anyway, and still charged me twenty dollars.

His mood changed. He grew sullen and stopped talking, muttering noncommittal replies when people wished him complements of the season (Christmas greetings were only now giving way to New Year blessings). He may have truly believed that I would have gone to Trinidad with him, because for a moment I truly believed that I could not shake him off.

I wondered what I was letting myself in for.

The Xanax were safely ensconced in my moneybelt. I patted it surrepticiously. For the past two days I hadn’t needed them.

Curtis pulled over at a T-junction, with the KFC in sight. The last passenger was about to get out.

“Here is fine,” I blurted, fumbling for the money while simultaneously opening the door. I practically spilled out next to the bonnet of a parked blue car, rucksack, wallet and all. When I looked up I saw the amused face of a sari-clad woman behind the wheel.

“That man was after me,” i said and pulled a grimace. “He wanted to go to Trinidad with me!”

She smiled, and I laughed.

Buccoo Reef and the Nylon Pool

Sunday, December 28th, 2008


Today was my last day on the island, so I abandoned the budget and decided to do all the touristy things.

My first action was to book a glassbottom boat trip for 90TT (I could have gotten it cheaper, but not on a Sunday at the start of the season). Thankfully there was no sign of Miller with the springy curls, so I booked with Rama & Yorke who were represented by a business-like guy who looked dependable. I wouldn’t be alone either.

I went for a saltfish bake. Nostalgic music pumped from the speakers, bringing back memories of a London summer from long ago.
[read on]

Charlotteville: Getaway

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

In my rush to get to the bus stop,I had forgotten to put on my money belt. I unpacked half the backpack to make sure it was there, but with daylight creeping in fast, I could not put it on.

Some guys called out to me, but I told them to fuck off. I needed no more allies now. I wouldn’t be back.

Incredible though it might seem, I hadn’t saved up for a year, nor made sacrifices every day, to offer myself up for their entertainment. If genuine friendships were lost in the process, that is too bad. Remember what I said about bad nuts.

This morning was a hair-of-the-dog situation, and I didn’t like it. I prefer to start my mornings clear and sober. Talk about unwelcome visitors. On the other hand, if I’d met Anthony first, the place might never have soured on me. He was selfish in inviting himself along, but he was not lewd.

7:20 a.m. I had been at the bus stop for an hour. There was a light dusting of rain and the sky turned unnaturally bright.

I wanted to be in bed.

Commuters had been trickling in all morning, some of them leaving in private cars. One of the women consulted the useless schedule taped to the perspex wall. She had been there before me, before daybreak, sheltering underneath a Chenet tree on the opposite side of the street.

“Bus be here soon?” I asked.

“Hopefully.” She sounded resigned. She went back and stood at the street corner.

The bus arrived at 7:30 sharp.


No matter what Anthony said about Trinidad, I much rather deal with gun-toting, machete-swinging teenage crackheads than with the types I’d encountered in Charlotteville, because I don’t have to be polite to them. But Anthony had succeeded in making me nervous. There are too many guns in Trinidad.

On the other hand, Anthony had never been off the island, so what did he know? Tobagoan locals are known to be a little paranoid when it comes to the outside world.

In Scarborough, I took a route taxi that dropped me right at the entrance of Kilgwyn Bay Road (5TT), but Jacob’s Plaza turned out to be a seafood supplier, not a guesthouse.

“Oh the Plaza is closed,” said the driver of the next cab I hailed. “It’s been used as a hideaway.”

“A hideaway for what? Drugs? Gangsters?”

He wouldn’t say. I was the only passenger but the driver did not protest when I handed him 3TT as I got out.

After a long slog, I found a room without aircon (but with 2 king-sized beds and en-suite bathroom) for 150TT a night at Sandy’s Guesthouse about 500 yards up Store Bay Road.

Sandy's Guesthouse

Miller (“like the beer”) with the springy curls wanted to “take special care of me” with his glassbottom boat, so I hoped that I would hook up with someone before booking. It would have to wait until tomorrow.

Brunch was spicy pineapple (very spicy!) from the fruit shop and Alma’s cow heel soup from the kitchen huts at Store Bay. Bliss.

I started to relax, took care of the internet business and spent a very pleasant late afternoon at Bago’s Bar, perhaps my new choice for Number One Bar in the World. They don’t tolerate lewd behaviour there, and they don’t sell rum by the bottle. I met a man called Sheldon who introduced himself by asking “are you the girl with the Chinese cigarettes?” (I had brought Chinese cigarettes from Trinidad when I first arrived.)

I grinned and offered him a beedie. The smell and taste takes me straight back to Delhi, anno 1985. You keep something from every trip.


Saturday, December 27th, 2008

This blog is on hiatus for the time being. The internet café will be closed tomorrow and on Monday I’m off to Trinidad. not sure where yet. Port of Spain holds little appeal, but it may make sense to use it as a base.

I will be glad to be off this island. Tobago is not recommended for female solo travellers.

Bad Nuts

Friday, December 26th, 2008

[No pics, I’m in a rush and the net is shaky. Forgive lousy editing]

My budget is looking good. In fourteen days I’ve spent exactly 3000TT, but I expect things to get more exensive this weekend and when I’m going to Trinidad.

The plan for the weekend is to go back to Crown Point, because I don’t think staying in Scarborough is a good idea. I want to check in straight to the Surfside Hotel (if they have room) or another place near the airport, but I’ll be lucky to get somewhere for 30US a night. Then on Sunday—my last day on Tobago—I’m going to take a bloody glass bottom tour. I want to see for myself that there is coral here, and that seems to be the only way. If it wasn’t a Sunday, I might have gone to Buccoo, which was the nicest place I’ve stayed. If you walk about two-thirds around the bay, you should come to the reef. But I didn’t want to do Sunday School again; it wouldn’t be the same.

Apparently, people have been coming to my place. A man I don’t remember meeting before said that he was there at two yesterday, asking me out for a Christmas drink. He seemed nice enough, but I was either walking around the town around then or hiding behind the balcony. I wish I could have done the same this morning when I ended up blowing off some bloke—nearly calling him a fucker—on the way to the internet shack. The place was open, but there was no connection.

“You keep open on Christmas?” I marvelled. “You should be celebrating with your families.”

“That’s why we try to keep open,” said the man who was fiddling with the computers. I hadn’t seen him before.

I tried again an hour later, but by then the only machine that was connected was hogged by a bloke trying to upload fifty photos. He assured me that he would be there for most of the day. He gave me space to send a message, but I couldn’t fit my USB drive over his, and I couldn’t connect the EeePC due to router problems. I said I’d come back later, but I was annoyed. Even on snap-happy days I rarely upload more than a dozen pictures, and uploading pictures doesn’t take precedence over other people’s internet business. If there’s a queue, I leave when my hour is up. What gives him the right?

Anyway, I still have the bank and my troubles with Virgin Airlines to deal with, both have to be taken care of ASAP. I also have multiple blog entries and drafts to upload.

I went up the beach for a cigarette. The water was churning, but with the bars closed the bums had left. One of the more civilised people I’d met there on Sunday passed by and asked me how my Christmas was. Most men here are perfectly OK, but it only takes a few bad nuts to spoil everything. The bad ones always dominate.

I’ll be glad to get away from here tomorrow.

A Caribbean Christmas

Friday, December 26th, 2008

[no pics, I’m in a rush and the net is shaky. Forgive lousy editing]

Here, Christmas is called ‘The Season of Joy’, without a hint of irony. People getting onto the bus wish each other a happy Christmas for a week beforehand, and they mean it. In TT, Christmas is first and foremost a religious festival.

True, the women work hard, preparing a feast for family and friends, and the Trini Express is heaving with people and their shopping. But yet…

This is not a patch on the sicko commercialism that drives me away at this time of year. Religious music is common, but Christmas jingles are rare. The same tired old carols aren’t played here, with the possible exception of ‘Silent Night’, and that only occasionally. This may be the first time since moving to the UK that I haven’t heard ‘A Fairytale of New York’ once. Bliss.


For all the noise during the night (a repeat of yesterday), today the town was quiet. Christmas songs played softly in the neighbouring house, for once not swamped by soca beat.

I waited until nine, then set out towards Pirate’s Bay. There is a solution to my petty woes: send home all my pretty skirts and dresses and get some man clothes. I pulled on my husband’s grey, stained swimming shorts and the piss-ugly but hard-wearing T-shirt I’d bought in Australia.

On the way to Pirate’s Bay, I saw the national bird of Tobago. You can tell that there are no significant predators on the island because it flew right in front of me before diverting into a treelet that was much too small to take its weight and disappearing among the leaves, wings flapping. There it sat cawing, startled by its own clumsiness. It was practically waiting for me to approach it, which I did, but not too close. The Cocrico is about one step up from a chicken, except that here the chickens are smarter and have more grace.

I got to the bottom of the steps but didn’t spot the rainforest trail. It must lead past Mathio’s fruit stall, which I saw to my disconcertment was open. Of course, he’d told me that he had no family. Maybe he had no mates either: the most dangerous specimens at Christmas time.

The beach was deserted, the water wild and whipped up after yesterday’s rain. I hesitated for another moment while frantic mosquitoes bore down on me, the citronella-laced vaseline long since dissolved away in sweat (I’m trying something new every time).

I would not provide his Christmas entertainment.

I backed away and ascended all 107 steep steps plus a more shallow 46 that led back to the top of the hill. At least the enforced purdha would be good for writing.


Judging from the sounds drifting up the street, the party started again at eleven. I waited until it was time for my lunchtime dose of Vitamin X. Part of me was reeling to put on a dress and go out again—to hell with the bums. But it would be wise to wait. The sound had deceived me before, coming from the green-and-pink beach bar on the corner, which was no place to hang out.

By now a steady trickle of tourists were making their way up the hill to the bay. It was still not particularly calm—the waves kept crashing onto the beach—and I wasn’t tempted to brave the sweat and mosquitoes again. One of the bastards got me on the eyelid.

At least Mathio would get some trade, and maybe some diversion.

At half past eleven, the music and mike sounds fell silent again. It was probably a warm-up for the party later on. I went and did some more writing, scratching at a mozzie bite every now and then.

The Grassroots piece was still not coming together. Back then I had been a different person. I no longer felt like a traveller.

As the clock crept towards noon, the street had a deserted feel. In front of the balcony—right in the middle of Charlotteville’s busiest junction—a dog stretched out to sleep in the sun. I envied it.

In the afternoon, I took a walk around town. It had clouded over and the water was stirred up even more. I found out that there is an ABM machine right next to Customs & Excise opposite the sports field, which might have saved me a trip to the bank (the LP claims there are no facilities). In the fishmarket some men were busy cutting up four large baracudas. Unlike meat, the fish was professionally butchered and I watched with interest.

“You want some?”

“I wish I had a kitchen. I can’t cook it.”

One of them glanced up from chopping up a baracuda head, presumably for stock or fish soup. The corners of his mouth drooped with disapproval. “Where you from that you can’t cook?”

“I can cook. I’ve cooked at Gleneagles in Scotland. The fish wasn’t as fresh there.” That wasn’t even a lie.

Charles’s place (‘Jen’s Kitchen’) was open as advertised, the remains of one solitary meal on the tables. Yesterday I bought the finest fishburger I’ve ever eaten there. Shame that I’d just had my lunch of chicken Viennas and crips. I might be back later.

All the bars were closed and the streets were peaceful. There were no bums.