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Party Town—For Some

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Fishing Boat
Christmas came early to Charlotteville. Music was pumping outside and cars were driving up-and-down the street. The noise mingled with the crowing of the roosters at ten to three in the morning. I sighed and got up again to fumble for a new pair of earplugs.

I had woken at 01:39. The knock-out effect worked, but only for four or five hours, so I relented and took a second pill about an hour later. It should’ve been kicking in any minute now.

The ventilation was terrible and I reeked of sweat, despite wearing a freshly washed shirt. What a time to find out that the fan didn’t work. I opened a window but it helped little. Scratchy with restlessness, I went outside to take notes at the desk. I practically ran into Jimmy who’d commented at seeing me me read when he went out for his 9 p.m. glass of water. He couldn’t sleep either, but he took it in his usual jovial way.

“Ho, ho, ho! You’re still reading!”

“Fuck off.” But I don’t think he’d heard me.

*

There is too much run-off here for any coral to grow near to shore. If I had used my brains instead of trusting the guide book, I would have figured that snorkelling in the shallows around here wouldn’t amount to much. The approaches to Pigeon Point, Buccoo Bay and Englishman’s Bay are much more shallow than that to Pirate’s Bay.

A part of me was tempted to go all the way back to Englishman’s Bay, but I would have had to get up a lot earlier, more like when I finally got back to sleep at around four.

It was nine when I peeled myself out of bed and inspected the fan. It really didn’t work, and worse: there was a piece of life wiring that I must have narrowly avoided when groping around last night.

The best plan—seeing how I was feeling—would be to check out the upstairs at Sharon’s & Pheb’s and see whether I could track down a European-style breakfast. The Banana Boat was too far and frequented by drunks, being right on the beach. Jimmy hung out there sometimes and told me about the fishermen sitting there with their bottles of rum lined up in front of them. They were pleasant enough to him. Here the drunks own the beaches, and the men own the women.

Sharon’s & Pheb’s was closed, as I could see in passing. The Banana Boat was closed as well, but I could see people moving around in there—staff, divers, guests, all kept in a cage. At least that meant that the beach in front of it was empty.

This part of the bay was all sand and pebbles. There was nobody in sight, but the log I sat on to take notes would soon be claimed by ganja-smoking, beer-swilling limers, if the evidence scattered around it was anything to go by. Another couple of months here and I’ll turn into a born-again Seventh Day Adventist.

But for now it was quiet, so I settled down for a grapefruit and a smoke. The grapefruit originated here and I’d bought one in the town’s tiny greengrocer’s. The peel was warty and thick but easy to remove and the fluffy pith gave way to succulent, almost seedless flesh with just a hint of bitterness. Like all the citrusfruit I’d seen—with the exception of limes—the grapefruit was green. Limes are yellow.

I walked back to Green Cottage. Patsy was back, exhausted from a two-day shopping marathon in Trinidad and off to her mother’s to do some baking. In the meantime she’d done the washing and cleaning. I mentioned the fan mainly because I didn’t want her to electrecute herself. She sighed and apologised. “I forgot to tell you. I’ve already replaced it twice and now—”

“No worry,” I meant it. Patsy is a nice landlady and the tiny guesthouse only has two rooms. If it wasn’t for the men pests outside, this may have been the nicest place I’ve stayed in.

Argyle Falls

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Argyle Falls

I’d left it too late for the morning’s transport opportunities. The pills made me sleep like a log and I woke up puffy-faced and feeling hung-over without the benefit of any booze. Incredible to think that they prescribe the same stuff, at the same dosage, to children to prevent bed-wetting. It must work by knocking them clean out.

I wondered if the pharmacist thought that I had a problem with bed-wetting.

Anyway, it was past nine by the time I emerged on a completely calm day. I really wanted to go to Pirate’s Bay. Mathio and Co. might be there, but I thought he’d be be perfectly civilised when sober. On the other hand I might as well leave it until tomorrow. And there’s always Christmas.

Buses and Maxis would run today and tomorrow, but Christmas Day and Boxing Day are universal holidays in TT.

Except for Charles who keeps open his restaurant all the time, all year round “for people like you”.

“But I could easily live on crackers and tinned fish for a few days,” I said. “I mean people can get supplies…”

“Yes, but you are only one person,” he said. “There are others who wouldn’t.”

So, let them go hungry, I thought, but I appreciate it. Charles said he wanted to talk to me and from what I could see, the man is not a drunk. I believed him when he said he cared about me. Although that might mean that he’s a fervent Christian.

That evening—two nights ago— the rain was whispering in the leaves all night long. When I eventually donned a rain jacket and went out, there was only one other person in the restaurant. Business was slow and Charles hadn’t started cooking yet. I didn’t want to stay out and wait so he whipped up a salad and some fried plantain and I promised to come back for more another day. I kept eyeing the fishmarket which does a brisk business whenever somebody brings in a catch. The fish are firm and bright-eyed and Charles agreed that they should only be fried for one minute each side.

There may be some fish during Christmas. People here tend to go out at odd times. What a way to escape the most tedious afternoon of the year, with its quarrels and charades!

A flock of yellow parrots fluttered overhead, disappearing into the lush canopy. Here the rainforest comes down straight to the beach. Although it isn’t primary forest, it teems with birdlife. Lizards scuttle through the leaf litter. There are no leeches, no poisonous snakes. This really could be paradise.

*

We arrived in Roxborough on the back of a truck. With the wind in my hair I felt the old romance of the road again, but it wasn’t me who had flagged down the driver. It was a bunch of Canadians who had not yet learned the way of patience.

“When will the next bus be along?”

“Any minute now!”

We passed two buses and a maxi on the way up.

The Argyle Falls are overpriced (40TT) and overrated, but I’m glad I went. There were moments, when there were no people in the viewfinder of my camera, when it was almost peaceful.

On the way back I hoped for a quiet bar or restaurant in Roxborough, but no such luck. I popped a Vitamin X, and a tour-guide actually took me under his wing, pointing out a chair under a shelter by the roadside some way from the bus stop. Before long we were joined by another bloke and two women: an oasis of sobriety away from the leering drunks.

The Canadians had split, with some of the group and their kids going in the hire car while the rest of the group waited for the bus. We had passed them on the way into town in a bar high up in the hills and now I could see why. You wouldn’t want to take your kids to Roxborough anywhere where beer is being served.

*

The weather remained nice and I went to the bay that afternoon. There were seven yachts in the water and the beach was practically crawling with people. Mathio was indeed working, selling coconuts and citrus fruit.

“Strange girl,” he said. “Are you alright?”

“I am now,” I said.

The viz was bad after the recent rains. Mathio advised me to come early in the morning, when it would be better.

He was perfectly civililised.

“Don’t be asking for sympathy.”

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Spidey

I wanted to do three things this morning. Well, I only wanted to do one, and that was to go to Roxborough and check out the Argyle Falls. But I also wanted to book passage to Trinidad.

What I needed to do was to go to the hospital.

It all started to get worse yesterday, when I headed the other way, after staying in my room until I was absolutely sure that Mathio and Co. had gone (I could hear someone asking for me). The Banana Boat sounded safe enough because lots of travellers hang out there, but the Banana Boat was closed. Instead I ended up at the Beach Facility, where I was immediately set upon by a nearly toothless Elder who first proclaimed me to be his fiancé, then his wife.

He reduced me to tears twice and when he propositioned that we’d go behind the shed for a kiss, I fumbled for my Xanax, scattering moo cards and business cards everywhere. The man tried to grab my arm but I shouted at him and stormed off to the Ladies. Ten minutes later, a uniformed female security guard knocked on the door, came in and asked if I was alright.

“Just waiting for the medication to work,” I said.

It took another five minutes. When I emerged there was no sign of the man, but his place was taken by another who introduced himself as Neville and promised to look out for me. He seemed friendly enough, but I was grateful that being out of cigarettes afforded me an excuse to leave. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the guesthouse and decided to check into the ER the next day.

I was having a swell time.

So why is this particular trip such a problem? The answer is simple—one-word simple: racism.

When I was talking to a German traveller who is otherwise nice but picked up on my nervousness he asked whether it was “because of all the blacks.” People like the toothless Elder got to me because he made several references to being mistreated when he was living in Canada. I’m getting what’s due to me. And the underlying tension is picked up and magnified by my nervous nature which resonates with it like a bow string or a glass about to shatter.

Charlotteville is a claustrophobic place.

*

They have zero experience with people of my ilk here. The doc prescribed me 10x10mg Amitriptyline, but I convinced him to up the dose to 30mg. Only for ten days though. At least I also got ten Xanax which should be enough to see me through.

“Come back if you still have problems.”

Cute. I almost wished I could, but before coming to the hospital I had booked my place on the ferry to Trinidad, leaving on the 29th.

I can’t wait.

The Ship

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

Sail Cruiser at Pirate's Bay

Club Med had come to town overnight: a five-mast sail-cruiser floated serenely in the middle of the bay. A guy in the street told me that there were over 300 people aboard. This should have brought big business to the village, although apparently it’s not a patch on the usual. Charlotteville is a busy place.

I saw surprisingly few passengers on the street, despite the small flotilla of orange lifeboats that ferried them to-and-fro.

The sun peeked out half-way through the clouds and I went back to pick up the camera. There was no sign of Mathio or his friends. Even so I felt rushed and became careless with shooting. An old lady muttered about having her picture taken without permission. I tried to appease her by handing her my card, but she snorted and handed it back. It was the silly one with the lorikeet on my head. Damn, I usually make a point of asking permission.

By the time I had joined the queue behind some stupid Germans in the internet café, I was almost in tears. It’s my own fault; I should never have come here.

The heavens opened and it was well after lunch before the sun came out once again. Almost the entire morning had been wasted waiting to get online. What was worse was that there was a free LAN cable. I thought of getting the EeePC, but the thought of Mathio waiting for me kept me firmly away. However, he would hardly be sitting out in the rain, so I sneaked back with a tin of chicken Viennas, some crackers and a carton of Chocnut. Thus refreshed, I decided to head out to Pirate’s Bay before the liming crowd got back out of their shelters.

Jimmy had gotten up with the roosters too this morning, but not to write. He went for a four mile swim and told me that the viz was great and the water was calm. So it proved to be, but there was no sign of the mask. It must long since have been found by someone, probably one of the rich cruise ship passengers.

The family that I met on my first day was there again, and the man enquired politely about the mask—which took away my hope that they may have found it. Otherwise the beach was nearly deserted. A man was lying on a towel, reading a book and a couple had taken over the secluded spot near the cove. The ship’s passengers had disappeared without a trace, and I saw why when the cruiser glided silently past us and out of the bay, unfurling three of its great sails.

If it wasn’t for the passengers, I would have loved to be on board.

Charlotteville: Hotting Up

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

Boats

No panic attacks this morning. The local weed was helping, and I could tell that it was the weed and nothing else because I’d acquired my very own man-pest—my pet-fucker—yesterday night.

What I mistook for friendliness is no such thing. Instead of thinking to set sail for Trinidad next week, I was thinking to bring it forward to the following Tuesday. I’d committed to stay in Charlotteville for aweek—paid for it—but what the hell. It was Saturday. Buses would run. I could book passage. Maybe I could make the boat on Monday. Maybe I could make it tomorrow.

I was on Red Alert.
[read on]

Bused Off

Friday, December 19th, 2008

View from the Bus to Charlotteville

As time dragged on, I left the cool sanctuary of the ticket hall for another cigarette. A flock of frigate birds was circling overhead like something out of a Hitchcock film. I had no idea what they were doing there. I’ve never seen them feed., but as far as I know frigate birds are parasites, robbing other birds of fish. The only fishing birds here were a couple of brown pelicans near the harbour. Maybe they had become scavengers.

Watching them circling below the clouds in the sticky heat had an almost hypnotic effect. Amidst all the people waiting for the bus, I suddenly felt like a castaway.
[read on]

Charlotteville and Pirate’s Bay

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

[Internet access is tight right now, so bear in mind that these posts are not properly edited. I'm trying to do my best ;) ]

Man o' War Bay

The Charlotteville bus was on time. This was newsworthy.

It was full of foreigners. Today my travels would have a different flavour; no solo adventures.

It was just as well. My mood was subdued. Depression kept gnawing at the edges and I had only slept for four of five hours. This year I may have left it too late to travel.

When we arrived I turned my back on the crowd and soon discovered another muddy path (I seem to have a knack for that). A big white-and-blue sign said ‘Pirate’s Bay’, making it look invitingly close. I set off up the hill.

I had been feeling peculiar on the bus, but now it felt as if something was squeezing my heart. I was restless: I shouldn’t be going this way. I should find an internet café and write my Christmas cards. As I walked, quickening my pace, the back of my hand flashed accusingly at me with every step: I had scrawled POSTCODES on it in waterproof ink. Christmas was only seven days away.

But I decided to press on before the others would discover this path. I wanted—needed—to be alone. The vegetation had distinct bluish tinge to it, although that could just have been the light, which was lousy that day.

Pirate’s Bay was not as secluded as I had hoped. There is an eco-village above it and there was the obligatory shop, although in this case it was an abandoned shed with two hole-in-the-plank loos beside it, both with their doors off their hinges and lying askew. A white woman and her two pale children were working their way up the brook that trickled in front of it. A black guy with a tiny ginger baby next to him was sitting on a tree stump, taking photos. They were a family and they were alright: it felt like they belonged here, with the man patiently pointing his camera at crabs and wading birds and the woman and kids exploring the brook.

As I sat and made notes, a tiny hummingbird landed on a branch just too far away to see it clearly. Of course I had left my binoculars behind. The bird must have been smaller than my little finger: I’ve seen butterflies bigger than that.

Something bit me on the foot and drew blood. I lashed on the citronella and it stung my face.

I noticed that the panic had gone.

The light was lousy today, and the waves were fierce. They didn’t look it, but I was glad that I’d thought better of snorkelling near a rocky cove and retreated back to the main beach when I experienced a wash-out at 70cm depth. Twice, one after the other. I surfaced without my mask.

Maybe one day a forty quid silicone dive mask will be washed ashore on Pirate’s Bay. It’s been around a bit: it has seen Scotland, the Red Sea, the Togean Islands, Bali and Australia. Come to think of it, I may have bought it in Taiwan.

Next time I’ll be less cocky when body-surfing.

On the way back I met a man who introduced himself as Mathio. He promised to keep an eye out for my mask.

“If you find it, it’s your luck,” I said.

“No, I believe it should be returned to its owner. Do you smoke?”

We talked for a while about the virtues of the local grass. Mathio didn’t have any on him, but I have his word that it is mild and mellow. Who knows, perhaps it will help.

He said that I should go up the hill behind the town and ask for a Doctor P. who might have room in his guesthouse. I did not find Doctor P. but decided to come back the next day. I felt that the loss of my mask tied me to the place, as if I’d left a part of myself behind. I wasn’t done with Charlotteville yet.

With that I rushed home before the post office closed at four. The bus was only slightly late and I got back with time to spare to check the postcodes. Back at the guesthouse, Diana informed me that the cards would take at least two weeks to arrive.

“But they’ll have the Tobago stamp,” she beamed.

Castara and Englishman’s Bay

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Englishman'sBay

The bus deposited me by a muddy track that seemingly disappeared into the jungle. But after a short stroll the track opened up on a palm-fringed crescent of golden sand. The place was deserted aside from a single ramshackle shop-cum-restaurant and a handful of people. Brown pelicans dived into the clear water, darker streaks indicating where the reef began just twenty metres from shore. This was Englishman’s Bay.

The bay is not walkable from Castara, but camping should be possible here, although it’s frowned upon and I would have to hide. On the other hand I think it is just as possible to base yourself in Scarborough and get to Englishman’s Bay by bus, although the little hilltown of Castara has its charms.

I gazed regretfully at the sparkling clear water. There would be no snorkelling today because I was here on a reccie. None of the few tourists who had arrived in their hired cars were snorkelling either. Like me, they took a few pictures, then they rifled through the souveniers on display and drove off again. I on the other hand was sorely tempted to blow my last change on hiring a mask and fins and strip down to my underwear. It was just as well that I didn’t as a couple of teenage boys showed up later.

But for a while I had the bay to myself. I strolled along its length, accompanied by a mangy dog that was pathetically grateful for the attention I gave it. I would have to come back, that much was certain.

For now, I’d seen enough. I started the long walk back, stopping to take some pictures from a vantage point, then waved at every driver going in the opposite direction in the hope that one would give me a ride when they turned back. One did.

Or perhaps not precisely. There wasn’t much traffic. I had taken care to fill my waterbottle but I was thinking about economising when I passed the dead dog I’d seen from the bus. Its hindlegs were twisted 180°, the spine clean snapped. It must have happened recently. There was no blood. If it wasn’t for that grotesque distortion, the dog could have been sleeping. One for the Darwin Awards.

The dog had been quite away from Castara, so when I heard engine noise, I stepped onto the kerb, turned towards the road, and smiled.

The car stopped.

It was one of the big silver 4WD jobs which we know as Chelsea Tractors and it was driven by a local woman. She went out of her way not only to deposit me by the Castara beach facility, but to fix me up with accommodiation. A beachside grocery owner going by Lous Walker promised to put me up for 100TT a night if I stayeda week. I toldhim I’d give him a call. I was undecided: as pretty as Castarahad looked from the bus, it had its share of tourists including a gaggle of drunken Englishmen who brought back memories of the ageing swingers. I took care to avoid them as I stood in the bus shelter for over two hours in the pouring rain before finally getting back to Scarborough.

Buccoo: Dog’s Paradise

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Peek Through The Branches

Just before six o’clock the chickens fluttered up into the trees to sleep (I told you they’re smart!) and the yard dog—which by now had returned—prised open the small gate to the porch and asked for a pat before lying down slap bang in the middle of the entrance.

When trespassers walked by, he was up in an instant, barking and snarling as if he wanted their throats out. But once you were inside, he turned into a puppy. I took care to only pat him gently, lest he would get excited and rip my dress off while jumping at me. He was practically dancing on his hind legs with rapture.

All the dogs I encountered were friendly—at least the free-running ones, of which there were many. Buccoo struck me as a a bit of a dog’s paradise.

It’s certainly a paradise with bite.

Just before the chickens had gone to sleep, the see-’em-nots came out. Tiny sandflies or whatever, which are the Tobagoan equivalent of midges. And like their Scottish counterparts, they pay no heed to citronella which I’d started to use neat. The guy who came in with an armfull of sofa cushions said they get blown in by the southernly wind from the lagoon. I’d had a quick look at the beach that afternoon, and there is an extensive marsh behind it, teeming with birdlife.

Tobago is a paradise for many: sun-seeers, music lovers, twitchers, divers, dogs, mosquitoes, and sandflies.

*

It can be a paradise for photographers too. The next morning, I thought I’d take a stroll on the beach, maybe go for a swim. As advised, I left my valuables behind, including the camera. The idea is to take what you need, and leave everything on display when you go swimming. I’d doubt anybody’d nick my sunscreen, only Danish-speakers would get any joy from the book I was reading, and only an arsehole would steal somebody’s glasses case.

I walked along the tideline. After a few minutes I had left everybody behind and found myself on a desert island.

The light changed. Clouds had moved in and the sun broke through them, painting the beach with streaks of gold and dabbing the sea with turquoise. The great filter in the sky was up. This was magic hour.

I sat on an abandoned sunchair in the shade of large, round leaves, smoking my cigarette and contemplating the scenery. Then I stubbed it out—my mind made up—put the butt into the pack and rushed back the way I’d come from. I tasted salt on my lips and sweat was stinging in my eyes as I fumbled the key into the lock, groped around for the camera, and raced back to that magic spot.

The sun had gone.

Paradise Regained

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Bucco: Paradise Regained

IMGP7762

The couple in the seats behind me had been here three days, but they already knew their way. The bloke took out a sheet of tickets and ripped out two to give to the bus driver. Not surprisingly, they were Trini. And Trinidad had come to Tobago: for the first time—as we headed to the Claude Noël highway—I saw guns in the street.

They were submachine guns, cradled by two burly, sour-faced men who were sweating in their camouflage fatigues as they walked down the street.

“Trouble?” I asked.

“There is crime here,” Chamilla said. “Christmas is coming.”

For a while I wondered whether I would become one of the Sunday School crime statistics—people would come from all over, not just Tobago but further afield—but when I got to Bucco the thought seemed absurd.

view from street

*

Whoa, what had happened to the aircon?

The heat was like a smothering blanket as I stepped off the bus. As I wound my way to Auntie Flo’s, I gradually reduced my marching speed to what I assumed was a Caribbean pace.

Auntie Flo was minding one of the tiny stalls that serve as shops here. One of her friends waved me over and walked part of the way up to the guesthouse with me. “You trying to set the speed record?” he asked.

“If I slow down any more, I’ll stop,” I gasped. I’d found that, below a certain speed, my bags make me wobble. My rucksack was dangling lopsided from my shoulder, although it was nearly as heavy as my backpack. “I need rhythm.”

At that the man nodded understandingly.

*

A woman gave me a lift up to the fruit stall which had greeted me at the street corner yesterday. She had a bottle of beer clamped between her thighs as well.

The fruitstall was the one where you get two limes for a dollar instead of one. It was also the only greengrocer around. And there was a kitchen in the downstairs part of the guesthouse (which has—guess what—en-suite rooms). Two kitchens, in fact.

I had brought my spice box. It turns out that, around here, they like a woman wot cooks ;)

I made a very oily aubergine curry (no kitchen tissue to blot the things with, not even salt) with garlic & ginger-fried plantain and a salad. It was filling, to say the least. Showered and fed, I was ready to explore. But when I opened the gate the yard dog slipped past me, and vanished.

That was my excuse to see Smokey again. He and his mates were once more by the cars underneath the trees, surrounded by puppies, although there were no children this time. He told me to chill about the dog, it would come back, and—in a friendly, casual way that reminded me of a mate of ours who was partial to the odd joint—invited me over to the Captain’s Sand Bar across the street for a drink later on.

That’s when it struck me, as I sauntered the few dozen steps up the road to that idyllic bay. These guys weren’t a couple of chums from South East London here on holiday. They really live here.

They live in a place so beautiful that it’d made me choke twice so far (once on each visit).

And I hadn’t even looked below the surface yet.