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The Manatee Pond

Friday, February 6th, 2009

17th January 2009:

[long entry…]

It was past eight o’clock, and I was still waiting for Mr. Boodoo. Or rather ‘Shortman’, his sidekick, who Mr. Douglas had said would come to pick me up.

Heavy grey clouds held the promise of rain. I watched them pile up as the clock turned to eight-thirty, then ten to nine.

“Still playing the waiting game?”

I wondered what it looked like to Mr. Douglas. He’d seen me arrive with a different guy every day, and now I was sitting and waiting for half a morning—after having waited in vain for Truckman for half a day—to be picked up by yet another man.

But he knew Mr. Boodoo. “It’s odd,” he said. “He is normally on time. This is not at all businesslike.”

Mr. Douglas let me use his phone and Mr. Boodoo sounded surprised that nobody had come to pick me up. At least he hadn’t forgotten about me.

“Hold on,” he said.

I did.


Shortman arrived five minutes later, with two boys in their early twenties along for the ride. He apologised for being late, but he wasn’t serious. Neither was I. They were here: that was all that mattered.

“It’s Saturday,” he said. It’s our time for liming!”

And with that we were off to d’Hammerhead Bar.


“Look at that moth,” Shortman said and grabbed my arm. Something about his eyes made me hesitate. A moth?

I looked and my heart stopped for an instant.

Giant Moth in 'd'Hammerhead Bar'

It sat there under the ceiling like a painting, each wing the size of my hand. A museum-specimen come to life. Except that I knew that it wouldn’t move again until dark. With that insight, I could breathe again.

The jungle had come to the bar, and it was time for us to leave.

Calaloo Crab

I wondered when—and if—we would meet the mysterious Mr. Boodoo as we drove up to the RAMSAR sign that marked the entrance to the Protected Area. The school-maxi driver had told me that here I would find guys who knew the swamp. The guy in question lived in a house right next to the sign. His name was Bobby.

He showed me his catch of calalloo crabs and cascadoo. The crabs sold out before we had finished lunch: a delicious curry stew prepared by Shortman who maintained that men were the better cooks.

I found these men a refreshing change from those I had encountered so far.


[read on]


Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

16th January 2009:

I got up to a late start because I had to increase my dose of Vitamin X and wait until I was calm enough to venture out. Those final few days were taking it out of me.

It was past noon, and it was clear that I wouldn’t manage to walk all the way to the Cocal Estate and back before dark. I set off down the road anyway.

The roar of an approaching engine made me turn. I leapt out of the way as a PSTC bus thundered past without slowing. It was almost empty. It seems that not even the locals know when to expect them or where to track down the elusive tickets. However, I still had that 3TT ticket in my wallet. If only I’d paid more attention to the traffic instead of day-dreaming.

After that I threw caution to the wind and flagged down the next car that came along, treating the driver as if he was driving a route taxi, although it was plain that he wasn’t and that I would be his only passenger. He was easy with that. We passed the bridge over the Nariva River and he pulled over, asking whether I wanted to go to the beach with him.

“No, here’s good. How much?”

“How much do you want to give me?”

I handed him 10TT, and he was easy with that too. Sometimes things just are.

I would worry about how to get back when the time came.

I walked back to the bridge. The Nariva river continued for as far as the eye could see with no sign of an estuary. The banks were a dense thicket of mangroves, as impassable as any fence around a military installation.

Nariva River, near the mouth

The river runs parallel to the road and going along the beach suddenly didn’t seem such a bad idea. I walked to a deserted spot—well away from any parked cars—and picked up a sturdy rod of bamboo. Then I continued along the beach, using the seam of mangroves to point the way.

It took me twenty minutes to reach what passed for the estuary. Aside from two fishermen on the opposite bank, I hadn’t seen a soul.

Nariva River Mouth

The Nariva River is a classic blackwater river, the water dark like tea, with visibility between 30-45cm. It is rich in organics and fish, but there was nothing which the manatees could conceivably feed on.

Dejected, I turned back. The manatees wouldn’t be at the estuary—I wasn’t looking for dolphins.

The estate was about an hours walk away. It looked out of place with its large sheds; similar to a farmyard back home. Two lads were working in the yard. They greeted me and shouted for the boss as soon as I mentioned the M-word.


And there he was: Mr. Michael ‘Yankee’ James, wearing a Manatee Conservation Trust shirt.

I felt as if I had been caught in a surreal dream, standing on a farmyard with palm trees in the distance, talking about manatees.

“Come, I show you something,” Yankee said and took me to a large house opposite the estate. A wood-panelled room opened to a panoramic view of the sea. Its walls were covered with press clippings, maps and photographs of manatees.


Yankee stood by while I studied the newspaper articles, many already familiar from pdf scans on the MCT website.

“Any questions?”

“Yes, how many are left in the swamp?”

“We think about forty-seven.”

Forty-seven? My mind was reeling.

“But— I thought the last estimate was about twenty!”

“Twenty-two in fact,” Yankee said, and grinned.

“They don’t breed that fast! Ohmigod—you found another population!”

His grin widened. “That’s right. There is another sub-population.”

That was all that I could find out from him for now. Yankee was a busy man and I didn’t want to keep him, so eventually I came out with my intent. “I was told that I should contact you about seeing the manatees.”

“No, not me. I’ll give you the number for a Mr. Boodoo. He can make arrangements.”

“Oh—” what had I expected? “Tomorrow is my last day. I’ve spent a whole week chasing after manatees and only just found out about you!”

Yankee regarded me with open amusement. It was clear that I had gone about the matter all wrong. To top it off, tomorrow would be a Saturday.

“I’m sure he can accommodate you.”

So near and yet so far… And yet, I was elated as I bade my good-byes. Forty-seven manatees!

“How will you get home?”

“Oh, something will turn up.”

Something—or rather somebody—did. A man called George dropped me right in front of Dougie’s. I had met him and his friends a couple of days ago, but had forgotten his name. I kept meeting too many new people.

Mr. Douglas let me use his phone to call David Boodoo (6683133; cell 7504688, if you ever want to see the manatees), who was (who’d have thought!) a good friend of his. Somebody would come to pick me up at half past seven tomorrow morning.

Despite the shaky start, it had been a perfect day. I rounded it off with some of Sherna’s excellent food (her tiny kitchen in the orange trailer in front of Dougie’s is a secret so well-kept that I would probably have lived on bakes all week if she hadn’t pointed it out herself) and a few beers at the bar. Even when one of the few man-pests started talking to me (only the second one this week), he couldn’t spoil it. I left and sat on the balcony to watch the sunset.

Tiny stars floated among the trees as fireflies came out to greet the encroaching dark.

Manzanilla Bay

Edging Closer

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

15th January 2009:

I spent two hours waiting for the Truckman, but he didn’t show and I only got his voicemail.

He was probably busy. They were expecting the results from the solitary monkey specimen today. Maybe he was miffed because I’d said they should have sampled more of them. When will I learn to keep my big mouth shut?

At noon I gave up and went to d’Hammerhead Bar, but the landlord wasn’t there.

The new field station was supposed to be close to a bridge. It must be near to where I had seen the sign for the RAMSAR site, nearly all the way to Ortoire. I hesitated: it was too far to walk, but it wasn’t straightforward to flag down a ride with no route taxis running, and I did not want to be picked up by a single guy looking for entertainment.

I got stuck at d’Hammerhead for a while because a fisherman called Lambi kept buying me beers. He mixed his with rum, and I asked if he’d finished work.

“No, I’ll go back when the tide is low.” He squinted at the beach “—which is now!” With that he smiled and left, walking perfectly straight as if he’d be downing lemonade for lunch.

He’d offered me to come with him, but said that I’d have to change into short clothes at his place (they wade chest-high into the water to launch the boats), so I declined. Sometimes I regret that I’m not a guy.

The afternoon turned out to be nice, so I decided to walk up to the lighthouse on Brigand Hill. This proved to be the right decision. The steep road was arduous, but the view was worth it:

View from Lighthouse

However, it wasn’t the view that made the walk worthwhile. On my return, I met a Mr. Davis from the Forestry Commission.


“The monkeys are falling from the trees!”

This was the strange manner in which Mr. Davis introduced himself. He and a friend were standing at the corner of the Plum Mitan Road.

“Pardon? Oh, you mean all the dead monkeys they’ve been finding.”

Mr Davis nodded grimly. “Yellow fever, I think.”

“Do they have the results yet?”

He regarded me for a moment and I told him about my meeting with the Truckman, but despite working with the Forestry Commission for twenty-seven years, Mr. Davis knew of nobody who went by that name.

We got talking, and he mentioned a recent Oxford University expedition studying trees in the Nariva Area. He had worked with the expedition and with scientists from all over the world.

I asked him about the manatees.

“Ah, you have to talk to a man who calls himself ‘Yankee’. He’s the boss. You find him on the Cocal Estate. The manatees are on private land, but of course the rangers need access. He’s the one to talk to.”

For the first time, I had a concrete lead. There was only one working estate on the way to Mayaro, about twice as far away as the abandoned field station. That had to be it.

I took out the useless map, and both the ranger and his friend, and later Mr. Douglas, confirmed the location. The Cocal Estate was about half-way down the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road.

It was just about walkable.

Evening Walk

The Abandoned Fieldstation

Friday, January 30th, 2009

14th January 2009:

Thirty minutes’ walk from the Beach Facility, I came to an open part of the occluded Nariva River, which runs parallel to the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road. Or perhaps it was one of the many canals which run through the swamp.

Nariva River

Perhaps there would be manatees in these stretches of water, lined as they are with a nibbled growth of reeds and waterlilies. But with only twenty-odd manatees left in the entire area, the chance of a random encounter this close to the road was rather slim.

A guy called Ramish—from a road-clearing crew which had nearly run me over with their big orange digger—crossed the road to talk to me. He offered me a cough sweet and warned me about bandits hiding in the bushes. He also mentioned alligators lurking in the swamp.

The alligators were news to me. I wondered how they and the manatees get on in their shared habitat. Adult manatees are probably too big for an alligator to tackle, but what about the calves? Do mother manatees have a fierce side which I don’t know about? Or maybe their slow movements don’t trigger the ‘gators reflexes?

About twenty-five minutes after leaving the stretch of open water behind me, I finally reached the Manatee Field Station. As expected, it was deserted. There was no sign of any recent human activity. The gate hung open and the faded ‘Entry By Permit Only’ sign was practically an invitation: “get your manatees here!” According to Mr. Douglas, manatees are a delicacy, tasting like beef which is rare and expensive here.

Was I too late? Had the Manatee Conservation Trust been disbanded?

I turned to walk back. Two guys painting a wall at one of the few houses on the opposite side of the road beckoned me over and I went to talk to them.

The field station was indeed abandoned, but one of the men assured me that the manatees were safe.

“They are further upriver,” he said. “They breed there.”

“But nobody is watching them. Aren’t they hunted?”

He shook his head. “Oh no, people are watching. Nobody can come out with them!”

I liked that.

I stopped at d’Hammerhead Bar for a brunch of bake & shark and got talking to the owner—the first time I’d seen him as he usually has business elsewhere. Within five minutes of mentioning the manatees, he was on his mobile to a ranger friend who usually came to the bar for lunch. He was on his way over.

The man, who introduced himself as ‘Truckman’, had worked as a forest ranger for twenty-two years. He promised to pick me up at Dougie’s at ten the next morning. I could hardly believe my luck, but I noticed that he seemed distracted.

Obligations again.

“Really, I do not want to interfere with your work,” I said.

Truckman muttered something noncommittal. And then he told me about the monkeys.

Fifteen dead howler monkeys had been found in one week alone. They had sent a sample to the lab and were waiting for results. Yellow fever was suspected.

One sample?

I recalled the mess the Brits and Americans are making when sampling dead waterfowl for H5N1 Influenza (suspending the samples in saline or broth, to ensure extra-fast degradation of viral RNA) and wondered what tests would be used to confirm yellow fever. Even if the tests were robust, one sample wouldn’t mean much: perhaps they had found the only monkey to die of old age.

“Better to sample the lot,” I muttered.

Truckman bade his good-byes and I walked down the path to the L’Ebranche River. I hadn’t seen Ryan and thought it best to leave a message with his friends, lest he thought I had turned into some incomprehensible phone stalker.

The fishermen were just landing their catch: crate upon crate of snappers but also tiny sharks and tuna, none longer than my arm. The estuary was a haven for juvenile fish. Even with next-to-zero visibility, the waters here are rich. The beach and mangroves were dotted with black vultures (Coragyps atratus, locally known as kobos), expectantly waiting for their share. Dogs patrolled the beach, fat and happy.

People came seemingly from nowhere to buy fish. Some of it was grilled right next to the landing area, on corrugated metal sheets which had been pulled across a small fire. Somebody tossed a bundle of fish innards into the river, and a large striped pufferfish came so close to the surface that I could see it feed. Else there would be a splash and the morsels disappeared into the tea-like water without a trace—cigarette butts and all.

Ryan was there, and so was Charlie. They gave me a lift home.

“I would like to set up a co-operative,” Charlie mused. “We could sell much more fish that way—we struggle to sell it. But the government isn’t interested. The government doesn’t care about this area, only about the heavy industry in the east.”

He had a point; his was an old complaint. The government doesn’t think in terms of small-scale businesses—be they fisheries co-operatives, women’s collectives or eco-tourism outfits. I had heard of one such outfit from second-hand references: ‘South East Ecotours’ were founded in the nineties to bring ecotourism to Nariva. But the fact is that almost all tourists visiting the area come with tour operators based in Port of Spain.

They bring no business to the local community.


Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

13th January 2009

I had to go back to Port of Spain, no matter how much I resented it. For starters, I needed internet access and I might have to go round the BWIA office to sort out my transit. That mess still haunted my dreams. But mostly, it was about RN. I had to talk to the docs, and that meant checking into Pearl’s.

But would I come back? Suddenly I wasn’t so sure. It seemed to me that my presence placed an obligation on certain individuals, such as RN. And then there were others—such as whoever had shot him. Or the sullen man I’d met in the bush. I didn’t care to run into them on my own.

Besides, I believe in never walking the same path twice. That was why I had ended up in Nariva, instead of cowering in safe, boring Buccoo.


I awoke on the hard floor of the balcony where I’d spent the night, since all the rooms were taken. The landlady had greeted me like an old friend and said that I could sleep in the kitchen, but since the kitchen doubles as the TV lounge, I put my tent to use and fashioned a den of sorts in a dark corner. Overnight the tent pane shifted on the smooth stone and bits of rigging poked into my back.

I think I’d subconsciously made up my mind to return to Nariva even before I got to the call centre to phone RN.

The docs’ verdict was good: it turns out that I’ve been watching too much Iron Man. After three years, the pellets would be safely encapsulated and surrounded by connective tissue. Nothing is moving any more. However, RN was right in that they don’t take out the bullets unless it is absolutely necessary. I guess they wouldn’t have enough manpower and beds otherwise, considering the number of shootings here.

“I spoke to the docs—you’re safe! Nothing is moving. You’re in no danger!”

The line spat and crackled, and this is how the conversation actually turned out: “I…crackle, szsst…docs…pop, crickle…moving…pzzt, sprock…danger!”

It was no good: I’d better tell him in person. I grabbed my backpack and the daypack—which contained a new map and a refill of Vitamin X—and walked over to the maxi terminal.

Nariva Swamp Map


The entire morning had been spent running around the town (which, thankfully, isn’t big) on one errand after another. Consequently I had run out of patience when I got around to the Land and Survey Office. It might have been possible to obtain a more detailed map of the Nariva area, but I merely bought a—slightly better—map of Trinidad. I learned my lesson about impatience when a man sitting outside the Survey Office stopped me to talk.

He seemed to know a lot about Nariva and the manatees, but then he was a surveyor living in Sange Grande. He told me that there is oil underneath the Protected Area.

Damn. You only have to declare an area as protected for it to become vastly interesting to prospectors or developers.

However, he went on to say that under no circumstances would the RAMSAR site be compromised, not now that there are extensive restoration schemes in progress. Instead there are plans to drill a two-mile-long underground tunnel from the shore to extract the oil without disturbing the surface environment.


Before I boarded the maxi, I spent an hour on the internet—ignoring the to-and-fro from the airlines and booking agent—to see what I could find out about the status of the manatees. Here’s what I found:

  • There is indeed a manatee pond and research station in Cocal: a designated hide-out which has been managed since 1992. The surrounding land is owned by the Huggins Trust and has been granted to the Rotary Club of St. Juan upon founding of the Manatee Conservation Trust;

  • ‘Manati’ is the Carib word for ‘breast’;

  • in September 2000, a baby manatee—caught illegally in the Mitan River—was rescued and successfully rehabilitated;

  • in 2005, the area was visited by an expedition from Dundee University. The expedition leader, Prof. Keith Skene, praised the manatee conservation effort.

  • The restoration effort is in full swing. There is trouble brewing for the remaining squatters who are due to be relocated ‘prior to the 2010 planting season’, but there will be over 120 new jobs in the nursery and on the reforestation project over the next five years.


While I was busy with my errands, the pavements had become populated with pasty-skinned cruiseship passengers who were wandering around in tight little groups, looking lost. The police presence had been ramped up accordingly. I did a double-take: there were lollipop ladies at the crossings.

One of them jumped into the street as I stepped out. There was no traffic and the three lanes on either side held no fear for me any more.

“Do you know where you are going?”

I grinned at her, re-shouldering my daypack.

Yes, I knew where I was going.

“Those are not Mosquito Bites”

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

11th January 2009

The rainy season returned with a vengeance: by the time the downpours abated, half the day was gone.

I had planned to look for capuchin monkeys up by the lighthouse on Brigand Hill; instead I headed to the beach for some lunch.

It was Sunday, but everything was open. In this remote part of Trinidad Sunday is a major business day with plenty of weekend visitors coming up from the towns. Roadside buildings that had been closed all through the week—their purpose unknown—turned out to be shops, filled with local produce on this one day when people were not working the land.

I ended up liming with the locals at ‘d’Hammerhead Bar’. The flavour was different from Charlotteville—the mood relaxed—although no women joined in.

I had been asked to join the table by RN and two of his friends, who were local fishermen. The fishermen kept largely quiet, but RN was the soul of the conversation. He was easy-going and easy to talk to. For a change, the idea that I was travelling around T&T on my own didn’t faze him.

I told him about Tobago, about the horrified responses I’d got when I told people that I was planning to go to Trinidad; their dire warnings about violence and crime. Rape and murder, to put it bluntly.

“Most of them have never been off the island,” I laughed. “what do they know?”

But RN was no longer listening. His expression tightened. “They lie,” he said. “People in Tobago—they lie!”

I had touched a sore spot. Thankfully we were interrupted by another of his friends who entered the bar, replacing the two who had just left. Everybody was constantly on the move. Even RN kept jumping up to talk to people or walk across the road where he had set up a stand selling giant river conch to weekenders. Liming doesn’t get in the way of business.

River Conch


“Don’t call me Charlie. My name is Lennox”.

The way he pronounced it, it sounded like ‘Linux’. Charlie, it would transpire, is the name of his oldest son.

“That’s funny,” I said. “My favourite author is called Charlie, and he’s a Linux expert.”

That raised eyebrows. I raised my bottle of Stag in cheers, but RN didn’t respond. He was distracted, muttering again about the liers in Tobago. He didn’t calm down even as we boarded his car—beers and all—and rattled down the potholed track leading to the Coconut Cove hotel, from where I had walked on my first visit to the bay. The track continued past the car park on to the tip of a small peninsula, formed by the mouth of the l’Ebranche River. This was the local fishing base, and their friends were waiting there. The men got busy hauling out one of the pirogues which needed a fresh coat of fibreglass and clearing a space in preparation for tomorrow’s business. In-between they were sipping rum and beer, continuing their Sunday lime.

“People in Tobago—” RN paused and tsk-ed as he introduced me to the newcomers who kept joining us. “Lies! They tell lies!”

He wouldn’t let it ride.

RN was by far the most talkactive, but Charlie (who no longer insisted on being called Lennox) commented on me scratching my calves, which were covered in mosquito bites despite the citronella.

“It’s not just me,” I said, pointing at RN’s upper arm, which was pock-marked. “Look at those!”

“Those are not mosquito bites,” RN said and fell silent.

“Some people are lazy,” he eventually said as we made to leave. “They don’t want to work, catch fish, do the gardening. Greedy.” He shook his head and I wondered what had made him revise his opinion about the prevalence of crime in Trinidad.

I had agreed to go on a drive with him, partly to mollify him and partly because I had seen him with his little son when I had first come in for lunch. The kid was sweet and well-behaved and it was clear that RN doted on him. He repeatedly assured me that I would be safe in his company, and that he would personally drive me back to Dougie’s (it came as no surprise that he knew Mr. Douglas). I believed him.

We talked about inconsequential things as we drove along the coconut plantations. RN was going slowly—it was clear that he wanted to get away from the others for a while—and I looked out of the window, lost for words.

And there to my right—wood on concrete—was the Manatee Field Station.

Old Manatee Field Station

I nearly yelled at RN to stop, but that would have been rude. Besides, the place was deserted on a Sunday. By my reckoning, we had been driving for about five minutes which translated to just under an hour’s walk.

I would have to come back.

RN turned around soon after that and I vouched to keep a look out for the station, but what he said next took my mind clean off it.

“Feel that,” he said and held out his left arm. The pock-marked one. There was a nodule in the groove on the inside of his elbow.


“Go on, feel.”

I did.

Three years ago, RN was shot by bandits. He retains 41 lead shot pellets in his body. He claimed that they could not be removed, and that they might be making their slow but inevitable way towards his vital organs.

I recalled thrillers I had read, films I had seen, about gunshot victims and war veterans with bullets and shrapnel inside their bodies that were slowly killing them. I imagined that RN would be perfectly alright for months or years—even decades—then suddenly drop dead when one of the things reached his heart.

I implored him to see a doctor, but he dismissed it. He had done so at the time, but it had been too expensive to get the bullets removed.

As far as I knew, healthcare in T&T is free. Why should he have had to pay?

On the way back we passed his house to say hello to his wife and two young kids, although we didn’t get out of the car as RN was eager to re-join his friends. It was meant as further reassurance that I need not feel nervous, despite what people in Tobago had said about travelling in Trinidad.

But the people in Tobago had had a point.

I decided to go to Port of Spain, to talk to the student docs who were staying at Pearl’s during their three-months placement—where they were getting hands-on experience in treating gunshot wounds and stabbings.

It was time to touch base anyway.

Guns and Machetes

Monday, January 26th, 2009

January 10th 2009

About half-way between Dougie’s and the beach, there is a left turn leading away from the village. The road is encouragingly named ‘Nariva Road’, but after ninety minutes sweaty walk in the hot afternon sun I’d run out of asphalt—nowhere near a river. The muddy path was impassable with flip-flops, so I vouched to come back the next day.

Catching up on my reading that evening, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was on the wrong track altogether.

‘Around the Manatee Pond on Manzanilla Road, a few houses can be identified (approximately ten).’ (Mahi, M. (1997): 84-85.)

Manzanilla Road? Manatee Pond?


Still, this morning I donned my waterproof boots and long trousers and turned down the Pierre Road which forked off about twenty minutes away from the spot where I had given up on yesterday’s walk. It led in approximately the direction where I thought the Nariva river might be, before turning north and uphill once more.

I walked on until I came to a man with a gun. He had a machete as well.

I made eye-contact and, somehow, wasn’t worried. He didn’t smile at me, like the old man wearing wellies and pushing a bicycle had done as he passed (he was a friend of Mr. Douglas), but nor did he look as sullen—if not downright hostile—as the duo that I had encountered not long afterwards. I’d had the element of surprise on my side and walked briskly on. Those two were not chatting material.

No, S looked at me slightly bemused, eyebrows raised, keeping the nozzle of his gun pointed at the ground.

“What are you doing walking here? Are you alone?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for the river.” But I seemed to have come to a dead-end. His jeep was parked in a clearing with a small dwelling, and ahead there seemed to be only bush.

“It’s dangerous out here, you know? Do you have a gun?”

“A gun?” I could feel my eyes widen. I doubt I’d even know how to operate one. “No. I have this.” I sheepishly held out the stick which I used to wave at stray dogs and move aside prickly vegetation.

S burst out laughing.

We chatted for a while. He was a police officer from Port of Spain, away on a weekend’s hunting.

“You’re after howler monkeys?” I asked. I’d heard some in the distance, but they were wary of people.

“Not so many howlers now,” he said. “Besides, I don’t like them. I’m hunting ducks, and iguana. Seen any iguana?”

“Only in a pot,” I answered truthfully. There had been a cook-out in one of the apartments in the main building at Dougie’s, to which the friendly crowd of weekenders spontaneously invited me when they’d spotted me returning from the bar. I’d thought the chicken’d had unusually scaly skin. It hadn’t tasted of chicken either. More like lean pork.

I promised that I would turn back and be careful and S insisted that I slather at least half a tube of his anti-mosquito cream over my arms and face (it was admittedly better that my vaseline-citronella mix) and refill my water bottle from his coolbox.

In a way I was relieved to turn back. It was hot, and if the manatees were indeed found right next to Manzanilla Road…

I rounded a bend and spotted the sullen duo ahead.

Tightening the grip around my ridiculous stick, I widened my stride. Don’t hesitate, don’t slow down.

The older of the two said something to his friend—who hung back—and stepped forward. To my surprise, he smiled.

He asked much the same questions as S had done. Yes, I was on my own; I was staying at Dougie’s—at which he nodded. Another friend of Mr. Douglas. I was safe.

I continued past his companion who was hacking at the grass with a knife, staring straight ahead even as his friend called out to him.


I quickened my step.

Despite the refill, my water was running short before I reached asphalt again. Today was one of the hottest days I had experienced so far. The air was pregnant with humidity and hundreds of mosquitoes descended every time I took a break to have a swig of water or light a smoke. They bit through the thin material of my T-shirt and trousers without difficulty.

When two men offered me a lift back to town in their car, I accepted gratefully. They seemed nice enough. However, I must confess that I was nervous when we went on a little detour. As it was, the chemistry between them was relaxed. Two friends—both from Manzanilla—making their weekend-rounds.

The tiny private road which we drove along was known as a ‘Trace’. I can’t remember its full name, but it’s the first on the left past the outskirts of Manzanilla. It leads straight to the swamp. There was no open water, only a wide expanse of grasses and sedges that stretched to a fringe of palm trees and mangroves in the distance.

Don't Walk Here!

The grass floats on water where the coveted cascadura catfish (Hoplosternum littorale) dwell. It’s their territory, not ours.

Mayaro and the Ortoire River

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

January 9th 2009

It took me an hour to walk from Mayaro to Ortoire, but I caught glimpses of the river as I approached the village at its mouth. It didn’t strike me as ideal manatee habitat: there were no plants floating on its surface and the water was the colour of strong, milky coffee; turbid with no light able to penetrate far beneath. A dense growth of mangroves pierced the muddy banks with spidery roots. The thicket was impenetrable, even where there was no undergrowth.

Ortoire River

Just as my water bottle was about to run out, I passed a small shop with a bench in front of the counter. There were two men sitting there, chatting with the shopkeeper behind the iron grating. I decided to stop for a late brunch of Crix crackers and ice-cold mineral water.

“Manatees?” one of the men asked, as if he hadn’t heard correctly. “Ah, sea cows! Yes, we have them here. They’re further upriver”

I glanced doubtfully at the mirror-calm water, visible through the open door at the back of the shop. “You wouldn’t have any kayaks around here, would you?”

No, they had no kayaks. Fishing is done from engine-driven pirogues, but thankfully most of them were facing out to sea.

Not so long ago manatees were hunted in this area, but from talking to the men I got the impression that they were proud of the creatures. They agreed enthusiastically that Trinidad and the Nariva Swamp are of unique importance for their conservation. We talked about how few of them there were left in the swamp (just over twenty, from what I’d heard), how slowly they breed and how long they live. I gained the impression that the animals were safe here, at least as far as the fishermen were concerned.

That was reassuring. So far I had only come across a few hints about research and conservation efforts in the area. Having made the abrupt decision to come here—far from any internet connection—there hadn’t been much time to finds out more.

With my thirst and curiosity satisfied for the moment, I embarked on the long walk home. Miles upon miles of coconut palms and wind-swept beaches awaited me. And—possibly—bandits.

It was clear that it would be too far to walk.

Less than ten minutes later, I spotted a man and a woman standing by the verge, both dressed like the crews of landscape workers that were clearing the roadsides, incessantly holding back the rampant vegetation with strimmers and rakes—a sight common from Thailand to T&T. They appeared to be off-duty, looking for a lift home. At their feet were a big crate and a double-sized bucket filled to the brim with small, evenly sized pebbles. Each was no larger than my little fingernail but they were oddly symmetric. Leaning closer, I saw that they were tiny clams.

“Chip-chip,” the woman said, and smiled in appreciation of the delicacy.

So that was what was advertised on the mysterious ‘for sale’ signs at some of the houses I had passed. Somehow the name was fitting.

I smiled back at her. “Mind if I join you?”

They didn’t, and they forced the very next truck that passed us to stop, waving their tools at the driver as he made to pass us. I guess the poor man never had a chance.

I climbed into the back—much clumsier than I had done on so many occasions in my youth—and we raced down the road, the wind tearing at my hair.

About seven minutes drive onwards from Ortoire, we passed the RAMSAR sign that marked the entrance to the Nariva Swamp Protected Area.

I felt that I was getting closer.

Sign at Entrance to the Reserve

Nariva: Potential Perils

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

“I don’t want to dampen your spirits,” said the man sitting next to me in the route taxi from Sangre Grande to Manzanilla. “But be careful. You know there are robbers in the area?”

Yes, I knew.


January 9th 2009

The sun rose at just after six, and already the traffic was heavy. With the dogs barking, roosters crowing and wildlife vocalising all around, nobody could have slept long past sunrise.

I contemplated my plans. I could do better than start each day with a reminder that I could be killed; it’s bad for my disposition.

“They’ll kill you for a hundred dollars,” R had warned me yesterday in the bar. “A hundred dollars TT.”

Ah yes, R.

I had gone for a beer at around five, thinking that it might become a pre-dinner tradition at Dougie’s. I’d timed it so that it wouldn’t yet be too busy and I planned to be gone before dark. But as usual none of the men bothered me, and when R and his friend sat down at my table I was glad about the diversion. At first. But then his friend left to sit by the bar on his own, following an unspoken male signal that I had come across before in Tobago.

There are always some bad nuts.

The difference this time was that R stayed sober.

“Do you think I can save you?” he now implored. “Do you think I will?”

“Do you think I can safe myself?” I countered.

I didn’t know.

There are a lot of poor people living here, and they don’t have a stake in tourism. R pointed out that they are used just enough to visitors not to be timid (“They don’t adore white people!”), and they don’t care if they cause an international incident.

It was just that—right then—I considered R to be the greater menace. He had started out friendly enough, talking about his work and supposed scientific background, but he gave me no credence when I talked about mine. When I mentioned my interest in fieldwork on manatees he started to rant, telling me he would stop any exploitation of the area by foreigners, that he could stop ‘my expedition’, as if he was from the Forestry Division or the Manatee Conservation Trust (which he was not).

When he was done with that, he started to humiliate me as a person until he got no more rise out of me. I simply ignored him, staring straight past him. I’d seen that coming for a while.

Eventually he left and I went to return the bottles to the bar.

“That man—” I said and pulled a face.

“I thought he was getting on your nerves!” A said.

“They have no respect for women here—” I began.

“No respect!” Suddenly there was fire in her eyes. “And they think they still got it, even the old ones!”

She looked like she could spit. Was this the same demure woman with whom I had discussed recipes earlier?


Recalling the talk from that evening, I felt apprehensive as I walked down the Mananzilla-Mayaro Road, leaving the beach facility and most signs of habitation behind. Soon the rustle of coconut palms was the predominant sound, occasionally cut through by the Doppler whine of a passing car.

Most of the drivers here think that they are competing in the T&T Grand Prix. None of them looked likely to stop; they were going too fast. It was more likely that they would raze me to the ground if I didn’t jump out of the way quickly enough.

I made sure that I did.

Manzanilla Mayaro Road

I was hoping for a maxi to come along, or even one of the elusive PTSC buses although I had no idea where to buy the even more elusive tickets. I still had a 3TT ticket left, which might be enough to get me to Mayaro.

Finally, a black-banded maxi approached and I held out my arm. It slowed, but continued on. It was probably full, the driver having slowed in surprise at seeing me walking alone down the long road. But then, a few yards further on, the maxi hicupped and came to a stuttering halt.

I ran.

The driver gestured at a single empty seat in front and regarded me as I clambered in.

“You realise that this is a school service?” he said.

There I was, feeling twelve years old—safe and looked-after.

Manzanilla: a Walk around the Little Apple

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

January 7th 2009

This morning I left in no hurry. As they say here: “take your time!” It’s still something I’m working on, although it seemed strange that I had to come to the Big Sis to learn that particular lesson.

Mr. Douglas had made good on his word to hold the apartment which he’d shown me on my first visit to Manzanilla. Back then, I told him that he shouldn’t bother—I wasn’t sure whether I would be back—but he probably guessed that I would be before I knew it myself.

While Pigeon Point is centred around the Nylon Pool, Manzanilla is dominated by the beach. But I was intrigued by what lay on the other side.

Dougie's Guesthouse: apartment

The real attraction in the area is the Nariva Swamp, which is the only place in the Caribbean where you can still find wild manatees.
[read on]