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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]

Trinidad: Yellow Fever Alert

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

There is yellow fever in the red howler monkey population in Trinidad.

Since just before Christmas, over forty dead monkeys have been discovered in the Nariva area.

Everyone who is planning to visit the swamp now requires yellow fever shots.

Transit Trauma Continued

Monday, January 12th, 2009

While I’ve been frolicking with the mosquitoes in the swamp, my husband has spent two solid days on the phone to Lastminute.com’s customer service with regard to my transit trauma and the rapidly approaching return flights.

VA have come up with an official email stating that they indeed have no agreement with BWIA re. baggage transfer and have (twice) recommended that I get in touch with the booking agent asap.

Lastminute.com—after making several misleading claims which indicates that they have no idea what sort of agreements exist between the airlines for which they act as booking agents—is trying to fob me off to BWIA (giving me their number and telling me to change the booking and pay for the booking fee and the overnight stay in Barbados).

Here is their original claim:

The minimum connecting time for your return flight is one hour fifty five minutes and you have almost 2 hours in hand, to take the connecting flight. As per the airline you will have sufficient time to go through the immigration formality and take the connecting flight. There will a through check-in of your luggage, you do not have to manually carry your luggage to the connecting flight.

If you want you can check-in online through the Virgin Atlantic website, 24 hours prior to departure. The information you require to check-in online are as follows:

[...]

Should you need any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.

This has been going on since January 5th, when they replied to the query I submitted on January 3rd. The final comment they made is this (on January 8th), essentially admitting their own incompetence:

Response (Shally Sabharwal) 08/01/2009 02.46 AM
Dear Dr. Schnapp,

Order Number: [...]

Thank you for your email.

I can understand your concern with regard to your flight booking. I request you to contact the airline directly on US toll free number 1800-862-8621 regarding compensation, accommodation and other expenses.

I also understand your disappointment over the matter and your expectations from a service organisation as a customer. If you wish to complain, you can send an email at the below email address:

customerrelations@lastminute.com

Our team of experts will investigate the matter and get back to you with a fair resolution.
I am sorry to re-iterate that we would not be in a position to help you any further in this regard as we have our limitations, which bind us in our efforts to help you.

I appreciate your understanding and co-operation in this matter.

Kind regards,

Sanjay
Customer Services Team

Needless to say, I will not be booking through them again. In the meantime, I will retrieve my tent in Bridgetown and camp out on the airport lawn until somebody flies me home.

Then we’re going to go after Lastminute.com.

Back from the swamp…

Monday, January 12th, 2009

…but just for one day. There will be little or no further blogging or picture uploads until I get home. The internet is getting in the way of actual travel ;)

I’ll be unpading this blog and post-dating the entries to get together a proper travelogue, but I’ll need more time right now.

Update

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

I’m off manatee-hunting in Nariva Swamp tomorrow. I have a hunch there might be an expedition in there somewhere.

If it’s a dud, you’ll next hear from me from Tobago by the weekend, otherwise it may take longer. I don’t expect to find internet between Sangre Grande and Mayaro.

Trinidad: Into ‘Bandit Country’

Monday, January 5th, 2009

Enter At Your Own Risk

Today the situation at the maxi terminal was reversed: the platform was crawling with people, but there were no maxis. However we didn’t have to wait for long. One of the things I love about the maxis here are the little spare seats that prop up in the most unlikely places—disguised as arm-rests—when you think that they could really not fit in any more people.

Another thing I love about T&T are the epiphytes that grow on the powerlines (at least in the rainy season). The jungle is encroaching on the towns and cities. Even in Port of Spain, you can see brightly coloured tropical birds.

Once we’d arrived in Arima, I walked away from the maxi stand and headed north. There were no signs and nothing what looked like a main road to Blanchisseuse, but a man told me to “just walk up the hill”, and what a hill it was! (I have a picture, but I can currently not upload any files. There will be limited blogging and photos in the coming two weeks unless I decide to go back to Tobago).

Arima is bigger than Sangre Grande. It is one of those places that you think you never get out of, and it took me a good half-hour to do so. By then I had resigned myself to walking all the way, if necessary. I’d had enough of cities; I wanted rainforest.

A guy stopped to shake hands. “Where to?”

“Asa Wright.”

His expression turned serious. “Take care of yourself. Yong Shan has robbers.”

I have no idea whether he said ‘Yong Shan’ or ‘San Juan’ but the way he said it, it sounded vaguely Chinese. And why not? They have tribal names here, French names, Spanish ones, English—not to mention Scottish—why not also Chinese?

All I cared about was the mention of robbers. I stuffed the pillbox with my Xanax down my trouser pocket, put 20TT in my chest pocket and another five in my other trouser pocket, so that I would have enough for a maxi home. I only carried what I thought I would need for the day: about 90TT which was enough to cover the entry fee to the Asa Wright Nature reserve.

If I ever got there.

About a mile on there was still no sign of virgin jungle, or of a robber village. A red-banded maxi drew to a halt ahead of me.

“You’re going to Asa Wright?”

I nodded.

“I’m not going that far, but I can take you to the entrance of the forest.” The driver slid open the door. He was an Indian guy in his fifties. “You’ve got to be careful around here, you know.”

“I’ve heard. A man just told me about robbers.”

He appraised me. “If there’s some guys, meeting a single girl like you, it’s not robbers you got to worry about.”

Go on, say it.

“It’s—you know—rape.”
[read on]

Mananzilla: Sharks And Coconuts

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Mananzilla Bay

I didn’t get an early start, since it was necessary to go back onto the Vitamin X. This time, I waited for a full hour before leaving the house, and I took a booster dose two hours in. This regime seems to work, although it took over three and a half hours before I was fully relaxed.

I wanted an easy trip, so I decided to head to Mananzilla Bay.

The maxi to Sangre Grande was an express service. The driver collected the fare in advance (8TT) and then put his foot down, not stopping on the way. The trip took barely an hour.

This time, I took my time before anyone could usher me into a waiting maxi or route taxi that was headed back to where I had just come from. Sangre Grande has more charm than San Fernando (for one, it’s the fruit & veg capital of the region), but there isn’t much to see besides fruit stalls and fast food joints, so I didn’t linger.

The road to Mananzilla (there is a sign) runs past the big blue police station a short way into town from the bus terminal. A bunch of people were already waiting by the shops next to it. On a Sunday, the wait can be long. Most drivers gave the international hitchhiker signal for ‘I’m staying (in the area)’. Taxis and maxis passing us were on private hire. The couple next to me kept shouting “Manan!” and eventually a driver signalled by circling his arm (there is a whole secret language here) and pulled in.

Places to stay in Mananzilla are limited, but the young man pointed out Dougie’s Guesthouse at the entrance to the village (120TT/20US for a nice apartment w/o aircon. 1(565)668-1504/cell 340-0123. See, I can do that Lonely Planet stuff!), a 15-20 minutes walk from the beach.

The beach itself is beautiful and wild, but I wouln’t want to go snorkelling there even if there was coral in Trinidad. The sea was whipped up and flecks of rust-coloured foam blew onto the sand from where I expected a pipe outlet to be. A dead catfish lay at my feet. As I bent down to examine it, something caught my eye.

Twenty metres above my head, a palm was swaying in the breeze. One of the brownish-yellow nuts had detached itself and was hurtling down, ripped sideways by the wind, until it struck the sand with a wet thud within spitting distance of where I stood. Yep, it can really happen.

There are no route taxis from the beach facility, so I trudged back into town. I passed two fishermen with their catch. Bake & Shark is really made with shark: one of the men carried two baby sharks—which I didn’t recognise—and a hammerhead no longer than his forearm.

The maxis offload in front of the bus terminal, but that appeared not to be where they pick up as most disappeared onwards into town. The people waiting to go elsewhere sent me into the other direction, down what appeared to be an deserted road. I passed another, smaller, blue Municipal Police station and came to a red-and-white building at the top of a desolate parking lot where a lone maxi was waiting. This was part of the Sangre Grande transport hub, and we left quite soon, with people appearing seemingly from out of nowhere or being dropped off by car.

Port of Spain: Slippery When Wet

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Rain

A menacing cloud appeared overhead and let rip. I picked up my coconut and sought shelter under the roof of a public convenience, next to a couple of stone benches and tables where a group of dodgy looking men hung out whom I’d taken care to avoid. They smiled and moved over to make room.

The rain had not yet built up to full monsoon strength, so I nipped over to the coconut seller across from us and he opened the nut for me. As I scooped out the jelly-like flesh, the rain picked up. We were joined by two women, also munching on coconuts and chicken. When we had finished our respective meals, the seller came to collect the empty shells before joining us under the increasingly crowded roof.

“Are you enjoying Trinidad?” one of the dodgy looking men asked.

“Yes.”

He smiled again. “Just be careful, you know…”

I waited—entirely unmolested—until the rain slowed to a dusty drizzle and then slithered down Charlotte Street. It’s impossible to keep your feet dry during the rainy season and my flip-flops turned to soap-shoes on the glistening pavement. The damn things are the most comfortable flip-flops I’ve ever owned, but I got them in Australia where it rains less.

There was no sign of any maxis at the corner of Charlotte Street and Duke Street, but there was a line of people waiting. One of the women smiled at me.

“You’re waiting for a maxi?” I said, grabbing the opportunity.

“Maxi? No. Where do you want to go?”

“Blanchisseuse.”

“Oh, not here! You have to go to the City Gate, way back there,” she pointed south.

“I know, I’ve just come from there. They sent me here.” That wasn’t true, but I wasn’t going to pull out my faded LP printout again to show her the map where the alleged maxi stand was indicated.

“Don’t get into no maxi over here,” the woman said. “You can go from City Gate to anywhere in Trinidad, but don’t just get into any maxi. It’s not save.”

“OK.”

“It’s not safe,” she implored.

“OK, I’ll go to City Gate.”

“God bless. Be careful.”

“You too.”

*

“Be careful,” that is what people keep saying to me. The guy who sold me a pack of cigarettes this morning had said it. The woman I spoke to in the maxi from San Fernando to La Brea had said it. The bloke who sold me a second hand Ann MacCaffrey novel from a street stall had said it too.

Be careful.

And it’s true, you have to be careful here. Across from me in the internet café sat a Dutchman who had been mugged a few days ago. He’d lost his camera, money, driver’s license, passport—everything. It made the papers, which are full of stories about stabbings and shootings. His was the only feature about a tourist being robbed. By my reckoning there are at least fifty tourists in Trinidad right now, so I figure I stand a chance of escaping unscathed.

Today I’ve made it to Manzanilla and back without being robbed, but I was nearly slain by a coconut which dropped from a great height onto the wet sand next to me.