“Welcome to my island!”the burley Rastafarian greeting me at the airport said as his assortment of gold teeth gleamed in the afternoon sunshine. His three foot dreadlocks seems so far way, as I find myself driving along a pitch black single-track road with the hum of the ocean in the far distance, cutting through the reeds of sugar cane on either side. The ensemble of crickets starts to provide some indication of life around me as I pass another shady hunched-backed character walking in the dark along the side of the road. I kept convincing myself this was worth it, and after a few more hours my faith in the evening journey was realised, as I watched one of the oldest creatures known to man continue her legacy by laying her offspring, on the same beach she was born a quarter of a century ago.
I arrived at Matura Beach, a protected conservation area 3 miles from Matura village at around 10pm. We had been driving for three hours, much of which was without street lighting or signposts. Thankfully my local acquaintances came in useful as the lukewarm breeze of the Atlantic Ocean greeted our arrival at the simple, tourist-friendly lodge. The posters on the open-air hut walls were all turtle themed, and the array of memorabilia was ample if you decided not to wait, which a few impatient small groups did. After the long drive, it was time to get comfortable with a roti and chilled sorrelon the wooden benches as we waited in the still of the night, with the crashing of waves somewhere behind or in front us. I really wasn’t sure being so disoriented in this rural needle in the forest.
An hour passed and a shuffle of feet across the sand approached us and whispered in a hybrid Trinidadian-American accent. “Good news everyone, we have a few getting ready to nest”. With that news we jumped off the benches, and were given a quick tutorial on what to expect. We came to realise the operation was a very fragile one; one error can cause the leatherbacks to abandon their nesting. No lights were permitted except for specially adapted red-bulb torches which hardly affect the turtles as they enter the beach. The ocean is violent on this side of the island, the arrogance justified as every other wave washed over our sandals. Thankfully, further down the beach the water subsided to reveal a wide swathe of sand in the moonlight. The clouds were closing in; the threat of rain washing out any hope of a leatherback nesting her eggs a vivid possibility. As my eyes adapted to the darkness once again, fifteen metres away a boulder with stumpy legs was inching its way towards us. She stopped, turned parallel to the sea and threw sand with her back flippers away from her. She’d begun.
After another twenty minutes we advanced further, opening the wayto the metre deep hole she had dug in the sand. She seemed content, almost trance-like in deep meditation, unaware of the small group surrounding her. We weren’t alone with our ranger; the Matura conservationists are from all over the world, mostly America, and the young environmentalists were there with their tape measures at the ready for the signal to move in. Later that evening I would realise they had an amazing vocation looking after these ancient miracles, however right now I was too mesmerised by the process unfolding in front of me. The first golf ball shaped bright white egg fell from the shell into the hole, and then we had the signal. The red light switched off, and a small torch flicked on, showing us the nesting process one after another as the hypnotised turtle carried on with the task at hand. The conservationists started measuring, weighing, and recording every detail about her for future sightings. Within ten minutes it was all over, the rear flippers back in bulldozer mode as she covered the hole, sealing her eggs in the sandy incubator all without being able to see what she was doing. In about 60 days the eggs will hatch, peek their tiny front flippers through the sand and make a dash to the ocean. Only 1 or 2 percent of these will survive, and they will return decades later to the same beach to continue their incredible cycle.
Trinidad is the southernmost island of the Eastern Antilles and is separated from Venezuela by the Gulf of Paria, entered by the Boca del Dragon (Dragon’s Mouth) and Boca de la Sierpe (Serpent’s Mouth) from either side, and is a contender for one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Trinidad is somewhat in the shadow of her tiny beach haven sister island of Tobago. Over the past few years, Trinidad has touted itself as an eco-destination, with not only the turtles causing a commotion. With the highest point of El Cerro del Aripo 3000 metres above sea level, the lush rainforest ecology provides the perfect backdrop for some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna. The southern plains are home to more deciduous types of forest being drained by the infamous Caroni Swamp. The murky channels are teeming with wildlife from the vivid Scarlet Ibis to the varying sizes of Boas and Caymans. Further inland, the Asa Wright Centre plays host to an ornithologist’s paradise, with over 460 species of birds including the beautiful Ruby-Topaz Humming bird and the Ornate Hawk Eagle.
The island is made up of a cultural hubbub each contributing to the lifestyle of the islanders. One in five here follow the Muslim faith and the same the Hindu faith. Introduced to the island over a hundred years ago, the first set of indentured labourers arrived on the island on the infamous Fatel Razackship from India. The journey was an arduous and unpleasant experience for the migrants, however the three month voyage bought together various castes and religions, leaving the blueprint for today’s multicultural Trinidad. The impact of Indian influence is inescapable with the disapora of food, music and dance all contributing to the plethora of flavours this island embraces. Religiously on most mornings the queue outside the doubles man’s cart is the pinnacle of common interest.Doubles is the unofficial breakfast of Trinidadians, a palm sized pattie topped with curried chickpeas and pepper sauce. Usually nearby you’ll find all sorts of fried snacks ready to eat from a greaseproof paper sheet with a dollop of hot pepper sauce guaranteed. Other East Indian derivatives include Dhalpuri (roti stuffed with grind lentils) and curried goat. The Creole influence is just as manifestwith Crab Callaloo and Stewed Chicken heading the list. The variety and inventiveness of food here keeps the tastebuds intrigued for more, and with vendors servicing Muslim, Hindu and Christian faiths the established cultural sensitivities make eating out here a treat.
Mingling in a maxione day, conversation was abundant throughout the minivan. The popular mode of transport, characterised by the decibel of the music, usually makes chit chat difficult. Even though the sweltering heat was bordering unbearable, there was an ease amongst the passengers all varying in size and colour. Some were coming carrying groceries from the market and some were on their way back from school. The Creole English spoken on the island takes some acclimatising, with words certainly not in the Oxford Dictionary and often feels like learning a whole new vocabulary. The most important and most practised word is to limeor hang out. Trinidadians use their free time to its full potential, and whatever the reason to celebrate there will be a public holiday to supplement it. Eid, Diwali and Easter are all key highlights as is Carnival; Trinidad’s most famous export. The explosion of colour over these two days in February brings the country’s cities to a standstill with steel pans drumming and dancers parading through the streets.
Only fifteen minutes flight away the Caribbean we all know is brought back to life. Swaying palm trees and white sandy beaches surround the small island of Tobago. Governed under one jurisdiction with Trinidad, this tiny island is well worth spending a few days relaxing on one of the secluded shores or visiting the oldest protected rainforest in the world. The biodiversity of Tobago is unsurpassed continuing the theme of its neighbouring island. The shallow reefs are rich with colour, ideal for discovering the spectacular varieties of coral. For certified divers March to July provide unique opportunities to spot giant rays, marine turtles, dolphins and sharks. Tobago has a quirky side too, rooted in European and African heritage the island has an array of folktales, music and traditional dances all celebrated annually during the Tobago heritage festival which runs from July to August. If that’s not enough, then the annual crab racing festival is a bizarre experience, albeit a rather tasty one in the end.
Trinidad truly is vibrant, from dramatic coastlines to lush forests and is without doubt an uncut diamond. Even with its rough edges, the island has a lot to offer visitors to create a unique Caribbean experience. Together with the colourful locals they certainly won’t let you leave their island until you laugh till ya belly bust.