Trinidad & Tobago: Dancing To A Different Drum

There's more to Trinidad than Trinidad Carnival

  • Faces of Trinidad: Orisha worshippers offer gifts to Oshun. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Peter Minshall
  • Las Cuevas
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Trinidad is a world-scale producer of methanol and other petrochemicals at its Point Lisas estate. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Descendants of the Caribs in procession at Santa Rosa. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Yellow pouis above the Queen’s Park Savannah. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • The President's House in Port of Spain. Photograph by Noel Norton

“So what is Trinidad famous for?” the teacher asked. The subject was Caribbean achievements. It was a hot Friday afternoon; the weekend beckoned.

Hands shot up. “Carnival!” “Steelband!” “Calypso!” Then the less obvious ones. “Birds!” “Nature!” “The Caroni Swamp!” “Brian Lara!” “Dwight Yorke!”

“What else?” prompted the teacher. “V. S. Naipaul? Winnifed Atwell? ”

Who? Well, perhaps the class was a bit young to remember the legendary pianist or Britain’s Trinidad-born literary knight The kids had other ideas: roti, the Hosay festival, rapso, chutney music, parties.

All this is true. Trinidad invented the Caribbean Carnival that’s so widely imitated now across the globe; it invented calypso, soca, the steelpan, the limbo. It’s an ideal place for eco-tourists, with a vast wealth of birds and insects, plants and trees. Its cosmopolitan culture has thrown up writers, painters, musicians, dancers, sports people, out of all proportion to its size.

But nobody said “Tourism”. Don’t let that put you off — a destination that’s not trying to package its soul for the tour operators is bound to be an interesting place. Nobody talked about fine beaches (though Trinidad has plenty of those), or calm blue waters and crackling palms (and in truth Trinidad is too close to the swirling mouth of the mighty Orinoco to be top of that league; for that, you go to Trinidad’s sister, Tobago).

In fact the kids ignored all the conventional images of sun-sand-and-sea vacations and opted instead for things in their own culture: music, festivals, sports heroes. True, one shouted out “The Pitch Lake!”, but had to admit he’d never seen it and didn’t know where it was (it’s in the south-west corner of Trinidad, a strange eruption of slowly churning natural bitumen; at first glance, it looks a bit like an overgrown car park).

Trinidad is a place that defies conventions and stereotypes. It’s an island which sets its own agenda, goes its own way; whatever it does, it does primarily for its own purposes, not to suit economists or politicians, the World Bank or even tourism promoters.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s a truly interesting place to go.

From Fort George, in the hills behind Port of Spain, you can see the mountains of Venezuela a few miles to the west. Trinidad’s coastline curves away southwards into the misty distance, and the steep green slopes of the Northern Range stretch away to the east. On the grey waters of the Gulf of Paria, five centuries ago, Columbus prowled, wondering what sort of lake he’d got himself into and writing ecstatic reports to the Queen of Spain before escaping through the narrow channel between Trinidad and Venezuela.

There are surprises here too. In the far distance there are flares from offshore oil rigs, oil tankers nosing their way to the oil terminals, plants producing steel, methanol ammonia, fuelled by offshore natural gas. Few of Trinidad’s visitors realise just how industrialised this island is.

Below sprawls Port of Spain, the biggest of the English-speaking Caribbean’s capitals: the open Queen’s Park Savannah on its northern edge, the crowded downtown area, the port, the busy suburbs strung out towards the east and disappearing out of sight behind the foothills.

Fort George is one of the few historic sites worth lingering over in Trinidad, because of its view. After the British seized Trinidad from Spain (200 years ago this year), they frantically built a string of fortifications in the hills, to protect the city below from retribution (when the alarm sounded, city merchants would scramble up the steep hillside with their valuables to take refuge).

But in Trinidad, history is not a matter of dead sites and over-rehearsed tour guides: it’s something you can feel wherever you go.

Some of the evidence is almost too obvious to mention. Walk down a Port of Spain street, and you’re looking at faces that could be from India, Africa, Europe, South America, China, the Mediterranean (that’s exactly where they are from, a few generations back, and not always so long — Trinidad’s kitchens have no shortage of good new Hong Kong-born cooks). Check a list of restaurants, or a restaurant menu, and it’s the same thing.

Before independence in 1962, first Spain and then Britain were colonial powers here. France supplied a plantocracy; Africa and India supplied labour; so, on less arduous terms, did China and Portugal, Lebanon and Syria. The results, sometimes gloriously mixed, can be seen on every street.

But dig a bit deeper. Come for Carnival, and the one thing you can’t miss is the quest for personal liberation, freedom from the everyday. That’s what shouts from the costumes, the outstretched arms of the masquerader, the frantic beat of the music, the anarchy of J’Ouvert.

And that has always been Carnival’s impetus. A century and a half ago, it was African Trinidadians wrenching free of their bondage after emancipation, For more than a hundred years after that, Carnival was a season of defiance, when the social and colonial order could be turned upside down, you could make a spectacle of your masters, scandalise them with noise and rudeness.

Today, there is no master to outrage, the masquerade embraces all colours and creeds, and the wealthy dance beside the wastrels: but the same spirit is there. Liberation: only now the mask of everyday reality is stripped away at Carnival time, leaving the essential self on display.

Carnival is the key to much of this complex, highly energised island. It is the one imperative you should not mock, belittle or stand apart from. Written in the Carnival are all the society’s larger themes. While some designers are forging ahead with costume technology, new design concepts and mass choreography, others are looking back to older traditions for authenticity (one or two manage both at once).

While some organisers are desperate for Carnival to be exploited commercially (shows starting on time, costumes copyrighted, lots of lovely dollars in TV rights), others cry sell-out and would never dream of adapting a band’s route for the convenience of TV cameras. For some, the heart of Carnival is in the vivid masquerade costumes that make every visitor’s snapshots: for others, it is in the darker realm of Monday morning J’Ouvert with its mud and grease, mockery and devils, dragons and unrepeatable puns.

Trinidad, here as always, is torn between the everyday world and its own deep roots.

There is history all around you too in Carnival’s siblings, the calypso and the steelband. The calypsonian was originally the successor to the African praise-singer, the “chantwell” who supplied the music that led Carnival masqueraders through the streets. He had to offer a catchy tune and a lively beat, and the lyrics had to be spicy — defiant, prurient, seasoned with scandal and satire. In the solemn days of colonial respectability, the calypsonian spoke both to the people — the news the papers did not dare or care to print — and out of the people, challenging the establishment as effectively as armed resistance movements did in other colonies. Singers took pseudonyms, concealing their real selves behind an aura of power and authority: they became Lord this, Mighty that (even now, when the trend is towards using real names or light-hearted ones, there’s still a Baron and a Duke.

Today, calypso is in transition again — towards what, no-one can tell People bewail the decline of its lyrics, the quickening of its beat. But the truth is that calypso is taking on a new identity. The need for mockery and satire has burned out; apart from a few well-worn themes (the ways of women, Carnival bacchanal), the singer has little left to say. The people already know him too well, and need new stimulus.

So the beat has quickened, and the music has been flirting shamelessly with other forms: with soul, then with Indian music, with rock, with parang. The calypsonian has become again the cheerleader, whipping up a frenzy with frantic catchlines like the legendary jump and wave. At parties good singers can choreograph a whole crowd with ease. The setting has changed out of all recognition but the spirit, perhaps has not moved so very far from the days of the chantwell.

The steel orchestras too are in transition. So successful has the music been that there are now steel orchestras everywhere from Switzerland to Tokyo, steelpans in university music departments, pan arrangements in university libraries. The instruments themselves are manufactured in places like Sweden; one of the best-known virtuoso players is an American. Meanwhile, in the panyards dotted across Trinidad (and Tobago too), debate simmers about the direction the music and the instrument should take. The pan movement is fiercely nationalist and can’t decide what to make of all this: should it celebrate the global acceptance of pan, or condemn the loss of control, the outside world stealing away a national treasure?

All these things come from deep in this island’s soul. Newspaper columnists talk solemnly about The Culture, defining the mainstream creole tradition and the lifestyles attached to it as something close to sacred.

It was Dr Eric Williams, the feisty politician with his trademark dark glasses and hearing-aid (he dominated Trinidad from 1956 until his death in 1981) who gave Trinidadians the feeling that they must be themselves, true to the feeling of their past, that they were a uniquely gifted people who must hold their heads high. These are our own things, Williams taught; we do them for our sakes, not for anyone else, and that’s OK. Let no damn dog bark. Who don’t like it could get the hell out of here.

Brian Lara, the Trinidad cricket hero who smashed the game’s biggest records in 1994, is building a mansion just above the Savannah. His name is also enshrined in the Brian Lara Promenade which runs down the length of Independence Square in downtown Port of Spain, the centre piece of the city’s revitalisation.

Every working day, 130,000 people — 10% of the population — pour into the capital, through the City Gate terminal by the old railway station, the hub of the island’s transport system (whose core is the maxi-taxi, or minibus, following set routes and observing no schedule). Tens of thousands more drive to work. Until a few years ago, Independence Square was a city centre in decline, crowded, hot, confused, dirty. The city seemed to like it that way, and when there was talk of cleaning it up — moving the vendors’ stalls out putting in trees and benches there was controversy.

But when it happened, the city liked it, and the Promenade has become a social and cultural centre, especially on Friday evenings after work. City Mayor John Rahael is full of plans for refurbishing other parts of the city, easing its traffic problems, cleaning and repairing and repainting, developing new shops and malls.

Port of Spain has always been a fascinating city: Miami type towers beside tottering colonial buildings with Spanish balconies, American fast-food joints next to roti houses and doubles vendors, glittering duty-free jewellers beside Rastafarian stalls, a never-silent panyard next to the air-conditioned fortress of a wealthy insurance company or bank. Oddly, the city turns away from the sea, though in recent years it has acquired a small Cruise Ship Complex and mall on the waterfront. It has also acquired a string of downtown and suburban shopping malls and a national sports stadium (also home to mammoth concerts — reggae, calypso, rapso, dub) now named after Hasely Crawford the Olympic 100m gold medallist of 1976.

Because there’s a large merchant community descended from the Middle East, with plenty of trading contacts there, Port of Spain is a great place for textiles and fabrics. A whole community of designers has grown up around this trade, producing everything from hand-painted T-shirts to high fashion. There are at least four lively art galleries four theatre spaces (more likely to be filled with mildly risqué American comedies than with the works of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who worked in the city for many years) plus the Queen’s Hall, which in characteristic Trinidadian way was designed to be a concert hall doubling as a community centre when it opened nearly four decades ago.

This is a city that resounds with music: not just the panyards and seasonal calypso tents and parties that can be heard for miles around, but literally hundreds of singers, players, musicians, recording studios, rapso and dub, parang and reggae … there must be more musicians per square mile in Port of Spain than anywhere else on earth.

On the northern edge of the city, towards the hills, the Queen’s park Savannah is the heart and lungs of the capital: acres of open grassland, cricket and football pitches, surrounded by a handy three-and-a-half-miles jogging track with vendors of coconuts, corn and other goodies never far away. Along the western side stand lavish turn-of-the-century mansions built by local families at the peak of their success, joined now by modern office blocks. The Emperor Valley Zoo, the Botanic Gardens and the President’s House line the northern edge, while the National Museum lies at the south-east corner.

One of the busiest areas of the city is St James, on the western edge, a mile-long avenue of shops and bars and restaurants, which never seems to close, It’s a fertile area for after-dark entertainment: but don’t worry about formal nightlife too much — Trinidad prefers partying or just liming (the art of hanging out with good company, good drinks and lots of laughs), which can happen anywhere and anytime, among the pubs and clubs and night-haunts or simply on the street.

When Port of Spain feels like a day at the beach, packs a large cooler with ice, beers, rum and mixers, and heads for Maracas Beach, about 40 minutes away on the north coast. It may cook a pelau to take along or may rely on shark-and-bake, the beach’s answer to hamburger.

The Maracas road climbs into the Northern Range foothills from the north-west corner of the Savannah, then clings to the side of the steep green forested hills that fall sharply into the blue sea. It’s a great scenic drive, and the beach itself, a wide deep bay with long headlands on either side, is one of the island’s best.

But there’s plenty more to discover along this north coast. Beyond Maracas, the road winds beneath the towering bulk of El Tucuche at over 3,000 feet the island’s second highest peak (you can climb it, but from the other side) — past the calmer Las Cuevas beach (where there are also visitor facilities) and along a coastline pitted with small, hidden, secluded beaches and bays. At the fishing village of Blanchisseuse there are a handful of eco-lodges to stay at, and the coast road peters out — it’s a long hike from here to the village of Matelot, where the road resumes, but great for anyone who enjoys nature and seclusion.

From Blanchisseuse, another road turns towards the hills and climbs through abandoned cocoa estates high into the Northern Range. This is thick montane forest, stretching for miles along the north coast, with great hikes, caves and waterfalls (check the Field Naturalists’ Club for advice). On the other side of the range, as you descend gingerly towards Arima, you pass the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre (you can stay there too), with its eight trails, guided tours and prolific birding.

On the way back to town from Arima, there are two detours to make. One is to Mount St Benedict, the Caribbean’s oldest Benedictine monastery, enjoying a superb site 800 feet up in the foothills overlooking the central plain. There’s a guesthouse here called Pax, famous for its afternoon teas as well as its simple, peaceful atmosphere. The other detour is up the Lopinot valley to the Lopinot Complex, once the home of a French count who planted cocoa in this lovely valley (his ghost is still said to ride through the village). The house has been turned into a small museum. The area is a major centre for the Spanish-style Christmas music of parang.

Port of Spain has another playground nearby. Chaguaramas Trinidad’s north-west peninsula, was largely occupied by US troops during the second World War — they built the coast road to Maracas, invented rum and coke, and trained hundreds of locals in engineering skills that have been passed along ever since. (They also made merry with the local girls, to the great indignation of The Mighty Sparrow, whose debut song in 1956 crowed Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now.)

When the Americans left, the area was left open and undeveloped. There are some small beaches along the peninsula, offshore islands, and great waters for sailing and windsurfing. Now, hundreds of visiting yachts have discovered Trinidad as a you’ve base: 3,000 are expected this year, drawn by the excellent boat-building, maintenance and repair skills, the excitement of the

Trinidad is far enough south to escape the heavy insurance premiums that apply in the hurricane belt to the north.

As a result, Chaguaramas has become Boat City, with marinas, repair yards, restaurants and downstream facilities springing up faster than anyone can count, The whole area is listed for redevelopment, with a Chaguaramas Development Authority busily processing proposals for new hotels, marinas, eco-centres and entertainment projects.

Drive a couple of miles out of Port of Spain on the highway, and, you’re in the “east”. Go a couple of miles further on, turn right, and you’re in “south” or “central”. The hinterland starts before even left the suburbs. Although this is a modest-sized island — 50 miles by 70 — many Port of Spain folk can’t remember the last time they were in the “deep south”, if ever A trip to Cedros, on the south-western tip, sounds like a trip to the moon.

The point about exploring Trinidad is not the arrival — there are few obligatory sites to see, and this is not an island of luxury resorts and manufactured entertainments for visitors. The objective is the journey itself. Forget about set tours and prescribed routes this is an island that invites serendipity — the art of making (hopefully) happy discoveries along the way. There are plenty of good touring companies which will help you explore — some specialise in the most interesting things about Trinidad (nature, birds, hiking, sport, music, festivals). But you can always simply rent a car and take off.

A two-hour drive from the city brings you to the east coast. At Valencia, two-thirds of the way across the island, the road divides. The northern route leads to the north-east coast — lovely rugged windswept bays — and the village of Toco, whose lighthouse on the island’s tip is a favourite vantage point. From there you can continue westwards along the north coast as far as Matelot, where the road peters out. Several beaches along this coast are nesting sites for the endangered Leatherback and other turtles. Or turn right back at Valencia, and you head through Sangre Grande to Manzanilla and Mayaro, where the Atlantic pounds miles of windy beach fringed by coconut palms.

A 45-minute drive from Port of Spain will take you to San Fernando, the island’s second city and traditionally the home of the oil industry (one of the hemisphere’s oldest, dating back 130 years). Follow the Uriah Butler Highway to the south (Butler was a Grenadian-born firebrand who ignited the oilbelt in anti colonial protests in the late 1930s and subsequently became a national hero). You cross over the Caroni River and find yourself on the island’s central plain, which some visitors have mistaken at first glance for India — this is the sugar belt, where Indian families settled after indentureship and live still; sugar is still an important crop, and during the harvest you can still see ox-drawn carts carrying cane on the country roads.

A few miles further on you pass the entrance to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary in the coastal swamp, still home to flocks of spectacular Scarlet Ibis. Trinidad is a major attraction for birders — there are over 430 species here, and there is more than enough action in Trinidad to keep a naturalist busy for months.

The highway plunges on past the rapidly expanding towns of Chaguanas and Couva, past the giant Point Lisas estate where the country’s natural gas supports an array of petrochemical and steel industries, past the giant oil refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre, and into San Fernando.

By taking the main highway, however, you’ll miss many of the interesting things about Caroni. The Indian agricultural villages which maintain their traditional lifestyles, the Hindu mandirs (at Waterloo, on the coast, there’s one in the sea, originally built by an Indian indentured labourer who was denied permission to build his temple on the land), the prayer flags fluttering in the wind, the community of potters on the old road south of Couva, the cane harvesting, the Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust on the grounds of the refinery (dedicated to breeding and conserving water fowl and other birds), the house where novelist V. S. Naipaul’s family lived in Chaguanas (immortalised in A House For Mr Biswas). The light and landscape of Caroni have inspired several of Trinidad’s leading painters, not least Isaiah Boodhoo (who in another incarnation sets the puzzles and crosswords for this magazine). Much of this is better explored by taking the old Southern Main Road a little further to the east instead of the busy highway.

Beyond San Fernando you can head east to Princes Town, and return to Port of Spain through the centre of the island, meandering through the gentle Montserrat Hills, Tabaquite and Flanagin Town. Or you can push on into the “deep south”. The coast road winds on to La Brea with its Pitch Lake, Point Fortin with its refinery, Cedros and Icacos, the last village, only a few miles from the South American mainland (local fishermen are constantly tangling with the Venezuelan Guardia). Or you can turn south-east from San Fernando towards Penal and Moruga, through old oil country and teak forests, stopping in Debe (a famous spot for Indian savouries).

The driving is worthwhile: this part of Trinidad attracts few visitors, is still barely known to many folk in Port of Spain, and has plenty of charm and interest of its own.

If much of Trinidad seems invisible from Port of Spain, so in the past have quite a lot of its people. More than 40% of the population is descended from the Indian workers — mostly Hindu, but with a significant Muslim minority — who were transported to Trinidad between 1845 and 1917. That’s slightly more now than the African community.

For many good reasons, the Indian community stuck together mainly in central and south Trinidad. The Africa-descended creole community took the lead in seeking and winning independence and political power, and the Indian community formed the political opposition. Roti — the brilliant fast food of the Indian community — was one of the few Indian items to win national recognition and acceptance. But for the rest Indian life was practically hidden. Creole culture became the mainstream culture, largely unaware of the rich and complex Indian world right next door.

But in the last few years, all this has been changing swiftly. Back in the 1970s, there was quite a furore when the first Indian movies were shown on television — Trinidad was used to Indian radio and TV programmes being confined to their own little corner. Now, four of the dozen or more radio channels are wholly devoted to Indian music and programming.

Divali, the Hindu festival of lights held in October or November, is celebrated with growing commitment by the whole community, and there is a Divali Nagar exhibition site just outside Chaguanas. Hosay, originally a Muslim festival, has become an extraordinary event with its Muslim roots — bejewelled tadjahs, throbbing tassa drums, replicas of the moon spinning on dancer’ shoulders — mixed now with strong non-Muslim festivities in something like a Carnival atmosphere (to the sorrow of Muslim traditionalists). Chutney music, once confined to Hindu marriage rituals, suddenly erupted onto the national stage and flirted with calypso — there’s now a form called chutney soca and a national Chutney Soca Monarch contest. And in November 1995, Trinidad and Tobago for the first time elected an Indian Prime Minister, something once regarded as impossible.

Indian Trinidad is another whole world within Trinidad and Tobago: its food, its traditions, its textiles, its festivals, It makes an already fascinating society even richer.

As I drove back into Port of Spain, still tuned to the different world outside the city, I had to slow down for the traffic. Near a light, a man stepped into the road in front of me, and crossed casually, deliberately, as I jammed on the brakes. He grinned. His expression said: “Well, bounce me, nuh!”

Trinidad, as always, was going its own way.

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