Dodging the surly foul in the sunny Caribbean
16.11.2007 - 23.11.2007 28 °C
I was wandering through the streets of Port of Spain, the largest city and capital of the island archipelago nation of Trinidad and Tobago, located on Trinidad the largest of the 21 islands that make up the nation, when I saw the first of them. About a foot and a half high, his feathers were ruffled and matted, indicating a life lived on the street. He stood definitely at the corner of Edward and Independence Square, and despite his motley appearance, you could tell by the way he held his head high that he was a leader. He raised his head and let out his battle cry.
Three more of roosters appeared from nowhere swaggering towards me, their bright red comb swaying as their heads bobbed. It was my first run in with the largest gangs in this nation.
The wild chickens of Trinidad and Tobago.
- * *
The US Thanksgiving holiday occurred on Thursday, November the 22nd and most people in the US take off Friday, and many of them take off the entire week. I am back working in the USA in Houston, Texas, and instead of having me come down to Houston for a week when most people would be only in for 3 days, it was suggested I take a week off. So I started looking at places to go for a quick week away, and based solely on the fact that the flights worked out well with my scheduled, booked a week in Trinidad and Tobago.
I knew very little about Trinidad and Tobago, or T and T as the locals call it, other than their pre-lent Carnival is one of the most famous in the world, along with Brazil’s Carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festival. Given that those festivals occur in February and this month is November, I had to find something else to do.
Some quick online research indicated that while Trinidad is the largest of the islands, and one of the large economic drivers of the nation with their oil reserves and tar pits, the island of Tobago was much better for a vacation. Tobago boosts unspoiled beaches along her coasts, with rainforest covered hills making up the interior of the island. The islands, the southern most islands in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela, used to be part of the South American continent and shared more geography in common with the northern nations of South America than with her more northerly Caribbean neighbours.
So a plan was born. I would fly into Port of Spain, Trinidad, spend a day there before heading out on the ferry to Tobago.
Trinidad is often described as being an “industrial” island with it’s oil and tar production, and Port of Spain certainly portrays that image well. The city is completely cut off from the water by industrial ports, there is a power plant right in downtown Port of Spain and barbed wire is everywhere.
The entire city is an assault on the senses. To start with, it smells. Sometimes it’s nice odors, like the smell of barbeque chicken coming from stalls in the bustling market streets, but often it’s bad odors, the smell of open sewers or belching industrial plants. The markets spill out into the streets, such that I was constantly ducking and zig-zaging around passing cars, browsing shoppers and plywood tables filled with goods.
The final assault is on the ears, as portable CD and DVD vendors bring monstrous speakers and play rap, calypso and reggae music at full volume. Cars pass by, windows down with stereos blaring at full volume. The stereos cause car alarms to go off, with the alarms set off to run through every single sound. “Whoop-whoop-whoop, whir-ooo-whir-ooo-whir-ooo, zurrrr-zurrrr-zurrrr, zin-zin-zin-zin-zin-zin-zin-zin, deen-deen-deen-deen-deen-deen…” It sounds like a movie of New York City from in the 1980s.
I found respite from the assault down at the eastern end of Independence Square, where there are a number of the government buildings that weren’t filled on the Saturday. I then headed north to the nice Woodford Square, a patch of green in the otherwise grey city.
After a few minutes of relaxing, I was off to the port to secure my tickets for the ferry on the next day. I arrived at the ticket office and after a short line up, approached the desk. I started into my request, “I would like one return ticket for the fast ferry tomorrow to Tobago, returning on...”
The woman behind the counter interrupted me. “That’s not possible. Tomorrow is all sold out.” I stood silently looking at the woman, unsure of what to do next. She sensed my inaction, and made a suggestion. “If you come tomorrow, you could get on stand by for the ferry.”
Oh, I thought, a solution that requires me not to do any thinking. “Okay, let’s do that. How do I get on the list?”
The woman shook her head, “no, you need to do that tomorrow. Come at seven in the morning, and you can get on the stand by list.”
“What’s my chances of getting on the ferry?”
She grimaced, “I don’t know how to answer that. It might be good, but I don’t know.”
Instead of taking my chances, though, instead I book a flight online with Caribbean Airlines. I seem to have awful luck with ferries. I tried taking the ferry from La Ceiba to Roatan in Honduras back in 2005, and was denied twice, and now this. Perhaps I am not meant to get on the ocean.
- * *
With an early flight the next morning to Tobago, I spent Saturday night in an Irish pub near my hotel. The pub, in a massive mall complex called “Movie Town,” presumably because of the movie theatres, seems to be a big draw for the hip residents of Port of Spain. I, dressed in my shorts, day hikers and t-shirt, was seriously underdressed as compared to the well attired patrons of the bar, however no one kicked me out so I sat at the bar drinking a beer and admiring the beautiful Trinbagonian girls.
The majority of the residents of Trinidad and Tobago (called Trinbagonians) are descended from African salves and East Indian indentured servants, with smaller populations of Arawak and Carib natives, Portuguese and Chinese brought originally as labourers, and descendents of the British that controlled the island until 1962.
Within cosmopolitan Port of Spain there are a number of mixed race couples. A friend of mine has a theory, based on observation alone that mixed race women are hotter than children of single race couples, and the mixed raced beauties of Trinidad seemed to hold up that theory. Upon sinking another beer, I came up with a genetic explanation. Perhaps, I thought, it is in fact a Darwinian trait of reproduction. Children of mixed race couples get all the best genes from both races, thus ensuring smoking hot chicks that will be desirable mates in the future. It ensures a good spread of genes and reduces inbreeding.
Of course, reading that sober, it explains why most scientists don’t sit around coming up with theories drunk.
Outside of the Irish pub though, it seems that Trinidad and Tobago is a little less accepting of their differences. There is tension between the two largest racial groups in the nation, the descending of the East Indians and the descendents of the Africans. The people on Tobago don’t think much of the people from Trinidad, thinking them too violent and intense. The people from Trinidad apparently don’t think about Tobago at all. In the recent November 5th elections, the United National Congress, one of the larger parties, ran no candidates in Tobago’s 2 ridings, knowing they could win the election by just winning in Trinidad. In reaction, the Tuf DAC (a joining of the Tobago United Front and the Democratic Action Congress, an Tobagonian independence party) was started to bring back Tobago’s voice to the parliament.
The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that nobody likes the dogs.
Like many places in Central and South America I’ve been, dogs roam the streets. The dogs in Tobago are pretty laid back, but the dogs in Port of Spain cringed every time I approached, tail between their legs, their ears back and head down, looking up with pleading eyes. It’s the kind of look a dog gives you when it knows it’s about to be scolded or hit. That the dogs did this at every approach made it pretty clear that it was a common occurrence.
Even the chickens, terrors that they are, took advantage of the dogs. Later in the trip, I saw a rooster staring down a dog. The rooster stood his ground, and the dog soon turned and walked away, head down and tail between his legs. The dogs are the whipping boys of T and T. Poor little guys.
I have a soft spot for dogs. On my first “big” trip away from North America down to Chile, I arrived in Puerto Varas in the southern Lake District of the country. The overnight bus from Santiago dropped me off at six in the morning. I pulled out my massive “Lonely Planet South America On a Shoe String” and consulted the listing of accommodation in the town. As I was reading, a golden furred mutt came up beside me. I subconsciously started petting him as I read about the places to stay in Puerto Varas. Deciding on a $5 a night hostel, I started following the map from the bus stop to the hostel. My new four legged friend started following me.
Somewhere along the walk the dog wandered off, and I thought I’d seen the last of him. However, after checking in to the hostel, I went out for a wander. Soon enough my four legged friend was back beside me. For the rest of the time I was in Puerto Varas, the little dog and I would keep finding each other, and would wander for a while together before parting ways, only to meet up again later.
This experience has always stuck with me, and so I always try and take a minute out to pet the dogs of Central and South America, if they’ll let me. Sometimes when surrounded by touts and worried about pickpockets or scammers, and all a dog wants is a little pet and a small piece of your chicken, they really do feel like the solo travellers best friend.
- * *
The next morning it was out to the airport and onto a plane. The flight was less than half an hour, which was good because the man sitting beside me was 500 pounds and smelled like a mixture of vomit and pooh, and soon I was wandering out of the airport in Crown Point on the island of Tobago.
Tobago’s main industry is tourism, and it is much more laid back then the “industrial” island of Trinidad. While tourism is the main industry and despite direct flights from London and Germany (including a 3 times a week Virgin Airlines 747), the island is very undeveloped by Caribbean tourism standards. This can be both frustrating and endearing.
Despite having some amazing beaches and figuring out that they can charge to use the beach chairs and bathrooms at those beaches, there are very few hotels or restaurants that face onto the water. Most places are situated on the main roads, which means instead of waves lapping on the shore to lull you to sleep, you get traffic, horns and the ever present booming Reggae coming from the car stereos. As far as I can tell, there are only two types of music that gets played in Tobago, reggae and Christmas carols redone with a reggae back-beat. Not sure if other holidays’ music gets the reggae treatment as well. How would Handel’s Messiah sound with backing bass and drums for Easter?
I checked into Mike’s Holiday Resort in Crown Point, a short two minute walk to the nearby Store Bay Beach and about 30 seconds from the airport. Mike’s offers self-service apartments with a stove, microwave and fridge. I soon stocked the fridge with the essentials – milk for cereal, bottles of water, tins of tuna and a few Carib beers.
Great thing about self-catering is it keeps the costs down for meals. Eating breakfast and lunch at the hotel means that you can go out for a nice dinner. I shouldn’t have bothered though, as I soon found out that food was cheap in Tobago, and the nice restaurants weren’t really worth the extra expensive.
Trinidad and Tobago’s currency is called the dollar, though most people refer to them as TTs (tee-tees) to differentiate them from the USA dollar. The unofficial rate of conversion that most people use is about 6 TT to 1 US dollar. My first meal in Tobago was a Shark and Bake that cost me $TT 16 ($US 2.75). Shark and bake is a sandwich of deep fried shark meat in a piece of cut fried bread called "fried bake", and accompanied by a garlic sauce. The shark was fresh, having been taken from the sea that day, and the sandwich was outrageously good.
As I ate, I couldn’t help but compare that meal to a $TT 300 meal I had the night before in Port of Spain at a Sushi restaurant. The fish was pale looking, almost as if someone had blanched the colour out of it, and tasted like they had taken all the flavour with it in the process.
This is why local food is the best thing to eat when you travel, not just because eating local cuisine gives you an experience of the culture and people of a place, but because it’s most likely the freshest and tastiest stuff around, not something that’s been flown in freeze-dried from a factory in Kansas City or Taiwan.
In Tobago though, the best food comes not from the most expensive restaurants. In fact, I found the exact opposite. The less formal a place was, the better the food was. The best food seemed to come from places with no seats at all.
In contrast to the roadside food, the most expensive restaurants were a let down. On my second night I ate at a highly recommended seafood place. I ordered a Calaloo soup and the filet of snapper. Calaloo is a soup made from spinach and spices, and along with the snapper the food was okay. However, the service was dismal, starting with indifference and ending with downright incompetence, which included serving me moldy bread.
The bill came and I noticed that they hadn’t put the soup on the bill. I called over the waitress and said, “You didn’t add the soup on the bill, can you add the soup on the bill and then charge it to my Visa card?” I asked, handing her my Visa. She shrugged and walked away.
Upon returning, she handed me the bill. She hadn’t added the soup and had already run the Visa through. “You owe another twenty-three TTs for the soup,” she said. I looked incredulous at her, but she shrugged again and walked away. I left thirty TT on the table for the soup and left the restaurant, with a grunt of goodbye from the waitresses.
“No more nice restaurants,” I vowed to myself, which unfortunately would prove to be a vow I wouldn’t keep.
- * *
The first night I was in Tobago was Sunday, and the one recommendation I got on Tobago was going to Sunday school in Buccoo. Sunday school is not a religious educational experience, but rather a weekly street party that based on the online reading I did sounded like the Caribbean’s version of Thailand’s Full Moon Parties.
Upon arriving, though I found it more like a street fair from back home, with local artists and food vendors hawking their wares and local musicians playing in the street.
The Trinbagonians are an inventive people. They looked at oil barrels, one of the cast offs from one of their major industry, and said, “Hey, if we cut those in half, shine them up really nice and dent them in just the right way, I bet that would sound really good.” And so, this…
…turns into this.
At Sunday School, one of the best steel drum bands in the region played for a few hours. I’d heard steel drum music before at the Caribanna festival in Toronto, and had always associated it with upbeat, hip-shaking dance music. The steel drum band at Sunday School showed me a different side of the music, though, presenting a melancholy and depth I hadn’t believed possible.
The steel band wrapped up, and I headed up to the local market to get a refill of beer. I was walking back to the main street along the sea side when I heard someone call me over, “hey mon, everything cool?” He was sitting on the railing with his long Rasta locks.
“Yes, everything is cool.” I replied.
“What you looking for tonight? You want a girl?” he asked, a broad smile crossing his face. “I know the best girls.”
“No, I think I’m okay,” I replied.
“How about some smoke?” he asked. I figured he wasn’t asking if I wanted to buy some tobacco cigarettes.
I laughed and shook my head. “I’m good man.”
“How about some Charlie?” he asked. I was perplexed. “Charlie,” he repeated and then made a sniffing noise while blocking one nostril. Enlightened, and without any need for cocaine either, we parted ways, not with a handshake, but with the Tobagonian traditional touching of closed fists.
I finished up my beer, and grabbed a taxi back to Mike’s Holiday Resort. The hotel room was hot and humid, even with the windows open, so I turned on the Air Conditioning. Mike’s has two setting for the Air Conditioning, jungle humidity (aka off) or meat-freezer cold (aka on). With no blankets and only a thin sheet to keep me warm, I shivered myself to sleep.
- * *
Other than Sunday School, the Sunday and Monday were spent hanging around on the beach, checking out both Store Bay and Pigeon Point in Crown Point. The beaches were nice, but come Tuesday I was ready to do something different. I headed into Scarborough, the largest town in Tobago.
I checked out local open air market, that sold everything from staples like fruit and meat to other necessities like chrome rims. Heck, you can’t have a booming stereo if you don’t have tinted windows and shiny rims too.
After checking out the market, I headed up the hill to see Fort King George. The island of Tobago has changed hands over 30 times since Europeans first arrived in the Caribbean, as the French, Dutch and English fought over the fertile rain forest land that was perfect for clear-cutting and planting sugar cane. All of the countries built, attacked and rebuilt forts around the island. Fort King George was one of the largest and the best preserved of the forts, and includes nice displays both on the military aspects of the fort as well as information the history of the slave trade and information on what parts of Africa the Tobagonian were originally from.
I headed back down towards the market area to catch a cab when I came across another display of violence and terror from the crazed chicken gangs of Tobago. I was walking down Piggott Street when I soon found myself in the middle of a gang war. Two opposing gang members, let’s call them Kenneth and Biff were fighting on the left shoulder of the road. Kenneth was taking quite a beating as Biff pecked at him and jumped up and down, his sharp, long talons coming down on Kenneth’s back.
Kenneth finally managed to escape, crossing the road in typical flying-hopping combination that chickens seem to do and solving forever the riddle of “why did the chicken cross the road?” To escape Biff’s beating.
Unfortunately for Kenneth, he flew-hopped right into the hands of Big Red, an opposing gang member and comrade of Biff. Kenneth tried to escape by running between two sacks of grass seed, but Big Red came down hard upon him from above, slashing with his feet and pecking with his beak on poor Kenneth’s back. Kenneth squealed in terror, squirming impotently trying to get away from Big Red. After taking a series of blows along his back, Kenneth was able to move forward enough to dislodge himself from the grass seed sacks.
Big Red followed, smelling victory, but didn’t see what was coming from his side. Little Jerry, a fellow gang member of Kenneth’s came flying in from the side and laid a flurry of pecks along Big Red’s side. Big Red had no defense but to run, and flew-hopped across the road to join Biff.
Little Jerry stood triumphantly while Kenneth cowered beside him, head held low. Poor Kenneth looked defeated, perhaps realizing that he was now going to have to be Little Jerry’s chicken yard bitch, and rooster equivalent of a prison yard bitch.
I was so surprised and frankly frightened by the action to get it caught on camera, but for those that want to see chickens brawl, I instead present this video of two chickens pecked at each other through a chain link fence. The chain link video was taken a few days later in Plymouth, and though it was a cage match unsanctioned by the either the CFF (Chicken Fighting Federation) or RPA (Rooster Pecking Association), it was still quite a fight.
* * *
After another night in the deep freeze, I was up early on Wednesday for a Jeep Safari. The Jeep Safari was a second choice, I had planned to take a day long rainforest hike, but the next available one was on Saturday, the day after I left.
No wait, plan isn’t really the right word to use in that last paragraph. I use it way too much. I “plan” to go on the ferry, I “plan” to do a rainforest hike. In fact, “planning” this items really consists of me reading about it online and saying to myself, “I’d like to do that.” I then take no more action until the whim hits me the day before, or I suddenly remember it half way through the trip. Ideally I’d start actually taking some action on these ideas, but more likely I’ll just stop using the word “plan” in my blog entries.
So, the Jeep Safari, while a second choice, was still pretty decent. It included a couple 30 minute rainforest hikes, so I still got to see the rainforest on foot, just with less walking. We got to have a nice swim in the absolutely majestic but freezing pool underneath the Highlands Waterfall, saw a cayman, the smaller relative of the alligator in the bogs around Hillsborough Lake and had a nice lunch at a true “Rainforest Café” out in the bush.
As we were driving through the forest, our guide Lorrie pointed out some of the indigenous species of birds. I was only interested in one bird, though.
“Lorrie,” I asked, “what’s the deal with all these chickens walking around in the city streets. Are they wild chickens, or does somebody own them?”
“Some of the chickens are wild, but some are owned by people. The chickens have little shacks to live in, but they roam around during the day to eat, and come home at night to sleep.”
I had no idea that chickens had a such a sense of direction, that they were the homing pigeons of the barnyard. Tobago is a good deal for those who like their chicken free-range, as it seems that all chickens roam freely here. However, I more than once saw a chicken pecking through a garbage can looking for food to eat, so perhaps free-range chicken aren’t better for your health than those who grow up eating farm feed.
- * *
Coming back from Scarborough on Tuesday, my cab driver happened to be a Canadian pensioner who returned to T and T to open guest house, run a restaurant, work as security guard at the port and also, occasionally, run tourists between Scarborough and Crown Point as an unofficial cab driver. Official taxis in T and T aren’t marked in any obvious way, but their license plates are start with an “H”, whereas private cars license plates start with a “P.” My Scarborough cab driver was driving a “P” car, so he wasn’t officially licensed to carry passengers. These “PH” cabs, as the locals call them, aren’t generally any cheaper than official cabs, and provide a danger in that their insurance coverage doesn’t cover carrying passengers (assuming they have insurance at all), and so in the event of an accident you as a passenger could be screwed. But a few times I couldn’t find any official cabs, so I took them.
The driver on Tuesday, after I caught him up on the politics back in Canada, suggested that Wednesday I head out to the Golden Star for the Tobago wide talent contest. So after getting back from the Jeep Safari, showering and having a nice meal of chicken roti from a roadside stand, I headed over to the Golden Star.
Up until 10 o’clock, a steel drum band played on the street, entertaining both patrons on the patio of the Golden Star and passer-bys.
You will note that I don’t have any pictures from the Golden Star contest, nor from Sunday School. That’s because I don’t take my camera with me for night time events. This isn’t, as one might expect, because I’m afraid of getting mugged, but rather because I’m afraid of having a repeat of an event that happened to me in San Antonio, when I broke a pair of $200 Ray Ban sunglasses during a “White Boy Dancing Contest” at a local bar, and I didn’t even win the contest. So, not trusting myself with expensive items after a few drinks, I leave the camera at home on nights out when I travel, including my Wednesday night out at the Golden Star.
As the steel drum band packed up, the crowd moved into the outdoor courtyard of the Golden Star and took their seats. A buzz of anticipation swept through the crowd as the lights dimmed and the host bounded onto the stage. Dressed in a one piece, body hugging, brown jump suit with a large studded belt, the host looked like he’d invented a time machine, went back in time to 1976 and stole James Brown wardrobe.
“You are lucky people to be here to see the final…” the host paused, and I thought to myself that I must be a lucky bastard to have stumbled into the final of the island wide talent contest, until the host continued with “…quarter final round of the talent contest.”
The contest was set up like American Idol, with a panel of judges and a camera crew (who, according to the host are also available for wedding or Christmas parties) taping for broadcast on one of the local TV stations. Between the contestants, the host would make a few jokes, and then run through a list of sponsors.
“Everyone, cheer for our sponsor, R&R Construction Limited. For all your construction needs, from planning to building, extensions on our house, repairs to your buildings, everything you would need. Please, show your sponsors you appreciate their support of this night by your applause.” I wondered if this is what Ryan Seacrest does during the commercial breaks during taping of the American Idol.
Most of the contestants sang, and of course it was mostly reggae music. One girl bravely came out and did a Arabic belly dance, which I much appreciated (mostly because she was very pretty) but didn’t really excite the crowd. After all the contestants, the judges conferred and moved 3 contestants onto the semi-finals.
The host whopped the crowd up into a frenzy as he introduced the special guest star of the evening who came out and sang 3 reggae songs and bounced around in her tight, tight jeans and 6 inch stiletto boots. I was smitten, but after her set she quickly hustled away and I quickly forgot her name.
The disco started up at this point and most of the people moved inside. A few folks, though stayed outside, including one of the contestants, a jerry-curled, tuxedo wearing Michael Jackson wanna-be who wore white socks with his Tuxedo. He complained bitterly about not being in the final 3, but frankly anyone who wears white socks with a tuxedo doesn’t deserve to win anything. I wonder if the cast-offs from American Idol complain that much after getting voted off?
I wandered around the disco for a few hours, downing inexpensive Carib beer. Carib beer is one of the two local brews, the other being Stag beer. Stag is, according to most of the folks I talked to, the preference of the locals. However, I found it too acidic, and liked the Carib’s smoother finish. Carib tasted like warm Corona (even when ice cold), but it was better than drinking the sulfuric acid that made my esophagus burn called Stag. However, I did feel a bit emasculated not drinking Stag. Their slogan was “a man’s beer,” which of course implied that Carib was a sissy’s beer. To counter the marketing genius of insinuating that a man’s masculinity is linked to drinking Stag beer, the good folks at Carib came up with “Carib… the best reason for beer,” which doesn’t even make any sense and didn’t make me feel like less of a sissy for drinking it. Those folks at Stag should win some sort of marketing award.
Anyway, I didn’t pick up any women at the disco, no doubt because they saw me with Carib and figured me to be not very manly, and after more than a few Caribs, was ready to call it a night.
Now, forget what I said earlier about local food being the best food. The best food is whatever greasy concoction is on offer right outside a bar after a night of drinking. I ate a greasy cheeseburger as I walked back to my hotel on a warm, clear night and contemplated if Jimmy Buffet was ever in Tobago, because as the palms swayed gently in the breeze, it felt a little like a cheeseburger in paradise.
Continued in The Wild Chickens of Tobago: Part II