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Seven Months in Trinidad

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A (Work) Trip Report

I am writing this Report in response to all the assistances I have been given by the many who have answered my questions concerning various travels. I took a construction project manager’s position in Trinidad from April to November 2006 and a consulting assignment from mid-January to early February 2007.

I arrived two thirds of the way through the dry season – April 10, 2006. The island of Trinidad is warm to maybe hot depending on what you are use to. By April a large portion of Trinidad is brown, not green.

The first thing I became conscious of was the burning and resulting smoke. The sugar cane harvest begins in late January/early February and continues till the rainy season. Each field is burned before the harvesting of the cane. As you drive the highways (east/west is Churchill-Roosevelt and north/south is Solomon Hochoy) or the streets it is not uncommon to turn your lights on to see through the smoke of burning sugar cane.

I was told the rainy season begins on June 1. Last year it was late. The first rain started about 2:00 am on June 2. From April to October it is either hot and dry or hot and wet. However, January and February are great. I am enjoying the warm sunny weather – Nancy, my wife, is wishing she had made the trip with me.

I spent very little time in Port of Spain and therefore can not offer much information. I stayed three nights at the Crown Royal hotel. This is a comfortable business hotel but nothing fancy. It has a restaurant and a separate bar area. I was warned not to walk any where at night and therefore ate all my meals at the hotel. Over all I found the food of Trinidad bland and uninteresting.

Across the street from the Crown Royal hotel is a large multi-million dollar port construction project. My room was on the back side of the hotel and I do not remember the construction noise causing me any discomfort. Suggestion: ask for a room on the backside of the hotel, not facing the port construction work.

During the next seven months I made several trips to Port of Spain for business meetings, pass port renewal at the U.S. embassy, and as I traveled to the beaches north west of the City. The City is crowded and slow to drive through. A large majority of the island’s foreign managers live here. The housing is good and I am told there are several good to very good restaurants with matching prices. For a great view of the City, port, and ocean take the major road east of the city that brings you back into town at Queen’s Park. Continue around Queen’s Park and take a look at the Magnificent Seven. Each of the Seven is a mansion in various states of repair however each is a treat to look at.

I did read in one tour book about taking a trip through Laventille Hills. Do not take this trip. It is so dangerous in this area the police don’t go into it. Please note, my wife and I traveled in 2003 for five months with backpacks through South America. We did not always stay in the best of neighborhoods. I understand the difference between petty crime and the potential to be murdered. In Laventille you can be murdered.

Crime is a major problem in Trinidad. The newspapers keep a running number of murders on a daily basis. The best way to describe the murder rate is if New York City had the island of Trinidad’s murder rate there would have been over 2500 murders in New York City in 2006. These murders occur in homes (last week a lady constable, her husband, one daughter, and a visiting young man were murdered in their home), hospitals, on the roads (car accidents do not count as murders and this is another depressing statistic), in village bars, and I believe one occurred in a police station. These are murders of passion, drug related, gang related, robberies, “you insulted me”, etc. Murder seems to be a means to solving many Trinidadian civil problems.

One American died of unnatural causes last year. He was an American construction superintendent. The police ruled it a hit and run accident in Port of Spain.

Kidnappings have dropped in number over the last six months. Most kidnappings are by the black population who are taking the richer Indians. Most kidnappers are paid their ransom but I am guessing only about 50% of the victims are released – the other 50% their bodies are found.

I did not fear the crime. I am a white 55 year old male and do not go to bars or other places where I can find trouble or trouble can find me. The house that was rented for me had three rental units, a mechanical opening gate that was operated by electronic gate opener, and bars on all windows and doors. The front door of my place had a skeleton key lock and behind this set of double doors was a set of iron bar doors. The iron bar doors had a dead bolt, and two keyed pad locks. You are told to keep your doors locked at all times and I typically locked myself in my apartment. My two neighbor families were very nice and we all looked out for each other.

When driving and exploring the island I never hiked far from my truck. I was warned by my Trinidadian staff and the Owner of the Company not to go out alone. However, I just could not become a prisoner to the Island’s crime and therefore almost every second or third Sunday I went exploring the island.

If I thought it was unsafe in Trinidad I would never had my wife make two trips to visit Trinidad and me. Just be sensible and you will have no problems.

I was working within ten minutes of the City of San Fernando. San Fernando is the second largest city in Trinidad and located approximately half way down the island’s west coast. Again, city car traffic is bumper to bumper and you get no where fast. I do recommend eating at Soong’s Great Wall Restaurant. The food is not as spicy as Chinese food in America but is good.

My house/apartment was located just north of San Fernando in St. Joseph Village. This is considered a very nice and upscale area of Trinidad. Within a few minutes drive time there is the Trade Winds Hotel. A good hotel and several U.S. managers/executives stayed here when visiting the construction project. The hotel has internet service, a pool, beauty saloon (I got my monthly Saturday afternoon hair cut here.), a weight room, and outdoor bar at the pool.

My favorite local restaurant, The Tree House, is or was located here. The restaurant closed about two weeks ago, no one is saying why or if it will re-open. The hotel caters to mostly foreigners who are working at the nearby national oil refinery. The restaurant was a meeting place for foreigners and Trinidadians. There is a grill open for only hotel guests.

This trip to Trinidad I am staying at the Paria Suites. The hotel is located south of San Fernando and the Gulf City Mall. An on site restaurant, food is so-so, also – a pool, internet service and a weight room. From the pool balcony you can see the ocean. However, remember this is a muddy brown color ocean due to the Orinoco River in Venezuela emptying into the ocean only 35 miles away.

The room has a king bed, clean sheets, a light weight cover, a small television with cable, a through the wall AC unit that is a little noisy (but as Nancy keeps telling me, nothing is noisy to me – I can sleep through W.W. III), hot water is available about 6:00 am and for the remainder of the day and until at least nine at night.

Let me talk about food. I am not a gourmet eater. I like a great meal but don’t live for great meals. The food of Trinidad is boring. I do enjoy the rotis. The chain restaurants are Kentucky Fried Chicken (Although the Scarlet Ibis is the official national bird, I found the chicken to be the most seen – on the roads, in yards, in coops and most definitely on a food plate), a couple of Church’s Chicken (one at the airport), a local donut chain, Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays (a great place to go for your monthly hamburger fix), and that is about it. Most of these restaurants will deliver to an apartment including TGI Fridays.

I ate Trinidadian dishes better than 95% of the time on the island. When you buy a chicken or pork or fish dish you have bought the bones along with the meat. I don’t think I ever really got use to picking out the bones with each bite. My house cleaner fixed me two meals a week that usually last four. She was a good cook and I enjoyed each meal.

Most small village restaurants are open for lunch, maybe breakfast, but not for dinner. Each shopping mall will have a food court and a restaurant or two. The mall restaurants are open for dinner. I liked the Indian food but there was no Indian restaurant open for dinner any where near the project site or my apartment. My administrative assistant’s sister ran a small Indian restaurant that occasionally we sent out for lunch – it was always a treat. Again, the food was good but the American Indian food I have eaten is better. (More latter on Indian food, that is after we return from our March - May trip to India and Bhutan.)

In six months I explored all of Trinidad, except for Port of Spain. Not one Trinidadian that worked with me has seen as much of the island as I have. Nancy (she made two trips down totally three plus weeks) and I are amateur birders. Trinidad is a great birding island and gave me something to do beside work.

I visited, hiked, and boated Asa Wright Nature Center, Blanchisseuse Road, Caroni Swamp, Caroni Rice Fields, Nariva Swamp, Heights of Aripo, the area around Hollis Reservoir, Arena Forest, Walker Field and Aripo Savannah, Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, South Oropuche Swamp, and various other areas.

If you are coming to Trinidad to bird on your own I highly recommend buying Birds of Venezuela and A Birdwatchers’ Guide to Trinidad & Tobago by William Murphy. I arrived in Trinidad with my bird book but did not buy the Birdwatchers’ guide until about mid way through my third month; oh I wish I had bought it earlier. This book has road maps and more importantly a written description of the roads and identifying land marks along the roads. Trinidad has very few road signs and the first two months I was always lost – thank heaven it is a small island.

Before I forget: Trinidad is a left side of the road driving county. The only driving rule/law in Trinidad is: “There are no rules.” If you are staying more than three months you have to obtain a Trinidadian driver’s license or at least I was told you had to.

If you are a birder and you are coming to Trinidad, then you know you have to visit Asa Wright Nature Center. Even if you are not a birder and you are visiting Trinidad for more than a day or two, you need to stay at least one night at Asa Wright. The rooms are good size, air conditioned and each has its own bathroom. The Center serves good food and the balcony looks out across a large valley. Beer or tea is available on the balcony.

Below the balcony are multiple bird feeders where at least 20 different birds will show up. The three different types of Honeycreepers and the Tufted Coquette hummingbird are my favorites. The Tufted Coquette is the second smallest bird in the world. The first time I spotted it I was heading out on a trail from the car park (parking lot for you U.S. readers). I thought it was a large bumble bee until I put my glasses on it!

The trails are great to walk and safe to walk. Bring your bathing suit so you can take a dip in the stream/pool which is about a five minute walk up the entry road. I always enjoyed the Sunday lunch.

During a three night stay during one of Nancy’s island visit, we asked the Center to arrange a guided day tour with Jogie Ramlal. Jogie knows birds, plants, insects, and the Hindu religion. We did a significant portion of the Blanchisseuse Road (this is the road to A. Wright Center). Nancy and I highly recommend Jogie as a guide.

I took the standard late afternoon boat trip into the Caroni Swamp. Unless you are looking for something to do I would skip this trip. (Skipping this trip is seconded by an English couple I know who took it.) As a birder you may want to visit the swamp and take the dirt (mud during the rainy season) path just north of the canal before you turn onto the paved road to the boat dock. I walked this area several times (go west until you run into water, park your vehicle, and walk north) and always found it enjoyable.

If you want to take a day trip (from Port of Spain) to the southern tip of the west side of Trinidad I recommend making four stops. Stop one is the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, even non-birders will enjoy a walk around the small lake. Stop two is San Fernando Hill (take the turn at the Great Wall Restaurant and continue up the hill). The Hill provides a great view in all directions, typically has a cooling breeze, and is very clean. Stop three is the La Brea Pitch Lake. I saw it in the dry and the rainy season. Both my visits were interesting and different due to the water or minimal water. Take the tour and ask questions of the local guide(s). The local guides are worth the few dollars that it will cost you. The fourth stop is not so much a stop as a drive through the palm trees before reaching the south western tip of Trinidad known as Icacos Point.

Another enjoyable day trip is heading North West from Port of Spain and looping around till you are headed east. When you have driven through the village of Blanchisseuse and approach a suspension bridge crossing a river that you wonder if you should cross – its time to turn around. Yes, I crossed it and later was very thankful for my four wheel drive – the road quickly become dirt and in the rainy season it is sticky mud. There are several pretty beaches along this drive. I never stayed at any of the small hotels but did check out two of them and they appeared to be nice clean establishments.

While I am thinking about where not to go; don’t go birding in the rice fields during the rainy unless you have a four wheel drive vehicle. Even with a four wheel drive vehicle it took me over an hour to unstuck my truck one Sunday afternoon. Of course, I use to tell everyone my truck was powered by two hamsters – and one was dead and the other didn’t have many days left.

The (south) eastern side of Trinidad has Manzanilla Beach. This is a pretty white sand beach with coconut palm trees. There is basically one two story concrete block hotel to stay as you turn south to follow the beach. If you decide to see the end of the road you will turn around at the gate to a portion of the National Oil Co. Birders should take the time to drive the roads off Kernahan Trace. Saw my first group of red breasted black birds on one these roads.

The best day (we got home after 9:00 pm) trip we took was to the north eastern side of Trinidad. Once you reach the east side of the island and turn north it becomes a very scenic drive. On this drive eventually you will reach the north east point of the island and turn west. We birded the entire drive there and back.

We had lunch at the Mt. Plaisir Hotel in Grand Riviere. This was the best meal I had in Trinidad. The restaurant is open air looking out on to a white sand beach and the ocean. The rooms are Spartan but one of the few things I wished I had done in Trinidad was make time for a return long weekend trip and stay at Mt. Plaisir Hotel.

In Trinidad you may buy food at road side stands, small shops, small grocery stores and the chain grocery stores. I bought a week’s worth of groceries at a nearby chain store. Frozen foods are expensive, the meet and fish is so – so, vegetables and fruit can be good, and they will have everything you need. Occasionally I would stop at a road side stand but I found I (hey, I am a foreigner with lots of money and probably not too sharp) could get better prices at the chain grocery stores.

I drank the tap water at my apartment and other places. Occasionally I would have to resort to taking a couple of days worth of pills to cure diarrhea but never had to resort to my Cipro. If you are only going to be in Trinidad for a short time – keep to the bottle water.

My favorite beer is Stag – “a man’s beer”. Most bars are going to charge you $10 TT ($1.60 U.S.) plus or minus $2 for a Stag. Generally I found alcohol cheap in Trinidad. The politicians do not tax alcohol if they want to be re-elected. Furthermore, there are no drunk driving laws (or at least in forced) so be especially careful when driving on weekend nights and holidays.

I am not a big shopper and definitely never found anything I wanted to buy in Trinidad. I visited the Gulf Mall and Grand Bazaar Mall several times each. I am sure others could find something to buy but other than a baby gift for one of my downstairs neighbor I bought next to nothing.

The people of Trinidad especially my construction team were great. I was the only American and there are seven Pilipinos on contract and everyone else is Trinidadian. The 200 plus Trinidadian construction workers typically called me, Mr. Tom and never caused me any direct problems. Every once in a while, some one would refer to me as “the white guy” – this wasn’t done in a negative sense. I just happen to be the only white and therefore white was an identification mark of me. The best thing I found in Trinidad are the

If you have a question, send it and I will attempt to give you an answer.

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