In Trinidad all illusions of a tropical paradise disappear. The first inkling of this occurred as I left Piarco International Airport on my way to a lodge in the northern mountains. Outside the baggage claim, juggling a suitcase and camera bag, I forded my way through stampeding throngs of Trinidadians and tourists, seemingly bent on escaping and invading the island, using all necessary force. The cacophony of West Indian voices, hovering between urgency and rage, competed with the roar of passing aircraft. Compared to this, the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle portrayed in ads inviting tourists to sunny, palm lined beaches was a marketing fantasy invented by bored admen with over-active imaginations.
A taxi rescued me. Its driver alternating the brake, throttle and horn, until only the heavy, pounding bass of his reggae music filled the cab.
When we reached the mountains, the flat asphalt roadway gave way to one cracked and pitted with erosion. On one side of us the mountain fell to the valley, on the other, water spilled from a wall of dense vegetation. In places the dirt beneath the road had washed away leaving the crumbling asphalt projecting out over the valley in wet mountain air. The driver told me of a woman who once lived in a shipping crate on the roadside. One day a heavy rain came and washed her down the mountain. We passed a small, wooden hovel at the edge of a Columbus fruit plantation. According to the driver, it was the home of a watchman. At another point the driver pointed out a house that had been burglarized for the owner’s firearms.
The purpose of my visit to the island was to photograph birds, but it was the island’s mores that I remember. I learned the beauty of its avifauna fades into the darkness of the island’s brutality. The nation of Trinidad and Tobago is the homicide capital of the Caribbean. The homicide rate is 55 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Eleven times that of the United State. Its overall crime rate is one of the highest in the world. At the lodge, others repeated stories of crimes: kidnappings, machete murders and robberies.
The stories were hearsay, of course, but our guide, Jogie Ramlal, an Indo-Trinidadian, remained silent and didn’t dispute them. Yet his silence was as clear as the sadness in his demeanor. Ramlal’s ancestors had been brought to the island from India as servants by the British. When the Brits left, they remained. Many, like Ramlal, longed to return to the land of the family. Their once orderly island had become the home of steel drums, gangs and mayhem.
Fortunately, nature photography is not an urban activity and kept me well away from Port of Spain and other notorious environs. The exception would be the search for a bird called the Great Potoo.
Ramlal arranged a trip to Waller Field to find the potoo. And despite it being an area of known drug activity and the scene of a recent murder, Ramlal assured me he had everything under control. I discovered what Ramlal had in mind when two armed guards arrived to escort us.
Waller Field is an isolated and abandoned WWII bomber base. Its long runway is cracked and strewn with derelict cars and trash. Tropical vegetation is winning its battle with concrete, and the taxiways are a flooded marsh. A hundred years from now it will again be jungle. A thousand years from now archaeologists will puzzle over its collection of wine bottles and drug wrappers. Logs placed to block access after the murder were easily pushed aside. Whatever memories or utility Waller Field has are of no interest to Trinidad.
The field is also unlighted. It is the perfect habitat for a nocturnal predator such as the Great Potoo. It has also proven to be an ideal habitat for the bird’s human counterpart.
Although the trip was successful – a cooperative potoo had perched on a tree stump — I confess to being relieved when we prepared for the drive back to the lodge.
It was late evening when we left Waller Field and rolled the logs back into place. As we reached the mountains, the night sky hid behind a layer of low clouds. The light from the car’s headlights skipped off the wet roadway and was lost in the jungle around us. Our conversation was upbeat. Ramlal lost some of his reticence, telling me of his desire to one day visit India, the home of his ancestors. However, there was sadness in his voice, and I sensed this was a wish that had little chance of being fulfilled.
It was about that time when we found our road totally blocked by bamboo and mud that had slid down the mountain.
The darkness was lit only by the car’s lights. The blockage was huge. I attempted to pull a log off the road, but it stayed firm. We had no chance of removing it. I asked Ramlal if there was an alternate road to the lodge and he said there was not. I stood helplessly as he went forward with a flashlight for a closer look at our situation.
While Ramlal inspected the mound of trees and dirt, a sound from behind me caught my attention. I turned and in the red glow of the car’s taillights saw six men walking toward me. As they got closer I could see that each carried a machete.
The approaching men said nothing. Instinctively I walked to the front of the car. This put me in the headlights, but it also put the car between me and the machetes. I lost sight of Ramlal. He didn’t answer my calls. Ramlal, I thought, had seen the men and decided to hide in the mud and bamboo.
I circled the car and was prepared to dive into the jungle, but the men ignored me. They walk to the fallen vegetation and using their machetes began clearing the roadway. After several minutes, the road was clear enough for us to pass through.
Later as we drove to the lodge, Ramlal explained the men were members of his family who came looking for him. They saw us pass their homes and became worried when he didn’t arrive at the lodge.
Several years have passed since my visit to Trinidad. As for that night on the mountain road, I’m as embarrassed today as I was then. But the news from the island tells me nothing has changed. A tourist couple was recently murdered in their rented villa. The weapon was a machete. Because of crime, many cruise ships avoid its harbor. The US State Department and others caution tourists to remain indoors at night.
Jogie Ramlal is still a guide. His dream of visiting India is still a dream.