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Ten Days in Trinidad:
A Travel Journal, Written by Andrew Denman, 2006:
In 2006 I had the distinct honor of being awarded the Don Eckelberry Memorial Scholarship by the Society of Animal Artists in New York, of which I have been a Signature Member since 2002. The award consists of a ten day, all expenses paid trip to the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad. Trinidad has been a hot spot for avid birders for many years and was dearly loved by the late avian artist and naturalist Don Eckelberry, who was instrumental in the founding of the Centre itself. Don hoped that this scholarship program, which he created prior to his passing, would give young artists the opportunity to be inspired as he was inspired by this magical island and its fascinating inhabitants. I can safely say that he got his wish. The following is a first person account of my experiences at and around the Asa Wright Nature Centre. And please check my website over the coming months- and years- to see the paintings this trip will no doubt inspire. Until then, my words will have to paint the picture...
For more information on the Asa Wright Nature Centre, please visit: asawright.org
For more information on the Society of Animal Artists, please visit: societyofanimalartists.com
The Hanging Forest
I’ve heard it said that an airport is an airport pretty much the world over. Being a total stranger to international travel, I could never attest to that until now, disembarking at Port of Spain, Trinidad. Yes, I think, looking around me , it’s an airport alright; same long lines, same interminable wait for my suitcase at baggage claim, my heart beginning to pound the longer I wait for my distinctive bag to emerge in the sea of black Samsonite until finally it rounds a corner and pops into site like a weary, lime green friend.
After mistakenly checking, then scribbling over the box on my customs declaration form indicating that I am transporting illegal drugs, I head into the customs line, silently praying that my mistake does not result in a body cavity search. It doesn’t; in fact my luggage isn’t even searched.
It only takes a moment and three solicitations by taxi drivers for my driver to spot me. Stepping out into the air- Jesus I’m really in another country now- the ubiquity of the airport is shattered. It is night, and I can see nothing to indicate that I am in Trinidad-no towering palms or flocks of scarlet ibis- but the air is thick and humid. It is somehow different from the stifling humidity that made me declare that I hated-yes hated- my whopping two hours spent at Chicago’s O-Hare airport; this is tropical humidity, not boring domestic humidity.
My driver and guide introduces himself to me as Charan in a thick, musical Caribbean accent. Charan is friendly and eager to strike up conversation, inquisitive about my life and background without being prying, open about his work and life without being over sharing, and perfectly comfortable with the natural lulls in our conversation during the strikingly quick one hour spent navigating the dark roads to the Asa Wright Nature Center. It takes me a while to adjust to sitting as a passenger on the left; watching cars speed toward us I can’t help but cringe momentarily a few times, but Charan seems well aware of what he’s doing. Nonetheless, it occurs to me that his name is suspiciously similar to Charon, the grim figure in Dante’s Inferno who ferries the dead across the River Styx into Hell. Charan has heard this before and laughs heartily.
As we turn onto the highway I ask if we are still in Port of Spain. Charan informs me that we were never in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capitol city. The airport is actually in Piarco, and Port of Spain is about seventeen miles past it in the opposite direction of our travel. As we turn into the town of Arima, the neighborhoods become a mix of business and residential. Many homes are built above businesses. Charan notes how expensive land is; it’s much cheaper to buy a small lot and build up, than to buy a large lot and build out. He remarks on how large some of the houses are, but they look rather tiny to me. The vast majority of them are built on large, square, concrete piers, raising the first story some ten feet off the ground. I ask if this is a flood control measure. “No,” Charan replies, “Dey jus like to live higha up so dey can look down from deir ‘ouses.” If they were built lower it would “look funny,” he states matter-of-factly. Of course it would. The houses, what I can see of them in the dark, range from dilapidated shacks, to modestly well kept dwellings. Styles range from blocky and functional, to strangely elaborate. One lavish spiral staircase and sculptured front porch in particular commands my attention.
As we wind our way up into the hills, the residences become fewer and further between. The headlights catch a few lean dogs ambling by the roadside, one of which howls after us. Rows of short, stocky palms line the road for a while, finally giving way, along with the integrity of the crumbling road, to stands of tall, leggy rubber trees, their bark white and ghostly in the wash of the headlights. I begin catching tantalizing glimpses of pendant pink heliconia, vibrant exclamations marks in the grey green night forest. I comment on them to Charan - Heliconia are one of my favorite cut flowers- and he tells me that the heliconia is the symbol of the People’s National Movement, and apparently emblazons their ties, banners, and political advertisements.
The roadside vegetation becomes decidedly more dense as we begin to descend into the Arima Valley. Vines drape the trees like savage garlands, and bromeliads festoon every possible perch. Some lie scattered by the side of the road, perhaps having become too heavy for their branches and fallen. Charan slows the car as we approach a cluster of vines overhanging the roadway. He points out the twisted knot of bromeliads suspended in the web of vines like fish hanging from a limp net. There is something almost mournful about how they dangle there, but in fact it’s a testament to their extreme adaptability and durability.
Charan stops momentarily to raise the gate for us to enter the access road to Asa Wright. I can hardly believe we’ve gotten here so quickly. Charan points out a strangler fig tree, it’s hulking trunk dripping with aerial roots that hang from the shadowed branches above like noodles from a pair of chopsticks. He motions to the torch ginger, bright scepters of pink and red that crowd the roadside. I notice the chandelier like flowers of white Dartura, or Angel’s Trumpets, weeping in the shadows. Perhaps I will have a different reaction in daylight hours, but my first impression is that the forest in Trinidad hangs. It’s as though the whole rigorous effort of pushing up, up, to the sun, has tired everything out, and now it prefers to slump in languid, florid sensuality. When the car finally coasts to a halt, I hear the sounds for the first time. The insects sing like a tiny, high-pitched choir, and I soak them in with the thick and richly scented air.
Charan shows me to my room, a lovely little cottage, not beautiful mind you, but it lacks little in the way of comfort. Even the shower, a tiny closet finished with the remnants of broken, mismatched tiles, is strangely charming, and the high, open beamed ceiling obliterates the claustrophobia I so often feel even in fancy hotel rooms. To my great surprise, blessedly, it has air conditioning. The staff has laid out cold water, warm tea, and a small sandwich. I am too tired to care that the tea is Lipton and the sandwich is clearly made with some Velveeta-esque cheese product. It was lovely of them to provide me with a much needed snack. So what if it isn’t exotic? At any rate, the little bowl they’ve left of brownish, large grained sugar adds a nice touch to the tea, and it’s unusual enough that I can at least imagine it’s special sugar harvested from some local cane field. As I drift off to sleep in the surprisingly comfortable bed, I realize with dismay that, in my exhaustion, I have forgotten to tip my congenial driver.
A Room with a View
My first morning in the tropics, I awake to the songs of countless birds. One especially long and beautiful refrain has me humming to myself all morning. I look through the large windows, past the flower laden branches of a gleaming coral pink Frangipani tree, down on the rooftops of the Nature Centre below me, and beyond it at the lush tropical forest.
I head down a series of stone steps flanked by moss and fern draped walls until I reach the main building. Charan told me to check in first thing in the morning, but there is no one at the desk. I will soon learn that first thing in the morning is a relative term in Trinidad; there is very little sense of urgency here. It’s not that people don’t have things to do, or that they aren’t eager to please, it’s just that there’s no rush, a phenomenon I will learn to refer to affectionately as “Operating on Trin Time.”
I head down a high ceilinged hallway and emerge into the sitting room. My feet echo a little on the well worn hardwood floors as I survey the red or black stained teak furniture, so heavily shellacked it appears to be wet. Ornate chairs with wide sweeping arms and rusty salmon upholstery are curiously somewhere between inviting enough to sit in and austere enough to be in a museum diorama. Long, wine red curtains with filmy, yellow gold swags frame the tall, narrow windows. The white walls with dark wood trim hang with gilt-framed mirrors missing half their silver, photos and drawings of colorful birds, and black and white photos bearing witness to the women and men who shaped the history of this over one-hundred year old house. Orb-shaped vases painted with toucans and parrots and brimming with gingers flowers and purple-black Ty leaves picked from the grounds decorate the table tops. Wicker lampshades hang from the ceiling like inverted baskets. Curiously, a few birds- I will later learn they are Palm Tanagers- chirp and flit about, one on a mirror, another brazenly hoping about on the coffee table.
As I step outside through one of the four high doorways onto the veranda, the Arima Valley lays out before me, a lush tapestry of purple, blue and green mountains in the morning’s lusty haze. The air is palpable, and it sings with the promise of unfamiliar birds, insects, and treasures yet to be revealed. Beyond the wide, covered porch and down a short flight of stairs, a man is placing fresh fruits in the bird feeders. Before long, gem-like birds begin darting back and forth, so many that I don’t know what direction to look in. Glamorous hummingbirds the color of a tropical sea bob and weave and tread air as they feast on sugar water from feeders less than an arm’s length away.
There are too many wonderful birds to list that come and go from my perch on the veranda. The most readily seem are the Bananaquits, sweet little yellow, brown, and black birds that feast endlessly on the Yellow orange racemes of the Sanchezia that form a lush green and yellow variegated wall between the bird feeders and the jungle beyond. The birds are so common that the Centre that employees dismiss them as BQ’s, but to me, they are as exotic as anything else I see. Another bird to receive a bad rap here are the Palm Tanagers. With their slender shape, olive green and brown bodies, and constant chattering, they are neither the loveliest nor the most demure birds to grace the Centre with their presence. Nonetheless, their fearless nature (they routinely land on the veranda railing not a foot from me) and their bright black, inquisitive eyes, make them a hit with me. They are certainly no dummies either. By hanging out on the veranda, and even in the house itself, they assure themselves first dibs of the slightest morsel of discarded food. They nest under the eaves because they have learned that the Giant Cowbird (which routinely parasitizes their nests, leaving a confused Palm Tanager to rear the Cowbird’s massive young) will not come onto the veranda. One tanager even nests in a potted plant in the dinning room, another on the floor behind the fridge.
Frequent visitors to the feeders include the Honeycreepers, with their fantastically iridescent purple, green, or blue-green plumage, a variety of lavishly colored tanagers, the sprightly purple and yellow Euphonias, Tropical Kingbirds and Kiskadees, and more hummingbirds than I can count. Food that is dropped by the birds is quickly snapped up by Golden Tegus, an impressive lizard up to two or three feet long with beautiful black tiger stripes. They crawl with saurian deliberation across the walkways, but when startled, can go crashing off into the protection of the shrubbery like fanciful rockets.
Another frequent scavenger at the feeders is the Red-rumped Agouti, a ridiculously wonderful animal about the size of a large housecat and combining the most endearing qualities of a deer and a guinea pig. They have the dainty legs of a deer, combined with the scrunchy little nose, funny ears and sleek rodent body of a guinea pig, and bound along the forest floor like rabbits. They are somewhat shy, though I am determined to get closer to them before my stay here is over. Ken, another guest I have met here (he and his wife Isobel are visiting from Winchester, England), piques my interest with news of a female Agouti with several young spotted just a few hours earlier. With any luck I will come across them myself. One of the excellent and knowledgeable guides, Mukesh tells me he’s seen as many as eighteen Agoutis around the veranda in the early morning. He suggests I seek out areas where fruit, especially mangoes, fall to the forest floor; in such areas, Agoutis will be present and most easily approached in the early morning.
Even from the veranda, I am spellbound by the plant life. The fascination with bromeliads that dominated my early botanical interests is rewarded here as I identify at least five genuses of the familiar epiphytes almost immediately. The exotic Heliconia are so numerous they would give a veteran florist a stroke. I am impressed by their massive leaves borne eight or ten feet into the air, green flags waving in a parade of endless verdure.
I’m going to like it here.
Kill Nothing But Time
I fall quickly into the pattern of daily comings and goings here. I wake every morning between five thirty and six. The day begins with a liberal application of sun block, followed by insect repellant; properly armored against the rigorous environment, I take coffee on the veranda and head out for a walk on the grounds. I will be back by seven thirty at the latest for breakfast, after which I will either head out for a field trip or return to the veranda for bird watching. Lunch is at noon, and afternoon tea is at four. I’m not sure what I enjoy more, actually having afternoon tea, or simply saying, with a tinge of deliberate affectation, “I think I shall take tea on the veranda. Care to join me?” Rum punch is served at six, a delight which I do not miss even once during my stay, followed by dinner at seven. The food is somewhere between good and excellent, and I take great relish in trying everything unusual, from fried plantains to a traditional Trinidad breakfast of herring hash; only the insipid Taro Root disappoints.
My first morning on the veranda, I imagine I will spend my entire visit here, just relaxing in one of the Adirondack chairs or perched on a stool by the railing, enjoying the parade of wonders so conveniently on display. My second day I sign up for eight field trips off the Centre grounds. There is, ultimately, only so much time one can spend looking at any view, no matter how good the coffee, the tea, or the rum punch that accompanies it. The fact is, time moves very differently in the tropics. Maybe it’s the equatorial heat; maybe it’s the humidity. Either way, one day blends into the next as surely as one wave envelopes another. You see it in the way people move, and you can hear it in the way they talk. These trips outside the Centre are more than just fascinating adventures, they are tools for marking the time, for holding stubbornly to my identity; I’m an American, and I have a schedule to keep!
This attitude very quickly fades into the background, ignored like the constant drone of a cicada, and my expectations and misconceptions fall away with it. Even with the litany of activities I have laid out, I find myself with an amazing surplus of time. There is a prominent sign at the entrance to the Asa Wright Nature Centre: Take nothing but pictures, Kill Nothing but time, Leave nothing but footprints.” Kill nothing but time. The phrase resonates in a part of me I didn’t know existed. I will not waste a single moment during these ten days, but I will learn to experience the passage of time in a different way, not as an arrow with a straight course to run, but as a winding stream that one can easily loose on its wandering course through the jungle, but which one can invariable pick up again. It’s not that the stream has nowhere to go; it’s just that there’s no rush.
Before my trip is over, I will walk these forest trails and others until my shoes are literally falling off my feet. I will learn to sit for hours on end for the briefest glimpse of the tiniest bird. I will sleep when I feel like it, even if it’s in the middle of the day. I will make new friends with an ease I’ve never known before, and when something disappoints me, I will let it roll of my back with an unquestioning grace I didn’t know I had in me. I will feel a keen tinge of homesickness on a regular basis, missing my family, my friends, and my birds, but I will also learn that I am fine on my own. With my dear Bay Area so far away, I will learn that I, always the creature of habit, am more adaptable than I ever dreamed.
Sitting in the damp heat, my shirt plastered to my back with sweat, I laugh inwardly at the white linen sport coat I brought with me, and which I am already certain will never leave my closet until it’s ready to be folded back in my suitcase. I had imagined myself sitting under some spreading, tropical tree in my white jacket, looking oh so debonair, and perhaps just a touch aloof in my Vogue sunglasses, sipping on an exotic drink positively bristling with umbrellas and skewered fruit, with midnight black men in white pith helmets drifting back and forth in the background. The very thought of wearing any jacket in this heat, let alone sweating through my I.N.C., is beyond repellant.
My expectation that I am in the primitive middle of nowhere also implodes quite spectacularly…sort of. I am to give a lecture on my work for artists and wildlife enthusiasts, only there is great difficulty in locating a slide projector; Powerpoint, on the other hand, is readily available. The phone lines to the U.S. will not work for eight of my ten days here, but the internet access is working fine. When driving through one of the towns later in the week, I will pass shacks dingier than the meanest crack house on the worst street in Oakland…three blocks from a billboard advertising “Hands Free Blue Tooth Technology”- I don’t even know what that is. It is more than a little confusing, the blend of life that Trinidad offers: squalor versus wealth, industry versus wildness, dense population versus isolation, new versus old. It’s not so different from anywhere else, but it’s all mixed together, with so little space in between it can feel claustrophobic. And all of it is set against the backdrop of the forest itself, a place where the struggle between life and death is so blatant, so immediate, you can’t look past it. When life and death converge so seamlessly, they take time with them.
At The Clear Water Pool
On my first day I hike back up the road Charan and I were on the night before, recalling his mention of a natural spring we had passed. I find the trail marked “Clear Water Pool” and decide to explore, as I descend the wide concrete steps, I am spellbound by the massive clumps of giant bamboo that rise above me, yellow turrets on a forest wall of green. Many are straight and robust; others form great teepees of crisscrossing angles, while still more, grayish and long dead, lie or hang in a haphazard tapestry reminiscent of a game of giant pickup sticks abandoned by an inattentive child. The bamboo stands make a wonderful creaking and popping noise in the light breeze of the hot morning; I have the funny sense that they are talking to each other in a forgotten tongue. I can hear the water from here, but must descend further, past flamboyant clumps of upright, lobster claw Heliconia, before it finally comes into view.
The sight takes my breath away. Two small waterfalls spill eagerly into the clear, sparkling pool. The water is green in the shade and golden where the sunlight penetrates, painting lavish patterns on the sandy, rocky bottom. Rocky walls rise on three sides of the pool, heavily adorned with large ferns and the elephantine leaves of velvety Colocasias. The stream that feeds the waterfalls is above eye level, but I can see where it spills out of the pool to my left and follows its rambling course back down into the jungle valley. Beyond the clumps of ferns rises a wall of vines and bamboo intermittently brought to life by bright shafts of sunlight filtering through the verdant canopy above. There are several large eucalyptus trees as well, which send their knife shaped leaves lilting and fluttering down into the pool in a mid-air ballet as slow and sensuous as the Trinidad morning.
I feel a very strong urge to tear off my clothes and go for a swim. With the bottom so easily visible, the water cannot be more than three to five feet deep in extremis. I sample it with my hand and find it to be cool and inviting. I stand there vacillating, my mind flickering between all of the horrible consequences of such an indulgence, and my inner critic that pipes up with shrill chiding of my total lack of spontaneity. I imagine bacterial infections, insidious microorganisms, that Amazonian fish known to lodge itself in the human urethra, all terrible and far-fetched scenarios invariably ending in the loss of my penis. I decide to err on the side of caution and return to the lodge where I ask at the reception desk. A young woman called June replies with a curiously knowing smile that, yes, it is safe to swim in the pool. Apparently this is the kind of question only ignorant tourists need ask.
I return, spontaneity gone, but fears assuaged, this time with a bath towel and change of underwear. I hurriedly peel out of everything but my underwear, which will have to suffice as a bathing suit, and, feeling strangely naughty, slide into the crisp waters. My inner calm is immediately shattered the minute my feet find the sandy bottom and churn up clouds of sediment, taking away my confident ability to see the bottom. I can already imagine strange water creatures gliding across the bottom toward my naked flesh with terrible ease. The carpet of fallen eucalyptus leaves feels less than sensual on my feet, as well. All in all, the experience was better in my head than in reality. I have never felt comfortable in the water, and even in this idyllic setting, I can’t surmount my unease. After a scant two minutes in the water, I haul myself out. I dry almost instantly, even in the humid atmosphere. Wrapping my towel around my waist, I wrestle off my sodden underwear, dry myself, and slip on a new pair. At the very least I was technically naked in the middle of a tropical rainforest for a few seconds- take that inner critic.
The White Bearded Manakins
A walk of the grounds provides me with a marvelously entertaining show put on by the White-Bearded Manakins, my favorite bird thus far. The strikingly marked black and white males hop from branch to branch making popping sounds with their wings that remind me of those metal clackers my brother and sister and I used to drive our parents crazy with every Halloween. This unmistakable sound makes the Manakins easy to find, even in the dense understory; it is entirely unbird-like, more befitting an insect.
The White-Bearded Manakins are a small bird, about the size of my local Kinglets, and while beautiful, are far from the most impressive bird I’ve seen today (the gloriously colored Mot Mot, and the impossibly brilliant Honeycreepers come to mind). Their behavior however is remarkable. Groups of males- I’ve counted six at one time- cluster together near the forest floor in courtship grounds called Leks. Each bird seems to select two favorite perches (referred to as his court) from which he ping-pongs back and forth as if spring loaded, each time emitting a metallic, rasping clack, and occasionally pausing to puff out his little bearded throat pouch and call to the female with a high-pitched trill. I don’t see her, but my guide, Harold, tells me earlier that she is probably somewhere above in the trees, carefully watching the antics of her would be suitors before making her selection. With so many glorious potential mates, one can hardly blame her for being choosy.
The Search for the Golden Headed Manakin
A short walk from the White Bearded Manakins, I am assured that there is a Golden Headed Manakin Lek off in the trees. The Golden Headed Manakins are a similarly tiny, round bird, black with a bright yellow-orange head; despite their bright coloration, they are harder to detect than their white-bearded cousins because their display grounds are not as self contained and are usually situated about twenty feet or more above the forest floor. Moreover, while they do seem to favor certain perches, they cannot be expected to bounce back and forth between two set points like the white-bearded.
My first several attempts to catch sight of this beautiful bird do not bode well. Despite assurances from Harold, and his fellow guide, Barry, that I am waiting in the right spot, all my time waiting patiently (or not so patiently) by the lek are rewarded with nothing but the frustratingly common sound of their high pitched, rapid cheeps and not a single decent sighting. I refuse to count the vaguest impression of something orange and black streaking by like a flaming bullet as a sighting. Barry points out what he swears to be the “favorite branch” of one male, on which I eagerly train my zoom lens for so long my fingers begin to ache from the weight of the camera. Barry makes an appearance about an hour later to inquire as to my luck; when I shake my head, he smiles broadly and tells me that I should go get something to eat, and the Manakin will probably be back after lunch. I already know Barry, an infectiously enthusiastic eighteen-year-old, to be something of a joker, and despite finding it hard to believe that the Golden Headed Manakin and I are on the same lunch schedule, I dutifully take his advice and return an hour later, again with no success.
The following day I wander down the trail to make yet another attempt when a brownish lizard catches my eye; his dappled camouflage is so convincing, I would never have detected his presence were it not for his rapid movement up the trunk of the noble Jacaranda tree beside the trail. Strangely, as I train the camera on him, less than five inches to his left is another lizard poised motionlessly on a slender, vertical branch. His body is flat and round with a blocky head, rather like a chameleon, though on closer inspection he is obviously some type of anole. His seemly large head is owing to an inflated red throat pouch.
Harold happens by with his tour group. In addition to be a very skilled and talented nature photographer, Harold is a lean, lanky man who speaks with a precision that lends him an air of dignity. He sounds almost embarrassed to tell me that this is what locals call the twenty-four hour lizard, because they believe if it falls out of the trees and lands on you, it will stick to you for twenty-four hours whereupon it will fall off and the human victim will die; this, he assures us, is not the case. Harold takes this opportunity to admonish his guests (with more than a hint of derision in his voice) that the native peoples of Trinidad can be highly ignorant and superstitious; it is, for instance, widely believed that Kapok trees house evil spirits. “Neva believe anyting dey tell you aboud anyting,” he tells us, shaking his head. Unlike Harold, I am fascinated by the local superstitions, and when I ask him later in the week to elaborate on the twenty-four hour lizard myth he tells me the less polite version of the tale; actually, he tells me, the myth applies specifically to girls. If the lizard falls on a woman, she has twenty-four hours to have sex with her boyfriend or she will drop dead. Obviously a particularly creative and equally horny Amerindian boy originated this tale to suit his own nefarious purposes. It’s easy to picture him dropping lizards from a tree branch or balcony on unsuspecting girls and then approaching them with this fantastic line. Harold finishes by telling me, with another tired shake of his head, “I don’t really talk aboud deez tings because dey’re not true.” Barry seems a bit more willing to laugh off native superstitions. On one of the night tours of the Centre grounds, he tells the tour group in a conspiratorial ghost-story-over-a-campfire-whisper that he has something important to tell us and we are not to laugh (of course insuring that we will). With a half-suppressed smile I can see even in the dark, he confides in us that many of the local workers will not go outside late at night, believing that the ghost of Asa Wright, founder of the Centre, still haunts the forest. Barry obviously enjoys this part of his job.
Of course, it is the illusive Golden-Headed Manakin that truly haunts the forest, and my thoughts at the moment. Finally, shortly after my encounter with the lizards, I stop by the Manakin’s purportedly favorite tree for- I tell myself quite forcefully- one last attempt to detect my recalcitrant quarry. Magically, without waiting a moment or even hearing his tell-tale call, I spot him through the tangle of trees sitting right where Barry said he would be…and right after lunch no less. He is about twenty-five feet off, but his coal black body and glowing golden head are as unmistakable as they are obvious. I madly click more pictures than I could possibly know what to do with, expecting him to vanish into the forest at any moment, but he makes himself a wonderfully cooperative model, not even flinching as another tour group approaches. I tell the guide that his group has a nice view of the little charmer, and he points out the tiny gem of a bird to a mix of birders, hikers, and bored spouses. Some respond with little exclamations of “well he’s a pretty little thing,” or “how about that,” others with barely a shrug. Unimpressed by their lack of enthusiasm, I tell then they’re very lucky; it’s taken a collective three or more hours to catch a glimpse of the little bastard myself.
To The World Below
On my afternoon walk I take a different route than our guide showed us this morning, but the already familiar trail names reassure me that I will not become lost. I head down a fairly steep jungle trail, scanning the vine-draped clots of trunks and leaves for bird life. I take a left fork, certain that it will lead me back to meet the part of the trail I know. It is fairly dense, and large buttress roots have almost formed natural stairs that I follow down into ever deeper jungle shadows. The most impressive site I encounter on the trail are the large woody Liana vines, or monkey ladders, that snake and coil above, across, and on either side of me. There is no simile to do these vines justice. They are not like ropes, or snakes or ribbons, or anything else I know. They are flat, rather than round, extremely woody with a texture ranging from rough to waxy; the smallest are the diameter of a finger, the largest, bigger than my arm. Most remarkable is the way they trail in intricate corkscrews, loop-to-loops, and impossibly contorted spirals so abstract they would give Jackson Pollock a heart attack. If an American amusement park were to fashion a roller coaster after these vines, it would be the ultimate attraction for day trip adrenaline junkies (and no, I would not even consider riding it myself!)
A narrower trail to the right draws my interest. It seems to lead down into a ravine where I can hear rushing water, so I take it in hopes of seeing some wildlife. The trail becomes steeper the further I go and I find myself reaching for woody vines to steady myself with embarrassing regularity. I suddenly notice leaf cutter ants plodding along the trail, carrying bits of freshly cut leaves on their backs. I remember earlier in the day when Jeffrey, a regular guest with an obvious wealth of knowledge about this forest, showed me a similar trial and claimed that ants had actually made it. It is with some concern that I realize I have actually left the trail and have been following an ant path into the forest. Nonetheless, the sounds of the water are louder now and I can see where the ravine cuts through the undergrowth from here, so I press on.
When I reach the bottom, I find a yawning black cave in the forest floor, crisscrossed with vines. I can see a torrent of white water rushing through the shadows below and then emerging a few yards to my left into a rocky, open stream. A bizarre, raspy, croaking call draws my attention back to the cave, and I catch a brief glimpse of a good-sized, brownish bird fluttering out of the pit. I surmise that these must be the Oilbirds and moreover that I shouldn’t be here; the Centre only allows access to these rare birds in guided tours and only twice a week so as not to cause them unnecessary stress. I leave quickly and quietly, but less because of any rules I might be breaking (I did, after all, stumble upon this place by accident) than the simple fact that the birds themselves make me a little uncomfortable, a very novel experience for a bird-lover like me. Their calls, which I continue to hear, are so terribly alien, and that brief sight of a bird rising out of a cave fills me the profound sense- could it really be dread?- that I have entered into a world where I don’t belong and am thoroughly unwelcome. I haven’t been tried before today, but perhaps I have the same aversion to caves that I do to water, and for the same reason. The underground, like the water, is a whole different world, and the knowledge that I could not survive there for long is perhaps all the convincing I need not to dally there at all.
Later in the week I return for the scheduled tour with Harold and the Centre’s manager, Ann, leading the way. Our group is about fifteen in all, though we will only be allowed into the cave in groups of three. Before we head out, Harold gives us a fascinating introduction to the Oilbirds. Their name derives from the fact that the chicks, at about seventy days old, are actually fifty percent heavier than the adult birds, having been gorging on their parents largess to give them the necessary energy for growth and maturation; at this stage, Amerindians used to harvest the young birds and boil their fatty bodies down into oil for use in torches, lamps, and cooking. Ann pipes in that the oil from these birds has a spectacularly long shelf life; it can be stored for three or more years without any spoilage. Of course, no one catches the birds for their oil anymore. “Too much work,” Harold explains. As such they have no real natural predators (snakes find the nests too hard to reach), except for the rats and land crabs that consume chicks that fall from their nests to the cave floor.
Oil birds are very unique, the only nocturnal fruit eating bird in the world, feeding on palm fruits and other abundant sources of nutrition. The nest itself, which will house two to four eggs, is made from regurgitated fruit and resembles a shallow saucer clinging to the high cave ledges. The colony at Asa Wright, studied since 1957, resides in the small Dunston Cave and numbers between 120 and 180 birds. The birds live only in the northern range of Trinidad and northern South America, particularly Venezuela, which has a massive colony of some twenty-thousand. The birds, however, are capable of flying over eighty miles in a single night, so sightings over the skies of Tabago and much of Central America are not uncommon. The Southernmost tip of Trinidad is only seven miles away from Venezuela (and was actually connected to it a scant twelve thousand years ago) so the birds can easily fly between the two countries, and back, in a single evening. Because of their odd looks and habits, they are the subject of much local superstition, earning them the label Guacharo (a Spanish word applied to the birds by the Amerindians, roughly translated as killjoy, Harold explains) and Diaboltin (meaning Devil Bird).
We head down the steps and sloping trials of the Guacharo Trial. The jungle is lush and we can hear running water below us. We pass a Sandbox Tree, a huge plant whose trunk and limbs are covered in lethally sharp, woody spines. The forest floor around them is scattered with shell-shaped, hard brown seed pods. When the seed pods are ripe, Harold tells us, they pop open with a loud crack to disperse their dandelion-like seeds. It doesn’t take long for us to find the soft, wispy white parachutes amongst the understory; we play at releasing them in the gentle breeze and watching them lilt down into the leaf litter. The tree is as useful as it is unusual; the Amerindians used the plush, downy seeds to stuff pillows, and they carved earrings from the woody pods. In fact, Ann tells us that she and her friends used to make Sandbox earrings when she was a girl.
As we descend further, we pass a noble Ficus tree, which webs off into the surrounding forest like some gargantuan sessile octopus. A beautiful Chaconia tree, the national flower of Trinidad, rises from the jungle gorge below us, laden with luscious red flowers born in long racemes. Finally the forest clears a bit and we are in the grotto, with precipitous black limestone walls rising on every side. The texture of the stone is something like stacked shingles, and epiphytic ferns and mosses cling precariously to the ridges. Naked, aerial roots hang like forgotten ropes from the cliff faces, and green cascades of lush philodedrons spill over ledges and clot the trunks of the noble trees that rise from the rocky forest floor. A beautiful, several tiered stream cuts through the grotto floor, splashing and bubbling with the promise of life until it disappears into the yawning mouth of the Dunston cave. The jungle primeval may be a tired cliché, but that is exactly where I am, a place outside of time where one can just as easily imagine a dinosaur lumbering by as a oilbird flying up from the darkness.
When we enter the cave, which is no more than a narrow gap through the limestone cliffs on either side, I look above to the distant window where a patch of the canopy, more vibrant than ever in contrast to the darkness, peaks through. Cool green light filters in ever so slightly, illuminating a few ledges and the stream that courses past our feet. Harold lets us spend only a moment here, illuminating the birds with a weak flashlight. Under these conditions, they are not nearly as intimidating as my first encounter. They are actually rather innocuous, looking a bit like warm brown hawks with aerodynamic bodies and long hooked beaks. They lie clustered together in tight groups and do not break the silence with their raspy cries. I am a little disappointed that the rest of the group is not able to hear their frightening, alien cries which Harold warns us sound like a woman being chocked to death…while vomiting. I’m tempted to ask him how he knows what a vomiting woman sound like when she’s being choked to death, but the moment passes.
On the Night Tour
My second night here is extremely hot and humid; strangely it is warmer in the evening than it was just a few hours ago, the cool breeze replaced with a hot, stale wind. Mukesh explains that this is from the warm inland air blowing out to sea. The much talked about complimentary rum punch does not disappoint and provides some welcome relief from the oppressively heavy atmosphere. The darkening view of Arima Valley is beautiful in the greys and lavenders of the approaching twilight, and the pendulous Oropendola nests suspended from the great Hog Plum tree look even more abstract in evening silhouette than in daylight. In the distance, I can barely make out the glimmer of Verdant Vale, and beyond it over the mountains, the twinkling lights and noticeable glow of Arima. Still, it is the sounds that most captivate me. I close my eyes and soak in the insistent drone of a cicada. If you can imagine a combination of a train whistle, the buzz of high voltage wires, and an air raid siren you would not be far off from the impossibly loud and unrelentingly persistent chorus of this amazing insect. It seems to go on forever with scarcely any variation until finally dissolving into a strange metallic gurgle, after which it winds up again like a revving engine until the tires squeal and off it goes, back to a full scream. On the tour of the grounds this morning, several people in our group, myself included, mistook the call of the cicada for a bird. Harold corrects us and explains that Trinidad has it easy; in Malaysia, the cicadas are so numerous and so loud it can be deafening.
After dinner, Mukesh leads me and five others on the night tour of the grounds. He is a short, athletic man in his early twenties, but he exudes professionalism beyond his years. He moves with the purpose and ease of a man who knows what he’s doing, though he is quite watchful of venomous snakes along the trails. His calm is shattered only once, when he lets out a little yelp as he trips over a massive toad that catapults itself off into the undergrowth with a crash. Two other Cane Toads are more cooperative; the dinner-plate-sized amphibians sit impressively by one of the walkways in a damp spot on the ground, looking at us with warty faces that seem a tad contemptuous. The tiny Ferruginous Pygmy Owl makes a brief appearance, and a strong, musky scent in the air promises a tree porcupine, though we are unable to find him amongst the dark tangle of trees and vines.
Armed with only a flashlight, we walk back along the same road I arrived by the night before. Mukesh has a knack for catching interesting animals in the beam of his flashlight, from spindly-legged Harvestman (a sort of alien version of my local daddy-long-legs), to an enormous pink toed tarantula, to giant crickets and walking stick bugs. Bats occasionally brush past our heads in search of giant moths. One night I discover a respectably large beetle with such an amazingly iridescent green and gold carapace, it looks fake. Along one bank, peppered with burrows that I learn are Mot-Mot nests, we encounter an enormous wolf spider and several land crabs. The crabs look charmingly like the ones I see on my trips to Point Reyes National seashore, scuttling about the rocks back home; this one, however, makes his home in mud burrows in the heart of the jungle. On my second night tour, Barry tells us that the Asa Wright staff catch crab poachers in the park with some regularity; he says with a laugh that his favorite part of dealing with these criminals is forcing them to release the sacks full of crabs that they have spent the better part of a night painstakingly coaxing out of burrows, often with painfully pinched fingers to show for it.
Most memorable is the Click Bug, which first presents itself as a neon green star in the inky blackness. Upon closer inspection it is a flat, brownish beetle with two bioluminescent green “eyes” (actually spots on the top of his carapace) that glow like a car’s headlamps. As it moves along a vine covered bank it actually creates a respectable pool of light around its body, enough, Mukesh tells us, that you can use one like a pen light to read by. He tells me to feel free to pick it up and I comply. Once in my hand it struggles by clicking its head up and down with a loud pop, giving it the name, Click Bug. When I release it, it promptly flies into my face and lands on my nose. Somehow I don’t mind this little fellow, and I calmly remove him. As he flies off again, a bright orange light sparkles momentarily from the underside of his abdomen, his means, as Mukesh puts it, of showing off for the lady clicker bugs. As I leave my glowing friend I glance back and am amazed that he is still quite visible more than ten yards away.
On the Road to Caroni
Today marks my first field trip off the centre grounds, an afternoon excursion to the Caroni Swamp, a large breeding ground for the beautiful Scarlet Ibis. Our driver and guide for the day, Ramdass, is a delightful sixty year old man, Indian by lineage, but born and raised in Trinidad; his frame is tough and wiry, and he has about him that air of wisdom and dignity Indian people so often exude; no doubt his distinguished head of close-cut grey hair contributes to this effect. I am accompanied by Ken and Isobel, a lovely couple from Winchester, England, with whom I have become quite friendly. We’ve had many a pleasant conversation about our shared interests in birds as well as art, and our mutual concern for the future of our two countries which seem to be in regrettably similar spirals of decline. Ken has a great sense of history, being the recently retired owner of a famous London Hat Shop established in 1666, whose illustrious clientele has included Winston Churchill, Charley Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy…and Mike Tyson.
As we head out from the Asa Wright Centre along the narrow mountain road, Ramdass points out the Christophine plantations on either side of us. Christophine, known as Chayote in Mexico and the U.S., is a squash the size and shape of an avocado, planted throughout the northern range, most commonly on steep mountain slopes on trellises. I will later discover that Christophine soup is quite delicious, with a flavor somewhere between potato-leek and a particularly nutty crookneck squash. Seen from a distance, a Christophine farm looks as though the mountain has been draped with endless bolts of vibrant green cloth. Where the plants reach the roadway, I can see there is perhaps four feet of clearance between the trellises on which the vines grow and the slopes beneath them. There is a very small Christophine hillside on the center grounds which one of the guides told us he had harvested on numerous occasions. It’s hard labor, and one must be watchful for highly venomous snakes, such as the Bushmaster, which enjoy the cool of the shade beneath the vines during the hot afternoons. Snakes aside, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone crawling under the vines on the extremely precipitous mountain slopes, but Ramdass assure me that agile young boys are quite capable of performing this task; primitive steps notched into the hillside help to make the climb easier. Ramdass shows us where Christophine is grown in flatter areas to make the harvest less challenging. It is grown on the steep mountain slopes for purely economic reasons; the land is cheaper and more readily available.
We pass through Ramdass’s home town of Verdant Vale, a quaint collection of well kept cottages and several larger homes, peppered with glorious orange flowering Flamboyant Trees. It is an aptly named plant if ever there was one. The town was founded by four Indian brothers who subsequently married women outside the village; the children mostly settled here, and, as a result, nearly everyone who lives here decades later is related in one way or another, with many of them working at Asa Wright. I soon learn that Ramdass and Charan are brothers, making Barry, Charon’s son, Ramdass’s nephew. Another Asa Wright guide, Roodal, is Ramdass’s cousin; Roodal’s son, David, is also a guide at the center, and, along with Mukesh, is another of Ramdass’s nephews. Ramdass’s older brother, who I have yet to meet, has apparently worked as an Asa Wright guide longer than anyone else on staff. He’s something of a legend for being acknowledged- and footnoted several times- in Richard ffrench’s (yes, it’s actually spelled that way) field guide to the birds of Trinidad.
The tiny but beautiful, gleaming white temple identifies Verdant Vale as a Hindu neighborhood and has also given the town the local moniker, Temple Village. Tennis shoes and tillandsias hang from the telephone wires across the road. The town borders the Arima River which flows parallel to the highway, winding its way through the thick mountain forest. Because of the dry season, the water level is low at the moment, and the dry banks gleam in the sun where it can penetrate the leafy canopy.
We pass through the town of Arima, and I get a much better look at it than I did during my arrival at night. The architecture is even more diverse than I remember it, and in some cases more bizarre. One white and rust red house bears an ordinary peaked roof in the middle of which, for no apparent practical reason, rises a ten foot high and perhaps four foot wide steeple; the effect is something like an enormous upside down ice-cream cone riding the roof like an ill-conceived afterthought. Moreover, only now in the daylight can I fully appreciate the vibrant array of colors, from oranges, to turquoise, to bright lavender. They are eye-catching to say the least, but no more shocking than the loudly painted homes that freckle the densely built out hills of South San Francisco like a child’s toy blocks.
Most of the houses here are made from large masonry blocks, and most houses have incorporated several rows and even full walls of what Ramdass calls “Fancy blocks” into their design. They are essentially decorative cinder blocks, bearing attractively shaped holes, some simple s-curves, o-shapes and triangles, others bearing rather elaborate geometric or curvelinear cutouts. Ramdass confirms my suspicion that these are for air flow, but I am surprised to learn that only sometimes is wire netting applied to the outside of the fancy blocks to discourage the entry of insect pests along with the fresh air. I am quite taken with the sheer variety of these practical and decorative additions to the architectural landscape. They rather remind me of the decorative cinder block walls which were popular in the fifties and sixties for carports, front porch privacy screens, and sometimes even low fences, of which only a few examples remain in my immediate neighborhood back home, most having been eradicated by the obsessive desire of Californians to remodel and modernize. I also notice the profusion of elaborate, white-painted wrought iron gates; patterns range from the intricately traditional, to the starkly modern, sometimes within the same property. One house bears support columns on its front porch made from stacked concrete bars. The effect is rather like a square tower of Lincoln Logs. As we press on, Arima becomes a headier mix of business and residential. A billboard prominently advertises a jewelry store…with a food court. No jewelry is actually featured on the sign, just a writhing female form.
There are flowers everywhere, from the gleaming white Frangipani to a Yellow Poui, with flowers so clear and vivid a yellow they scarcely seem real, more like fistfuls of crepe paper abandoned on a sparsely-limbed, airy little tree. Banana trees, which Trinidadians call “figs,” rise from every ditch like knots of tattered green banners. Women appear here and there by the roadside and on front porches, usually dressed in bright floral print dresses, or contrasting bright blouses and below the knee skirts, although many of the younger women choose the same overly tight pants of their western counterparts. A few wear elegant fitted business suits, though how they pull it off in the sweltering heat is beyond my understanding. The men dress casually and many go shirtless. Older people move slowly down the sidewalks and roadsides, the weight of the stifling air showing in every creaking joint, while the younger inhabitants glide and drift more than walk down the street, black and bronze apparitions in the heat.
As we pass into the more developed Trincity, I see three fires in the distance to our right as well as several blackened lots throughout the town. I ask Ramdass about the fires and he seems unconcerned- par for the course during the dry season. Trinidad, he tells me, has fire stations everywhere, but when fires burn in the mountains, there is rarely any access, so nothing can be done. Moreover, with the proper permits fires are sometimes set in the mountains deliberately during the tail end of the dry season to clear dense forests for agriculture. Seeds are planted in the rich soil and then burst to life with the coming rains. Late May and early June usually mark the beginning of the rainy season.
In Trincity I see none of the high foundations and homes on stilts that predominate in Arima. There are of course, two and three story buildings, but most of the homes are rather low slung, with wide, low peaked roofs. Covered benches where travelers can wait for taxis out of the sun or rain mark the sidewalks every few hundred yards. I feel somewhere between nostalgic, bemused, and horrified as we pass one such taxi stop shaped like an enormous bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Further down the road, we pass massive clots of purple, orange, and red bougainvillea, growing up bright pink stone walls behind which rises a row of stately palm trees. Not far past a billboard for Stay Free Maxi Pads, a huge flagpole bears an enormously oversized National Flag of Trinidad. The gleaming red flag bears a diagonal black stripe bordered in white; backlit by the mid afternoon sun, the flag is a rippling wave of liquid fire against the hazy blue sky.
We move under an enormous, cantaloupe orange pedestrian walkway that spans the main road and soon turn into a residential area. As we round a corner on a particularly narrow street, we are greeted with a loud blast of reggae music- it must be deafening inside the house- and I feel more in another world than ever before. Adults hang around in their yards and on the porches. Slender, barely dressed brown children dash about while bony, mange-afflicted stray dogs follow them about in hopes of a sympathetic scrap of food or in some cases mill about with an almost palpable sense of hopelessness. We pass by weathered grey shacks that nearly reek of destitution. The better kept homes are nearly all painted in vibrant colors, with shrimp pink and pumpkin orange apparently the most popular choices, with the occasional exclamation of cobalt blue.
The Caroni Swamp itself, when we finally arrive, is a bit of a disappointment. Ken and Isobel and I head out on a massive green motorboat holding at least twenty other guests. I am slightly embarrassed to be the only shmuck to actually strap on a life vest, but though the water here is apparently fairly shallow, an abysmal swimmer like myself can’t be too careful. Were we alone I might feel wonderfully lost pouring down these primordial channels flanked by picturesque stands of mangrove trees on either side, but looking over the heads of twenty tourists, it is hard not to feel as if one is on the jungle river ride at Disneyland. It doesn’t help that our guide’s accent is so thick as to be barely intelligible, or that he somehow has a knack for speeding past a gorgeous blue heron not fifteen feet from the boat, and then stopping for everyone to get a look at one twenty yards away and hopelessly out of camera range.
During the first hour of the boat ride I am staring almost directly into the blindingly glaring sun and am extremely relived whenever the boat slips into shadow. The impossibly brilliant red ibises tease us with glimpses through the dense banks of torturously contorted aerial mangrove roots as they feed on shrimp, crabs, and marine worms. We are promised that further ahead we will see many hundreds of birds coming in to roost for the night on one of several mangrove islands. The first island we stake out is a bust. After twenty minutes of waiting, I nearly fall asleep listening to the gentle babbling of the swamp and watching the dark, smokey waters lap at the boat like waves of wrinkled silk.
The engine roars to life again and we move on to another supposed hot spot. This time we see the ibises in the distance, luminous splashes of red against the vibrantly green mangrove islands, awash in the warm, amber light of a steadily sinking sun. Soon great flocks of the birds arrive, flying in to settle in the trees for the night. I am disappointed that we are not able to go any closer; even with binoculars, the ibis look like little more than red flecks. Still, it is an amazing sight, and at this distance looks more like a congregation of fluttering red butterflies or a shower of crimson confetti. I cannot adequately describe the red of a scarlet ibis; it is the clearest, truest, most shockingly beautiful red that I have ever seen. It defies belief. Our guide explains that the several hundred ibis we see now are nothing in comparison to the twenty thousand that turn this entire island as red an enormous flower during the breeding season in December and January..
Back at the van, Ramdass is waiting with rum punch and a deliciously sweet bread. The punch provides welcome amelioration of the blistering headache I acquired from overexposure to the sun, and I ride home pleasantly drunk, the bumps in the road feeling more like the rise and fall of gentle waves.
In Search of the Guan
Today I have arranged for an early morning trip to Morne Bleu, the site of a large local radio transmission tower and two quite massive satellite dishes. It is perhaps twenty minutes away, on the road to Blanchisseuse at an elevation of about 2,500 feet. My quarry is the Piping Guan, a fairly rare, turkey-sized bird with a blue, wattled head and an impressive feathered crest. Apparently one of the best local areas for spotting these unusual mountain birds is along the access road to the communication station. My guide today is another Indian fellow, Ramdass’s cousin, Roodal. He is a stout, quiet fellow who spends a good three hours walking up and down the road with me, playing recordings of Piping Guan calls in the hopes of drawing them near. We listen for an answer to the recorded call; after hours of waiting, even the faintest chirp begins to sound like a Piping Guan, but despite our best efforts, we leave without seeing or hearing a single specimen.
The trip, however, is far from wasted. A short trail we take off the main road yields perhaps some of the most beautiful rainforest settings I’ve seen to date. Particularly memorable is a gnarled citrus tree dripping with epiphytes, including some gloriously rosy clumps of stout little bilbergias. Coffee trees abound, laden with enticing black fruit, and the picturesque white limbs of Cecropia trees twist through the dark green weave of secondary growth, their drooping clusters of large, palmate, bicolored leaves set against the bright sky like handprints in blue clay. Banana trees crowd the deeply leaf strewn ground, and lush Philodendron vines make dark stockings for naked tree trunks. Alas, amidst this wild garden, no Piping Guans present themselves.
Roodal suggests that I may want another guide to take me back another day or perhaps later in the evening. In response, I inquire if they can perhaps be seen in the aviaries at the Port of Spain Zoo. He thinks so, but says I will have to check. Later in the day, I meet several tourists who rave about the zoo, especially the bird collections, and the adjacent botanical gardens; they assure me that my desire to see the Piping Guan will not be met with disappointment if I go. That settles it. I ask several of the guides at the center, including Harold, and the two new friends I made in the education department, Farah and Ken; both respond to the idea of a zoo trip with something between indifference and mild distaste. Farah tells me that zoos make her sad, though she assures me that the aviaries at Port of Spain are well kept. When I bring up the idea with Harold, he just shakes his head and says, “It’s not da same ting.” Of course I’d rather see my Guan in the wild too, but not if it means getting up at five in the morning again, standing around for three more hours, and quite possibly being disappointed yet again. In comparison to that, a bird in a cage sounds like a very appealing alternative. I suppose this attitude is what separates me, as a nature artist, from a true naturalist. For a naturalist, the animal and the environment always come first; for me, while the animal usually provides the initial spark of inspiration, at a certain point the art takes over, and the final product, indeed the process used to get there, is ultimately about the fulfillment of my artistic vision. Moreover, I reject the knee jerk environmentalist condemnation of zoos; many have become quite integral in breeding and research work that are nearly as important to keeping rare species from slipping into extinction as are efforts to preserve habitats and teach local people the value of safeguarding their ecological legacy. With this in mind, the frequently uttered sentiment “I just hate seeing animals in cages,” is more a reflection of the speaker’s emotions than the reality of the situation. Don’t get me wrong, I hate seeing unhealthy animals in poor conditions as much as the next person, but when I have an idea in mind, I suppose I can be quite mercenary about obtaining the proper reference material; while I’m not inclined to follow in the footsteps of John James Audubon and knock my subject out of the sky with a shotgun blast of birdshot, at the end of the day I could care less if my subject is in a zoo, a pet shop, a private home on his owner’s shoulder, or, well…free as a bird.
And so the next leg of my quest for the Piping Guan leads to the Port of Spain. Charan is my driver again, and I begin by giving him his tip, with apologies, that I owe him from the previous week. We take much the same route that brought me to Caroni, except that where Ramdass turned into the dingy residential area bordering the swamps, Charan stays on the main highway, past Piarco International Airport, and toward the coast. Arching overpasses, long traffic lights, and heavy traffic all remind me, without the faintest hint of nostalgia, of home. We head uphill through the decidedly ugly suburb of Mova. Mostly ramshackle houses stack the crudely terraced hillsides, and large, artless apartment buildings stand sentry on either side of the steep, dusty road cut. More stop lights than I have seen at any other time during my stay in Trinidad slow our progress, until finally we crest the hill and the Port of Spain springs into view. The surrounding tree covered hills are peppered with homes which become denser as the terrain flattens out. On the plains below, the city is a sprawl of residences and businesses from which a few large office complexes, none more than about twenty stories, stand out like half-embarrassed exclamation points. An ugly smear of an industrial area leads my eye to the port itself, beyond which lies a pale strand of beach, and finally the cool blue swath of the ocean.
As we move through the city, we head up a street lined with seven enormous and bizarrely elaborate houses; they look to me to be a lunatic blend of Colonial Plantation, Victorian Mansion, English Castle, and Taj Mahal. The designs are so lavish it is hard to tell if they are the result of obscenely conspicuous consumption, architectural daring, or a complete lack of taste…or perhaps all three. Charan calls them the Magnificent Seven; most were built in the 1800 during Trinidad’s Colonial Period as the homes of cocoa plantation owners. Now the best kept of the bunch house the offices of the Prime Minister, the President, and the Archbishop of Trinidad, respectively. One structure is undergoing renovation and is completely webbed in scaffoldings. Most are not so lucky and, magnificent or not, seem hopelessly lost to years of neglect and the unrelenting punishment of the tropical climate. To restore them, Charan tells me, would cost millions.
When we arrive at Port of Spain’s King Emperor Zoo, I almost immediately realize that I have made a mistake. Most of the animals pace in uncomfortably small cages, and many, particularly the monkeys, must cope with accommodations that don’t even make the faintest attempt to simulate a natural habitat. All of the standing water, be it in the otter display (and I use the word display lightly), the caiman exhibit, or the capybara pond, is a suspiciously bright pea green. The cages seem awfully dark- the overcast day doesn’t help- and more than a little dingy. A massive Silk Cotton Tree, which really does look to be covered in hanging cotton balls, has shed its bizarre seed dispersal “puffs” everywhere; they cling to the bird cages and cover the ground like dingy snow. I imagine a slumber party of giant thirteen–year-old girls having a colossal pillow fight in the middle of the zoo, and I now stand in the wreckage of exploded goose down.
Even in their unimpressive aviaries, the Scarlet Ibis are as magnificent up close as they were at Caroni. I find my Guan almost immediately, but he hides in the back of the aviary, with only a tease of his lovely blue head and a snip of his tail peeking out from behind a poorly placed Heliconia leaf. I decide to check out the rest of the zoo and come back.
I suppose I have gotten so used to American zoos, where the animals have such expansive quarters they can be hard to see, and where close to natural habitats are created with great care, that I am unprepared for King Emperor Zoo. The monkeys affect me most of all. To be fair, most of them seem to be quite healthy, but I can’t shake the feeling that I and the other guests are blithely traipsing through what amounts to an animal prison. A beautiful Mandril paces endlessly in an awfully small enclosure. As I approach, he hides his colorful, oversized head and presents me with his equally colorful rump (blue, red, and most shocking violet, no less) before sitting down wearily on the bare concrete floor of his cage. The brown spider monkeys are almost terrifying as they move about with weightless, languid grace on impossibly long, gangly limbs, prominent penises dangling like a third leg, tails held in permanent question marks, pale eyes staring from dark faces. As alien as they are, they are also uncomfortably human, and one old male in particular calls to mind horrific black and white photographs of victims of the Nazi holocaust, all ribcages, eye sockets, and long bones. Separate from the other monkeys, I discover the red howler. I hear him long before I can see him, and as close as I come, I can only inadequately describe his scream as a deep, rattling, ambulance siren. When he comes into view I am horrified by his tiny enclosure, and equally horrified by the smiling faces of the onlookers who surround him. His cry is so plaintive, so desperate, it pierces the envelope of my very notion of tragedy; I can hardly stand it, and I move out of earshot as quickly as possible.
I make my way through the dingy aquarium, the even dingier reptile house, where smeared glass makes viewing certain animals almost impossible, past a Siberian tiger so decrepit and rail thin he simultaneously breaks my heart and reminds me of a cartoon, and back to my uncooperative Piping Guan. He is still in hiding, and after a failed attempt by Charan to draw him out with a Piping Guan call, he inquires if one of the zookeepers could “Jus bodder him a liddle” to bring the bird off its guarded perch. The zookeeper promises to investigate the feasibility of such a request and disappears. The minutes tick by and I begin to consider the embarrassment of returning to the Asa Wright Nature Center after having had a real live Guan not fifteen feet away in a cage, and still failing to so much as get a decent picture. Just when despair turns to resignation and I am literally seconds from signaling to Charan that it is time to return to the car, an obnoxiously noisy group of school children blunder by like a colorful nightmare, and suddenly the Guan bursts to life. Later on Charan tells me that it was not the school children that roused the bird at all; from his angle, he could see the zookeeper open and shut the door at the back of the enclosure. I click away with my camera, gathering plenty of reference, but feeling more than ever that I haven’t really seen the Piping Guan. As Harold put it, “It’s not da same ting.” I leave all the more determined to see the bird in the wild.
Later that afternoon, Ramdass informs me that I am the only guest scheduled to go with him on the Blanchisseuse tour tomorrow morning. He offers to start earlier than planned if I’d like to have one last crack at the Piping Guan. Of course, I jump at the chance. A few minutes past six thirty the following morning, I once again find myself rattling up the road to Morne Bleu, scanning the trees and listening intently for any sign of the Guan. Magically, we are not halfway up the road when I see the large and unmistakable silhouette in the twisting branches of a tall Melastoma Tree. I whisper to Ramdass to stop the car and then click a few inept pictures out the window before hurriedly stumbling out of the van for a better look. There are actually two birds in the tree, but one slips out of sight almost immediately. The other looks at us curiously and gobbles up a few Melastoma berries before claiming a slightly higher perch. Through Ramdass’s binoculars, I can see every detail of the large, dark brown, turkey-like body with its spotty white wing patches, large, stiff primary feathers, long legs, and the telltale naked blue eye-ring and neck. The bird’s deep, vibrant blue wattle flaps back and forth as he bobs his head up and down, appraising his own admirers from different angles. His movements are quite like those of an American Wild Turkey, or how I would imagine our usually ground dwelling turkey would move in a tree. There is some of the turkey’s jerky, strutting stride, but somehow when practiced along a high tree branch, these movements almost take on an elegant quality…could it be poised? Finally, after a nearly two minute standoff, he spreads his wings and almost noiselessly drops behind the tree line and out of sight.
I leave with the satisfaction that I have seen the rare bird I set out to see, knowing that it is an experience I will always remember.
The Aripo Savannah
Today I take a look at a decidedly different environment, the dryer lowland areas known as the Aripo Savanah. Once again I hit the road with Ken and Isobel, with the faithful Ramdass leading the way. We take the Arima road Southeast and into the Aripo area. Our first stop is the Aripo Livestock Research Center, an agricultural research station marked by a few small buildings, barns, and sheds, surrounded by mile after mile of flat grasslands, punctuated by only the occasional lonely tree. Strange cattle, with humps and dewlaps reminiscent of zebu, lazily roam the landscape or lie motionless in the heat. Ramdass informs us that these cattle are an experiment, hybrids between domestic cattle and water buffalo, an attempt to make the stock hardier. A bit down the road we encounter the water buffalo themselves, noble looking charcoal grey, black, or deep brown creatures. They regard us from the road side with something like aloofness, or perhaps mild contempt. Ramdass notes that they can be very aggressive. What strikes me most about them, however, is the variation in the structure of their horns. Most curl up and away from the head as one would expect; while others display one horn pointing down and another straight up. The most striking examples bear two long, downward facing horns, recurving slightly at the ends, which tightly frame their impassive faces like strange collars of bone.
We see many birds here, from the beautiful Southern Lapwings, vivid white and black Pied Marsh Tyrants, Green Jacanas, and a pair of distant Savannah Hawks with their conspicuously banded rufus bodies and long yellow legs. Black Vultures are a common resident here, and one poses for me on an old dead tree, silver in the mid-morning sun, and half covered with gloriously blooming Achmea bromeliads, the lushest plants I’ve seen thus far in the baked landscape. My most memorable encounter is with a brilliant Red-Bellied Blackbird. It lands on a fencepost a scant five feet from our van and poses for a long moment, obviously as impressed with its own flaming crimson breast as we are.
Further on down the highway we turn up a narrow rural road past a poultry farm on our left, made up of row upon row of large, low slung, screened in buildings with rough hewn sheet metal roofs. Most are empty except for the feeding buckets, which hang like garish yellow and red bells four or so feet from the bare dirt floors. Only two aviaries are occupied, and from the distance, the carpet of overstuffed table birds looks like a bizarre profusion of plump white orbs. Visually, it is a striking conflation of chicken and egg.
To the right of the road the fields are blackened by a recent fire. Blue smoke still coils from the charcoal soil, obscuring the thin trees on the far side of the property; the sixty or more cattle egrets that sift about the ashes for insects paint a strikingly abstract canvas of white on black.
As we head past the farms, we begin to see more and larger vegetation, including massive stands of bamboo and groves of Cecropia trees, though these appear rather stunted in comparison to the specimens I’ve encountered in the higher elevations. A dozen or so Smooth-Billed Anis hop about in the low, open shrubbery, flicking their long tails straight into the air like narrow black flags. The plumage of these curious birds is an attractive though unremarkable black with some scaly, greenish iridescence along the back of the neck; it is their wide, deeply notched, horn-like bills that make them unique. In profile, where their dramatic, rhinoceros-like bill is most apparent, they seem prehistoric, as if their bright black eyes only recently witnessed the terrible flight of their pterosaur ancestors.
We hike down a lovely trail punctuated by towering bamboo, coconut palms, and the tiny wild mimosa, or sensitive plant, which folds up its delicate fern-like leaves when touched. In the bamboo grove, the vividly colored male Rufus-tailed Jacamar responds to Ramdass’s recorded female bird song. He arrives with an insect held in his beak, ready to present the offering to his potential mate. Despite the fact that there is no female in sight, he stubbornly- or perhaps gentlemanly- refrains from eating his catch in deference to her. I actually feel a bit guilty that we have brought him to the clearing under false pretenses.
For a good while, we walk parallel to a watercress farm, a familiar site for Ken and Isobel, who happen to live in a watercress producing community themselves. Long raised berms of yellow clay topped with filmy weeds and scrubby shrublets separate the wide canals of water, which are painted a rich green by the leaves of the watercress that crowd the surface. Encircling the fields runs a shallow irrigation trench in which faintly blue and gold Cichlids dart about between tangles of waterweed and algae. We survey the surrounding marshy areas for Green Kingfishers. We see only one, but he is little more than a green flash, no sooner spotted by Ramdass’s wary eye than gone. We have more luck with the Masked Yellow Throat, a glorious, citron yellow bird with a black mask and beautiful blue grey patch on his forehead. He is a beautiful collection of stunning color, subtle curves, and striking angles as he bounces up and down a tall reed plant, singing sweetly.
When we return to the car we are more than a little winded and pause for an early lunch in the shade of a noble column of bamboo. The simple fare of full-flavored tuna sandwiches with crisp cucumber and delightful little tomatoes with thin skins as red as an artery taste more than satisfying with a chilled glass of fresh yellow grapefruit juice.
The next leg of our journey takes us through a small coconut farm. Ramdass explains that the fruit can be harvested at either of two stages. At the moment, they are green or yellow and smooth skinned, at which point the tops can be sliced off and the clear, sweet coconut milk drawn out with a straw. If left on the trees, the fruit will eventually harden and turn brown; at this time, the fruit must be cracked open and the flesh, grown thick and succulent with maturity, can be scooped out for use in pastries and other deserts. Ramdass also points out a cashew tree. It is a fairly small, low tree with smooth orange-grey bark and bright green leaves that turn bronzy at the tips of new growth. The cashew fruit itself is a pendant vermillion orange oddity about the size and shape of a squared-off papaya; the nut itself hangs underneath like a baby in a dark green papoose. Ramdass tells us that the fruit is never sold in groceries, but that cashew growers and workers enjoy the juice all the same, and sometimes ferment it to make cashew wine. The nuts themselves are roasted and shelled, and fetch a high price at market.
Our last stop of the day is within the Aripo Savannahs Scientific Preserve itself, which feels surprisingly like a residential area. Houses line the highway, though they are not as dense as in Arima. I can’t help but lick my lips as we pass a bright tangerine and white house that seems almost edible and certainly as inviting as a dish of orange sherbert on a dog day afternoon. Our guide explains that all of this land is part of the Preserve, but that we will not be going into the forests which rise impressively beyond the homes; entrance requires special permits, and Ramdass claims there is little to see anyway. Our unlikely destination within the Aripo Preserve is the Ministry of Local Government Unemployment Relief Training Center in the town of Cumutu. Ramdass points out a rugged, mop-like pine ridiculously thick with bromeliads and other epiphytes of every kind, including impressive clumps of wine-red Aechmeas blooming green and red, an assortment of Tillandsias that defies description, long veils of stringy parasitic Rhipsalis, and elegant clusters of delicate pink orchids. It is the profusion of pendant, ball like nests, however, that have brought us here, the work of the Yellow-Rumped Cacique.
Ramdass idles in the street, watching for the birds and preparing us for the fact that at the tail end of the nesting season, we may not see the birds at all. Just as we are about to leave, an employee of the Ministry pops out of his office and motions us in, shouting across the parking lot that the birds are still here and visible from the other side of the tree. We follow his advice, and before long the birds appear, impressive missiles of black and gold that fly from the trees behind the government building and vanish into the protection of the nests. When they do emerge from their nests, their clear, black and yellow plumage is quite striking, and even from a distance their distinctively large white bills and pale, bright blue iris are unmistakable. The Caciques’ liquidy chips are as bright and cheerful as our friendly ministry employee, who speaks excitedly about the birds in his thick accent. Apparently they have been nesting in this spot, one of the oldest trees in Cumutu, since he was a small boy. He refers to them incorrectly as Moorish Orioles, though Ramdass only corrects him for our benefit when the man is out of earshot.
Thoroughly bushed, we return to the Asa Wright Nature Centre. The day’s six plus hour sojourn draws to a satisfying close as I collapse face down on the bed.
The Turtles at Matura
My next field trip from the center, this time to see the leatherback sea turtles nesting at Matura Bay, starts on an auspicious note; the experienced Ramdass will be my guide yet again, and I will be accompanied by two lovely ladies, the boisterous Anna and the tough but refined Sue. I have spent a good amount of time with these bird loving, British best buddies, and have grown quite fond of them both. They are in their early sixties, with plenty of life left to live. They strike me both as real people, and I feel more than comfortable rattling away with them on any subject while sipping tea…or gin and tonic, a vodka martini, and rum punch on the veranda. If they were birds, Anna would be a marvelous French hen and Sue would be something delicate but adaptable, perhaps some lovely little finch, the kind that escapes its cage to thrive in the wild.
We head south through Arima and take the Valencia Road to the East. As we crest a small hill and pour down into Valencia’s business district, the street is bursting with people and music; everything is billboards, commerce, and Coca Cola. Sue notes that the brilliant purple and yellow of a huge advertisement reminds her of the colors of the Purple Honeycreeper.
The rest of the town is a flatter, more spread out, and dingier version of Arima. I notice a “Save the Pawi” sign (Pawi being the local name for the Piping Guan) and smile…then quickly loose my grin at the sight of an old man and several children picking through the still smoldering remnants of their home. Further down the road, the fire is still burning, and a flock of cattle egrets hang just feet from the crackling flames, greedily waiting to pounce on insects fleeing the heat. Ramdass says this happens every dry season, and most of the fires are started by people just lighting a match and tossing it into the brush by the side of the road. “On purpose?” I inquire incredulously. He shrugs his ascent. To hear Ramdass tell it, you’d think that all of Trinidad is positively crawling with wanton pyromaniacs.
The scenery becomes exceedingly lush as the road starts to parallel theValencia river. Tall trees and thick greenery replace the dry, scorched ground as if it never existed. After a while, I notice ugly swaths of barren orange land peeking through gaps in the trees. Huge pits and mountains of excavated earth mar the otherwise beautiful land. I ask Ramdass what they are mining here. “Dirt,” he tells me. “Gravel an Sand.” Sue and Anna offer that there is quite a lot of gravel extraction in England, but that the government requires the pits to be turned into wildlife habitat before a company can leave a site. “I wish we ad a law like dat here,” Ramdass says, shaking his head as we pass another enormous “gravel farm,” Aggregate Industries, Ltd.
We are now in the town of Matura, which doesn’t look like much of a town to me. Once again the roadside is crowded with dry brush, and I count at least three fires before we finally encounter a fire truck. The houses are little more than shacks. One house leans so precariously on its crumbling raised block foundation that it literally looks as though it’s supported by untidy stacks of well read paperback books.
With the town behind us, it’s more winding road and towering forest on either side. Another tour bus from Asa Wright has pulled off the road ahead, and we follow suit. “Ah,” says Ramdass, pointing to the tree line, “Dey found some Red Howla Monkeys.” I lean my head out the back window of the van as our driver steers the vehicle off the road. The second the car has stopped, Anna throws the side door of the van open, which is when we discover the rather striking design defect of this particular vehicle. The side door slides between the back window and my seat, which would be fine…except that my face is in the way. The door slams into my temple with enough force that my vision turns fuzzy, and I shout at Anna to stop. I shout a few other things too, forgetting, momentarily, that public profanity is illegal in Trinidad. I stagger from the car, clutching my forehead, silently thankful that my glasses aren’t bent or broken. Anna is terribly apologetic; she obviously feels so bad for me that I actually start to feel bad for her. I assure her that it isn’t her fault- which it isn’t- while I stand by the side of the road, vainly trying to focus on the distant Howler Monkeys. Eventually I lie to Ramdass that I’ve seen the monkeys and return to the car, my sense of irony piping in that this is my punishment for ogling that poor Red Howler Monkey confined to the Port of Spain Zoo.
Not long after the car door incident, the ocean appears quite suddenly in front of us, rough and choppy just beyond a line of palm trees. We have arrived at Matura Bay. Anna, suddenly “door shy” sits on her hands and refuses to touch the door of the van until I, and my head, have left the vehicle and reached a comfortable distance. Our guide tells us not to wander far; it will only take them a moment to set up dinner. In the mean time, and with the darkness rapidly approaching, I take a short walk down to the ocean. To my surprise and disappointment, the air is even hotter and more humid than at Asa Wright, the high winds warm and unyielding. I finally see a Red Howler Monkey up in the trees not a stone’s throw from the sand. I am startled by how narrow the beach is; the result, I will later learn, of erosion. The leaning, wind-punished palms form a loose wall not a hundred feet from the breakers and testify to the harshness and changeability of this environment. I head back up to the parking lot and recreational area where dinner is underway. I have a lovely meal of Indian food, accompanied by five- yes five- “doses” of rum punch, purely for medicinal purposes of course. In point of fact, I really don’t feel drunk, but I am quite certainly feeling no pain.
Turtling must be done at night, and we scramble to finish our meals before nightfall. With just a few minutes of daylight left, our guide at Matura Bay, Francis, leads us the scant hundred yards to the beach. Fancis, a young, highly enthusiastic, and well spoken man who reminds me of a compact version of the actor, Delroy Lindo, brings us up to speed on the Leatherback Sea Turtles. We cluster around him to hear above the stiff howl of the trade winds. While he looks very official in his uniform and beret, Francis is actually a volunteer for the Nature Seekers, an organization dedicated to protecting, studying, and educating the public about the Leatherbacks. Since Nature Seekers began their work seventeen years ago, the number of turtles and eggs poached from Matura Bay has plummeted to nearly zero. Francis has been volunteering here since 1990, when he saw his first sea turtle and was “amazed, absolutely amazed.” I will soon learn why firsthand.
A female Leatherback, Francis tells us, reaches sexual maturity at twenty to thirty years of age and will only reproduce every two to three years thereafter. When she mates, it is with multiple males who fiercely vie for her attentions. Turtles routinely copulate for seven to eight hours, sort of the pelagic equivalent of tantric sex. She will then lay a clutch of eighty to one hundred-twenty eggs every nine to ten days for six months. After each clutch is deposited, she returns to the ocean, but not to mate; she has stored the sperm from her recent sexual binge and releases it to fertilize her eggs as needed. When she is ready to leave another clutch, she hauls herself up onto the beach and, after finding a suitable spot, digs a hole two and a half to three feet deep in which she deposits her golf ball sized eggs. It will take two months for the eggs to hatch, usually with about a sixty percent fertility rate. Thereafter, the baby turtles make a break for the ocean where they are extremely vulnerable to vultures, crabs, and other predators. Those who do reach the sea must contend with the sharks and barracuda that wait just beyond the surf, grim patrons at a macabre buffet serving only one item…baby turtles. One in one thousand will survive to adulthood.
When the nesting season is over, the turtles follow the ocean currents to Canada, then to the waters off the coast of France, followed by Morocco, Madagascar, the Cape of Good Hope, and all the way back to the Carribean. “Dey are real world travelers, deez turtles,” Fancis says with an admiring shake of his head. Apparently, Leatherbacks can survive in nearly any temperature of environment, owing to a unique ability to regulate their own body temperatures.
By now it is quite dark, and I can only barely make out Francis’s features. He tells us to watch the ocean for incoming turtles and to make absolutely certain we shine no lights and do not use any flash photography. The turtles rely on the glare off the water and the dark of the tree line to navigate to shore. Bright lights on the beach will send them back to sea in confusion. Moreover, if the female is disturbed in any way before she begins laying her eggs, she will abandon the site. We will be able to see her while she is digging, but only with the aid of Francis’s red flashlight, to which she will not respond.
We wait breathlessly, scanning the water for any sign of activity. Even after my eyes have adjusted to the dark, the world is still fuzzy at the edges, and the dark web of veins behind my eyes play tricks as I squint into the gloom. The soft bands of dark sand, ghostly white surf, dark water, and indigo sky paint a monochromatic Rothko painting. After less than ten minutes, a faint dark shape resolves from the surf. At first I assume it to be a wave, but when it grows larger and more distinct, I know I am watching a turtle come ashore. We watch her laborious progress, but are ultimately disappointed when we watch her dark form becoming longer, then shorter again as she turns and heads back into the water. Francis explains that Leatherbacks are extremely sensitive to the texture of the sand; not only do they return to the same beach where they were born to lay their eggs, but they usually select nesting areas where the texture and density is similar to the specific part of the beach where they emerged from their nests twenty years earlier. This is why baby turtles that are carried to the water by well intentioned people are actually doomed never to complete their life cycle; if they do not learn the texture of the sand on their way across the beach, they will never make it back to their home to nest later in life. This turtle has not given up; she will continue searching until she has found a location to her liking.
After an interminable wait, Anna and I, in our desperation, start trading dirty jokes, then dirty limericks…of which I know only one. We wish that the moon were visible to make spotting the turtles easier, then start trying to think of all the songs we know involving the moon; several times Anna and Sue recall the same song almost simultaneously and begin singing softly before dissolving into laughter. Finally our efforts at passing the time become wearisome, and we begin cursing the turtle who deemed our little stretch of beach so unsuitable. Finally, another turtle comes along, and after a tense will-she-or-won’t-she moment, she begins to make what Francis calls a “body pit,” a depressed area in the sand that will become her nest. Once the turtle is up on the dark beach, she is only barely visible without the contrast of the surf. I can only barely make out Francis as he paces along the shore, assessing out turtle’s progress and scanning the strand for other expectant ladies. Occasionally, I catch a fleeting glimpse of an airborne arc of sand as she digs. After another terrible wait, Francis calls us over.
He directs us to form a semi circle in the inky darkness and then shines his read light. Francis’s word, “amazing,” comes to mind, but so does bizarre. The small red beam only illuminates the back end of the turtle, the rest of which vanishes into blackness. The disembodied hindquarters are so abstract out of context, that I feel as if I’m looking at a Plesiosaur, or some other fantastic creature long since extinct or not yet discovered. Comparing her to a dinosaur is, actually, fairly accurate. These turtles have been around for millions of years. The hulking shell, the point of the tail wavering underneath it, and the methodically shifting flippers are so mesmerizing I barely blink. The flippers move slowly, purposefully, carefully scooping the sand from her hole before flicking it out over her back. As each flipper comes back down, she compacts the sides of the hole with a gentle pat before taking out another “handful” of soil. The process is so dexterous and elegant I can scarcely do it justice. Not only is the hole impressively deep, but it is wider at the bottom (the egg chamber) and narrower at the top, the shape, Francis notes, of a light bulb. Somehow I doubt that I could dig a hole wider at the bottom and narrower at the top without so much as a single cave in, especially in sand. Our guide calls this turtle “an experienced lady.” Even though this specimen has never been tagged, he can tell by her technique and skill that she has dug nests before. First timers, according to Francis, don’t know what they’re doing and must often make several failed attempts before completing a satisfactory nest. Fortunately, our turtle has no such difficulty. Once the hole is deep enough that she cannot touch the bottom with her flippers, she begins to lay her eggs.
The Nature Seekers spring into action. Francis and five other volunteers switch from red to ordinary flashlights. The entire turtle finally springs into view; it is massive, and while still an impressive sight, it lacks the wonderful mystery that had me transfixed just moments ago. The team tags the female’s back flipper and implants a microchip in her shoulder. Francis shines the light into the nest, revealing a growing pile of eggs. Several men dig under the turtle’s girth and carefully pull a wide canvas strap underneath her. One volunteer unfolds a huge metal tripod which is then positioned over the great reptile. Ropes and pulleys pull the strap around her body and run up through the center of the tripod. Francis tells us that they are preparing to weigh her as soon as she is finished laying, and I have the feeling that I am in some bizarre herpetological delivery room.
At this point we are told that we may take flash pictures. Francis explains that females enter a trance like state once they begin laying eggs and little to nothing bothers them. Francis even tells us to feel free and touch her. I feel privileged caressing her great, leathery shell and petting her rubbery, elephantine skin. The area around her eyes is moist; Francis assures us that, despite appearances, she is only releasing excess salts through her eyes, not crying. I watch the eggs fall from the cloaca under her tail into the egg chamber. Francis points out that there are two types of eggs, large, fertile, golf-ball-sized eggs, and grape-sized “yolkless eggs.” These are designed to allow for air space between viable eggs so hatchlings will have space to crawl out of their shells before digging out of the nest.
Meanwhile the team is busy measuring her size, about six feet long and three feet wide. The largest leatherback on record washed ashore in New England in 1980 and measured a staggering ten feet long and eight feet wide, weighing in at more than two thousand pounds. When the egg laying is finally finished, three vigorous men grab the pulleys and hoist her into the air. The tripod scale registers her weight at eight hundred thirty-seven pounds. When she is released from the scale, the turtle begins flipping sand over her back using her powerful front flippers- I estimate them to be about three feet long- to cover her painstakingly created nest. It is late enough that we have to leave before seeing her return to the water. Francis tells us it will take some time for her to tamp down the ground and wipe it smooth, leaving little evidence of her passing, or her precious progeny beneath the sand. Francis tells us that she will also create a second body pit nearby as a decoy before heading back out to sea. Her hope is that early morning predators will be fooled by the disrupted sand and dig in the wrong spot.
As we head back to the parking lot, I chance upon Richard, another guest at Asa Wright who came with the other tour group. Richard and his wife Barbara are both kind, engaging people in their early to mid seventies. Richard is something of a kick; the following evening while quizzing me about California politics and our odd-bird of a governor, he claims to have been the one to start the rumor that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were lovers. Sadly we are interrupted, and I never have the chance to elicit more detail. Tonight we find ourselves in total accord as he confides in me his discomfort with the “interference with nature” we have just witnessed. On an intellectual level, I am certain that the research and conservation efforts of the Nature Seekers are beyond a positive one; emotionally, I , like Richard, am a little queasy at seeing this noble animal yanked from her nest in a display that, to say the least, does not afford her the dignity she deserves.
Me and my Mapemire
I am not in Trinidad very long before I discover that the northern range is a breeding ground for the Fer-de-lance and the Bushmaster, both counted among the most venomous snakes in the world. Like any object of fear, they have taken on many local names, with the Fer-de-lance going by the names Mapemire Balsam, Cascabelle, or Balsain, and the Bushmaster, Mapemire Zanana or Pineapple Snake. They are mostly active at night, when few people are out on the roads, let alone in the jungle. Most often they are uncovered during the day by men clearing brush. I’ve seen the government workers hacking away at the undergrowth to keep the forest from encroaching onto the road, and I shudder to think how vulnerable they are with their bare arms thrust into the thick mess of foliage. If they do pull aside a bundle of leaves and expose one of these snakes, it will usually be asleep, and there is a good chance a well aimed swipe with a machete will take care of it before it has a chance to strike.
Nonetheless, we are warned from our first day at Asa Wright to watch our step as we head down the trails. Of course, where leaf litter is dense and exposed tree roots and looping vines have a funny way of looking like a slumbering snake, it is hard to take the admonition too seriously. I have a sinking feeling I could be within inches of a well-disguised Bushmaster and never see it. The presence of snakes is reinforced early in my stay when one of the guides appears at dinner with an impressively elegant Machete, a long, olive green and yellow snake discovered that evening in the kitchen. It is not poisonous, but it can deliver a very nasty bite.
I have never been especially interested in snakes, but I get bitten, so to speak, by the snake bug after a morning walk. My second day at Asa Wright, Harold mentions that the Adventure Trail is their most challenging hike. I ask how long it takes to go from the trail head back to the center. “It depends on ‘ow fast you walk,” he tells me in his matter of fact way, “but aboud half an hour.” The next morning, I get up bright and early and decide to tackle this trail before breakfast. It is a beautiful hike, periodically paralleling a lovely stream cut deep through the forest. The vegetation is rampant, with life exploding from every corner and hollow. I have never seen so much green in my life. As the hike continues and the trail turns into a challenging series of steep grades and perilous declivities, I realize that this could well take me a lot longer than Harold’s half an hour. Moreover, with disturbing frequency, I loose sight of the trail altogether, and find myself squinting through the gloom for a moment before I identify a post, a half buried cable that once served as a hand rail, or the occasional scrap of yellow “caution” tape. I look at my watch, and find that it is fast approaching seven a.m. I’m starving and have no intention of missing breakfast, so I plunge forward with reckless speed, still keeping my eyes on the ground ahead of me (no snakes so far as I can see), but leaping and bounding my way along like a frightened agouti. I finally come to an intersection with the Bamboo trail. Once again I have forgotten to pick up a trail map form the front desk; I don’t recognize the trail name, but I trust my sense of direction (a dangerous proposition if ever there was one) and turn left uphill. The trail is wider and quite well cleared, so I break into a run, climbing the steps like Rocky Balboa training for the big fight until I am so dripping with sweat that I probably look as if I just stepped under a waterfall. Relief floods over to me when an arrow points “To Main House” and the blue green of one of the guest houses peeks welcomingly through the wall of bamboo up ahead. When I arrive at the Centre, I am impressed to discover that I have covered Harold’s half hour vigorous hike in just twenty minutes. My triumph is somewhat tempered by the fact that breakfast is actually at seven thirty, not seven a.m., and I have thirty minutes to kill while my stomach growls away. I take the opportunity to change clothes.
At breakfast the topic of poisonous snakes comes up, and I learn that the Adventure Trial is one of the most likely spots to encounter Fer-de-lance and Bushmaster. I feel more than a little lucky and more than a little stupid considering my blithe dash through the forest…but I’m hooked. I borrow the book on the reptiles and amphibians of Trinidad from the Nature Centre Library. I learn that the Bushmaster, which can reach an impressive twelve feet in length, is a yellow or goldish snake with a large black or black and brown diamond pattern on its back. The Fer-de-lance tops out at seven feet, has a rougher skin texture than its fellow Mapemire, and bears a brownish diamond pattern not unlike the Rattle Snake. The book also includes a fascinating first person account of the author’s own experience with a Bushmaster. He was bitten in the thumb by a Bushmaster while doing field work, and, despite the immediate administration of antivenom, his entire hand was swollen to the size of a football in short order, and he was overcome by stabbing pains in his hand, armpit, and chest. That night the pain continued unabated, with violent, bloody vomiting spells adding to the torment. The following days saw most of the flesh dying and peeling from his thumb. All told, this herpetologist, while lucky to be alive at all, was unable to work for months and was left with a partially re-grown thumb half the size of the original and thoroughly useless. Mukesh confirms that such snake bites often result in the loss of whole limbs; the venom is so powerful that flesh surrounding a bite simply dies and falls away. It’s not unusual for a victim to lose considerable weight, not only from the months of inactivity that result from his infirmity, but quite literally from the flesh that drops off his body. I have heard this referred to as the Bushmaster Diet.
I ask Ramdass, always a wealth of information, about the Bushmaster. He tells me he saw one not long ago along the Arima road while bringing some guests to Asa Wright from the airport. He let his visitors take a peek at and photograph the snake until it suddenly reacted, perhaps to a camera flash, and made a terrifying hissing sound that frightened even the seasoned guide to his core. As it reared up its vicious head, flecks of liquid splashed against the windshield. The snake had spit its venom a distance of at least six feet. While not widely acknowledged as fact, there is a good amount of anecdotal evidence that Bushmasters can throw their venom, including, according to my reading, one fairly well documented incident where a woman was hit in the face from a considerable distance.
Most of the guides will tell you they have seen one of the more dangerous snakes on the grounds of the center. One of the guides was able to rustle up a bushmaster for a group of herpetologists who visited Asa Wright just days before my arrival. Mukesh remembers a Fer-de-lance on the Discovery Trail that slithered into a hollow under a buttress root at his approach. Barry recalls finding a slumbering Bushmaster on the Guacharo Trail not far from the Dunston Cave. David was actually bitten in the leg some years back. A nature-loving British couple saw a Fer-de-lance not far from Asa Wright on their last visit to Trinidad. Both Ramdass and Charan acknowledge with some reluctance that a woman was bitten by a Bushmaster while jogging just up the Centre driveway by a stairway not three months ago. I know the exact spot he describes, having walked there on four separate occasions already. “They keep anti-venom at Asa Wright, though?” I venture. “No, not really,” Ramdass replies casually before continuing with his story. The woman didn’t even notice she was bitten at first, but when she returned to her room she began to experience pain in her leg and chest. The diagnosis was obvious. She was rushed to Arima, where the less than stellar hospital was equally bereft of anti-venom.; Her next stop was the city of Sangre Grande, (pronounced “Sandy Grandy” by the locals and translating to “Big Blood” for those of you who are rusty on your high school Spanish) where she was finally stabilized. The poor woman was confined to the hospital for two weeks, whereafter, my guide notes almost as an afterthought, “She ‘ad some heart trouble or someting and dey sent her somewhere else for more treatment.” The guides scoured the woman’s jogging route until they discovered the snake, and dispatched it on the spot. Wildlife conservation be damned; no one in Trinidad, no matter how devout a nature lover, wants a Bushmaster hanging around.
I have never been the thrill seeking type, always regarding mountain climbers, skydivers, and big wave surfers with condemnatory disbelief: How can anyone be so stupid? Still, I become morbidly fascinated with the idea of coming across an animal that, with a single bite, could end my life or alter its course forever. It is this strange fascination that takes me out on a total of four night walks. The first two are along the driveway. The third, which I take right after filling my head with the horrific account in the reptile book, takes us down the leaf and vine strewn Discovery Trail. Our guide reminds us to watch our feet for snakes. I feel a little more secure with the confidence inspiring Mukesh as our leader, but kick myself for forgetting to pack my own flashlight. It is much darker here than on the road, and I feel uncomfortably reliant on the backwash from Mukesh’s torch to find my footing. I’ve already expressed to him my desire to see a Bushmaster or Fer-de-lance, but, as I tell Mukesh, “I’d rather it not be the last thing I see.” He laughs at my joke- I think it was a joke anyway- and takes us deeper into the clingy darkness. We make it back to the house impressed by an encounter with a sizable Trinidad Chevroned Taratula but without seeing even a hint of a snake.
On my second to last day at the Centre, I start to feel curiously desperate. Where the hell is my lethal snake? I pilfer a five foot long Torch Ginger cane from a pile of leaf litter, strip off the leaves, and take the Guacharo trail down towards the stream. I veer left to follow the less traveled Bellbird trail. It is early in the morning and still relatively cool, so reptiles are more likely to be active. The Oilbirds haven’t even fully settled in their caves yet. Down the hill to my right, I can hear their yammering over the chuckling of the waterfalls like a distant cafeteria food fight. Determined to find my snake, I pick over the trail slowly, turning over large leaves and sifting through the litter with my ginger staff. I probe the semi flexible stem into burrows and hollows, under arching buttress roots, and around rotting logs and fallen termite nests. I only hear a rustle of movement once. It makes me jump even though I instantly recognize it as the sound of a scuttling lizard and not a snake slithering through the undergrowth. By the time I reach the junction with the discovery train, I have found nothing. I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed.
When I return to my room that evening, I see a small discarded snake skin, thin and filmy like a ladies stocking, lying just a few inches off the walkway by my front door. I have just left Mukesh moments before and hurry back down the steps to catch him before he turns in for the night. When I show him the skin, he examines it carefully and tells me it is quite definitely the freshly sloughed skin of a young Fer-de-lance. I am skeptical, but he explains how the small, diamond back pattern of the scales is unmistakable. The scrap of skin is about eight inches long, but it is not an intact skin. Mukesh agrees with my assessment that, accounting for the head, the snake was probably a scant twelve inches long. I recall reading somewhere that young poisonous snakes are often more dangerous than mature specimens because their venom is more concentrated.
When I tell Charan about my find the next day, he is apparently determined to rain on my parade and tells me that it’s entirely possible the skin was blown to my front door by the wind; it’s not necessarily an indication that a Fer-de-lance is actually in the immediate vicinity. Given my penchant for flights of romantic fancy, I prefer to think that all throughout my reckless quest, my own little Mapemire was peacefully slumbering just a few feet from my door. Either way, I have come to the conclusion that a poisonous snake is like true love; you’re never likely to find it as long as you’re looking for it.
At the End of the Road
My last day at the Asa Wright Nature Centre takes me on one final fieldtrip, this time to the Wildfowl Trust at Pointe-a-Pierre. Charan is once again my guide for the day. We take our usual route through Arima. I pay closer attention this time to the shallow river- no deeper than three feet as far as I can tell- that runs parallel to the road as we head down the mountain. Charan tells me that the entire Norther Range drains into the Arima River, so once the rains hit, the river can rise twenty or more feet in short order. He points out a stretch of newly patched road separated from the river gorge by a retaining wall. Apparently when Hurricane Emily hit in 2005, one especially unrelenting deluge from seven p.m. to eight a.m. washed this entire thirty foot section of road into the river bed. The detour, a narrow section of the Old Blanchisseuse Road, is still visible to the left.
We stop to buy gas in Arima. The place stinks so heavily of fuel that it burns my lungs, and loud reggae music pumps through the air like a good humored bludgeon. Charan pays for the gas through a steel cage, and we’re on the road again. I am horrified to learn that gasoline here is only $15 TT (Trinidad Tobago Dollars) per gallon, or about $2.50 U.S., more than fifty cents cheaper than the average fuel price when I left California. When I ask Charan about the bars around the cashier’s office at the gas station, he tells me that business owners are especially vulnerable to theft and kidnap for ransom. In fact, the owner of the Christophene plantation I’ve passed on so many occasions was kidnapped for ransom not long ago. Accounts vary, but he either escaped or was released. Anna tells me that in the version she heard, the poor man was tortured with burning before he was able to get away.
As we head down the highway towards the South Highway, the traffic clogs up, and Charan, takes a left towards Piarco to bypass the interchange. We head behind the airport, past the new terminal to the old runways, which are still in use. An odd hodgepodge of large, gleaming newer planes and small private charters sit beside the miles of blacktop. One small jet is in such a state of horrendous disrepair it looks as if it’s been dredged out of Caroni Swamp. Back at the center, a guest with some flight experience tells me it was probably the plane they use for fire training. I certainly hope so.
At the margins of the airfield is Piarco Village a typical assemblage of mismatched structures cut through by the large Caroni River, which, even this late in the dry season, is still impressively roaring. Charan tells me this neighborhood is highly subject to flooding. All the Northern Rivers eventually feed into the Caroni. Private temples in many front yards tell me this is another neighborhood with a large Hindu population. My driver points out clusters of different colored flags atop tall bamboo poles, each color representing a different Hindu deity. .Moments later we pass a “Puja” store where local worshipers go to purchase supplies for religious ceremonies called pujas. Not far from the store is a monumental, wonderfully intricate, and surprisingly tasteful mauve and white building which I mistake for a hotel. Charan corrects me; this is the private home of a well-known local businessman. Traffic is still fairly thick, but at least we are moving. Charan seems sure that we would be sitting in gridlock had we taken the main highway.
The dwellings are suddenly sparser. On one side of the road are monotonous sugar cane fields, on the other, the closest thing I have seen to a tract housing development yet. Several rows of strikingly similar, blocky homes in alternating shades of pastel pink, green, yellow, and blue, decorate the landscape like square Easter eggs. I recognize an orange bridge I passed over on my ride to the Swamp earlier in the week, and Charan informs me that we are in the county of Caroni. I can’t see them over the tall weeds that crowd the ditches on the shoulder of the road, but my guide says that the Caroni Rice Fields occupy the land on either side of the road. The last time he drove through here, the farmland was black with thousands of hungry, migratory Carob Grackles.
As we rejoin the south highway, it looks like smooth sailing form here on out. It is not an especially pretty drive. The town of Chagunas looks like little more than a collection of junkyards and auto dealerships. The only thing that really commands my attention is a median strip advertisement for “Azaz something Hardware,” spelled out in carefully clipped hedges. Through Cueva, the highway is surrounded by miles of dry, unremarkable grasslands, eventually giving way to subtly rolling hills covered with the remains of a fire-scorched sugar cane crop. Charan assures me that most of this crop was, blessedly, harvested before the fire. Finally we take the turn off to Point a Pierre. We reach a security checkpoint where two grim guards in frightfully official-looking uniforms ask if we have an appointment. We both breathe a sigh of relief when one of the guards recognizes my name. I silently thank June at the reception desk at Asa Wright for her repeated efforts to reach someone at the Wildfowl Trust to make an appointment. As we pass the gates, a sign reads: “Petrotrin Oil Refinery.” Apparently, the wildfowl trust is on the refinery’s land. I feel like we’re driving through a flatter version of Emeryville as we wind our way between massive storage tanks and impressive spires of refinery equipment. In the near distance, two separate towers pour continuous flares of orange flames, vicious against the grey-blue haze. I somehow recall Wyatt’s Torch, the burning remnant of the oil tycoon’s refinery in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
We wend our way through the barren fields and sparsely tree-scattered plains. A golf course, then a tennis club, seem more than a little out of place. A sign reads, welcome to Point-a-Pierre, and I realize that we are in a town…in an oil refinery. My guide points out the PetroTrin Learning Center, the school where Richard ffrench once taught English. We reach yet another security checkpoint where a very tall, rather elegant, and unnervingly serious black man asks us a few questions, then waves us through.
At last we arrive at the Wildfowl Trust. It is a sprawling, seventy acre parcel of land owned by the oil company, but set aside for the Wildfowl Trust’s managed breeding program, Marilyn, a somewhat serious woman herself, explains at the reception desk. She begins to explain how oil companies and conservationists can work hand in hand; I interrupt her, being more than well acquainted with a marsh reserve in Concord owned by the Chevron Corporation. Do some people really set aside land so nature can spread it’s wings?….apparently, people do. Marilyn tells me that, unlike Asa Wright, the Wildfowl Trust is not committed to maintaining an area of natural habitat. Rather, their goal is, through managed breeding, to ensure the survival of threatened and endangered species, especially waterfowl.
There are numerous pens filled with unusual ducks and other birds, but, after the zoo, they are of little interest. I am far more interested in the lake in the center of the grounds, surrounded by lush plants and positively exploding with wildlife. I am most impressed by the rafts of water lotus. The round, green leaves, each two and a half feet across or more are held two to three feet above the water like floppy green parasols. The flowers are cabbage-sized signal flares of luscious pink, held four to five feet above the water on rigid stems. Beneath this display lies yet another layer of smaller water lilies with wine red leaves that nearly make wallpaper over the lake, punctuated by deep pink blooms. Jacanas and Gallinules stalk the rafts on impossibly huge feet, occasionally darting their beaks into the dark water for a minnow or insect. Birds of every type sing in the trees and skim over the water. The Kiskadees, a jay-sized bird, yellow, white, and brown bird that I have seen at the Centre exist here in such profusion it seems impossible. As I walk the perimeter of the lake, their constant chatter is all I hear. Yellow-headed Blackbirds ride spires of papyrus and dance among the wind bent reeds. The dark forms of cormorants sit with their wings spread in the sun, feathered solar panels on a bright sky day. The leggy, athletic shapes of colorful Whistling Ducks decorate the low branches of trees that overhang the water. Even the “ugly-beautiful” Muscovy Ducks, with their dark, iridescent plumage and wrinkly, red-wattled faces, move about the place with a measure of ease and dignity I have never detected in the American Muscovy. Even the impressively large caiman that drifts by is something to celebrate.
Everything about the place is beautiful, and, when the time comes, I am reluctant to leave. When I do return to the Centre, knowing that this is my last day, I try to just enjoy the moment. After one last walk of the Centre grounds, I spend my last few hours in Trinidad sitting on the veranda, enjoying rum punch, a friendly conversation with Richard and Barbara, and just trying to soak it all in. To be honest, as wonderful a time as I’ve been having here, for the last few days I’ve been itching to leave. I have so many ideas, so many paintings to paint, that I am anxious to return to my work. Still, with the light of day fading over the Arima valley, with the word peaceful really meaning something for once, it’s hard not to miss the place already.
Whatever Happened to Andrew?
Charan picks me at 3 a.m. the next morning to take me to the airport. It is amazing how the ride through the dark forest roads, which struck me as so mysterious the evening of my arrival, are now comfortably familiar. It is almost surreal, heading through Arima, knowing that we turn left at the blue house and head past the cemetery on our right, and knowing too, that Piarco is a scant thirty minutes away. Come seven a.m. I will be listening to the blast of a jet engine and watching this wonderful place dwindle away beneath me.
The flight to Miami is interminable. I try to read, but can’t concentrate, try to sleep but can’t relax, try to think, but find my mind struggling to tie so many loose threads that all I’m left with is an indecipherable knot…and the headache that comes with it. In Miami, I must pick up my bag before passing through customs to my connecting flight. My lovely green suitcase looks at first glance as if the Jolly Green Giant has used it for a suppository…before it occurs to me that it’s just wet. The storm over Miami delayed our landing, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s wet my luggage between the plane and the conveyor belt.
Waiting for the flight to San Francisco, I have a sudden craving for a Starbucks coffee. My Grande Triple Raspberry Mocha is as overly sweet and delicious as always, so ineffably American that I could cry in it. My flight changes gates at the last minute and I madly dash for the new concourse. When will I learn that everyone else is late too, and the run is totally unnecessary? Flushed and out of breath, I settle in for a forty minute wait before take off.
In the plane I do a lot of writing, though I am continually forced to get up, sit down, get up, sit down, by Mr. and Mrs. Can’t-Stay-In-Our-Seats. Behind me a child screams, “I wanna go hoooooome,” and despite his annoying tone, I find myself more than a little sympathetic. Two rows ahead of me, another two children sound like feral cats for five hours straight, and their parents make no attempt to control them. One of the little girls, about four years old, keeps leering over the back of her seat; in my delirium, there is something demonic in her saucer-wide eyes. She barely looks human.
The wait to get off the plane is interminable- of course I’m at the very back. Standing there in those last fifteen minutes, the claustrophobia sets in. I always have this reaction waiting to get off a plane, but this time I am nearly crawling out of my skin. I imagine that if the plane were to catch fire, this heard of human cattle would never leave in a speedy and orderly fashion, and I imagine myself climbing over them, stepping on screaming faces, crushing the hands that clutch the seat backs, my heart hardened by my grim determination to breathe fresh air again…until I reach the exit, the only survivor. I am vaguely horrified to feel no human connection whatsoever to the people around me. They are simply in my way, as unsympathetic as barren livestock. I know travel makes me crazy, but this is too much.
When I finally escape the plane, wait again to collect my bag, and speed my way down the long corridors toward the Air Tram, I needlessly put on my sunglasses; in my head I am an international terrorist lugging a high powered rifle rather than a camera and laptop, and I’m just itching for someone to get in my way. The reverie abruptly ends when I exit onto an open air causeway, and the first cool wash of San Francisco air hits me like a glass of lemonade on a hot afternoon…and I drink it with a relish that is almost sexual.
After a maddening search for a pay phone in Cell Phone Land, I call collect from the B.A.R.T. station to let my parents know to pick me up at the Orinda station in an hour. When the automated system asks me to state my name after the beep, I blurt out “Fucking Andrew!” The train ride back to Orinda is almost torture; the familiar landscape past the God-only-knows-what smeared windows is a welcome sight, but one that only makes me wish passionately that I were driving, instead of stuck on this train . On my way out of the Orinda station, the gates close on my luggage when I’m halfway through. It takes the station agent a moment to override the gate, during which time I flail and scream like an out of control child. Once I’m through, I savagely and unnecessarily kick the gate, and I curse it for whatever undoubtedly personal grudge it held against me. I shout, “Fuck you B.A.R.T!” over my shoulder as I collapse in the back seat of my mother’s car. “Drive!” I scream, “For Christ’s sake, Drive!” As the car lurches forward, I dissolve into violent paroxysms of hysterical laughter bordering on tears that refuse to abate for several minutes.
It takes me a while to really understand the laughter. Could I just be that glad to be home? No, I laughed like that out of the sheer ridiculousness of how quickly, how effortlessly, I’ve fallen back into my old routines. It’s as if the second I stepped through those turn styles the new Andrew, the one who could sit for three hours waiting for a bird to appear for three seconds, the one who could laugh off the lack of phones and the sticky heat, the Andrew who could actually take a freaking nap in the middle of the afternoon, just disappeared as if someone flicked a switch. I don’t know if the vanishing act is funny, or sad, or terrifying, but I know one thing…I want that Andrew back. I know I can’t live every day on Trin Time, and I wouldn’t want to, but there has to be a middle ground between the breakneck pace of my regular life and the languorous ease of a tropical vacation. I know that my day to day existence has always been driven by the urgency, the desperation of creativity- it’s half of what has made me successful in my field- but there has to be some peace in the creative act too. After the labor pains, doesn’t the mother feel relief and joy as her newborn life is placed into her arms? There has to be a place where I’m O.K. with the fact that I’ll never have time for everything I want to paint, write, say, and do, where I can revel in where I’ve been and where I am without obsessing about where I’m going, where the clutter of everyday life that can’t help but get in the way is regarded with the wink and the smile it deserves…not this seething hatred. I can’t have left that sense of peace in Trinidad, not entirely. I wasn’t someone else while I was there. I wasn’t fake. My attitude wasn’t a put on. The man I was for those ten days in Trinidad was there all my life, just struggling to wake up, which means that he’s still here now, and I can feel him struggling bitterly behind my eyes. I let him out in a flood of tears I haven’t cried in way too long, and I promise to get to know him better.