Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Trinidadians or "Trinis"

Since Rich went back to the states things have been a lot less like an adventurous holiday and a lot more like work. Luckily, people here are very friendly so even though I miss my husband desperately, I’ve met quite a few people who are helping me keep from being terribly lonely.

The very first thing that struck me here was how friendly the people are. Trinis like to chat and laugh and all of them that I’ve met have been warm and friendly. Woman commonly greet each other with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. The people I’ve met so far divide up more or less into three groups: people I work with at UWI, my neighbors, and people I’ve met at church.

Noticeably missing from that list are the UWI students. Classes started last Monday and the campus is now filled with students. I am team teaching two classes this semester but my lectures don’t come until later in the semester, so although I have been to both classes and seen the student’s faces, my interaction with them so far has been very limited. The teaching staff members in Chemical Engineering are a very international group. We have people from Nigeria, Iran, Nicaragua, England, Barbados, me from the US and even a few from here in Trinidad. My department head, Dr. Bobby Pilgrim met us at the airport and took us straight to his house to eat Christmas leftovers and meet his family. He has been very helpful showing Rich and I around and helping me get settled.

UWI arranged a furnished house for us so we had a home to move into the day we arrived. We live in a gated community that consists of a row of 15 townhouses that is about a 20 minute walk from my office. Our place is right in the middle. Most, but not all, of the people who live here are associated with UWI. Our neighbors to the left in are a family from England who’ve been here for about 6 months. Katie, the mother, is a lecturer in the English department and Justin, the father is in film studies. Katie is a blond haired Anglo Saxon type but Justin, although he was raised in England, is a Trini with African ancestry. They have 3 children, Kip (5), Lily (4) and Nive (3), who get up early in the morning to ride their baby bikes up and down the short street and jump on the Trampoline in the common garden. Living on our right, we also have three children Chantel (~12), Nathan (8) and Justin (2). Their mother, Annabelle, is a lawyer and a native of Trinidad. Annabelle is very cheerful and fun to chat with. Justin has a large collection of toy cars and Nathan thinks bugs and lizards are really creepy. All six children play together on the street and in the common neighborhood garden. They keep me informed about all the important neighborhood news like Nive’s birthday party and the snake someone saw in the yard. Prof. Hongloo and his wife Sherika (sp?) who are from Kashmir live two doors down. He is a professor of history and she is in physics. He is here teaching South Asian studies on exchange from the Indian government and his expertise is in the history of northern India and Pakistan. They’ve invited me in several times to chat and have told me I should drop by when ever I get lonely. There are several people in the neighborhood who I’ve met (2 from India, and 1 from the US) who are working with the UWI veterinary medicine program and one gentleman from England who is in Civil Engineering.

I am what they call here in Trinidad “churchy” meaning that I go to church regularly. There is a lot of religious diversity in Trinidad. Walking around the area you can see a Muslim Mosque, a small Hindu temple, and a wide variety of Christian churches. Among the Christians, Catholics are the most numerous but I’ve seen many other churches around. Mormons make up only a tiny part of the mix. I’m lucky to live a 15 minute walk from the Curepe branch which meets in rented rooms above some shops. On the Sundays I’ve been there, we have had 50 to 60 attending. The church is relatively young in Trinidad so most of the members have been in the church for a few years at most. The first thing they asked me when I said we were moving here was “do you play the piano”. Sadly, I think I am the best piano player in the branch. Or I was the best piano player in the branch until last week when we were joined by a family from the states who will be here for the next six months. The mother in the family has taught piano lessons so I figure I’ve got six months to practice before they will need me to try to accompany the singing. Last week I started teaching early morning seminary classes for the high school age students. I teach 2 mornings a week at 6 am. I had 4 students the first morning I taught and 5 the second. The teenage girls in our branch are a strikingly beautiful bunch. We have one girl who leads the singing in sacrament meeting who, in Rich’s words, could be a super model and several others who are every bit as pretty.

I find it very interesting to study the faces of people here. There is so much diversity. When Columbus first visited Trinidad it was settled by the Carib. For the following three centuries it was a Spanish colony but Spain had a difficult time keeping colonists in Trinidad because they preferred the gold and silver rich territories in Peru and Mexico. Eventually they invited French planters to run many of the tobacco, cocoa and sugar plantations. Like most of the Caribean, slavery has been part of this countries history from virtually the moment of Columbus’ “discovery”. Slave traders followed on Columbus’ heels to capture and sell the Carib. Then when the Spanish colonists arrived, they were “given” the Carib in an arrangement much like European serfdom. After the Carib had been nearly wiped out by disease, over-work, mistreatment, executions and war, the colonials began importing slaves from Africa. During the French revolution and reign of terror, many more French, both royalists and republicans, sought refuge here from other places in the Caribbean. The British saw the growing French presence in Trinidad as a threat to British control of the region and seized control of the Island in 1797. It remained a British crown colony until 1962 when Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation. When England abolished slavery in 1838, the blacks who had worked in the fields migrated to the cities and refused to do farm labor. To fill the labor shortage, the English brought in indentured laborers mostly from south Asia (today’s India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) but also a few from China, Portugal and Ireland. The last two groups of immigrants were Syrians who came around 1913 to escape religious persecution in Lebanon and Jews who settled in Trinidad during WW II. You can see the contribution of all those different people, Carib, Spanish, African, French, English, Chinese, South Asian etc) to the names and faces on the island. On the books the population is said to be approximately 40% East Indian (as distinguished from West Indian and Amerindian), 40% African, and 20% other with less than 1 % white but looking at the faces the divisions are much less clear. Although almost everyone has dark hair and dark eyes, skin color varies from almost as light as mine (rare) to charcoal black and everything in between. There is an enormous variation in facial features and there are many strikingly beautiful people. Rich often jokes that “white people all look alike”. After studying people’s faces, here I have to say he’s right.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Good Bug, Bad Bugs

The tropics have a reputation for bugs. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “You’re moving to the tropics with all those icky bugs?” Well you’ll be pleased to know that there don’t seem to be any more bugs here than other places I’ve lived. Of course when I say that, you must realize that my pantry in Salt Lake was infested with pantry pests (moths), Montana is over run with tics and mosquitoes during the warmer months and I got Lyme disease twice in northern Europe. So far the worst I’ve experienced here are some tiny ants that like to come through the back porch and into my kitchen and the odd mosquito that comes through the unscreened windows to bite me while I sleep. Most of the bugs around are what I’d call “good bugs”.

Trinidad is reputed to have hundreds of species of butterflies. While I haven’t seen that many different kinds, I do regularly see several different butterfly species on my morning walk to work. The species I see most commonly is a red and black butterfly called a coolie that frequents the flowers that grow in the drainage ditches.

I also see quite a few common yellow butterflies and small yellow butterflies with black tipped wings. Occasionally I see others as well. Earlier this week I saw one of the Monarchs that migrate here from North America during the winter months. I have no idea how a butterfly can make it this far south. Even following the chain of islands, there is a lot of open water to cross and with the occasional tropical storm or hurricane to boot. It’s hard to imagine how something as delicate as a butterfly could make it through all that.

In addition to the butterflies, I see a lot of different kinds of dragon flies. The large blue and purple ones that like our little neighborhood seem almost as big as the hummingbirds that visit the wild sage bush in our yard. Last night when I was coming home just about sunset, Hongloo and Sherika (a visiting professor from India and his wife who live 2 doors down), were sitting out on their porch. They invited me to visit for a while. While I sat with them watching the sunset, I discovered that we have fireflies here. There aren’t as many of them as I remember seeing in Pennsylvania summers as a kid, at least not at this time of year, but I did see a few of them lighting up hovering around the Mango trees.

Thursday, Annabelle, the lawyer who lives with her three children between our place and Hongloo’s, gave me some poisonous white powder to sprinkle along the edge of the back porch as a barrier to the ants. I sprinkled a thin line of it all along the edge of the back porch and thus far it’s been keeping the ants at bay. The troop of ants that had found its way under the back door, along the baseboards and up the wall into my cupboard is all gone. So right now I’m thinking that tropical bugs just aren’t that formidable and in fact, many of them are downright lovely.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Pitch Lakes, Hindu Shrines and Scarlet Ibis

The chemical engineering department arranged a tour for us Saturday. We ended up having a private tour because the tour guide who works with engineering didn’t have a tour group arranged. The guide picked us at our flat at 8 am and we headed south. We live on the southern edge of the islands northern mountain range. South of us, is a large flat valley covering central Trinidad and yet further south is another range of mountains (hills really). Our first destination was La Brea and the Pitch Lake on the southwest peninsula. Trinidad is home to the world’s largest asphalt lake covering 40,000 square kilometers, which locals refer to as the 8th wonder of the natural world. Sir Walter Raleigh was the first European to visit the pitch lake in 1595 and discovered that it made excellent caulking for his ship. Interestingly the Carib (Amerindian) name for the pitch is “piche” which is likely the source for the English word. Walter Raleigh reported the find to Queen Elizabeth and the lake became something of an attraction. After Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, burned in 1808, it was rebuilt with streets paved with pitch from the lake, making it the first city in the world to have asphalt paved streets. Pennsylvania Avenue and the road in front of Buckingham palace are both paved with asphalt derived from Trinidad’s pitch lake.

We were pleased to find that Pitch Lake is a lot less like a giant parking lot than we expected. Much of the lake has soil and vegetation covering the pitch. The town of La Brea is actually built on a portion of the lake. This isn’t necessarily a good thing since the pitch isn’t stable. Many of the buildings, some of them elaborate mansions, are leaning because the pitch beneath them shifted. We were given a walking tour of the central region of the lake where pitch is being mined. The exposed area of the pitch lake is in a depression surrounded by cashew trees and wetlands. There are beautiful blue and pink lotus flowers growing in the ponds along the side of lake. To get out on the asphalt, we had to wade in water that was sometimes knee deep and then we set out bare foot across the asphalt. As we walked, we had to keep jumping across places where deep seems in the asphalt had filed with water. Most of the lake is solid enough to walk on without problems but there are patches where lighter oils are bubbling up from below. Our tour guides steered us around those spots. Methane and a bit hydrogen sulfide are bubbling out of the asphalt which is most obvious where there are pools of water. You can see patches of sulfur on the surface of some of the puddles. During our tour, there were half a dozen black vultures hanging out or “liming” as they call it here in the middle of the pitch lake. I’m not sure why they like it there except perhaps that its good camouflage. Luckily for us, it had rained shortly before our walking tour so the temperature was moderate. I suspect it can get pretty hot out in the middle of the asphalt in the tropical afternoon sun.

Following our walking tour of the Asphalt lake, we turned north to an area along the central coast where there are two Hindu temples. The first, called temple in the sea, was conceived and built by an Indian laborer Sewdass Sadhu. In 1947, Sadhu built the original temple on the shore but since the land officially belonged to the Coroni sugar monopoly, the government bulldozed the temple 5 years after its construction and put Sadhu in jail for 14 days. Sadhu then decided to build a new temple “in the sea” which belonged to no one. He spent 25 years hauling rocks and concrete by bicycle out into the water to build the temples foundation. The temple was finally completed in 1995, with government assistance, for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Trinidad. There is a flower lined walk way that leads from the shore out to the white and blue onion domed temple. Numerous Hindu prayer flag flap in the wind beside the temple. Hindu celebrations including holidays, weddings and funerals are celebrated in the temple and on the shore nearby. During our visit, there was a funeral pyre burning on the shore.

Not far from the Temple in the Sea is the “Hanuman Murti”, an 85 foot tall statue to the Hindu deity Hanuman who is half man half monkey. The statue is painted in brilliant colors, orange, green, gold and blue. The neighboring Temple and Ashram are colorful and beautifully carved. The statue and temple were a gift from an Indian spiritual leader, Ganapati Sachchidananda, who sent skilled twenty skilled craftsman from southern India to build the temple in 12th century style.

The final stop for the day was at the Caroni bird sanctuary which was unquestionably the highlight of the day. We were treated to a boat tour through the mangroves that are home to over 150 species of birds. It’s the nesting site for thousands of scarlet ibis, egrets, and blue heron. As we cruised through the mangroves we saw snakes, crabs, oysters and numerous bird. The tours destination was near a tree covered island where thousands of ibis and egrets return each evening. We sat for about half an hour and watched as flocks of egrets and scarlet ibis flew over head and landed on the island. Scarlet ibis are born grey and it takes them about 3 years before they become a brilliant scarlet. The color is derived from the carotene in shrimp and crabs that they eat. When kept in captivity and fed an artificial source of carotene, they are only a dull pink. The scarlet ibis is the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago.

Campus New Year's Fete

Friday afternoon we were invited to a new year’s reception hosted by the new Campus Principal (comparable to University President in the US system). The new Principal, Clement Sankat, was appointed to the position about 2 weeks ago. Last spring, he was the dean of engineering and he is the person who recruited me to come here. So Rich and I took our invitations and headed over to the reception at around 4 pm expecting a typical stuffy academic gathering with a few hors d’oeuvres. Perhaps even an English style tea. Woo, were we wrong! This was a massive Trinidad style fete complete with food, drink, music and dancing. All the classic Trinidad specialties were served including bake and shark, jerk chicken, geere pork, pastilles, grilled ribs, pig tail, roti, hops and ham, Chinese and Indian specialties and likely several things I’m forgetting. There were drinks of all kinds including non-alcoholic island specialties like Lemon-Lime Bitters and of course a wide selection of Caribbean beers and liquors. Then there was the music, a mixture of both live and recorded of various styles including Calypso, Soca, and Parang. The dancing was over the top wild. I may be able to pass as a dancer among engineers and scientists, but never among Caribbeans. A Steel Pan band was set up for most of the evening but for some reason they never played. We were pleased to find that we already know a dozen or more people or so from campus and so were easily able to find people to socialize with. I must say, Trinis definitely know how to throw a party.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year from Trinidad

We have had a rather eventful first week in Trinidad. We arrived at about 10 PM, finally got through customs and were picked up by Bonnie’s department chairman and brought to his house for a bite and hence (at 1 AM) to our flat (photo above). We have done a lot of walking around, though that is said to be a bit dangerous for foreigners. We do rather stand out, being significantly paler than pretty much everybody. Two walks have been nice, one up into the rainforest back of the St. Benedict monastery.

For the other we took a maxi (a van acting as a public bus) up the Maracas-St. Joseph valley and then did a particularly strenuous walk over the Northern Range and down to the Caribbean Sea at Maracas Bay. The trail was indistinct and had been reclaimed by the jungle in parts. This was quite steep and slippery and we were feeling beat up when we finally emerged from the rainforest at the squatters shacks above Maracas. We took a swim in the Sea, asked around for how to get another Maxi to Port of Spain, and then waited around till one showed up. The maxis sort of have a schedule, but it is inconsistent. One did indeed come, carrying us to the Charlotte Street market in Port of Spain. Charlotte St was very hectic, with so many people getting food and grog for the Old Years Day celebration (New Years Eve in the USA), but we eventually got through. Bonnie had a slight scare from a stern, old and mostly naked Rasta man who came rushing up to us with his arm pointing straight at her. He demanded “where you going?”, Bonnie said “Curepe” and he then showed us which way to go to the station. So we got home before dark (we have been told over and over that it is too dangerous to be out after dark, and it is a bit un-nerving) and went to a fine party to end the day.

Today the shops were open so I got a new machete (sorely needed) and walked the 10 km to the Tunapuna bike shop and asked advice on riding around here without getting killed. It’s sketchy, but if a person can’t ride then he’s already dead, right?