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.