Sunday, May 3, 2009


We’ve had a bad case of the Jumbies the last few months. Jumbies are a kind of dark ghost that are part of Caribbean folk lore and are evidently at fault for all sorts of bad luck. Jumbies can shape shift and according to Miguel Browne, a local dialect poet and comedian, in the modern world they take the form of anything from a computer virus to politician.

The year didn’t start off badly, in fact it started off looking very promising. We had a lovely visit in Salt Lake and Seattle over Christmas. Shortly after we returned to Trinidad, Rich was offered a temporary position as senior lecturer (i.e. Assoc. Professor) in Chemistry at UWI. We had a nice new English family move in to the flat on our right and enjoyed watching Obama’s inauguration with our American neighbors to our left. We spent several evenings listening to the local steel pan bands preparing for the Carnival Panorama competition and enjoyed the political and social commentary at the Calypso tents. We went to hear the Extempo competition again this year and went in to Port of Spain for Tuesday’s Carnival parade.

It was at on Carnival Tuesday that our luck started turning for the worse. We drove in to Port of Spain around midday. Naturally many roads were closed for Carnival and so police were directing traffic around road blocks and toward parking areas. The police directed us to park “right there” and so we parked “right there” just as directed and walked in to town where we enjoyed several hours liming and watching the Mas (short for Mascarade) parade before returning to find our car gone. After staring for a bit in wide eyed disbelieve, the taxi drivers standing near by informed us that the police had been towing cars and gave us direction to the police station. So we walked the few blocks over to the police station, found our car and joined the long line of people who’d had their cars towed. When I got to the front of the line, I explained to the police that the police had instructed me to park “right there”. They told me “they mislead you”. Evidently they were Jumbies. We paid them our 100 TT$ (~16 US$) and they released the hostage so we could go home.

Three days latter (Friday), Rich got up at 5 am as usual to go for his morning ride and a few minutes later he called upstairs to ask me what I’d done with his wallet. Since I had no idea what he was talking about I got up and went down stairs at which point we discovered that the lock on our back porch had been removed. Our computers, back up drives, and a wide range of other small but extremely valuable items had been taken. The Jumbies had struck again.

We called the police and started pacing up and down the street of our gated community while it gradually sunk in that I had lost 5 years of my research work and several thousand dollars worth of stuff. We walked down the back of our row of town houses and noticed that 8 more of the town houses in our court had also been broken into. One by one the neighbors started coming into the court in shock. One of the first neighbors up is an under secretary at the Indian High Commission. It had been about an hour since I’d called the police but no one had come yet so he called the Indian High Commission who called the police who acknowledged that they had received my call and we had two detectives in our court within 5 minutes. There are advantages to having well connected neighbors.

I gave a statement to the detectives and then the crime lab came in a dusted for fingerprints. Since most of the neighborhood are employed by UWI, the UWI housing officer and security team came by next and then a reporter from the local paper came by. The story in the Trinidad paper is fairly accurate, except that our flats aren’t posh even by local standards. The car in that photo is ours and the pick-up truck belongs to a friend who’d come by to give us moral support, mango juice and cornbread.

The story evidently made the papers all over India. The report in the Deccan Harold is a bit further off the mark. We were the first people up in the neighborhood and. there were no strange smells or evidence of any type of sleeping gas. We heard rumors about gas being used in buglaries of this type but the police told us these stories are apocryphal and there is no evidence to suggest gas was used in this robbery or commonly in other robberies. This was pretty much what we expected as chemists since we woke up clear headed at 5 AM as usual. It is kind of astounding that the thieves were able to break into 9 flats on our block where people were home sleeping and no one woke up or heard anything. In retrospect, we are very lucky no one woke up since the robbers were armed and shootings are not uncommon in robberies here.

The most miraculously amazing part of this story is that the police actually caught the thieves and recovered many of the stolen items. We got back two laptop computers and one of my backup drives. Unfortunately, the Jumbies had deleted most of the documents from my computer and they were the items backed up on the hard drive that was not recovered. Still we were luckier than most of our neighbors whose hard drives had been completely reformatted. The hard drive I recovered was the one that contained all my irreplaceable data, for which I am deeply relieved and grateful. I’ve been able to recover some of my files using hard disk recovery software but I’m still discovering things I’ve lost, like the thousands of references in my endnote library. All in all, I have to say we were luckier than I had imagined we’d be in such an unlucky situation.

Wait, that’s not the end of the story. Two weeks after the robbery, while I was still talking with the police several times a day about recovering our stolen goods, Rich was mauled by a pack of 8 dogs while he out for his morning walk. While he was fighting off the smaller dogs with his stick from the front, the biggest dog came around back and sunk his teeth into Rich’s thigh just above the knee. The dog owners were near by and managed call off the dogs and take Rich to the hospital. I got a phone call from the doctor shortly after 7 am and went by the hospital to find Rich with a wound that was a couple inches long and went over an inch into his thigh muscle. They usually don’t stitch dog bites because of the risk of infection but this wound was so deep they decided they had to do some thing so they put in two sutures to kind of hold things together, bandaged the wound, gave us a boat load of antibiotics and some pain killers and told us to come back in the morning so they could check for infection. The wound was so severe that he was unable to walk or bend his leg at all for 3 weeks. Of course, he was back in at work that afternoon meeting with students and overseeing a lab. Rich would have to be unconscious before he’d miss working with his students and even then he’d feel deeply guilty when he regained consciousness.

For nearly 4 weeks Rich couldn’t ride his bike, swim or even walk more than a few feet. I drove him to work and even across campus when he needed to give a lecture. Those of you who know Rich know that this was shear agony and that had he not been both in severe pain and deeply worried about permanent damage to his leg there is no way he would have been able to convalesce that long. Luckily the boat load of antibiotics and brutal cleaning the nurse did on the wound were enough to prevent the wound from getting infected. As soon as the doctor removed the stitches and gave him permission, Rich was back to walking (or rather limping) to work. Within a week he was back out an his bike. Eight week later, he is not yet back to 100 percent and has some pain in the muscle when he rides, but he is back to doing all the things he normally does and we are hopeful that there won’t be any lasting damage besides the scars.

I wish I could say that was the last we’d seen of the Jumbies but the first weekend Rich was back on his feet we went out for a hike in the Chagaramas National Park. It was a lovely day, I saw a howler monkey and we sat up on a ridge watching leather back turtles swimming in the bay below. Unfortunately I came home with about a hundred chigger bites and Rich didn’t fare much better. Then there have been a serious of problems at the University that have made Rich’s job miserable and he got a nasty computer virus, on a Mac for all things, and my lab flooded once again so I’m still not able to move in to it and Rich has scrapes and bruises from the car that brushed him while he was on his bike Wednesday morning, and right now I’ve got a stack of reports and exams to grade that’s nearly a meter high (seriously). We haven’t tried walking into the house backwards or leaving knotted ropes at the door (two traditional ways to ward off Jumbies) but if things don’t improve soon we may.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend in Tobago

Thanksgiving weekend in Trinidad and Tobago

We had decided a few weeks back that we would celebrate Thanksgiving by joining the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club (TTFNC) on their annual outing to Tobago. Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in Trinidad, it’s a regular work day. I had a night class Thursday so we hadn’t planned on doing anything to celebrate until the weekend. That night, Rich met me at my class around 8 pm and we walked home together. I’d left my car lights on Wednesday night, so the car battery was dead and we were hoping one of our neighbors would still be up and about so we could get some help jumpstarting the car. When we came through the gate, we found our community courtyard packed with cars. Our American neighbors had invited everyone they knew over for a Thanksgiving party. They not only nicely helped us get the car started; they then plied us with turkey and other tasty foods and drinks. We are definitely blessed with terrific neighbors.

After a hectic morning at work on Friday, I came home around 3 pm and we threw some gear into our bags hoping we hadn’t brought all the wrong stuff and headed to the airport to meet with our TTFNC friends. TTFNC usually takes the ferry to Tobago but one of the ferries is currently out of service and the other was booked up weeks in advance so we switched to plan B and flew. Shortly after 4 pm we loaded up the car and headed for the airport only to get stuck in gridlock traffic. One of the bridges on the highway was washed out in last week’s floods. It has been replaced with a temporary Bailey bridge, which is somewhat narrower than the original. This was enough to bring traffic to a dead standstill. It took us a full hour to go a little more than a mile from campus to the bridge. We arrived at the airport to find the trip organizer pacing and fretting about us as well as others who had not yet arrived. Luckily, he had planned for the group to meet two hours before the flight so although we were late for the rendezvous, we were still in plenty of time to easily make the flight.

It only takes 20 minutes to fly from Trinidad to Tobago and it took only a few minutes after landing to collect bags and pick up the rental cars. The Tobago airport is located at Crowne Point near the southwest tip of Tobago and we were headed to Charlotteville, which is as far from Crowne Point as you can get without leaving the island. Tobago is a just small island, but the roads are slow and winding so it took us a little over an hour to make our way up the Atlantic coast to the northeast end of the island. (Tobago is bordered by the Atlantic on its southeast side and the Caribbean on the northwest side). Unfortunately, it was long past sundown so we didn’t get much chance to see Tobago on the drive. After reaching Speyside where the road along the Atlantic coast ends, we crossed over to the Caribbean side on a steep winding road that must exceed a 20% grade at points and then dropped down into Charlotteville.

Charlotteville is a small fishing village located on Man of War Bay, which is one of the few natural deepwater ports in the region. The Atlantic conveyor belt splits around Tobago, which made the island an important strategic location for European sailing ships coming from Africa during the colonial era. The bay gained its name because it was one of the few bays deep enough for Man of War ships.

We stayed in the Man of War Bay Cottages which are located directly on the beach within a former cocoa estate that is now owned by the Turpin family and managed as a nature preserve. We stayed in a 3 bedroom cabin with 4 other field naturalists. Our cabin was located about 100 ft from the Caribbean Sea. We are told that Man of War Bay is usually very clear and calm, but weather was not in our favor. The sea was quite choppy, so we went to sleep to the sound of waves rolling onto the beach.

I woke up early and went out for a walk along the beach at sunrise. The skies were mostly cloudy but there were clear patches off to the north and a golden glow in the clouds as the sun came up. I saw a blue heron alongside one of the small streams that enter the bay and watched a few of the local fishermen heading out in their small boats. While I was out strolling on the beach, some of our TTFNC friends were watching two squirrels pick almonds off the trees near our cabins.

The plan was to leave at 8 am for a hike up Pigeon Hill, so after breakfast Rich and I decided to take a quick swim in the bay. The combination of rough water, recent hard rains and dredging efforts on the stream that comes into Charlotteville made the usually clear bay, quite brown and muddy. We are told that there are two small coral reefs right out in front of our cabins but the water was so murky that we quite literally couldn’t see our own hands in front of our faces.

While we were eating breakfast preparing for the morning hike, David Rooks, one of Tobago’s top naturalists and long time member of TTFNC came by to visit. His niece and a Dutch woman who is living in Charlotteville and doing research for her wild life management degree joined us on the hike. About the time we headed out for the hike, it started to rain steadily and 3 members of our group decided they’d rather go bird watching. The trail to Pigeon Hill starts just a hundred meters or so down from the turnoff to Flagstaff Hill, on the Charlotteville side. A red flower known as Deer Meat was growing right at the trailhead. While Dan, our hiking guide, was telling us how the plant was both edible and palatable, Rich, our environmental chemist, pointed out the nearby empty 55 gallon chemical drum and the white residue on the plants and suggested that perhaps eating these particular plants was unwise. The first section of the trail is an old dirt road and which had been recently cleared so it was in very good condition. After climbing easily for about a kilometer we reach a lovely viewpoint of Man of War Bay. There were two magnificent hardwoods growing near the viewpoint, a Caribbean Cedar (Cedral Oderata) and a Cyp. Not far past the viewpoint, Steven, our reptile guy, spotted a black and yellow snake known locally as Bahbelle Chenen (Leimadiphos melanatos neson) but it zipped off under the brush before the rest of us got a look at it. A bit further up the trail there is another viewpoint looking off toward Englishman’s Bay on the Atlantic side of the Island but by this time the storm clouds were thick enough that our view was of lovely mist rolling up the hillside rather than the sea below.

As we proceeded up the trail, the rain got progressively harder which wasn’t conducive to bird watching but did bring out a large number (we estimate at least 15) mountain crabs that were scurrying up and down the trail. After about 2 kilometers, the trail became more overgrown and Dan had to use his cutlass (Machete for you Yankees) in places to clear the way. Up higher the trail enters rain forest and we saw number of notable plants including Climbing Palm, Rubber Tree, and Tropical Stinging Nettle, which is a truly vicious plant. Aside from the fact that it stings, this plant bears no relation to the stinging nettle that grows in temperate regions.

Roughly an hour and a half into the hike, the trail met a large ravine rushing with water from the ongoing rain. Dan informed us that the trail had been rerouted up a steep hill and that it was no more than 10 minutes from where we stood to the top of Pigeon Hill. While we waited for some of the group members to catch up the hard rain turned to a genuine deluge. It was raining hard enough you could tip your head back and get a drink. That may be an exaggeration but only a very small one. We were holding out our cupped hands and in only a few seconds we’d have enough fresh rainwater to drink. One of our team members cut us all excellent hiking sticks while we waited and then, once again assured that it was only 10 minutes to the top we headed up the steep, muddy slippery hill. After an hour of climbing up the exceedingly steep muddy track that was rapidly turning into a cascade as the rain got even harder we finally reached the top of Pigeon Hill. We were rewarded on the climb by finding and catching a small purple and greenish clouded snake (Sibon nebulata nebulata) and seeing much beautiful rainforest vegetation.
The rain slowed as we descended the trail and a few birds began to come out. We spotted the usual corn birds and orange winged parrots and watched a male rufous-tailed Jacamar who was perched a few feet from the trail.

By the time we reached the road the rain had stopped and the clouds were starting to lift. David Rooks happened by on the road just as we exited the trailhead. While we were regaling Mr. Rooks with our adventures and regrouping we discovered a beautiful iridescent gold beetle that neither Mr. Rooks nor any of our experts recognized. We were all drenched to the skin and covered with mud from sliding down the steep trail sections so we walked back to our cabin and sent someone cleaner and drier back for the cars.

When we met up with the bird group, they informed us they needed to be renamed “the reptile group”. The hard rain wasn’t conducive to good bird watching but they did see a Boa Constrictor crossing the road. They reported that the deluge that had soaked us to the skin had caused considerable mayhem on the roads below. The river that comes into the Bay near Speyside was out of its banks and several sections of road were temporarily blocked by mud and rock slides.

Our plan had been to spend the afternoon snorkeling but the hard rains had filled the bays with a great deal of silt and the water was very murky so we enjoyed a walk around Charlotteville and a meal of fresh caught kingfish and chips. Toward evening, the clouds lifted and we went up Flagstaff Hill for a view of the island and then scouted out the roads that had been flooded earlier in the day. That night, Mr. Rooks and Mrs. Turpin joined us in the cabin and shared tales of natural history of Tobago, shark fishing and pirate hangings in Pirates Bay.

The next morning, the weather was much clearer and so we went off to snorkel in Pirates Bay. During the night the water had mostly cleared so we were able to see the brain coral and plenty plenty fish including the queen angel fish, the french angel fish, several types of parrot fish and many others whose names I really need to learn.

After a lovely morning of snorkeling and sand, most of our group went in to Speyside for lunch. Since this was our first trip to Tobago, Rich and I decided we’d rather spend our time outside so we went up Flagstaff Hill to enjoy the view and then walked back to the cabins to meet up with the rest of the club by midafternoon. We drove the scenic route down the Caribbean side of the island back and arrived in Crowne Point in time to watch the sunset from the beach before our plane ride back to Trinidad.