A Simple Explanation
by Malcolm Taylor
Either the Tobagonian culture is rooted in deep superstition, or the locals are in possession of a few facts that have so far eluded me. – in any event there were two major questions raised when we were over a few months ago, both of which were answered by a local in four little words, as you will hear.
We arrived in late February – just a little earlier than we did last year (little knowing then, that when our two week holiday was over we would have decided that Tobago was only a small apple short of Eden and we would have bought a house) – and were immediately surprised to find the countryside so green. The dry season was supposedly well under way, and last year the island was so short of water that the management at Sanctuary had to bring it in tankers to ensure there was a plentiful supply for their guests; this year there was rain a-plenty – not that it spoiled our stay; it rarely lasts all day, and the lush vegetation it encourages are a considerable compensation. Nevertheless it was unusually wet; everybody agreed.
We had ten days on our own before our good friends, Bernard and Jean Holley, flew out to join us for a couple of weeks, to celebrate their Ruby Wedding – so we decided we’d better explore the island a little more so we would be in a better position to show it off when they arrived - forty years of marriage deserves some small recompense!
We’d never managed to get as far north as Charlotteville before, so decided to remedy that oversight first. We’d been led to believe that the new road connecting it to Bloody Bay would be finished early this year, but .. er .. no, it has apparently been held up, not only by the unseasonable rain, which caused various mud-slides, but also by .. well, other things. However, we were reliably informed that as we had a four wheel drive vehicle we could easily get through, providing it hadn’t been raining during the previous twenty four hours. Carefully monitoring the weather, we picked our day and headed north. There’s no doubt that the stretch of coastline between Arnos Vale and Castara is simply breathtaking. The naval battle history of both Englishman’s Bay and the aptly named Bloody Bay is well known, and if you stop your car for a minute or two and step out into the silence of the countryside at one of the vantage points and look down, it’s not difficult to imagine the sight of galleons under full sail, guns blazing, knocking the hell out of each other. You can almost hear the screams of pain and yells of anger of the sailors, punctuated by the smash of cannonballs as they rip into wood, floating up from the bays far below. It’s as if you are transported 400 years back in time; the unchanged view, still crisp and clear, seems to hold those sights and sounds close, like ghosts waiting to be called once more to action.
Typically, the battery of my camera decided to call it a day on one of our stops and I imagined I would have to wait until we went to Scarborough to find a replacement, though we decided, with no hope, to try the little shop in Castara . To my amazement they actually stocked the battery I needed. That’s what I love about Tobago – it’s an island of constant surprises – you might not be able to get a fresh loaf of bread before noon in the local shop because the delivery man has gone off to Trinidad to see his mum, but you can get an Advanced Photo System camera battery in a tiny remote fishing village. A few miles further up the coast we stopped at Englishman’s Bay for a beer. The makeshift café on the beach is lovely – and if you pay a visit be sure to buy a couple of packets of the fancy. ginger- dipped peanuts they sells in little bags. Fifty cents’ worth of pure delight
At Anse formi we drove straight on, keeping to the new Caribbean coast – I was going to add ‘road’ but it’s really nothing more than a broad track at present. Some parts are easily driveable but others are barely negotiable and there’s always the contractor’s lorries and diggers to cope with too. Don’t even attempt this trip unless you’re driving a 4X4, and it’s best to avoid it altogether if you’re a nervous driver or in a rented vehicle. At the end of this stretch (now re-scheduled to be finished in 2005) I felt exhilarated at having made it, sorry for my poor old mud-drenched Terios (which needed a complete under-wash) and hungry. We made for Sharon & Phebe’s restaurant, which was recommended, and we weren’t disappointed – and the excellent fish was nearly half the price we’re used to paying further south. Although we’d decided to stay overnight we hadn’t booked anywhere, assuming, wrongly, that there would be plenty of empty beds. Fortunately, just as we were about to give up and go home we managed to rent a flat for the night at Top River Pearl. The cleaner - the only person around when we arrived late afternoon - was a bit doubtful at first, but cash, and our promise we’d be out early enough for her to service the place for the longer staying guests arriving the next day, did the trick, and we were able to relax. The two bed roomed flat we had been allocated had a balcony with an almost panoramic view of the town which would have been the envy of Captain Cat and the neat complex of studios and apartments felt very friendly; we would have liked to have stayed longer.
We weren’t in Charlotteville long enough to really get to know the place but on first impressions it seemed to us to be a very laid-back, rather old-fashioned sort of place – a bit like I remembered Key West thirty years ago, but without so many hotels and restaurants. You get the picture. Lovely.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Banana Boat Inn, which is in a great location right on the shore of Man O’War Bay. It’s owned by an Englishwoman, Caroline Hardie, and we enjoyed a chat with her visiting sister, Diana, who showed us round. The rooms are pleasant and simple, and bed & breakfast is included in their modest charges. The only snag, she said, was that in Charlotteville the piped water wasn’t currently enjoying the same uninterrupted flow as that of their alcoholic beverages (it’s turned off between 8pm and 6am) – but even if you can’t wash your socks at midnight at least you know you’ll never die of thirst!
We returned home along the conventional route, stopping off at the Louis D’or nursery in Roxborough. If we were to be shortly celebrating a Ruby Wedding we thought we’d pick up a few red plants to show we’d entered into the spirit of the occasion. A word of advice – don’t visit the nursery if you’re in a hurry, because even if you want to buy just a single plant there’s a whole rigmarole to go through before you can be on your way. Take note. A helpful gardener will guide you to the right location for your needs, then, once you’ve selected your purchase, he will write it down on a piece of paper that has to be taken to the cashier’s office in the office block across the way. You’ll notice a somnolent official sitting at a desk close by. Ignore him, for the present, and proceed straight to the cashier’s cubbyhole. Once you’ve paid your dosh take the two chitties the cashier will give you to the official who may now have perked up a bit. If not, cough gently to attract his attention. Hand him the chitties, which he will stamp with a flourish, then take both back to the gardener who gave you the first one. He will keep one and give you the other. Put your purchase in your car and drive slowly to the main gate. DO NOT, under any circumstances put your foot down, as there is a barrier across the entrance. When the security guard emerges from his sanctum give him your remaining chitty which he will carefully check. Once you get the nod of approval you may proceed with caution to the main carriageway. You’ve made it. Congratulations!
We were delighted and relieved that Bernard and Jean’s holiday proved such a success. Inviting friends to stay in a new house (or even an old one) is daunting enough; when they’ve travelled four thousand miles to be your guests it’s even more so. Fortunately, they loved the island as much as we, and towards the end of their stay we had the added enjoyment of seeing our cricket team beat the West Indies in the second test in Trinidad.
We’d been given tickets, as a present, by a friend in Port of Spain, and I’m glad we’d booked in to a hotel well before our arrival, as accommodation was thin on the ground by the time we arrived. Our good natured Barmy Army together with their Trini Posse counterparts were an integral part of the match, providing a non-stop background of enthusiastic support. It didn’t seem to matter much which side had the upper hand as the supporters of both camps were intent on having a good time come what may. On the first day of this second test there was, however, one moment that brought the proceedings to a deathly hush. Lara was out for a duck! Nobody had expected such an early exit by the great man, and we ourselves couldn’t believe our eyes. It took us a full minute to take it in – and as you can see from the faces surrounding us in this photograph (The Glums!) it took the West Indian supporters several minutes longer!
We didn’t have a lot of time to see much of Port of Spain, but if you’re ever visiting, and want a really good meal at a reasonable price in pleasant surroundings, do try the Tikki Village, Polynesian restaurant in the Kapok Hotel. It’s on the top floor and has terrific views across the city. One other tip – take taxis everywhere after dark. Although we never felt remotely threatened by our surroundings, it’s better to be safe than sorry – and anyway the chatty drivers are a font of information about the city and the island.
Back in Tobago we celebrated our friend’s anniversary at the Amadeus – a fine restaurant, set up high on the Plymouth road. Marianne, the co-owner with her husband, Rubin, who does the cooking had decorated the table with some wonderful red flowers. It was a memorable last night for the end of their stay.** On our own first anniversary of coming to the island we celebrated with a slap-up meal at the Indigo (typically Fiacra & Erica wouldn’t let us pay) ‘Ah well, now, it’s your anniversary for God’s sake. Jesus, I can’t believe you’ve only been here a year’. Neither can we; Tobago seems to have been sucked in to our consciousness like nowhere else.
At the end of our month’s stay, shortly after Bernard and Jean had returned home, I pondered on the two great unanswered questions posed on this trip. Why was it raining so much, and why was that immortal icon of cricket, Lara, out for a duck? Perhaps the planets were out of alignment, perhaps the Gods were angry? I took myself off to my oracle on Grafton beach. ’Claudia’, I said, ‘You know about these things. What is the answer?’ She looked out to sea. Was that a mist I saw in her eye? She turned to me raising her finger to her lips. ‘Ssh..’ she whispered, ‘we don’t want everyone to know’. I craned forward to catch her pronouncement. ‘It’s a leap year’. ‘Ah …..’ I nodded sagely.
© Malcolm Taylor 2005
** Sadly, Rubin has since died and the Amadeus closed