The fishermen of Plymouth village on the tiny island of Tobago are up at dawn to haul in their sweeping net full of the day's catch. So the few tourists who make it this far south in the Caribbean -- almost to the Venezuelan coast of South America -- are up, too, to watch and to photograph the sort of picturesque scene that reassures them they've discovered a very special, out-of-the-way place.
Tobago and its much larger sister island of Trinidad -- the famed home of Carnival, steel bands and calypso -- form the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad is the lively, sophisticated partner with big-city noise, traffic jams, industrial blight and, curiously, superb bird watching. Twenty miles to the northeast, Tobago is a quiet country garden of flowering trees; high, lush hills; inviting sandy beaches and wonderfully scenic, winding roads. By tradition, if not fact, it is the idyllic island that inspired Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe."
When Trinidadians -- especially residents of Port of Spain, the nation's crowded capital -- want a break from their hectic pace, they take the 12-minute shuttle flight to Tobago and its simpler life. For generations, the people of Plymouth have gathered at daybreak to fish off Turtle Beach, a lovely two-mile crescent of sand and palms that reaches south from Plymouth's perch on a rocky ledge. If you can ever honestly say that Tobago bustles, this is its rush hour.
The sea this morning is a dazzling jade green, the sky a deep blue, except for a patch of dark clouds beyond the hills promising a brief squall. Small fishing boats, painted in vivid reds and blues, bob in gentle waves. A frisky, well-fed dog plays tag with the warm surf, plunging in finally to join one of the youngsters for a swim. Brilliant orange and yellow butterflies flit everywhere.
The fishermen, their hard-muscled brown and black bodies stripped to shorts or swimming trunks, trade the day's gossip. A few sport machetes at their waist -- a ferocious-looking knife they use to lop the tops off fallen coconuts for a breakfast sip of the sugar-sweet water inside. Some of the women amble down the long crescent beach, empty baskets awaiting the catch balanced easily on their heads. Hauling the net seems as much a village social event as it is the day's labor.
A quarter of a mile or more offshore, rowboats drop the weighted net into Courland Bay, named for the Courlanders (from a region now a part of Latvia) who attempted to settle the island in the 17th century. On the beach, two lines of men, at least a dozen each, grab the long, heavy ropes attached at each end of the net and start pulling. At first the two groups work far apart, spreading the net open as wide as possible. But slowly they narrow the gap, their net closing in.
Almost immediately, there's a hint that the catch is going to be good. The entrapped fish leap in wildly splashing silver streaks in front of the net's bright red floats as the seine forces them toward shore. An armada of seabirds, surely accustomed to the routine, zooms in for a convenient break-
fast, diving for yet another beakful until the net, at last fully closed, spills onto the beach.
A few lucky fish, mostly the little ones, manage a last frenzied flip to fling themselves back into the surf and swim off free. But the rest, perhaps enough to fill a dozen bushel baskets, are heaped on the sand. The fishermen and their families surround the glistening pile, and the catch is divided up -- to be taken home or sold to a market or cafe'. By 9 a.m., the beach is deserted again, except for a fisherman spreading his net to dry and a tourist from the Turtle Beach Hotel starting a day's nap under the sun.
Until recently, Trinidad and Tobago made little effort to encourage tourism. As an oil rich nation, the two relatively affluent islands didn't need the money and weren't much interested. But oil prices have plummeted, tourist dollars now look increasingly attractive, and so the government is embarking on a major travel promotion campaign.
But before the hoped-for crowds show up, Trinidad and particularly Tobago remain relatively unspoiled -- not in the sense of being undeveloped, because they have all the modern amenities oil wealth can buy, such as very good roads and potable water. But rather tourism has not altered the look or the life of the two islands. Tobago, the least developed of the pair -- its population is only 47,000 compared to Trindidad's 1 million -- has no high-rise hotels, no large tour buses, no casinos, almost no nightlife and only one 18-hole golf course at Mount Irvine Bay Hotel.
Indeed, at Tobago's few small, personal-style hotels, including Mount Irvine and Turtle Beach, the menus have not yet succumbed to the bland international cuisine that caters to unadventurous North American stomachs. Instead, they happily are filled with spicy, mildly hot local dishes -- an exotic blend of African, East Indian (good curries) and Caribbean (lots of fresh papaya and other fruit) reflecting the country's varied racial and cultural heritage and its tropical climate.
In its initial plans, anyway, the government is looking for a boost in tourism that doesn't overwhelm the islands -- more small hotels scattered judiciously among the beaches, primarily on Tobago -- rather than clusters of big resorts. Wisely, it recognizes that Trinidad and Tobago are two very different islands, each with its own separate history and its individual appeal. Ideally, a visitor should see both.
Tobago has the country's best beaches and its few established beach hotels. It is a place to relax, because there is little else to do. There are no compelling sightseeing attractions, except the countryside itself to be explored on easy half-day trips. You can rent a car at your hotel, remembering to drive on the left -- Trinidad and Tobago once were British islands -- or for a little more money hire a car and driver so you can watch the scenery instead of the never-ending twists in the roadway. The cost is about $50 for a three-hour excursion.
"Some people come and stay at the beach, and they never leave," lamented our driver, Norris Daniel, a friendly old gentleman who, it soon became apparent, fully appreciates the undisturbed beauty of his island. "But you have to get out and see what the country offers. See how the people live."
A narrow but well-paved 25-mile-long road skirts the southern coast for almost its entire length -- the island is only about 26 miles long and three miles wide -- edging along rocky cliffs, poking into forest preserves and then dropping swiftly to one or another fine beach, offering pleasant views the entire route. Other roads climb into the steep hills of the interior for an interesting glimpse of tropical farm life. Villages such as Les Coteaux, all but hidden in the near jungle density of the foliage, stair-step down the slopes. Wherever there's a clearing, someone is growing bananas, papaya, breadfruit or the very juicy limes of the island. Daniel saw to it that we sampled along the way.
By contrast, the island of Trinidad should be visited -- so suggests the government -- for its cultural diversity and its rich art forms. This is a subtle way of warning suntan enthusiasts that Trinidad, an irregular rectangle about 50 miles long and 37 miles wide, is in short supply of good beaches and beach resorts. The nearest beach to Port of Spain is at Maracas, almost an hour's drive north across the mountains, and there is no hotel nearby. On the other hand, the government is simply stating the obvious. Trinidad, even without many beaches, is fascinating on its own terms.
Perhaps the best introduction is to read one or more novels by the island's acclaimed native son, V.S. Naipaul. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, and although much of his professional life has been spent in England, several of his books -- such as the delightful "A House for Mr. Biswas" -- are set in his homeland. His characters often are bumblers and scallawags, so he's not as warmly appreciated in Port of Spain as might be expected. But he gives you a good feel for the gentle flow of life on Trinidad that allows the cultural mix to coexist peacefully. Port of Spain, draped at the foot of the 3,000-foot-high Northern Range of mountains, is very much a city of ornate Hindu temples, domed Moslem mosques and spired Christian cathedrals.
It also is an amazingly clean city -- population about 58,000 -- and fully modern with air-conditioned shopping malls and several gleaming high-rise office buildings. And yet at their feet is an incredible jumble of small shops selling practically everything from quick curry lunches to stylish clothing and household appliances -- as colorful as it is chaotic. A large percentage of the people of Trinidad are of East Indian ancestry, and to walk through this teeming commercial center is to think you have somehow gotten yourself lost on the Asian subcontinent.
Trinidad is the home of the steel band, or "pan," which evolved in the 1930s and '40s as island musicians learned to play simple tunes on the ends of specially cut oil drums. Now large ensembles with enthusiastic fans tackle anything from pops to classics on these unusual but melodic instruments. Like calypso, the improvised and usually quite satiric ballads also born in Trinidad, the bands are a major feature of Carnival, the lavish and lively pre-Lenten celebration. At other times of the year, you are apt to be treated to excellent calypso and steel band performances at your hotel.
Carnival is to Port of Spain what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans -- a rollicking, saucy masquerade party full of tradition that much of the island spends the whole year preparing for. One of the biggest events is J'Ouvert, which begins at 4 a.m. on the Monday before Lent. As Jeremy Taylor, author of "Masquerade," an excellent guide to the islands and their culture, puts it: "From fetes on all sides, the bands spill out onto the streets followed by thousands of revelers and slowly converge on the center of Port of Spain in a slow, euphoric tidal wave of music and chipping feet." Several extraordinary costumes from past Carnivals -- one with 10 turquoise-colored wings each extending six feet -- are displayed at the National Museum on Frederick Street.
Some 7,000 years ago, the mostly flat, sugar-cane growing island was a part of the South American mainland, and today it's only nine miles from the Venezuelan coast. This accounts for the diversity of its wildlife, whose predecessors settled in before the island separated from the continent. A major attraction for naturalists, the swamplands and savannahs south of Port of Spain are home to six-foot alligators, anacondas and -- as the national museum warns -- four species of poisonous snakes.
But more importantly -- to bird watchers, anyway -- some 400 species of birds can be spotted on the island of Trinidad, an unusually large number for so small an area. Among them are parrots, toucans, 600 different kinds of hummingbirds and the stately scarlet ibis, Trinidad's national bird. This has made the island a popular bird watcher's haven. According to the Asa Wright Nature Center in the Northern Range, which offers field trips for spotting, "it's not unusual for experienced birders ... to add 120 to 150 species to their life list during a short stay."
If you are not inclined to tromp forest paths, any number of hummingbirds have invaded Port of Spain, and if you rest for a moment by a flowering bush you almost certainly will see some of them.
Although united politically today, Trinidad and Tobago have very different histories. Their union came about in 1889 when Great Britain linked them under one governor for administrative purposes. They achieved their independence as one nation in 1962, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the event with a big parade and calypso contest at the end of August.
Christopher Columbus discovered Trinidad on his third voyage in 1498 and named it for the Holy Trinity. For the next three centuries Spain claimed the island, but mostly ignored it in the quest for richer treasure elsewhere in South America. Only in the late 1700s, when other European nations seemed intent on grabbing it, did Spain begin making a serious attempt to colonize the island.
They invited French Catholics from other Caribbean islands by giving them land to grow sugar cane and cocoa trees for chocolate. The French brought with them slaves of African descent from other sugar islands. Both were important new ingredients in Trinidad's eventual cultural mix. In 1797, Britain seized the island as part of its war in Europe with Spain -- giving the island its language and many of its customs, including a passion for horse racing and cricket.
Banning the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery itself in 1834, Britain faced the question of who would work the sugar and cocoa plantations that it hoped to expand. The freed slaves were an insufficient labor supply, and anyway they wanted to work their own plots of land. (Because slavery ended so soon after it had begun to become an important labor source in Trinidad, the island was spared the experience of other sugar islands of the Caribbean, where slavery existed for as long as three centuries.)
The economic solution the British decided upon was indentured workers from India, who contracted to labor in Trinidad for five to 10 years with the promise of passage home afterward. From 1845 to 1917, according to Jeremy Taylor in "Masquerade," almost 144,000 Indians -- mostly Hindus but many Moslems -- arrived to work the island's fields. The inflow "fundamentally changed the island's population structure," he writes, because many Indians decided to stay, buying farmland or small shops with savings or passage money.
Today, between 40 and 45 percent of the nation's 1 million population is of Indian descent, and they live principally on the island of Trinidad. In the south, some villages are almost entirely East Indian, and everywhere on the island you see colorful prayer flags hanging outside private homes. Another 40 to 45 percent (but probably a majority) is of African descent. Tobabo's population is primarily of African descent.
How Tobago got its name is uncertain, but it is thought the word is derived from "tobacco," a crop grown in the Caribbean. While the European powers ignored Trinidad, they battled over sugar-rich Tobago for 250 years, and the island is dotted with the remains of fortifications, including a small fort at Plymouth. By some historical counts, the island changed hands 31 times. For awhile, it was a pirate hangout. The British took it in 1768 and founded the capital of Scarborough. The Americans tried to invade the island during the Revolutionary War, and the French landed for a dozen years in 1781.
Ultimately, the British got it back. But with the end of slavery, Tobago's sugar wealth went into decline. According to Taylor, neither island favored the idea when Britain linked them administratively almost 100 years ago. It was not a propitious beginning for a new nation, but over the years, the islands and their easygoing peoples have managed the union with a minimum of friction. A resident of Port of Spain may mock his country cousin in Scarborough but only in a friendly way. One of our Tobago taxi drivers clucked his tongue at a driver who was speeding, and told us he must be from Port of Spain.
We spent a week in Trinidad and Tobago, dividing our time between the two islands and exploring more industriously than we should have in the heavy humidity of the summer rainy season. Perhaps that's why the most vivid memories I have -- the kind that drift into your conscience when you are back home trapped in a traffic jam -- are sedentary ones.
Sunday lunch at the very pleasant 50-room Turtle Beach Hotel, where we stayed on Tobago, is a buffet of island foods -- creole cuisine -- and if you want to get a taste of the good life in the tropics this is the place to be. It is, of course, a display for the tourists -- mostly British families when we were there -- but nicely done, and romantic. Swaying palms, cooling breezes. The whole works.
The tables are set on the open terrace overlooking the bay, and a 20-piece steel drum band playing under a wide shade tree gets your heart and your hips swaying to easy melodies. A Trinidad rum punch whets the appetite, and then the cooks satisfy it. "What is this, and that?" you ask, for nothing is familiar, and yet it all looks so appealing.
If you are adventurous enough to get yourself all the way to Tobago, I think, then there's no excuse for not sampling a little bit of everything. A chicken curry and a beef curry and a soft pancake to roll them in for an East Indian sandwich called the roti. Spicy barbecued chicken legs and sauteed plantains. A char-broiled fish, perhaps caught by the fishermen of Plymouth village. Yams, pumpkin, breadfruit and rice and a curious mushy vegetable that, even hearing its name, is impossible to identify. And mango ice cream. I was intrigued with the island already, and we had only just arrived.
In the same way, a first day's impression of Port of Spain captivated me. Our room at the Hilton International -- the city's sprawling old tropical-style hotel -- overlooked the Queen's Park Savannah, a huge, green park on the edge of the Northern Range. Spread before me was a vast panorama of the city. I was drawn to the view repeatedly.
Joggers were the earliest arrivals each day -- darting in and out of the cool morning's mist -- but by 6:30 a.m. riders had begun exercising their horses on the long oval track, starting at a walk and then galloping at racing speed. As a backdrop, downtown Port of Spain took on the off-white gleam of a Spanish city under the midday sun. And in the distance, freighters dozed in the bay.
By late afternoon the heat had lessened, and crowds gathered after work for enthusiastic rugby games -- a half-dozen of them at the same time, all easily accommodated by the park's broad spaces. With so many teams on the field, somebody was scoring all the time and cheers erupted constantly. It seemed a pleasant welcome to the city.
On Tobago, the fishermen of Plymouth congregate each morning on Turtle Beach. On Trinidad, much of Port of Spain shows up at the Savannah at some point during the day to play. If you want to get to know the islands and their people, Turtle Beach and the Savannah are good places to begin.