It’s All in the Mix: Trinidad & Tobago

Former British High Commisioner in Trinidad & Tobago, Sir Martin Berthoud, looks back at his years there to find out just why he enjoyed them so much

Forest birds: the Silver-beaked Tanager is found in forest and woodland up to about 2,000 feet. Photograph by Dr. Russell BarrowPhotograph by Bruce AntonStollmeyer’s Castle, one of the extravagant early 20th-century mansions around the Queen’s Park Savannah. Photograph by Farouk KhanStore Bay. Photograph by Noel NortonThe Golden-headed Manakin can often be seen in the middle and lower branches of forest trees. Photograph by Dr. Russell BarrowThe Scarlet Ibis is Trinidad’s national bird, and is featured in the national coat of arms. Large flocks live in the Caroni swamp on the west coast for much of the year. Photograph by Dr. Russell BarrowThe windswept beauty of Trinidad’s north coast. Photograph by Farouk Khan

Sir Martin Berthoud, who until 1991 was Britain’s High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, was well known for his enjoyment of the task. Here he looks back at his years in Port of Spain to find out what made them so special.

When people ask me why we enjoyed ourselves so much during our six and a half years in Trinidad and Tobago, I tend to mystify them by replying that it’s all in the mix. Then they think that I’m talking about race, and this needs to be corrected. After that they mention steelbands, carnival and calypso, and I have to tell them that these features are not the whole story at all. So now there’s nothing for it: I must pull my ideas together, consult the wifely oracle and try to explain how it was that we had such a ball there.

The main elements in the Trinidad and Tobago mix are place and people. I used to have a Trinidad and Tobago tourism poster in my office which said something like Discover a World the World hasn’t Discovered. It is absurd that these two islands have comparatively few visitors, as together they can assemble as ravishing a collection of areas of natural beauty as anywhere in the Caribbean (and we have travelled over most of it).

One reason for the tourist gap may be that in the palmy days of the oil boom these islands saw no need for extra revenue from tourism and turned their back on it. The opposite is now the case, and the traveller from Europe, the United States or anywhere else can expect the warmest of welcomes.

For the short-term visitor it makes just as much sense to talk about Tobago and Trinidad as Trinidad and Tobago. Tobago is quite simply delicious and largely unspoiled. Even in the dry and therefore more touristy season from December to April the enterprising visitor with a car can find an empty beach. And usually a proper yellow sandy beach too; none of your grey stony jobs. The seas can be big and so can the fish in them.

This leads me to my obsession with the wildlife of both islands, the birds, the beasts and much else. I would have started by raving on about them, but I wanted first to make the point that for those who want sea, sand and sunshine — not to mention tranquillity — Tobago and Trinidad have plenty to offer (in Trinidad you have to go further for your beaches).

But the wildlife is nothing short of fabulous. It’s not surprising that the BBC spent long periods in Trinidad and Tobago gathering material for their Life on Earth series. Whether you are looking for different species of frog, beetle or bird, the riches are astounding. There are over 400 kinds of bird and it is quite easy to see more than 100 on a single day. Lepidopterists have a field- day, with more than 600 species of butterfly.

The high-spot of my bird-watching came in 1991 when with friends we devoted an Easter weekend to trying to spot Trinidad’s rarest bird, the Piping Guan or Pawi. On the Saturday we got up well before dawn and penetrated to the right area in excellent time. No Pawi, even after hours of patient waiting. On the next day, Easter Day, we were lazier and did not rise till dawn. We got to the Pawi area at around 8 a.m. and waited. This was a luckier day. Before long we saw this amazing bird, which looks somewhat like a turkey in shades of vivid blue and black.

The same evening we went to the coast and watched several leatherback turtles laying their eggs. As with the Pawi, this involved a degree of perseverance as we waited in the pitchy darkness for these enormous creatures to materialise in ghostly fashion from the waves and haul themselves up on shore. The companionship of fellow nature-lovers and a judicious infusion of Trini rum kept us going.

We used to love bird-watching weekends at the Asa Wright Centre tucked away in the forested mountain valleys of northern Trinidad. We must also have done the evening boat-trip on the Caroni Swamp to see the Scarlet Ibis 20 or 30 times. This was both to please ourselves and because it seemed criminal to allow any of our house-guests to return to their native lands without seeing one of the most glorious sights in the world, thousands upon thousands of ibises descending in silent waves to their roosting grounds in the green mangrove trees, their plumage glistening blood-red in the setting sun.

I could go on about the wildlife. There was the time I thought I was stuck as I descended through a deep cleft in the caves of Mount Tamana and dozens of bats tried to come through the same hole at the same time, not to mention the giant cockroaches scrabbling underneath me. But I must move on to other elements in the mix which made our life in Trinidad and Tobago so well worth living.

I shall pass quickly over sport, though I spent a remarkable amount of time indulging in it. I went sailing “down the islands” towards Venezuela, game-fishing off Tobago (almost breaking my back trying to land a tuna), made a lot of friends as I vainly assaulted the Everest of competence at the game of golf, and played much tennis and even squash. I also seemed to spend a disproportionate amount of time at the Queen’s Park Oval watching England being beaten by the West Indies at cricket.

There is also a uniquely Trinidadian way of taking exercise: dancing down the street for hours in the hot sun to the insistent strains of calypso played at a volume that would make Granny in England jam in her double-insulated ear-plugs. This can only be done for two days of the year, at Carnival time of course.

Carnival means something different for everyone. The music and costumes are stunning, outrageous, the goodwill and racial harmony palpable. The police have less to do at Carnival time than on ordinary days. I took part six years out of six, in full multi-coloured rig; the longer I stayed the more like an extended cocktail dance it became, with all the fun of constantly recognising friends in unlikely outfits careening along the streets of Port of Spain.

There must be something special about the nation that invented pan music and pioneered carnival and calypso, the small country that has produced such a disproportionate number of great authors, poets and musicians — and I haven’t even mentioned artists and designers. It was Peter Minshall, a Trinidadian, who was responsible for the inspired design of the opening scenes for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Above all, it was of course the people who made the Trinidad and Tobago mix so special for us. Keeping well away from the ivory tower which diplomats are supposed to haunt, we found it remarkably easy to make friends with every shade of opinion. Trinidad and Tobago’s people are warm and hospitable, but more than that — they are intelligent, lively and amusing. Because life on those two islands is such fun for them, it was for us too.