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Caribbean

Facebook Live Haiti Q&A – This Sunday 2/19/17 @ 3PM

TRAILER: Exploring Rural Haiti
WHO: ROBERT ROSE – RAW TRAVEL TV
WHAT: FACEBOOK LIVE Q&A: Exploring Rural Haiti & Traveling to Haiti
WHEN: SUNDAY 2/19 @ 3PM until 3:30PM EST
 
It’s finally here! My favorite Haitian episode is coming up this weekend (2/18-2/19).. Raw Travel 411- Exploring Rural Haiti.
 
A little backdrop, our stay in Port Au Prince had been full of unexpected challenges.  That’s when we went North to Cape Haitian and then South to Jacmel and things took a turn for the better. It was still tough, traveling to Haiti just is, but Haiti’s charms quickly took over & I began to loosen up and enjoy the humble but proud culture that is Haiti. Exploring rural Haiti was what the Vodou Shaman ordered (not really but we did explore his Vodou Temple) and I’m really fired up about this episode finally airing so I’m going to be on Facebook Live discussing our Haiti trip this Sunday @ 3PM.
 
If you can’t join in live but have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please post them and I’ll try to get to them and post the video after the live broadcast. In the meantime, hope you enjoy Raw Travel – Exploring Rural Haiti this weekend.
Here is a link to the video trailer.
http://rawtravel.tv/video/raw-travel-411-exploring-rural-haiti-trailer/
Categories
Caribbean

Traveling to Cuba? Buyer Beware!

I’ve been to Cuba twice, both times via another country. Now that travel restrictions have lessened and opened up to U.S. citizens there’s a “gold rush” of companies rushing to make money from the opportunity, from the well know, to the not so well know.  But it’s fraught with difficulty and if you throw in a good old fashioned incompetence. I’m going to offer some personal tips for travel to Cuba soon in an upcoming episode that premieres Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. (sorry about that!) called “Travel Hacks for the Raw Traveler” and an accompanying blog post.

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Beautiful & Tragic Havana

But in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you an experience from a pal of mine who was heading to Cuba for 2016 Holiday Season, or thought he was and found out the hard way, how difficult it can be.

What follows is a 1st hand account from Ryan Lewis, a traveler from NYC.

FROM RYAN LEWIS/ NYC TRAVELER

Submitted 12/20/16 

If you were planning on flying JetBlue’s new direct flight from JFK to Havana Cuba… save yourself a massive headache and several days of lost travel time‎, book on another airline, or fly to another city and fly JetBlue through JFK to Cuba, but whatever you do, DO NOT plan on departing from JFK and making it to Cuba that day.

The beauty of a direct flight from the northeast to anywhere in the Caribbean is that it’s a short flight to paradise. Not so for JetBlue’s disastrous new service which allegedly instructs its passengers to arrive FOUR (4) HOURS ahead of time if they are to make their flight. Is this true? No, not actually, but that was what the 56 stranded passengers of flight 243 were told by JetBlue’s staff yesterday as they were being rebooked for flights several days out. Apparently it was the fault of the passengers for only arriving two hours early for their international flights – the same 2 hour advance arrival that is standard for all airlines throughout the world is apparently not standard for JetBlue flights to Cuba… or is it?  

Although our attendant informed us in no uncertain terms that all flights going to Cuba needed 3 – 4 hours to complete the allegedly cumbersome paperwork for U.S. passengers, that same attendant then proceeded to book us on a make-up flight from JFK, through Ft. Lauderdale to Havana, Cuba, which had a 1 hour layover, during which we were to have that same paperwork and visa processed by JetBlue’s staff in Ft. Lauderdale… soooooo, lie?  To be honest it’s unclear to me whether the necessary visa paperwork would even be processed in Ft. Lauderdale as the JetBlue attendant repeatedly assured us it would.  My suspicions were peaked by the fact that I was told by other passengers that on other JetBlue flights to Cuba, which traveled through JFK, the passengers had their paperwork handled at the airport of origin.  Is it just that JFK’s JetBlue staff is so incompetent or understaffed?  Seems plausible based on what I saw and heard yesterday. 

The same attendant who rebooked us on what was allegedly the next best flight (a non-direct flight that departed two days later, with no actual seat assignments), also insisted to my girlfriend and me that there was a warning on JetBlue’s website informing all passengers to Cuba that they had to arrive at the airport 3 – 4 hours before their flight in order to process paperwork. However, when I asked where on the site that warning was, she said she didn’t know. I informed her that no such information ever popped up when I was booking my flight, or after I booked my flight. She then informed me that I had “to click on something”.  I literally could not find words to respond.

So, what’s the skinny? Basically, I have heard from multiple parties flying JetBlue from SFO through JFK, flying other airlines from LA to Cuba, from various points in Florida to Cuba and elsewhere throughout the nation that by and large things go smoothly, short processing times and easy flights are the norm. However, of the people standing in line with me yesterday, the girl in front of us was in line for the second time in two days, having been rebooked to Cuba from the previous day by JetBlue. The man in front of her was also in line for the second time, having been rebooked from two days prior. And all, like us, had arrived two hours or more in advance and all, like us, were being rebooked for flights up to two or more days out. A week long vacation turned into mere days, all because of a problem which is, by all accounts endemic with the JetBlue staff and/or system of processing passengers at JFK. After a month of providing this “service” to Cuba, and a month of the same problems, the JetBlue staff simply find it easier to continue ruining their passengers’ vacations and covering their tracks with laughable lies and excuses than to actually find a quasi-workable solution to the problem.  

The problems there are so bad that the “managers” have seemingly stopped addressing them. After waiting at the airport for over three hours, no manager would come and speak with me to explain what had happened or what could be done. I was told that I could go upstairs and find “Justine” but she probably wasn’t going to come down because it was “real busy” up there. 

One last tip for those of you departing JFK to Cuba on JetBlue, another thing that no one will inform you of is that the JetBlue Cuba check-in and visa processing is not even actually on the same floor as all of the other JetBlue check-in and baggage lines, apparently they thought it best to secret this special check-in on the baggage-claim floor in the very back, behind baggage carousel #6.  When you go to self check-in, the terminal will simply tell you that you that you can’t check-in, but that you need to see an assistant.  However, it being holiday season, the check-in lines literally have hundreds of people waiting in them to check bags, etc. as does the “Special Help” line.  I am told that if you actually wait in any of those lines, when you get to the front they will simply tell you they can’t even take your bags and then they will (at long last) tell you that you need to go downstairs to a secret line somewhere behind all of the baggage claim carousels.  This unfortunately happened to a number of people on flight 243 yesterday, the rest of us simply spent 15 – 30 minutes walking around the JetBlue terminal asking stray attendants where to go.  

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Not So Fast Yanqui Gringo! 


 

Categories
Caribbean

Help Free Child Slaves in Haiti

Freedom House is featured d on Raw Travel 406 – Port Au Prince. They are a U.S. supported charity helping to free poverty stricken “restaveks” (child slaves).

A restavek is a child that has been given to another family as a servant in hopes to have their basic needs met. If you see the segment, you will see how incredible these children are now that they are surrounded by love. Freedom House is not a huge bureaucratic organization with a lot of waste.

rob-with-girl

They are small and grassroots and just the kind of organization we like to shine the light on.

If you are so moved after seeing this weekend’s episode and would like to help Freedom House rescue more children, you can donate and support HERE.

A little goes a long way in Haiti, so no amount is too small.

rob-with-kids

Categories
Caribbean

Cuba and the Sound of Silence

rob-che

My 2nd trip to Cuba was a little different from my 1st. Oh, I still went unofficially, choosing to go via another country (it’s cheaper) and not have my passport stamped, but this time there was a U.S. Embassy in Havana. If I were to get sick, stranded or in legal trouble I theoretically at least had a backstop.

This wasn’t the case when I first visited Cuba against a background of having a few years prior, known a Dominican-American filmmaker who had visited Havana for the first and final time to attend the Cuban Film Festival (in 2002 or 2003 I think it was), and never made it back.

My friend, the aspiring filmmaker who had a short film accepted to the festival, was ecstatic about going. He went officially but since he was of Afro-Latino descent and dark skinned, could easily blend in with most everyday Cubans.

This, combined with the fact that he was a U.S. citizen and therefore had to bring enough cash to last him the entire trip (U.S. issued ATMs and Credit Cards didn’t work at the time in Cuba, nor do they at the time of this writing) became a contributing factor as to why he didn’t make it back.

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Something happened to my friend after what I think was his first night in Cuba.  He was found in a Havana street the next morning badly beaten and unconscious, apparently robbed of his stash of cash, missing a passport and wallet or any way to ID himself.

Since he had no ID and was dark skinned, he was assumed to be Cuban by the Cuban medical personnel who attended to him and taken to the hospital for “regular”, everyday Cubans. This was not one of the hospitals featured in Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” where government officials and other connected well off folks in Cuba are allowed to go.

He was taken to an overtaxed hospital without sheets on the bed or lights in the hallway or basic medical necessities.

After regaining consciousness and seemingly on the road to recovery, my pal (as I heard it from other friends who were there with him and were trying desperately to get him back to the U.S.), had a complication, slipped into a coma and died from a fairly routine injury that could have been fairly routinely addressed back in the states.

I was told that after much wrangling, Billy Bush (my filmmaker friend worked at Access Hollywood) reportedly pulled some strings from cousin, then U.S. President George W. Bush, to get my friend’s body back to the U.S. for his funeral.

He left behind a wife and young kids.

This incident barely even made more than a mention in the local Spanish or English language press at the time and I always felt this was an injustice. He deserved better.

Now every time I go to Cuba, I think of my friend and how he died far too young in a country that specializes in covering up such ugliness and I wonder why the U.S. press (and government) paid so little attention to this travesty.

I think of the young Cuban punk rock fans I met on my first trip, who were promptly carted off to jail for having the audacity to speak to an American with a camera out in the open. How long were they in jail? Were they beaten? Worse?

I think of the media’s mostly glib obsession with travel to Cuba with hardly a mention of the severe poverty and lack of basic human rights for the Cuban people. Or maybe people are just tired of hearing it.

I think how most of the outside press has to register with the Cuban government so they can get the “Fidel Castro” tour where everything is a paradise and everyone is happy.

That’s why, for my 2nd act to Cuba, I went undercover as a tourist to try to film, by hook or crook or iphone, what the real Cuba was like for people.

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The fear that inhabits Cuba is palpable if you open your eyes and ears. Neighbors are turned against neighbors for an extra bag of rice as a reward. People are watching each other warily, unsure who is a government informant and who can be trusted, pitting family member against family member in some cases.

They have been manipulated by a paranoid (and perhaps with somewhat just cause, given the U.S. often ham-fisted attempts at intervention over the years) and now reeling government consisting of a tiny group of “leaders” that include one who is rumored to be near death and mentally unstable (Fidel Castro) and his possibly less brutal but equally unstable, power hungry brother (Raul Castro).

I’ve never met the Castros nor, chances are will I ever as I don’t intend to return to Cuba until freedom is finally found for the people of Cuba.

But as travel from the U.S. to Cuba opens up (and I believe this to be the right thing as 50 years of failed policy is enough) and people go and enjoy the unique and yes, beautiful culture and gush over how Cuba is “stuck in time”, please remember my filmmaker friend and the Cuban people, like my brave punk rock pals, who are systematically silenced by a minority of their fellow citizen “leaders” who evidently are so afraid of their lack of ability to legitimately lead, end up doing what despots, dictators and inept rulers have done for centuries… attempt to silence all diversity of thought and expression in order to hold to power.

Silence… is there anything more tragic in this world?

Categories
Caribbean Trinidad & Tobago

The Goat Races of Tobago

The goat races in Buccoo Bay, Tobago are not to be missed, so I took the ferry from Port of Spain, Trinidad to Tobago (2.5 hours) to catch the kick off of Goat Racing season. The ferry is a very inexpensive and easy way to get back and forth between the two islands.

Buccoo Bay is a tiny fishing village not far from the much larger Crown Point, which has scores of hotels, a couple of good beaches and the airport. If the ferry is full (as is often the case during certain times) then a flight from Port of Spain to Crown Point is usually very inexpensive as well.

Buccoo Bay Beach

 

Buccoo has a small, remote beach and is a good place to catch a glass bottom boat and do some snorkeling at the stunning Buccoo Reef. But what makes Buccoo really noteworthy is their big Sunday night street party called “Sunday School” which I assure you has nothing to do with church and the Buccoo Goat Races, which take place beginning the first Tuesday after Easter and each following Sunday throughout the summer.

Buccoo's New Goat Race Stadium

 

Goat races have been going on in Tobago since the early 1900s and Buccoo is ground zero for the scene.  Here they recently built a big Goat Racing Complex and Stadium that at first glance, looks really out of place in this small village, but come Goat Racing day, it really comes alive.

A contender

 

Considering a big expensive stadium was build, you can probably guess that goat racing is pretty serious business in these parts. Goats and jockeys (the jockeys follow the goat with a rope at full sprint) undergo a rigorous training routine year round in the hot Tobagonian sun which includes running, swimming (I guess goats can swim after all) and sprinting.

The jockeys are young and athletic and the goats have owners who may own an entire roster of racing goats and sometimes even corporate sponsors.  There are classes of goats too, from A to C depending upon how many races the goat has won. Prizes are no joke either with some prizes totaling several thousand TT (a thousand U.S. or more).

Sellout? Corporately Sponsored

 

During race day, over 3,000 locals and tourists attend the races, which also generate somewhat of local media frenzy. Indeed, I had to get special permission to shoot video of the races. I felt like I was dealing with the National Football League or Major League Baseball for a minute. But after meeting Winston Pereira, who in addition to being in charge of this year’s festivities also runs the local Miller’s Guesthouse, we were able to work things out.

In addition to goat racing, they held a crab race to break things up and get some of the tourists involved. Both inside and outside the complex, there were all kinds of traditional Tobagonian food being cooked and sold (including crab, not sure if you could eat the losers).

Crab Race

The races lasted until sunset, when the racetrack lights had to be turned on for the big grand finale. After all the trophies and prizes had been distributed, the massive street party and concert began.  I had secured a room at the Seaside Garden Guesthouse, and while it was super convenient and right in the middle of all the action, the problem was, it was right in the middle of the action.  Trying to sleep there that evening was like trying to sleep during the middle of a concert at Madison Square Garden. I was pretty sleep deprived and am not a big partier, so I walked about ¼ mile or so to the edge of town to the hostel Fish Tobago. The owners were kind enough to cut me a deal on a bed for the night. I slept like a baby, oblivious to the extreme partying going on just down the road.

Aside from the beach, snorkeling, goat races and Sunday night parties, Buccoo is a nice little village where you can get to know the locals if you stay long enough. But they are somewhat jaded by tourists and some people may be quiet ambivalent about your presence.

Buccoo also lacks some infrastructure such as a good selection of restaurants and Tobago in general suffers with transportation infrastructure issues. If you don’t have wheels, just getting to and from Buccoo to nearby Crown Point is an adventure unto itself.

Jerk & BBQ Chicken

 

Miller’s Guesthouse has an excellent restaurant with breathtaking views of the bay. Eating there is very tranquil and relaxed and they have excellent food along with my favorite amenity; free Wi-Fi (evidently the rest of the island of Tobago didn’t get the memo that Wi-Fi is free for travelers almost everywhere else in the free world). While the food is really impressive, eating there for every meal can get a little expensive if you’re on a tight budget.

On Sunday night, some locals cook up a nice meal under a tent and you can load up on mahi-mahi or jerked chicken and other local favorites, but it’s going to cost you $15 U.S.

Buccoo’s beach itself is good if you like to be away from other travelers. There were times that I had the beach to myself. But there are many other things to see while on the island of Tobago, like the National Forest Reserve, the well preserved Fort King George in Scarborough, the much more commercial beach at Pigeon Point, surfing in Mt. Irvine Bay, diving in Charlottesville, etc. etc.

Mt. Irvine Beach, Tobago

 

But if you’re looking for a more remote getaway without a bunch of other tourists around or if you have wheels (they drive on the left side of the road, btw) and just need a good home base, then Buccoo Bay is a great spot. Unless of course you go during the big Sunday School Parties and Goat Races and would actually like to sleep!

Categories
Caribbean Trinidad & Tobago

Saving the Leatherback Sea Turtle

Stopping at one of the many remote beaches on the way to Grande Riviere

Our “wrong-side-of-the-road” driving adventure continued as we made our way to Grande Riviere, a remote beach haven on the north coast of Trinidad. Grand Riviere is accessible by car through miles of very narrow and windy roads via the northeast of the island. However, the drive along the east and north coast is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced with remote beaches and charming little villages all along the way.

We stopped several times and as a result arrived in Grande Riviere after it was already dark, admittedly  not an ideal situation for navigating the unmarked road, narrow switchbacks and unpredictable terrain.

Beautiful bay of the fishing village of Grand Riviere

As a tourist destination, there is not that much to the town of Grande Riviere. It’s a small fishing village like so many others but with one distinct advantage, it’s a prime spot for watching the endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles lay their eggs.  With a couple of hotels strategically located right on the beach, during the turtle watching season (March-September) you can literally walk a few feet to the beach and see them doing their ancient business first hand.

During the season, the beach area is protected at night, which is when the turtles come ashore to nests, so you can only access the beach with official permits (easily purchased at the small Visitor Center close by) and under the guidance of a trained guide. The tour itself is relatively inexpensive and very informative.

One of the early morning Leatherbacks

Trinidad is one of the most important Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting sights in the world and at peak season, Grande Riviere can have up to 300 nesting leatherbacks in a single night. On the night we were there, there were probably around 50. Adults can weigh up to 2,000 lbs. and only the females come to land. They always return to the same beach where they themselves were born. While on the beach the female digs an egg chamber a few feet deep with her flippers and can lay up to 100 eggs.

After slipping into a slight trance while laying her eggs , she covers the chamber with sand and smooths it over to disguise the area from predators and returns to the sea. She may return up to 8 times a season to lay eggs.

The leatherbacks’ numbers have declined over the years for a variety of reasons including loss of habitat and people taking advantage of the slow moving creatures by using either their eggs or the turtles themselves as food.

Indeed the night we were there we saw a turtle that had obviously been injured, probably the result of a boat propeller cutting an ugly gash in it’s shell. At least this one survived.

Our guide regaled with tales of other turtles missing fins, as people would cut off parts of a live  turtle to use as food. He also said there had been instances of people actually piggy back riding the turtles when they come ashore, interrupting their nesting patterns.

Leatherback Turtle laying her eggs

Most likely only one or two out of a thousand eggs will survive their natural predators. The beach was full of eggs that had been dug up by local dogs and sucked dry.

Now, Ill be the first to admit that watching a turtle sounded as exciting to me as watching paint dry, but surprisingly, it was the coolest experience of the entire trip.

Watching these endangered, pre-historic animals haul their immense girth from God knows where in the deep, to lay dozens of eggs deep in the sandy beach is nothing short of amazing.  The turtles are on a mission that is ingrained in their tiny brains, to lay as many eggs, as deeply in the sand as possible and to keep perpetuating the species. They use their fins, which serve them so well in the ocean, to struggle onto shore and clumsily maneuver themselves on land. Then they use their tail and fins to burrow their back end as far as possible before they fall into a trance and lay the eggs.

At night, flash photography and flashlights are prohibited as the turtles are very sensitive to light and this would interrupt the nesting. So we were restricted to the guide’s infrared red light for visibility. We were not allowed to touch or disturb the turtles in any way, until they fell into their egg laying trance, at which point we were told it was OK to touch them. It felt like you’d expect a shelled reptile to feel, hard and prehistoric, not warm and fuzzy at all.

We had heard that if we were industrious enough to rise just before sunrise we might be lucky and  spot some of the laggards who had arrived late in the night (early in the morning) and would be finishing up their business before heading out to sea.

As much as I’m not an early riser, we are used to sleep deprivation on these shoots so we set our alarm for 5AM and hit jackpot. When the dawn arrived there were still half a dozen or so leatherbacks on the beach finishing up their tasks.

One mama turtle got disoriented and ended up in the bay rather than the ocean. We were able to eventually help guide her out to sea.

 

All in all the leatherback turtle watching is a pretty awesome thing to experience. I hope as sustainable tourism continues to take hold in Trinidad that their numbers will continue to rebound. If you want to learn more about saving the leatherback turtles and how you can help, check out the fine folks at the Turtle Village Trust.

We left Grande Riviere and headed back to Port of Spain but not before stopping off in Arima to visit the AmerIndian Museuem, which is in a reproduction of a long house used by indigenous communities centuries ago. The AmerIndian community in Arima is the last vestige of a shrinking organized community of people with indigenous roots on the island.  We were led on a tour of the museum by Ricardo, the current Chief, who maintains the museum and also conveniently lives next door.

Ricardo guides on a tour of the museum's kitchen

With all of the different ethnic influences in Trinidad (East Indian, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Venezuelan, etc.), it’s easy to forget that the island was once inhabited entirely by indigenous tribes. But as Ricardo said, evidence of their influence is everywhere from the names of roads and towns, to the way food is cooked.  Arima is only a few kilometers from Port of Spain and easily and economically accessible by “Maxi Taxi”, a small shuttle bus. Entrance to the museum is free, though a small donation is asked for and appropriate.

Exhibit in the AmerIndian Museum in Arima

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Caribbean Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad Road Trip (albeit on the “wrong” side of the road)

We wanted to see what was beyond Port of Spain, so we rented a car for a 3 day journey around  Trinidad. I’ve driven in many a 3rd world countries, often with road signs in another language. So one would think Trinidad would be piece of cake with their English language road signs right? Wrong!

Waterloo Temple by the Sea

Being a former British colony, Trinis drive on the opposite side of the road. For the Yankees from the U.S., the steering wheel is where the passenger seat normally sits, the blinker and windshield wipers are on opposite sides meaning that every time I signaled to turn, the windshield wipers would go instead, leading to snickering from my travel mates, at least the first 10 times or so.

Also, I can’t count the number of times I jumped hastily into the passenger’s side, ready to drive before realizing I was in the wrong seat. This also ceased to be funny after about the 15th time.

Driving on the left side of the road was disorienting especially the first day. Can I turn left on a red light? I wouldn’t dare try it and would ignore the honks of protests behind me.

Judging distances on the other side of the car proved challenging. Many times I ran off the shoulder and more often than not there was no actual “shoulder”, just a 3 foot deep concrete ditch! Not 3 hours into the drive, I had successfully busted the passenger side mirror by getting a wee bit too close to a parked truck. Time to review my insurance coverage (I recommend doing this prior to renting by the way).

Inside Waterloo

Speaking of parking, Trinidad has a distinct and very unique driving culture. Parking against traffic on the opposite side of the road whenever one feels the need is the norm. The effect was that it always felt I was headed for an inevitable head on collision. The narrow roads with no shoulders made passing these parked cars a challenge.

Alas, after a short while I finally got into the groove and found the unwritten rules of driving in Trinidad. I also found that most Trinis are very courteous, often blinking their lights and softly tooting their horn to signal you to cut into traffic in front of them, etc.

In Port of Spain at least, they almost always stop for pedestrians, allowing them to cross. So unlike most of Latin America where I’ve traveled and it seems the cars are taking aim at you (one notable exception is Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay).

Waterloo Temple by the Sea

Luckily, the mirror scrape was the most serious mishap but there were other close calls. My general thoughts on foreigners not accustomed to left side driving, is don’t do it. But if you really want an  adventure and are confident in your driving abilities abroad and have a good co-pilot (I had two), then go for it, but as I said, I’d check your insurance plan first.

Unfortunately public transportation in Trinidad leaves so much to be desired that if you want to see the beauty that is Trinidad beyond Port of Spain (and who wouldn’t) on your own schedule, then a rental car or a hired driver is really the only way to go.

Our first day we journeyed to the southern part of the island to see Chaguanas, the East Indian town a few minutes south of Port of Spain and then further down to Carapichaima to see the famous Waterloo Temple by the Sea and the Datta Yoga Center complete with an 85 foot Hanuman God statue.

The Temple by the Sea did not disappoint but the weather did. It started raining heavily just as we arrived but we managed to get off a few decent exteriors and even one shot of the interior before being told by the groundskeeper no photos or video taping of the inside were allowed. Whoops! I made a nice donation in hoping to compensate properly for my happy mistake.

The original temple was built by Sewdass Sadhu, a laborer, in the 1940s. He originally built it on shore on land that belonged to the local sugar company. After 5 years it was knocked to the ground and Sewdass was sent to prison. When he was released he decided to build a new temple in the sea, where no one owned the land. He spent over 20 years building the Waterloo Temple with whatever materials he could get his hand on. It was constantly eroding because of the water, so in 1995 the government had it refurbished to the temple you can see today.

On the way out we noticed a parked car with big loudspeakers blasting fundamental Christian music, seemingly to harass the visitors of the temple which belied the overall impression I have that all Trinis are very tolerant of other religions. Some are, some aren’t, just like everywhere else.

Next we searched for the giant Hanuman Murti statue and Davina yoga center in the rain but to no avail. Since it was raining hard by now and we were running behind schedule we decided to catch it on the return trip.

Pointe A Pierre Wildfowl Trust

We made our way further down south to the Pointe-A-Pierre Wildfowl Trust , a lovely bird sanctuary ironically in the middle of an oil refinery.

By now the rain had ceased and it was nearing dusk, a perfect time to visit the trust. We were taken on an hour long tour  and while I never really considered bird watching an exciting travel activity, but I may just have to change my mind after touring the Trust.

The dedicated group at Pointe A Pierre have done nothing short of an incredible job to to provide a beautiful sanctuary for birds, many of them endangered. The grounds are located ironically inside of a huge oil refinery and are alive with the squawking and beautiful sounds of birds everywhere. There are peacocks spreading their wings, the national bird, the scarlet ibis along with all kinds of other species of birds.

The folks at the Trust are true conservationists, breeding endangered species for release into the wild and taking in animals that are the victims of illegal pet keeping. Upon arrival you are met by  a parakeet in a cage who will carry on a conversation with you. He’s the only bird kept in a small cage and that is only because he is unable to fend for himself in the wild after being permanently injured when someone tried to smuggle him out of the country to sell as an exotic pet.

Real Snake @ the Widlfowl Trust's Museum

They also have a small but cool Indigenous museum that features relics of the island’s Amerindian past as well as live reptiles and other wildlife found on the island.

It’s easy to see that Molly and Karilyn and the entire staff at Pointe-A-Pierre are true lovers of nature and are doing a good work at not only providing a sanctuary for birds (they tend to fill to capacity during hunting season as the birds seek the sanctuary out) but also in educating visitors on how we can change our ways to co-exist with nature.

Staff & Volunteers from Pointe A Pierre Wildfowl Trust

Their partnership with the oil refinery is perhaps the best example of how nature and commerce can co-exist. I hope for all our sake that organizations like the Pointe-A-Pierre Trusts will continue to flourish and influence the way we treat our planet.

The Scarlet Ibis - Trinidad's Endangered Official Bird

We spent the night in San Fernando, Trinidad’s second largest city. Next day we were up early to go see the ugly but amazing, naturally occurring asphalt lake, Pitch Lake. After driving down windy and ironically horribly paved roads we arrived at Pitch Lake to be accosted and gouged by not one but two tour guides (one was a guide and another a “demonstrator”), charging $45 U.S. each. We obviously screwed up by not getting an official guide, which are identified by their red shirts with logos identifying them as official tour guides. On closer observation after it was too late, our guide’s seemingly official red shirt had a Dicky logo on it. Very clever.

The entire tour became a battle of the guides, as I suppose each was afraid they’d get cut out of the payment, so they yelled and tried to out do each other in demonstrating many of the lake’s interesting attributes. Despite the unofficial, unprofessional demeanor of the guides we did learn a few things.

Ugly but interesting.. Trinidad's Pitch Lake

The bad pavement on the way over was no coincidence, the lake sucks the ground and objects in an around in over 100 acre circumference.  This includes the ground below the pavement and under some houses that live on a “vein”. The foundation on the houses on this vein must constantly be adjusted and jacked up every 3 to 4 months to remain level. Stationary objects like trees, or whatever you may leave on the ground for a few months will also gradually get sucked into the lake and make it’s way underground to eventually to be spit up by the lake.

There was also an asphalt version of quick sand. Our “guide” stood in it for a few seconds and was sinking steadily up to his kneecaps. Had he not moved, he would have kept on going and as he says “one mistake and it’s all over for me”. He told us a few months ago, 6 cows perished in the asphalt quicksand. Maybe he was worth the $45 U.S. after all.

After paying our two extortionists, excuse me, “guides” we headed back the way we came to make the drive to Grand Riviere for some turtle watching that evening. This is a hell drive by Trini standards as you are basically going from one corner of the island to the other, much of it curvy, windy almost one lane roads.

The 85 Foot Hanuman Murti Statue

So in order to break up the trip we searched for the Datta Yoga Center in Carapichaima once again and this time, in hot, sunny weather we spotted the huge 85 foot Hanuman Murti or monkey-faced God, the largest outside of India.

The statue and surrounding temple area are nothing short of amazing. A colorful oasis in an otherwise hot and scorching day. It was pretty much deserted so we had free run of the place for photos and video and once again I made a nice donation in hopes of gaining favor by the Murti for a safe journey on the winding roads to Grande Riviere for some turtle watching.

Robert and Renzo at the Hanuman Murti

Tune in to see if it worked!

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Caribbean Trinidad & Tobago

Slavery, Cricket and the Steel Pan

Cricket @ Queens Park Oval (Not me!)

Our first day of filming in Port of Spain proper and we started the day by visiting Andres, a former cricket pro who owns the cricket store at the Queens Park Oval, one of the oldest and finest cricket clubs in the Caribbean and former home to the greatest Cricket player in the 20th century, Brian Charles Lara.

In addition to being a cricket expert Andres is also a really nice guy. He’s also very patient. He helped explain the history as well as some of the rules of cricket to me, a guy whose eyes glaze over at mere mention of baseball, the New York Yankees or “Spring Training”. Despite being a really slow game (some matches take up to 2 days!), I found many elements of cricket very fascinating.

Andres & his lovely daughters in front of his store

When he hooked me up with some cricket gear (about $1,000 worth) and bowled (pitched) to me, I saw first hand that the game has a real element of danger as well. The small red ball can be bowled  really fast (sometimes up to 90 mph) and it is very unpredictable as not only can the bowler put some mojo on it similar to a baseball pitcher, it also usually bounces before you get to swing and can bound off in any direction.

Anyway I got a chance to try my skills at the game and combined my knowledge of golf (nil) with baseball (close to nil) but after about 4 or 5 slow pitches I finally made contact with the ball and felt pretty good about things.

Brian Charles Lara is a hero in Port of Spain

After Cricket, the crew and I tried one of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants. Chinese food is very popular in T&T and Asians are a considerable cultural influence on the island, many having migrated there as the East Indians, as indentured servants.

The Chinese food in Trinidad seemed so much healthier and less greasy than the Chinese fare we are so used to in NYC.

After lunch we headed over to “African Trophies” and incredible store on the main thoroughfare in the Woodbrook section of POS. The store’s owner is Mr. Fitzgerald Francis, an Ex United Nations executive and also a really nice guy. Are you sensing a theme here?

African Trophies with Mr. Fitzgerald Frances

Fitzgerald is trying to help reinstate African history to the island after decades of attempts by the ruling classes to separate African slaves and their descendants from their ancestral heritage.

Fitzgerald graciously filled us in on the significant African history and contribution to present day Trinidad & Tobago (T&T)  then he toured us around his store which is nothing short of amazing.

This African Drum retails for over $25K U.S.
The power of unity. Each piece is individual but interconnected.

There are 4 floors of incredibly, beautiful, authentic handicrafts direct from almost every country in central and southern Africa. From huge, incredibly detailed woodcraft African drums that go for $25K U.S. to smaller handcrafts around $20-$30 (more my speed) to complete furniture sets, clothing, books, DVDs, visiting Mr. Francis’ store is like visiting the continent itself.

They even have a small display of real ivory that Mr. Francis acquired by special permission in order to showcase to people and hopefully educate them about the dangers of poaching elephants for their ivory.

I’ve always wanted to visit Africa and now I’m afraid it’s a permanent condition. If you are ever in Port of Spain and have 2-3 hours to kill, African Trophies is the spot.

African Trophies has real Ivory for display only

Next up was a brief meeting and interview at the National Carnival Bands Association of Trinidad and Tobago, the people who help organize the massive Carnival celebration. Mr. David Cameron was extremely helpful in getting us access to video footage from past carnival celebrations and perhaps most importantly we were able to dig into the deeper, more historical meaning of carnival in Trinidad which is one of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the world.

Ready for Carnival? At the NCBATT offices.

It started to rain (hey, I thought this was the dry season!) so we took some time off and had a quick dinner of jerk chicken before heading just down the street to the famous “Invaders” steel pan orchestra practice.

Prodigy Luke Walker

I had stumbled upon the Invader’s practice a few days ago while hunting dinner and I just followed my ears to their rehearsal space, a big lot in front of the Queens Oval Cricket stadium. One thing I love about Port of Spain is the fact that you will hear live Calypso music wafting through the streets on almost any given evening. It’s a huge part of the culture here and not just a style of music you hear during Carnival time.

The Invaders are the oldest steel pan band in the world (having formed in the 1940 as “The Oval Boys” shortly after the steel pan was invented) and they tour all over the world. Indeed, ironically enough some of them were in my home state of Tennessee, touring Dollywood when we shot.

Invaders Steel Pan Orchestra

After hearing them play I can understand why. Jason is the leader and he ran them through a couple of songs for us including an original tune they had composed that had won them a high standing in the latest Panorama competition, an event that brings together the best Steel Pan in Trinidad (and thus the world).

The Invaders, like most steel pan orchestras, has a diverse mix of male and female, young and old playing together. One impressive young player, Luke Walker, was just 10 years old and had been playing since the age of 3. He was a true pleasure to watch.

After playing a few very simple tunes on one of the drums myself, it was now past 10PM and we headed back to the hotel to try to get at least 6 hours of sleep before we do the dreaded “car rental” and I drive on the left side of the road for the first time. Should be interesting. Stay tuned to see if I survive!

 

Categories
Trinidad & Tobago

The Winding Roads of Trinidad & Lopinot Village

 

Limin' with "Anti Everything" in Queens Park Savannah

Port of Spain has been awesome and after a great night out of “limin'” (hanging out) with our buddies from Anti-Everything it was an early wake up call for our first full day of shooting.

We hired a local driver, Jared, for the day and he was great and most importantly a safe driver familiar with the ahem, uh.. lets just say “uniqueness” of Trinidad’s driving culture and infrastructure.

Maracas Bay

Our first stop was Maracas Bay so that the film crew could get a taste of the famous Bake n Shark. This was my 2nd time so I guided the guys through the process of hooking up their Bake N Shark at the buffet line. It being a beautiful Sunday and Easter vacation beginning, well the line was much longer than when I went last Thursday, but worth the extra wait.

Lopinot Museum Entertainment

We then doubled back and headed to the small, remote village of Lopinot Village, where Arturo Guerrero and his considerably large family have lived for generations. They opened a guest house for travelers wishing to experience this lovely little town.  Arturo, his mother and 7 sisters and their extended family welcomed us with a traditional Spanish song called a “parang”. The singing of Parong is from Venezuela and is normally performed at Christmas, but in Lopinot, is sung year round.

W e toured the Lopinot Museum which was more fun than you’d expect thanks to the colorful presenter/curator there. The Guerrero’s then fed us a delicious meal and sang some more Parangs for us as we reluctantly had to part and return to Port of Spain to hit the Anti-Everything rehearsal.

Lopinot Cuisine

Anti Everything is Port of Spain’s only punk band and they are currently recording their 2nd CD, so we dropped by the lead singer, Bryan’s house to hear them perform a few songs. Bryan’s family graciously fed us some excellent Roti, an East Indian style of food that I’m starting to really dig. The guys have been nothing short of amazing in their hospitality and arranged for us a ride to our hotel as we had worked a 14 hour day.

 

I was really glad we had hired a private driver because the roads to both Maracas Bay and Lopinot are really, really winding and narrow, not to mention they drive on the other side of the road with the steering wheel on the right side of the car! I couldn’t help but dread Tuesday when I was scheduled to rent a car for a drive down south Pitch Lake.

Anti Everything Rehearsal

But in the meantime, I reveled in the friendliness of the Trinidadian people. They are so laid back and friendly in a very real and non patronizing way. It’s really an infectious vibe that I hope I can incorporate into my own life on a regular basis.

 

 

Categories
Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad – Limin’ in St. James

Port of Spain has been great so far. Food is good, people are friendly and “laid back” is the mantra. I can deal with this. Of course it’s always hard for an ex-New Yorker to keep his cool and chill sometimes, especially since we’re working and up against deadlines. But then my Tennessee roots get a chance to shine and take over.

The gang from "Anti-Everything" enjoying Bake n Shark in Maracas Bay

I finished up my last bit of pre-production by taking in a little Cricket match at the Queens Park Oval. Andres, an ex professional player for T&T and proprietor of the on site Cricket sporting goods store graciously showed me around and we agreed to hook back up on Monday when the film crew is here. Though cricket looks a little slow for my taste (some matches last 2 full days!), the outfits look mad cool and I’m hoping Andres can show me some pointers.

Tassa Drumming in St. James, Port of Spain-Trinidad

Also, last night the guys from the local punk band (yes, the only one on the island), Anti-Everything took me out for a little pre-limin, limin if you will (“limin” is Trini talk for “hanging out”) after letting me sit in on one of their studio sessions as they get ready to record a new CD.

I had a meat pie which was excellent but held off on the Roti and Doubles until the camera can document my first reactions when the crew gets here.  If it’s anything like the meat pie or the bake n shark, well, this show could be come the “No Reservations” episode cause I’m telling you the food here is good. And while I certainly don’t claim to be Anthony Bourdain, I will say that though we normally eschew food segments on the show due to the proliferation of food themed travel shows, for this particular episode, I think we’ll make an exception.

Pretty Trini Girl

I mean in Trinidad you have so much diversity on display simply through the food choices; East Indian, American Indian, African, Spanish, Asian and um, well.. also there is …  British?!

And then there is the music. As you’ve probably guessed punk music is not that big of a deal on an island with only one punk band, but the fact that there is one excellent punk band on the island does sort of speak volumes about how a culture of 1.3 million people are open to different influences. Last night we witnessed some Tassa drumming from East India and it was nothing short of spectacular. I have a little lo fi flip cam video of that coming soon so stay tuned.

Makin' Roti in St. James, Port of Spain

And we’re just getting started. On our first day of filming, we’re heading to the world famous Maracas Bay beach to sample some Shark N Bake (more food!) and then off to Lopilo, the island’s historic Spanish colony before ending the night with a rehearsal from the guys of Anti-Everything.

And that is just for starters! so hang tight, our trip to Trinidad and Tobago has just begun!

More pretty Trinis!