Tour Of The Caribbean - Trinidad
( Originally Published 1925 )
AFTER a fortnight at Barbados the visitor would do well to follow the mail route again to the next port of call, Trinidad. The journey, which occupies some ten hours, is generally made at night, so that by the time the sun is well up the steamer is in the Gulf of Paria.
Trinidad is the most southerly of the West Indies, the island nearest of all to the Equator. It lies close to the mainland, being indeed but a detached fragment of Venezuela. The Gulf of Paria is the little sea shut in between the continent of South America and the wayward island, which same dissevered land seems to be stretching out its arms towards the mother country. Within those arms is the famous gulf.
Trinidad is not only a very beautiful island, but it is typical of the tropics and of the West Indies generally. It is a place, therefore, for a prolonged sojourn, especially as its roads are excellent, and the means of communication both by train and coast steamer are ample and convenient. There is just one drawback to the island, which even the generous hospitality and ready kindness of the inhabitants cannot make quite imperceptible, and that is the climate. It is hot, damp, and enervating, while the insects of the colony are rather overwhelming in their attentions to newcomers.
Seen across the gulf, Trinidad is an island of a thousand hills, of incessant peaks and ridges, and of a maze of winding valleys. From the sea margin to the sky line it is one blaze of green, the green not of grass but of trees. Trees cover it from the deepest gorge to the broken-glass edge of the highest peak. It is the island of Lincoln green. Viewed from a long way off it would seem to be covered uniformly with green astrachan. Seen nearer one wonders if there can be a level road in the place, or indeed any road at all, and if the inhabitants can ever find their way out of the woods, so as to get a glimpse of the sky.
Here, at last, is the green of a West Indian island, a hoard, a pyramid, a piled-up cairn of green, rising aloft from an iris-blue sea. Here is a very revel of green, clamorous and unrestrained, a " bravery " of green as the ancients would call it, a green that deepens into blue and purple, or that brightens into tints of old gold and primrose yellow. Here are the dull green of wet moss, the clear green of the parrot's wing, the green tints of old copper, of malachite, of the wild apple, the bronze-green of the beetle's back, the dead green of the autumn Nile.
From the Gulf of Paria can be seen the coast of the Spanish Main, and those pale mountains beyond whose heights lay El Dorado and the city of gold. The water of the gulf is dull. It is sullied by the great Orinoco river, for the mud that clouds it is washed from off the slopes of the Andes.
On a wide open flat, at the foot of the thousand hills, where the land has come out to breathe, is a cluster of buildings. This is Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad. The town is not noteworthy. It has been many times burnt down, in which various fires the old Spanish houses and the rambling lanes have vanished, while out of the ashes has arisen a more and more precise city, laid out in mathematical lines, like a chess-board, with every street straight. No two houses are, however, alike. Some are of brick, a few of stone, some are of concrete and iron, while a multitude are mere shanties of wood.
The main thoroughfares are made up largely of wooden shops of two stories, scorched and warped out of shape by the sun, tinted with more or less decolorised paint and richly endowed with corrugated iron. The space of the street is encroached upon by arcades, by latticed balconies, by sloping sun-shutters, shop signs, palms and telegraph poles. Many of the buildings in the business quarter look as if they were only temporary structures and had no claim to belong to an abiding city. The streets are glaring and steamy as well as a-rattle with electric trams, the overheard wires of which hiss, as if red hot, when the cars rumble by. There are trench-like gullies on either side of the road ready to be turned into torrents by the tropical rains.
No dogs in the world are so indefinite in the matter of breed as are the street dogs of Trinidad. They have lost all the characteristics of species, belong to no determined class and are simply " dogs."
Among the many curious objects in the streets of the place are certain loathsome birds called " Johnny Crows." They are greasy looking vultures with bare india rubber necks, the cringing walk of Uriah Heep, Jewish beaks and a general air of nastiness. They dabble about the gutters in search of offal. When they are gorged they flap away to a housetop where they brood filthily. If a septic germ could be metamorphosed into a thing with wings it would take the form of a " Johnny Crow." Although these mean fowls are so disgusting to look at when they are limping about a midden-heap they are almost angel-like when they are seen high up in the blue heavens, wheeling in great circles round and round the city, as if with watchful tenderness.
The town folk of Trinidad appear to live mainly in the streets and to spend their days leaning out of windows or over balconies, for the climate is unfavourable to movement. So many nationalities are represented in the highways and byways of Port of Spain that it might have been on this island that the Tower of Babel was erected. There are negroes, mulattoes and " coloured " people of every known shade, French, Spaniards and English folk, East Indians in great multitude, Tamils, Americans, Venezuelans, Germans, a Chinaman or two, and a few anomalous beings who are of as uncertain species as the dogs and who would be classified simply as "men."
Although Trinidad has been British since the year 1797 it has by no means lost the evidences of its earlier occupation. Some of the chief families and landowners on the island are Spanish or French. To the same nationalities belong many of the most prominent citizens. Spanish names abound over shop-doors and over many a gaudy tavern, while on the map of Trinidad it is the Spanish name that everywhere predominates. After the Spaniards the French made a struggle for a place on the map. They came with their Bade Blanchisseuse, Pointe Sans Souci and Ilot Saut d'Eau. Finally some worthy Irishman managed to make his mark at one spot on the atlas with Erin Point and Erin Hill but with these exceptions British names are very few. The black nursemaids, who chatter for ever on the seats in the park, talk in French, while in the streets Spanish will be heard nearly as often as English.
The residential parts of Port of Spain and the suburbs generally are most delightful. On the outskirts of the town is a wide stretch of green, the Savannah, the delight and pride of Trinidad. This " level mead " is surrounded on one side by a semi-circle of many-peaked hills which are covered with trees to their summits. It is as if behind the open plain of Hyde Park there rose, as a background, the foot hills of the Himalayas. Casual paths wander across this great stretch of green, just as in any urban pleasure-ground, but there are features in the Savannah which would look curious in a London park. Among such are a clump of palms standing alone, the palings and grand-stand of a race-course, and, above all, a curious little old-world cemetery within a high wall. The enclosure for the dead is hushed by the shade of many trees, so that when the Savannah is made riotous by horse-racing or polo matches the cattle creep under the old walls and so find peace.
In a circle round the Savannah are brilliant villas standing in still more brilliant gardens where are the blood-coloured poinsettia, the blue convolvulus, the fan palm, lavish creepers of every tint, strange cacti like candelabra, and a very thicket of flowering trees.
It is in these pleasant places at sundown that the fire-flies are to be seen—curious little specks of light wandering in the shadows. There is a languor about their movement, a listless uncertainty in their flight, as if they were tired gnomes with lanterns searching for something that was never to be found. As the amber yellow spark moves up through the purple it vanishes disappointed. It comes towards you through the grass, and when so near that you dare not breathe it dies away. The light-carrier seems to weary so soon, while the light, as if weakened by centuries of searching, seems hard to keep aglow.
The East Indians of Port of Spain congregate in an untidy suburb called Coolie-town. Here, surrounded by palms, bare earth, kerosine tins, goats, children and fowls, are lines of huts, some of mud and wattle, some of wood, some of corrugated iron. They are all of the packing-case or fowl-house type of construction. There are among them sickly-looking shops as well as companies of women bright with bracelets and rings who squat on the ground before baskets full of yams, bananas, oranges and salt fish. The place is as little like an Indian bazaar as China-town in San Francisco is like the alleys of Canton, but it is as full of strong colours and strong smells.
Everywhere about the suburbs will be seen the solemn tick bird, a black bird with a heavy hooked beak, a long tail and—as its name implies—useful habits. Everywhere, too, can be heard an irrepressible yellow-brown bird who spends its life in calling out, " Qu'est-ce qu'il dit ? " Never in this world has a question been asked so often. The inquirer always lays great emphasis on the word " dit," sometimes adopting a querulous tone and sometimes a suggestion of remonstrance. The purity of the French varies with the individual fowl, but it seems to be generally spoken with an American accent. If a person were lying seriously ill in Trinidad I should imagine that the first care would be not to put straw down before the open window but to drive the " Qu'est-ce qu'il dit ? " birds out of hearing.
The flying things, however, for which the island is most famous are the humming-birds. They were to be seen, at the time of my stay, in great numbers in the beautiful garden by Government House. They elected to come there between 7 and 7.30 in the morning. It was about this hour that the sun fell upon a certain bed of scarlet flowers to which they seemed to be devoted. They came from all sides, tiny winged wonders of blue, green and gold, that for a moment one took to be great bees. They were so capricious, so alert, so quick as to be hard to follow. They sucked the honey from each flower while on the wing. They hung before the scarlet calyx in an ecstasy of worship, each little suppliant a whirl of green and gold. The vibrating wings could not be seen. There was merely a poised palpitating body with a dizzy halo on either side of it. Nothing could exceed the intenseness, the fervour, the exaltation of these little flower worshippers. It was not until they rested, with shut wings, on a spray near by that they turned to birds again. Thus, so long as the good sun shone each seemed to live
A loving little life of sweet small works.