Trip Leader: Michelle Brown

Sunday, March 18, 2012

For Free

We last reported after returning on Thursday evening to Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital city, following a three-day excursion with the wonderfully informative and witty Andy Whitwell, A.K.A. The Pathmaster, across the island. We'd traveled end to end--north and east--and back again in a giant lumpy circle through points including Manzanilla Beach, Galera Point, Sangre Grande, Grande Riviere, and Arima. 

We learned about all of them because our teachers--Andy, Manesh, Cristo, Ivan, Richard, and Elroy--were generous with their copious knowledge. 

While in Grande Riviere, Mike had accompanied Andy and me to the leatherback turtle conservation center. Our group members wanted to make individual donations to the conservation effort over and above the turtle-watching permit fees that the GCP program was funding, and Mike was elected Donation Representative. Richard, the conservation officer on duty that evening, was pleasantly stunned by the number of permits we purchased coupled with the generosity of our individual contributions. "Since you'll be in town for two evenings, I'd like to invite you back tomorrow night for more turtle watching," Richard breathed happily.

"For free?" Mike asked, excited that maybe Grande Riviere was like the Trinidadian Vegas and we'd just been comped by the House. 

Richard's response suggested that Grande Riviere is not the Trinidadian Vegas. Mike, however, is clearly the Trinidadian Jerry Lewis. "Bwahahahahahahahahahahaha!" Richard pealed, losing his balance and slumping over the counter. Mike looked at me and Andy. We looked at Mike. We'd be paying for our permits the next night, and Mike had a sure-fire way of getting three more guffawing collapses out of Richard before we left the office.

We were to have two full days in Port of Spain before leaving for home. Friday morning was, according to the itinerary, a day trip to Trinidad's second-largest city, San Fernando, via water taxi. Fun!

We bagged it. And I'll tell you why. Rewind to pre-Vegas-Lewis-turtles.

We were on our way into a grocery store to buy bottles of water and trail mix for hiking with Andy... er: The Pathmaster. A man on the street asked where we were from and, over the course of conversation, offered to introduce us to his friend, the captain of a steel pan band when we returned to Port of Spain. Steel pan is Trinidad's national instrument. Remember Mike? He's a graduate student in percussion. Mike salivated for three days about steel pan. We decided to make ourselves available to our new friend Martin upon our return in the event that this dream might actually come true. Being jaded Americans, some of us doubted.

Doubt not, my friend.

Early on our first morning back in Port of Spain, we were on our way back from breakfast when Martin called. "I'm at your hotel with my band friend," Martin said. We ran back, met the gracious bandleader Nestor Sullivan, and agreed to a dream of a plan: the all-Caribbean top-five ranked Pamberi Steel Orchestra would give us a short concert and lesson that evening in their pan yard.

All we had to do was wait until evening.

We did a walking tour of Port of Spain. San Fer-who?

Mike, Nirvana
That evening, our new BFF and maxi cab driver Ken drove us to the pan yard where five hours flew by in about 10 minutes. Pamberi kicks butt on pan. A steel pan band can number 20 or 30 players and this band was tight. We were dancing to their music and then they invited us to take over their drums! We practiced, and practiced, and practiced. ToddNick, and Layna learned one harmony while Sarah and Rosa learned another. Mike glued his butt to the drum kit and forgot the rest of us were even there. We struggled, but the band was patient beyond measure. Then, just when LaVonda was sure the band must be getting tired of our untalented selves, they led us through another couple of tries and we rocked "Bacchanal"! Amanda and Erin on lead looked ragged tired but also jubilant. Valerie and Michelle on bass showed that with age comes rhythm.

Amanda, Erin: Fearless Leaders
How do you feel when you have just accomplished something you never thought you would or could? That's how we felt. Then the band invited us to hang out with them for awhile and we had some great conversations with them about being musicians and our cultural differences. When it was nearing 11 p.m., we remembered that we hadn't eaten dinner and Ken suggested we get going before everything closed. We bade goodbye to our new friends and headed to....


I fought it. Valiantly. "I am NOT taking a cultural immersion group to freaking KFC in Trinidad!" I huffed. This was no EVOLUTION. It was not REVOLUTION. It was revolting.

Nothing was open. I made Ken drive twenty minutes out of his way, looking for local food before Todd put his hand gently on my shoulder and said, "Layna's looking peaked. You're going to have to feed them KFC."

I relented and Ken banged a U-ey. Then we hit the fifth largest-grossing KFC restaurant in the world, according to Lizst, our friendly and business-savvy hostelier. It is open twenty-four hours, seven days a week, and packed at 12:30 in the morning. All eight registers had lines at least a dozen deep. I had to grudgingly admit that my fish sandwich was delicious.

Saturday, we visited the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Founded by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, TTW is now an independent non-profit theatre that runs solely on donations. It offers acting classes and houses a troupe of actors who stage frequent productions for the local community as well as abroad. We were thrilled to be educated by the director on the Theatre's history and its offerings. We also participated in a youth acting class. It was thrilling to learn about and participate in two of Trinidad's national arts.

It has been said that the best things in life are free. Like, for example, a GCP trip. Now, I know that those of us who traveled to Trinidad and Tobago purchased our own passports, souvenirs, a lunch or two, and possibly pre-trip vaccinations. But none of paid a dime for airfare, in-country transport, hotels, meals, admission fees, educational guide or workshop fees, or tax and tips on any of the above. We all got free cultural educations, new friends at SU and abroad, learned about ourselves and the world, and it was the best! 

I would like to turn around this "free" idea and suggest that the best things in life are given. SU gave us the opportunity to learn about Trinidad and Tobago in numerous ways. But we also gave back: to the turtles, to the friends we made in country, and to you who are reading this blog. I hope you've learned through our adventures. Maybe you'll learn a bit about the exciting country we visited, its people, wildlife, and its culture. Or maybe, at least, you'll learn that you'd like to take a trip, too. Maybe you can give and receive across national lines, too.

Until next time, ciao!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why are My Feet Dry?

Today, Thursday, we arrived back in Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad. "But, wait," you're likely asking: "Weren't you all just in Port of Spain? What happened?" Well, settle in with a good glass of something, my friends, because you're in for a ride.... er, I mean "walk."

What Goes Up Must Sit Down
You last left us on Tuesday, mud-bespattered in Tobago where I had my last brief window of internet access. On Wednesday morning, we very sadly hugged Sharon goodbye after our last Tobagan breakfast of home-made toast, six-year-old guava jam, and local cheddar cheese (creamy!). We shopped in Tobago's largest city, Scarborough, where Michelle replaced her quickly deteriorating brand-new knapsack with an even brander-newer one from a street vendor. It looked rugged, so we were hopeful. A short airplane ride later and we arrived in Piarco Airport, Port of Spain. Trinidad's capital city was a shock for this self-proclaimed group of rural beach dwellers. "Strange!" we gasped, "we have to look before crossing the street!" And where are the wild chickens and dogs like those we saw in Charlotteville? Walking the city for the afternoon, success was finding bush hiking pants for the unprepared. Fear and excitement were palpable because we would embark early the next morning for a three-day adventure with The Pathmaster. The itinerary called for lots of long hikes and LaVonda worried that uphill slogs through the mud with Newton George would feel like a cakewalk in comparison to what Andy Whitwell had in store for us.

LaVonda was right. Kind of.

Capuchin Monkey
Andy picked us up at 5:15 a.m. (yeah, we're an early-rising bunch) and we stopped for doubles on the way to Nariva/Bush Bush. Doubles are the official favorite food of the trip. They're a sandwich of bara (flat fried breads), channa (curried chick peas), spicy chutneys, and pepper sauce. We're still not sure how many Mike ate.

Galera Point
Rosa with Mother Turtle, Night #1
Day 1 with The Pathmaster was a long hike through the Nariva swamp into the Bush Bush forest preserve. We hoped to see a howler monkey. We saw multiple howlers and capuchins. Mosquitoes, not mud, were our nemesis. Sarah's net suit was unanimously voted Most-Wished-for Swamp Hiking Gear. The hike was invigorating, seeing the monkeys was exciting, and Andy's lessons on the plants, animals, peoples, and histories of all that we saw were intellectually stimulating. Back in the bus after lunch... somewhere good... we eventually arrived at Galera Point to view the light house and drop to our knees in awe at the beautifully dangerous cliff-hewn, tree-topped coastline. Rugged? This coastline laughs at such a puny word. At dinner time, we arrived at Grande Riviere and our home for the next two days, Mt. Plaisir Estates. That night, and I say this without irony or hyperbole, our lives changed. Although very early in the nesting season and statistically unlikely, we hoped to see at least one female leatherback sea turtle haul her thousand-pound body ashore to lay eggs. We saw seven! Reactions from the group? Incoherent awe predominated, punctuated by phrases like "circle of life" and "so awesome." Both are accurate.

(R)evolution: Leatherback Sea Turtle
Leatherback turtles predate human arrival on Earth by some 98 million years. This turtle is a study in successful evolution in response to--and simultaneous revolution against--the increasingly toxic encroachment of humans into animal spaces. The Trinidad and Tobago GCP 2012 trip group has adopted the Leatherback Sea Turtle as its totem.

Take Me Through the River
Erin, Todd, friend: Grande Riviere
Michelle, Mother Turtle: Night #2

For Day 2, Andy hired a local guide, Kevin, to lead us on an "easy hike." Kevin showed up in flip flops and a nearly-flat knapsack that we later discovered contained a candle to frighten away killer bees (!) and a bush knife. Kevin farms his own food, barters, and works nearly full-time as a volunteer beach and marine wildlife conservancy coordinator. Layna wants to take Kevin home; Mike wants to move in with Kevin; and all of us want to be Kevin. (After graduation, of course.) Kevin's easy hike started off on a road out of the village and past many old and new farming estates. "Flip flops? The road? This hike is too easy," Nick said. Kevin, though, is no slouch. Like Andy, he's informative and affable. We learned a lot about local medicinal plants. We ate raw cocoa beans that he handed us off the tree. He is, however, not so good with semantics because this hike was not easy. We forded a stream barefoot. Valerie mutinied and put her sneakers on. Then, Erin, Nick, Amanda, Rosa, Layna, and Michelle swam in the river! We had great talks with Kevin and soon it was past time to go. Oops. We voted for the quick route back. Remember that rain forest mud from Tobago? We hiked uphill into another rain forest here in Trinidad, then cut through a bush swamp which meant splashing through ankle-deep mud ponds. Hiking boots aren't meant to remain their original color, right? After powering (or plodding) up "Leg Burner" hill, we were back in Andy's hands for a short "walk" around the village that included jumping a ravine and fording another stream (in our shoes). Quite informative and very fun as usual, the walk was just not your average Winchester meander up the flat, paved, dry road and back. The group had by now decided that the GCP program is in fact a wilderness physical fitness boot camp and that I am not to be trusted when uttering words like "easy" and "walk."

That night, we saw another turtle!

Welcome Smoke Ceremony Tools
This morning, we left Grande Riviere much too soon. Sadly, Kevin did not stow away in any of our bags. En route to trading beach life for the city, we visited Arima, Trinidad's largest Amerindian settlement. We were privileged to participate in a Karigna welcoming ceremony performed for us by the community's Paye (or shaman, healer), Christo, who then showed us around the community's meeting house, educated us on the Karignas' history on Trinidad, and answered our many questions on First Nations healing, ceremony, history, and community. We made connections to the previous nights as Christo explained that the turtle is one of the four totem animals that center the Karigna on the Earth's space. Much of Andy's, Kevin's, and Christo's historical recitations (what they were, really, were great stories!) circled back to themes of evolution and revolution and the ways that both concepts are infused with both progressive and oppressive aspects. As with the turtles, we all left Christo's place with new understandings of ourselves as members of a globally interconnected web of plants, animals, and people.

As you'll recall, we returned to Port of Spain this afternoon where we immediately shucked off our still-wet hiking boots and sighed happily into flip flops. Disoriented a bit from the daylong shift in extremes from rural to urban, bush to city, we again felt strange walking near traffic, deet-free, on dry feet. "Why are my feet dry?" We asked, laughing in shared delirium.

We have not had internet access for the last four days, so this post attempts to catch you up, in photos and in commentary, on our many adventures. We are all grateful for this opportunity to travel, learn, and to be SU ambassadors in a part of the world new to us. We are all also grateful for the friendships forming on this trip.  We laugh so much that we expect to have abs of steel by our return date. But, perhaps more important than developing abs of steel, we are sharing a unique bonding experience that's teaching us about Trinidad and Tobago and our changing global community. We are also learning about each other--and about our changing selves.

Michelle, Todd, Valerie, LaVonda, Erin, Mike, Rosa, Nick, Sarah, Layna, and Amanda

Mother, Back to the Sea

Sunday, March 11, 2012

SU Shirts, Rubber Shoes Required

Today, Sunday, we hiked through the Bloody Bay Rain Forest on Tobago. We all wore brand-new, sparkling white SU tee shirts generously donated by the SU bookstore. While equatorial Tobago is now in its dry season, our three-hour informational hike through the rain forest entailed wading through streams and mud: sucking mud that tried to eat LaVonda's boot and mid-calf level mud that nearly obliterated the Hello Kitty image on Rosa's boot . Splish, splash, Layna took a mud bath! We'll post a good photo of all of us at Little Tobago's peak, holding the SU banner that Nick schlepped uphill during our hour-long afternoon hike on that island. Amanda wore her camera out, taking 300+ shots today. Sarah's mosquito-net pants were a major "Aha!" while Valerie arrived outfitted for Bird Day with her father's authentic field glasses. Our guide, Newton George, taught us so much about local birds and history that he's now Michelle's personal hero. Are those white shirts still white? Not on yer life, pardner; they're not even dry. We ended our excursion with snorkeling near the largest brain coral in the Western Hemisphere where we're pretty sure that Erin found Nemo. Back at our cabins, we peeled off our sweaty, Caribbean Sea-soaked, mud-spattered SU tee shirts and changed into dry clothes. We considered auditioning for the "before" segment of a laundry detergent commercial. Back to reality, we rejoined our favorite restauranteur Sharon for a creole shrimp dinner whose deliciousness was eclipsed only by the hilarious spectacle of Todd's dramatic attack by a man-eating grasshopper! It was this big. He survived. Up tomorrow: walkabouts in Scarborough, Tobago, and Port of Spain, Trinidad. We hope to have faster, less spotty internet connections in Port of Spain tomorrow, so watch for photos later!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Trip Adventures!

Tobago Map
The Trinidad and Tobago group arrived safely last night in Charlotteville, Tobago. Today we explored this rural fishing village, sampled just-caught kingfish and tuna, and hiked to Pirate's Bay where Amanda found a coconut. How many travelers does it take to open a coconut? Three: Mike, Nicholas, and Todd. LaVonda has been filming our adventures and outtakes. She'll post photos when we have more reliable internet access. Erin has been journaling and will post here soon. We're enjoying getting to know Pat, Pussycat, Sharon, and Newton, who live and work here in Charlotteville. Michelle is especially enjoying getting to know such a great group of SU folks. Tomorrow we'll hike in Bloody Bay Rain Forest and take a glass-bottom boat to Little Tobago's nature preserve where Valerie hopes to spot some beautiful birds. Sarah and Layna are excited to snorkel at the reef. We're having a great time in Trinidad and Tobago! Okay, travelers, let's post our adventure stories!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Street Market, Port of Spain
And, the most fun question of our pre-trip planning is: what exciting stuff are you buying? I can't wait to see our answers, particularly after I distribute The Pathmaster's suggested gear list for turtle watching plus nature preserve and swamp hiking! Of course, we'll also shop in Trinidad and Tobago, but I'd plan to bring necessaries like sunscreen, etc., from home.

Friday, March 2, 2012

What are You Looking Forward to Most? Least?

Little Tobago
We leave in less than a week! Check out the itinerary to your left ... only a couple of minor details TBA. What are looking forward to the most? What are you nervous about or scared to try? Don't worry: we'll hold your hand! I can't wait to dance to steel drums and eat some local seafood (perhaps at the same time)! Nervous? Me? Hah! Let the adventure begin!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pre-Departure Plans?

Going to bed at all?
Our trip has the distinction of leaving the earliest in the morning of all the GCP groups this year. While the Wales group leaves first--on Thursday at around 5 pm--we meet at the Student Center at 1:30 am for a 2 am bus departure. Did you catch that? I said: A. M. What are you going to do between bedtime (presuming yours is prior to 1:30 a.m.) and our meeting time? What will you be doing during the half hour we're waiting for our van to depart? And, most importantly, what do you think you'll do during the long slogs at Dulles Airport and on the planes (yes, that's plural: we're taking three planes directly to Tobago). Shall we bring playing cards? Meet at Sheetz at 1:20 for mega-coffees? Ideas? On the flip side: once we land and begin our adventure, we'll decide the wait was worth it!