Tobago

On The Road Travel Essays

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Tobago

Groups at Tobago are met and accompanied by resident instructor, Wendy Herron, an American who has lived on Tobago for 17 years. Intimately familiar with the marine life of the island, and with its flora and fauna, its geography and local culture, Wendy is ideally suited to introduce visiting groups to the unique culture, scientific, and recreational opportunities available on Tobago.

What to Bring  Dress is casual, lightweight; jeans, T-shirts and Adidas-type footwear for the beach or walking inland. Note: long trousers and sleeved shirts are required for males for dinner at hotels (i.e.; no shorts or bathing suits). Long pants, skirts or dresses are required for females at dinner in hotels. Snorkelers are strongly advised to bring their own fins, mask and snorkel.

Recommended Packing List

Note: Not all of these items are required, and you need not be limited to these items. Pack according to your own needs. Pack lightly.

Immigration  U.S. citizens must carry a valid passport. Note: If you are not a U.S. citizen, please consult your local consulate for instructions.

Health and Safety  All sites used in this program are approved under our rigid requirements for safety. The food and water, near proximity to medical facilities, and the safety of the environment have all been approved for local activities. The instructor who accompanies each group is trained in all aspects of group safety, and there are physicians available nearby for any medical or first-aid contingencies.

Can I Drink the Water?  Most Americans tend to be leery about tap water in the tropics. Never fear. The water in Tobago is probably purer than in your home town! Tobago's water supply is from mountain rivers high in the rain forest and is purified by various filtering plants around the island. Fruits and vegetables grown on the island are of exceptional quality. Be sure to sample some of the exotic ones such as sapodillas, christophene, soursops or the small but delightfully sweet honey-banana.

Climate and Weather  Since Tobago is located so close to the equator, its temperature is fairly constant, ranging from about 78 degrees to 83 degrees, although the constant breeze from the Gulf Stream, which originates in Venezuela, at the mouth of the Orinoco River, flows around Tobago and keeps the visitor from feeling the heat. This can be a bit disconcerting to sunbathers, who tend to think that since they feel comfortable, the sun can't be that strong. A good sunscreen is recommended for the first few days of exposure. During the winter months, December through March, the breeze picks up and a light jacket or sweater is recommended for the evenings.

Money/Exchange Rates  In Tobago, $1.00 U.S. is equal to $5.75 TT. "TT" a Trinidad and Tobago dollar. Cash or travelers checks may be exchanged at the local bank or at your hotel. Most merchants will accept U.S. currency in payment, giving TT dollar in change. The TT dollar is made up of 100 cents (same as ours). Coins are 1c, 5c, 10c, 25c and rarely, 50c. Bills are $1 (red), $5 (green), $10 (gray), $20 (mauve) and $100 (blue).

Shopping  Tobago is not known for its shopping — its natural beauty is what turns first time visitors into fanatics — but there are small shops which do provide souvenirs or gifts to take home. T-shirts, either silk-screened or handpainted, are available everywhere, along with woven baskets, purses made from calabash (a local gourd) or pareos (lengths of cloth) that are dyed or painted by local women to be tied around the body in a variety of ways. Beach vendors roam the sand occasionally, selling homemade sweets or bracelets, and will usually stop to chat pleasantly with newcomers, oblivious to "making a sale." Visitors are invariably impressed at how low-key and how non-20th century and how gracious Tobagonians are. Memories of the people on this island are an important part of what you'll bring back with you.

Tipping  Tipping rates in restaurants and taxis is about 10% for courteous service — and the service will almost always be outstanding. As for your instructor, we recommend a gratuity of $20 U.S. per person at the end of the program, as is customary for one-week programs in Europe, the Caribbean and other destinations. After a week in the company of our outstanding instructor, we know that your gratuity will be a gesture fondly felt, and it will be warmly appreciated.

ORIENTATION TOUR

Scarborough  Scarborough is the capital of Tobago, and is situated at the southern end of the island, about 20 minutes from your hotel. We travel through the villages of Canaan and Bon Accord, whose names reflect the volatile history of the island and its frequent change of ownership. Tobago was fought over 35 times in a 100-year period from the mid-1700's through the mid-1800's and owned at various times by the English, French, Dutch and Courlanders. On our orientation tour, we pass the largest coconut estate on the island, ravaged by Hurricane Flora in 1965, which destroyed the trees and its cash export crop. The estate is presently being used as a cattle farm.

We approach Scarborough on the winding Milford road, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, and make stops en route for photographs of panoramic views. Then we head through town, up Fort Street to Fort King George, situated on the highest point in Tobago, and affording dazzling views of the Scarborough and even, on most days, the distant island of Trinidad. Fort King George was built by the English from 1777 to 1779. It was captured by the French and then recaptured by the British in 1793. During the hurricane of 1847, the roofs of the fort building were blown off. Presently the fort serves as a historical site, replete with actual British and French cannons, a historical museum, and a small park, fastidiously maintained as one of the most picturesque spots on the island.

Next we wind our way through the quaint, narrow streets of Scarborough and head to the market (Friday and Saturdays only) to view the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown locally and sold on the weekends, along with cornucopia of fish brought in straight off the boats. We head back to the hotel via the Caribbean side of the island, which is noticeably more placid that the Atlantic side.

We pause along the way in the village of Plymouth to visit Fort James, which faces out on Great Courland Bay (once the main harbor of Tobago). Here you can see the famous tombstone of Plymouth, dated 1783 in memory of Betty Stiven. The tombstone's mysterious inscription defies interpretation. Local folklore has it that it was a riddle giving the location of pirate treasure. See if you can figure it out: "She was a Mother without knowing it, And a Wife, without letting her Husband know it, Except by her kind indulgences to him."

Buccoo Reef  For a truly spectacular underwater show, Buccoo Reef and the adjacent Coral Gardens provide a dazzling display of exquisite tropical fish and delicate coral. These are seen in all the colors of the rainbow, and the variety of marine species is stupefying. Intricate sculptures of coral, such as staghorn, starlit, and elkhorn, form complicated patterns and shapes, through which myriads of brightly colored fish parade. The Queen Angelfish (holanthus cilaris) is one variety you will see: perhaps the most colorful of all Caribbean fish, it is a glowing almost luminous yellow and blut, with shimmering blue accents on the body and fins. The Rock Beauty (holanthus tricolor) is an eye-catching fish with a black body set off by a bright yellow front, underside and tail, often spotted darting through rock formations and coral groupings. The Trumpet Fish (aulosthomos maculatos) is very common to the reef, but still marine curiosity. It has an extraordinarily long think body (about 20 or 30 inches), with the ability to change colors and camouflage itself among the underwater plants. It is often seen hanging vertically in the water, giving the appearance of being a plant branch, its vacuum-like mouth sucking plankton and other nutrients out of the water. Probably the most colorful family of all is the Parrot Fish (scaridae), found everywhere on the reef, with a unique beak-shaped mouth like a parrot, which the fish uses to gnaw algae off the coral.

Rainforest Country  When we visit the rainforest, our day begins with a trip up the windward road, offering breathtaking views of hilltop villages and lush plant life tumbling down to sparkling beaches. You pass villages like Mount St. George, Belle Garden, Pembroke, Roxborough (former capital of Tobago) and finally Speyside, a quaint little village set on the crescent of Speyside Bay directly across from the island of Little Tobago, which you can clearly see offshore. Little Tobago Island is a 450-acre bird sanctuary, home of the rarely seen Bird of Paradise. You will visit this little island, with commentary and views of its teeming bird life. Our trek into the rainforest is led by a field of naturalist who are eager to share knowledge and love of all that the rainforest has to offer.

About the Location  Tobago has fascinated European and American observers for centuries. Rich in colonial history, amazing for the beauty of its beaches and crystal clear sea, Tobago is a logical choice for a healthy and educational holiday destination. It is the island that island-lovers go to.

A Watersports Paradise  Tobago is regarded as one of the premier snorkeling, skin diving and Scuba diving sites in the world. Tobago offers both debutante and expert snorkelers the experience of a lifetime! Snorkeling or skin diving requires no previous underwater skill whatsoever, and may be pursued informally by program participants whenever and wherever they wish. There are very few places you can't snorkel in Tobago! A special introductory Scuba program is available.

The Island around You  Tobago is a cigar-shaped island some 27 miles long and 7 miles wide in the middle. Lush rainforests in the interior of the island are still largely unexplored, and teem with animals, birds and insects of every description, including some which do not yet have an official description. (Yes, there are still undiscovered species on the island of Tobago!) Dark black volcanic rock outcroppings ring the island where the island meets the sea, broken up by scalloped white beaches of great beauty, and sometimes great length. (Great Courland Bay, to be visited by participants, is said by most worldly-wise beach aficionados to be among the ten most spectacular beaches in the world.)

Tobago's Tropical Forest  Tobago is one of the few countries in the world fortunate enough to possess large areas of tropical rain forests easily accessible for study, recreation and education. It is also one of the few countries where extensive clearance has not as yet threatened the very existence of this valuable ecosystem. The countless inlets and bays of Tobago are rich and unique environments, supporting a dizzying profusion of land and sea life. Coral reefs form the tropical forest of the oceans, and incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem, with greater diversity than any other Caribbean area. This environment lends itself to a living laboratory for researcher and curious visitor alike. The cliffs of Tobago fall, mainly forestclad, into the sea, but in places weathered rocks support mainly spiny, desert-like plants. Here, nesting birds such as the magnificent frigatebird, brown boobies, red-billed tropicbirds, gulls and terms can be found, as well as many specifies of reptiles including non-poisonous snakes, iguanas, and even a local land tortoise.

History and Lore  Ever since the island of Tobago was wrestled from the warlike Carib Indians by the first white colonialists in the 16th century, it has exerted a powerful effect on political aspirations and poetical imaginations of people the world over. During the colonial heyday, Tobago was a must for any "serious" European nation equipped with sailing vessels and a touch of expansionist fever. It was the place to go, exploit, and control with slave labor, forts and cannonballs if need be.

Four hundred years later, students participating in the passports Tobago program find themselves along the shores of Store and Great Courland Bays, where much of the "action" occurred. Scuba enthusiasts routinely report the sighting of cannonballs rusting quietly at the bottom of the sea, their careers spent in a few seconds, centuries ago, in the service of some adventuring King or Queen. "Mate, I said steady as she goes, for Tobago!"

The moss-covered dungeons transmit a more somber message still: people fought to the death over this place called Tobago. Jails were needed to contain those who fought less well, but who were still alive, until such a time as they could be repatriated to the enemy in return for ransom, or, failing that, shot.

People have for years dreamed about the Island of Tobago, too. It is safe to say Daniel Defoe, the 18th century novelist, never set foot on the island, but that did not stop him from using the wealth of lore and popular appeal associated with this place to animate his best-selling and now classic work, Robinson Crusoe. As a result, people still flirt with the almost certainly false conjecture that there was such a person as Robinson Crusoe, and that Tobago was his paradise island.

Tobago has captured and tortured the imaginations of thousands, for centuries. It is the quintessential island.

Culture  The people who live on Tobago now are descended from people who have been living there, by and large, for 300 or 400 years and who were originally from equatorial Africa. Although formal "ownership" of the island has been passed back and forth between colonial powers, including the French and Dutch, the predominating cultural influence is British. Independent since 1962, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago speak fairly precise English, drive on the left-hand side of the road, and still turn out, most of them, to see the Royal yacht, Britannia, whenever it comes to visit.

Tobagonians are not known for their ambitiousness, or for their eagerness to modernize, and so the island remains relatively and pleasantly unchanged from year to year, even from century to century. A visit to Tobago thus constitutes living history — a tropical time warp. Anthropologists leave with their notebooks full, and their theories either pretty well confirmed, or pretty well abandoned. The local dialect remains, with colorful costumes from the past, and with the ongoing reverence for a throne 7,000 kilometers away.

Musically, there are two scenes in Tobago: calypso and steel band. Calypso is up-tempo, American-influenced music, simplistic in structure and political or moralizing in tone, almost always featuring a background of canned horns and Ronette-type female vocalists. Performers choose posturing professional names such as "The Mighty Sparrow," "Shadow," "Persuader," and "Initiator," and all attempt to make their records once a year in Brooklyn, New York for the purposes of the annual "Carnival" song-fest competition.

Debutants could cut their teeth on Oliver Chapman's Tide is Low, or the Delamo composition Sodom and Gomorrah, both songs recorded in the mid-nineteen-eighties.

Steel band music is a bit stranger to the ears and is made by beating the tops of discarded oil drums with rubber mallets. These drums have been carefully tuned, and when struck, respond with musical notes. Twenty to thirty such drums are played simultaneously, and for hours on end. An introduction is had with the West Indian rendition of Duke Ellington's tune Take the A-Train.

A third "scene" involves the people of Tobago themselves, and the natural music and poetry they make in their everyday lives — while sorting out the fresh fruit and fried fish on the wooden kitchen table, or while gathering together in large groups and pulling a giant sea net in to shore, or while performing marriage rites for a congregation in a church on the top of a cliff overlooking a sunset.

Marriage in Cana was recorded at such a marriage ceremony in 1981, in the village of Black Rock, Tobago, where sunsets are the order of the day.

Gerald Robinson is the enthusiastic Baptist pastor; the voices come from ladies in the village.

You can hear these tracks and more at the passports media library.

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