She lay sprawled on the silken sand alone, oblivious to the stars sequinned in the dark sky and the incessant frothing of the irate sea. She was busy burrowing a hole, her rear flippers flapping like an automated shovel. The sand on her back was the perfect camouflage. I stood by silently, not wanting to interrupt her. She dug deeper and then sat still. Within minutes, the sandy hole was cluttered with a heap of nearly 100 soft-shell eggs. The 800-pound leatherback turtle was in a trance, her eyes glazed, her groans mellow. In Trinidad’s Matura beach, it was a rare spectacle, even if the world’s largest sea turtle swimming across the Atlantic Ocean to nest in the warm beaches of Trinidad is a well-known fact.
I had flown nearly 36 hours over oceans and continents into Port of Spain, a tiny squiggle in the Caribbean Sea that began life as a mudflat before being crowned the capital of the twin islands of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). My eyelids were still drooping with sleep when I walked barefoot on Matura beach in search of the leatherbacks. When I chanced upon one giving birth in the dark Trinidadian night, motherhood acquired a new meaning. Afterwards, the leatherback covered the eggs with sand and swam back to the sea. In 60 days, little turtles will hatch, but Mommy leatherback will never see them. She lays eggs and swims away, never to return.
Next morning, I encountered Trinidad’s other talisman — a blithe bird smaller than my fist, with feathers coloured iridescent lilac, turquoise, emerald and burnished orange. For eons, Amerindians, the island’s original settlers, worshipped the hummingbird. No one could kill the “holy” bird; the ones who did had a bed booked in hell. Hummingbird, the only bird that can fly backwards, is T&T’s national symbol and favourite motif. They are everywhere — on coats of arms, postage stamps, passport and currency. The tiny birds are elusive, jumpy and extremely difficult to track without binoculars.
In the land of hummingbirds, I heard a million stories about them before I saw hundreds of them flitting in and out, sipping nectar from red feeders in Yerette, a hummingbird sanctuary in Gloria and Theo Ferguson’s pretty home in Maracas Valley. In the Ferguson home, the background score is formed by the incessant flapping of wings. Theo swears by the bird, throws in every superlative in the dictionary as he rattles off names of the 13 species of hummingbirds that wing into his home. He is theatrical, poses questions, seeks answers, serves scrumptious food, and in the end, displays the nest woven dexterously with spider web to hold eggs the size of tic-tac. He tells me a hummingbird’s heart beats 1,200 times a minute. Until 1918, Europeans killed hummingbirds to use their feathers in their hats. When I walked away from Yerette, I was happy just carrying their song in my heart.
In Trinidad, the birds are not the only music-makers. I could dance to the oompah beat of the steel pan, a musical instrument made out of 55 gallon industrial drums that formerly held chemicals. Or, I could shake a leg to the ingenious jumble of Hindi, English and Bhojpuri in a musical genre now called Chutney Soca. The lyrics could be gibberish, but the melody is so peppy that even those with two left feet would start tapping.
The Trinidadian joie de vivre is contagious, but in Port of Spain I was looking for a certain Mr Biswas. It was in the capital city that Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul lived and set his famous novel, A House for Mr Biswas. The white house on Nepaul Street, once the family home of author Seepersad Naipaul and wife Dropatie (VS’s parents), now looks desolate. The lock clasps the iron gate, glass windows are shut tight and black electric wires hang menacingly over the balustrade. In Port of Spain, I could not step into Mr Biswas’s house. I’ll go back to it in the book again.
If Trinidad is brown and bustling, Tobago, the twin island that resembles a tobacco pipe in shape, is blue and quiet. With barely 65,000 residents, Tobago is so small that one could drive around the island in an hour. There are a million delights on the island, but nothing beats the glee of a spa in the middle of the ocean. I hopped onto a boat at Pigeon Point to reach Nylon Pool, a patch of water with a bed of silvery crushed corals. Such is the magic of Nylon Pool that Tobagonians use the crushed coral as a scrub. One dip in the pool and you emerge scrubbed, gleaming and 10 years younger. Or so the myth goes.
In Trinidad & Tobago, I wanted to get my hair knotted and learn how to roll my “R”-s like the locals. Instead, I got tanned and learned to chirp like a hummingbird.
Preeti Verma Lal is a writer and photographer based in Goa.