Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ten lessons learned on two small islands

I must apologize to regular readers of my blog for my absence during the past week.  Eight days ago I escaped the cold and snow of a upstate New York February for a few days, on a vacation to Trinidad.  It occurred to me to forewarn my readers of my absence, but then I thought about the imprudence of posting to the world, "Dear Everyone:  I'm going to be gone for a week.  Please come rob my house."  So I decided simply to disappear, and apologize for it later.

Trinidad & Tobago is a country comprised of two small islands off the coast of Venezuela.  It's a place I've wanted to visit for many years, and last fall my wife presented me with tickets as a gift for my fiftieth birthday.  We went with our dear friends Wendy and Renée, and spent six lovely days in the tropics exploring the islands.  I thought it might be interesting to present here a few of my impressions of the place.

1)  Trinidad & Tobago was a British colony for many years.  As a result, it was easier to communicate with the locals there than it was on some of our other excursions south of the border, given that my Spanish is limited to "sí," "no," "gracias," and "una cerveza, por favor."  This does not mean, however, that what they speak on the islands is necessarily understandable to your average American.  For example, hanging out with your friends is called "limin'."  They have places called Auchenskeoch, Blanchisseuse, and "Buck Buck Alley."  Mauby, seagrass, and bum-bum are drinks.  If you eat with the locals, you'll probably try doubles, roti, coocoo, callaloo, provision, and buss up shot.  So it's English, Jim, but not as we know it.

2)  Speaking of food, the food is generally amazing.  I bought a curried goat roti from a street vendor that would put a lot of American restaurant food to shame.  If you go, don't try to find places that sell American food -- eat what the locals eat.  You won't be sorry.

3)  That said, you should know that Trinidad and Tobago have the largest number of KFCs per capita in the world, and I'm not making that statistic up.  They're as common as Starbucks in Seattle.

4)  You should also be aware that if you eat enough Trinidadian curry, eventually your sweat will start to smell like curry.  Seriously.  It's not that bad, considering your other options for b. o., but still, smelling like an Indian restaurant gets old after a while.

5)  Having been a British colony, they drive on the left in Trinidad, and cars have their steering wheels on the right.  We rented a car, and I drew the short straw and ended up being the de facto driver.  I got used to the whole backwards-driving thing rather quicker than I thought, once I stopped turning on the windshield wipers every time I wanted to use the turn signal.

6)  However, you should remember that if you are used to turning your head and looking over your right shoulder to check your blind spot, the window is a lot closer than you think it is.  You will smack your forehead on the window, and your wife and friends will laugh at you.

7)  They will laugh a lot harder the second and third time you do the same thing.

8)  The driving-on-the-left thing isn't the only challenge for managing the island's roads, however.  Driving in Trinidad is like a huge, multi-player, mirror-image game of MarioKart, with no rules, and the added bonus that you can die.  Trinidadians are, in my experience, lovely people, but if you put them behind the wheel of a car, they turn into raving lunatics.  The white line down the center of a road is useful for lining up your hood ornament.  The posted speed limits are the punchline of a joke.  Horns are used to get you to go faster, to alert you to danger, to say hello, and to state, "I am driving a car and it has a horn."  People don't pull over to park; they simply stop, sometimes pointing the wrong way down the road.  The roads are narrow, with hairpin turns and sheer dropoffs into seas and mountain valleys, with a rail that looks like it's made of popsicle sticks and Reynolds wrap.  The first day we had the car, we drove out to the little village of Speyside to go diving.  It took us an hour and a half to go about twenty miles.  It did have the benefit of making the risks of scuba diving seem trivial by comparison, but the whole time we were there I kept thinking, "oh, dear god, we have to drive back."  I briefly considered asking someone if we could have a rescue helicopter come and get us.  In the end, we made it back without incident, but I'm not entirely sure how.

9)  The diving, birdwatching, and beaches are spectacular.  I saw 42 species of birds I'd never seen before without really trying all that hard.  The temperature never fell below 75 F and never got above 87.  I thought more than once of filing for early retirement and tearing up my return ticket.

10)  On the other hand, one must remember that both islands are largely covered by rain forest.  We were there during the dry season, which means that the humidity and the chance of rain both drop to 90%.  It rained at least once every day we were there.  This didn't bother me -- I am one of those rare souls who actually enjoys heat, humidity, and rain -- and for those of you who don't, I should point out that there's always a nice breeze, and remarkably few bugs.  But it is most definitely the tropics.

So all in all, it was a lovely vacation.  We came back to a foot of snow and frigid temperatures, which makes me feel lucky to have escaped even for a few days.  If you're looking for a great place to visit, consider Trinidad & Tobago -- I'd go back in a heartbeat.  I might even consider getting behind the wheel of a car again.

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