Friday, June 29, 2018

Birding Trinidad

Live from my location in Trinidad, I sit at my makeshift desk escaping the extreme temps of the Arizona desert and an especially intense rain storm in Trinidad right now while in the comfort of my nice cooled a/c room. (This post was written on a rainy day a few days ago:)

The produce market is a great way to meet people and try out wonderful local produce!
I have had a very successful trip here and am now well on my way to 1000 birds.  The work has been difficult.  I am covered in chigger and mosquito bites.  Some of the locals call them "mossys".  It's a bit strange really.  I speak English but I can't speak English here.  For the first time in a long while, I am out of my element.  

A bus stop on the way to the remote village of Brasso Seco known for their chocolate
I have enjoyed the challenges of Trinidadian birding.  I stayed at the posh Asa Wright Nature Preserve for a week.  Then I moved down the mountain into a local apartment to contract several important treks with outside guides. I could have made it easy on myself and just gone through Caligo Ventures out of Portal, AZ BUT I wanted to understand a bit of the Trinidadian culture without the birds.  And I wanted the nitty gritty details. At Asa Wright, all you have to do is worry about birding, but outside of that nice spacious utopia, it's quite the opposite.  It's a culture of increasing crime, poaching and a clash of cultures.  And in between, a lot of wonderful and innocent people are trying to stay out of it all.  I just used common sense and did what everyone else did, go indoors at night and no walking around alone after dark. Oh but they serve great food after hours!

Tropical Mockingbirds were everywhere! While I was doing my laundry, this bird decided to hang out with me.
However if we look past the negative parts, Trinidad is a fascinating island full of interesting culture and amazing rain forest. In fact, over half the island is covered in the green stuff!  The people, cuisine, language and day-to-day operations kept me busy.  Every day, I hear the Spectacled Thrush make its' call.  And one day it popped up into a neighbor's tree and gave me nice views. 

Sounds like the cross between a Gray Catbird and Green-tailed Towhee, the Spectacled Thrush was one of my favorite birds to observe all over the island. 
The food has been a real treat. I have experienced doubles, which are rather messy, and discovered the amazing flavors of roti.  Oh, and Trinidadian rum punch! It's a very tasty drink, but one needs to be careful after several "sips".  It's 75% proof alcohol! Unfortunately I can't bring it back to the states because it's flammable.

Oh I love Asha!  She is an amazing person.  I lived on her property.  One night she made me Callaloo Soup, a Caribbean specialty!
As with any new area, I like to do a safe introduction first and then get into the details after speaking with the locals.  Over the next several weeks, I'll be writing about Asa Wright, the Caroni Wetlands, Nariva Swamp and searching for the critically endangered Trinidad piping-guan. And by the way, all the places I'm mentioning here are also THE places for EVERYONE to visit in Trinidad for birders and non-birders alike. If you're into nature, there's at least two weeks of fun to be had here(this includes the cheap flight over to Tobago!).  I didn't do Tobago on this trip only because I wanted to focus on Trinidad.   

If you thought Mexican or Thai chiles were hot, you haven't tried the super hot Scorpion Peppers of Trinidad!
All I can tell you is that while everything is beautiful and exciting here; I have to be aware of my surroundings. The hardest part? I can't just go out anytime to look for birds, especially the night ones due to safety concerns. People here are super friendly. A woman on the street stopped me and told me to smile! I guess I looked very serious? But I always look serious:) I was the only white guy on the streets.  Normally that doesn't bother me, but here, I saw a few hungry eyes watching and waiting for me to slip up. I haven't seen that look since my days in Managua, Nicaragua. Managua is still the most dangerous place I've ever been. Trinidad was better.  There weren't starving children on the streets looking at you through restaurant windows with their emaciated faces. I got yelled at for feeding them. Where is the humanity?!! Anyhow, I'm side stepping my story here. I always went during the day when there were crowds of people shopping at the produce market.  At the store, one woman got into a conversation with me about broccoli and soup. And I LOVE soup! According the lady, the bastards were now cutting the stems off the vegetable and in our opinion, it was the best part to serve in soup!  At first, I was thinking to myself, are we really having this conversation about broccoli? and then I was like, oh hell yeah we are. She was disgusted and put the stemless head of florets back on the shelf.  Another woman asked me, "What flava do ya seek?" when I ordered a soft drink in the restaurant.  The wording of the question threw me off, but I figured it out quick enough.  I sought the flavor of carbonated pear soda known as Pearadrax.

I loved when the kids were around the neighborhood.  I felt comfortable and happy.  There was a girl's school across the street from me.  The boy's school was down the street. And a church separated the two near a park which was a meeting place for everyone.  
Safety is a high priority for me wherever I go. As an outsider, you always have to be aware of your surroundings. So I have secured myself in a sturdy building with a nice land lady between a church and two schools and even with that protection, there were sketchy things that had happened. There was a drive-by-shooting yesterday near my apartment.  I woke up at 4 AM to the sounds of pop pop pop!  Murder rates continue to rise on the island.  In fact, it dominated many Trinidadian conversations.  One person I spoke with attended her cousin's funeral this past week after he was shot over a disagreement. Another couple had their throats slit the night before in an area that I had just birded and near a fellow guide's village. It's no wonder why everyone locks up after dark! My apartment is secure. Most of my birding expenditures have gone to security type measures. The road to 10,000 birds, heck even for a 1,000!, is not an easy one. So why bother risking my life? These treks bring depth to my knowledge and experience of the birds.  Reading about them is not enough. Seeing them.  Hearing them.  And standing in their habitat gives me a sharper focus. In my upcoming posts, you'll read about and see photos relating to my research. I have to start with this post to give you the cultural background of the island first.  

With the hot and steamy monsoon weather, the icy cold rum punch made everything better, it was the drink of choice on Trinidad next to Carib Beer
While at Asa Wright, I didn't have to worry about my safety at all except for the venomous snakes and bugs. However here in town, I don't bring my expensive equipment with me when I walk around town.  Instead I use my secondary older camera. Or pull out my cell phone.  The only time the big camera comes with me is when I'm with a tour, local, or in a secured location. To understand what made Trinidad, "Trinidad", I spoke with lots of friendly people who loved sharing their stories.  I wanted to understand the culture better because there were some who would mention things like the rich vs poor while others spoke of skin color. Others broke it down further between culture and religion. And then there is the extra dynamic. Venezuelans and Syrians are fleeing their countries for safety.  For the first time in Trinidad history, it's a reverse border issue.  Venezuelans are looking for work. Many are hungry because of the food crisis in their own country. They cross the relatively calm bay of Paria to enter the country.  They bring their guns for trade.  The Trinidadians then take their guns and exchange with food. Meanwhile, who's taking on the refugee Syrians?  Trinidad is. One of the founding groups of Trinidad, as we know it today, were Syrians. 

I was near a cemetery.  So I explore it.  There were many good birds hanging out here BUT on my side of the cemetery, it was nice.  On the other side, it got a little sketchy.  I found a homeless encampment. One of the locals warned me to stay out of that area.
The Trinidad culture is a complex one.  The people are a blend of Syrian, Indian, English and African cultures.  Much like in the US, suburbs are formed to protect communities from the outside world with like-minded people. It was explained to me that the Syrian-Lebanese population is one of the wealthiest in this nation due to their strong business practice. They also have a strong family network and do very well in Trinidad. Around the Port of Spain, many have set up shop and live in secured and safe neighborhoods with private schools.  Meanwhile, the refugee Syrians who are entering the country are being ignored by this elite group of Syrians. It was an interesting dynamic to observe.  It's also interesting to note that this group of refugees is also very friendly with the average Trinidadian person and not closed off like their Trinidadian brethren. Yeah, I don't think we studied island culture in school.  So I had a bazillion questions!

Tropical Kingbirds were SUPER common in the urban neighborhoods
The Venezuelans.  If you have read my blog over the years, you know how Spanish gets my heart pitter patterin'.  One night, we drove past an area full of Venezuelans selling food on the streets.  It was a real popular location.  The wonderful part is that they are all working together to establish themselves. My friend asked, which brought up another conversation later!, "If Venezuelans can come to this country and create work and do well for themselves, why can't a Trinidadian man do the same thing?"  It made me sad as a man to hear this but I understood the issue well.  Meanwhile, my mind wandered towards Venezuela.  Will it ever be safe to travel there one day?  I've heard it's a magical place. In the 90's, I had a roomie from Venezuela by the name of Cesar.  I don't know where he is today, but I hope he is well. We jumped out of a plane together. And we also drank a little too much:) Ah the fun ol' college days. 

Orange-winged Parrots were common at every habitat and at every elevation.  They were often seen while I was doing work outside my apartment. 
The Indian and Syrian sides of the Trinidadian people. There is A LOT of great Indian food on the island. People wear shawls and go to their temples. It's so cool. I was in a car for two hours listening to one of the guides tell the story of how many Indian and rich Syrians will work side-by-side.  She herself was Syrian, Indian and African. Everyone really is a blend, but certain features are prominent.  She told me her son was adopted by the rich Syrians because he looked Syrian. They took him into their culture because he had light skin. There they educated him in their private schools and he did well. So even when there's a cultural blend, light skin is looked at favorably once again. I discovered this attitude in Cape Verde, West Africa as well on the island of Sao Vicente. They were the more "Portuguese" of the islands. In Mexico, it's all about the Spanish blood. Status.  It's a universal thing around this planet. 

I had to know more.  Then I saw a lot of the Rastafarian and people wearing traditional West African garb. Living in Cape Verde, I was very familiar with the style and it made me smile. After speaking with the ladies, I began to notice a certain trend.  Many of the women I had spoken with were not married. One person I spoke with, who works in the university sector, told me that 75 percent of women make up the college population begging the question, "What is happening with the guys?" Then she responded to me with this question, "Why would a woman want to be with a man who will sit all day around the house and expect her to do his job as well?!"  Many women here have said enough is enough.  Meanwhile, what of the men?  Apparently, they have started to hustle. If you travel here, I highly recommend you NOT google the daily news as it's full of horrendous murder reports. Before arriving to the island, I was a bit apprehensive and saw a lot of young men in those reports who had met an unfortunate fate. The cocaine trafficking on the island is a huge problem and many men who are looking to make a quick profit, are getting involved with the drug trade.  Average age for a young man involved in this lifestyle to live on this island is around their 30's and 40's.  It's VERY sad. Who fuels that cocaine traffic?  Why the US of course! And how is it getting across?  The large oil ships from the island.  I spoke with several prominent figures of the oil company who have been dealing with this issue and it has been frustrating for them. 

Green Honeycreepers are like little gems seen flying from tree to tree in neighborhoods. 
For female travelers, this is not an island to travel alone.  One of the women during our treks had the unfortunate business of having catcalls made at her.  A male birder attempted to diffuse the moment and stated, "Those calls were clearly for me." Women are encouraged to travel with a group, friends or family.  Several of the women travelers told me their stories and each sounded the same.  Bring your dad!  Bring your husband! Bring your friends! And they did.  Again, in the tourist sectors, like Asa Wright, we were perfectly safe. 

This banded Great Kiskadee hung out with a Tropical Kingbird
Am I crazy for coming here?  No.  The tourist areas are secured and it's safe to travel during the day in populated areas or with local guides.  On this birding trek, I really got some insight.  I even did some "liming", or going out with some friends, even though people told me not to do it.  You can't live in fear all the time. And I've traveled enough to know the do's and don'ts of going out at night. Trinidad is worth the visit.  Like any place, you just need to use common sense. The birding is epic!

And last but not least. I had been getting a lot of questions about food and water.  While I've been here, I've boiled my water from the faucet and drink from the metal thermoflask I brought to cut down on the plastic. I boil it just in case, but it wasn't necessary. The water is fine which surprised me a bit. A lot of people have asked me how the food has been.  Quite honestly, this has been the best trip for anyone who is a vegetarian.  Most of the food makes use of sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, fresh fresh vegetables, plantain, and lentils!  In fact, I eat mostly veggie dishes.  They were really tasty.  I started making some of the dishes in my apartment.  They sell really interesting curry sauces.  They also serve excellent fish plates and um.....I'm not a fan, but the seafood is very good. I like shrimp and my mouth watered from a spicy rice dish that had huge prawns!  One day,  I accidentally ate some English inspired smoked herring and nearly lost it.  I kept my composure and quickly made the salty and bony matter inside my mouth disappear into a napkin. 

Trinidad is a beautiful country full of kind and wonderful people.  I was invited to dinner at their homes.  And I got to meet some great people and make new friends.  Anyhow, if you like your birding easy, go with Caligo Ventures as it's a safe way to enjoy your trip to Trinidad and Tobago. If you're a little more gypsy, like myself, do your research and have a great time.  We'll explore in my next writes, the awesome that is Trinidadian birding.....


  1. That green Honeycreeper is a real beauty. Of course the cocaine problem n the US. After Justice Kennedy's announcement, I am wondering what the future holds for my grandchildren. Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Amazing colors, amazing birds, and amazing crushes!
    The island is yours!

  3. Fascinating insight into life on Trinidad. Good luck with it all. Looking forward to reading all about your adventures.
    Keep safe.

  4. Hello, I would love to visit Trinidad and Asa wright. The birds are awesome. I have to admit, your post spooked me about the safety. Thanks for sharing, looking forward to more of your post.

  5. A really interesting post Chris - the birds look amazing. Stay safe and you have my sympathies over insect bites!! Look forward to reading more of your adventures :)

  6. WOW! Whaat an awesome trip this has been. Colours and birds are amazing it is a pity about the crime for people living there.


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