Goat debates and spicy calypso in Tobago
Simon Busch gets right into the rhythm of a mellow little Caribbean island, but why does he keep getting called "Boy"?
"For true!?" It's very catching, the Tobagan way of speaking. Lilting, rich and deep, it's like the linguistic version of some pleasant but unfamiliar soup. It sounds a little archaic, too, as if you might have time-travelled a little, peppered as it is with words left behind by the island's various French, Dutch and English colonisers. Everyone speaks that way, black and white, land-owner and labourer, and I, in my sponge-like way, soon wanted to, too.
"Look, boy!" One thing that might not catch on, though, is that use of "boy" every second sentence. Boys, men, girls, it appears - probably even sage and kindly Tobagan grandmothers get called boy from time to time. Orville, our guide on a jeep tour through the more inaccessible parts of Tobago - the smaller, lesser known and, it's probably fair to say, more generally laidback island making up the bi-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago - kept calling me "boy", and it was taking some getting used to.
Boys on a Tobago beach
"Look at its snout, boy!" he'd said, pointing out a caiman, one of the harmless little local alligators, gliding through a leaf-veiled pond we'd trekked through a rainforest to find. "Watch out, boy!" he'd laughed, as the jeep pitched and swayed like a carnival ride over the mad ruts in the road. And, "See the wheel, boy?" he asked now, indicating an ornate, rusting piece of machinery poking through the dark green jungle undergrowth.
The wheel was part of a sugar-processing factory built and worked by slaves on Tobago some 250 years ago. Orville gestured up the hill. That was where the masters built their houses, he said: strategically, so they could get wind of any slave revolt below. He sliced his machete into a tree, and pure white sap ran out. They'd used slaves to harvest rubber here, too.
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I mention these sombre things partly to avoid falling into a pit of Caribbean cliches, overflowing with spicy rum and gleaming white sand and grinning, laidback locals. Because the trouble is Tobago does press upon you such pleasant things in abundance, too. It will give you some flavour of the island that one of the biggest controversies of recent years had... I was going to say erupted but I'm going to say bubbled up... over the construction of a little-used goat-racing stadium.
The sport is pretty much confined to Tobago, although presumably not just because of a worldwide scarcity of goats inclined to run in one direction. But even in Tobago it's a mainly seasonal pursuit. Arguably not a lot of reasons to construct a whole goat-racing stadium, then. A piece of graffiti in connection with the project certainly agreed. "Vote dem out!" it trumpeted.
Goat-racing seems like a fitting subject for a calypso song, the swaying style of music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago, but I was surprised how racy the genre seems to have become. At least it has if the Pleasure Pirates' tunes are any guide. I'll let you decide what the calypso trio's Under the Mango Tree is about, but the themes of women, unmistakable tastes and sensual sunny days should steer you in the right direction.
One brilliantly bold expression after another... the Pleasure Pirates calypso trio
The Pleasure Pirates were policemen and teachers by day (I doubt Tobago could support a full-time calypso band) but as smooth and practised players as you like. The lead singer's performance was a particular revelation. Sweating as he serenaded us by the beachside bar, he summoned up one brilliantly bold expression after another to accompany every rhyming, punning, naughtily allusive line.
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The best way to get to know Tobago is to drive around it at first; it won't take long, no more than a couple of hours, or you could hop on the occasional bus. On hilly roads you pass neat if basic settlements interspersing the overgrown plantations and then clusters of slightly faded hotels that, inside, wistfully evoke the gowned or mustachioed Hollywood stars who once graced their rooms.
Then, if it's your thing, once having circumnavigated the island, dive off it. The biggest brain coral in the world grow on Tobagan reefs. Off the bird sanctuary of little Tobago, in sight of a sprawling mansion that Ian Fleming used to rent to drink and write his novels, I encountered an enormous specimen. Nakedly grey and mottled, two metres across, it could, I briefly fancied, be the world's secret guiding intelligence, hidden away here in the blood-warm waters of Tobago.
You need a boat to reach the most exquisite diving spots, sloping down from beaches scrappy only with fallen coconuts and flotsam. At first I wanted to compare the fish I saw - a gangly, diamond-shaped creature flecked with gold like a bystander at a graffiti meet, a long, serious-faced, worm-like one and another somehow ridiculously all light-blue - to modern artworks but then I realised they reminded me far more of a bunch of flamboyant freaks from a 70s disco, complete with devilish, two-horned bouncer fish, suddenly rendered piscine by a capricious God.
At one point a hawksbill turtle the size of a jousting shield let me follow it for a minute as it went about its business, before I annoyed it and it dived into the darkness - but my mood was uplifted afterwards for hours.
LP, Michael Lawrence
A diver rides a manta ray off Tobago
They make good eating, too, the fish around Tobago, I should add before I begin to sound too precious. At Jemma's Seaview Kitchen, near the hamlet of Speyside, where the dining area is cradled in the branches of a 200-year-old almond tree from which you can sometimes see manta rays cruising by, we sat down to a huge, post-dive seafood platter. The lobster, creole shrimp, jerk fish, plantain and pigeon peas were plentiful, fresh and delicious and, contemplating the meal, the only thing barring my entry to heaven was the lack of a crisp chablis to accompany it. Jemma, however, bless her, was an ardent Christian and her restaurant was dry.
I'm not sure the Pleasure Pirates would have approved.
Simon travelled to Trinidad and Tobago with the aid of the Tourism Development Company of Trinidad & Tobago. He stayed at the Blue Haven, where a double Deluxe Room costs $220 (£145) a night until 15 December 2010. A double at Le Grand Courlan, based on two sharing, costs $412 (£269) a night on an all-inclusive basis, including a daily spa treatment.
Simon flew to T&T with British Airways (0844 493 0787), which flies from London Gatwick to Tobago; return fares cost from £473 including taxes, travelling in November.
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- Collecting lots of momentos and keeping them in a safe place
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