By Folu Olamiti, who was in the Caribbean twin cities
The date was June 20, 2012. The mission was this year’s congress of International Press Institute, IPI, holding in the Caribbean dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Although this was neither my first visit to the Caribbean nor South America, the mere thought of the trip still set my adrenaline surging. It quickened my pulse. It raised my expectations to fever pitch.
Why? This is because I had only learnt of the twin cities in my geography lessons in secondary school. And widely travelled as one has been privileged to be, I had never gone beyond the realm of fantasy as far as Trinidad and Tobago was concerned.
My excitement beggared description in the final minutes to the commencement of the journey that will take us, first, to Houston, Texas, in the United States, then, to our final destination. When our United Airlines airbus finally took off from the Murtala Mohamed International Airport, Lagos, on the first leg of our journey, I metaphorically walked on air. “America, here we come!” I intoned.
At last, I was fulfilling a dream of over four decades. I took special interest in Trinidad and Tobago during my years in the secondary school. The stories from this historical land had always made me long for a visit.
We flew 13 hours, nonstop, through the coast of West Africa and over the frightful Bermuda triangle into George Bush International Airport in Houston. I had a delay of over eight hours before connecting the only daily flight by the United Airlines to Trinidad. The flight took another six hours. By the time we landed at Piarco International Airport in Trinidad, I had spent a staggering 27 hours in transit!
In the bosom of T&T
After the rigorous airport clearance by the Homeland Security officials at Houston Airport, I headed for my transit gate to Trinidad and Tobago.
Now, are you planning your first trip ever to Trinidad, through the United States? Prime your mind to rigorous check at the point of entry. You would be scientifically screened; your luggage would be thoroughly scrutinized. The process of retrieving baggage was made rigorous with repeated security checks.
At the ‘C’ checkpoint, some Nigerian women had a hell of a time as the security officials intercepted some Nigerian foodstuffs they were carrying like garri, fried meat, pepper, fruits-all items said to have been banned for importation into the United States by travellers. If you hold more than $10,000, you must declared this in writing in a form, perhaps as a routine measure against money laundering. In this regard, information supplied must be accurate as any false declaration could prompt security operatives to seize your money and initiate a process of prosecution against you. Ignorance is not an excuse. So, you must familiarize yourself with the immigration laws of the United States before embarking on your trip. As I learnt, the authorities in that land had been super security conscious since the days of 9/11.
Finally,I flew out of Houston for a six hour flight to Port Of Spain in Trinidad and landed at Piarco International Airport. I made my way out of the beautiful airport and later took an AT&T SIM Card to enable me make urgent calls within and outside the country. It was then I realized that a US dollar is equivalent to 60 Trinidad dollars.
The Piarco International Airport, any day, is a beauty to behold. It would be criminal to compare it to what we have presently in Lagos. Though Nigeria’s airports are being restructured and renovated, most frequent travellers still believe that the final product of the turn-around-maintenance may still not match international standards.
I had always felt that the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, is an old structure, which ought to have been pulled down for a world-class replacement.
Officials of the IPI, Trinidad local chapter, were on hand to make participants’ journey to their hotel enjoyable. The twin islands are blessed with an abundance of natural resources. That perhaps explains the reason they remain the most keenly contested colonial territories in history.
Apart from the tourism sector that enjoys priority attention as complement to the national economy, the country also takes pleasure in its industrial base, which is hinged on oil and natural gas resources.
The Hyatt Hotel, which hosted the IPI congress and accommodated 80 percent of the participants, is situated right opposite the deep-water harbour that has the capacity to accommodate cruise ships. Behind the hotel is the seat of government called the Parliament Building. The Prime Minister and her cabinet have their offices at the building.
The Republic runs a parliamentary system of government where the Head of State is the President, but the executive powers are vested in the Prime Minister. Estimated population of this twin country is 1.3 million, with 55,000 residing in Tobago. The ethnic mix consists of 40.3 percent of east Indian descent, 39.5 percent African, mixed-18.4 percent, European-0.6 percent, while the Chinese and other nationals constitute 1.2 percent.
Picturesque airport, et al
One striking feature I noticed at the arrival hall of the airport was the steel band, which has made the Trinidad and Tobago famous. The people see the steel pan as their national instrument, invented as a gift to the world. Invented in the 20th century the steel pan is made by turning the bottoms of steel oil drums. There has been a yearly steel band festival that attracts music lovers from across the country and outside.
I took a trip down the Island of Trinidad, visited the Aspire caves and climbed to the top of the island through a snake-like road to the top of the hill and got a fantastic panoramic view of Trinidad.
Owing to the tight programme at the IPI congress, there was little for sightseeing. Work competed keenly with necessity for relaxation.
Loud in Tobago
However, trip to this beautiful country will be incomplete if you don’t visit Tobago, which is just 20 minutes by air and two hours by fast boat. The after-congress tour of Tobago on June 27,2012 included the newly elected IPI chair, a woman named Galina Sidorova. The flight actually took us 15 minutes with a Dash 8 propeller plane.
The Island is serene and regales in its age of innocence. Seemingly un-violated. It is not as cosmopolitan as Trinidad, yet, its colonial history, its marine activities and good rustic cuisine all make it the favourite of many visitors from across the world.
The tour took us to the island, submerged by an undulating hill with alluring green vegetation and Atlantic Ocean with captivating beaches. The coast of Tobago has numerous vantage points with canons (war relics) on the beach sites of oil forts. Many of the smaller forts were built from timber and survive only in name, but those visible include Fort Milford with Crown Point Hotel; Rocky Point with its view over Mount Irvine Bay and Fort Bennett which protects the easterly entrance to the famous Turtle Beach.
Our tourist guide told us that the early settlers arrived from Britain, France and Holland and built homes. Most of the great houses, he said, were long gone, no thanks to the ravages by termites and hurricane disaster recorded in 1963.
We learnt that Tobago was once famous for sugar plantation where men and women of African descents worked as slaves. The relics of the plantation showed us that sugar has always been a king commodity in that part of the world. The first exports occurred in 1770 with 37 factories in operation.
Part of our tourist package was a boat ride on the deep blue ocean. The ocean, we were told, is safe for swimming. Some of us took a dive with life jackets into the warm sea. It was refreshing for me to watch the divers satisfy their passion from the boat. I thought that even with a jacket, I would never have been able to dive into the waters as fear of drowning gripped me.
All Trinidad and Tobago beaches are publicly operated. Some were made to serve the interest of visitors. We were strictly advised to stick to public beaches with tour guides on the ground in order to avoid untoward experience.
We were later taken on a guided tour of Tobago Museum where history of the transformation of the small Island into a paradise city was well documented.
This year, August specifically, the twin islands country will be celebrating its 50th Independent Anniversary. You can feel frenetic preparations everywhere. The occasion is expected to be celebrated throughout the country with calypso music and steel bands adding values to the events.
Like Brazil, like most Caribbean and South American cities, cultural carnivals are serious business, as they say, in Trinidad and Tobago. For instance, and according to travelnet.com, during such carnivals Soca music reverberates in the streets. Like spirit-possessed beings, beautiful damsels in bikini gyrate and shake sexily to the rhythmic sounds from steel bands and other musical sources.
The carnivals spice a season of cultural celebrations that bury the sordid history of slavery and indenture.
The festival of colour, like its parallels in Nigeria, unites the varied ethnicities and cultures that define the dual-island nation. They all converge in love, in food, in music and dance to lift one another to a seventh-level of ecstasy. This is Trinidad and Tobago-islands of pleasure. Cities with surfeit of natural and nocturnal attractions. Please, don’t ask me to give details. Seeing, as they say, is believing. Suffice it to say that you can never have a dull moment in this dual-island nation. Not with its azure sky, its deep blue sea, personable and very hospitable citizens, and cuisines that make your palate salivate long after you have returned home.
Indeed, if you love adventure, if your are fun loving, Trinidad and Tobago is the place to visit. It is a tourist destination you can’t ignore, despite its security challenges.
It is possible to conclude that a country of 1.3 million people would be crime free. Far from it! The number of armed policemen on the streets suggests that all is not well in the country. Every government building had large presence of gun-totting policemen. In fact, participants at the IPI congress were shocked at the farewell Gala Night when the master of ceremony, before the arrival of the Prime Minister, announced to delegates not to panic if any attack occurred, disclosing that there were six marked escaped routes at the Prime Minister residence to guarantee safety. The announcement jolted everyone, just as my friend, Malam Garba Shehu gave me a frightening look.
I got the message. He was with his wife and his teenage son. But God waved all forms of evil away from the arena. Indeed, plain-clothe securitymen detailed for the event overwhelmed the guests. That speaks volume. It is a way of concluding that Nigeria is not the only country that is groaning under the pang of terrorism. Nothing best explains this than the large presence of men in uniform on the streets, churches, mosques, public buildings and even private residences in Trinidad and Tobago. The world indeed is under the siege of terrorism!