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     Volume 11 |Issue 45| November 16, 2012 |


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Narrow channel, Caroni wetlands.

The Red Bird

Andrew Eagle

A scarlet ibis landing.

Eudocrimus ruber. Adults measure 55-63 centimetres in length with males slightly larger weighing about 1.4 kilograms. Wingspans are 54 centimetres and nests are messy stick constructions built well above the waterline. Flight is nimble and the curved bills of the males are 22 percent longer. Let's talk of waders. Let's remember Caroni.

And there was Eid on its way. And there was Diwali on its way.

'Take my number,' she said, 'and if you're not busy for Eid, call me and you can celebrate with us.' Just as once there had been a coincidental meeting with a Dhakaiya businessman aboard a Bangaon train, there was that young woman in the Miami terminal, waiting as we were for the flight to Port of Spain. We'd asked her of her country and she'd said a few things. You know a country has to be good when the first invitation is granted before arrival.

She had no way to know there'd be knobble-kneed Shazam in Bermuda shorts and t-shirt to look after us. Neither did we. It was our very first trip to Trinidad.

Shazam was used to tourists because he was the driver at the guest house in Diego Martin. He'd spent the week before us with a wealthy American woman who'd had shopping to do and he'd enjoyed that. He knew the tourist routines of the north of the island and he'd heard all the tourist complaints. He was used to the sometimes fussiness of foreigners.

Shazam was expert enough indeed to dutifully ignore the instructions of the guest house manager regarding the ordering of the sites. The main trouble seemed to be with Maracas Bay, a postcard beach on Trinidad's northern shore where the manager may have thought about the tourist-friendly sunset, telling Shazam to go there last. Shazam thought about the traffic and the narrow winding road. Despite working as a driver, he was nervous in traffic and on narrow winding roads. You could tell this by the way he jerkily swung to the side on occasion as a speedier vehicle passed; and because he said as much.

It was hot in the middle of the day at Maracas Bay, perfect for a swim and a lunch of the battered shark in roti dish called shark-n-bake. And it was just as well to do things the Shazam way.

I'm not sure why Shazam thought we'd be delighted by the modest modern shopping malls of Trinidad. Perhaps that's where some of the other tourists liked to go to feel at home; maybe he'd been there with the American woman the week before; but it didn't take much time and he was pleased to show us, in between the British colonial blocks of the Trinidadian capital, so we didn't suggest anything different.

In the evening we toured the Hindu fair beyond the city, to the south. Trinidad's population is split, about evenly, between Africans and Indians, the descendants of slaves and of indentured labourers, and while the Africans are Christians, the Indians are divided principally between the Hindu and Muslim communities. It's the strong Indian influence that makes the island unique in the West Indies. There were flashing lights and tabla songs on a stage at the fair, because Diwali was on its way.

Python in Caroni.

Eudocrimus ruber. It was after that I suggested Caroni and Shazam was quite discouraging without exactly explaining why. I pressed him for the reason and in the end he said he'd taken tourists there before and they said there was nothing to see. There were too many mosquitoes and Caroni was just a swamp and it was disappointing. We had to convince him that we'd not be of such an opinion.

He was still in two minds at the dock where the small, open-air tourist boat waited. He still worried about mosquitoes as we put repellent on. Politely he made it clear that he'd not recommended Caroni and so if we didn't enjoy it, it wasn't his doing. And we waved as the boat set off.

At first there were narrow channels with mangroves on either side and the boat had to drive slowly to find passage between the submerged sticks and the shallows. It was there we saw the python, spiralled tightly in a mangrove branch. Indeed there were two. It was there the afternoon sun sprinkled gold among the greenery and brought reflections enough on the water to make tranquillity. There was a caiman too, a smaller alligator relative, posing in wait amid twig and branch on the channel-side mud.

Well, the channels became canals and lagoons as the sun moved lower, as the sky was decorated with those Caribbean pinks you don't seem to get elsewhere. And there were greys too, in the rain clouds that mostly moved around us but occasionally delivered a little light water down upon the boat. To go further was to better appreciate the size of the marshland: at five thousand hectares it's not the Sundarbans but it is large enough to feel lost in.

And perhaps there are no tigers in Trinidad but there are the scarlet ibises. Eudocrimus ruber. The main attraction.

It's a diet of red crustaceans that produces the brilliant scarlet of their feathers. The colour comes about at the time of the second moult, as the younger birds in grey, brown and white learn to fly. The scarlet ibis is the only shorebird in the world with red feathers.

As the boat once more returned to smaller channels the first ibises found us. They were like shots of fire beneath the mangrove canopy, light streaks flashing across the mangrove green and black as they somehow negotiated the entanglement of branches in high speed flight. What do the pythons and caimans, and all the other animals that sought to blend in, sporting mangrove tones, think of those flashy ibises?

But as soon as the flashes of red, three or four together, were spotted shooting by, so they were gone and the terrain returned to its usual shades. Was that all we'd see of them?

Evening in the wetlands, Trinidad.

And there was Eid on its way. And there was Diwali on its way. But it was not these occasions, rather Christmas which was still some months away that came to mind as the boat turned to enter a larger lagoon once more. There was a large tree at some distance, and it seemed to be decorated with dozens of shining red lights. As the sun was negotiating its last with the Gulf of Paria in the direction of Venezuela, the ibises came in to roost by the dozens, choosing that singular tree, and as each weary air circle was completed and a pair of wings finally folded, one more light was added to the unlikely, everyday, mangrove, marshland Caroni Christmas tree.

Eudocrimus ruber. The wader. The eater of red crustaceans. The tree decorator.

It was dark as the boat returned to the dock. Shazam cautiously asked how it was and he was rather pleased with the answer. He was relieved because we said nothing of mosquitoes, mostly as there weren't any about. Caroni was not 'just a swamp' and we had no complaints. Who indeed could be disappointed with the red bird?

On the drive back to the guest house we passed a Christmas tree sculpture of small white lights, and on one side was the outline of a Diwali lamp and on the other a crescent moon.

On the drive back Shazam said to me excitedly, 'I have met many tourists, but if I ever get the chance to travel I want to travel like you do. You take things easily, as they come.' In the car, full voiced, he sang his national anthem, and we sang ours. And we had no complaints.

Shazam took us to a park on Diwali evening where we lit candles along with local families. And for Eid he took us to his home, to feast and to celebrate.


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