image: Rowboats rest on a Tobago beach.
Rowboats rest on a Tobago beach.

Photograph © David Alan Harvey

Limin' Time
By Charlie Kulander

There's a secret to Tobago, Where the Old Caribbean Still Lives. Just leave your wristwatch at home....

"Wow, dat one wave!" Dexter says this every time the pirogue slams into another wall of water. The fiberglass hull launches skyward, then drops into the trough with a bone-jarring thud, poised to scoop up another bowful of Caribbean Sea. My job is to bail the water swirling around our ankles. We've been trolling without luck since dawn, circling five offshore pinnacles embroiled in surf. As fishing goes, this is an uncomplicated vessel: No ship-to-shore radio, no compass, and—come to think of it—no life jackets. As Dexter brings the boat around for another pass, a wave dunks the outboard, which emits a cloud of burnt oil and sputters to a halt.

"Oh choot, man," says Dexter, "De motor bade in de brine."

I've heard that fishing as a traditional way of life is dying out in the Caribbean. With a 20-knot wind pushing us slowly toward the rocks, I'm beginning to see why.

I should have been content with the glass-bottom boat rides out to Buccoo Reef, one of Tobago's most popular tourist attractions, a spreading reef bristling with sea fans, moray eels, and a brain coral so huge it must have an IQ of over 2000. That's where I went my first day here, not because I was so interested in peering through the boat's glass bottom—in rough weather, similar to staring intently at the rinse cycle of a washing machine—but by the intriguing promise of Captain Anthony, who hinted of physical benefits if I swam in the Nylon Pool, a sandy shoal in the lee of the reef. I was mystified. What benefits do you get from a place named after a DuPont product? No more runs in your stockings?

Captain Anthony explained: "Princess Margaret, when she visit, she gives it de name cause de water here ripples like nylon. Dis water make you feel ten years younger. Dat's why when Margaret got home, she divorced dat Snowden guy. Swim here does twist back yuh clock."

That's why I came to this island just beyond the tail end of the Windward Antilles, looking to twist the clock back to a more traditional era, where I could hear the chirp of birds instead of beepers and watch sunsets instead of screensavers. The island's flat southwestern end is where the airport lies, making it the logical place for most of Tobago's hotels, guest houses, shark ‘n' bake stands, Rastafarian street peddlers, and one-hour Fotomats. But to the north, the roads veer into a tumult of hills, twisting up to a virgin rain forest and swerving down to the small fishing villages where I heard that a more traditional way of life could still be found. Here I could sever my bonds to the technological world.

But first I needed to find an ATM.

The only thing familiar about Scarborough's scrappy, animated waterfront was a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The rest was a confusion of market stalls, bars, erratically driven cars, and lingering people. Why, when guidebooks always warn against changing money on the street, do banks put their ATMs in a glass fishbowl right there on the sidewalk, where any thief can see? After leaving the booth, I was crossing the street when one of the hastily stuffed bills fell out of my pocket and danced away on the breeze. A rickety Land Rover squeaked to a halt, the driver leaping out and sprinting after it. I shook my head—if he needs money that bad, he can keep it—and kept walking until I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"You drop dis," he said, handing me the crumpled banknote.

On Tobago, I soon realized, the only people you see with their hands out are just trying to flag down rides. Uniformed school children were the most persistent. They'd cram into my rental car until there wasn't room to breathe—then invite their friends. As I drove on narrow serpentine roads through the hilly interior, my passengers educated me about their 26-mile-long island.

"What do you call that?" I asked, pointing to an exotic-looking bovine with horns shaped like a Roman lyre.

"A cow," said ten-year-old Alisha, to her credit the only one not erupting in laughter.

"I know that," I said. "But doesn't it have a special name?"

"I doh know de name of every cow on Tobago," she patiently explained. "But my fadder have one name's Jessie."

I dropped the kids off one by one at the hamlets we passed—Harmony Hall, Providence, Whim, Golden Lane—stopping to admire their homes, some on stilts: bamboo eaves to catch rainwater, a few goats to keep down the pasture, breadfruit on the branch, clumps of dasheen—taro—in the garden, trimmed hibiscus hedges for laying out wet clothes to dry in the sun.

"Life is pretty peaceful here," said George Ross, a resident I talked to in Moriah. "I could go travel and leave dis door just so, and when I come back I see everyting in the same way."

That evening, I was jumped from behind and robbed. It happened in Parlatuvier, a small fishing village notched into the steep northwestern coast, perched around a jade cove glazed an even deeper shade by the reflection of the jungled hillsides. While idly standing in front of Islin and Duran Chance's general store, I heard the sudden clink of a chain and felt something thump my back. Two strong arms grasped my shoulders. Before I could face my attacker, a long hairy arm reached down and wrestled out my wallet, scattering credit cards to the ground. Our eyes met as he bared his teeth in a sickly grin, daring me to reach for the Blockbuster rental card he held in his hand. I screamed for help.

"Mrs. Chance! Can you get this monkey off my back?"

When the locals heard my tale of getting mugged by Pancho, Islin's pet monkey, they were quick to point out that spider monkeys aren't native to Tobago. They are imported from Trinidad, which, as most any Tobagonian will tell you, is the true source of everything bad that happens on the island.

"But it's not just bad tings dat come from Trinidad," said Cleveland Jacob, owner of the Kings Well Inn, a little rum bar and restaurant in the center of Scarborough. "Everyting comes from Trinidad. Tobago makes nutten. We have no factories, no refineries, nutten. Only ting we have here is paradise."

In the dual-island republic, Trinidad is often seen as the mother island. Stepmother, actually. In 1889, the British attached Tobago to nearby Trinidad as a way to cope with a particularly messy bankruptcy: A London financial company had failed, putting most of Tobago's sugar plantations out of business and destroying the local economy. Since joint independence in 1962, Tobago has been unified with Trinidad.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Tobago saw more hostile takeovers than Rupert Murdoch's boardroom. English, French, Dutch, and Latvians all settled here. They left behind little of their heritage, except in the rich assortment of place names: L'Anse Fourmi, Culloden, Les Coteaux, Bacolet.

While the names may be European, the island's soul belongs to Africa. More than 90 percent of the population is of African descent. When Tobago's plantations folded, most of the owners left, but the ex-slaves remained to farm the small fields that they once worked in bondage and, after abolition, as sharecroppers. They relied on a communal spirit of lending a hand with each other's work to survive. This Len' Han' philosophy helped to make Tobago theirs.

You can still witness the tradition of Len' Han' along the island's northwestern coast, perhaps the only place left in the Caribbean where fishermen still regularly gather on the beach to pull in the seine nets, sharing the catch.

"Need an extra hand?" I asked.

"Wash yuh foot an' jump in."

Visitor or native, anybody can pull seine. It doesn't matter if you are black, white, or sunburn-red; all that matters is your willingness to pitch your back into it. As my heels dug furrows into the sand, fingers cramping around the frayed rope, I listened to the banter of Creole, understanding only the odd phrase.

"Alla-all-yuh pull left right and center...who makin' you de boss...pull hard like you pull last night, Natty."

As the last of the net was hauled ashore, the glittering cascade of shivering sprats was quickly scooped up in wicker baskets and brought to higher ground. I was offered a handful, part of the Len' Han' dividend.

"No thanks," I said. "What would I do with a bunch of dead sardines?"

"Go fishin', mon."

It seemed like a brilliant suggestion at the time.

Oblivious to the waves exploding on the nearby rocks, Dexter lifts the cover off the outboard, and probes with his only tool, a rusty knife.

"Me cable is cut," he says without looking up. He's not seeing the way the surf scrawls high up the rocks, then streams off like waterfalls.

"Ah, Dexter, I'm not seeing any oars here."

"Doh worry, I fix de put-put so," he says, cutting a length of fishing line from the tangle at his feet.

Wave and wind are pushing us toward an unwanted association with Tobago's most famous shipwreck victim, Robinson Crusoe. Except there's one big difference. Robinson Crusoe was a figment of Daniel Defoe's imagination.

This doesn't stop Tobago from marketing itself as the "Robinson Crusoe Isle." On my second day here, I visited the bat-ridden, oceanfront crevice marked on tourist maps as Crusoe's Cave. Somebody had carved his initials, RC, into the rocks.

While Robinson Crusoe was an incurable workaholic, most Tobagonians have a more relaxed attitude toward life, shaped in part by "liming." Bestowing a name to the simple art of enjoying life gives it the respectability it deserves.

"Limin' is just hanging out," said Isis, a man I met one day up in Golden Lane. "To buss a lime with friends, dat means to take advantage of life, yeah mon. De only ting you waste is time, cause dat's the only ting in life comes free."

We had been liming all morning, sitting on the crypt of an ancient witch, Gang Gang Sarah, next to his house. I had heard that some of the island's mysteries might be glimpsed at the slave cemetery here, safeguarded by the descendants and by vestiges of old West African religions: Colorful shango flags fluttered from bamboo stalks in front of a few homes. Obeah men once practiced their ceremonies under a giant silk cotton tree down the road. Up here in the hills, Africa feels close, and local people, proud of their history, don't hesitate to share their stories with curious strangers popping out of rental cars.

Isis, his face framed in dreadlocks, talked of the bones he unearthed while digging around his foundation. "I leave dem alone, but since then, I dream a lot a' dream. Dey trouble in my night." And he spoke of kindly Gang Gang Sarah: "She fly here from Africa, but she ate salt, so when she try to fly home from de silk cotton tree, she die fallin'." There are other versions of Gang Gang Sarah's story—one says she was a soucouyant, a not-so-kindly vampirelike witch-but all seem to symbolize the slaves' plight: They could never go home again.

"Long ago, I try to open de grave," he continued, showing me where he had attempted to bore into the crypt. "I was tinking dare might be someting inside to help wit' de living a' m' life, yeah mon. But a flash of light hit me, and knock me down. I doh be so stupid again."

It figures. In Tobago, the ghosts of the past provide little sustenance to the present. Rusty water wheels and boiling pots are all that remain of the sugar plantations, and the coral-pink immortelle trees on the hillsides have outlasted the cacao plants that once grew in their shade. Coconut groves harvested for copra now post signs: BEWARE OF FALLING NUTS. Hurricane Flora wiped out most other attempts at agriculture in 1963.

"After Flora mash everyting down, people grow despondent," said my guide, Mr. Livingston, as we hiked Gilpin Trail nature path into the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. "But now dare is more work. Tourists come to see how beautiful Tobago is."

Mr. Livingston is one of a growing number of guides, licensed by the government, who escort tourists through what Tobago claims to be the world's oldest legally protected preserve, set aside in 1776 to gather rain for the sugar plantations. The two-hour trail leads from the island's spine down to Bloody Bay, burrowing under a primeval canopy of fronds, vines, and stalks. Any breeze sends leaves helicoptering down through shafts of church-window light.

Looking for birds in the thick growth was like searching for gray hairs in the mirror; once I found the first one, they started showing up everywhere: blue-crowned motmots, pheasantlike cocricos, tanagers, red-crowned woodpeckers, shrieking parrots, and the blurred wingbeat of hummingbirds. Mr. Livingston pointed out other things my eyes missed: freshwater crabs, darting guppies, leafcutter ants, hummingbird nests, and the sticky leaves of the wait-a-while plant.

Tobagonians have never harvested this fragrant 14,000-acre forest. Instead, this unspoiled woodland, along with the island's pristine beaches and reefs, are now paying off in other ways, discovered by international travelers who've had enough of the Caribbean's more developed islands. And anyone willing to Len' Han' will discover the secret of Tobago: Its people rejuvenate the spirit more than any soak in the Nylon Pool.

As the pirogue rocks madly in the waves bouncing off the pinnacles, Dexter yanks the starter cord once, twice, and on the third pull, the engine sputters to life. He hands me the fishing line that now controls his makeshift throttle—"pull hard on de line like dis"—then throws the boat around and launches us oceanward. I suggest it's time to call it a day.

"Yuh jokin'? We on de move. Nutten gonna stop us now."

And wouldn't you know it? Five minutes later, the first kingfish strikes.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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