A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009 entrant
Author: Alan Ferguson
The moon shone on the white onion domes of the temple scattering light out onto the Gulf of Paria beyond. The moonlight also reveals the long pier at the end of which the temple is built, surrounded by sea on three of its sides. Framing this picture were the dozens of jhandees or Hindu prayer flags fluttering on the shoreline on which we are standing. We’ve only just arrived in my fiancée’s homeland of Trinidad and Tobago and are surveying the scene of we are due to get our relationship blessed. Only now, looking on, I can’t think of a more beautiful spot to get married.
We’re standing in front of Waterloo temple on the mid-western coast of Trinidad. There’s also a statue here of a local Indian labourer named Sewdass Sadhu who had originally tried to build the temple by the shore. The national sugar company objected to this on their land and destroyed his attempt at constructing a mandir or temple and threw him in jail. Not one to give up, Sewdass then spent the next 17 years of his life constructing his temple out in the sea where no-one had claim to the land. He did this armed only with a bicycle which balanced two buckets of cement after laying down steel drums filled with concrete for use as foundations. He died in 1971 leaving a partially completed mandir but which the Trinidadian government, finally recognising his efforts, completed in 1997.
His story only added to the allure of the temple for me and as we discuss marriage. Eddie, a white haired middle aged Trini with a protruding rum belly and soon to be brother in law cackles “this is where you’ll be meeting your waterloo, boy” and adds that he’ll leave a speedboat round the back just in case I get any last minute nerves. Seeking to quickly re-establish the romantic mood I try and think of the three most magical words I can think of. “Lets’ Do it”, is about all my jet lag addled brain will allow.
We have 2 weeks to organise a wedding. Eddie for all his bad jokes would be taking this on with his wife Chandra. As we drove back through roads surrounded by sugar cane fields on both sides my main task would be to find a best man. My best friend in London was broke and wouldn’t be able to afford the flight.
Being raised in Ireland and reared on the black stuff, I was on the lookout for someone who knew what good craic was (i.e. not someone who thought it was a dodgy substance that occasionally washes up on the shores of Trinidad following a navy patrol getting too close to a panicked South American boat crew) My cunning plan was to travel the length and breadth of the island and surely I would find someone in its 5000 square kilometres as well as the convenient benefit of seeing all the sights.
Week One: It’s a cliché to refer to the Caribbean as “laid back” but T&T is one of the few places you will see someone driving with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand clutching a Carib, the local brew. Unfortunately, this is coupled with some of the worst roads, with potholes a juggernaut could disappear into. The local joke is “Q. How do you spot a drunk driver in Trinidad? A. He’s the one driving in a straight line”
Why this is the case is beyond me given that Trinidad has one of the world’s only pitch lakes which we stop to see on our way to visit friends in the south of the island. The naturally occurring pitch from the lake is used to pave roads the world over but seemingly not in T&T itself. We also visited the Caroni swamp which is a designated wildlife area most famous for its boat tours around its lagoons to see white flamingos, blue herons and T&T’s national bird, the scarlet ibis. However, end of week one and no best man!
Week Two: We visit my fiancée’s home village, Hard Bargain in Central Trinidad. The local village elder informs me the name was given by returning soldiers from the American civil war who had been Promised Land in return for fighting but had ended up being given poor quality scrub land.
Then success! After a tortuous drive up narrow winding roads with alarming hairpin bends and a distinct lack of barriers we arrived at the Asa Wright centre. Originally a coffee and cocoa plantation it was now a nature reserve with beautifully laid out grounds and trails through surrounding rainforest. I was treating Eddie and Chandra to lunch when an Irish priest and his companion, a nun, sat down on our table. He explained they were on a retreat and had stayed overnight at the hotel. The beginning of a cackling laugh from Eddie was cut short by a withering look from his wife. After telling them of our wedding plans Father Michael agreed to attend and stand in as my best man. Mission accomplished!
I’d had a few nights sampling the superb product of the sugar cane fields in the local rum shops where I was treated as a king as one of the few tourists to ever pass through, I’d feasted on Indian and Creole cooking, walked along miles of deserted beaches in eastern Trinidad and took a swim at the spectacular Maracas beach in North T&T. However, the highlight was the sun setting out to sea as our wedding ceremony at Waterloo temple came to a close. We took seven steps around a sacred fire we’d made with each step being preceded by a mantra asking Vishnu, preserver of the universe, for health, wealth and blessings. I knew this would be the first of many visits to T&T.
And no, I didn’t need to use the speedboat after all….