What does a hummingbird and a tar baby have in common?
Well, if you’re in Trinidad, the world’s largest asphalt lake burst open here, according to indigenous Amerindian legend, and swallowed up an entire village in punishment from the Great Spirit for the killing of the sacred birds.
And if you’re me, you’re mincing over aforesaid lake very warily indeed, replicating each footstep of the guide in front of you, print for print, so as not to morph into a latter day version of Br’er Fox’s Tar Baby of Uncle Remus fame, and get swallowed up in the 250-foot-deep morass of black, viscous, liquefying goo.
Here the liquid part is rainwater
If you think that can’t happen to you, just look at the photo near the entrance gate of a gent totally covered from neck to toe in the gooey black mess, an image already batting red alarm flashes in my fevered mind’s eye and blaring air raid sirens in my fevered mind’s ear.
It happened just a few years back and the caption reads: ‘This guy got sink into the mother of the lake.’ He was hauled out alive, but that’s why I’m mincing around like a drunken heron – because I don’t want to pitch in (Oh, what a Gawd-awful pun!).
OK, much of the 98-acre lake, containing 10 million metric tons of pitch, presents a not particularly impressive or attractive blackish surface likened by many to a parking lot.
The ‘mother of the lake’ refers to the parts where this softish, rubbery, resinous surface gives way to the viscous, glossy black goo, producing the same effect as quicksand, thank you very much. The guide bends to one side, dips in a pole and holds it up. It treacles back off in liquefied sheets.
The duller, more matte surface merely gives as each step lands and leaves its imprint, sending up bubbles of air and water. Even without the steps, little bumps swell and belch and fart all on their own. Break off a part and it’s flexible and scrunchable, just like rubber.
Amerindian hummingbird slaying notwithstanding, the lake was formed aeons ago when the Caribbean continental plate slipped beneath another plate, opening a fault through which oil from deep underground bubbled up and, through evaporation of lighter elements, left behind asphalt.
British gentleman-buccaneer Sir Walter Raleigh, credited with ‘discovering’ the lake, used its pitch to caulk his ships in 1595, leading him to proclaim, famously or otherwise: ‘most excellent… It melteth not with the sun as the pitch of Norway.’
But ages before that the Amerindians, who guided the worthy Brit to the spot, were using its pitch for just that purpose.
The Spaniards, who ‘discovered’ Trinidad, called the area La Brea (tar), and the name still sticks (Oh, Gawd, not again!). Ever since, its pitch has been used to asphalt roads from New York to London to Lord alone knows where.
The lake, surrounded by lush cashew and mango tree, and factories for pitch refinement, ‘lives and breathes’ in constant motion, pushing up the remains of prehistoric creatures such as a giant sloth, a mastodon’s tooth and tree trunks 3,000 or more years old.
Water puddles on the harder surface, taking on the colours of component minerals – red for iron and green for copper.
As you drive down from the mountainous north to La Brea at the 1-841-square-mile island’s south-west end, the jungle peaks give way to gently rolling, wooded country. You pass a splendid lookout over Port of Spain, where plastic cups and other garbage have an unfortunate habit of gathering, and drive through the community of Morvant – where you don’t go at night because of the drug gangs.
Port of Spain has acquired a half dozen or so not very attractive waterfront high rises since I was last here 48 years ago, but behind them it’s still the somewhat seedy but nonetheless charming Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene-type locale ideal for a high-born British colonial-era remittance man, with its straight lanes of tin roofed bungalows ringing out some’at awful in the tropical downpour.
The baroque green-roofed red-walled Red House, once the site of parliament where Moslem extremists held the prime minister and parliament members hostage for five days in 1990 while rioters and looters rampaged through the capital, seems to be scaffolded in a state of permanent restoration.
But Queen’s Park Savannah, 260 acres of parkland once used for growing sugar and pasturing cattle, now jokingly known as the world’s largest roundabout with a 2.2-mile perimetre road, still retains its charm.
Gingerbread mansions from the late Victorian and Edwardian eras like Queen’s Royal College, the château-like Roomor, and Stollmeyer’s Castle, a purported Balmoral Castle look-alike, grace its western border, while the Grand Stand on the southern side forms a focal point for Trinidad’s world-famous annual carnival.
And just to cheer you up, a yearning bachelor on the main road out to the suburb of Maraval has foresworn internet dating sites and gone public with his search for a mate with a large white on green billboard: ‘Wife Wanted Experience Could Be An Asset But Is Not Necessary.‘
[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Tobago, a Nirvana for Naturalists]
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.