This month Harty sings the praises of Tobago, a very special island.
The daily minibus ride from our hotel in Crown Point to the windsurfing centre at Pigeon Point only takes 10 minutes, but it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the day thanks to the charm and hilarity of our driver Geewan, who was obviously separated at birth from his slightly less funny twin, Eddie Murphy.
“Air hair layer” (oh hello!’) he says as he rolls up.
It’s how he greets us after we’d swapped colloquialisms following an etymological discussion about the differences in pronunciation between the local tongue and the affected English of London society.
In return he gave us, “Two Big Onions.” That, he said, is what you call the people from Tobago.
We cruise ever so gently though the tropical gardens and up to the beach.
“Toodle pip”, says Geewan. And with that another glorious windsurfing day on Tobago begins.
My first trip to Tobago was in the late 90s just as it was emerging onto the windy scene. As I emerged from the tiny airport on my way to the car hire hut, I was hailed by a local guy, and did that terrible thing that tourists do, which was to raise a hand, avoid eye contact and basically ignore him on the assumption that his friendly hello was a just prelude to trying to sell some weed. Because … well that is what I’d encountered on other Caribbean islands. He was still sitting there when I came out:
“You can talk to me you know!” He said with half a smile. “I was just going to ask if you wanted a taxi – but I can see you’re OK. Where are you staying?”
“Jimmy’s Apartments.” I said apologising for my rudeness, making up some lame excuse about being tired. “I know Jimmy. I’m going that way, you can follow me if you like.” And so I did – no demand for dollars – just pure kindness – and there began my love affair with Tobago.
Weddings ‘r us
They say you can only make a first impression once – well I got a double hit. I was on a photo shoot with my photographer and friend Mikey O’Brien and his pregnant partner Sandra. On the way to the beach the first morning, Mikey confided in me that Sandra was not her usual bubbly self. Knowing Sandra well, I hinted that it might be because she didn’t want to be an unmarried mother. Three days later we had a wedding on the beach, which remains the best I’ve been to apart from my own.
A chattel hut was turned into a chapel …, which later mutated into a bar. The inimitable John Pollard, the centre owner, acted as surrogate father and gave Sandra away. Travelling windies made up the congregation. Local musicians turned up out of nowhere and played the wedding march on steel drums and someone produced a bottomless vat of rum punch. And then there was the vicar. His address was … well on the romance front, it was clear he himself had been around the block a few times and had the scars to prove it. “Now Sandra listen, we men aren’t perfect. When we roll in at 3 in the morning it’s not because we don’t love you … love is complicated …” It was more a confession than sermon, but was greeted with rapturous applause by both sexes. Forget the platitudes. In Tobago they tell it how it is. Then the wind blew and we all got wet.
After a gap of 15 years I returned, expecting the island to be ruined in the name of progress. It wasn’t. John Pollard says the lack of mass tourism is mostly down to governmental incompetence than design. Whatever – it’s worked as a conservation policy. The area of Pigeon Point remains a national park with very limited commercial activity. You can’t overstate the magnificence. It’s comically beautiful. Mention the Caribbean and it’s your imagined fantasy – azure lagoon, white sand, swaying palms, mountain backdrop, humming birds, waves breaking on distant reefs.
The one thing that has changed is the centre itself. John sold it to Brett Kenny, an excellent kiteboarder, surfer, and more recently, windsurfer, who over the past 5 years has taken it to the point where it’s full of returning customers. That’s never a bad sign. Brett, who is Trinidadian, is married to Alex who’s Austrian – Teutonic efficiency cum Caribbean laidbackness is surely the perfect blend for a windy centre.
I run two clinics a year there. At the end of a week, in the modern spirit of customer satisfaction, I hand out feedback forms, except there are no forms – we just retire to the bar and chat. Everyone seems to love the place … but can’t pinpoint exactly why. But I’ve worked it out. Have you noticed how you’re constantly smiling? Like the local rum punch, it’s a cocktail of happy ingredients. All the aspects of modern living that stress you out, crowds, noise, daily competition, the squeeze on your time, people putting you under pressure, making you fearful – they’ve all gone. The sailing area is so benign. It’s nice, not crazy windy. You’re more likely to be on a 6.5 than a 4.2. That’s not windy enough for travelling pros – perfect. Nothing creates pressure and exacerbates feelings of inferiority more than wizards whirling inches from your head and barking at you for being in their space.
OK, there are waves. Shhh! Buccoo reef lies between 1 and 2 km from the beach. On my first trip I sailed out there and had 2 hours of dreamy riding. When I got back in and extolled to John the glory of the experience, he told me that if ever he saw someone sailing that reef because I’d told them about it, he’d fry my balls in hot sauce. I hope he’s forgotten. But it’s still empty – probably not quite consistent enough to attract the elite, and a little far out to tempt the timid.
But more than that, people return from Tobago having been given a life lesson. It may sound like a cliché, but no one is in a hurry. One guy told me he was in the bank on the first day and was getting a little twitchy about how long it was taking. One of the cashiers asked him in a totally non-aggressive way if he had a train to catch.
Waiting for a snack on the beach it’s clear the dollar is not their god. Your fish and chip order will not affect their lifestyle. The customer is not always right, so just calm down. It will arrive when it will arrive. After a few days you see people, who in another world could well be given to banging tables in impatient frustration, just sitting there calmly, staring out to sea, waiting their turn. I’m off there again tomorrow. I ordered my chips two weeks ago – they should just about be ready when I arrive.
Peter Hart – 22nd Feb 2019