Yesterday was UN Day of Cultural Diversity and I had the pleasure of celebrating it in Trinidad and Tobago, one of the most culturally diverse places I’ve ever been with its rich melting pot of African, French, Amerindian, Chinese, British, Indian, Spanish, Portuguese and other cultural influences.
I was in Port of Spain for the Second Caribbean Conference of National Trusts and Preservation Societies hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago National Trust, Citizens for Conservation and ICOMOS TT. It follows on from the inaugural conference in Barbados in 2014 – you can read my blog about that here and my this year’s presentation on threats to global heritage here.
This year’s theme was ‘Preserving Caribbean Heritage’ and we have learned much about different groups and projects across the region doing just that. From the amazing work of the Curaçao Monuments Fund Foundation to support and fund heritage rehabilitation and rebirth in Willemstad to community engagement projects like the work of Iezora Edwards reaching out to young people in Princes Town, Trinidad, through story-telling and performance. We heard from Haiti that people attach more meaning to places after a disaster and that wealth and capitalism were more damaging to heritage than poverty and abandonment. An interesting presentation from Celia Toppin about the OAS project she manages and its work to establish a Caribbean Heritage Network; share best practice in heritage legislation; develop a model for heritage listing and to engage the public. Diana McIntyre-Pike spoke about community or village tourism in Jamaica and how she had shared her experience in Lopinot, Trinidad, and some terrific examples from Barbados in Sheron Johnson’s talk about helping people to understand and value their heritage. The Saint Lucia National Trust presented their ambitious plans for Walcott Place including the acquisition of a largely abandoned street to ensure the viability of the Walcott Museum which opened earlier this year.
For me, the highlight of being in Port of Spain – aside from the wonderful people I met and the amazing things I learned at the conference – was firstly a visit to the National Trust’s Nelson Island site, a place so rich in stories you feel the significance creep into you as you approach the dock.
To say that Nelson Island is Trinidad’s Ellis Island is a rather lazy way of summarising its importance but I hope that it’s helpful as you form a picture in your mind. One of five small islands just off the coast of Port of Spain, Nelson Island was the disembarkation point and quarantine station for indentured immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This is a site rich with history and potential. Talk about experiences that teach, move and inspire! The identity, memory and diversity embodied in this site of shared heritage has the power to remind those who visit who they are and where they come from. I hope the National Trust manages to build on the already terrific start they have made in researching and sharing its significance, particularly with young people.
From the tangible to the intangible. On Saturday night we visited one of Trinidad’s famous ‘Panyards’ where the Starlift steelbands practises, with the ultimate aim of becoming next year’s Panorama champions, but mostly for the joy of belting out wonderfully arranged calypso and soca tunes. With a glass of rum punch and a cup of corn soup, it was a perfect evening.
Lastly, for me a first. Later that night, I joined a small group of delegates at Matura beach to experience the phenomenon of sea turtle nesting. W-O-W! I’m not sure I was totally prepared for what happened – I had wanted to go to the Pitch Lake but the trip was cancelled and so this was a last minute choice. But what a lucky one.
The sight of these impressive (circa 5 feet long and weighing between 800-100 pounds), stately creatures making their slow way up the beach before carefully carving out a shallow nest and the laborious task of creating a 2-3 foot deep light-bulb shaped egg chamber (you try doing that with your feet while you’re not looking!) was unforgettable.
The Leatherbacks go into a trance when they lay their eggs and – apparently – barely noticed us taking photos and stroking their skin and shell. Once all the eggs – slightly bigger than golf-ball-sized and in a clutch of up to a hundred – have been laid, she refocusses, carefully covers the nest with sand again and returns to the sea, her work done for another year. A process of about ¾ hour in total.
I began feeling slightly sorry for the turtles as we intruded on their ‘moment’ but our guides were very respectful and the whole thing was actually very beautiful. I was really pleased to see so many local families coming to see the turtles and that the project is one that brings real economic benefit back to the community.
Full report to follow – thanks for reading!