National Geographic : 1937 Sep
CROSSROADS OF THE CARIBBEAN BY LAURENCE SANFORD CRITCHELL With Illustrations from Photographs by Edwin L. Wisherd WE came to Trinidad an hour before dawn, when Venezuela, to the west, was a half-imagined blur, remote and fancied in the dark. An indecisive wind smelled of some forest where vegetation beneath the trees was rot ting from endless lack of sun. In the empty darkness our ship reduced its speed; felt its way through the vague channels of the Bocas (page 343). Occasionally, when some cove held back the air, we detected a faint humid odor of old water. "That's a river smell," said the resident. "The Orinoco empties into the sea at the other side of the Gulf of Paria." His match flared in the gloom; a sudden line of white deck-rails loomed out and vanished. "Have you ever seen a tropical river? The water has a color-well, it's hard to say; it looks somewhat like deep-brown iron rust." In the growing half-light I could see the channel more clearly. The hill-faces lifted out of the water into a jagged dark heave and towered around our ship, the illusion of their height lending a sense of over balance. Below us a tidal current swept to the Caribbean. Its self-made waves slapped with an odd, contrary sound against the steel. "I see lights behind us," I remarked, "three of them." The resident frowned a moment. "I thought they were houses," he said, at length. "Some of the people in Port-of Spain have homes here on the Bocas. But those are ships." SHIPS OF MANY FLAGS He chuckled into the wind. "You'd be surprised how many ships come to Trinidad," he rambled on. "They say about five thousand a year. Really, Trinidad is important in its way-a sort of midwife to the Caribbean. "Rusty old freighters loaded with cargo come here and leave their freight to be stored on wharves. Afterwards another freighter ambles along, picks it up, and carts it away to Africa, or Asia, or North America-or to places like Ciudad Bolivar, 200 miles up the Orinoco, or Maracaibo, where the bay is too shallow for the large boats. "If someone in Rio wanted to send an automobile to Capetown the automobile would probably come to Trinidad and stay here until a boat for South Africa made its regular stop." The morning light grew stronger. Trini dad lay quietly on the port bow: a silent, tree-covered island, not mountainous, but confusedly hilly. Faint houses along the shore and the single white road, empty in the dawn, gave it the unassuming appearance of a country side in northern New York. Only the smell-the unforgettable rank smell of the jungle-and the derisive shrieks of the sea birds proved otherwise. "Port-of-Spain is ahead there," the resident pointed. "You can just about see it." In the quiet wind a flat-bottomed boat came out of the dawn, two natives pushing it forward with their long poles. They walked in unison, silent, padding over and over in the same track like donkeys enslaved to a treadmill. "That's a cargo boat," nodded my com panion. "You see, the harbor is shallow. The Government is dredging a channel to the wharves, but many ships still have to anchor about two miles from shore. They unload the cargo into those boats. It's rather inconvenient. You and I have to go ashore by tender." "I usually enjoy it, though," he chuckled again. "Ever since Columbus discovered Trinidad, people coming here have been going ashore in small boats." But there were no gasoline engines in those days, I reflected, as we clattered down the gangplank onto the heaving and faintly gurgling tender. Columbus discovered the island in 1498, on his third voyage to the New World. In a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, he ex plains why it was named "Trinity": "A sailor went up to the main-top to look out and to the westward saw three mountains near one another." These peaks, locally known as the Three Sisters, officially are Trinity Hills (map, page 321).