Pros: Beautiful jungle covered tropical island and friendly people
Cons: Very populated, industrial and somewhat polluted
My family and I lived in Trinidad as American expatriates for two years from August 2000 to August 2002. Trinidad is a beautiful country. However it is heavily populated and very industrial as far as Caribbean islands go. If you are looking for a tourist destination this may not be the best island to visit. One the other hand, if you wondering about living there as I did read on. Some of my comments will be less than flattering to Trinidadians. My goal was to be accurate not nice. Also keep in mind in the end I would go back and live in Trinidad again, but I would have very different reservations this time that I did my first.
Effects of September Eleventh
I was in Trinidad during 9-11. There were many sympathetic people. Many people in Trinidad have relatives in the states or in Canada. However, there were also a large number of people who thought we either had it coming or should have been expecting it. This included my next door neighbor at the time. I lived in an upscale part of town so the sentiment was not just limited to the uninformed, uneducated or simply poor. I rarely spoke with my neighbor after that and pretty much decided that I wasnt really all that interested in helping Trinidad any more than I had to in order to get paid and leave. Several other expats left about the same time I did with similar impressions.
If you go to Trinidad remember that some topics of conversation may go in directions that you do not agree with. I found this true with religion, politics and 9-11. If you can avoid them in conversation it would probably be best.
Many people mistake Trinidad for a Spanish country. I suppose this is because of its proximity to Venezuela. It was an English colony till the 60s. They speak English, not Spanish. You will have a hard time getting around if you dont have good English because essentially nobody speaks Spanish. The dialect is a Caribbean one and can be very difficult to understand. It doesnt really sound like Jamaicas dialect either. Trinis, as they call themselves, will drop the h in th words so three becomes tree. The slang is difficult to get used to so just being OK in English will probably make life difficult in Trinidad. You need pretty good English not just OK.
Port of Spain
We lived in a little town called Maraval which is about 10 minutes drive north of Port of Spain. The drive was on winding narrow roads so many expatriates prefer to live west of Port of Spain and commute in on a larger divided road. Port of Spain is the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Both islands are part of the nation but are very different places. In any case Port of Spain and the surrounding area is where about half the 1.3 million people who live on the island reside. If you are planning or taking a pleasant get-a-way to Port of Spain you are in for a rude awakening. It is a big city not a sleepy Caribbean village. If you stay in Port of Spain I recommend the Hilton. There are nicer hotels but they do not have the views of the Queens Park Savanna that the Hilton does.
The first couple of days in Trinidad
Probably the first thing you notice as an American or Canadian is that Trinidad drives on the left side of the road. This is a relic from their English colonial heritage. It took us about two weeks to get use to that. What was harder to get used to was the way Trinidadians drive. If you are from a large urban North American city you will be in for a shock. At first it seems like chaos but in fact it is organized chaos. People do stop at red lights, however the street layout can often be confusing especially in Port of Spain with curving or narrow streets. Signs are often either absent or sometimes actually misleading. The locals understand what they mean but tourists often dont. For instance the sign for the airport was about a foot square and if you missed it you could go on for 5 miles before realizing youve gone too far. Most of the cars are small imports. There are very few large American cars on the island. This is partly due to the steering wheel being on the wrong side of American built cars for driving in Trinidad and partly due to the very narrow streets one must take. They really are designed for small cars.
The drive to my house from the airport was terrifying for my mother in law the first time she came. I have no idea how the big dump trucks and such stay in their lanes, but they generally do. One very nice thing about Trinidad is that drivers tend to be courteous. There is generally a lot of honking going on for no apparent reason. This is just people saying hi or thank you. There is almost a language to it. Short honks are generally friendly honks and long honks are not. Beyond that is generally interpretation. Pedestrians walk very close to the street in Trinidad. It is hard to get use to but we eventually did. There are lots of pedestrian accidents so it is a problem. Anyway, driving in Trinidad is a challenge, thankfully most people do not own cars so there are plenty of relatively cheap taxis at the airport and elsewhere. Unlike many other islands there are a lot of cars. You will notice Taxis are generally not marked and people stand on the side of the road pointing in order to get a cab to stop. It helps to recognize which vehicles are cabs if you are behind them because they will stop abruptly to pick up someone. It is very common to see 5 people in a compact car. Wrecks can be gruesome. If you hire a Taxi make sure the price is for you alone or you should expect company.
The second thing most people notice when they arrive in Trinidad is the trash. It is everywhere. If you are moving there as an expatriate dont be discouraged. After a month or two I didnt notice it. It doesnt get any better but at least it isnt as obvious. The jungle climate usually biodegrades or covers almost everything people throw from their cars or dump on the side of the road within weeks anyway. Of course in the city that doesnt really work. One big issue is when the rainy season comes the first few rains wash all the trash down to the beaches. You will probably get eye infections if you swim within a day or so of that first or second rain so plan ahead.
Beyond the first few days
Somewhere around this time you will notice that it actually is a beautiful jungle covered island. However, it is a very populated one. There are beautiful places to go in Trinidad and especially in Tobago. By the way Tobago is pronounced TA-BAY-GO not TA-BAH-GO. I have seen locals almost split themselves open laughing at tourists who call it TA-BAH-GO.
If you are going as a tourist I recommend a couple of things. First dont drink the water and be sure the bottled water has an unbroken seal in the cap. We got used to the water but there is an adjustment period of about two weeks in which you may need to be near a toilet. The water doesnt contain anything that will seriously harm you like amoebas (like Egyptian water), but it is heavily chlorinated and not treated very well. Almost all drains except toilets drain into local creeks. My house was up a creek valley which had lots of houses beside it and all my gray water drained to the creek. This was an upscale house. Most houses along the creek are not as well plumbed and toilet water for many houses runs straight into the creek. About 5 miles down creek is the water reservoir where they put in the chlorine and pump it back. You get the picture
The Caroni Swamp tour is not too far from Port of Spain. You will need reservations. I dont have a travel agent to recommend but they can be found on the internet. Get a local not a US agent it will cost a lot less. On the swap tour you will get to see the Scarlet Ibis. Tours are at sunset and the bird is actually scarlet and between the red of the sun and the birds coming home to roost in the swamp the sight is simply magnificent. I highly recommend this trip. Bring bug spray and a camera.
Asa Wright Nature Center is a couple hours drive from Port of Spain. This is a small hotel and bird sanctuary. The humming birds are particularly fantastic here. They are trained by feeders to come very close to tourists without fear. The colors are incredible. The hummingbirds in the states are dull by comparison. The center has hikes and serves lunch. Again you will need a reservation. Lunch is local food so if you are interested in sampling local fare this is a good place and it is very well done.
Marracas Bay is a beach on the northwest end of the island and about an hour or less from Port of Spain. If you go make sure you get a Shark and Bake from Richards. The others are not as good. Shark and Bake is actually shark inside a fried piece of bread. The shark is also fried and the condiments are an assortment of local sauces. Be careful some are very spicy. You can get other fish if you like. You need to get there relatively early (8-9AM) to get a good spot. There are lots of palm trees, but be careful where you lay your towel because of falling coconuts. They can and do actually kill people. This is a fairly crowded beach and has lots of tourists and hawkers with wares. If you want to get away from all that just keep driving about another mile to the next beach called Los Cuevos. It is usually only frequented by locals and there are no hawkers. There is an insect in Trinidad locally called no-see-ums and they are very hard to see. If mosquitoes like you these will love you. They generally bite ankles as you walk and will be more prevalent if the sand is wet with rain. Bring bug spray.
Nylon Pool in Tobago is a large very shallow sandy bay. Tour boats take groups out to the middle and set you free to frolic. Of course we had a few beverages with us so we stayed for a few hours and got sun burned. Bring sun block. The sun is much harsher than in Florida for instance as Trinidad is much closer to the equator.
Blue Waters Inn in Tobago is my favorite place to stay in T&T. It is in the far north end of the island which hasnt been spoiled yet. Cabins are at the waters edge and there is great diving as well. I wrote a review on it on epinions.com if youd like to read it.
I do not recommend the east coast of Trinidad. There is lots of scenery but no place to stay and a long drive on small roads. Plus the beach currents kill a few locals every year. Undertows can be very severe.
Hiking in Trinidad is OK, but difficult to find the trail often. The trails get overgrown. I recommend you get a guide if you dont live there. I believe you can get a guide at the TNT tourism board or possibly the Port of Spain Chamber of Commerce. Be prepared to be put on hold. Several people I knew were robbed in Trinidad while I was there and one of them as on a hiking trip. There are not that many guns in Trinidad but everyone carries a machete. This is a very effective way to rob someone on a lonely jungle trail
There are two golf courses near Port of Spain. I am not a golfer so I cannot tell you much about it except that this was where the second robbery I know about took place. It was also by machete. I do know that you have to be a member of the course near Moca Heights which is on the way to Maracas beach. The other is public and straight west from Port of Spain. For expatriates it is pretty much mandatory to hire a caddy Ive been told.
Carnival is the Trini equivalent of Mardi Gras (same holiday), but is really more like Carnival in Rio. We played Carnival once. It was fun but hot. Essentially you prance around town drinking all day long in the sun wearing costumes that dont generally cover all that much. Soca music is blaring from speaker trucks piled high with huge speakers. It was fun and we enjoyed it. We did it once and that was enough. It was more fun to watch than to do in my opinion. Lots of expats do Carnival and you ought to do it at least once. It is more fun in a group. It is an interesting part of Trinidadian culture and should be participated in to really understand it. You will need to get your costume about 4-6 months in advance. The really good costumes go fast. If you are a tourist at Carnival, after dark go back to the hotel. As with Mardi Gras in New Orleans the really nasty drunks and thugs come out late after a full day of drinking and you will probably stick out especially if you are of European descent.
Trinidad is about a third Christian (mostly catholic) a third Muslim and a third Hindu. There is a Islamic fundamentalist group there but they are not interested in killing westerners yet. Most Trinidadians are too laid back for things to really get nasty. Our maid was Hindu and devoted. Unlike many other maids she was very reliable and nothing ever went missing (this is from experience not just a generalization). Most protestant denominations are either absent or in the mission stage in Trinidad. We went to a sort of rotating preacher church a few times, but just didnt find it comfortable. Anyway, if you are protestant from North America I expect you will see finding a church you are happy with to be a challenge. Catholics on the other hand will find lots of choices. All churches or temples that I have seen are open air with no air conditioning. Bring a fan and be prepared for lots of sweaty people in close proximity. Even so all the churches are beautiful but not in the European sense. These are Caribbean churches. They are usually large open air structures with their own unique style and mostly made of concrete as are most buildings in Trinidad due to the termites.
Hotels and Housing
In Port of Spain, stay at the Crown Plaza or the Hilton. The Crown Plaza is nicer but the Hilton has better views and is close to the Queens Park Savanna. If you want a cheaper place to stay try the Ambassador Hotel or even better call a Port of Spain local travel agent. If you are there for Carnival, lots of action takes place around the Savanna so you will want to stay at the Hilton. Be careful walking at night. Port of Spain is a big city with big city problems and a large impoverished population. If you are not Black or East Indian you will stick out as a tourist or expatriate making you a target as well.
Housing for expatriates is expensive. Going rates near Port of Spain are on the order of $3500 US dollars a month for a typical North American size house with a yard and probably a pool. The prices are driven by large North American companies with large expatriate populations in country. There are only so many nice houses to go around so the prices went up and up. You need to be a Trinidadian to own property there I understand. Of course as soon as the oil business goes sour the housing market will sour as well and be full of beautiful houses that will be affordable for locals.
We rented a beautiful house in Trinidad in the village of Maraval. It had about an acre yard with Royal Palm trees and views of the mountains. Our landlord was fine, but I have heard some stories of poor ones. The houses are all made of concrete. Our roof was wood with metal sheathing, but even that amount of wood was a problem (termites). Our floors were terrazzo and tile. Most houses are tile. Very few have carpet, it just mildews anyway. Power is 110 volts just like the states but unlike the states the voltage fluctuates a lot so bring voltage regulators, not surge protectors I mean voltage regulators. This will save your TV and PC from capitulating the first year anyway. Ours both survived two years with regulators and surge protectors. Unfortunately my modem line was not protected and I went through modems once a month till I realized what was going on. Apparently the phone lines have surges too. Once I got a surge protector with a phone line in and out everything was stable again. Power goes out regularly in Trinidad. Since everyone is on pumps rather than gravity fed water when the power goes out you have no water either. We learned to bathe quite well in the pool. We had two 800 gallon tanks for house water. The water lines fill tanks irregularly so you need big tanks to keep from running out. This is particularly true if you are higher up the valley where the pressure is not as good. I have heard that Trinidad loses half its water in main lines to leaks. Phones are typical North American style affairs. The only difference is that the state company which runs the phone lines has a monopoly so calling outside of Trinidad costs about a dollar a minute and there is no good way around it. We had a call back service but it was still expensive. This is a service where you call a number outside the country and let it ring a couple times and hang up and then you get a call back, put in your codes and call anywhere you want. I recall it costs about half local rates which is still a rip off.
Most people in Trinidad are very friendly. In the city, like US cities, they are generally in a hurry and less interested in helping if you are lost or something. Trinis view you as rich so negotiate the price in advance for services such as Taxis and food. Sometimes you need to be very specific. I once asked if a local hotel had air conditioning in the hotel rooms. The answer was yes so I booked a room. The one bedroom was air conditioned but the rest of the suite was not. The friend sleeping on the roll out couch was hot and mosquito bitten by the next morning. If something comes with food make sure it is something you can actually stomach.
Working with Trinidadians is sometimes a challenge. A few folks I worked with were hard working, well educated and conscientious. However, the Caribbean tends to make things happen a lot slower and comes with a lot poorer workmanship than what I was accustomed to in the states and Canada. I remember a guy flew offshore to a platform 40 miles in a helicopter to fix something and came back an hour later saying he didnt have the right wrench. We needed it fixed that day but that was just the way it was and everyone just waited till the next day. This is a typical story and VERY common. Maintenance on tools and equipment tends to be shoddy, plus the humidity and salt makes everything corrode. You need to come to work in Trinidad with plenty of patience and an understanding of the reality locals live in. I found giving bonuses for on time and quality work helped. I would give a worker extra money if he showed up on time. You will need to make sure he understands that in advance or he will absolutely not show up on time.
If you invite a Trini to your house and ask them to come over at 3 in the afternoon on a Sunday it could be 6 or 7 before they actually show up. This is the absolute gospel truth because it happened to me. It upset my southern bride so much we never invited another Trinidadian back to the house. Speaking with other expatriates this is very typical. Some told me they invite their Trini friends over one to two hours ahead of when they actually want them there and they are still late. Furthermore there may be more or less people than you counted on arriving with the people you actually invited. The person mentioned above brought a sister and we almost didnt have enough servings for everyone. This is very frustrating and I never really found a good way to deal with this issue.
The way females are treated in Trinidad is changing, but essentially to most Trini men women are second class citizens. One tip on housing, if you contract a local worker for the house and your wife needs to tell him how to do something make sure she prefaces it with my husband asked if you could do it this way. This will save an enormous amount of frustration for your wife. Yes it is a pain, but it also the way it is It doesnt matter if your wife has three degrees from Harvard, the worker who shows up to mow the lawn still views her as less important and less knowledgeable than he is.
We banked at a local Scotia Bank. This is a Canadian based company and was fine. Transferring money is a hassle and may take weeks. It is best to wire transfer funds rather than actually write a check. This should only take a couple of days. Paper checks can take up to 6 weeks to clear from Trinidad. When I lived in Trinidad the currency was about 6 local to 1 US dollar. Banking was really not much different than in North America, just slower.
There are a set of women in Trinidad who specifically want to marry an expatriate. This is their way of gaining a better life and frankly it is common world wide. Trinidadian women and men are beautiful people. I have seen beggars with rippled six pack stomachs. There is something about the combination of Indian and African that creates an astonishing physique naturally with no effort on the part of the individual. This being said there are quite a few expats in Trinidad married to local girls. They are very happy and everything is lovely. However in some cases these expats came to Trinidad already married. You get the picture...
Drugs and AIDS
Drugs and AIDS are very common in Trinidad. AIDS is very hush-hush in Trinidad but my wife volunteered at some local charities and it is a huge problem. AIDS is very common. If you decide to go out with a local woman keep that in mind. Hard drugs on the other hand are just becoming a serious problem from what I understand. People grow marijuana in fields back in the woods and I have heard you need to be careful hiking the more remote parts of Trinidad because of this. Drug trafficing was slowly on the rise while I was there. There was a burgeoning trade in kidnapping for ransom. Mostly it happened to rich Trini businessmen. It hadnt happened to an expat yet, but it will eventually. I believe this practice was pretty much imported from Venezuela which imported it from Columbia.
Similar to Mexico everything pretty much is for sale in Trinidad. Some things you almost have to bribe people to get (like my phone lines in my house). The government is known to be corrupt and everybody complains about it. So far nobody is doing much about it. With the amount of oil and gas money the county has generated the country should be paved in gold. I suppose all that money is in a bank in Panama or something.
So there you have it. Trinidad is an interesting but challenging place to live. It was my first and probably last expatriate assignment. One thing about it that was interesting was that we knew much of what I have written going in, but it is very different living it versus knowing it. I liken it to the difference between knowing all the facts about raising children versus actually raising children. You dont really understand until you have done it and by then it is too late to change your mind. We came to like it by the time we left and we would go back although somewhat reluctantly. You have to keep an open mind and be very patient. Things just work the way they work in Trinidad...