Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate |

Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate

Alison Berkley
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

If you ever would’ve told me I’d pet a leatherback turtle’s head while she was laying more than 100 eggs, I never would’ve believed it. But that is precisely why I love to travel.

Trinidad is not a place people go, really, other than for Carnival, a massive Mardi Gras-style celebration for the week before Ash Wednesday. It’s the birthplace of steel drums and limbo, famous for its Calypso and Saco music and for its spicy, Creole- and Indian-influenced street food like roti (Indian sada bread with curried meat and chickpea filling) and pelau (spicy rice stew similar to gumbo).

Its economy is primarily industrial, and you can see that when you drive around the island, lots of big plants and factories and other big metal structures that don’t even come close to resembling a resort. It’s far away, in the southern Caribbean just 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela, but the close proximity of South America seems to exist only on the map. People don’t speak Spanish and no one recommends you go there. “It’s sketchy” was the most common explanation I could find. The smaller, less developed and sparsely populated island of Tobago is more than twice the distance (22 miles), but it might as well be attached, as it’s one country, one place.

Our first excursion was to visit friends at Chagauramas Bay, where boats with names like “Sold the Farm” were anchored in their slips, masts lined up several rows deep with their sails down like branches of a barren tree in some odd floating forest. Sun-cooked captains with pot bellies and weathered, scruffy faces loafed about, taking a break from life at sea and doing whatever it is captains do during their short stints on land: fix what needs fixing, doing laundry, relaxing in the swimming pool and drinking lots of ice-cold beer.

I pondered the idea of living on a boat, of being able to go from one beautiful island to the next, spending extended periods away from the constraints of the modern world. I imagined maybe the people who own these boats woke up one day and just decided to figure out a way to make it happen. Maybe they too lived in the mountains and had no idea how to sail and had no money and were sort of afraid of the idea of being in open waters and drowning and being confined and claustrophobic and sea sick – or maybe not.

For a lot of these sailors, it’s life on land that’s hard to contemplate, readjusting to telephones and cars and crowds. When I asked the crewmembers if they were scared being all the way out in the middle of the Atlantic they said, “It’s being on land that’s dangerous.”

We were told that Trinidad has a high crime rate and is indeed dangerous, especially for little blonde girls from Aspen, but we never once had a problem. The people were polite and kind and spoke with an accent that sounded more like song than spoken language, even it was at times impossible to understand. They were proud of their island and eager to talk about it the way someone talks about a new crush – like they want you to understand it, to love it as much as they do. It was the exact opposite of what I’ve experienced in touristy places like Kauai, where you’re detested for just being there – not so in Trini.

Despite our short visit, there was still time for magical moments.

There was the election, and the day after I arrived, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the first female prime minister, was sworn into office with one hand on the Bhagavad Gita and one on her heart. “Woman Power” was spray painted on a construction wall close to our hotel. She’d won by a landslide – locals were saying it was time for change.

Preparations for India Arrival Day were also well under way: sort of the Trini version of Thanksgiving, only they’re celebrating the arrival of the Indians from India, unlike our arrival on the Indians’ territory that we then burned and pillaged, but that’s a topic we’ll save for another day.

Then there was our three-hour journey to Maturo, a beach on the northern coast, to see the leatherback turtles lay their eggs. I’ve never been big on nature stuff or animals or zoos, especially when it comes to creatures the size of compact car, but I’ll try anything once.

It was after dark when she made her way onto shore. She was about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide and weighed more than 800 pounds. Her thick, gray flippers were like paddles in the sand, every step a struggle to push her massive body forward. Then she settled, carefully digging a hole with her rear flippers, diligently pushing the sand aside and then packing it down, first on one side and then the other until an adequate hole was formed.

Her eyes were covered in a waxy discharge that made it look like she’d been crying. The guide told us she’d swam all the way from Madagascar around the tip of Cape Hope to Trinidad to lay her eggs because that’s where she’d been hatched. She laid more than 100 eggs in less than 10 minutes, each one dropping into the sand, delicate and white like a pile of ping-pong balls.

She arched her head back and took a breath as we stroked her, the soft, supple shell that really does feel like leather. “It’s OK, honey,” my friend kept saying, trying to soothe her. “It’s OK.”

There was something in me that felt it was somehow inappropriate, that I was invading her privacy, but the guide reassured me she is in a trance and doesn’t even really know we’re there.

It didn’t occur to me until several hours later that I wasn’t violating anything. What I was doing, after traveling all that way to this remote and somewhat random place, was witnessing a miracle.

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