A Leper Never Changes His Spot.... - February 25th, 2002
Five miles west of Trinidad and 6 miles east of Venezuela lies a small island named Chacachacare. Earlier this century, when there was an outbreak of leprosy in Trinidad, Chacachacare was established as a leper colony. It flourished as a colony and had enough people to warrant two doctors houses, a cinema and one stoplight.
With the development of antibiotics leprosy became a treatable disease. In 1973 after a failed attempt by the hospital workers to convince the Trinidadian government to keep the island operating as a general medical facility, the colony was shut down and the island abandoned. In the thirty intervening years nature has reclaimed most of the manmade structures on the island. Vines crawl into the hospital windows, the nuns quarters are crumbling, and the lepers' houses that line the seaside offer only the slightest protection from the elements.
Miranda and I sailed over to Chacachacare a few days after Carnival was over and found it a nice break from the excitement of Trinidad. The island is a large semi-circle with the southeastern side forming a large bay around which are scattered the old houses, hospitals, the nuns quarters, two churches, and a cinema.
The first night ashore we found ourselves wandering through the dilapidated nuns quarters around sunset. The long light that struck the old masonry, crooked shutters, and broken windows gave the building a very dramatic feel. As the light dimmed, we explored the large house room by room, freaking ourselves out more than once when we stumbled into completely dark corridors and rooms.
As we headed down the hill toward the little dock where we had left our dinghy, we noticed that in one of the old houses there was washing hanging out the front. Then we saw movement and people inside. Squatters had set up house inside the ruins and we met a few of them once we got down to the dock. They had been spear fishing all day and on the dock there was a large pile of queen angel fish that one of the men was scaling.
We returned to Baggywrinkle for a nights rest and awoke the next morning anxious to explore the rest of the island. We took the boat to the other side of the bay where we met an Aussie boat named Billaroo. It was a 50-foot boat with a family of four aboard. The children were ashore camping in one of the old houses. They had set up camp there two days ago and their parents said they were having a hard time convincing them to return to the boat. The Aussie couple had explored the day before and pointed us in the direction of the old church, the hospital and dispensary, and the cinema.
Once ashore, we said hello to the kids who were in the process of making a baked beans on toast lunch, over an open fire. We hiked up into the bush, which was quite thick, and came upon a large empty building that was recognizable as the church only by the raised altar at the far end. A little further back into the growth we came across a smaller building with its roof mostly collapsed. It turned out to be the records room. Papers lay scattered everywhere, making a second floor on which to walk. Stop walking anywhere and you could stoop down and find the medical record of a specific patient. Little yellow cards noted vital information such as what body parts had tested positive for the disease, and some of the cards recorded the date the patient had died. The records were not that old, much of it had been recorded in the 60's. It was eerie seeing the remnants intact of what had so recently been considered a forbidden and dangerous place.
Next we ventured into the hospital where old beds still lay lined up in an open, airy ward. An operating table rusted in what must have been an examining room, and old x-ray equipment lay broken apart in another corner. Up a flight of rickety stairs, we found the dispensary. Shelves and shelves of salves, pills, and potions looked as if they had been abandoned a few weeks ago. Open jars and broken vials lay scattered around the tables and floor. The sense of foreboding was only increased by the presence of at least 20 bald black vultures sitting in a large tree just outside the window...
A short walk up what must have once been a road, but was now an overgrown and hardly visible path, was a large hanger like building with an old projector sitting at one end. A projection booth was built into the back wall and at the front end there was a space for a large screen. It was interesting to imagine what kind of newsreels and films must have been viewed here, and how the isolated audience must have enjoyed one of their few links to the outside world.
We spent the afternoon visiting the one spot on the island still officially inhabited and working; the lighthouse. It was a long hot walk up to the top of the island, and when we arrived we found no one home in the lighthouse. But, the view was quite fantastic. Venezuela was close enough that it felt as if we could reach out and touch it. The frigate birds soared over the green hills that led down to the ocean. And a few scrawny puppies greeted us with fierce barks and wagging tails.
We returned to Trinidad feeling as if we had visited a unique place. Walking around the island was like walking through recent history and some mysterious ancient city at the same time. Both Miranda and I figured it would not be long before someone opened a resort on the island and removed the old buildings. So, we felt lucky to have caught Chacachacare in its current state of limbo, not completely in the past nor in the present.