Catch A Canary -October 25, 2001
Trinis love music. They like their music loud and they like it to last for a long time. This can be a problem for those of us whose primary night time activity is sleeping. The Carenage Bay anchorage in front of the Trinidad & Tobago Sailing Association is blessed with the presence of two popular social establishments: the Anchorage bar and restaurant, and Mobs 2 nightclub. During the week, these spots are reasonably benign, but on weekends they compete for sonic supremacy. For any boat at anchor out front, it's enough to set the standing rigging resonating, maybe even to flex the hull.
This past Saturday, our ears were still ringing from the previous weekend's musical onslaught when we detected some ominous sound checks coming from speakers the size of a bungalow. It's time to "catch a canary", we said, and hurriedly began weighing anchor. There are not very many good anchorages in the Gulf of Paria at the north-west corner of Trinidad. Our favourite is Chacachacare Island, which we call "catch a canary" because we can't pronounce its real name properly. Heading west, it's the last bit of Trinidad before Venezuela. Seven nautical miles from Carenage Bay, it's out of earshot of TTSA - barely. It took us a little over an hour to get there.
Chacachacare is a crescent shaped island about two miles across at its widest point. It's part of Chaguaramas National Park and is uninhabited except for two lighthouse keepers who maintain the beacon atop its highest peak. It might be a surprise for the first-time visitor that no one else lives there. From a distance, you can see a number of red-roofed buildings dotting the shoreline around the deeply indented bay. Approaching, one notes that the water is clear and there are some nice beaches. The hills are covered by lush rain forest, birds fill the air with song. Close up, it's obvious that the buildings are abandoned and have been for some time. The trees are crowding in.
Forty years ago, there was a bustling community on Chacachacare, but the residents weren't drawn there by the clean beaches or verdant hills. In fact, they weren't there by choice. Chacachacare was a leper colony.
The community was established in 1921 and disbanded in the 1960's when effective drug treatments and declining numbers rendered it unnecessary. Arguably, it may have been unnecessary from its very inception. Leprosy actually is not very contagious and is rarely fatal. It is, however, disfiguring and from biblical times its victims have been shunned. Historically, lepers were viewed as "unclean" and, as there was no cure, were banished for life.
The ruins encircling Chacachacare Bay speak of a stratified society. Near the entrance of the bay on the north side are the substantial homes of the doctors who served the medical needs of the unfortunate inmates. Directly across on the south side are the residences of the nuns who administered to their souls as well as their bodies. Separated by water from these enclaves, the village proper is located at the head of the bay. We anchored off the ruins of the main dock.
Going ashore, we wandered among the overgrown relics of that sad era in the island's history. Some of the buildings are still partly furnished. The plumbing's in place, but the taps don't work. The wires are missing from the telephone poles that line the main road. The road itself has collapsed in a few places where it's too close to the water. Large pieces of rusted machinery are mostly obscured by vines and brush.
There were a dozen sailboats widely spaced around the mile deep bay during the weekend. Half of them left on Monday. We've stayed on for a few more days. The irony of the situation doesn't escape us. We've come here fleeing the noisy activity that those who lived here a generation ago would have gladly joined.