Mostly unplugged in Tobago

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Above: A view of Little Tobago. All photographs by Taran Rampersad. Click to enlarge.

Having decided that I needed some time away to consider life and directions, I looked at possible destinations. I needed a change of environment, a space to reflect, and a place that I would enjoy. In the end, I chose to disappear to Blue Waters Inn over in Speyside, Tobago, to go unplugged for a while and see what was left of myself after 18 years without a true vacation, and after 32 years of not being in Tobago.

Travelling between two islands within the same country by air had me wondering whether I was actually going to the same country. I was not alone in this, and of course, the Galleon’s Passage was still not running. It’s ‘official maiden voyage’ would be the day of my return, leaving me wondering how many unofficial maiden voyages people are allowed to have while retaining their virginity.

This left me with my cameras, my phone as a camera, and writing supplies in an idyllic environment. I enjoy wildlife, so I was off traipsing around with my camera to see what I could see and share what I found – an accidental hobby of mine, one which I’ve gotten decent at without a lot of expensive equipment. I enjoy physically writing, so I did this. And all was going well, and I was able to get shots of birds that had evaded me in Trinidad.

A few days into it, I was passing the front of the hotel when I accidentally walked into an English couple’s visibility. They were watching birds offshore with a powerful lens, pulling things in from almost 5 km away – they were clearly prepared to be there for specific purpose, and I admired that focus.

They introduced me to eBird.org, which I promptly installed on my phone. That, in turn, got me to install Merlin for bird identification.

We became friends over the course of a few days, going to Little Tobago, having dinner and comparing notes on what we saw. I enjoyed seeing through their eyes, and I believe they felt the same seeing things through my eyes. They were serious about their naturalism, whereas mine was more unfocused and, at the core, is really about the enjoying the sounds of nature and wandering around alone.

They were able to pull things toward them with their equipment, I was the one who would sneak up on things in the wild by sound and sight – a form of hunting where no one gets hurt. Because of these differences, we saw different creatures – and we saw things differently.

When we went to Little Tobago, my equipment was all but useless to see the various Boobies on the cliffs, but my time was not wasted as another couple also showed up – and I watched them and learned a lot about equipment, and I spent that time quietly thinking about ecotourism, technology, and the way things could be and actually are in Trinidad and Tobago.

These thoughts would follow me the rest of my vacation, quietly percolating, not quite a project but a lens through which to see things.

Crowdsourcing Data

The Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (GoRTT) has made some blind stabs at crowdsourcing data, most notably related to the Property Tax. A fair summation is that GoRTT is not very good at crowdsourcing data.

And here I was, using an app on my phone that allowed me to crowdsource data with people all over the world about birds right here in Trinidad and Tobago. The app even indicates hot spots, where people have seen certain birds frequently, allowing visitors to plan places to go – perhaps a source idea of that Pokemon game that finally went away. Instead of virtual things, there are actual birds to find.  There’s an idea for tourism.

When it comes to that sort of ecotourism, it’s interesting to note that a foreign education institution, Cornell University, finds enough value in the data to build and maintain an app and database for such things on a global scale. Academics will quickly point out that there is funding needed for that, I will quickly acknowledge that – and toss in that it doesn’t need as much as they want.

That there is value in such things is not lost on me, but for those still struggling on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs there isn’t that much value. When you’re trying to make a living, a bunch of people wandering around with bird watching equipment must seem more like walking commodities than people, and vice versa. That’s a disconnect that should probably be addressed… and oddly, could be.

We get back to crowdsourcing data. Fishing data, something that has been poked and prodded locally with no real tangible results where the rubber meets the road, is of use outside of it’s silo. When the Chef at a resort has to explain to people why there is no ‘Catch of the Day’ for weeks because of high seas warnings issued by the ODPM, you see where the rubber meets the road.

Of course, crowdsourcing data is also a danger. Imagine if people started tracking how long they spent in this line or that independent of the government, or the banks… just as Waze and Google Maps has a better idea of traffic patterns in Trinidad and Tobago than the government. If all of this data was collected by a third party instead of the government itself or some entity it paid, it could be dangerous indeed for the corrupt aspects of bureaucracy we quietly acknowledge in our daily lives.

Ecotourism

Speyside, Tobago, struck me as being a foreign country simply by how clean it was. There is a pride in that which is easily seen: A pristine and welcoming landscape, a sharp contrast with Trinidad in so many places. As I wandered through Speyside itself, walking from the hotel, it was obvious that I wasn’t ‘local’. I laughed when as I passed someone used a particular word and the two grew silent, whereas in Trinidad it would have continued unabated.

I laughed with them about it, sat and chatted a while, and I asked them why at the bus-stop. Once I opened my mouth, the tension subsided quickly – I wasn’t from Tobago, but I was from Trinidad. It boiled down to not wanting to offend visitors to their area, to understanding on a broad scale where their bread was buttered even if not directly.

On the down side, my second to last evening was marred in the bush when I was going after the agouti up a steep hill, trying to find the family foraging… when voices of hunters and a band of hunting dogs started after an agouti I had been tracking quietly. I stood there and scared the dogs into retreat with a projected voice and a few choice words, but that was temporary – they found a way around me, and that was that.

Hunting season had begun. No limits, no management, just the promise that hunters wouldn’t be arrested in season. The Minister of Tourism and Minister of Agriculture should have a frank discussion about this, since the destruction of ecosystems doesn’t happen in a silo, and what is ecotourism without ecosystems?

Supply

Beyond all of that, having made new friends in Tobago, I got a sense beyond being unable to get regular supplies there were other issues. One woman talked to me about how the laptops had been good for the children at one point – a point I sorely disagree with on a governmental scale because of lack of curriculum to support it – but her point was valid.

How could children get a hold of technology so that they could have the appropriate skills for what they wanted to do with our lives. All too often we accept that technology is ubiquitous – but technology ubiquity is not ubiquitous. There’s a digital divide.

I showed her the BioStar Mini PCs for sale in Trinidad that most people in Trinidad are unaware of, available for around $1200 TT, that connect to an HDMI television and can connect to USB keyboard and mouse (I’d suggest wireless). They come with their own problems, but can be a powerful solution among many others.

Technology Could Play Decisive Roles.

I’m a bit tired of pointing out where technology can assist in direct and indirect ways, as others are, but as I look at what the government has done with the 2018 budget, and by omission what it hasn’t, I can see that these issues are something people will have to deal with themselves despite the government as a roadblock.

Manta Lodge.

Tobago is plagued by the government run transportation issues, as well as its own problems – such as the Tobago House of Assembly investing millions of dollars in properties like the Manta Lodge in Speyside, or that old house out there across Batteaux Bay that sit there doing nothing.

I’m sure if I spent more time I would have found more. Never mind that a 30 minute flight requires over an hour to get to the gate within the same country, with every lighter found in baggage accompanied by a smug smile when many parts of the world don’t even worry about lighters anymore.

I’ll need to get over to Tobago more and see it for what it is – a resolution that came from my visit. A beautiful land, the younger sister isle, beautiful, full of the way things once looked like in Trinidad, and yet a tidal pool within another global economic tidal pool of Trinidad and Tobago.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer.

He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at WorldChanging.com that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs.

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

These days, he’s focusing more on his writing and technology experiments. Feel free to contact him through Facebook Messenger.