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Remembering our past... The hidden charms of Tortuga

By Louis B Homer South Bureau  

Many of the people living in the hilltop of Tortuga would probably prefer that others did not know the place existed.

The area is so picture-perfect, still so attached to its past, and its religious and social traditions, that to invite visitors is to invite change few want.

But they have started coming, these afternoon tourists, flocking to the village before nightfall to see something spectacular — the sunset as seen from the road outside the Roman Catholic church.

The church, one of the oldest in the country, was restored five years ago, its stained glass windows replaced by French artisans.

The repairs were badly needed.

Tortuga's origin dates back to almost a century and a half ago when Capuchin monks from Spain arrived there to Christianise the native Amerindians at the request of the governor.

The village was part of the Montserrat ward, a place where the missionaries had set up a colony naming it La Mission de Montserrat after a famous church in Mont Serrat, Spain.

Debra de Boulet, who has lived all her life in the village, believes that it was the hills that inspired the Spaniards to give it that name.

At the highest point in the village is the 131-year-old Catholic church.

De Boulet said: "This church has been dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat.

"It is also called the church of many statues, because along  the four walls of the church there are several statues standing like sentinels above the heads of the congregation."

Many of them were either destroyed or badly damaged during an earthquake in 1954.

But the single statue that survived the ravages of the earthquake is the statue of the Black Virgin which bears resemblance to the statue of La Divina Pastora at Siparia.

That statue is among some 500 similarly carved and in churches the world over.

People  from all parts of Trinidad and Tobago visit the church during September to pay homage.

Since the repaving of the roads, the sunset visit to the church is now easier.

And it's worth it — the arc of Trinidad's west coast, the entire Gulf of Paria, the Caroni plains, San Fernando, the Southern Range, Venezuela, can all be seen from the location.

What few visitors see though are the remains of rich cocoa, coffee and citrus fields that were once the economic mainstay of the village.

De Boulet said: "The glorious past is not forgotten.There are still valuable timbers such as teak, mora, cedar and immortelle."

She added: "There are no longer any young cacao trees to be shaded from the harsh sunlight. In 1974 many of them were uprooted when Tropical Storm Alma caused serious damage to the environment."

Resident Leonard Richards recalls: "First to arrive in the village were the Amerindians, and then the cacao panyol from South America  who were  responsible for planting large fields of cacao and coffee."

But there was more to Tortuga than cacao estates.

He said: " In the past there were hundreds of land turtles (tortoises) roaming the area, and it was their presence that influenced the Spaniards to call the village Tortuga, which is the Spanish word for turtle or morocoys."

They have all been decimated.

At the lower level is the village centre where  people move freely through the narrow streets, most of them bearing names of the colonial past.

They talk about the bad condition of one of the roads leading to the village, the landslides, the lack of a dependable water supply and the condition of the drains.

Less than half a mile from the village centre a number of well-to-do families live in comfort on their farms.

Over time the village has emerged as a repose for retired businessmen.

Many have acquired estates on the fringes of the village.

Apart from its natural beauty it also ranks in human beauty.

Miss Universe beauty queen Wendy Fitzwilliam has some of her roots there.

Proud to be the grandmother of a beauty queen, Edna Nicholas tells of learning Fitzwilliam was selected as Miss Universe: "I will always remember the excitement."

Although annual droughts have affected agriculture, the soil is still fertile for growing vegetable crops.

"Most of the tomatoes, cabbages, sweetpepper and cucumbers sold in the wholesale markets comes from Tortuga," said Richards.

The soil and climate are still good for growing fruits.

Mangoes of all types grow almost wild in the village and papaw thrives on the slopes.

Throughout the village there is ample evidence of a colonial past, when streets and roads were named after colonial administrators.

But while the past is forgotten, in some cases, the future of the village seemed secured in the aspiration to ensure that Tortuga remains safe, secure and beautiful and one to be enjoyed by visitors.

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