Country air, so pure and fresh...Real Women, Real Stories takes a relaxing drive through the valleys and hills of Maracas St Joseph and meets with the Nath ladies, Vindra and Nikita, the owners and custodians of the historic Ortinola Great House, a restored colonial styled estate house, lying in the foothills of the scenic Maracas, St Joseph. Nestled amidst the lush mountainous terrain and cascading rivers, it is the premium site for weddings, corporate functions or just simply an afternoon tea. This historic traditional establishment has always aroused my interest, and more so its accompanying cocoa estate which is situated just across the road from the Great House. As I drove up along the country road, passing the beckoning donkey tied just after the signage, I wondered about the story behind the historical landscape. I was in for a great surprise as the two women behind Ortinola, mother Vindra Nath and daughter Nikita Nath, also shared in the intrigue of the site they managed.
"Hi, did you have trouble finding the place?" the elder Nath asked. She was concerned and motherly asking whether photographer Ayanna Kinsale and I needed anything before the interview. Nikita was the strategic one showing us the different facilities within the Great House. "This is the main conference room, and over there is the tea room but if you like we can sit in the sitting area across there," she advised. All rooms were elegantly decorated not only in anticipation of the Yuletide season but each space had an ambience of serenity interspersed with deep-rooted Spanish and British flair. Old time furniture, polished and primed, and ceilings, windows and doors echoing the colonial couture of our agrarian forefathers, it was an excursion through a Caribbean History textbook. Nikita, detecting my curiosity, was on point with her descriptions of her family heirloom - her day and night job.
"The Ortinola Great House is a restored plantation house, constructed between 1870-1890. The estate was planted in cocoa and was operated by Cadbury Brothers of Birmingham, England, during the cocoa boom period of the 1890s-1930s.The building was abandoned in the 1960s, and was restored between 2000 and 2003 with no changes to the original structure of the building. Ortinola was then opened in 2004 as a modern and fully equipped banquet and conference facility, and we can be rented for weddings, conferences, retreats, family days, as well as private functions."
Mrs Nath was accommodating, urging us to make ourselves comfortable. "I always loved agriculture. I grew up in El Dorado but my dad had a cocoa estate in Paria. My ten siblings and I used to go up to the estate every Saturday. We used to go to the rivers and catch crayfish and then play in the cocoa house. Those were the days. I didn't work in the field when I got older though. I worked in our family construction business. I wanted to start my own business so much. I had business in my blood but my father insisted that I help in the family business, he believed that girls shouldn't command their own business," she said.
Adorned in a fashionable black and white dress with matching shoes, she didn't look anything close to the age she revealed. "I am 51 years old," she said proudly. I reckoned it was either the fresh, clean air of her environs or probably her love for natural food that constituted her secret to eternal youth. Looking on astutely was Nikita who spoke about her role and chance fit into the Great House management. "I studied Biotechnology in Scotland and I returned home with the intention of doing my Masters after my first degree but somehow, a short stint working at Ortinola became addictive for me. As I worked assisting my mom in the management of the facility and as I helped my dad with the management of the cocoa fields and our new rehabilitation drive, my passion grew immensely. I decided to stay and help my parents with the family business. Someone had to do it, they are getting older, not younger. My brother is a doctor and my sister is studying law, I think with my background I was the best one for the role!"
Mrs Nath was listening to her daughter's account, admiration and pride etched on her face. "I want Nikita to take the helm very soon. She is the organised one, the one who is very meticulous. We need her skills in the business. I am so happy that we can have a continuity plan for the Great House and for the cocoa estate. Not many children volunteer to carry on the legacy of their parents but Nikita has graciously accepted and we are lucky to have her," the ex-pupil of St Augustine Girls' High School claimed.
"My mother is the wise one. She has the hands on experience with entertaining our visitors, making them feel welcome. She is the pro in the hospitality business," the 26-year-old Nath declared. "How is it working with your mom?" I asked. Both mother and daughter laughed at the question and then Nikita gave the first response. "It is actually a great combination. We complement each other..."
"She won't say anything bad because she is afraid she gets fired," Mrs Nath interjected with a chuckle. Pulling several strands of her daughter's long hair from her eyes and fixing the collar of her cream silk blouse, she smiled and continued. "We disagree almost every day. We are from different worlds, we are opposites, but that makes for a great team because we have different necessary skills to contribute to the effective running of the business!" As we conversed some more about the unique and interesting visitors who stop by for tea on Sundays and the many blushing brides and gracious grooms who share their special moment against the backdrop of the well-manicured Ortinola garden, Mrs Nath's relaxed expression became pensive. I sensed she had something to say which had nothing to do with teas, weddings, cocoa trees or the booming business and I was not wrong. "I have something I want to share if it's okay with you?" I nodded my head in approval. "I discovered a lump in my breast two years ago. After screening by doctors they assured me that I had nothing to worry about and that it was just tissue. My son who was studying to become doctor then insisted that I do a lumpectomy and investigate further. I took his advice and when they tested the lump after it was removed they said it was cancer. It was very challenging for me. I went to Florida on the advice of my brother-in-law's friend and I removed my left breast and took medication. Thank God the cancer was in the early stages because I didn't have to do chemo and radiation. I did a lumpectomy though because I didn't want to take any chances."
Nikita's smile faded but she didn't look saddened by her mother's detour in the interview. "My mother is a strong-willed person. She never sulked or became depressed during her surgeries or with her diagnosis. She confronted the situation and did what she had to do and even today we marvel at how settled and laid back she is by everything that has happened!" I was amazed by the ease with which Mrs Nath related her cancer story as well. I didn't notice that she was without a left breast in her nicely tailored outfit, if she didn't tell me I would not have guessed. "I don't wear any padded bras and I don't have any intentions of doing an implant to replace the breast I lost. I am comfortable with myself. I am Hindu and I am spiritual as well. The first thing people see in a woman is her breast and so what if I am missing one, who ever see, see, I am happy with myself and I know that I will survive this hurdle and many more!" she assured.
"That's another reason why I decided to stay and work with my mom, I want to give her all the support she needed!" said Nikita. "Do you know that my husband and I bought this estate and the Great House because of Nikita's love for ponies?" the elder Nath stated.
"I never got the pony but I got a piece of nature that I intend to preserve, develop and cherish. I always loved agriculture and I want to develop this project and see it prosper!" Nikita informed.
Coming back to Mrs Nath's brush with cancer, she was sure to mention her desire to start a support group for women living with cancer and cancer survivors. "I would like to hold monthly support sessions right here in Ortinola so that we can talk and support each other. People suffering from cancer need this type of dialogue with people who are in similar situations, It helps when you can sit and converse about it. I want to inspire people by my story, I want to be a shoulder to cry on, I want to make a difference in the lives of others!" As I wrapped up the interview with more of Nikita's tours through the premises and Mrs Nath's divulgence that she wants to start a pawpaw garden very soon, I was still in awe of the intriguing women of Ortinola. The beautiful landscaped site and the soon to be rehabilitated cocoa estate are great but so too are the Nath ladies, a great team indeed, a great complement to the Great House in Maracas St Joseph.
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