The Pouis are late in blooming this year, but that’s not all that’s wrong with the Savannah. First, I should explain, for the benefit of non-Trinis (or for those of us who may be taking it for granted) what exactly the Savannah is.
Much more than a 260-acre green space in the middle of Port of Spain (the equivalent of an oasis in a desert), the QPS is, in many ways, the heart and soul of our city – for the last 189 years! In a country where anything “old” is expendable (much better to erect ugly, functionless buildings, designed by developers rather than architects, apparently – designed, in fact, for the sole purpose of making money without conscience – but we’ll pay for that mistake soon enough), the Savannah is probably one of the greatest links to history that we have. Coupled with the adjoining Botanical Gardens, it is also an ecological jewel, host to over 800 tree species (my favourite of which just happens to be the Poui).
The Savannah survives in spite of itself. Or rather, in spite of ourselves. About 7 years ago, there was the controversial paving of part of the Savannah – supposedly to reduce the inconvenience experienced by Carnival masqueraders after they crossed the stage to be greeted by a cloud of “dus’ in dey face.” Been there, done that – it’s part of the Monday and Tuesday mas’ experience. If it bothers you, wear a dust mask. It bothered me more that the flooding issues grew worse (as we knew they would) after that “get something and pave” Carnival season – that’s what happens when you ignore the fact that the area is one of the largest water catchment areas in Port of Spain.
Now there are plans afoot to build a National Cultural Centre to replace the Grand Stand (permanent) and the North Stand and stage areas (non-permanent structures) that accommodate hundreds of thousands of Carnival revelers each year – a project that could be enjoying a lot more public support had the folks that will actually be using said facility been consulted on the specific design for the structure.
If you check out this paper, written 20 years ago, it seems that many of the challenges we face today with the QPS are like a recurring decimal (albeit with interesting twists):
…in the early 1800s, the Savannah was not envisioned as an area for recreational pursuits, but was purchased as part of the estate for the governor’s official residence…
Fast forward about 2 centuries: today, the Prime Minister wants to relegate the recreational pursuits of the population to the Savannah as he expands his estate into the President’s Grounds – which, let’s say for the sake of argument, I don’t have a problem with. I repeat: only for the sake of argument…
So there I am, chased from President’s Grounds to the Savannah. I’m walking my two adopted beagles. The sun is bright and friendly, almost making up for the fact that the Pouis are not yet in bloom. Families are flying kites, football sides are warming up, cricket lovers that still have hope for the Windies are in their whites on the various pitches, shiny red cork balls spinning vibrantly against the blue sky.
Beagles are a hunting breed, so they love to sniff – and the QPS is a veritable cornucopia of scents – I am exhausted from constantly trying to keep them away from discarded soda bottles, juice boxes, chicken and chips containers and broken glass. In fact, the litter is so off-putting that I only half expect to stumble upon used condoms or hypodermic needles. Instead, the weirdest finds are the left side of a sneaker and old clothes. As I wonder how on earth these last two items end up in what is effectively a national park, I spot a woman squatting unabashedly under a tree, trousers down, mid-stream, and not the number 1 kind.
Steering the dogs in another direction entirely and marking the tree as off limits, we trot over to what was once a soft, beautiful sand track upon which the race horses would run. The horseracing venue has since been moved from the Savannah to the Arima Race Track, but I still get very nostalgic about the memory of horses cantering along that track. I even bought a Noel Norton photograph of the scene because it reminds me of the “glory days” of the Savannah. The track is now like a small landfill – ignored, save for the sprinking of used tyres and God-knows-what-else. We retreat; take a route closer to the pedestrian path on the outskirts of the Savannah where the grounds are only slightly cleaner.
On the way back to the car, there is the woman again, this time bathing with water from a standpipe in one of the Savannah’s culverts. I wonder how officials from the Ministry in charge of the QPS can miraculously find me and my film crew to check for filming permits the minute they spot a tripod and camera (which I am usually happy to pay because I think it will go towards maintenance), yet a woman is practically naked (but for the soap suds) in broad daylight and nobody says boo. I also wonder if the Save Our Savannah Committee is still active, because maybe I should apply for membership. Or go back to the President’s Grounds. Then again, there’s always Chaguaramas…