Trinidad and Guyana: Oil Island and the Lands of Many Waters

Trinidad and Guyana: Oil Island and the Lands of Many Waters


Dear All,


Over the last week or so, I have been travelling through parts of the Caribbean and the Guiana states on the northeastern coast of South America.  Please check out my almost daily updates of my journey on which also contains many photos I have taken of this region.




I began the Caribbean leg of Odyssey2 in Trinidad, which with a surface area of 4768 sq km and 1.3 million inhabitants, is the largest and most populous island in the Eastern Caribbean.  Unlike most other islands of the Caribbean, tourism isn't the most important industry in Trinidad, the larger of the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago.  It is oil, natural gas and related petrochemical industries (including the world's largest methanol production facilities) that make Trinidad and Tobago one of the Caribbean's richest islands and the main driver in the current construction boom ongoing in this sunny isle.  Let's hope that Trinidad and Tobago would manage the current oil windfall well and not squander it like countries such as Nigeria and Brunei, where oil revenue often goes straight to the rulers' Swiss bank accounts and white elephant projects.


According to Wikipedia, "Trinidad and Tobago is the 5th largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world. The expansion of Atlantic LNG over the next 4 years could create the largest-single sustained phase of economic growth in Trinidad and Tobago. It has become the leading exporter of LNG to the United States, and now supplies some 70% of U.S. LNG imports…Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing a transition from an oil-based economy to a natural gas based economy. In 2006, natural gas production averaged 4 million standard cubit feet per day (mmscf/d)."


Trinidad further uses natural gas as feedstock to manufacture methanol and urea.  As a former CFO of a chemical plant that manufactures methanol, I have witnessed the importance of Trinidad and Tobago as a global methanol player.  When a methanol production facility of Methanex, the world's largest producer which is listed on Toronto Stock Exchange, suffered a force majeure outrage in 2006, world methanol price shot through the roof and made my former company a substantial windfall gain.  Now it is with more than touristic interest that I visit this island which, in an indirect way, is partially responsible for enabling the financing of Odyssey2.


My journey did not begin well.  I arrived in Trinidad after a series of flights over 48 hours – Singapore-Tokyo-New York-Trinidad, with my right kneecap suffering from intense pain, possibly from a muscle sprain and subsequent confinement to a fixed position for a prolonged duration. 


As a result, I experienced on-off pain behind my kneecap and sometimes found myself unable to stand up or straighten my right leg.  I also felt tired and worn out fairly quickly, which fortunately had not interfered much with my itinerary in the Caribbean, where I had not intended to do much hiking or serious walking.  The pain had subsided substantially since I found a magical sports balm in Trinidad, though I still feel more tired than before after a full day of walking.  I would continue monitoring the situation, and fingers crossed, hopefully this would not affect the next leg of Odyssey2, which is a physically more demanding adventure through Africa.  Wish me luck, dear friends!






Upon arrival in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago, I walked around town with a limping leg.  I visited the National Museum near the Queen's Park Savannah, a huge green lung of Port of Spain that is reportedly the largest roundabout in the world.  Across town, I passed the Red House, a magnificent building that also houses the Senate and the House of Representatives.  In 1990, more than 100 members of a radical Islamist group called Jamaat al Muslimeen stormed the building during a parliamentary session.  They held the Prime Minister and many members of the cabinet hostage for six days in an attempt to overthrow the government and form the first Islamic state in the Caribbean.  They failed, and eventually surrendered to the Army, though not before massive looting and destruction took place in Port of Spain. What was most amazing here was that they had actually believed they could set up an Islamic state when Muslims account for less than 10% of the population of Trinidad and Tobago. 


In the post 9/11 era of today, I am no longer overly surprised, especially after Osama bin Laden made announcements calling for not only the setting up of a global Islamic Empire but also for all Americans to convert to Islam failing which death is the only path.  In the eyes of these radical fundamentalists, anyone who is not Muslim is not human and all non-Islamic lands must be converted or put to the sword.  It is a pity that the world, under the extremely flawed leadership of Bush's America, have not made substantial headway in ridding world civilization of such radical elements.




Trinidad is the homeland of Dexter, a good friend from my days in London Business School and investment banking in London.  By a remarkable coincidence, he was also visiting Trinidad during this period.  Dexter and his friend, Ronni, brought me to Maracas Bay, a pretty sandy cove with swaying coconut trees, where they introduced me to the famous local specialty, Bake and Shark, which is a kind of fried shark meat sandwich, stuffed with generous portions of vegetables.  We went to St James, a suburb with nice pubs and bars, and then cruised around Port of Spain's not-so-safe neighbourhoods looking for the steel pan rehearsals for the upcoming Carnival. 




Culturally and demographically, Trinidad is a very interesting island.  It was under Spanish rule for 200 years before turning British, during which Port of Spain (or Puerto de Espana as it was known in Spanish) was founded and was later a destination for French speakers and their slaves when French islands of St Lucia and Dominica were ceded to the British, and when the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) rebelled.  For a long time, French Creole prevailed as a major language even as the island came under British rule in 1797, but eventually was taken over by English with time. 


The famous Calypso music of Trinidad was initially sang in French but eventually turned English as the mother tongue of its audience evolved.  In a way, this was no different from the dramatic switch from Chinese as a key medium of culture in Singapore to English in the last few decades.  Who knows, with new groups of Mainland Chinese migrants in recent years (and possibly coming years), the ball may yet roll in the opposite direction again.


I vaguely recalled Lee Kuan Yew, while urging Singaporeans to cast aside our own native Singlish and improve our command of pure English and official "mother tongues", had described Caribbean culture and its Creole dialects as mixed-bred bastard tongue with little practicable application. But it is in such an environment that Trinidad and Tobago, a tiny country by any standard, had produced not one but two Nobel Prize winning authors, V.S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott (who was born in St Lucia but lived in Trinidad).  Whereas Nobel prizes for literature does not increase GDP per capita of a country per se but perhaps better examples could have been thought of.


Everywhere the British went about empire building, hot on their heels came the Indians and Chinese, who were either brought to the colonies as indentured labourers to work on the plantations or to build new infrastructure.  In Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, the arrival of the Indians upon the abolition of slavery (that led to the loss of black slave labour) changed the demographic landscape.  Today, Indians account for 40% and 49% of the population of the two countries respectively with the Afro-origin.  The relations between the often more well-off Indian-origin citizens of these countries and the often less-privileged black citizens of these countries are often touchy and election times often see the heating up of communal based political parties and tensions.  It would be interesting to see how the rise of India as an economic power could eventually have any impact on such dynamics.




From Trinidad, I flew to Georgetown, capital of the Republic of Guyana.  The word "Guyana" came from "Guiana", an Amerindian-Arawak word for "Land of Many Waters", which appropriately describes the northwestern coast of South America which is characterized by wide rivers gushing down first, deep tropical rainforests and then relatively flat coastal swampy plains. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British had all fought over these lands during their search for the legendary land of gold, El Dorado. But the failure to find valuable minerals as well as the deadly malarial swamps did not create sufficient incentive for the powers to colonise the land as intensively they did elsewhere in the New World. 


African slaves were first brought to work in the plantations, built on land created after the draining of the swamps by the Dutch.  Later, the British brought Indians, Chinese and Portuguese as indentured workers to their part of the Guianas, and the Dutch brought Indians, Chinese and Javanese.  Chinese and Vietnamese merchants came with the French and sprinkled French Guiana with general stores and Asian restaurants.  Today, the Guianas, though bearing broadly similar demographic landscape, was politically divided into three: The English-speaking Republic of Guyana, Dutch-speaking Republic of Suriname and the French region of Guyane (commonly known as French Guiana).


After independence in 1966, Guyana under President Burnham pursued socialist policies.  In 1970, he declared the country a "Co-operative Republic" and turned the country into an one-party state.  The country nationalized all businesses and pursued self reliance as a national doctrine.  The end result was economic destitution and mass poverty.  "Until 1992, we all have nothing to eat," said Shiva, a taxi driver. "We only ate what we could grow and farmers found to keep grain secretly were persecuted."  During this period, 600,000 Guyanese emigrated overseas, mostly to New York, Canada and the UK.  Compare this to Guyana's current population of only 750,000 and one would realize the severity of the movement.


Burnham's Guyana also pursued actively relations with the Soviet Bloc and the so-called Non-Aligned Movement.  A monument with bronze busts of the four greats of the Non-Aligned Movement, Nasser of Egypt, Nehru of India, Tito of Yugoslavia and Nkrumah of Ghana, still stands in a small garden at the heart of Georgetown.  This tiny green patch is meticulously taken care of, in contrast to the dilapidation and dirt of downtown Georgetown.  "Burrnham ditched British Leyland buses and asked Nehru for some Indian buses instead. The buses came but they broke down in no time," said Chico, a Guyanese tour guide. 


Burnham died in 1985 and by 1992, democracy was restored.  Since then, Guyana has been opening its door to the outside world but the long term negative impact of the old socialist experiment would take a long time to shake off.  The Georgetown of today is poor, run-down and a very dangerous place in terms of law and order.  I spent two nights in Georgetown's centrally located Rima Guesthouse.  The presidential palace and prime minister's official residence were less than 100 meters away, and yet, I have been warned by the guesthouse owner not to be on the streets before 8am or after 7pm.  "Bad guys would recognize you as a foreigner and they would attack," she said.  Indeed, the Rough Guide to South America suggests that one should get a cab even to travel to the next block at night.  If the robbers didn't get you, the many coverless manholes on the unlit streets might, I reckoned.


Putting aside the dangers of Georgetown, I have to admit that this is an interesting city with a surprising number of monumental buildings made purely from timber – the 44 meter high St George's Cathedral (one of the world's tallest wooden buildings), the Supreme Court, Stabroek Market, State House (presidential palace), residence of the prime minister and the city engineer's office.  "Guyana is the treasure house of tropical wood and we have to flaunt it," said Chico.


I understood that Guyana has applied for World Heritage status for Georgetown's historical centre (and Kaiteur Falls) and I have no doubt they would eventually obtain that recognition.  The lack of funds hinders conservation efforts.  According to Chico, the beautiful old Portuguese cathedral was burned down in fire three years ago.  All that remains are intricately carved metal grilling of its outer perimeters, which still stands on what could have been prime land in capital cities elsewhere.


Guyana was first colonized by the Dutch, who drained the swamps, dug canals and built a seawall to protect Georgetown, which is 7 feet below sea level.  Today's Georgetown is little changed from those old days.  Cows alongside canals lined with Dutch wooden houses and sugar cane fields – a strange kind of tropical Holland, except that one had to be mindful of crime, malaria and dengue fever. 


The British took over in 1803 and after the abolition of slavery, brought the Indians over as indentured workers, who still live largely in the huge rice fields, sugar cane plantations and vegetable farms of the coastal plains, whilst the Afro-Guyanese, descendants of African slaves, concentrate mainly in Georgetown's many slums and shantytown suburbs.  It was with an Indo-Guyanese émigré family now residing in Canada that I visited Guyana's most famous attraction, Kaieteur Falls. 


It was David's first visit back to Guyana after leaving the country 25 years ago.  "The country was bankrupt then, from those silly communist policies.  It is only now beginning to stand up again," said David, who as an Indo-Guyanese Canadian, have complicated multi-faceted identities like many overseas Chinese: the country of one's passport, one's country of birth and one's most original ancestral roots.  David also remembered some joyous innocent days, "We trekked the jungles when we were young, and we saw five types of jaguars and great cats, as well as numerous varieties of colourful and loud macaws and parrots."


Kaieteur Falls, located in Guyana's deep interior, which at a height of 228 meters, is supposedly the world's tallest single drop waterfall.  It is five times the height of Nigara Falls and twice that of Victoria Falls.  Situated in a deep ravine surrounded by almost impenetrable tropical rainforest, it takes five days through very rough roads to get here by land. 


We took only an hour to get there – by flying on a six seater Cessna – me on the co-pilot's seat – across initially the flat fertile Demerara valley and then into the lush greenery of the Amazonian jungle.  A freak storm rocked the plane as we flew above the jungle canopy.  Visibility dropped significantly and I could only chant, "Om mani padme om, om mani padme om…"  Suddenly, a ray of light tunneled through the darkness of clouds and rain, and we found ourselves approaching a ravine, with a shiver of silvery water pouring down a vertical wall of rocks beyond.  That's the magnificent Kaieteur. 


We walked around the various viewpoints, admiring this gorgeous work of Mother Earth.  We also saw a golden frog, whose poison is reserved by the local Amerindians for their enemies and dangerous anacondas.  The national park guide also added that the poison could also be used as a love portion, and its effects had been proven to be many times more powerful than the Viagra.




A sparsely populated country like Guyana faces risks from land-hungry neighbours.  Venezuela to the west has a historical claim to all lands to the west of the Essequibo River, i.e., three quarters of all Guyana territory.  In 1899, an international arbitration tribunal awarded most of the disputed land to British Guiana, now Guyana, in a decision that was accepted by both Venezuela and Britain in 1905.  However, in 1962, on the basis of a posthumous publication of a book by a junior member of the 1899 arbitration team (in which he alleged unfair British pressure and interference), revived the old claim and set aside the arbitration award.  Even today, the issue remains unresolved.  As a Guyanese driver said, "if oil is suddenly discovered in the Essequibo," which is actually quite possible according to recent reports, "crazy Chavez's Venezuela would just march in and tiny Guyana would not be able to do anything."  Sounds very much like the Iraq-Kuwait story.


On my journey to the airport to fly to Suriname, I met Sammy, a friendly Indo-Guyanese taxi driver.  A balding man about sixty years old, Sammy was aghast that I had not seen Guyana apart from Georgetown and Kaieteur, and I hadn't tried the Guyanese delicacies, pepper pot and cooked up rice.  "You should give yourself more time.  If you are not leaving today, I would cook you some Guyanese food and showed you the beautiful countryside," Sammy said.  "It's not that we are nice, that's all, but we Hindus believe that gods can come in many manifestations, whether in the form of a guest or a beggar.  That's why we are taught to be kind to the people we see."



From Georgetown, I got on a Brazilian regional airlines, Meta Airlines, to Paramaribo, the exotic capital of Suriname.  That story will be next, but first let me join the citizens of Cayenne, French Guiana, in their carnival celebration.




Wee Cheng




Unknown said…
Hello Mr. Tan Wee Cheng,
You seem a most interesting fellow.
I also have been to Guyana last November with my associates on a fact finding tour for business potentials. Been to the Kaiteur falls and Jungle etc and travelled to many places in Guyana.
Guyana has immense potential and we are very impressed !
I am 75% Chinese, live in Canada but have very close connections with the Far East. On my next trip to Singapore, I would like to meet you. Please send me your e-mail address & phone number to :
Yours sincerely,
Unknown said…
Dear Mr. Tan Wee Cheng,
You seem a most interesting person with your travel comments.
I also been to Guyana last November with my associates on a fact finding tour for business potentials. Been to the famous Kaiteur falls, the jungle and many other places in Guyana. We found Guyana to be very hospitable and with immense potential all round. We will be going back there shortly with projects in mind together with investors from Canada and the Far East.
I am 75% Chinese, live in Canada but have close connections with the Far East. I would like to meet you on my next trip to Singapore.
Please kindly e-mail me your e-mail address and phone numbers.
Yours sincerely,
Tony. ..... e-mail also to