The rain was falling relentlessly. Seeking shelter was futile but we persevered, sharing umbrellas and fig leaves in lame attempts to shield ourselves from the torrential downpour. I stood alongside a dozen or so enthusiastic spectators, crammed atop a narrow concrete slab overlooking the Charlotteville Cocoa House. It was a tight fit and one misstep could send several of us rolling down the muddy slope yet we remained unfazed and unmoving. Under no circumstances were we relinquishing our prime viewing spot for the main event at the Charlotteville Natural Treasures Day presentation.
The dancing of the cocoa is always the highlight of Charlotteville’s Tobago Heritage Festival showcase. Most of us had arrived at the venue over two hours ago to secure a sliver of space on this unofficial viewing platform. Our feet ached, our clothes were soaked through, and we were becoming a little too intimate with our neighbors but we had no intentions of abandoning our post.
This vantage point offered the only uninterrupted view for this performance and I was finally getting to see it live. Providing the rain stopped. Which it did. Then the roof opened to reveal the beans, the dancers and a gaggle of preening politicians (don’t ask). And my day at the Charlotteville Natural Treasures Day Heritage show finally began.
Of all the Tobago Heritage Events that take place, Charlotteville’s might very well be the longest. It runs from 8:30 am until with an impressive number of activities that take place throughout the day. There was no way I could see and do everything so I took my time and sampled a few of the elements. In the end, these are the 5 experiences I think are essential for anyone attending Natural Treasures Day.
Dancing the Cocoa
The dancing of the cocoa is the most popular aspect of the Charlotteville Natural Treasures Day production. This demonstration takes place at a now out of commission Cocoa House. Villagers don old clothes adorned with dried leaves and they dance on top of the cocoa beans to the sound of the local tambrin band. In the past, this process was done so the beans looked nice and shiny in order to get the best possible price at the market. It’s a fun demonstration to watch and, if you don’t mind getting your feet dirty, you can go up and participate in this ritual yourself!
The washing of clothes was done in the river back in the day before washing machines became common household items. This was a ritual among village women who would bring not only their laundry but also food to eat and the gossip of the day. It was a tedious task washing an entire household’s laundry by hand in the cool river water but these women found a way to pass the time. They would spend hours on the bank of the river, washing by hand, laying them out to dry on rocks, eating their lunch, and talking about all the goings-on in the village.
The Batty Mill
Let me begin by explaining what “batty” means in our neck of the woods…it refers to your “butt”. I’ve always known this but still I was not prepared to see the batty mill in action. This contraption is designed to extract the juice from the cane stalks by having people bounce up and down on a lever that presses the cane every time they pump it with their…”batty”. It takes approximately one hour to fill a bucket with juice so the process is certainly an exhausting one, but very entertaining to observe!
For the entire day, the streets of Charlotteville are clogged with vendors, people, music trucks and VIBES. The usually sleepy village transforms into party central and you have to wonder if anyone in Tobago went to work that day. The crowds start to congregate around 9 am (or earlier, who knows?) and the party atmosphere doesn’t die down until late into the night (I left long before it ended). The entertainment ranges from cultural performances to DJ session, creating a rich, Carnival-like atmosphere from sunup to sundown.
I must say Charlotteville had the widest variety of food options than any other village presentation I’ve been to. Small shacks lined the street with offerings that range from basic chicken and chips to local fare. My recommendation would be to skip the fast food and try some blue food (dasheen) and fry fish or breadfruit oil down. But most importantly, don’t leave without sampling the sweetness of the raw cocoa that can be found in heaps and mounds at the Cocoa House. It won’t full your tummy but it makes for a great snack.
Things You Need to Know if You’re Attending:
- Arrive Early (Enough): The event starts at 9:30 am with a street procession. If your intention is to witness the dancing of the cocoa however, I suggest skipping the procession and heading straight to the cocoa house to claim a good viewing spot.
- Secure the Best Vantage Point: Immediately upon arrival, walk past the front of the Cocoa House to the narrow piece of concrete overlooking the roof. If you’re late, it’ll most likely already be fully occupied but if you’re early enough to get a spot, don’t give it up.
- Dress Comfortably: There is no seating and a lot of walking is involved so comfortable walking shoes are a must!
- Protect Yourself: An umbrella may prove useful for this excursion. While you don’t really have to worry about blistering heat because of all the tree coverage, there’s absolutely nowhere to seek shelter if it rains.
- Park Strategically: While the roads in Charlotteville are wide, parking is still an issue because it is prohibited along the main thoroughfare. Your best bet is to secure a park close to the field so you can easily exit without having to pass through the chaos.
As I mentioned initially, there are several other elements to the Charlotteville Natural Treasures Day show. There’s the procession, the woodcutting, a stage performance and a few more items on the very extensive programme. If you’re hard core and have the energy and time to spend the entire day you should definitely do so. But, if you’re like me, and can only manage a few hours, the 5 elements mentioned above are my top recommendations in terms of what you want to get out of the experience.