Published on Sep 26, 2012 in the Trinidad Express

LIFE doesn’t get any simpler than in Cumaca. It’s one of the few places in Trinidad where one can leave windows and doors open without thinking twice. Its 100 or so residents live day in and day out without the basic necessities, like running water and electricity. Nevertheless, the people are warm, hospitable and good-natured; not to mention, hardworking. Husbands and wives, the young and old spend long hours tending to their crops, which they load onto 4×4 vehicles for the long trip to the market.

Unlike other routes along the North Coast that provide incomparable views of the Caribbean Sea, Cumaca is tucked neatly in the rainforest of the Northern Range, where one is surrounded by miles of forest. For the inexperienced traveller, getting to Cumaca is tiresome: the only road leading in and out the village is in an appalling condition, gutted and worn out.

The Paponettes are one of the oldest families in Cumaca. The fertile agriculture lands lured them to Cumaca in the first place and it’s what has kept this family there for more than 70 years. On any given day, Mary Paponette could be found working in her garden. Last Friday, she took a break from the blistering heat to share with the Express stories of brave men who came to Cumaca for something besides agriculture.

The 69-year-old remembers Easter of 1964 as if it were yesterday. She was at a church service on the morning of Palm Sunday, when luck ran out for two divers who tempted fate—and lost. Adam Richards and Victor Abraham were members of the British Sea Aqua Club and had trekked for hours into the Cumaca forest to get to their final location—the Cumaca cave. Undeterred by the frightful screeches of the oilbirds hidden in the cave’s crevices, the two friends were determined to find the cave’s water source. This meant diving into the dark waters and swimming through a dangerous whirlpool about 70 metres from the cave’s entrance.

With no rope the men resorted to using a cord, which they would fasten to themselves while their friends back at the surface held the other end. That cord was to be their lifeline, their guide back to the surface. But while underwater tragedy struck and the cord became detached, leaving both men stranded without any way of getting out.

Richards and Abraham drowned.

Divers from South Trinidad were sought to retrieve their bodies, but only one of the men was pulled out of the water.

Paponette heard about the incident a day later, when her husband made enquiries when he noticed men scrambling back and forth on the track. A plaque honouring the lives lost on that day was erected by the men’s friends and colleagues and it remains on the wall of the cave.

Almost 50 years before the men met their watery deaths, another group of adventurers sought out the Cumaca cave. One of the expeditionists happened to be the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

Largely regarded as one of the best (and greenest) presidents of the US because of his conservation policies, Roosevelt was, first and foremost, a naturalist.

His love for the outdoors began in his childhood and continued well into his later years and to his death at the age of 60. He had been on several expeditions before, during and after his presidency, but it was on his last trip to South America that Roosevelt and others came to Trinidad in 1911.

Roosevelt travelled by boat from the Demerara River to Trinidad’s north coast, and then he and his team rode for four hours on horseback to Cumaca.

“I made an interesting trip with three friends into the northern mountains of Trinidad to see a guacharo cave,” Roosevelt wrote about his trip in one of the 35 books he authored.

Roosevelt wrote in precise detail the wonders that beheld him as he rode through the virgin forests.

“We saw blue tanagers and heard the songs of thrushes and orioles. There were repeated showers and we were drenched by the time we reached our destination, but between times the sun had almost dried us and the rain made the brilliant green woods fairly glisten.

"Most of the time we rode under the primeval tropic forest with its incredible wealth of strange and noble forms of plant life. Cecropias grew on the newly cleared soil. Moras sent out buttresses. Here and there a giant vine had strangled some mighty tree. There was a wealth of ferns on the wet slopes. Orchids were numerous. Large blue butterflies and smaller red and black ones floated on the trail,” he wrote.

But what would Roosevelt make of Cumaca today? Its forests still stretch for miles, but the abundance of wildlife is in no way comparable to the early 1900s, when Roosevelt visited.

On the road to Cumaca there lies St Alban’s Quarry, a large imposing reminder of the high price tag that comes with development. Meanwhile, inside the village itself, it appears that all remants of development in the community are slowly being erased.

“There were more people in the village because there was work. Two roadside gangs used to maintain the roads, cut the bush and clear the drains. There were shops in the area and there was transportation. Cars used to take people in and out of Cumaca, but then all of that stopped.

"People couldn’t get employment in the area and they left. The road got worse so no cars would help out with transportation anymore,” said Lousie Paponette, who added that Cumaca was more developed 20 years ago than it is today.

“There were plenty access roads to estates. Anybody could have walked those roads, but now everything is growing back into forest. The Sangre Grande Regional Corporation comes here once every two months to maintain the road, but that’s not good enough and the drains aren’t cleared so whenever it rains, the water flows and settles into the road, making it worse,"added Paponette (Mary).

There is no sound of laughter coming from pupils at the Cumuca RC Primary School, no longer can passers-by see children bent over their copy books—the school’s doors have been closed to facilitate repairs and classes have been transferred to the Valencia RC Church.

Much to the disappointment of residents, many of whom are Catholic, the church which stands on the same compound as the school has been closed until repairs on the school are completed.

Residents have seen their community fade into the background slowly but surely. They can no longer pray in their beloved church, but at home they will pray the school and church do not suffer the same fate as the Cumaca road—once a gateway to the outside world, but now a symbol of neglect.