Come, Come up to La Laja
Come now to La Laja
Where sunrise lifts a glow of golden light in every direction
Upon the mountainside
Up and over Windblow, whose name explains itself
For there you'll find the wind just blow and blows
Over Cabes', the head and down below to the lovely Verdant Vale, where crystal waters flow
Whenever the quarries a rest do take
Poet, herbalist Francis Morean (circa 1990)
Simeon "Simyung" Lopez was the son of a Venezuelan migrant, who sneaked into Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1900s, and a descendant of a Carib woman, one of the indigenous tribes which lived in the hills of the Northern Range.
He died in 1990 at the age of 91. He was the father of 23 children with two women – Jane Lopez, who died at 87, and Zita Quintero, 94, whose memory is still vivid of the early years.
Simeon, also known as Bisco, was one of the early estate owners along the La Laja South Branch Road, about ten kilometres from the borough of Arima, along the Blanchisseuse Main Road.
La Laja's name is Spanish in origin and translates to "the slab" and is favoured by hikers, naturalists and birdwatchers. The trail leads to this country's highest peak – El Cerro Del Aripo – to breathtaking waterfalls such as La Laja, and Sambasson. Hikers can climb over mountain ridges to get to Paria, Brasso Seco, Morne Bleu, the Guanapo Gorges and many other untouched natural beauties in the Northern Range.
Two weeks ago, a convoy of about 15 high-end SUVs carrying Arima MP Pennelope Beckles, the minister of housing, Lopinot/Bon Air West MP Marvin Gonzales, the minister of public utilities, and a host of technocrats and supporting staff visited the community promising estate owners the dream of a pipe-borne water supply and solar panels for power.
The closest the estate owners ever came to government support was during the tenure of prime minister Patrick Manning – 2001-2010 – as he shared a close relationship with La Laja's most infamous estate owner, Shirley Perriera, known to cabinet members as Juliana Pena, the prime minister's spiritual adviser.
Estate owners said it was the first time in decades that a section of the almost impassable road was paved, up to Pena's estate, and there was a regular road maintenance crew to swipe away the roadside bush, remove fallen trees and clean the drains.
All that is gone now. In the last two decades the majority of estate owners have given up, selling their property to Asa Wright Nature Centre for a pittance.
Those who remain are buoyed by the promise of the Arima MP to rebuild the access road so they can take their produce to the market.
Two decades ago, the media reported on the challenges of the estate owners. Their main complaint was the extremely poor condition of the road, lack of water and electricity. Today, the cry for help is the same.
Last Wednesday, a Sunday Newsday team went as far into the community as the 4x4 pickup would take them. Navigating the road as an experienced driver on a hot, sunny day was a challenge, especially at the sharp corner, eroded narrow gravel roadway and dangerous precipices on the right. On the one-way trip it takes close to an hour to reach Samuel River and the rugged road leading to the El Cerro Del Aripo trail.
We met our guides, Trevor Cabralis, 43, his wife, Natasha James, and son, Jadon Lewis, 14, at the Arima home of Emmanuel Moolchan, the retired director of the Met Service. Moolchan is the son of one of the 11 children of Simeon and Jane Lopez.
Hanging in his porch is a laminated framed copy of a 211-year-old newspaper – the Trinidad Weekly Courant and Commercial Gazette, issue number 217. He said he found it concealed behind a photo of Jesus hanging in his father's home in La Laja, together with a book of spells which he tried to burn, but which seemed to repel the fire. Moolchan said another relative took the mysterious book from the fire, which was only scorched on the cover, and was never seen again.
Simeon had two homes, one in Arima, which he shared with Jane and their children, and a tapia house at La Laja which he shared with Zita and her children.
Phillipa Lopez recalled in the early 1950s her father bought an estate in La Laja and planted fields of cocoa, coffee and other mixed crops. The road then was a mud track accessible by foot, and donkeys carried the produce out to the main road. She said she did not spent much time in the estate, as she stayed home to take care of her three boys and eight girls.
Unknown to her mother, Zita moved in with Simeon. She was 25 years younger than him and worked on the estate. People in the community referred to Zita as the Amazon woman because of her sheer strength. She bore 12 children for Simeon – eight boys and four girls – and later bought her own ten-acre estate for $100 along La Laja Branch Road, where she built her own home – a retreat for any lost soul, where they will be welcomed with a steaming cup of home-made coffee, a warm meal, and place to rest their head.
She longs to return but cannot because of the bad road and a leg injury.
"La Laja for me, if I go there now, I rich. My heart will be free of everything. I have no worries, I have nothing. I independent of myself. Watching the mountain, getting all the breeze, I happy. If I go La Laja now, I cure, I full, I happy.
"I longing to return right now. I can't walk. The roads bad. If I had my donkey I will go," she said during an interview at her daughter's Malabar home, where she has been living since she hurt herself on the estate.
She managed her estate single-handedly for about eight years into her early 80s, and refused to leave. Her youngest daughter, Theresa, and her brother Callistus will inherit the estate. Theresa plans to revitalise the coffee plants, package and sell her produce in Arima and to visitors. Her brother is managing an anthurium farm on the estate with other relatives.
Zita recalled her days growing up in La Laja, where her home was refuge to the homeless, battered, or anyone seeking to clear their head. She believes in loving all without discrimination and dismisses the notion of some that the rich are better off than the poor
She said the people of La Laja were never hungry and always have something to offer. She is a jack of all trades according to her daughters, who marvel at her cooking, sewing and farming skills.
They said Christmas was one of their favourite times of the year, when their mother will slaughter a pig, make ham in a pitch oil tin, bake bread in an earthen oven, and cook a variety of wild meat from the abundant animals in the forest. She even made home-made ice cream by spinning the mixture in a bucket with her hands.
Theresa said their family was so big that they could easily play a cricket match against each other and Sundays were dedicated to family time. Her sister Debra said her mother taught all of her children survival skills for which to this day they are eternally grateful and live by the mantra – plant what you eat.
Living in the mountain has its disadvantages, but nothing can compare to "holding the full moon in your hands" and seeing the stars up close, says Theresa.
"It lets you know that there is a God above."
Other farmers who refuse to give up, like Ray Williams, Garfield Joseph, Shirwin Johnson and his wife Charmain Marcano, are hopeful of the promises by the Arima MP, as the cost to take their produce out for sale is not economical. They welcome the news of solar energy and water and will be most grateful if the roads can be repaired so they can retire in peace with their children in the forest of La Laja.
But Joseph Steve Scott, who grew up on his grandfather's estate ,returned 25 years ago to rescue the crops from the forest.
Scott, who celebrates his 72nd birthday on November 14, lives alone and is one of the few residents with solar power.
"La Laja is a fantastic place. I don't have any challenges. I have solar energy, I have a generator, but prior to having those things I always had a contented mind. If I have a flambeau to light in the night, I light it in the night and go and sleep. I educated enough not to be afraid of snakes and jumbies.
"That is what makes you live comfortable in La Laja.I'm not leaving here at all. They have to carry me down in a body bag...I real comfortable here," Scott said.
While development will bring more visitors, the estate owners are fearful it will also bring about the negatives such as crime, litter and neglect for the forest. But for now they have to live with the two worlds and hope good sense prevails.