Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bamboo Cannon

Boom!  Boom!  Boom!  "What the heck is that?  It sounds like a shotgun but this is Tobago not the USA so that doesn't make sense."  Boom!  "Seriously, what is that?  It must be fireworks?  Nope, I don't see any.  And that doesn't make sense as there would be more booms."  Hum?  We were over on sv Blue Blaze for dinner when we heard the booms and this conversation took place.
Vanna of bamboo cannons - see the smoke

A couple of days later we were ashore at Pirates Bay on the beach.  We asked local Son Son -  "Son Son, we heard some loud booms on Xmas Eve.  What was that?"  "Ah....those were bamboo cannons."  "What......no way."  Both Tom and Jason's eye dilated immediately.  "Bamboo cannons!"  Son Son went on to explain.  "Bamboo cannons are a tradition here in Tobago for Diwali and Xmas.  Long time tradition."  I said "We never heard them at carnival."  "Oh no.  They are not allowed at carnival.  Only Diwali (Festival of Lights) and Xmas.  The police don't care then.  If you shoot them at any other time, the police care."  
Son Son getting just the right one

Okay.  "So bamboo cannons, um.....?"  Son Son then said the magic words - "We make them.  You want me to show you how?  You can come ashore some afternoon and I will show you how to build one.  We have been building them for a long time.  I learn when I was a child.  I teach my kids and my grandkids.  Everyone learns when they are child.  You want to learn?"  I thought Tom and Jason we going to group hug Son Son or hyperventilate with excitement or both.
Heavy bamboo

A few days later we went ashore around 16:00 to learn to make bamboo cannons.  It turns out there is quite a bit to the process.  Son Son lead us up behind his beach beer shack to a huge clump of BIG bamboo.  He had to find just the right piece of bamboo.  Not to big or small.  Not to green or dry.  Getting it out of the clump was another challenge.  He hacked a few with his trusty cutlass and finally Jason and Tom were able to pull one out and carry it back down the hill.  It was heavy.
Cutting to size

Sharp stick for digging out the inside

Next Son Son sawed it down so that it had only 5 sections.  Bamboo has these cross sections.  They he got a limb and put a sharp point on it.  This was used to knock out those bamboo cross sections on the inside of the bamboo.  He left the last one as the base.
Opening for kerosene

Shaking out the loose stuff - wait....where are those people going and why?

Next he cut an opening near the bottom for the kerosene.  This is the fuel of choice for ignition.  However, many get impatient with kerosene or want a bigger explosion and such and they start mixing fuels, adding gasoline.  This is where the real danger comes in according to Son Son.  "Kerosene is safe.  No problem."  Yeah, right.
Molotov cocktail

Fire anyone

The next step was to set up a flame.  He filled an empty beer bottle with kerosene and then stuffed a rag in it and lite it on fire.  Yes, you are correct.  It looks just like a Molotov cocktail.  The sort thrown in riots and in the movies.
Beachside operation

Filling the base with kerosene

We moved over to the beach where he propped the cannon up for the final steps before lighting.  He carefully poured kerosene into the bamboo cannon.  Then he used a small twig as a punk - dipping it first in the kerosene and then lighting it and then using that to light the kerosene in the bamboo cannon.
Heating the chamber
The next step is crazy so pay attention.  Once lighting the kerosene in the bamboo cannon, you have to put your face and mouth down very close to it and blow to help the first evaporate and heat the bamboo cannon chamber.  Read that again.....you put your face down very close and blow into the cannon where the flammable/combustive kerosene is dancing with the fire!  YES!  However, Son Son showed us the safe way to do it.  (Yeah right) - you kneel off to the side and keep your face off to the side as well, blowing at an angle verses leaning directly over it where it can blow up right in your face.  Yeah....keep telling yourself that!  One young (20's) local guy said he never did bamboo cannon.  "Too dangerous.  It's crazy.  My brother always did them.  He got burned pretty bad."
Jim on sv Inishnee was doing some follow up inquire on the bamboo cannons and apparently they are the second leading cause of injury in Tobago.  O-Kay.
"Blow the smoke.  Blow the smoke."

Anyway, after you heat the inside of the bamboo cannon enough, you can get an explosion.  The more heat, the bigger the explosion.  To make that happen you have to blow and blow and blow to heat it.  Son Son would say "Blow the smoke.  Blow the smoke.  Keep blowing the smoke.  More." over and over again.  It was exhausting and takes some lung capacity.

BOOM!  See the flash?

Two young locals (20's) brothers came along and wanted to join in.  Son Son happily turned the duty of showing us over to them.  They were pros.  You could tell they had done this hundreds of times.  One guy pointed to Son Son's grandson who was near by and approx 7 - "We learn when we were his age."  WOW!  Their techniques were very exact each time - kneeling at the side, blowing from the side and not over, carefully reaching for the kerosene and lighting the chamber.
Tom's turn

Then it was our turn.  Tom went first.  He blew the smoke and blew the smoking, heating the chamber.  Then when enough smoke was coming out he lite the kerosene for explosion.  BOOM!  Applause - "Whoa!  Awesome!  Do it again, do it again."   Next was Jason and then me and finally Laura.  Then Tom again. Then Jason again. Then Tom again.  Then Tom again.  Some of the booms were only just boom.  Some were boom and still others were BOOM.
Laura's turn

It was pretty kewl.  Then we all got tired.  We stopped and visited.  Later Tom went back to it along with Son Son's seven year old grandson.  No locals were around.  I was a tad freaked - just Tom and a seven year old who really hadn't taken much interest until now.  "Um, Tom.  Do you think you should be the one to be showing him how to do this?"  "It's fine."  Then the little kids says "It needs more fuel" and proceeds to grab the kerosene and refill the bamboo cannon.  Oh boy!  But luckily one of the local brother's came along and took over showing the grandson the proper procedures.  Whew!
Tom's turn again

So there you have it - start to finish.  It was fun to learn first hand about this local tradition.  Very unique to Tobago.
Son Son cutting loose

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