Trinidad’s carnival is a mix of pounding melodies of calypso and soca bands, racy rhymes, steel drums and a circus of as many as 300,000 people dressed from head to toe in peacock-hued costumes that march and dance around the streets – or so I had heard.
I traveled to Trinidad and Tobago a total of three times in the past two years but never once to partake with the throngs parading through the streets during the much anticipated Caribbean Carnival.
Being a teacher, I was ecstatic to discover this year my unwanted furlough calendar days lay in sync with the main two-day event.
At that point, buying a ticket was a “no brainer.”
In hopes of any ounce of advice for how to prepare for such an exciting and grandiose event, I reached out to all my local Trini friends via Facebook to get their tips. Apparently they had already been gearing up to take the parade by storm for weeks in advance.
It is often said that if Trinidadians are not celebrating Carnival, then they are getting ready for it while reminiscing about the past year’s celebration.
Carnival has been celebrated in Trinidad since the 19th century, when emancipated African slaves began rebelling and mimicking the masque balls of their French colonial landowners while also paying respect to African mythology and music. Today these African roots, the passion of the parade and convergence of people from all over the Caribbean continues to mirror the celebration and freedom they achieved.
While en route for 11 hours from LAX to Port-of-Spain, I was advised to try to sleep as much as possible to conserve all energy before the reveling began. My plane arrived just in the nick of time to dive head first into Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), a show of competitions where among other performances, Trini’s showcase themselves before judges frosted in their colorful bikinis, beads and feathers in hopes of winning the titles of King and Queen of the Carnival Bands. As my local friends whisked me away from the airport they filled me on how elaborate these costumes could get. However, it wasn’t until I arrived that I realized how far some of the contestants actually take it. I was astonished and amazed as competitors crossed the stage trying to outdo one another with costumes that were two stories high, weighing up to 100 pounds and made up of such meticulous construction and artistic design.
Once the showcase ended I was tempted to either sneak into the back seat of my friend’s car and take a nap or desperately search for a much needed caffeinated drink. My friends had given me a heads up that J’ouvert, the pre-dawn Monday celebration that marks the official start to the two day carnival, was soon on it’s way. This is when a mass of people smear themselves in mud, oil and cocoa powder and parade the streets flinging paint on everyone else while dancing.
Soon enough, at 4 a.m., masqueraders covered from head to toe in splattered d cor made their way through the small streets while vibrating soca music blasted from speakers on trucks rolling slowly by us. I was told to be dressed entirely in white and as I was munching on a beef pie I had bought from a street vender, I found out why. A young boy dripping in bright amber paint targeted me, gave a big bear hug and then ran away. I couldn’t help from laughing and soon I felt I could no longer be mistaken as a spectator on the sideline. My friends pulled me into the crowd and eventually I was dancing and shuffling along side them.
By Monday evening my friends and I drove up to Paramin, a tiny town at the top of a high hill overlooking Port-of-Spain. Apparently it is tradition for the entire town to assemble together on the first night of carnival to celebrate among groups of locals covered in blue paint, dressed as devils or werewolves. The Blue Devils of Paramin entered on to the small street following a band of drummers that directed the beat to their stomps and dances. Several of the devils carried sticks or forks that they used to lightly stab onlookers as a sign for money.
The crowd followed the groups up and down the small streets like a swarm of bees and I soon joined in with the flock. Every so often children would venture up to a monstrous looking blue devil or a werewolve and offer a Trinidadian dollar. I realized that I was expected to do so too, as the light pokes from their forks turned into getting slimmed by their bright blue paint.
Carnival Tuesday is when the awaited costume feting and parading happens. When my friends and I arrived, the bands and spectators were already filling up the streets of Port-of-Spain. I was amazed how the entire town had turned into a heavy sea of people shaking, singing, gyrating, waving feathers around and participating in happy debauchery.
There were around 200 groups in total, each with their own unique costumes that congregated themselves into clusters called “playing mas.” I noticed that these groups were very eclectic; varying in size, music and themes.
By noon it was well over 90 degrees but I hardly noticed. I was too mesmerized and consumed with being surrounded by an endless marching line of costume-clad locals and their energetic dancing to soca beats.
I could tell the vibe permeated on everyone around me as I watched both young and old “wining,” “liming” and shuffling around. This was awesome. I loved how infectious the vibe, enthusiasm and pride of the locals spread and as I felt the energy orbit around me, I felt lucky and excited to be participating in such a significant, unique and fun experience.