Its 3 pm on a Tuesday and the sun is scorching everything below. Water, flour, sweat, alcohol and powder are spraying through the air. Somebody hands me a full bottle of Patron Café and I take several big glugs without thinking, then pass it on to the next person who does the same. I look up and see people climbing onto 8 foot high walls, roofs of businesses and anything else that can give them a better view of the passing action. Everyone is engaged in a wild, raucous party that meanders through the streets of Port of Spain, morphing and evolving every few metres into something completely different. An explosion of colour, culture, music and movement. It is Trinidad Carnival 2013.
I was told that the country spends half the year preparing for it and half the year recovering from it. Trinidad and Tobago literally come to a complete standstill for Carnival, held on the Monday and Tuesday every year before the Christian religious date of Ash Wednesday. While not as big and famous as Rio De Janeiro’s, nor perhaps as graceful as Venice’s masquerade, Trinidad’s main event packs one hell of a punch. I’d been to Europe’s biggest – the Notting Hill Carnival in 2010 – joining one million others on the streets of London. But this time was different – I was actually in the West Indies. The weather was hot, the buildings brightly painted and the flavours were most definitely local.
Way back in the early 1800s, French settlers arrived with their African slaves and were renowned for throwing large, lavish masquerade-type balls and parties. The slaves, unable to join in, began throwing their own parties, often dressing up in costume to mock their masters. This tradition was continued even after slavery was abolished and as each new immigrant group was absorbed into the Trini culture, Carnival gradually evolved into what it is today. In a more religious sense, it became an excuse for people to lose all inhibitions and party themselves silly before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
It is an institution and I met people from every corner of the globe.
I made sure coming from Australia, that I arrived just over a week before the festivities to catch it all in full flight. I couldn’t have done anything without cousins who not only helped me organize a costume, but also got me a spot in the band which is essential if you are to “play” Carnival. The bands can range from a few hundred to many thousands of people and all have their own specific themes. We played in the Harts band which had several thousand folks of all ages and backgrounds. Guys generally don’t know or don’t care about what they’re wearing. The girls go all out and get dressed up in glamourous, revealing costumes that by Tuesday afternoon aren’t so glamorous but are even more revealing.
Around August, the first costume designs are revealed by the bands who then recruit partiers, organize equipment and prepare over the next few months. After Christmas, the Carnival officially begins as people frantically hit the gym, top up their tan and blast the latest Soca music which floods the airwaves. The week before Carnival is not the time to try and get serious work or business done. Absolutely everything is focused on the celebrations ahead.
The parties or Fetes as they are known, are a big part of this time of year, happening on an almost daily basis. These run for about 8 hours, starting anytime of the day or night and are generally all inclusive events. That’s right – drink and eat as much as you want or can stomach – and see some bangin’ live Soca for anywhere between 300 and 500 TTD (50 – 80 USD). I made it to two of the fetes – Blue Range and Tribe Ignite. My tip –pace yourself when free food and drink are slapping you in the face. At Ignite, I saw an electrifying live performance from Machel Montano and his band – arguably the top musician in Trinidad today. I hadn’t heard much Soca music before coming here, but by now I was getting hooked. The radio played nothing else so I didn’t really have a choice!
If you aren’t feting the weekend before Carnival, people are usually liming at the beach or going Down D Islands (DDI). Boats raft up together in one of the secluded bays of the western isles and everyone gets into the swing of things with thumping music, barbeques, plentiful drinking, swimming, tanning and dancing. At the Port of Spain Savannah you’ll find stages set up for the Steelpan band finals, kiddies carnival and many more competitions.
Carnival Monday kicks off at 3am with the infamous J’ouvert. I woke up at 3:15, with many missed calls and an awful hangover. Whoops. I slept in for a few more hours which would ensure my survival on the Monday. During J’ouvert, bands march through the streets to the rising sun as paint, mud, powder, flour and everything else designed to ruin old clothes and stain property is flung around in a frenzy. Anything in the way gets affected by the wild mob, including new vehicles and buildings. When enough damage has been done and your hair is matted thick, its time for breakfast and either a cheeky nap or some cheeky Jagermeister at 9am.
We headed down to join the band and “play mas” from 10am and the fun didn’t stop until dusk on Monday. The entire band filtered into sections, each following a huge truck equipped with up to 50 large speakers. My internal organs reverberated inside my ribcage every time that the bass thumped. Behind the truck came several carts – ours was stocked to capacity with every drink you could imagine – I quickly helped myself to a whisky and coconut water and started “chipping” down the street. The band went miles around Port of Spain as everybody partied in the sunshine.
They say Carnival is the great equalizer because it eliminates the boundaries we so often find in society. There are no foreigners, no locals, no rich or poor – everybody is just playing. The best part of being “on D road”, is that nobody cares about a thing. Enjoying yourself and the moment you’re caught up in, is really what its all about. Everybody jumping around, smiling, laughing and wining. Wining up against a wall, on the drinks cart or in the middle of the street. It doesn’t matter as long as you get involved!
After we restocked and repaired the cart on Monday night, tragedy struck. I saw my entire Carnival career of one day flash before my eyes as I slipped, fell and dislocated my kneecap. As I was thrown around a bed on the entry into Westshore (or Not shore) Hospital, the kneecap went back into place. It was wrapped up by an old male nurse who I’m sure had just come from drinking and playing Mas that day. A one armed blind dude could probably have done a better job applying the dressing but I was happy to get out. I woke up the next morning dejected and unable to walk but thought I’d go back for Carnival Tuesday when the costumes and crowds really turn out. Boy am I glad that I did.
I made it back down to the band about 10am. They’d been on D road since sunrise. Fantastic costumes, huge parades with security guards and wasted masqueraders lurched through the streets for many more hours. By mid afternoon, the debauchery was widespread. A bottle of coke was poured all over my head, people were getting run over by the cart, stockings and headbands were ripped off and a guy in front of me fell off and then fell asleep on the cart. Even though I spend most of the day sitting on the cart, I had a pretty spectacular view of events and thoroughly enjoyed it. Around 7pm we pulled into a parking lot with the other carts for the “Las Lap” afterparty which put the last two days craziness to shame. Revelers were getting down and dirtier than ever, like it was going out of fashion. The party finished up and the people cleared out and before I knew it I was lying in bed with my leg up thinking WOW! The music had stopped but the beat chased various Soca lyrics around in my head until I nodded off.
The post-Carnival blues kicked in on Ash Wendesday as everyone in Trinidad woke up realizing it was another long year until the next one. Liming at the beach is a popular choice. According to disgraced former FIFA Vice President, FBI interest, international fund swindler and current National Security Minister, Jack Warner, Carnival 2013 was the safest and most secure ever. I found this news quite welcoming, given that there were 6 murders and numerous stabbings in the capital. Jack went on to add, in another reassuring statement, that these successes were based largely on deliberate planning by the authorities and the cooperation of the people. I felt completely safe all the time, but glad I could help out Jack.
Carnival is known down here as the greatest show on earth – and I can see exactly why. Time to ice this knee, recover and plan on making it back for another. Not sure when, but I’ll be back.