My son and I were invited to join Carnival in Trinidad, reputedly second only to Rio, with a Caribbean flavor. We had connected with a cousin in New York whose partner is from Trinidad and Tobago.
“We go every year. Do you want to come?” she replied when I asked about the famous event.
I received an email invitation in mid-January 2006 to join them in Trinidad. We would not just be spectators, we would be active participants, costumes and all! Only about a month away, living in Guatemala at the time, I scrambled to find flights through a number of hops. Adam and I met in Miami, taking the last flight together, and arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, on Saturday night. We would stay with our friend’s mother.
I was paged before I even left the plane and our host showed us to the VIP airport lounge for a juice drink. As Executive Assistant to the President of the country, she was an expert at seeing to all the details. We drove directly to Panorama, a competition of large steel drum bands—the music is called pan—held at the Queen’s Park Savannah. Entering through a door marked “VVIP” (very very important persons?), we took our seats in a reserved box, greeting my cousin and his lady there. They pointed out the Prime Minister in the next box.
Steel drums are to music in Trinidad as marimbas are to Guatemalan music. The pan groups were between 100 and 125 people performing together on oil and steel drums. The instruments were wheeled in on many metal structures, the musicians had clothing themes with hats and many sported dreadlocks. What a lively show, impossible to keep your legs still!
And soca is to Trinidad as reggae is to Jamaica. Soca is derived from soul and calypso, punctuated with a jumping beat, perfect for dancing through the streets. The many variations of soca included groovy soca, a bit slower and more tuneful, and chutney soca, with an Indian influence, like Trinidad food, spicy and curried.
The nights were filled with parties for weeks leading up to Carnival. We arrived in time to attend a party thrown by Poison, the band (not a music band, that’s the name for a Carnival group) with which we would be playing mas (masquerade). Live music, lots of great food and drink, and everyone dancing. We caught a glimpse of the President on a well-guarded veranda.
Back to the Savannah Sunday night for the finals of the king and queen of the bands. Floats are not created for this festival, unlike Mardi Gras. An individual must carry their creation. It may include a framework and may have wheels. Fantastic, colorful, and imaginative, fanciful or fearful, they appeared as flamboyant peacocks displaying their finery. Who won? I have no idea, but here are some of the kings and queens.
And then the fun began! After two hours of sleep, we rose at 2:30am for joovay, a contraction of Jour Ouvert, opening day of Carnival at 4am. For joovay, our group was the Cocoa Doubles band. Warned in advance to bring old clothes, we donned our first costume for dutty mas (dirty). I stood on the women’s line. A young man plunged his hands into a bucket of liquid cocoa then poured it over my arms and legs, smeared it on my face, and patted it over my clothes, whatever was exposed. Women painted men and men painted women. I was now the right rich brown color to blend in! The smell was delicious; it was a chocolate mas. Other bands were covered with paint of different colors.
We hit the streets! Music trucks blasted soca; the songs of Carnival resonated in my head for days. The way to move along is called chipping—small strutting steps in time to the music, dancing hips and arms, always dancing. We waved a vividly colored rag or bandana in the air. Along the way, you might have paint thrown on you by other groups you encounter. As memorable as the images were, I decided it was not wise to bring my camera to that event.
We returned from joovay in time to clean up, no time to sleep, and change into our first day’s mas: t-shirts and rags in the colors of our band. Our band was the largest with literally thousands of people. Poison’s theme for this year was Dreams, our subgroup Cherry Kiss.
Back on the streets at 11am, jumpin’ up, waving, whining (dancing)! We took the carnival route this time, winding our way through the streets to downtown Port of Spain, past old churches, municipal offices in ornate wooden historic structures often run-down, little houses and shops to the Savannah at the end of the day. We broke off from the parade mid-afternoon and took a short cut to the Savannah to watch the first bands, led by their kings and queens, approach the arena—an opportunity to get up close, and to see some of the other costumes. When Poison arrived, we joined our kin and danced across the stage.
Tuesday was the real thing. Our ultimate costumes were described as bikini mas–I thought of it as Las Vegas showgirl style, with gladiator garb for the men. Cherry Kiss wore pink and orange, accented with chartreuse. Dressed in our finest mas of all, beads and glitter resplendent in the blazing sun, elaborate headdresses with feathers perched atop our heads, streets lined with spectators. (No, I don’t have a photo of me dressed for the occasion!)
Ready to go after a fairly decent night’s sleep this time (we declined the parties that night), we caught up with our group around 9:30am; they had started at 7. The trucks crept down one side of the road—ever present soca blaring, food trucks kept us in energy, drink trucks kept us in alcohol or caffeine. Coffee was not a choice; I had to live on soft drinks and found that a hit every two hours kept me moving. I have sworn off cola ever since. Chipping, chipping, the crowd pulsed with the beat. The dance was peppered with occasional reggaeton—the dance that looked like its players are having sex—sometimes three or four people deep. A joyous celebration of music, dance, art, and life!
We reached the stage at the Savannah after 9pm (12 hours, whew!) and in a final exuberant rush of adrenaline and excitement, celebrated Cherry Kiss for the stands and judges. The hardest part of all was walking through the city streets back to our friend’s car at the other end of town, after the adrenaline was gone. Legs ached from the strain, skin hot from sunburn in places that seldom saw the sun, scattered revelers in the streets.
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