Although I've been back to the motherland (Trinidad) pretty much every year since I moved to the UK, I've never been back (as an adult) to celebrate Carnival, the highlight of T&T (Trinidad & Tobago)'s social... actually scrap that ... THE highlight of the T&T calendar, period! Carnival, the last Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday brings in reflection and fasting for the Lenten period, is about bacchanal* and misbehaviour, kind of how in the UK you would have Pancake Day, the last 'jolly' before Lent's self-discipline. This is our slightly amped-up version! Whilst the strict time boundaries of this are now somewhat blurred (Carnival 'warm-up' now begins as soon as Christmas finishes and continues to 'cool-down' (yes, I mean party) on the beaches of T&T for a week after Carnival), the concept remains steadfast. This year, I went with 9 Brits and a 'Frenchie', close friends who, in the past, I've inundated with my Trini culture, soca music and of course, food, all eager to experience it, first hand. After all the hype I had fed them (pun intended) for years, I really hoped they would come away loving T&T every much as bit as I do.
J'Ouvert Morning & Carnival Monday and Tuesday
J'Ouvert (a derivation from the French for "day break") signals the opening of Carnival and starts at 3am. It takes us back to basics, celebrating sans constumes, instead its all about the mud, paint and clay! We arrived in Trinidad, happy and excited (my friends completely without expectations) on Sunday evening, en route back to my Uncle's home we stuffed our face (and messed up our t-shirts) with the obligatory pit-stop street-food Doubles (more on this later), followed by home-made Bake and Shark (more on this later), went for a nap at about 10pm and awoke (admittedly, it was an epic struggle) at 2am to head into Port-Of-Spain in our wee mini-van!
We were greeted by hordes of revellers and pumping loud soca music and it began. Big trucks with even bigger sound systems blaring and leading the walk around the streets of Port-Of-Spain to lead us back to our starting point at 8am. Yes! 6 hours of chippin' (dancing and walking), winin'* (purposeful gyration of the hips), drinking (the bar is also a mega-truck...as one of my friend's said, "I have never had to walk to keep up with the bar") and..... being pelted with paint, covered in mud and smeared in clay. And, the more you try to run away from it, the more someone seeks you out and hits you with it (I speak from experience!). It seems like a long time to be partying, but it went in a heartbeat. I cannot describe the warmth and friendliness in the mass crowd, everyone is dancing/wining with everyone else, without any suggestive inkling. There is certainly an ethos of "wine and go" as some of my male friends (Al, left high and dry!) discovered.
We had been listening to the music since January so were up to date with the soca music (as is the done thing), so hearing those familiar anthems, in such a setting, with such people. Perfection. Utter perfection. It is certainly a 'bucket list' event! And just when you think that you may be defeated by exhaustion, the sun rises, it is the most surreal sunrise I have ever witnessed, everyone paint-splattered and in some happy, dancing trance, packing out the streets, the sun shining down some unseen Carnival-party-energy that keeps you going for another couple of hours, when you finally return to the starting point. It is all about that energy that is passed around by the crowd. And maybe there is something to be said about the free-flowing rum.....
The next day, that is a couple hours later that Carnival Monday morning, you head home and shower the paint out of your hair (there are still tinges of green in my hair as I type this, talk about a need for intensive conditioning), get 'dolled' up and into your pretty costumes to play 'mas (masquerade). It certainly is a 'prettier' event. And you do the chippin', winin' and drinking all over again, but in the hot blazing sun, looking beautiful. The costumes are all moving and dancing works of art, bright colours of celebration, being skilfully shown off by the Carnival players. The occasional truckload of steel pan players passes and the scene is rich with colour and a waterfall of sound, that warming and vibrant 'gong' of the steel pan is the quintessential tropical orchestra. Oh, did I mention the bodies? Athletic, muscular and toned, to jubbly, soft and to use a phrase coined by Beyonce, "bootylicious". If anyone was body or self conscious, believe me, it did not show. It was a perfect celebration of the body, in all its form! On Monday evening, family joined us on Ariapita Avenue (affectionately referred to as "The Avenue", the place to be for the night scene, limin'* capital of T&T, and if you are there for that, you go "pumpin' up the Avenue") Then on Carnival Tuesday you wake up and do it all again! And the energy never dies. (Although it did, a little, for our group, we obviously didn't do enough prep beforehand and by Carnival Tuesday we all were looking a little more than worse for wear, but still smiling!).
'Cool Down' & Tobago
Wednesday is Carnival 'cool down', where (instead of heading to church for Ash Wednesday mass!) the revellers head over to Maracas Bay to party and lime* on the beach with Bake and Shark and ice cold Carib. Sadly, we were unable to stay (travel arrangement woes, I'm hopeless with these things) and instead headed to Tobago for our version of 'cool down', starting at Pigeon Point. This is a stunning national heritage site and stereotypically white-sanded and azure-watered. You can take a boat out from Pigeon Point to Bucco Reef and snorkel and see the stunning coral and a rainbow of fish and then continue onto Nylon Pool to swim in crystal-clear (or nylon clear) waters that apparently make you years younger (I have done this several times and am still awaiting the results....).
There is certainly more to see than just the spectacular beaches, including the Fort, in Tobago's capital, Scarborough, and its breath-taking views!
I took the group to Englishman's Bay for the final day. It seemed entirely appropriate, and what a final image to stay in the heart's and head's of us all of this incredible, colourful and once-in-a-lifetime experience (I say this but we all know I am going back next year!) trip.
*glossary of common terms, taken from "Côté ci Côté la: Trinidad and Tobago Dictionary" by John Mendes.
"Bacchanal" - "...Big Fėte. Confusion. Bacchus - Roman name for Dionysos, Greek mythology deity of bacchanalia -religious wine festivals."
"Chip/Chippin'" - "A peculiar dance/walk shuffle, associated with J'Ouvert. To step in time with music, with your weight mostly on the toes."
" Fėte" - "Big party. Loud music. Lots to eat and drink, dancing into the wee hours..."
"Lime/Limin'" - "When a small group of persons engage in a sometimes pre-arranged pleasure activity."