Elaborate, brightly coloured costumes. Beautiful women – and men to be fair – at every turn of the head. The driving bass beat of Soca. The crisp, ringing notes of steel pan. The lilting lyricism of Calypso. Bright, hot sunlight – in February. The smoky, sweet aroma of barbecue. Dancing in the streets night and day. This is the sensory overload, the hedonistic celebration, that is Carnival in Trinidad
Months of planning and weeks of fêtes culminate in a two-day bacchanal celebrating life before the beginning of Lent.
J’ouvert (pronounced joovay) marks the beginning of the two-day, almost non-stop apex of Carnival. Revelers take to the streets in the wee hours of the morning, caking themselves in mud or smearing themselves with paint and dance to music with a beat so strong it cuts to your very core. The dance is the ‘chip’. J’ouvert evokes a time in Trinidadian history when slaves rose up against their owners, using mud to disguise their appearances. Want to just step outside to get a glimpse of the goings on? Nope. J’ouvert is a participation sport. J’ouvert celebrants consider it their duty to ensure anyone they encounter who isn’t muddied becomes so immediately. Resistance is futile. Surrender yourself. Wear old clothes or better yet a swimsuit. Get dirty. Celebrate. It washes off.
Festivities begin to quiet down around 9:00 in the morning but don’t stop completely. It’s just a short lull before getting ramped up again an hour or so later. Locals head back home and visitors back to their hotels to get cleaned up and ready for Carnival Monday.
Carnival Monday is practice day, if you will, for the big performance on Tuesday. The last, and biggest, event of Carnival is a day long parade through the streets of Port of Spain on Tuesday. Monday is the dress rehearsal, without all the dress. Bands travel the parade route working on their routines at each official judging station; although no judging takes place on Monday. They make sure everything is ready for the final performance the following day. There’s no less of a jubilant atmosphere though. The only things missing are the colourful, extravagant costumes that band members will don the next day. Young and old, large and small, thick and thin. It doesn’t matter; everyone takes part in the festivities somehow.
If it’s possible, the music may even be louder and the excitement even greater on Tuesday. The numbers of people lining the parade route seem to have grown exponentially from the previous day. The feeling of celebration, the scale of the grandeur, the sense of vitality of life are all amped up to an even higher level.
As the bands work their way along the parade route, the music is so driving and the party atmosphere so infectious that even if you’ve never danced a step in your life you begin to feel yourself moving to the beat. You actually welcome a break between bands to sit on the side of the road and rest for a short while. But are ready to jump back up and go again when the next group comes along. You can’t help yourself.
And the costumes are incredibly ornate. Colourfully beaded wardrobes. Large, intensely hued feathers. Intricate and rich body painting. Large, wheeled floats decorated with over-sized animal and insect caricatures pulled by a single person. Carnival Tuesday is a cornucopia of chromaticity.
Bands performing in Carnival pick a theme and that theme weaves its way into the costumes the performers wear and routines they perform. In some cases, the bands let the costumes represent the theme and just dance to the music. In others, routines are carefully choreographed and music specifically chosen to evoke a feeling or send a message. After all the bands have performed for the judges, a winning group is chosen. The winner for 2009 – for the third year in a row – was sponsored, themed and choreographed by a local named Brian MacFarlane. His theme was Africa: Her People, Her Glory, Her Tears. Over 1,200 performers strong and separated into 19 different sections, the members were dressed to represent different countries of the African continent. Each of their dances was choreographed to display the traditions of the country or convey the feeling of the message. Intricate, stirring dances of African tribal warriors set to pounding, jungle drumbeats or slow, flowing movements to more somber music to represent the sadness of loss. One section was dressed in long, flowing robes with children’s faces painted on the gowns. The faces were those of AIDS orphans. The emotion conveyed by the music, the movements and the wardrobes was strong.
Carnival ends with the Last Lap. Bands make a final circuit around the parade route for one final round of celebration before festivities conclude at midnight – the beginning of Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
Carnival is a celebration that captures the entirety of the mind, body and spirit. It’s an affirmation of life. It’s an event that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
Fast Facts: Trinidad is the southernmost island of the chain making up the Caribbean Islands, sitting just off the northeast coast of Venezuela. Population – approx. 1.3 million (Trinidad & Tobago). Capital city – Port of Spain. Major cultural groups – African and East Indian. Main religions – Catholicism, Islam and Hindu. Land mass – 4,768 sq. km (about 15% smaller than Prince Edward Island). Political parties – Aligned primarily along racial lines. People’s National Movement (African) and United National Congress (Indian) are the two major parties. Trinidad is the industrial centre for the Caribbean. Oil and gas production is the major industry. Steel and manufacturing are also significant. Tourism is not a large part of Trinidad’s GDP, accounting for between 2% and 3%.
Getting There: Caribbean Airlines flies out of Toronto, as do major U.S. airlines such as American, Delta and Continental. From other larger Canadian cities, the U.S. airlines are the only option. Neither Air Canada nor WestJet fly to Port of Spain.
Getting Around: Rental cars are available. Trinidad is a former British colony so cars are right-hand drive and they drive on the left side of the road. This takes some getting used to. Drivers in Trinidad are also quite erratic and unpredictable. Best bet is to use taxis or walk. Taxis are privately operated and you can tell a taxi by the license plate, having an H at the beginning of the plate number. The major hotels don’t offer airport shuttle service but a reserve taxi service is available. Pretty much every hour in Trinidad is rush hour so leave yourself plenty of time to get to where you’re going and be prepared for traffic tie-ups.
Where to Stay: Many of the major hotel chains have locations in Port of Spain. Hilton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn Express, Courtyard by Marriott, Crowne Plaza are examples. Smaller hotels and guesthouses are available but the quality is widely variable. Staying in a major hotel is the better option. Book early, as Carnival is a popular event and be prepared for price increases during this period.
What to Eat: Most of the major fast food chains are established in Trinidad. Local restaurants are available, of course, but the quality discrepancy is wide. Ask at your hotel for recommendations. Local dishes include bake & shark which is sort of like a shark burger on a fried bread bun, doubles which is curried chick peas eaten in two small naan-like breads, corn soup and, of course, roti. Little salt is used in cooking so add some garlic sauce and tamarind sauce to zip up the flavour of the bake & shark. Chicken is very popular. The reason for this is that the three major religious groups have restrictions on beef and pork so chicken and fish are the major proteins. Shark, marlin, dolphin and other tropical fish are plentiful. If you really want to experience the cultural diversity in the food, try foods from some of the roadside stands in Port of Spain and the outlying towns. If you like your coffee, the chain called Rituals is comparable to coffee chains we have in Canada. When you’re asked if you want pepper, it’s not the stuff we shake on our food, it’s pepper sauce and it’s HOT. “Slight pepper” is the operative phrase.
Other Things to Do: Port of Spain has a very nice botanical garden. Given the climate, things are in bloom year round. There’s also a good zoo adjacent to the botanical garden. The Trinidad Outdoors website at www.trinoutdoors.com is a good place to research other activities in Trinidad and Tobago (the neighbouring island). The beaches on the north and south coasts are quite good but are a 1 to 2 hour drive depending on where you’re staying. The beaches on Tobago are spectacular. It’s a roughly 3-hour ferry ride to get there. For birders, the Asa Wright Nature Centre near Arima is a terrific spot to watch and photograph a wide variety of tropical bird species.
Weather: Trinidad’s climate is hot and humid. Daytime temperatures during February are in the range of 30 to 35 degrees Celsius with humidity in the 60% area. Nighttime temperatures are more reasonable for sleeping, dropping down to the low 20s. There is often a pleasant breeze, which helps immensely, and short rain showers help to cool things off.
Health: STD rates, including HIV/AIDS, in Trinidad are fairly high. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommends immunization for Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A &B and Dukorol, which is a prophylaxis for traveler’s diarrhea. Check with your health care provider to find out what may be needed for your particular situation. Your arm will hurt a little for about a day after the Yellow Fever vaccine. Your arm will be very sore, perhaps with limited use and mobility, for a good two days after the Typhoid vaccine. The water is potable.
Safety: Crime is becoming a problem in Trinidad. Foreign Affairs Canada puts Trinidad on a level 2 warning at the time of writing that says, “Exercise a High Degree of Caution”. See their website at www.voyage.gc.ca for more information. I did not feel unsafe generally while there. There was only one time during Carnival Tuesday that I felt there might be a problem and that was with a local having designs on my camera.
Electrical: 120v same as Canada. Electrical outlets are the same 3-prong design as in Canada so no outlet adapter is necessary.