It’s almost pitch black but I know he’s up to something. The dull glow of street lamps illuminates his mischievous grin, gathering into an ominous, clown-like smile as I move closer. Pretending I haven’t seen him, I slide behind the bare-chested hulk of a man beside me; the pungent scent of sweat hanging in the air. but I’ve no chance. Hastily, he reaches for a bucket and, with all the composure of an excitable otter, tips the contents over the top of my head. Luke-warm, melted chocolate slides down my forehead, dripping from the end of my nose, staining my all-white outfit. I’ve never looked worse.
This was day four of my Trinidad initiation in the capital, Port of Spain. Each day had challenged my English stiff upper lip, but I’ll gladly admit I was loving it. My chocolate encounter was by no means unusual. I was ensconced in the heady mish-mash of J’ouvert — a contraction of the French jour ouvert — meaning ‘daybreak’. Aptly named, this dusk-to-dawn festival takes place on the morning of Carnival Monday, 4am to be precise, and signals the beginning of the two-day parade in which Trinidad’s outlandish qualities are clustered together amid an incredible, deafening cascade of celebration.
A national obsession, the carnival is planned year-round and picks up pace many weeks prior to the Monday and Tuesday — the days of play yuh mas (participation in the carnival parade). This isn’t done gradually, it’s done at full throttle —Trinidadians are unrelenting party-goers who applaud every instance of the outrageous, from muscular steel-pan players laying into bowl-like oil drums with all the fervour of someone possessed, through to all-night parties and extravagant rhythmic dancing.
During J’ouvert, thousands of rampant revellers take to Port of Spain’s streets, bumping and grinding while smearing one another in paint, mud, oil and chocolate beside hefty sound system trucks, booming with thundering bass. We don’t so much walk as slither past oily bodies and the human torrent of writhing bodies. Although we’ve managed a little essential shut-eye before the 3.30am get-up, from their exuberant dancing and wide-eyed grins, I’m guessing very few of our fellow revellers have and are still wide awake from the previous night
Weighed down with self-consciousness, my head is spinning with sleep deprivation, and I’m all too worried about men grabbing me. “Have a vodka,” says Elton, our guide of 60-plus. “I’ve only had two hours sleep for the last four nights,” I protest, “and I’m jetlagged.” “I’ve not slept for four days and I won’t for another two,” drawls a girl with blue paint clinging to her eyelashes.
I was learning that apart from the odd hour here and there, Trinidadians unleash all their wild whims during their annual carnival. And I was there, in the hedonistic thick of it, my sense of reserve being ingested at its all-consuming core.
On the inside
Carnival, Latin for ‘fight of the flesh’, dates back to the medieval Catholic tradition of indulging in all things lustful before Ash Wednesday — the start of the 40 days of fasting otherwise known as Lent. Over the centuries this has evolved from a feast of tasty table pleasures, such as meat, alcohol and sugar, to full-on, unadulterated revelry on the preceding Monday and Tuesday. The result? Carnivals such as Rio and, of course, Trinidad that should be on the wish list of each and every party animal. Brazil and Trinidad both lay claim to its origin, but arguments aside, the island clearly hosts one of the biggest in the world. It’s said if the islanders aren’t celebrating it, then they’re preparing for it, while reminiscing about the preceding year’s event.
And the good news is that anyone can infiltrate this fabulous display — exactly the reason I’ve headed here. Instead of simply being taken to the sidelines, you can now be plunged into the parade itself — glittery headdresses and all — booked via the Carnival insiders, which you can find on the Trinidad Tourism Board’s website. You get to pick your ‘masquerade band’ — the human vortex you’ll be partying with during the parade, some of which have up to 3,000 hedonistic members. While strutting their bejewelled bodies across a photographer-fringed stage, the bands — each with their own concept — fight it out on Carnival Tuesday for the ultimate judgment — to be crowned Masquerade Band of the Year. My band, selected for me by our guide, is Spice; which is why I find myself picking up my outfit from Spice’s ‘Season Three… The Signature Collection’.
Oh my God, I’m going to look ridiculous, I think, as I’m handed an acid-orange and pink feather headdress. I’m more worried about the crown indenting a triangle on my forehead and causing embarrassing tan lines than how heavy it feels.
Carefully, I lift the fuchsia-pink bra out of the box, holding it squarely by its straps, and frown at its nipple cones. Studded with pink and gold beads, it’s a thing of theatrical beauty… but so tiny. Not as miniscule, though, as the eye-poppingly petite knickers, or should I say, thong. There was no way I was going to squeeze into that string — just big enough to slide onto one of my fingers, never mind legs. I hadn’t counted on parading my milky white bits, not least because I still hadn’t mastered ‘wining’ — a rhythmic sway of the waist with plenty of erotic hip-grabbing thrown in. “Men will wine behind you and if you feel their tails, just go with it,” explains Elton. I giggle at the thought, but I’m also slightly concerned about these ‘tails’. Was I really going to be draped head-to-toe in camp plumes, and try to sexily gyrate while being accosted by local men? It seems so.
Escape to the coast
It’s the calm before the storm and in an attempt to deepen my tan, I head to the sun-kissed stretch of Maracas Beach on the island’s north coast. I’m relieved as we approach the outskirts of the city, lit up in the smouldering orange of the early-morning sun. The honky-tonk whirlwind of clapped-out cars and polished factory chimneys rising above the patchwork of green, pink and yellow buildings gives way to shady enclaves of trees beside dewy cocoa and coffee plantations.
Past terraced gardens of parsley, chives and chadon beni (a relative of coriander), our vehicle hugs the steep, winding road, descending through rugged northern slopes and steamy rainforest, cloaked with a generous dollop of low cloud. Elton tells us the area is a favourite among hikers, given its trails, waterfalls, rivers, streams and limestone caves — the clean-living face of Trinidad I only get the briefest glimpse of.
We stop at a lookout where plump women, dressed in shocking citrus colours, squat behind stalls stacked with sweet snacks — from sugary almonds and salt prunes to dried mango. And, after being teased with flashes of intense blue, we’re rewarded with a spectacular vista of Maracas: an idyllic Caribbean beach with brilliant deep-blue waves fringed with caramel-coloured sand and an undulating green-coated landscape. It’s supposedly one of Trinidad’s most popular beaches but the presence of just a few clusters of sunbathers tells me that, right now, most of Trini is consumed with partying.
“Carnival is everything to us Trinidadians,” explains Elton as we flatten our towels on the creamy sand. “It isn’t just a two-day festival, it’s a season and it takes over the whole island. It’s not just about partying,” he tells me. “Carnival is part of our national pride.”
The French brought the carnival, along with their African slaves, to the island in 1783 in the form of elaborate masquerade balls in the run-up to Lent. Banned from festivities, slaves held their own celebrations mimicking their masters’ behaviour while incorporating rituals and folklore. Once slavery was abolished in 1838, the freed Africans took their Carnival to the streets, developing it into what Elton describes as, “the world’s greatest street festival, with tens of thousands of partygoers.”
Lying on my back, head elevated on my bag, I realise this mesmerising beach is the first moment of real peace I’ve had since arriving on the island. I dunk my face in the cooling water and look back at the cream-coloured shore. The soft lap of the waves clawing crevices into the sand is the only sound I hear for over an hour. I flop back down on my towel and before I know it I’m woken from my sun-dazed slumber by the soft lull of soca, calypso’s fast-paced sibling. Having learned to love Trinidad’s home-grown music during my stay, I wander to the back of the beach, fringed with dreamy palms, and pull up a chair at a ‘Bake and Shark’ cafe. Their deep-fried, crispy shark portions, served in a sandwich with lashings of spicy sauce, are a must, as are curried doubles. These flatbreads, of Indian descent — packed with spicy chickpeas, chilli sauce and mango chutney — are the best thing, I’m told, to line your stomach, but not ideal for flattening your stomach in preparation for Carnival!
It’s 7.30am on Carnival Tuesday, and I’m surrounded by shocking pink feather headdresses, bulging thighs squeezed into silver hotpants, and gorgeous bronzed ladies. I don’t even feel self-conscious. There must be hundreds of us in this kaleidoscopic crowd, knocking back drinks and building up the soca rhythm before we cross the stage in a crescendo of feathers, sequins and stage jewellery, like oil paints marbling into a multi-coloured whirlpool. Earlier that morning, I’d attempted 200 sit-ups to flatten my stomach, shaved every scrap of body hair and slapped on lashings of eye make-up to be as goddess-like as possible.
I can’t stop staring, at everyone. Beside me is a lovely lady being photographed from every angle. Smeared in silver and diamante, she has an outrageous extension of white-feathered wings and wires moulded onto her ample breast. Her nipples poking out of her coiled bra probably have something to do with the attention. She’s tame, though, compared with the voluptuous, blue-bosomed woman who’s leading a new naked trend, with nothing on but dragonfly-blue body paint and a midget gem of a g-string. Am I the only one seeing this? The crowd around her react as if she’s fully clothed, and she has absolutely no inhibitions as her unsupported bosoms, coated in thick blue paint, bounce together.
“You dance like a Trinidadian,” whispers a low voice. He’s already smoothed his hands on to my hips and begins sliding and shimmying up against me. I try to remember the wining steps I’ve carefully honed over the past few days while shrugging him off. It doesn’t work. That’s the thing about the carnival: people lose every shred of inhibition and dirty dancing with a stranger is part and parcel of it. I can only compare it to a music festival where you reject any feelings of self-consciousness and embrace your wild side.
Tourists snap furiously from the sidelines like paparazzi buzzing around Madonna. Some even ask to have pictures taken with me. I feel like a celebrity.
And then it’s time. Crossing the stage is what they’ve all been waiting for. International camera crews crowd the periphery, ready to shoot the maddening crowd, who’ve been penned in their own area for the past couple of hours. Whistles sound and yelps reverberate as the float stacked with loudspeakers plays the lyrics: ‘the stage is in front of us, time to get advantageous’, signalling that Spice’s five minutes on stage is seconds away. I close my eyes — this is the point I realise I’ll probably never do this again, and, as I’m half-naked, feeling a little like a Las Vegas showgirl, now’s the time to throw myself into this pleasure centre. And that’s what I do. Running and dancing across the stage, after applying a thick layer of lip gloss, it doesn’t matter if my moves aren’t flawless, that I don’t rattle my hips to every beat, that my wining is slightly stiff. No one pays me any attention. Instead, they shimmy up to me with encouraging smiles and we tread the soca steps together.
I know I’ve seen Trinidad at its flamboyant, most whimsical best, and in all honesty, I’m still coming down.
The bulk of international air traffic arrives in Tobago, where you can catch a 20-minute connecting flight to Trinidad with Caribbean Airlines. It’s often possible to buy tickets at the airport on the day of departure. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Monarch operate flights to Tobago from Gatwick. British Airways flies to Trinidad from Gatwick. www.caribbean-airlines.com www.ba.com www.virgin-atlantic.com www.monarch.co.uk
Average flight time: 10h.
Taxis are available at airports on both islands, the cruise ship complex on Trinidad, and hotels. They are usually unmetered but follow government rates; hotel desks and the airport tourist office have a list of fares.
When to go
Trinidad & Tobago enjoys a tropical climate year-round, with average daytime temperatures of around 28C. The dry season is from January to May; the rainy season, from June to December. Carnival is on 20-21 February 2012, when hotel prices rise, so booking ahead is essential.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens do not require a visa for stays of less than three months. Passports must be valid for six months beyond the period of your proposed visit.
Currency: Trinidad & Tobago Dollar (TTD). £1 = TTD6.25.
Health: Check with your GP about jabs at least six weeks before departure. If you intend to travel between Trinidad and Venezuela using the ferry service at Pier One in Chaguaramas, you must have a Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate.
International dial code: 001 868.
Time difference: GMT-4.
The Rough Guide to Trinidad & Tobago. RRP: £13.99.
How to do it
Local operator Amazing Trinidad Adventures tailormakes Carnival packages, which include five nights’ B&B, guided tours, transfers, and an all-inclusive Carnival package with costume, drinks and food from $800 (£500), excluding flights. Costumes range from £120-£280. www.amazing-trinidad-vacations.com
1. St Lucia
Rather than compete with the mighty Trinidad Carnival, St Lucia moved its annual bash from the traditional pre-Lent date to June and July. Steel pan competitions and the Carnival Queen contest lead the run-up to the street parade while partygoers make final adjustments to their costumes. www.luciancarnival.com
A baby compared with its sister carnivals, its naysayers were quick to criticise this event and predict its imminent demise when it was unveiled in 1990. Thankfully, they were proved very wrong, as the carnival was an instant success and is now a red-letter day in every Jamaican’s diary. www.jamaicacarnival.com
The island’s oldest private club, The Tivoli Club, was the first to host a pre-Lent celebration, in 1944, and now entertains the throngs with a Lighting Parade as part of Aruba’s spectacular shindig. The midnight burning of the King Momo, a life-size effigy, signals the end of Carnival season. www.visitaruba.com
Marking the island’s emancipation from slavery in 1834, Antigua’s 10-day festivities kick off at the end of July. Centred around the streets of the capital, St John’s, they feature an extravaganza of steel band contests, a Miss Antigua Pageant, and the judging of the troupe bands. www.antiguacarnival.com
Hitting the calendar in July, the Carnaval of Santiago de Cuba evolved out of the summer festivals formerly referred to as the (Fiestas de) Mamarrachos, rather than the traditional pre-Lent celebration. Street parades remain at its heart, with conga, rumba and son (salsa) the dances of choice. www.travel2cuba.co.uk
Soca and steel bands emerge in July’s Crop-Over Carnival in celebration of the end of harvest, with the crowning of the festival’s King and Queen kicking off the party. It culminates in the Grand Kadooment — a parade of costumed bands — and a huge soiree of revellers wining to soca. www.barbados.org
Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK)