It’s one of the most highly-crafted, exciting events in the Caribbean. It’s flamboyant, colourful and loud; a flight of imagination, a time for fantasy. It’s Carnival in Trinidad!
The word "Carnival" comes from the Latin words ‘carne vale’ which translates to ‘farewell to flesh’. Introduced to Trinidad in the late 1700’s by the French, Carnival is held before Lent, when things of the flesh were prohibited. Reflecting the country’s multi-ethnic nature, each group of immigrants added its own character and spirit to Carnival. Now, it is a nation-wide party with the forceful, index-finger shaking, anti-establishment messages sent through the lyrics of calypso, the joyful sound of steel-pans, the exuberant mixture of soul music and calypso called soca, and the blending of calypso and traditional Indian music, called chutney. The very air palpitates with excitement. This is a major party; a kaleidoscope of colour, cultures and art which produces an irresistible call for all to join in, enjoy and experience.
In anticipation of upcoming Carnival events, we sail near the Dragon’s Mouth, by Scotland Bay where the monkeys howl at night, into the Gulf of Paria and anchor in Chaguaramas, the main base for cruisers.
Jesse James and his wife, Sharon Rose own Members Only, a travel service for cruisers in Trinidad. A recipient of the SSCA Southbound II Bluewater Sailing Service Award, Jesse is lauded for helping foreign cruisers in Trinidad. After meeting with Jesse, we have transportation and tickets for the major events.
The ‘Mas’ (the traditional Trinidadian word for masquerade) Camps are the workshops for fabrication of the elaborate, massive Carnival costumes; some weighing over 400 lbs. These costumes are judged at the King and Queen competitions.
Jesse’s Taxi Service drives us to the Senior King Semi Finals and the Junior Queen Finals of the Mas costumes. We’re early and hungry so we order delicious deep fried shark with hot sauce inside a warm bun and a cold Trini beer. While at the concession stand, we meet another cruiser, Gary, and invite him to join us.
The costumes are outstanding works of art; spangled dragons spouting fire; exotic birds with flashing lights, tails rising up to the sky; dancing exotic fish, threatening-looking evil fish with burning red eyes. Costume designs are influenced by the different cultures; mostly African and East Indian as well as minority groups. Religion and traditional values also make up part of the impression and significance of the costumes. Many of the costume structures are covered with hundreds of yards of fabric, beads, paper flowers, a myriad of styles and textures; creativity galore. This one night is worth the trip to Trinidad. We are amazed, dazzled and delighted. We still have to cover Panorama, Dimanche Gras and the Parade of Bands….already we’re exhausted!
Panorama is the art of synchronization, the result of the rigors of practice and endurance, the apex of achievement for the best of the steel-pan bands after competing for months. Rather than sit in the arena, we visit the bands in the fields where they are practicing. The fields are sprinkled with t-shirt, jewellery, food and drink concessions, band supporters, families and tourists. Some bands are huge, with up to 150 players, each playing from two to nine drums with a little percussion thrown in like salt and pepper in a good meal. Some of the music is stirring, some tunes have surprises that make you laugh, all of it is loud, and most of it is fast and joyful. The competition is fierce; the players are focused, playing their hearts out, sweating in the sweltering heat. As we walk around the bands we can feel the pulsation of the drums vibrate in our bodies. When the bands march to the arena we follow, dancing and laughing with the crowds.
J’ouvert means ‘day break’ and is the official start of Carnival, beginning before sunrise on Carnival Monday. People come in from "jump up parties" (dancers jump into the air to the pounding beat with arms outstretched and eyes half-closed), band members roll their drums in on wheels, and tourists arrive, bleary-eyed, ready to play.
Dimanche Gras, the grand finale of all of the competitive shows includes music, dance and song. The parade of talent that passes us by is outstanding; the best of the best.
At the Parade of Bands, the bandleader can showcase his creativity and style. The bands parade down the street, each with hundreds of brightly-costumed revelers dancing behind them. People line the streets, dancing, singing, eating, drinking and sometimes joining the parade for a few minutes.
All in all, Carnival in Trinidad was a tremendously exciting experience that soared beyond our imaginations. After all of that fast-paced living, we plan to slow down and check out the more relaxed day trips available on this island.
Before leaving on a three year journey by sea aboard Sea Whisper, as a health practitioner, Laurie McDonald wrote a column for a western Canada health-related magazine. Her travel adventures are published in Canadian magazines and newspapers.