From behind me, in a hoarse whisper coated with the stench of cheap rum, beer, and cask wine, I heard “Wine for me now Boy”. It was a woman who I had never met before. She was twice my age, her diminutive 5′ 1′ Indian body pressed up against my ogreish 6’4″ frame, and yet I had no choice but to comply. Any hopes of flight left me before the thought could even escape the ether of my mind. It was her next line that left me no other course of action. No choice but to wine and grind on her right then and there. You see, before I could reel from her stench, or even flinch, she whispered “I been watchin’ ya dance for hours now boy! I know ya can! You dance like a Trini man” I was trapped! I did what any man in my position celebrating carnival in Trinidad would do. I chugged the rest of my Carib, let my body and mind surrender to the soca beats coming from the music trucks, and I wined up on her…
CARNIVAL IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
The moment is burned in my mind forever. I imagine I will carry it with me for the rest of my life. I spent 7-days celebrating Carnival in Trinidad, and that single moment is clearest in my mind. I’ve never been forced to dance in my life, I felt half assaulted and half proud. Many of my other memories are buried in the haze that only a combination of massive amounts of sleep deprivation, rum, and beer can bring. I can still feel the sweat dripping down my bustle, the heat of the road rising up my legs, and the chill that ran up my spine as she uttered those words. It was the moment I knew, for all intents and purposes, that I was an official Trini. For you see, after being with a Trinidadian woman for 12 years, I had finally experienced the ultimate cultural right of passage. It didn’t matter that I know what roti is, or that my favorite breakfast is doubles and aloo pie, or that I can use both bacchanal and lime in a sentence properly.I went to Carnival in Trinidad, and not only did I survive, but I passed with flying colors!
I did it the only way a 1/2 cuban 1/2 german guy could. I wined and I wined hard! I didn’t do it for a song or two either and I certainly didn’t watch from the sidelines. I went to Carnival in Trinidad which is the second largest carnival in the world, joined in a mas-band with my wife’s family, and I wined down the streets of San Fernando for 2 days straight.
How does a guy like me end up attending Carnival in Trinidad? Well that’s a tale that started months, actually years, earlier. If you ever find yourself in the presence of a Trini, you’ll quickly learn that their reputation of being the party island in the Caribbean, is absolutely true. From the moment Lauren and I met, she insisted that we attend Carnival in Trinidad. You see, I’ve been known to party pretty hard, and she was convinced Carnival would best me. It took 12 years before the stars aligned and we were finally able to make the trip a reality. Once Lauren’s family found out that we were coming down for Carnival though, their preparation went into overdrive. They intended to party me into the ground.
Upon our arrival in Port of Spain late in the evening Thursday before Carnival, Lauren and I were met by my Father-in-Law. After many hugs and how have you beens, we got in the car and he started the long trip to their home in the south. The drive isn’t necessarily all that long if you don’t stop, but this was Carnival weekend, we couldn’t head straight home. I was immediately taken for my customary oyster cocktail and a couple of Caribs.
I’m a big fan of oysters but I’ve never had anything like this anywhere but Trinidad. These things are out of this world! Picture a roadside stand made of plywood and lit only by a candle, where a shady looking guy shucks 3-4 fresh oysters into a shot glass. He then gingerly coats them in a tomato sauce, green seasoning, and a scotch bonnet pepper sauce. You then basically drink it like a shot, keeping the burning cocktail in your mouth just long enough to set the whole thing on fire and then chase it with a Carib. After a couple of those, we made our way back tot he house and met up with the rest of the family. We finally got to sleep late that night, and had the best night of rest that we would get for the remainder of the week, we managed 4 hours.
The following day we were up bright and early. We had a long day ahead of us and lots of preparations to be made for our big weekend. We were signed up to play in a band. That meant we weren’t just going to observe Carnival in Trinidad, we were going to be part of it. First thing that morning though, we had to head over to the “mas-camp” and get our measurements taken for our costumes. Normally these things are done weeks before, but because I was the ONLY American in the band, an exception was being made. As soon as we made it over to the camp, the hugeness of the event hit me. I was surrounded by 20-30 people all hustling around making final preparations. I’m offered a beer while we wait and, somehow, they scrounge up a Budweiser. I don’t drink that stuff, but they all thought it was hilarious, so I obliged.
Once we wrapped up all the measuring and picked up the parts of our outfits that were ready, we went out to the market to gather various staples for the weekend. Once Carnival weekend starts, buying anything but drinks and food is virtually impossible, so its critical you get any shopping in before they close on Friday. After the market I’m suddenly informed that we have a sunset cruise to attend that evening. Sounds like a good time to me, and I figure it’s like those harbor cruises that they have in Boston and NYC. It’s not until we all pile into the car and head over to the docks that I find out it’s an all inclusive party cruise that basically goes a few miles off shore and doesn’t come back until everyone is done dancing and the bar runs dry. It’s while on that cruise, that I get my first taste of Carnival songs. Every year musicians from all over the Caribbean produce songs for Carnival. Then the top 15-20 songs are voted on over the “winter” through local competitions. There are a variety of categories and the competition is rather fierce. A few songs have just the right beat to both dance and march to at the same time. Those songs end up becoming the “Road March” songs for that years’ festival. They are then blared thought giant music trucks. How giant?? How’s this for big??
Once the songs are set, they are played repeatedly on every sound system on the island for weeks on end until everyone had memorized every beat and word of the chorus. At that point, if anyone on the island hears a carnival song, they all start dancing in sync like some crazy gyrating robotic army. It’s at this point where I begin to sense that Trini’s have this Carnival thing down to a science. As the boat leaves the docks and the drinks start to flow, I get caught up in the soca beats and the wining begins.
That next day is a total blur. We are abruptly awakened in the morning by the sounds of soca after getting no more than 2 hours of sleep. The neighbors think soca is the best thing for 7AM, and no one else on the block seems to disagree. We spent that Saturday driving back and forth to different houses seeing various family members we haven’t seen in years (and having some beers) , picking up our costumes (having a couple more beers) and having a pre carnival “lime” (having more beers and rum).
Carnival Sunday , which at one time was a day of rest, is when Carnival celebrations begin with what’s called Kiddies Carnival. This is when all the children get dressed up in their Carnival costumes and parade through the streets on shortened parade routes while all the adults stand around warming up their livers for the next day. Its a really great opportunity to see some of the costumes for of the competing bands
and enjoy delicious drinks like alcoholic Snow Cones!
After imbibing several aforementioned snow cones, I finally got around to asking about when the adults got to play. I was promptly advised that Monday at 4 was when Carnival in Trinidad began. When I chuckled and told them 4 in the evening was a pretty late time to start a parade, I was quickly mocked for my naiveté (something locals enjoy doing this to the resident tourist) and advised that we would start at 4 AM with Jouvert or Old Mas!
Before Carnival could officially begin though there was one more tradition. Dimanche Gras, which occurs on the evening of Carnival Sunday. All the participating bands send their Kings’ and Queens’ costumes to Port of Spain to be judged. The competition is fierce as there are both cash prizes and pride to be had. The year we attended our band’s queen won 3rd place for this costume!
Once the judging ends everyone tries to catch a nap for an hour or two and then heads out at 4 AM to play Ole Mas and J’Ouvert. There are two intertwined celebrations occurring simultaneously on Carnival Monday morning. During Ole Mas many islanders dress up in satirical outfits and march through the streets airing their concerns about politics and other social issues. These masqueraders go through a judging point and prizes are awarded to the best group. The costumes vary each year as many are put together to represent and mock the current political figures.
While Ole Mas is happening there is a whole other party going on called J’Ouvert. Here revellers spill out in the streets and collect in large block parties and wine and shuffle down the streets. While dancing, the revelers are coated with mud and paint. The dancing and wining at J’Ouvert is much more intense than what you’ll find at Ole Mas.
Once J’Ouvert winds down at mid-morning, everyone who’s playing in a band heads towards their mas-camp to get ready for parading on Carnival Monday. It’s sort of like a dress rehearsal for the big party on Tuesday but just as much fun. We all got ready in our costumes and were lead out onto the road by our bands music truck and began wining and dancing in the street. I must admit it was a bit awkward at first considering there weren’t large crowds of onlookers, but soon enough the music and drinks fill your blood and you become part of something larger.
After Carnival Monday there is only one thing left to do: RINSE and REPEAT! Carnival Tuesday is when all the masqueraders and revelers come out in full force and the streets are packed with crowds watching the parades. As someone playing Mas, the difference between Monday and Tuesday is the difference between playing a preseason football game and the Superbowl! We went out to the Mas-Camp right after sunrise and started our road march at about 10 AM. All the masqueraders came out in their full regalia.
Then we all proceded to do one thing and one thing only WINE
and then WINE some more :-)
This lasted about 10 hours straight. It was at the end of the evening, once the beer, rum, and soca had sunken in when the “incident” occurred. I can still hear it, “wine for me boy!”, ringing in my mind. Afterwords, we danced for a few more hours and made our way home. As I sat in the car on our drive back home, all I could think was that I’ve never danced so long and so hard in my life. I also knew that I could look at any Trini in the eye after that moment and say “I played Mas in Carnival” and immediately earn their respect.
The following day was Ash Wednesday, a day of rest and reflection and cleansing all across the island. It’s also a day for nursing massive hangovers and trying not to move :-). We spent most of the day with a little “hair of the dog”, telling stories, and packing up to go home. The next day we made our way to the airport and saw hundreds of kindred spirits. There were Trini’s everywhere going back to their homes in the US, Canada, and Europe. Among the mass of people you could pick out the ones that played mas from the rest of the crowd. They were the ones with that weary look in their eye, carrying their head pieces and bustles like badges of honor, and shaking their hips to the soca music that was still pounding in their heads. Trinidadians live for Carnival. It’s a cultural celebration that crosses all religious and social boundaries and brings everyone together year after year. It’s so tied into their culture that as we were leaving the island all you could hear about was how Carnival in 2013 would be bigger and better than the year before.