Trinidad: Carnival February 2007 (photos)
We planned our Atlantic crossing to arrive in Trinidad in plenty of time to enjoy the build-up to Carnival, remembering it from 2001. We anchored Akka in Chaguaramas, a bay on Trinidad's northwest corner that's packed with both commercial (fishing, freight and oil) and pleasure craft. Gene and Amy, who had crewed with us across the Atlantic, decided to stay to enjoy Carnival. Amy had several local contacts from Trini colleagues at work and was able to meet up with them to enjoy some concerts that us older folk didn't have the stamina for. The major one, featuring local soca artist Machel, was held at the municipal stadium. We arranged to meet Amy's friends just outside, but weren't too sure how to identify ourselves to them. Then it occurred to us: "Just look for the 4 white folks on the corner." No problem! Her friends agreed to bring Amy back to Chaguaramas after the concert - around 1-2 a.m. Since we were without a had-held VHF radio or phone at that point, we planned to dinghy in at 1 a.m., then 1:30 or 2 to meet Amy. Well, we did, then at 2:30, 3, etc., until 5 a.m! Turned out that Machel didn't make his appearance until after 1 a.m, and there was no re-entry if you left the concert. We really didn't mind the dinghy trips and Amy had a great time, so all was well, and we learned to think in island - and Carnival party -- time.

One evening, we went with a tour group to several "pan yards" - practice grounds for steel ("pan") orchestras. For the Carnival competition, called Panorama, each orchestra chooses a set piece and practices it for months. The pieces are songs written each year for that year's Carnival. Each orchestra has an arranger (though some arrangers work for several orchestras) who adapts the piece to suit the style of the band. Competition arrangements must includes crescendos and diminuendos, as well as playing from high to low pitches (or vice versa or both), all to show the versatility and cohesiveness of the ensemble. We were struck, as we were 6 years ago, by the dedication of the players, most of whom have day jobs and do this for love of the pan. The pan was, of course, invented in Trinidad and is the national instrument. We visited yards for a small (20-30 player) group, a medium group, and finally Phase II, one of the premiere large orchestras, with a maximum (and they were at the max!) of 130 players. This was utterly fascinating: the yard (it really was a yard - a construction site lit by a few floodlights) was dark and shadowy. Back in the bass section, one could barely see, much less hear, the director. He directed with voice and a block of wood and mallet. He'd apparently call for a certain part of the song, tap his block 5 times, and the night would explode suddenly with the infectious rhythm of 130 players. After a few minutes, his tap-tap-tap would bring silence, he'd say something else, tap again, and Wham!, another sound explosion. Even our untrained ears could pick up the improvements each time this happened. We were thrilled. We talked to several orchestra members, including a young woman in her 20's who led the high bass section. Each player in this section was on a cart with 7 "tenor bass" pans: 3 to each side, at waist level, and one in front at eye level. Each section of the pan orchestra is choreographed - as they play, they are all simultaneously bouncing back and forth, hitting a couple of notes on one pan, then a few on another, then on two opposite each other, sometimes reaching behind their backs to do so.

We looked forward to the Panorama finals, when we'd see how well Phase II would do in competition with 10 other large orchestras. That took place Saturday night, and also included the final competition for medium (80-100 pans) orchestras. But before that, on Friday night, there was the Extempo Calypso competition.

What many of us know of calypso is "the Banana Boat Song (dayo!)" or "Sloop John B." Calypso is actually social commentary, and for the Extempo competition, performers appeared in pairs, chose a topic out of a hat, and each took a Pro or Con position, and made up a song, on the spot, about it. The tune was the same for all and included a refrain section where they could gather their thoughts, but it was a charming display of talent and humor. Many of the topics were political ("bring back corporal punishment" or "we need more oil wells"), many of the words were dialect that we couldn't understand, but we thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle, and our favorite calypsonian won!

Then came Panorama! We arrived early enough to be able to wander among the orchestras as they practiced on the fields surrounding the stadium/race car track that hosted the competition, which was good fun. The stage was big and well-lit, and there was a huge audience. The medium bands were good, but the large bands were amazing. They kept getting better and better as the night wore on. Phase II was next to last, coming on about 11:30 p.m. They looked stunning in white satin shirts, the pans all painted white and chromed to incredible shines, the carts shiny white and fringed in silver. And the music! The practice clearly showed in their precision and enthusiasm. The place went wild as they finished their eight-minute piece. Stunned, we pitied the poor band to follow them.

The final band came on at 11:50: the Trini All-Stars. Within less than a minute, our mouths had dropped open in awe. They were playing the same song chosen by 5 other bands, but with an arrangement so unique, and played with such confidence and verve, that it was a whole new experience. We just shrugged and felt bad for Phase II, which would finish second to them. It was a truly amazing night.

The next night (Sunday) was the King and Queen competition, followed by J'ouvert. Each "mas camp" (an organization that will parade, or "play mas," in costume) for Carnival, consists of a number of sections, each a variant on an overall theme, and each with its unique costume. Anyone can buy in and join - you go visit their camps to see models of the various costumes, each with a price tag - and choose which costume you like, which group you like, then join in. Each mas camp also costumes its King and/or Queen, and these costumes are more constructions than clothes. Most are on wheels, with the King or Queen harnessed in to haul the contraption around. They can be over 30 feet high and wide, and are absolutely gorgeous. For the competition, each King and Queen candidate enters the stadium (to music, naturally), dancing in a straight line, then turns first to one side, then the other, then in a circle, then out the other end. Several costumes featured huge opening fans, one had sparklers (one of which caught fire and had to be put out by handy firemen, to the crowd's delight), one had four papier-mâché horses (it had something vaguely to do with Napoleon and the Russian campaign, and also featured confetti "snow"), there was a fire-breathing (i.e., dry ice) dragon, etc. We can't even recall who won, but it was a total feast for the eyes.

We got home from that spectacle at midnight and were up again to go to J'ouvert at 4 a.m. J'ouvert (pronounced joo-vay) is a corruption of the French for day-opening or dawn. It's sometimes called the "mud mas" in contrast to "pretty mas" on Mardi Gras itself. People dress in very strange garb, or practically nothing at all, or in very old clothes. Cross-dressing is rampant, as is wearing underclothes as overclothes. Our group was outfitted conservatively with bright t-shirts featuring a skull and crossbones and the legend "Pirates Ashore." We met at the home of our tour guide, where we enjoyed a snack and the ubiquitous rum punch before we were handed ketchup squirt bottles of tempura paints and we began "decorating" each other. Once smeared with yellow, red and blue paint, we took to the streets, accompanied by several large young men who were our unobtrusive but vigilant bodyguards. The streets were filled with very loud music emanating from flatbed trucks loaded with refrigerator-sized speakers. Crowds of people surrounded the trucks, dancing with abandon. Many trucks also had huge tubs of "mud" or tempura paint, with enthusiastic revelers scooping and flinging cupfuls onto the throngs. When Andi decided she wanted red hair, a young Trini was glad to oblige. We danced and drank and threw paint and had paint thrown on us until dawn, and then some more. Finally, we wended our way back to our hostess's house, climbed into the mini-van (whose seats had been carefully covered with black plastic garbage bags), and were driven home. The marinas provided hoses to scrub off the paint, but Andi left her red hair! Monday was a lazy day, recovering from the weekend.

Tuesday - Mardi Gras at last. By this time, our gang had swelled to 7 with the addition of Gene's wife Kitty and our friends Toni and Chris (though only Amy stayed on Akka with us.) We went to Port of Spain before noon and stayed until after 7 pm, people-watching the Mardi Gras pretty mas. The costumes were amazing! Most of the women's costumes were satin bikinis, trimmed with beads, bangles, lace and feathers. The larger ladies often wore a more modest one-piece version of the same costume. The effect was complemented by necklaces (more like collars), wristbands, gaiters, and, of course, fanciful headdresses. Midway through the afternoon, one lady, evidently too hot, handed her plumed purple headdress to Andi; her companion then gave his white tophat, trimmed in purple, to Amy. We all tried them and wore them for a while until Andi spotted a lovely little girl looking longingly at the headdress. So she placed it on the child and when we all saw the smile, we knew the hat was where it truly belonged.

Music pounded all day long from the huge trucks and speakers; you could feel it in your bones and stomach as you walked by. Many trucks were followed by young women holding the back bumpers and wining as their eardrums were assailed. Wining? It's a pelvic gyration only done well by island women. We simply "don't got dem wining bones.' Women wine; women wine each other; men approach women from behind and wine them; there are wining sandwiches. It's frankly sexual but done so casually - often for only 10-15 seconds - that it's somehow not sexual. (Amy found it amusing, after a concert, to be kissed on the cheek by someone who'd been - umm - pretty close awhile earlier.)

Early on Ash Wednesday morning, Gene, Kitty, Chris, Tony and Amy all returned home. Carnival was over and we found ourselves alone for the first time in almost 2 months. The boat felt huge and silent.

After they left, we rented a car with new British cruising friends Graeme and Jillian and drove into Trinidad's beautiful and rugged mountains to the Asa Wright Nature Center. It's a former coffee plantation set 100 feet high, and home to gorgeous birds, butterflies and plants. What a peaceful serene (and much cooler) place! We enjoyed a guided tour, a lovely lunch, and sitting on the veranda with hummingbirds less than a yard in front of our faces before descending the hair-raising (and shock-absorber threatening) road to the sea, and eventually back to Chaguaramas. What a beautiful, peaceful contrast to Carnival.

Now that Carnival was over, it was time to get to work on Akka. We hauled her out of the water, hired someone to sand and scrape the bottom, then put new bottom paint on her. We were ready to leave Trinidad and find another party!