March 2001: Carnival
Ah, Carnival. It was fabulous!! Someone had told us that the whole island throbbed with music, and it was close! The music is provided by sound systems mounted on big semis or flatbed trucks with huge amps that are as big as refrigerators. You don't just HEAR the music, you FEEL the music. In addition, there are lots of bands and steel drum ("pan") bands . The pan bands have some 70-100 players, so they put out quite a sound as well. A whole set of about 50 new pieces of music is written for Carnival each year, and published in January. These songs are "Soca", and are professionally produced by local artists. As Carnival approaches, more and more Soca music is played on the local radio, in stores, etc. Some is predictably mediocre, but the best 10 or so are really good ("Who Let the Dogs Out" which won a Grammy this year was from a previous Carnival ).

During the two weeks leading up to Carnival, we saw competitions for best big costume (these costumes are so large that they have coaster wheels underneath them to help support them, so the wearer is like a mini parade float), for best pan band, for limbo dancing (the bar is about 14 inches off the ground, and, for the best dancers, flaming), and for extemporaneous Calypso (in which the competitors have to make up verses for topcs drawn from a hat while the vamp music is actually playing). And of course we saw Carnival itself, as Port of Spain emptied into the streets for Mardi Gras.

We listened to a lot of pans. Two Saturdays before Fat Tuesday we attended the semi-final competition for big pan bands and listened for 6 hours, then we went to the finals on the following Saturday for another 4 hours. We didn't hear all of the bands (there are over 44 of them nationwide), but our ears still rang for hours after. With such an infectious beat and sound, you can't stand still, and we spent much of the time dancing in the aisles. Each band plays only one of this year's Soca tunes, in a special arrangement that's about 10 minutes long. For the finals (called "Panorama"), instead of going into the grandstand we hung out in the street and field where the bands gather and practice repeatedly before their on-stage performance. We talked to some of the guys in one band who said they'd been practicing their selection since January, every night for 4-6 hours. They use no written music, and can probably do it in their sleep. The pans are on wagons, some with 6 bass drums for one player, others with 12 medium tone for 2 players, some with about 12 tenors for 6 to 12 players. A large support group wheels these wagons or carts along the road and onto the stage. There's one tall cart for the rhythm durmmers, though why a drum band needs a rhythm section is a bit puzzling to us. All the carts have roofs of metal, fiberglass or canvas to protect against the sun or rain. While the bands are practicing before going onstage, you can walk in among the carts and hear the band from the inside! We did this at Panorama with a band we liked, and in the end joined the gang that pushed them onto the stage! It was definitely fun to be up on the stage, with a thousand Trinidadians watching from the stands as we wrestled the carts into place, and then of course we got to hear the band (once again) close up, from the stage wings.

The final parades and masquerades ("mas") began with a very strange celebration called jouvert, a corruption of Jour ouvert, meaning daybreak, and pronounced joo-vay. It began at 3 a.m. on the Monday before Mardi Gras, and ended soon after dawn. The other name for j'ouvert is "mud mas" because everybody gets covered in paint and/or colored mud. The groups of revelers ("bands") following the music trucks had tubs of paint and mud and they threw it on you or squirted in on you or daubed you with it. People gathered in the streets, the music blared and we all danced. It was great fun to see thousands of people going absolutely crazy in the pre-dawn hours. The streets are also lined with booths selling beer and rum drinks. (Yeah, OK, they were also selling soft drinks and water, but who's counting?)

We went to Jouvert with a group from the boat yard, which was a good idea, because mud mas is when the devils come out, and there were some real villians around -- one cruising couple who were not in a group got mugged. But we saw none of that, and just enjoyed dancing and being terribly messy. Took 2 showers to get clean, and the clothes are trash. We slept all day and went into town for a little bit on Monday evening, when there was more dancing in the streets, but we saved some energy for Tuesday, the "real" Mardi Gras, when everyone dresses up for "Pretty Mas."

Trinis seem to be very comfortable in their bodies. During Pretty Mas, thousands of Trinidadians, cruisers, and tourists wander through town in costumed "bands", "chipping", which is sort of stub-stepping to the music and "jumping up", or dancing. This takes incredible stamina, as it goes on for 12 hours or so. The costumes are gorgeous, and rather skimpy. Lots of gold, glitter on bodies, beads, jewels, and rich colors. Big headdresses are popular, and of course the huge costumes on coaster wheels are also present. The participants are of every age, size and color, and appear to be totally unselfconscious about their near-nudity and very suggestive dancing moves. There's this move they do called "wining" which is very like pole dancing without a pole. There are a thousand women here who can move their hips in ways undreamed-of by any exotic dancer (or certainly any ordinary American woman) back home -- it's an amazing sight to see. And it's done by girls from 13 to women in their 50s. Then there's a move where a woman will back her butt up into a guy's pelvis and they wine together. The guy has his legs wide apart, his knees bent, and he's hopping and thrusting and holding up the girl who is backing into him. Whew! Sometimes they make 3 person wine sandwiches. Double whew! A couple of Trini girls did this with Rob during Jouvert and he hasn't been the same since! It's very sexy and sensual, but done so casually that it somehow isn't vulgar. Just good fun. A group will be chipping down the street, then a girl will back into a guy and they'll wine together for 15 seconds, then they all just continue on down the road.

Though we could have joined a band (membership and costumes cost between US$60 and US$200), we elected to simply wander from street to street, watching the different bands, being blown away by the sound trucks, and generally soaking in the experience. Next time, though, we'll join a band.

Back on the boat, it was life as usual. In the midst of Carnival, we entered Akka into a "fun race", recruiting the cruisers' soccer team, with whom Rob has been playing, as crew. The organizers gave each boat a bottle of rum and required them to empty it before the finish! It was pretty much a reach-reach-reach, and so we waterlined everybody and finished second. There was a great party afterward, at which we got to meet several prominent Trinidadians, including a gentleman whose daughter is on the Hampton University sailing team.

Lest you or we forget that cruising is sailing from port to port repairing your boat, there's the following: We finally got the thermostat housing to stop leaking, then discovered that the fresh-water pump was spraying water all over. The bearings were shot, so it needed to be pulled out, leaving us with no power until we can replace it. Fortunately, we can buy ice in the marina stores and there are lots of good restaurants nearby, where we can pick up roti (a wrap containing curried meat, potatoes, and spices), bake and shark (deep-fried bread filled with shark meat, tomatoes, and spices) and buss-up-stop (a roti with the pastry shredded and on the side instead of filled).

We'll probably spend another week here, then head north, back through the lovely Grenadines to St. Lucia by the 20th of March, from where Rob will fly to Charlotte for the USSailing meeting, and Andi to VA to meet with Lisa and Guild to organize wedding stuff. We'll be gone a week, then will return and head back to Antigua for the Classic Yacht Race and Antigua Race week, at the end of April .