Story and Photos by Christine Gooch
It is 4 a.m. on Carnival Monday. Music blares out at deafening volume from a 40-foot articulated truck piled high with speakers, the bass thudding in our chests. We are packed closely together in a crowd of 1,500-2,000 people, marching in place to the tribal beat, unable to move forward until the others surrounding us do. All of us are wearing bright yellow T-shirts and waiting expectantly for the party to begin. We are the JumBeez and this is J’ouvert!
J’ouvert (pronounced “Joovay”) is a lively procession through the streets of Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, starting roughly two hours before dawn and ending around an hour after sunrise. As well as the speaker truck, there are two trucks loaded with alcohol, one full of portable toilets, and an air-conditioned bus for those who get too tired or too drunk to carry on. It’s a far cry from the last time we did J’ouvert, many years ago, when answering the call of nature meant squatting down at the side of the road, and if you got tired you hitched a lift on the beer trailer towed behind a tractor.
Suddenly the trucks and the crowd start to move, inching forward in time to the music — we’re off! We fight our way through to one of the bars, holding our bright yellow go cups aloft for them to be filled. Normally rum and coke is a splash of rum and a lot of Coke. This seems to be the reverse: the cup is almost three quarters filled with rum, followed by a dash of Coke — crikey!
We are soon reminded why J’ouvert is also known as Dirty Mas. A small tanker full of paint in assorted colours begins to spray us, while revelers grab plastic ketchup bottles, whirling them above their heads to spray yet more paint over those nearby. Soon we are covered all over — arms, legs, faces, hair, T-shirts streaked in rainbow colours. We look at each other and burst out laughing — this is fun! There are other groups besides the JumBeez, taking different routes through the city. Some cover themselves in mud, others liquid chocolate — a relatively new idea but one that greatly appealed me, a confirmed chocaholic.
This is the first carnival in two years, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and people are certainly enjoying themselves. I fail miserably to copy the dancing Trini girls’ gyrating hips, and for the first time I fully understand the phrase “shake your booty” as they tease the men, thong-clad buttocks rippling suggestively. “Show me, show me, show me yuh hands” goes the song, and dutifully the crowd raise their hands in the air, cups aloft, feet shuffling forward, smiles wide.
As the sky gradually lightens, turning from black to pale grey and peach and finally bright blue, we make our way to the Soca Drome, a sports stadium on the edge of town, where we rejoin the other masqueraders (Mas is short for masquerader). Each group in turn crosses a long stage (which in typical Caribbean style was still being constructed when we left at 4 a.m.). Then it’s all over, we make our way back to the bus that will take us and the other cruisers who have played Mas back to the boatyards at Chaguaramas, where we shower the paint off our hair and skin (the T-shirts are beyond redemption), and tumble into bed to catch up on our sleep.
6 a.m. on Carnival Tuesday (otherwise known as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday), sees us on the bus again heading back into Port of Spain for the Carnival Parade. We manage to get seats in the shade in an enclosure overlooking Ariapita Avenue, close to one of the judging points. We are grateful for this as it will be a long day; the parade is due to start at 8 a.m. and will probably go on into the night.
In fact, the first group doesn’t pass us until after 9 a.m. and they come in fits and starts for the rest of the day. The carnival parade is appropriately known as Pretty Mas. The costumes are glorious collections of feathers, sequins, spangles of all shapes and sizes, with often a tiny amount of fabric to keep the whole thing together and preserve the wearer’s modesty. The feathers are used in towering headdresses, or fanning out on either side of the wearer like enormous wings. They can be relatively subdued plain brown and black pheasants; beautiful iridescent turquoise, electric blue and pale green peacocks, or dyed candy colours — pinks, yellows, bright greens or blues. Sequins and spangles in every size, shape and colour are fashioned into necklaces and garters, or cover almost every inch of the fabric. Tiny seed pearls, squares, diamonds, spheres, huge lozenges, all glinting in the light. Anyone can hire a costume and join a Mas Camp, paying anything from TT$4,000 (just under US$600) to TT$17,000 (US$2,500) for the more elaborate costumes. Each costume takes about two days to make and a group can number up to 1,000 people, so there is a lot of work involved in costuming a Pretty Mas.
Instead of feathers, some groups have wings made of light gauzy material that flutter in the breeze as the wearers dance and twirl their way past the stand. Each group is accompanied by at least one, sometimes more, 40-foot trucks loaded with speakers. One group is like naughty schoolchildren; their leader keeps turning the music off and shouting “Get in yuh sections, get in yuh sections!” as they approach the judging point. What he means is that they should be lined up to show off to the best effect as they pass the judging point, similar design costumes and the same colours together. However, they are all mixed up together, with the leader desperately trying to impose some order.
The most elaborate costumes belong to the Kings and Queens. They can be 30-40 feet high and 30-40 feet wide, and are so heavy they are on wheels. Not many groups in Tuesday’s parade have a King or Queen at their head, but we do see a couple; a giant three-headed scarlet ibis covered in sparkling sequins, and a black and white crayfish (at least I think that’s what it was).
Several times during the day I leave the stand to go down onto the street, where there is more atmosphere. As the giant scarlet ibis spins past, moving from side to side of the road on its wheels, the lady operating it dwarfed by her costume, spectators step back to avoid the flailing starbursts of feathers and the sharp beaks that overhang the pavement.
All too soon it is time to head home, the biggest party of the year is over, but preparations for the next one will shortly begin.
Thanks to Jesse James, Members Only Maxi Taxi and Tours and YSATT, for organizing some great Carnival trips, and to our fellow cruisers who joined us in having fun.