I was paged before I even left the plane and our host showed us to the VIP airport lounge for a juice drink. She is executive assistant to the President of the country, and is an expert at seeing to all the details. We drove directly to Panorama, a competition of large steel drum bands - the music is called pan - held at the Queen's Park Savannah. Entering through a door marked "VVIP" (very very important persons?), we took our seats in a reserved box, greeting my cousin and his lady there. They pointed out the Prime Minister in the next box.
Steel drums are to music in Trinidad as marimbas are to Guatemalan music. The pan groups were between 100 and 125 people performing together on oil drums and steel drums. The instruments are wheeled in on many metal structures, the musicians wear hats, sport dreadlocks, have a common clothing theme, and it's a lively show. Hard to keep your legs still.
And soca is to Trinidad as reggae is to Jamaica. We heard some calypso performers sing eloquent political and social commentaries. Soca is derived from soul and calypso - it is punctuated with a jumping beat, perfect for dancing through the streets. The many variations of soca include groovy soca, a bit slower and more tuneful, and chutney soca, with an Indian influence (like Trinidad food - spicy and curried).
The nights are filled with parties for weeks leading up to Carnival. We arrived in time to attend a party thrown by Poison, the band (not a music band, this is a Carnival group) with which we would be "playing mas" (masquerade). Live music, lots of great food and drink, and everyone dancing. We caught a glimpse of the President on a well guarded veranda.
Back to the Savannah Sunday night for the finals of the king and queen of the bands. Floats are not created here, an individual must carry their creation - it may include a framework and may have wheels. Fantastic, colorful and imaginative, fanciful or fearful, they appear as flamboyant peacocks displaying their finery.
And then the fun began! After two hours of sleep, we rose at 2:30am for joovay, a contraction of Jour Ouvert, the opening of Carnival at 4am. For joovay, our group was the Cocoa Doubles band. Warned in advance to bring old clothes, we donned our first costume for "dutty mas". I stood on the women's line. A young man plunged his hands in a bucket of liquid cocoa then poured it over my arms and legs, smeared it on my face, and patted it over my clothes. Whatever was exposed. Women painted men and men painted women. I finally was the right rich brown color to blend in! The smell was delicious, it was a "chocolate mas". Other bands were covered with mud or paint of different colors. We hit the streets. Music trucks blasted soca, the songs of Carnival are still resonating in my head. The way to move along is called chipping - small strutting steps in time to the music and dancing hips and arms, always dancing. We waved a vividly colored "rag" or bandana in the air. Along the way you might be painted by other groups you encounter. The sky slowly lightened as the sun arrived to signal the new day. As memorable as the images were, I decided it was not wise to bring my camera to this event.
We returned from joovay in time to clean up (no time to sleep) and change into our first day's mas: t-shirts and rags in the colors of our band. Our band was the largest with literally thousands of people. Poison's theme for this year was Dreams, our ultimate costumes were described as bikini mas - I think of it as Las Vegas showgirl style. My subgroup, Cherry Kiss, wore pink and orange, accented with chartreuse.
Jumpin' up, waving, whining (dancing)! Back on the streets at 11am, we took the carnival route this time, winding our way through the streets to downtown Port of Spain, past old churches, municipal offices in ornate wooden historic structures often run-down, little houses and shops to the Savannah at the end of the day. We broke off from the parade mid-afternoon and took a short cut to the Savannah to watch the first bands, led by their kings and queens, approach the arena - an opportunity to get up close, and to see some of the other costumes. When Poison arrived, we joined our kin and danced across the stage.
Tuesday was the real thing. Ready to go after a decent night's sleep this time (we declined the parties that night), we caught up with our group around 9:30am (they started at 7). The trucks crept down one side of the road - ever present soca blasting, food trucks kept us in energy, drink trucks kept us in alcohol or caffeine (I found that was the fuel for me). Coffee was not to be found, had to live on soft drinks. Dressed in our finest mas of all, beads and glitter resplendent in the blazing sun, elaborate headdresses with feathers perched atop our heads, streets lined with spectators. Chipping, chipping, the crowd pulsed with the beat. The dance was peppered with occasional reggaeton - the dance that looks like its players are having sex - sometimes 3 or 4 people deep. It was a joyous celebration of music, dance, art and life!
We reached the stage at the Savannah after 9pm (12 hours!) and in a final exuberant rush of excitement, celebrated Cherry Kiss for the stands and judges. The hardest part of all was walking through the city streets back to the car after the adrenaline was gone - legs ached from the strain, skin hot from sunburn in places that seldom saw the sun, scattered revelers in the streets.
My flight home was originally Trinidad to Caracas to Miami to Guatemala. Aeropostal didn't get our bags to the next flight in time, so American airlines would not allow us to board without our luggage. Ultimately I returned by way of Costa Rica via Taca. Adam and I ran between the airlines on two floors in the Caracas airport, passing through security gates three times before it was all sorted out and we were on our way. But I did find time to pick up some coffee in Costa Rica on the way home.