A love letter to doing everything for Trinidad Carnival

Published as part of the “Carnival is love” series in the Jan/Feb 2022 edition of Caribbean Beat

Is a vibe coming outta we soul
Everybody take up yuh role
This year we playing brave and bold
Jumbies coming out ah dey hole

— Machel Montano, “Jumbie”

Picture it: Port of Spain, 2007. For a plucky 20-something, it is the first full Carnival season back in Trinidad after several years in the cold. Greedy (and hubristic), she looks upon the tantalising buffet of Carnival experiences, and resolves that none shall go unsampled…! 

Well, it started sensibly enough — a reasonably spaced series of mandatory Carnival activities. Panyards. Pan semis. Calypso competitions. Viey La Cou. Some fetes.

But the week before Carnival is . . . different. The quasi-hermit who could be counted on to shimmy out of almost every social invitation was instead seeking out as many pre-Carnival activities as could reasonably be attended without physical expiration, linking up with seven different posses of friends on the final sprint to Ash Wednesday.

The ambitious pre-mas itinerary was Tribe Ignite; then the Canboulay Riots re-enactment in town at 5 am; traditional Carnival character competition at midday; then Soca Monarch backstage. And this was just until Friday night.

Saturday morning was the critical re-fuelling point before Panorama finals at the Savannah that night, immediately followed by Insomnia fete at MOBS 2. There would be no cat naps. And the friend who was joining me on my mother and her friends’ annual pan pilgrimage was also coming with me to Insomnia. Bailing, therefore, was not an option.

I cherished the pan. Among the lime that night were All Stars, Phase II, Renegades, and Despers die-hards, all fiercely cheering and arguing for their steelbands, but with a magnificent camaraderie in celebration of our resplendent instrument — our defiant resilience and creativity. Listening to the pan — with a view of the lights flickering on the surrounding hillsides under that cool, crisp night air — has always been an experience that fills me with tremendous gratitude, no matter the victors.

Still high off the music, my friend and I persevered through the gridlock entering Chaguaramas. I was grateful for the company, despite my hermit tendencies beginning to flare from lack of sleep, too many bananas (they’re so useful for hangovers), and having far exceeded my weekly “peopling” quota. At some point hours later, when the sun was well into the sky, I made my way happily but wearily back home.

By this time, my body had begun to stage an intervention. Not even black-out curtains could fool my system into believing this was sleeping time. But even if I couldn’t sleep, I could at least remain horizontal, giving my aching feet and sore back a chance. After all, I was registered to play two days of mas and J’Ouvert a few hours later.

That night, as I took in the final Dimanche Gras performances (a great showcase of Carnival arts the Sunday before Carnival Monday and Tuesday), I entertained a brief flirtation with the idea of making a J’Ouvert costume — at the last minute, despite my dodgy arts and crafts skills, and with nary a clever sociopolitical pun at hand. Wisely, I settled instead for old clothes, lathered up in baby oil, and made the rounds to collect a couple of friends before heading to meet 3canal.

One homey, who shall remain nameless, was putting the final touches on her J’Ouvert kit in the back seat, using the dome light overhead. This becomes relevant in moment. This was the first time I was driving myself to and from J’Ouvert, so my delight at successfully dodging all the bands assembling on Long Circular Road and securing a park in Woodbrook was short-lived. Because Jesus knows the speed-walk back to Ariapita Avenue after crossing the Savannah stage is a gauntlet when there’s no music truck, no alcohol, and the sun starts assaulting your beleaguered body from the sky.

I hosed down, showered, hydrated, closed my eyes for a five, and then readied myself for Monday mas. It was not even a thought to skip it. I hauled my behind to the car . . .  which would not start. My battery was dead. It wasn’t until my dad gave me a jump that I could see why: my friend never switched the dome light off after we met the band at J’Ouvert. I had to laugh. I took it as a sign to ask my dad for a lift to be on the safe side. But it could just as easily have been a metaphor for my physical condition at the time.

Several groups of friends were playing in Island People that year, so with a few SMS messages I was able to link up with my section. We jumped the afternoon away, got some great photos (including blue paint still leaching out of my skin — several showers later — onto my white Monday-wear shirt). But I knew my limit. I needed to ice. And to hydrate. And to get (or at least attempt) one full night of sleep before the final push.

I met the band downtown early Tuesday. There’s one particularly sleepy-looking photo of me from that morning, somewhere near South Quay. The rest of the day was a blissful blur, right through to Last Lap by the Stadium — all powered by soca, Lucozade, and spirits. There was a photo that came out in a Carnival magazine afterwards that took me years to figure out. I couldn’t figure out what on earth we were all doing.

And then I realised.

Dip in de centre
Do de jumbie dance 
Lean back and reverse
Do de jumbie dance.

It was that — all of us in our bronze costumes leaning back, reversing, doing the jumbie dance. The perfect immortalisation of the year I was fully (or almost fully) outta body, then back to myself. 

We ready for mas again?


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