Trinidad likes its Carnival wild and wotless, its revelers unabashed and its partying nonstop. Carnival, or more accurately pronounced, cahneeval, translated loosely means a farewell to flesh, or meat. It marks the last chance to celebrate with abandon before a period of restraint for the 40 days of Lent. This year, the festivities take place Feb. 11 and 12, but the Carnival season begins as early as July when masquerade bands start launching the year's costumes and new soca music floods the scene.
Wearing scanty costumes of feathers and sequins, masqueraders will soon be marching, wining and chippin across Port of Spain while music blares from speaker boxes and alcohol abounds. This is not for the faint of endurance. Here are some things to know before you go.
1. Learn to wine
If a Trini asks you to dance there are exactly two options: wine or gyrate your hips in a suggestive manner (both of which mean the same thing). You'll see it happen in the streets, in the fetes, on a wall, upside down, on top of a cooler -- people are wining everywhere and anyhow. The rhythm and energy of soca music should induce the urge to move your body, so just rotate your hips in a circular motion and you'll be set for all the Carnival dancing you need to do. A quick Internet search for "how to wine" returns detailed video tutorials on ways to master the movement.
2. There are no tourists in Carnival
Much like the NYC subway, where a big shot banker might be riding beside a vagrant, Carnival is a great equalizer. The foreigners and locals, the fortunate and less so, all fete in unison. Tourists won't find anyone fawning over a funny accent or offering special treatment and when a masquerader decides to thief a wine (wine behind you unexpectedly and without asking) your bamsee (rear-end, buttocks) could be just as viable as the next.
3. Managing a Carnival fete (party)
From the sophisticated waterfront fete at the Hyatt Regency to the wild and aptly named Bacchanal Wednesday to Rise where you bring your own beverages in a cooler, there's a fete for every fancy. Many are all-inclusive, meaning you pay a flat fee for all you can consume, so it's best to eat and drink your money's worth. Once inside these well packed parties, with Machel Montano onstage belting the hottest tunes and the smell of chicken roti stimulating your taste buds, you'll wonder which of your senses to answer first.
Plan to arrive hungry so you can eat right away -- this ensures you'll have your pick of Trinidadian staples like curry crab and dumpling or pelau (a one-pot rice and meat dish) should anything run out. Then, you'll be energized and ready to wine away on the dance floor, sprinkle in some top shelf libations and grab a late-night snack before heading home. Keep an eye out for President Richards who's been known to enjoy the occasional fete.
See here for a schedule of events.
4. A breakdown of J'ouvert
When you wake in the darkness of 4 a.m. to find yourself being dragged into the streets to party, you'll wonder if the madness ever stops. It's time for J'ouvert, the early morning opening of the Carnival celebrations. For J'ouvert, revelers channel the nation's history and folklore in what was once a rebellion against slavery. Some come dressed as devils, or "Jab Jabs" while others get slathered in oil, mud, paint or cocoa. Wear clothes that can be thrown out (including undergarments), get dirty and let go of every inhibition. Rub baby oil on your skin before this predawn party to ease clean up and have you ready in time for Carnival Monday.
5. The costume isn't enough
Playing mas means you've chosen a masquerade band to participate with and you'll be chippin (a march/shuffle/dance combo step) alongside mas goers with similar costumes. There are more than one hundred different Carnival bands that vary in themes, popularity and cost. Costumes can range in price from $200 to more than $1,000. Sites like Trinidad Carnival Diary offer information on popular bands like Tribe, Island People and Yuma. While your costume may come with a box full of adornments, the main bikini or shorts, the feathered headpieces, arm bands, leg bands and wrist bands, ladies still need more. Rip-resistant flesh tone stockings from Micles in Port of Spain will help you feel less naked and look more put together. Also, stop by Wonderful World in West Mall for face jewels and body glitter because it's not Carnival without the extra glitz.
Visit fineahban for last minute costume searches.
6. There's more than mas
Should you opt out of playing mas, you'll never be low on things to do the week before Carnival. Mas can be just as fun to watch from the sidelines where you'll get to see more of the goings on than the actual masqueraders. Food and drink vendors line the streets so you can eat corn soup with dumplings or doubles (curried channa served between two pieces of fried bread) while you enjoy the parade and even take a wine on the side. You can also attend the Panorama Finals, a battle of the steel pan bands in Queen's Park Savannah or watch any of the musical competitions for best calypso, soca and kaiso artists.
7. Don't forget Tobago
After Carnival, most people get back to work, fly home or head to Tobago, Trinidad's serene sister island. If you've got time to tack on to your vacation, Tobago will replenish you after all that overstimulation. Head to Store Bay, a beach just minutes from the airport, for teal waters, homemade coconut ice cream and endless offers for glass-bottom boat tours to the Nylon Pool for warm, shallow water surrounded by coral reefs. For something less touristy, try Swallows beach. Book a $48 flight with Caribbean Airlines early or you could end up at the dock queuing with the masses for a spot on the boat over.