It's the Monday after j'ouvert Sunday and my first pilgrimage to Trini Carnival. There is one proud, persistent stripe of yellow paint still stuck to my left calf, and I am wondering, will people think I haven't bathed since Saturday? Will I maybe even get some brownie points for my filthiness? In this insane party atmosphere, who knows. Tomorrow, I'll be staying on the sidelines, not buying a costume to "play mas'" on the main parade day. Still, I'm feeling like a convert, my mind already racing to next year, imagining myself playing j'ouvert covered not in yellow paint, but plain ol' mud, brown like the skin I'm flaunting.
There is something about Carnival that allows the sheer hypeness of the bacchanal, of soca music, to coexist with the laid-back social vibe that you can find everywhere in the Caribbean. I spent the first day and a half of my trip here laying in wait, looking for a good "lime." I drive past the mosque and temple of a neighborhood called St. James with my host to check out the scene. We went to a bar called Smokey and Bunty's where we found pre-carnivalites back-to-back, grooving, treating their two square feet of dance floor like they owned it, like it was their own private backyard.
It is an awesome thing to witness for the first time, this egalitarian Carnival experience, this celebration that is collective and an expression of each one's most free and intimate self. I feel this environment seeping deep into my pores and cleansing all the worry, doubt, and judgment from my mind.
Next day, I walk the streets, ending up at Arapeta Avenue, the downtown heartbeat of Port of Spain Carnival. By now, music is blasting from every truck and car, so I'm involuntarily learning the lyrics to all the hottest club songs, from Machel's sensuous hits to pounding tracks heavy on the digital, like "My pressure bad, bad, bad. My pressure bad, bad, bad" ...repeat, repeat, ok, you get the picture. I am a stranger to everyone, but we all feel like we get on bad to the music, same way.
I'm not saying that in Trinidad the race and class issues were not apparent. They are blatantly apparent, though hard for an outsider to decipher. Driving around the city, you can see the hills that birthed the first steel bands players in the 1930's and 40's. In those days, I'm told, pan players were treated like second-class citizens, and I recall the familiar story of Trenchtown. I pass through a neighborhood perched on a gorgeous cliff overlooking Port of Spain and the skyscrapers built by oil money (I'm incredulous to see skyscrapers in the Caribbean). On a shoulder to the left of the road, tourists and lovers pull their cars over to watch the nighttime skyline. To the right, my host points toward the shantytowns beyond the trees.
But Carnival seems to equalize. You just let yourself go, no matter who you are. It's about your own body and your own spirit, not just the wining up on some other body to get your kicks on. And on Carnival Tuesday it seemed, every masquerader who had managed to scrounge together the 300 bucks for a costume was a celebrity for the day, sparkling and beaming, stopping for photo opps with friends and strangers.
I did wonder what the non-masqueraders, the St. James folk, were doing far from Arapeta Avenue. Maybe they had no time for the costume judging. So what was it that drove their lime, turned it into a full-blown fete? The rum? The music? The smell of roti bread being cooked on streetside grills? The sexy women? The company of friends? All I know is that night I ran into a friend from New York on Arapeta and as the Tribe band's truck snaked by for a good two hours, the D.J. spinning the hottest tracks, I got a real good wine on, the wine that I needed. I got a not too subtle reminder that we are born and die naked, barefoot, and covered in sweat and dirt.