The sister islands annual February Carnival
is the biggest bash in the Caribbean.

“Bank a lot of sleep and bring along a set of throw-away clothes.“ This was the advice I was given by my Trinidad host before leaving Canada last year to attend the islands’ annual Carnival in February. The sleep advice I could understand since late nights at a big fete are pretty much a given.

However, the throw-away clothes recommendation was mystifying. Nevertheless, I did as I was told, packing an old T-shirt and a pair of shorts long overdue for the rag bag. It turned out the clothing advice was entirely valid.

Picture the largest party you can imagine, multiply it by fifty-fold and it still won’t compare to Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. This mother of all parties rivals the famous festivities associated with Carnival in Rio and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The mega affair amounts to a gargantuan kaleidoscope of colour, dancing, music, parades, elaborate costumes and, last but not least, heavy-duty partying. Last year alone more than 45,000 visitors from around the world travelled to the islands in the southern Caribbean to be part of one of the greatest and grandest street parties on the planet.

The two official days of Carnival, occurring this year on February 19 and 20, are traditionally kicked off with an event called J’ouvert taken from the French words jour ouvert, literally meaning daybreak or first light. J’ouvert, in fact is a wild and crazy affair that serves as a prelude to two full days of insanely frenetic festivities. Throngs of enthusiastic visitors and Trinbagonians, together with a bevy of steel bands playing lively calypso and soca music, rise at 4 a.m. to parade and dance through the streets of Port of Spain (capital of Trinidad) arriving at the downtown Queens Park Savannah about daybreak.

During the parade impish revellers galore armed with buckets of axle grease and various coloured substances follow the J’ouvert tradition of smearing marchers so that by the time the parade reaches the Savannah almost everybody looks like Joseph in his coat of many colours. Hence the need for throw-away clothing.
Even before J’ouvert, a host of scheduled events herald the start of Carnival and, in one way or another, it’s all about “playing mas,” an island term that simply means participating. Among the premier events is the steelpan band competition. Steelpan originated in Trinidad and Tobago and is the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. The final night of competition is a big-deal, gala event held in a giant stadium at Trinidad’s Queens Park Savannah. In fact, the majority of Carnival’s celebrations take place on Trinidad rather than Tobago.

The excitement and exuberance of Carnival–the likes of which I had never seen before–make it impossible to be a bystander. Visitors soon learn the art of “wining,” a word that more than any other defines the movement and dance of Carnival. Wining is a sensual rotation of the posterior that is performed between two people, and in some cases three, in which case it’s called “sandwich wining.” The dictionary may define the art of wining as a circular gyration of the hips that starts at the waist but the Oxford meaning falls far short of capturing the essence of the dance.

At no time during Carnival is wining more unrestrained and energetic than during the final day of celebrations which amounts to one, long 12-hour procession of costumed bands (groups of people, not musical bands) which can number as many as 7,000 participants per unit. They parade to never-ending music across the grand stage at the Queens Park Savannah dressed in stunning outfits made of brilliant satin, feathers, sequins and beads. This is the pinnacle of “playing mas” and anyone, including visitors, can become part of the frivolity. In fact, anybody wanting to get into the act, rather than being an observer, can rent a glittery costume and march with one of the bands.

Although Carnival’s main celebrations take place over two days, visitors often extend their stays to sample the two-island nation’s other attractions and culture. Tobago is typically the quieter of the sister islands where both islanders and visitors go for relaxed quietude. Trinidad, on the other hand, is the livelier of the two siblings and is well known for its vibrant entertainment atmosphere where there‘s action aplenty. In spite of their differences, both islands are home to fine beaches, nightclubs, resorts, theatres plus extensive opportunities for bird watching, sea kayaking and sport fishing. In addition, Tobago is particularly known for excellent snorkelling and scuba diving since the Buccoo Reef off its southwest coast is one of the most extensive coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Island cuisine is also a big attraction. Trinbagonians are passionate about food and no other island in the Caribbean archipelago can boast the diverse gastronomy that has evolved there. What produced this special, multi-ethnic mix of cuisines is directly related to island history. First on the islands were the original Amerindians, followed by waves of immigrants that included Spanish, Creoles, South Asians, Chinese, French and Middle Easterners who each introduced their own particular style of cookery which has become a delightful ethnic gumbo of tantalizing island food. Two signature items that nobody should leave the islands without trying are Doubles and Roti.

Doubles are a delicious, cheap and utterly addictive vegetarian sandwich of curried chickpeas wrapped in a pita while Roti is a crepe-like pancake filled with either curry-laced chicken, goat, shrimp, beef or chickpeas. Both are lip-smacking good and can be purchased from street vendors for as little as $3, a meal that includes thirst-quenching coconut milk straight from a fresh-cut coconut.
For more information about Carnival or vacationing on the islands or call 1-800-816-7541.

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