Just Jouvie through Carnival in Trinidad

The perfect grown-up winter getaway awaits you in Trinidad and Tobago. For a complete immersion into decadence, joie de vivre with a party atmosphere that will be unlike any you will ever experience, head to Trini during Carnival. The party takes place just before Lent (this year February 26 and 27). While each country has its traditions around Carnival, (Rio, London, and Toronto’s summer Caribana festival) Trini Carnival is unlike all others with its unique Soca music experience (more on that later) and incredible Caribbean vibe. That said, Carnival is not for the faint of heart. It is a massive party with lots of alcohol, late nights, not a lot of shut-eye (not that you will want to sleep anyway) and very loud music — but the atmosphere is infectious and you will savour every second of the trip.

Carnival is steeped in history. While the main thrust of the holiday revolves around the Christian calendar of Lent, the traditions and particular customs are based in the political and social history of Trinidad and Tobago.

Carnival was originally a celebration of the upper classes, of the elites. It began just after Christmas and involved “feting” (celebrations) and, much like European countries, involved balls and masquerades. In fact, Carnival was an import from France. The lower classes held their own celebrations called “canboulay” but after a riot in 1881 and another one a few years later the government tried to prevent canboulay out of fear of fires (canboulay is translated as “burning cane”). It even banned drumming. However, as time evolved, things calmed down and Carnival became the welcoming celebration for everyone that it is today and with true Caribbean flair and effervescence. While it honours the past with certain traditions, it celebrates the present.

Today, while the fetes (parties) do begin after Christmas, they build up to that last weekend before Lent when people from around the world descend on Trini. While the height of the festival occurs on Carnival Monday and Carnival Tuesday, Friday night things get going hard. The key therefore is to pace yourself. Seasoned revelers warn that if you don’t, it can ruin the experience. So treat it as a party marathon, starting off slow and increasing in intensity for the maximum experience.

Trini Talk
Part of getting Carnival right is to understand the lingo around the festival.

Mas: Short for Masquerading. Playing Mas involves parading through the streets of Port of Spain. Mas refers to doing this in full costume gear. It is de rigueur. This is the only way to fully experience Carnival Tuesday. It is the equivalent of prom but with less clothes. The costumes usually involve some form of bikini type of top and bottom, with tights underneath and head dresses that will make any peacock jealous, arm jewelry, leg jewelry and make-up that will make everyone feel like royalty.

Soca: The newest type of music that reigns in Carnival. It is a mix of Calypso Music and Indian music with roots in the 1970s. It has evolved to include hip-hop, dance music. You will be shaking your hips and behind whether you want to or not.

Wining: Basically this is Trini Carnival dancing and it is de rigueur. People gyrate and grind, everybody does it and if you are Playing Mas you need to just go with the flow and get into it as strangers will be grinding you from behind as bodies mingle.

Jouvie or J’Ouvert: In some ways, this is the best party of all, despite the fact that Carnival Tuesday is what it is all about with everyone in costume. However, “Jouvie” starts at 4 a.m. when you begin imbibing and getting into the groove with DJ music. With scantily-clad people everywhere, you take to the streets and drink and dance. Tradition is you get covered in paint, oil, mud whatever substance people will throw or smear on you. All of your inhibitions will disappear. Do some smearing of your own. This party is all about that, there is no competition it is just to have fun and there is something unique about rising before dawn drinking and partying until after sunrise. “J’ouvert” is a version of sunrise in French. The break of dawn. And after the sun rises and you reach the Savannah park, it is time to nap or keep going until the next Mas.

Chippin: It is the shuffling along the steets that is a mix of dancing and walking to the music as you Play Mas.

Band: the group you Mas with. Each has a mix of costumes that all somehow resemble each other. You are part of their group throughout the partying.

For a possible party schedule consider the following:

Friday: Many “bands” have their parties to launch the weekend. Booze, music, food, outdoor party. Nothing more you need to know.

Carnival Saturday: Kiddie Mas (children dress up in costumes and parade through the streets of Port of Spain to music just as the grown-ups do). The costumes are beautiful and elaborate. It is adorable and touching to see families coming together and celebrating with their children. There is also a real sense of pride for all involved.

Soca Brainwash: One Music: One People: One Sun usually. Huge enormous outdoor dance party. Soca Brainwash or Soca Party is one of the best parties and occurs on Saturday afternoon into the evening. It involves dancing, lots of alcohol and wining and grinding. This is a no holds-barred party and you will let loose. Everybody has a great time and it is over the top in every way.

Panorama: Steel Pan Band competitions on Saturday are worth catching. Hundreds of drummers compete and it is a symphonic celebration of history. Percussion instruments were banned in the canboulay riots so while you may think they are just lovely sounds they are actually a symbol of resistance and social justice. Today, the Panorama Competition is recognized as the pre-eminent steel band competition in the world

Sunday Breakfast Party: Another fantastic event to go to. An early morning of dancing in a park. The food is phenomenal, the booze flowing, the heat overwhelming so there are watersprays like in a kid’s park to cool you off if the beer or rum punch doesn’t work. The setting feels like a rainforest so it is an intimate kind of thing, even though there are thousands of people there.

J’Ouvert: an absolute must. In some ways it is better than Carnival Tuesday as it is more laidback and people are out to have a blast. There is a formality about Carnival Tuesday that does not exist at Jouvie.

Carnival Tuesday involves dancing through the streets, again with lots of alcohol, food and fun. You walk about 9-10 k that day so your band will make sure you have enough sustenance. This is the day for formality in that you and your band will dance, jump and prance across a stage where your band will be assessed for creativity, costume beauty and wow factor. The competition is stiff as you will see as you roam the streets.

Eat, Drink and… Sleep?
Ok, minus the sleep, you still need somewhere to store your luggage. The Hyatt is incredible but there are hotels everywhere. gotrinidadandtobago.com can help.

Eat: Bake and Shark sandwiches are phenomenal. Try Asha’s in Maracas Bay (a beach to boot). Incredible food, great area as well.

Most Trinidadian cuisine is a mix of cultures, with Indian, South Asian, Creole. Be sure to grab a few Doubles (chick peas, spices in a wrap type of bread) and Callaloo.

Drink: Angostura rum. Just try it. Period. It will make a rum fan out of anyone. Chase it down with Carib beer.

If a beach break after Carnival is what you want, you will need to head to Tobago, a short flight away, but it will be a zoo right after Carnival so give it a day or so to go. Trinidad itself does not have a lot in terms of beaches. To rest in the sun, head to Tobago. The beaches are beautiful.

And remember no matter what you do, food is your friend to get you through the partying. Eat, drink, dance, wine repeat. A brilliant time will be had by all during Carnival. That is putting in mildly. You will be blown away by the hospitality, kindness, good food and good times that will be had.