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The greatest party on Earth

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Break out the feathers and sequins for the madness of Trinidad's annual Carnival. Geoffrey Dean joins the celebrations


With so many former British colonies having gained their independence in the 1960s, the next few years will witness plenty of 50th anniversary celebrations around the globe. No country will undertake theirs more joyously than Trinidad & Tobago when their 'half-century' is posted at the end of August, for this exotic racial mix of peoples are the party kings of the Caribbean.


Trinidadians have an inbuilt sense of celebration, one that has been nurtured and developed for many decades by their annual Carnival, arguably the world's best. Brazil's may be bigger, but having been to both, I would put Trinidad's first. Why? Because visitors can take part in it, whereas Brazil's is much more of a spectator event.


Thousands of people of all ages, notably from America and Europe, fly into Port of Spain in the week before the start of Lent for Carnival, officially the two days before Ash Wednesday each year. Many are returning 'Trinis' who have come home to 'play mas' (or play masquerade, as in dressing up in costume for the procession through the capital). This procession, though, has much more to it. It is the culmination of a bacchanalian party that began days, if not weeks before, with virtually all inhibitions shed. The beer and rum, often included in the ticket price, flows from the floats that inch their way around the city, belting out reggae, SOCA and calypso.


Following the floats of the 'band' you have joined, in a lavish costume that's provided, you simply dance, jive or walk your way all day for half-a-dozen miles or so around Port of Spain, whose streets are yours, closed off to traffic for the event. Spectators are roped off behind the pavements, while participants, aka masqueraders, 'let their bodies gyrate, rotate and oscillate' (as one well-known SOCA verse puts it). It's totally safe; special security teams assigned to each band meticulously weed out any gatecrashers or potential miscreants.

 

CHOOSING A BAND


Now is the time to think about joining the party. Sign up for a band as soon as possible; applications are accepted in September every year, although some start in July. There are scores of bands, as tens of thousands of people participate. Some, like Tribe, are very big, numbering several thousand. Another favourite, and one of the oldest, is Harts, which last year celebrated its own 50th anniversary of performing at Carnival. I 'played' with Yuma, a trendy new band. People often switch around each year, and it doesn't really matter which one you pick unless you like their particular costumes (viewable on the internet).


All you have to do is send in your measurements and then arrive the weekend before Carnival to collect your costume and passes. If you haven't signed up to a band, this is also a good time to enrol at the last minute, as bands will re-sell places and costumes if they get late cancellations.


Ticketed parties and events are staged almost every night in the lead-up weeks to Carnival, but the one not to miss is hosted by Trinidadian cricketing great, Brian Lara, at his sumptuous house on the eve of Carnival. Some of the hotels hold parties, too.


The Carnival festivities officially start at 4am on the Monday morning with a pre-dawn event called J'Ouvert. Dressed not in costume but shorts and T-shirts, paying participants go through the unusual ritual of caking each other in mud, chocolate and paint during their unrestrained musical 'jump up' through the streets along a pre-arranged route. Loved by many, this is no-holds-barred partying, ending soon after daybreak, when everybody retreats to their home or hotel for a clean-up and sleep. It may not be a very long rest, as the Monday procession begins around 11am. Many people either choose one or the other as to do both requires considerable stamina.

 

GLORIOUS CRAZINESS


The Tuesday procession, in full costume, is the main one, the piece de resistance. You may start off feeling you are part of a group of strangers, but any such reservations quickly dissipate. Bands are like a league of nations, members coming together from dozens of different countries in the name of a good 'lime' (party), as West Indians call it. It is also a wonderful way to interact with Trinidadians, whose party spirit, allied to their unfeigned friendliness and genuine openness, is the foundation of Carnival's long-term success.


Do not expect to be anything other than very tired by the end of Carnival. But nearby relaxation is at hand in the form of Trinidad's sister island, Tobago, a twenty-five-minute flight or two-and-a-half hour ferry ride away. While the former is the industrial powerhouse of the region, populated by more than a million people, Tobago is a small, sleepy Caribbean island with some gorgeous beaches. Not much goes on there, but it has decent hotels and restaurants, and is the perfect antidote to the
glorious craziness of Carnival.

WAY TO GO

Flights to Trinidad and Tobago are available with BA, Virgin, and from June, Caribbean Airlines, which also flies between the two islands in just 25 minutes (www.caribbeanairlines.com):

 

Carnival in 2013 is on February 11 and 12. Visitors are welcome and encouraged to join one of the many Mas-Bands that play during the carnival period. All Mas-Bands provide costumes, security, food and drinks during J'Ouvert, Children's Carnival, Carnival Monday, and Carnival Tuesday in Trinidad and Tobago each year. Many visitors choose to 'play mas' with one of the large, all-inclusive bands, like Tribe, Spice, Island People or Harts. Check out the following bands' websites:


MacFarlane (this year's Carnival winners): www.macfarlanecarnival.net

Island People: www.islandpeoplemas.com

Spice Carnival: www.spicecarnivalband.com/alt/index.html
Tribe: www.carnivaltribe.com

 

A good website to check on the available fetes and when to register for Mas is www.trinijunglejuice.com/

 

Details of fetes and where to buy tickets alongside comprehensive carnival info for visitors: www.ticketfederation.com.

 

Or let someone else do the work; Carnival Tours 365 runs inclusive packages to Carnival: www.carnivaltours365.com.

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