Trinidad & Tobago: the Ultimate Carnival Nation

Hey people – it’s CARNIVAL time!!

This year Feb. 20 and 21 are the official Catholic carnival dates. So the party is on in the ultimate carnival nation, Trinidad & Tobago! I can almost hear the music blaring from the loudspeakers of the trucks and see the Trinis shaking their hips in unison. The year’s most-awaited fiesta is finally here!

But of course the emphasis here is on the word almost, as I’m nowhere near the Caribbean at the moment.

Instead I’m sitting in the peace and quiet of Dakhla, an isolated town in Western Sahara. There’s no music to be heard, and not a single dance club in town. Instead there are countless cafes serving only non-alcoholic drinks and a nice ocean breeze blowing over to the beach boulevard from the turquoise bay. Whereas in T&T hoardes of women are currently prancing around in skimpy bikinis, here the ladies are covered head to toe with colorful fabrics.

But this stark contrast shouldn’t stop me from reminiscing about last year’s carnival, and telling you about it! After all, T&T’s carnival is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

So to get you into proper carnival spirit, let’s take a look at how I described the Trinidad & Tobago carnival last year in my old blog a week after the party:

Now that carnival and all the craziness is officially over, it’s time to look back and figure out what exactly happened during that whole week of non-stop action.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nobody takes carnival as seriously as the people of Trinidad. It’s been said that Trinis are either celebrating carnival, talking about the last carnival or planning the next carnival. I don’t have any doubt about that being true. After all, I met a person who had spent US$2,000 on their carnival costume and party tickets, and another one who had spent US$1,200 on flight tickets to be able to fly to Trinidad for a day and then fly back to the US for work the next day. I also witnessed some 80,000 people taking part in the carnival processions.

Whereas in Rio de Janeiro most people watch the carnival show from the comfort of their Sambodromo seat, in Trinidad they say 80 percent of the people actually take part in the show, and only 20 percent watch it. “Are you playing mas?” was the most popular question of the week, as was “Which band are you playing with?”. It took me a while to figure out that playing mas with a band had nothing to do with playing any kind of an instrument with a live orchestra. “Mas” refers to masquerading, and “band” refers to a set of trucks that have huge loudspeakers on them blasting music as they roam the streets. Some of the popular bands include Tribe, Yuma and Island People. Apparently there are slight differences in the types of party people each band attracts, but costume- and music-wise they all seemed very alike. The same Soca hits, the same colorful feather outfits and the same drinks (anything with Red Bull being the favorite). But people still seemed very patriotic towards their own group, which for my friends was Yuma.

Those that choose to play mas will thus don their skimpy outfits and dance next to a particular band (group of trucks) on Tuesday, the official carnival day. The highlight of the day is “crossing the stage” with your group, the official carnival stadium in the center of Port of Spain that was built a couple of years ago. One of this year’s biggest Soca hits, Machel Montano’s Advantage, talks specifically about the excitement of crossing the stage: “The stage is in front of us, time to take advantage of it!”.

The previous day, Monday, is a “training day” of sorts when people wear their band’s signature T-shirt and shorts and follow the trucks for miles on end.

Much to the surprise of many, I had decided not to play mas. “Why would you come to Trinidad and not play mas? That’s the best part of carnival!”, people asked me. My answers varied from “I don’t feel like squeezing into a skimpy costume” to “I don’t have the energy to walk 20 miles after a truck” and to “I’d rather watch you guys from the audience.” The truth is that I just couldn’t justify spending $500 to “play mas” (nor did I have an extra $500 lying around anywhere!). Yes, you read right – five hundred United States dollars! That’s how much the tickets were for the two official carnival days, if you wanted to play with a band. The price included free drinks for the two days (from a moving truck that doubled as a bar), the band’s t-shirt and shorts, your skimpy carnival costume for Tuesday’s show, and a boxed lunch both days (a simple chicken and rice meal, served cold and often hours late).

Call me a cheapskate, but that to me sounds like a rip-off. Someone is making big bucks off the Trinis’ love for their biggest national holiday. A more reasonable price would have been $250, and even that would have still been way more than what I’ve ever paid for an all-inclusive party in New York. Granted, someone had to pay for the trucks and the security people, but the price still seems pretty steep to me. However, most Trinis seemed to think that paying $500 for two days of partying was a decent deal (never mind that $500 is the average monthly income in Trinidad, when all social classes are taken into account). And the remaining people must have thought that even though it isn’t an amazing deal, so what? It’s carnival! Time to splurge and engage in revelry! Take the skin off my back and sell my grandma’s house if it guarantees a good carnival!

If you still don’t believe that the Trinis’ devotion to carnival even beats that of Brazilians, check out this popular blog called Trinidad Carnival Diary by a woman who writes about carnival – 365 days a year. So yes, I missed out on the experience of playing mas (but I saved $500!). And I did sneak into the band my friends played with on Monday anyway, and walked and danced along with their trucks for miles just as they did. Then on Tuesday, when everyone was in their full costumes and thus blending into the group in regular clothes would have been harder, I watched the show from the Savannah stadium. Even this would have cost $80, but luckily I have friends in high places so I got in for free. 😉

Personally I think I got the best deal, and I didn’t mind missing out on crossing the stage on Tuesday. Quite the contrary, I was happy I didn’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to put on my make-up and costume, and then walk for 20 miles in the heat and try to keep up my party spirit until 10 p.m.! And this was after at least four days of partying, as the two official carnival days are preceded by a week of celebrations.

While it seems like every self-respecting Trini needs to play mas at least once in their lifetime (or preferably every year), I would recommend visitors to skip out on paying the $500 and just dancing next to the bands for free when you feel like it. The rest of the time you can pop into some of the bars along the parade route or make your way near the Savannah to see the groups preparing to go on stage. And anyway, as is the case with the full moon party in Thailand, the best parties are actually those that happen before the official celebrations. In Trinidad, one of the biggest fiestas is the J’Ouvert morning party. At 4 a.m. on Monday morning, thousands of people gather on the streets and cover each other with cocoa powder and paint and colorful powder. The end-result is a sticky mess, but it’s all good fun.

My personal favorite was the Veil breakfast party, which started at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning and went on until noon the next day (yes, the Trinis do party 24/7 during carnival!).
Not many parties are more fun than those where you dance outdoors to the beats of great Soca songs, and watch the sun rise out of the horizon. Finally at noon, sunburned and all partied-out, you get home and just crash. It’s then that you know that you’ve really made the most out of your carnival, like a true Trini.

Five Surprising Reasons to Pack Light

One of the most common travel questions I get is how to pack sensibly for a trip that lasts several months. My advice is always the same: pack as little as possible. Your body will thank you, and your mind will be at ease as you’ll have fewer material things to worry about.

Don’t let this old photo fool you. I’m currently roaming around the African continent with a tiny backpack that weighs about 9 kg, which is about 20 pounds, or 1.5 stone to those of you following the odd British measurement system. 😛

I plan to be on the road with this bag anywhere from three to six months. And even now I feel like I don’t need a third of the things I brought with me! Goes to show that there’s no such thing as packing too little. You’ll always make do with what you have, and most things that you need you can also get on the road. After all, your home country is not the only place where people use clothes to cover themselves and shampoo to wash their hair.

Not that I was always such a travel minimalist – far from it! I have just learned from experience. Back in 2006 when I headed to Australia armed with the one-year Working Holiday visa, I even packed rollerblades with me! Can you believe that?? Nowadays my entire bag’s contents weigh less than those bulky exercise shoes did. Yes, I still love rollerblading (and nowadays also kangooing), but I have also understood that you can’t have it all. As I wrote earlier, this lifestyle is all about making sacrifices.

And while I haven’t seen anyone else hauling rollerblades around, not a day goes by when I don’t see little backpacker girls carrying rucksacks twice their size, or guys trying to look macho while sweating profusely under their ginormous pile of stuff.

So what’s the big deal about packing light, you may be asking. Well, for one thing: people are not ants. We are not built to carry eight times our own bodyweight. But really, the answer lies in these pictures. Here I am on my Asian tour in 2007, carrying the world in my bag:









And here I am today, on the streets of Rabat, Morocco:

(Yes, I realize I look ridiculous in my long Moroccan jilaba robe, but it gets chilly here so I had to get one!)

Picture yourself having to carry one of these bags around every day for, say, five months. Which one would you rather choose? Yep, I would definitely take the latter one too. And I’m so annoyed that I didn’t come to my senses earlier! It was only during my one-month trip to Mexico in the end of 2008 that I first thought about bringing just a small day pack with me. (I figured if I could survive a week with it, I could do a month too.) And WHOA, what a difference that made! Not only was it much easier for me to move around physically, I also noticed the five major benefits there are to packing light:

1) Saving Money

You know those outrageous fees that airlines charge for checked-in baggage? Well, they don’t bother me, as my mini-bag counts as a carry-on. I have even managed to avoid baggage fees on Spirit Airlines, which is notorious for charging $20 even for a carry-on bag unless it is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. And mine is! Also, buses in many developing countries charge about 50 cents to a dollar for each bag that is placed in the luggage compartment. I avoid that charge too, which may sound miniature but can mean savings of $50-100 over the course of a long trip.

2) Peace of Mind

Back in the day when I traveled with a huge rucksack, I constantly had to worry about it. Will my checked-in belongings make it onto the same flight as me? (Most of the time, no.) Will the bag still be in the luggage compartment of the bus by the time I get off? Has something been stolen from inside of it? Might someone slash the big bag open without me even noticing it? Those are not fun things to worry about, so I’m happy that I no longer have to spend time doing so. My little bag goes with me wherever I go, and is always at my sight. No more lost luggage worries whatsoever.

3) Increased Feeling of Security

Maybe this is not warranted at all, but I feel like I’m less of a target for potential robbers when I just carry a small bag (or at least I can run away faster!). If you arrive in a new town in a foreign country carrying a big rucksack, everyone can see that you are a newbie tourist. With a small bag, however, you can fool people into thinking that you have been around for at least a few days. For all they know you could be an expat walking around town with the day’s shopping in you bag, or a traveler going hiking, who has left most of his or her valuables in the hotel. Either way, big bag = much to steal, small bag = less to steal. The fact that I’ve never been robbed while traveling should speak for itself (knock on wood)!

4) More Room for Spontaneity

This one was the biggest surprise for me personally when I first started traveling light. I suddenly felt so FREE. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized how much my big backpack had controlled my life. Hauling the 20kg on my back like a mule had meant that my #1 priority in a new city was always finding a place to store my bag, which often meant having to book the night’s accommodation right off the bat. If it later turned out I didn’t like the town or the guesthouse after all, I just had to deal with it and stay there anyway since I had already paid. But now, with my tiny bag in tow, I can arrive in a new city, wander around for a couple of hours, and then hop on a bus to continue elsewhere if I feel like it. Perfect! This also helps with…

5) Saving Time

A prime example of how traveling light can save you time is my experience in Mexico: I arrived in Palenque in the morning, visited the Mayan ruins and a waterfall during the day, and then continued on a night bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I did all this while carrying my little bag with me. Thus I was able to see more in my one month in Mexico than the old heavy-traveling me would have in two months. And those hours that I used to spend huffing and puffing on the street desperately looking for a guesthouse to toss my bag in were now saved up and carefully spent on a beach instead. Not a bad trade off, huh!

Another time saver is being able to walk off an airplane and straight onto the taxi line without needing to stop by the luggage carousel to wait for your bag to arrive 30 minutes later (or worse than that, never). More often than not, this also means being first in the taxi line out of the people on your flight! Yay for traveling light!

So who is with me on this? What’s the silliest thing you have ever traveled with? I bet nobody else thought of traveling with rollerblades… More importantly, was I successful in inspiring you to travel light next time you go hit the road? If so, stay tuned.

Coming up: tips for how to pack light! Got any tips of your own to share?