14 Things I Wish I Knew Before Attempting Trinidad Carnival

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14 Things I Wish I Knew Before Attempting Trinidad Carnival

What better time to visit Trinidad & Tobago than during its most culturally significant event of the year?

Who doesn’t want to be dancing alongside those smiling melanin mamis, praising the heavens as if they caught the spirit of the Holy Ghost in their colorful angelic costumes with such uninhibited freedom you’ve never seen before?

But wait, then you start researching and go down this expensive and confusing rabbit hole of costs ($1000 for a costume?), parties (which to go to?), and terminology (playing mas? what?).

Carnival is a lot. So below is everything you need to know before going.

Trinidad Carnival-Playing Mas

1. Arriving for Trinidad Carnival – The Basics

The currency is the Trinidadian dollar, which at the publication of this blog post was 6.78 Trinidadian dollar to $1 USD. However, there is a US Dollar shortage in Trinidad at the present moment, therefore, if you change your money with a business owner or your trustworthy Trinidadian friend, you are likely to get a 7:1 exchange rate, sometimes 8:1 but that’s just being greedy. You help them and they help you. Issa celebration.

Language is English, but a very British English. The Trini accent is like a mix of British and West Indian accents and when speaking too fast, as an American, I’m out here thinking it’s a whole other language.

Visa is not required for Americans.

A Small History. A Small History. Geographically, Trinidad is only 6.8 miles from Venezuela and closer to South America than it is to the rest of the Caribbean islands. It is recognized as a high-income economy due to its exportation of petroleum and natural gas. Trinidad and its sister isle, Tobago, were originally populated by the indigenous Changuane, Warao, Shebayo, Nepuyo, Yaios, Lokono, Karina and Kalinago, collectively known as First Peoples of Trinidad, who originally came from South America. While the First Peoples were colonized by the Spanish and Dutch and being forced into Christianity and then enslaved, the British brought people from Africa and enslaved them. Then French colonists came and settled. When slavery was abolished, indentured servants were brought from India, China, and Portugal. The largest ethnic group on the island as of 2011 is 36% East Indian.

Where To Stay. The closest neighborhoods that are within walking distance to most events are Woodbrook, Belmont, Cascade, and St. Anne’s.

Trinidad Carnival-Tobago
Welcome to Trinidad & Tobago!

2. It’s Not Appropriate To Ask Someone Where They’re From

Because of the incredible diversity of the island, you won’t hear anyone ask you where you’re REALLY from. Instead, they’ll ask you “Are you from Trinidad?” It’s automatically assumed that you’re local, so you should assume the same when meeting someone.

Trinidad Carnival Diversity
Diversity! YAS!

3. You Can Never Be Too Over Dressed Or Have Too Little Clothes

Ever want to buy a glitter thong outfit with a neon fishnet body suit. No? Well, being in Trinidad during Carnival makes you want to buy an all glitter thong outfit with the neon fishnets because everything you have just doesn’t quite live up to the level of extra that you’ll see all around you. Everyone is dressed head-to-toe in every color of the rainbow. Like even colors that haven’t even been invented yet.

Pro Tip: Don’t bother bringing clothes. Just go to the mall and buy everything once you get there. Nothing you’ll find back home will compare. For example: you thought buying gold shoes was extra? In Trinidad, you’d find gold patent leather high tops that light up in neon at the bottom that even come with chargers. Things I didn’t even know I needed.

Also slut-shaming…child, please. The less you wear, the more you’ll fit in. Practical nudity is embraced, if not encouraged. So that outfit you would never have your parents catch you dead in? WEAR IT.

Trinidad Carnival-J'Ouvert

4. Don’t Come To Trinidad Carnival Trying To Save Money

Carnival is EXPENSIVE, but worth every penny. It won’t do you any good to try to save money and play yourself out of enjoying everything Carnival has to offer.

Luckily, Trinidadians are professional Carnival attendees and know the financial struggle of paying for it. Therefore, everything is paid in installments so that by the time Carnival comes around, everything has been paid in advance and you won’t feel so poor.

But a long-weekend will have you spending around $1,000-$5,000 USD (not including flight).

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These costumes range from $750-850

5. Trinidad Carnival Terminology

The following are words that you’re gonna need to know before hand.

Playing mas: Mas is short for masquerade because this tradition started when French plantation owners started throwing masquerade balls before enduring the fast of Lent. The slaves were unable to participate so they started their own. Mixing this French tradition with African, Asian, and First People traditions, we get the Trini Carnival. To “play mas” describes participating in the event from dressing up to dancing.

Soca:is a genre of fast-paced Caribbean music that has origins in calypso music, which means “to go on” and started when  enslaved peoples were not able to talk to each other and instead sang.

Wine: is an intimate form of dancing that is not necessarily sexual. People do not just wine with their partners, but with their friends or strangers also.

Fête: a public celebration, often taking place outside.

Steel pan: is a type of collective music that developed from bamboo sticks being struck against frying pans and dustbin lids when percussion music was banned from slaves. Then the oil industry came to the island along with the oil drum. Then in the 90’s, steel pan evolved into the production that it is today.

Lime: hanging out

Doubles, roti, chow, bake and shark: are all traditional Trini foods that you need to try, ok. I’m not going to explain it, just eat it.

Pepper sauce: THIS SAUCE IS NOT WHITE PEOPLE SPICY, IT IS BROWN PEOPLE SPICY, ATTENTION!!!

Trinidad Carnival-Hot Roti

6. It’s Not Necessary To Listen To Soca Ahead Of Time

You can listen to a Soca playlist beforehand, but it’s not necessary. From your Uber drivers to the grannies on the street, errrrrrbody will be playing Soca this weekend. By the end of the weekend, you’ll know all of the words by heart from hearing the same 12 songs on repeat over and over.

Trinidad Carnival-Soca Music

But if you’d like to listen ahead of time, tune into Caribbean DJ’s Shep Beats X Konata here where they play the hottest Soca tracks in between talking about relevant Caribbean issues.

7. Trinis Party Until You’re Absolutely Miserable

THEY CAN’T JUST STOP AT A NORMAL TIME, OK. LIKE 12 HOURS OF DANCING ISN’T ENOUGH. YOU MUST KEEP GOING UNTIL YOUR FEET ARE BLEEDING, AND YOU’RE CRYING FROM SLEEP EXHAUSTION AND YOU FEEL LIKE SOMEONE JUST BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF YOU.

They won’t let you stop until you’re actually sad from partying. There’s no happy medium here.

Trinidad Carnival-Party
Look at this professional Trini in the front partying until sun-up, but the two foreigners in the back low-key dying. I feel you, girls.

8. Schedule

Speaking of parties, here is a link to last year’s calendar. It changes every year. But below is a 5-day schedule of some of the hottest parties that you’ll want to attend. But get your tickets far in advance, some are sold out by December. If there is a link attached, it’s the social media website that has their link in their bio and any contact information.

Pro tip: if a party says it starts at 12, it actually starts at 5. So don’t hurry.

Thursday

Tribe Ignite is a live concert of all the most popular Soca singers. While the singers are fab, the DANCERS are the stars of the show.

Cost: $100 USD, which includes all-inclusive drinks.

Dress Code: Wear whatever, it is outdoors on grass so wear comfortable shoes.

Friday

Canboulay means “burning cane” and was originally a harvest festival with African percussion for those that were banned from joining the French masquerade balls. The songs sung were where slaves could vent their feelings. Eventually British soldiers attempted to ban this too, which erupted into riots. There is a historical reenactment of this, but spectators need to get there around 3AM to get a good seat in the exact location and time where it took place, originally.

Cost: Free. Dress Code: Just come in whatever you went to Ignite in.

webetheFUN Boat Brunch is a mid-day party barge that provides a meal and non-stop dancing for 5 hours. The boat stops at an island off-shore for swimming. Beware there’s very little shade or seating on the boat.

Cost: $50, does not include drinks so bring your own. Dress Code: Swimsuit and colorful cover-up.

Saturday

 Soca Brainwash is like the Trinidadian Coachella. It’s a DJ party with no live music.

Cost: Soca Brainwash: $150. Dress Code: Comfortable shoes and casual clothes.

Panorama is the steel pan competition, where bands who have been practicing vigorously until the wee hours of the morning, perform at the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Cost: You can pay to go sit in the stands, but in the park it is free. Dress Code: Comfortable shoes and casual clothes.

Kiddies Carnival is where the children dress up in their costumes and compete for overall presence during a day-parade.

Cost: Free. Dress Code: None.

Trinidad Carnival-Kiddies Carnival
Kiddies Carnival

Sunday

Soaka or Vale Vibe. Soaka is a morning party that involves water being flung at you from hoses along with paint at 4AM.

Cost: $75 Male/ $60 Female. Dress Code: Something you’re OK getting wet in.

Dimanche Gras is a competition held to award the King and Queen of Carnival to two masqueraders with the most elaborate costumes.

Cost: $50. Dress Code: Anything.

Monday

J’Ouvert means “break of day” in French and is the official start of carnival, at dawn on the Monday preceding Lent describes when slaves would cover themselves in paint, mud or oil to mask their identity and shout at their masters during sunrise.

You can play with different organizations. I played with Dirty Dozen and it was probably my favorite party I went to out of all of the fetes. The pre-party starts at 1AM with a concert and free “brew” (rum punch) and then they hit the road with music and paint trucks where you sing and dance in the street. Here’s a link to their website to keep yourself updated.

Cost: $100. Dress Code: They give you shirts, but its imperative you come in clothes you’re willing to throw away, including bra and panties. Everything will be covered in paint. And DO NOT get mad when someone throws paint on you. ERRRRBODY gonna be head-to-toe covered in paint.

Trinidad Carnival-Dirty Dozen-Jouvert

Tuesday

Carnival. This needs an entire separate post for explanation. So you can read How Not To Do Carnival Like A BASIC BITCH.

9. Forget Sleep

I have no tips for surviving sleep exhaustion. I fell asleep on a party boat, ok. Like for the entire party. People fall asleep on grass, at concerts, just anywhere. There is no end to one party and start of another, they just all run into each other and there’s no time for sleep. It’s tiring but you will literally be shamed for sleeping.

10. Characters To Look For

Fancy Indian is a traditional mas costume influenced by the Guarajo tribe from Venezuela bringing beads, parrots,and other things to barter in Trinidad.

Many Northern Plains Native-American groups do not support this costume, as present imagery is similar to the Northern Plains imagery that is sacred and reserved for significant people in society.

In an interview with costume producer, Robin Bhawanie explains,

“Mainland Americans are upset because Americans don’t understand this does not concern them. But also Indigenous People of TnT have had issues with Indian Mas because of the years of insensitivity they’ve been shown by us (contemporary Trinidad).

Some colours in their culture are used for funerals and honouring ancestors, so it can be offensive to create a costume for mas portraying that.

It’s really about doing your research as a costume designer when you’re trying to honour an entire RACE of people. You really should do your research so that you don’t offend them and a lot of designers don’t do the necessary homework, which is the issue.”

I don’t have any relevant opinion here. But I won’t be wearing any headdress costumes in the future. However, props to designers like Robin who take the time to educate themselves and work with Trinidad First Peoples on representing them appropriately.

Trinidad Carnival-Fancy Indian

Dame Lorraine is a mas character portrayed as a large woman with an exaggerated derriere and large bosoms that mocked the costumes and style of the French aristocracy during that time.

Midnight Robber is a mas character characterized by his wide brimmed hat and black cape who walks around boasting about himself and scares people from doing bad deeds. He evolved from West African storytellers.

Moko Jumbie is a traditional mas character on stilts dressed in white with wings that represents a ghost or healer spirit evolving from West African traditions

Red Devils/Blue Devils are characters dressed in all red or all blue, reminiscent of when slaves put molasses on themselves to mask their identities and terrorize their slave masters. These characters are menaces that blow fire and touch people in the streets.

11. Every Shape, Size, And Age Is Welcome 

After hearing that people are practically naked, the usual response is, “Oh, I need to go workout.” Not necessary, baby boo. No matter how thin or thick you are, I guarantee you that there is someone thinner or thicker. Not only that, they’re naked and exuberantly happy in their bodies. And yes, they are still getting approached for a wine. So just go ahead and keep eating. You’ll need as much energy as you can get.

With that said, there are some bad bitches out there with the most perfect, unattainable bodies I’ve ever seen and zaddies with 18 packs and perfectly oiled skin. Wow. Amen.

Also, I saw people’s grandma’s out there dressed up in head-to-toe neon so Carnival is for every age. Parents allowed!

12. Uber Is Trash

You can order an Uber during Carnival and they not even come. Or they’ll be an hour away and cancel on you last minute cause Uber drivers need to party, too, and you be standing on the corner waiting for them for 2 hours in the middle of the night, sleep deprived, and covered in paint. Just letting you know, for a friend.

Trinidad Carnival-Partying

13. Don’t Mention Other Carnivals

Been to other carnivals? Cool. Just keep it to yourself. Talking about other carnivals in front of a Trini is like talking about a man’s mistress in front of his wife. YA JUST DON’T DO IT, OK.

Trinis pride themselves on their carnival so just shut your filthy mouth.

14. Tobago Is Worth Seeing

Tobago is a 20-minute plane ride or a 3 hour ferry ride away from Trinidad and is 100% worth seeing. While Trinidad has more of a city vibe, Tobago has an island vibe with colorful houses, palm trees, and white sand beaches. People are so chill they don’t even lock their houses!

Trinidad Carnival-Tobago

However, sometimes the ferry breaks and the flights sell out. Actually, that’s more likely to be the case than not. But fear not. You can buy a $25 stand-by ticket to Tobago and get on at some point. Once I got on a flight that left in 30 minutes, another time 2-hours later.

The only thing is you can’t buy a return ticket until you get to Tobago. So don’t be basic like me and have to be back in Trinidad by 5PM to catch your return flight and get stuck in Tobago until you get a standby flight. I mean, if I hadn’t been with a Tobagonian who called his cousin, who called someone at the airline, who called someone who knew how to perform magic, we wouldn’t have gotten on that full flight. Somehow I got home on time.

Before we got a flight. After we got a flight.

I actually wasn’t really that stressed. I wasn’t really going to complain about being trapped on an island.

It always works out in the Caribbean, amirite?

Anyway, Trinidad Carnival is the experience of a lifetime. But I’m warning you, it’s something like an addiction, where you actually feel sad when all the chaos is over. They even have a word for it! Tabanca. So start planning for next year!

Trinidad Carnival-Expenses

Goodbye life-savings, HELLO CARNIVAL.

Special thanks to the DDJ Crew, Takisha, and Shep Beats X Konata for letting me use their images, as well as Robin for taking the time for an interview!

Extra special thanks to Malaika Ammon for hosting me, organizing me, and editing this piece for accuracy.

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