Huge speakers mounted on trucks and pounding out Soca or Calypso music, gyrating bodies covered in paint or used motor oil (!), costumed paraders dancing in the streets – day and night, local food, and fun, fun, fun.
I’ve always been enticed by the costumes, color and music of Carnival. Trinidad has the region’s largest and most extravagant Carnival. It also sounds pretty rambunctious and overwhelming, attracting thousands from around the world. Grenada and many other islands celebrate Carnival in other months, a different time from the traditional pre-Easter celebration, to lure visitors that they might not be able to attract against Trinidad’s pageantry and extravagance ~ and it’s a great excuse to have multiple times of the year for a grand fete (party). The New Orleans Mardi Gras is the US equivalent of Carnival.
Carriacou, an island directly north and part of Grenada, celebrates Carnival in early March. Since we are here for an extended length of time this year, we decided to take a few days to experience Carnival. There is a long build-up to Carnival with events occurring over a couple of weeks. During this time, a Carnival queen is crowned and Soca and Calypso bands compete for the title of best band. The culmination of Carnival is a series of events including Canboulay – a traditional family and friends feast, J’ouvert – a huge early morning street party and a number of Mas (es) – costumed parades. Mas is short for masquerade.
I was late in planning our trip to Carriacou. I hadn’t see a rental that stood out and after seeing a 2+ week-long schedule, I wasn’t sure what days we should attend, and we didn’t want to leave Mick in Grenada for too long. When we got to Grenada, I kept asking people but didn’t get good information other than every rental was probably booked solid. Finally, I heard about Karen Stiell who runs Simply Carriacou, a tour service and rental agency. Karen knows everything a visitor would want to know about Carriacou.
Fingers crossed, I contacted Karen and hoped she had an insider’s tip or could produce a miracle. Karen laughed when I told her we wanted to come to Carnival and were looking for a place to stay. She said, everything had been booked for months. Carriacou is a small island with about 7,000 residents and the population swells to about 14,000 for Carnival. (As we would find out, many Grenadians don’t even look for rooms and they just sleep on the beach.) HOWEVER, about an hour earlier she had received a cancellation of a nice 2 bedroom apartment right on the edge of town. It was $85 a night if we used one bedroom, double that if we used both bedrooms. I didn’t even ask for pictures, I just gave her my credit card number. Yahoo! We booked Saturday through Tuesday.
Next I contacted our Connecticut friend Diane, who had threatened to come to Grenada, to let her know our schedule and she booked her trip to encompass those days. I made a quick call to Karen to secure the second bedroom and we were set. Our plan was to take the Osprey ferry, a large boat that carries about 150 people and takes between 1.5 to 2 hours, to go from St. George’s, Grenada to Hillsborough, Carriacou.
We bought our tickets in advance and got to the ferry dock around 8 AM to be sure we would get a seat on what would be a very crowded 9 AM boat (which didn’t leave until after 10 because so much cargo had to be loaded). Everyone was in a great mood and started the party right then and there. Diane and I went up top to the open air section so we could see all of Grenada pass by and Michael stayed downstairs because he thought it would be less rough lower in the boat. It’s been consistently very windy the whole time we’ve been in Grenada so the Caribbean Sea was very rough, with water splashing up over the sides and getting us wet on the top deck! The boat was rocking and rolling with the waves but most everyone was having a (wet) blast.
We passed a couple of deserted islands and finally pulled into Hillsborough harbor. We met up with Michael who ended up having a rougher trip than we did because he was up near the front of the boat and everyone was being literally tossed about, out of their seats. We grabbed our bags and started looking for Raphael, the apartment owner. He said we were easy to spot because he’d seen my photo on my email. Cool! We jumped into his vehicle and got a short tour of the town.
Hillsborough is basically 2 long streets that parallel the beach for about a mile and a half. Most of Carnival was going to take place near the ferry dock and our apartment was at the far end, right across from the beach. Raphael lives on the top floor of the house and has converted his lower floor into a sweet 2 bedroom apartment. It was clean, airy and perfect for our short stay with a lovely covered veranda in the front of the house which was great for liming and people watching. Raphael was a perfect host and we got to know him pretty well over the 4 days.
After settling in, walking to a grocery to get provisions and relaxing on the porch for a bit, we headed out to get some dinner. I was concerned about finding a place with room to eat so I had called ahead to make reservations at what appeared to be the largest restaurant in town. The woman was very nice but a little hesitant. Upon arriving, I realized we were probably the only people who had EVER made reservations! It was a buffet style set up where you ordered what you wanted, paid and then they gave you a number and they brought your food to the table. The woman who had taken our reservation also greeted us and guided us upstairs to a roof top deck. We were the only ones eating up there. She took our orders and served us like a regular restaurant. The local food was filling and good.
As we ate, more people came up and were looking over the railing to an open air dance club next door. The beat was pounding, everyone was moving to the music and when we looked over the rail, we saw that they had sprinklers high up in the air that would spray on the dancers below and it was called a Wet Fete (Party)! I thought about all the times I’ve danced in the heat and have gotten really sweaty and thought this was an excellent idea. Some of the women had shower caps on their hair so they would still look good later or the next day. It looked like a lot of fun.
“Official” Carnival wasn’t starting until Sunday night so, Sunday morning, we took at taxi to Paradise beach for the day and hung out on a large, secluded beach with good shade, lovely water, and gorgeous islands offshore. It was picture perfect and there were only a few people on the beach. We had a great, relaxing day. Canboulay is the first event and is where local families and friends come together and cook a huge feast on Sunday evening and eat together – usually starting around midnight. We were lucky and got invited to a Canboulay feast.
Before we headed out to Carriacou, Diane and I had an appointment to get our nails done at Nail Tee’s. Diane said she wanted to try Manicou (Mongoose) and the salon owner, Louise, invited us to her sister’s house for Canboulay because she always serves Manicou – And Mutton, And Iguana, And Chicken, And Pork, plus rice and peas – a literal feast. We were thrilled to join. When Sunday came around, Louise and a friend picked us up at the house at about 2:00 AM. Diane ended up backing out – she was just too tired. Michael and I had a good time – good music, good food, good company and killer rum – literally – a local brew that tasted like gasoline so I stuck with water.
About 3:30 AM, Michael and I walked home to grab some sleep before J’ouvert began. J’ouvert is an early morning street party that goes from about 5:00 AM until noon. Trucks with huge speakers drive throughout town, blasting music and “calling” people to follow the trucks and begin dancing. When they passed our house, there was no sleeping though it – the windows were vibrating hard from the volume of bass. The trucks all converge in the center of town and everyone has a big jump up (dance party). What makes J’ouvert special is that people get covered with paint. Karen and Louise both told us to bring one set of clothes to wear that we’d be willing to throw out after the party. It was controlled chaos.
Michael took a chance with his good camera and got some fabulous shots. Overall, people were polite and didn’t get you covered with paint unless you wanted to be part of the action. Diane and I climbed up onto one of the rooftops to watch the craziness from there and got home relatively unscathed. At one point a bunch of men came through the crowd, completely covered with motor oil and horned helmets, representing the devil. They were so cool looking. After the party, the trucks drove to the beach with everyone following them (blaring music, of course) and everyone jumped into the water to rinse off. Then they headed back home to eat again and then slept until the first Mas (masquerade parade) begins. I didn’t see the sea water after the rinsing, but my image is of a rainbow of colors floating across the waves.
Carnival in Carriacou is a pretty laid back affair and it was hard to nail down what was happening, where events were occurring and at what time. Before we arrived the schedule kept changing, major changes – like events being moved between days.
I finally stopped trying to figure things out and decided we’d just go with the flow. For example, the first Mas was going to start – at the airport, at the playing field, on the main street, in the outdoor concert arena – all depending on who you asked. (And none of these locations were necessarily near each other.) And it was going to start at 2:30, or 3:30 or 4:30, (It started at 5:00), so there were a lot of people hanging around the streets comparing stories for quite a while. I thought I’d be smart and check at a couple of places where I knew the masqueraders were dressing but they didn’t have any better idea. It all kind of fell together in the late afternoon and the big trucks started around town again, each blaring their favorite music with costumed groups following them dancing. All in all, a very fun time.
Later in the evening, when we were sitting on our porch, an evening Mas came through and everyone had those glow-in-the-dark sticks as headdresses, torches, sparklers and necklaces. They were dancing down the street following yet another truck with huge, booming speakers with DJ’s on top whipping up the crowds into quite the frenzy. What a lot of energy! It was great seeing this gyrating crowd, moving to the music with the lights dancing.
Tuesday morning is the Shakespeare Mas and I didn’t completely understand this until it was over. It is a battle of wits using only lines from Shakespeare plays. It starts in a designated place in the country where costumed actors recite Shakespeare to each other, entertaining the crowd and sometimes whacking each other with sticks if the other person makes a mistake(!) They move onto the next spot (with the crowd following them), more costumed actors join and the spectacle continues.
At some point, it kind of turns into staged fights with Shakespeare thrown in from time to time. I could not really understand what they were saying so it was mostly the costumes, the gestures and the enthusiasm that was intriguing. Everyone finally end up in the center of town. I’m glad we walked to one of the outer spots where it was fairly uncrowded so we could see. By the time they got to town, there were so many people watching, it was impossible to get close enough to really see anything.
After that, we grabbed a bite to eat at a lovely seaside restaurant, packed up and Raphael drove us to the ferry. After we left, there was one final Mas, late that afternoon, which was a repeat of the first Mas. The ferry trip home was much calmer – we were riding with the waves instead of against them, and a lot of people slept – a very different atmosphere from the trip up. All in all, a great time.
Now we are talking about going to Trinidad next year to see the spectacular extravaganza they put on if we can connect with a local to guide us.