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Postcard from Trinidad: Cultural Sleep-Deprivation

Postcard from Trinidad: Cultural Sleep-Deprivation Photo

Photo by MojoGoes

Posted on March 24, 2008 in Trip Ideas

A week spent in the tropical paradise of Trinidad and Tobago may not sound like work, but IgoUgo member and Community Manager MojoGoes found that participating in the biggest party in the Caribbean is more work than it seems.

When I arrived in Trinidad, I breathed deeply and reveled in the humid evening air that made my jacket stick to me slightly. I’d left New York City on a chilly January afternoon and was loving every second of my first trip back to the Caribbean in five years. Actually, it wasn’t terribly sticky, but even the slightest hint of humidity on that 75-degree evening made me pretty happy. Between getting to my hotel and heading to my first Carnival-related party, I had about 10 minutes. The level of partying that Trinbagonians reserve for Carnival is staggering. I’ll have to go back to Trinidad sometime other than during Carnival; the population must be the most productive on Earth, judging by the release that is evident in the celebration of this week. Trinbagonians are the perfect partiers. First, they are physically beautiful as a people and are as heterogeneous as any block of New York City. Second, they are extraordinarily friendly, particularly when it comes to Carnival. Third, they apparently do not need sleep. This is no joke. However, the celebration is one of local culture and of continuing an age-old tradition.

The best example of the non-effect of sleep deprivation on the Trinbagonian population was during J’ouvert, the official start to Carnival. On Monday morning, before Carnival Tuesday (Mardi Gras, basically) everyone wakes up at, or stays up until, 3am and gets ready to party. Having just watched the Giants win the Super Bowl, I was awake and celebrating when it was time to leave. So, having not slept for 24 hours, I changed and got ready. We all met in the dark of night and joined a group of hundreds, possibly thousands, of others—all of us wearing red devil horns—and started dancing down the street along with a truck packed with woofers and speakers. As we walked, we sprayed bottles of paint all over the crowd. Clean shirts and bodies were frowned upon and promptly coated in paint, mud, or chocolate sauce. Trucks carrying great drums of muck followed us and hemmed us in on either side of the street, throwing the chocolate sauce and paint at the pagan crowd by the cupful.

We continued on through the night and into the dawn. Paint was everywhere—mud mixed with chocolate syrup and spilled drinks caked on skin. As the sun rose, it was amazing to see that people were still dancing and having a good time. I couldn’t help but laugh. You get so caught up in the positive experience; the attitude of everyone around you fuels the fire, gets your adrenaline going, and urges you on toward an undisclosed destination. Of course, that’s not the point. There is no finish line to which you are racing or final vista to which you are hiking. There is just the moment. There is sharing an absurd experience with 10,000 strangers who are so coated in various substances that you couldn’t pick them out of a line-up the next day. As the day dawns, people start to slow down—or at least I did—and my group peeled off to head back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before Monday Mas, which is essentially just dancing and drinking (are you noticing a trend yet?). We showered and managed to force some food into our gullets before passing out for 90 minutes. When I woke up and came downstairs, more mud-men and -women were still filing past the hotel. These were people who I’d seen the day and night before, at J’ouvert, who were now walking past me, still wearing the same clothes. They simply hadn’t gone home to change, knowing full well that they would just stay up through J’ouvert, then shower and go straight back out. After miles of marching and two hours of sleep in the last 30, I was in misery. However, once we got to the parade and started walking and dancing again, all pain and fuzziness was forgotten.

Of course, the next day, Tuesday, was a different story altogether. We woke up early again, but we’d had enough rest after Monday Mas and were excited for the real thing. Mas stands for Masquerade and is the main event for Carnival. It’s planned out months in advance, with bands releasing their costume designs ahead of time for people to choose. The overall theme of Carnival this year was “Myths and Legends.” Now, I don’t know much about the myths and legends of Trinidad, but I know that as a Green Water Spirit, I didn’t feel nearly as tough as the assorted warriors I saw, especially when the arm bands that were supposed to go around my “biceps” wouldn’t stay up and had to be removed.

The whole Carnival experience would never work in the US. So many people, most of whom are getting drunker and drunker, coupled with near-nudity, fatigue, loud music, no breathing room, and paint battles, would have erupted into fistfights and yelling matches in a matter of minutes. But throughout a week of crowded, loud parties, many of which were under the relentless sun, I did not see a single fight or even the potential for one. In fact, the only time that things got physical was right before the start of Mas. I was minding my own business when I got a shove in the back much harder than a typical I’m-trying-to-get-to-the-drinks-truck nudge. When I turned to face my assailant and let him know what I thought, I was face to face with a large police officer and his German-made submachine gun. Needless to say, I moved out of the way. As it turned out, he was a presidential bodyguard making a path. The president of Trinidad, George Maxwell Richards, was there in the throngs of people, decked out in a silver costume, dancing along with his wife and entourage. The president! Imagine George Bush coming to the Halloween Parade in the Village; it would never happen. It just goes to show what a cultural event Carnival is and how seriously—but not too seriously—Trinbagonians take it as a nation. Carnival is all about having a good time, and J’ouvert is the opening floodgate that epitomizes the release and joy and sheer abandonment of worry that makes it such an overwhelmingly positive cultural happening.

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