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  • Writer's pictureSarah Miles

Finally...Looking Back on Trinidad Carnival 2023

It's been five months since Trinidad Carnival and it is still one of the first things that I'm asked about amongst friends and family. I've had all this time, nearly half a year, to think it through but I am still stumped and find it difficult to give a concise answer. It was euphoric, life-changing and out of the world and these words somehow still don't do it justice. The truth is, I don't think that there are words available to us that can truly encapsulate all that is Trinidad Carnival.


Having participated in both Barbados and Jamaica's carnivals, I was so thrilled to finally connect further with my Trinidadian heritage and experience carnival in its purest form at its birthplace. It's safe to say that everything that I thought I knew about carnival has since been redefined and my appreciation and love for it has grown tenfold - if that was even possible!


As we find ourselves once again in the height of Trinidad's band launch season, it's been fun to finally look back on this trip to Trinidad and attempt to answer the question on everyone's minds..."how was it?!?". After a two year hiatus due to the pandemic, it's safe to say that 2023's carnival was nothing short of pandemonium and was truly like nothing I have ever experienced. I can't wait to see what the 2024 season will bring but until then I am so happy to finally bring you guys along for 2023 in all of its glory.

 
Budgeting & Cost Analysis: I Done Book Meh Flight

The carnival season isn't cheap - hell, some people literally take out loans - but it's also what you make of it. There are a variety of ways to enjoy the season on a budget or, believe it or not, even for free. However, it's always important to manage your expectations and be conscious of what you're comfortable spending before diving head-first into the season.


When I started planning my trip, finding a ballpark figure online of how much to save was difficult. I was overwhelmed as many included expenses which I would not need to factor into my budget, such as the cost of accommodation. As a rule of thumb, prices in Port of Spain generally skyrocket during the season so preparation and timeliness is key. For the sake of transparency, I wanted to include a breakdown of my main costs during the season, consisting of my airfare, costume and party tickets.

Believe it or not, my total sum was on the lower end of the spectrum compared to other revellers. Thankfully, it did not feel as jarring in the moment as I paid for everything over the course of a few months. I was fortunately able to save in many areas and actually ended up not having to spend much while I was in Trinidad. For example, I stayed with family and friends, ate most meals at home (apart from the occasional drunken street food) and chose to do my own hair and makeup. Looking back, I would probably round the total figure up to $2,200 to also account for transportation, which was roughly $10 per event, and a very essential handle of Black Label rum that I bought in the airport's duty-free store.

 
Choosing the Band & Costume: Pretty Feathers in Disguise

Many important factors go into choosing a carnival band that best suits you, from costumes to DJ lineups and amenities. The band that I chose to play mas with in 2023 was solely based on whichever one my carnival group ultimately decided on. While they had all previously jumped with Harts, a band that many of our other friends were in, we all wanted to try something different and heard fantastic reviews for Bliss. Almost a year since that initial decision, we have absolutely no regrets.

Bliss is generally known for its 'chic' carnival experience, from luxurious goodie bags to premium bars and air-conditioned porta potties on the road. They may be bougie but they also get on bad bad bad. While I'll dive deeper into the road experience later in the post, I can safely say that I feel like I got my money's worth. From costume distribution to playing mas, my experience was immaculate and I'll definitely be jumping with them again in the future.


Their theme for 2023 was 'Wild', a selection of nine alluring costumes that sold out within ten days! For an idea of the timeline, their band launch occurred towards the end of July and orders went live on their website around the middle of August. My friends and I all opted for the Alacran Azul section designed by Gail Cabral, a gorgeous turquoise ensemble with eye-catching gold details and yellow and pink accents. As someone who is a bit more conservative when it comes to costumes, I chose the backline option which featured a classic bra, suspender bikini bottom, waistband, crown, neckpiece and wrist and leg pieces. On the morning of, I ended up using all parts of my costume except its wrist pieces and chose to wear my crown piece as a neckpiece instead.

 
The Lead Up & Prep: I've Been Patient...

Carnival prep starts months in advance and can at times feel extremely overwhelming. After I finalised my flight and costume, I felt like I had about twenty mental tabs open trying to keep on top of everything that I needed to get done. Time is extremely valuable and nobody wants to run frantic last-minute errands in Port of Spain's carnival week traffic.


The first item on my agenda was organising my Monday Wear as soon as possible. I luckily stumbled upon BeachPonySwim on Instagram, a Trinidadian swimwear brand that had a variety of pieces for the road. I fell in love with their plunging one-piece suit and customised it with one of their many options to choose from, a metallic grape and blue fabric. My payment was made in November and it was ready for pick up about two and a half weeks before Carnival Monday - more than enough time to make any adjustments just incase. Thankfully, this wasn't necessary! The piece fit like a glove and was so comfortable, secure and mesmerising on the road.

Next up on my to-do list was securing party tickets which was a breeze. My Trinidadian friend had an idea of what parties she wanted to attend and our entire carnival group happily followed suit buying tickets as soon as they were released online. This is definitely something that you want to be on top of - especially for popular parties, such as Soaka. If you have no clue of where to start, TriniJungleJuice usually releases an all-encompassing event calendar towards the end of the year.


Around the beginning of January, I started to arrange the bits and bobs that I actually needed for my trip and ordered everything as soon as possible so that it would arrive in time. With so much waste created during the season, I wanted to intentionally purchase items that I would use in the future. I also wanted to travel as lightly as possible - which was surprisingly easy since I was packing based on a set schedule. The only major purchase that I made was on a new pair of sneakers since my last pair were many years past their expiry date.


Here are some essentials that I brought on my trip and that I would 100% recommend!

The final portion of my prep was focused on being physically ready for the road. As someone who is embarrassingly unfit, this revolved around being able to keep up with everyone else and not drop down in the streets of Port of Spain from exhaustion. Leading up to carnival, I got into the routine of consistently doing some light cardio alongside the occasional ab exercise and yoga flow. All in all, I was shockingly okay apart from the inevitable soreness after Monday and Tuesday.

 
Carnival Weekend: Only Big Fete, With Big Flag

Arriving on the Thursday before Carnival, I was a bit late to all of the action but had three exciting events on my agenda and couldn't wait! While so many revellers hop straight off the jumbo jet into a nonstop schedule of parties, my group found a balance which worked out perfectly for us in the end.


My first day in Trinidad was spent doing my rounds visiting family members and finally reuniting with my friends and the greatest carnival group of all time, the Carni Girlies. Hailing from Trinidad, Barbados, Bolivia and the Netherlands, I met this amazing set of people when I lived in Montréal. Having a good carnival group is priceless and they were truly the best fetein' partners I could have ever asked for.


While they had attended a few fetes before my arrival, our first item on the agenda as a completed group was Machel Montano's Machel 40 One Show. Our main draw to this concert was Wizkid, an opportunity that we couldn't pass up. The night also promised international artistes, including Rema and Ayra Starr, and soca greats, such as Destra, Patrice Roberts, Skinny Fabulous, Voice, Nailah Blackman, Shal Marshall and more! The internet was also flooded with rumours that there would be surprise appearances from Nicki Minaj and Tems which, spoiler alert, were fake.

The gates were advertised to open at 6:00 p.m. so we planned to arrive relatively early at 7:30 p.m. Funnily enough, we were one of the first few people there and waited over an hour for the gates at the Diamond and Platinum entrance to open. During this time, a massive crowd started to gather and, in true Caribbean fashion, there was bare cussing. In retrospect, getting there early was worth it because we were one of the first people at the entrance within the stadium once the gates opened. We later saw videos of endless queues and even heard stories of people who weren't able to enter until after 11 p.m.


Once we finally got inside, they announced that the 9:00 p.m. showtime would be slightly postponed to allow for more people to enter the stadium. We embarked on a mission to get food, drinks and a prime position. One thing I will say is that I was so shocked at how chaotic the bar was and was in disbelief that we had to pay for disposable plastic cups...anyways. Despite all of the logistical nightmares, the night was a lot of fun and a great start to my weekend! The performances were all phenomenal and we secured a great spot near to the stage. Towards the end of the night when we felt a bit claustrophobic, we ventured into the bleachers before heading home.


Our turn-around time between One Show and Strut was insane but is also one of the wildest memories that I have of the weekend. We left Machel's concert around 3:30 am (he was still performing!) and headed home to hopefully get at least two hours of sleep in. Of course, that was far too ambitious of us. We got stuck in an impassable gridlock and ended up arriving home around 5:00 am. I immediately jumped in the shower and got ready for Strut before taking an hour-long nap in a plank position trying not to ruin my hair and makeup...lmao.

On our way to Strut, with a Emergen-C water in tow, I was exhausted and fighting for my life. That all changed, however, once I placed my right foot on the Harbour Master. The spirit of carnival possessed me. I don't even think I drank more than one mixed drink but the party was truly that phenomenal. After all, I do love a boat cruise. Many of my Jamaican friends were also there on board so it was amazing to share the experience with them and let go of all inhibitions when Hard Fete was pulled up for the tenth time.


We got home by midday and I consequently had one of the best sleeps of my life waking up revived later that evening. We were in the vicinity of the Blue Range cooler fete and were so close to pushing through but decided to try to sleep a bit before our early wake-up call for Soaka. I literally fell asleep to the sounds of Nailah and Bunji performing before stumbling out of bed around 4:00 a.m. to get ready for our next adventure.


We arrived to Soaka Street Festival around 5:00 am and literally stayed until the music locked off around 10:00 a.m. As a j'ouvert girlie, it was nice to have the experience of a paint party/wet fete in Trinidad since we didn't have any plans to attend j'ouvert on Monday morning. There was paint, powder, water and vibes in abundance alongside stellar performances by Kes and Nailah as the sun majestically appeared over the Savannah.

Soaka was the perfect finale to our weekend bender. We truly curated the perfect blend of parties, from boat cruises to concerts and paint parties, and next time I'll make sure to build up stamina to throw another one or two into the mix. When we got home after Soaka, it was so exciting but also kinda depressing knowing that the only thing left was carnival itself. How was the tabanca beginning already? Nevertheless, I went to bed that Sunday night like a kid on Christmas Eve eager to rip open their gifts under the tree...or in this case, get on stink and dutty.

 
Carnival Monday & Tuesday: Look Where We Reach Again

I'm the furthest thing from a morning person but the excitement of waking up on carnival morning hits different. When I opened my eyes on the morning of Carnival Monday, it was full steam ahead. This being my fifth carnival, I had gotten the hang of things and had my morning routine down to a T. I always make sure to give myself enough time to get ready and not feel rushed - in this case, I woke up around 5:00 a.m. on both mornings. By Tuesday morning, having done it the day before, getting ready was like a piece of cake. My routine usually goes: shower, hair, breakfast, makeup, sunscreen (don't forget under the stockings!) and costume.


After having a very necessary Carni Girlies photoshoot, we were off! On both days, I tried to travel as lightly as possible with my Jamaican flag in tow and the road essentials in my fanny pack. I packed most of the items that I listed above but also included some tissues and Panadol - which were a lifesaver. We met the band at its starting point on Alexandra Street around 10:40 a.m. and followed it right through to almost the very end until about 8:30 p.m. Holy shit, what a day!


When I look back on the two days, I can safely say that Monday was my favourite. I've heard many people say this and I truly believe that there's a more carefree energy in the air. Maybe it's because everyone is in their Monday Wear versus costumes but there's definitely a more casual vibe. The experience was truly indescribable.

On both Monday and Tuesday, the road experience was just so different than anything else I had ever experienced. The trucks were properly spaced out, drinks were flowing at the bars, the music was incredible and revellers were constantly chipping, jumping, flinging waist and everything in between. The only hiccup was the occasional standstill which is honestly inevitable. We actually ended up ditching the band early on Monday afternoon around 3:30 p.m. to get ahead of the lunch crowd which was the best decision ever.


Now, I have to take a second to talk about lunch because Bliss takes the cake. I was literally at the lunch stop on both days like a fish out of water. Where do I even begin? My meals were both so delicious and filling. There were so many incredible options, from Trinidadian fare to Indian, Chinese and vegetarian, and countless sweet treats, including Cinnabon and Häagen-Dazs - although, I was not ramping with my belly. It was truly such a comfortable environment, on the grounds of the Queen's Park Oval, with tons of space to relax in and, as usual, the amenities were off the charts. By Tuesday, I was literally racing to lunch.


All in all, Monday was phenomenal. I have had carnival experiences where I am almost counting down the minutes towards the end of the day but I truly enjoyed every minute of it. I felt such a strong sense of joy and unity and felt so lucky that I was able to go to bed that night and do it all over again in the morning.


That night, I didn't know what to expect going to bed. I was honestly worried as my body is usually a write-off after only one day of carnival back home. Nevertheless, I had no other option but to push through - regardless of the outcome. Maybe it was a carnival miracle but I woke up on Tuesday morning with only minimal pain! It was as if my body ignored any discomfort and simply did what it needed to do.

Let me tell you, Carnival Tuesday is the real deal! Sure, you go crazy on Monday because you're so thrilled to finally be on the road but Tuesday is the final hurrah - the last chance to give it your all. It is also the epitome of pretty mas when everyone is fully adorned in their costumes! A true spectacle. They call it the greatest show on earth for a reason!


We met with the band a bit earlier on Tuesday, around 9:30 a.m. and had a full day of feteing ahead of us eventually heading home some time after 10:00 p.m! The day started off on a slightly different note than Monday as we spent a good chunk of time, about two hours, at the Socadrome waiting to cross the stage. However, the highlight of my day was definitely heading back onto the road after lunchtime. By this time, most feathers were ditched and everyone began to slowly fling off pieces of their costumes.


As the sun set over Port of Spain, that's when the streets truly came to life. It was the last chance to put it all out there and to let go of any inhibitions. It all became so real. The songs' lyrics started to sound louder and carried a different meaning. When Machel said "I will never miss a next carnival again", I felt that to my core. I honestly started to get emotional at points and had to take several moments to soak it all in.


Before I could blink, we were at the end of our route at Nelson Mandela Park practically sprinting towards Last Lap. Last Lap is essentially an after party where Tribe and its bands, including Bliss, Harts, Lost Tribe, Pure and Rogue meet and join forces to give the season the send off it deserves. We were able to meet up with friends from other bands and finish off any liquor left in the carts like our lives depended on it. It was truly the perfect way to tie everything together and I was so grateful to have a final chance to hold onto carnival even for just a few hours longer.

 
Reflections: Long Live Soca

With so many parties and experiences to choose from, there's honestly no wrong way to 'do' carnival. As someone who can be very critical at times, I genuinely can't find any faults - apart from the fact that it ended. I look back with pure admiration and the few things that I would do differently are purely logistical preferences. For example, next time I'll definitely book the direct flight available from Jamaica and will also make sure to plan a longer stay.


Personally, seven days weren't enough. I have visited Trinidad almost every summer of my life since I was born but the island has a special energy during the carnival season. While I had a blast and used all of my time wisely, it felt hard to catch my breath at times. I didn't give myself enough time to fully experience it in all of its glory and I would have loved even an extra day to have been able to visit a panyard or spend more time with my family. Nevertheless, everything was perfect and I couldn't have asked for a better experience.

Even while writing this post and reflecting on my time months later, I still have to pinch myself. It was almost hard to look back on my time and formulate it into words because I miss that feeling so much. It was truly an out-of-body experience, one that I am so grateful for. I have been diagnosed with an irreparable case of tabanca ever since and it won't be cured anytime soon since I will be missing out on the 2024 season.


Trinidad is the mecca of carnival and they do it the best without a doubt. Finally experiencing it for myself has completely redefined my love and appreciation for it and I know it won't be long till I come back home.





 

Hello hello! While you're here, make sure to also watch my Trinidad Carnival 2023 vlog out now on my YouTube channel!


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