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Celebrating Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo credit- Hayden Greene)

Located 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) off the Venezuelan coast and the southernmost island country in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is a melting pot of African, Indian and other cultures, with its Carnival celebration one of the annual highlights.

Approximately 55.2% of the population identifies as Christian, and Roman Catholic is the most significant denomination at 21.6%. Therefore, Carnival, celebrated with such fervor, occurs on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

People turn out in colorful costumes that can take months to prepare.

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)

Those costumes go back to the late 18th century when French landowners would organize masquerades (known today as the “Mas” tradition) and parties in the days before the Lenten fast.

People turn out in colorful costumes that can take months to prepare.

While forbidden to take part in Carnival, enslaved people would have their celebration called “Canboulay,” derived from the French phrase “cannes broulés,” i.e., “burnt cane.”

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)

The Monday morning before Lent brings “J’ouvert,” i.e., “daybreak” in French, where partygoers walk the streets in homemade, sometimes funny costumes. Many people doused in powder, mud or oil dance to calypso music.

More formal costumes arrive, including elaborate ones like butterflies or large animals, once the afternoon and evening come.

Some costumes are so broad that the wearers need wheels to stabilize them.

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)

As the people stride by, you cannot help but wonder how long they took to put those costumes together. Wings do not just span feet but meters. Exquisitely decorated elephants sport incredibly intricate designs. These dresses would feel at home at the Met Gala in New York, U.S.A.

How long were they hunched over a sewing machine? How many needles punctured fingers as they hand-sewed their costumes?

Some costumes are so broad that the wearers need wheels to stabilize them.

Pulsating through the air is the rhythm of Calypso and Soca music, the tunes causing the people to sway with the beat. A listener might wonder about the history behind that music. Did it originate from the enslaved people, or is it an offshoot of a more formal European sound? Was it passed down from generation to generation by simple repetition until someone finally thought to write down the notes? Did some Millennials develop a piece that makes all ages nod their heads to the chords?

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)

As you walk among the revelers, do not be surprised to hear snippets of Trinidadian Creole or Trinidadian Hindustani, along with Spanish, Tamil and Chinese.

While Christians constitute most of the population, other major religions have a sizeable footprint. The Indian holy day of Diwali is also an official government holiday, and the country’s largest ethnic group is of Indian descent (approximately 35.4%), the result of indentured workers from India brought to replace freed African enslaved people who did not want to keep working on the sugar plantations.

Pulsating through the air is the rhythm of Calypso and Soca music, the tunes causing the people to sway with the beat.

When Diwali comes around, the Divali Nagar (“City of Divali”) in the Trinidadian borough of Chaguanas lights up in celebration, making it the major Indian cultural event in the country and possibly the biggest one in the wider Caribbean and North America.

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)

According to World Bank figures, the oil and gas industry has helped Trinidad and Tobago become the most developed Caribbean nation, with a per capita income of US$20,070.

Workers spend wages on local cuisines, like callaloo, a side dish brimming with dasheen or taro leaves, okra, some crab and pumpkin, pimento, coconut milk, onions and chives or cilantro.

Hungry revelers can also chow down on Pelau, a rice-based delicacy or stewed chicken. Other possibilities include macaroni pie, breadfruit oil down or dhal with rice.

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)

Curried ducks that include either roti or rice are another local favorite. Additionally, one can find Indo-Trinidadian street foods like aloo pie (a pastry filled with seasoned mashed potatoes and then fried that looks like an oversized samosa), doubles (flat fried dough filled with curried chickpeas along with pho lourie (fried, spiced split pea and flour dough balls served with chutney), among others.

A visit to Trinidad and Tobago during Carnival is a feast for the eyes, ears and mouth and will leave a lifetime of memories.

Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
Carnival in Trinidad (Photo by Hayden Greene)
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