How do I begin to tell this incredible tale? Normally I write linearly and tell the story, start to finish, with reflections along the way but I feel I’ve already done that in my personal journal and I just hate to repeat myself. So I’m tempted to describe the last 3 weeks to you in sections; setting the stage, introducing the major players, discussing what life is like for performers, Tobago, Carnaval weekend (a long story in itself), adventures around the island, and the world Trinidad reverts back to once the glitter gets washed away and the feathers are hung up in the closet, likely never to see the scorching Caribbean sun again. It’s a long one so turn up the heat, mix yourself a fruity rum cocktail, and settle in for a wild ride.
How it All Began
“Why Trinidad and Tobago?” was a very common question among the islanders, especially since we arrived 2 weeks before the Carnaval festivities began and stayed a week after. I’d been hearing about the traditional African stilt walkers (called Moko Jumbies, meaning god-like creatures who watch over their villages because they are believed to be able to foresee danger and evil due to their height) on the islands for years and I longed to study with them and experience another side of stilt walking. My best friend Claire, who helped teach me to stilt over 8 years ago, and I had been wanting to travel together forever and were desperate to escape the cold, wet, Cali winter. The decision wasn’t hard to make. We started putting feelers out and within days we contacted and were contacted by tons of people on Facebook and Couch Surfing with offers and suggestions (social networks can really be amazing tools!).
A gorgeous, incredibly powerful Trini woman named Rian (ree-ann) turned out to be one of our most beloved and significant contacts. She approached us online and said she had recently started working with the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture and could connect us with a man named Dragon who would likely love to involve us in his Carnaval group. She and a sweet man named Perkins were the main liaisons between us and Dragon, who turned out to be pretty difficult to reach and coordinate with. They gave us the group’s theme for the year (Sexy Circus-perfect!) and we got started designing and sewing our own costumes. Perkins and Rian also picked us up from the airport and came out limin’ (Trini for hanging out, partying, or really doing anything at all in good company) with us a few times.
Our circus performer hosts Mike and Jody found us on couch surfing (I had put out a general announcement that we were stilt walkers coming for Carnaval so they found us on the site) and offered us a place to stay in their very centrally located dance studio in exchange for some skill shares. Turned out that the day before our arrival their landlord had offered them the use of a little apartment behind the dance studio so Mike cleaned it up for us and we ended up having our own private space for the entire trip…for free! Not to mention they were the sweetest most generous couple we have ever met. We cooked together at their house around the corner from our apartment behind the dance studio, Mike was our bodyguard and took us on lots of adventures around the island (Jody is in fashion school so she is pretty busy lately), and they were such good sports when we fed them rum and dragged them out to lime with us way more than they usually would. We also developed a really awesome yoga practice with them in which Claire led part of her Bikram sequence and I led my pre-performance warmup. We also did pole, partner acro and taught them how to stilt! We felt like part of the family and spent a lot of time with Mama Joan (Jody’s mother who lives above her) and Nalini (Jody’s badass sister who books and coordinates all the events they perform at, teaches art, and is an amazing dancer herself) and many other members of the family.
Louise is a tiny, wildly fun German girl who somehow ended up living in Trinidad with her 11-year-old daughter and performing aerial with Nalini’s group N9 Dance Company. We played together on silks the first day and had a great time exchanging tricks and different approaches. She performed a lot while we were there but somehow always had tons of energy to come out and lime with her very sweet Trini partner Gary (who is a fabulous salsa dancer!).
On the second part of our flight we met a wild bohemian Rasta man who called himself Rabbi and was apparently a master drummer (though we never saw him drum) and claimed to know Dragon (who later seemed to have no idea who he was). It seemed like a crazy synchronicity at the time. We had a great conversation with him on the plane and he promised to introduce us to the best musicians and steel pan players on the island but things were not as they appeared.
On the extremely nauseating ferry ride from Trini to Tobago we were very fortunate to meet Darryl and get invited down to the breezy front of the boat and away from the cold vomit-tinged air of the main floor. He and his co-worker Ahday gave us their cots to lie down on and brought us water and talked us through the bumpy 3 hour ride. When we got off the boat they put us in their friend Francois’ truck (they called him their caddy but he turned out to be chief of the boat) and asked him to take us to Crown Point (one of the most popular tourist beach areas on the island). He ended up driving us around and negotiating a good cheap place to stay (while we waited in the car because as soon as people saw our white asses the price would go up) and spending his whole day off limin’ on the beach with us). Although he still held some pretty misogynistic views (he’s never changed his 6 month old’s diaper and believed a man’s role was at work and a woman’s in the house with the kids) he was very open minded and willing to share and think about things from other perspectives and we had some great conversations about island life.
We met Seitu (who recently returned from studying abroad) and Raquel (also a returnee and amazing singer and zumba teacher) and her French boyfriend and a couple of his visiting friends on the beach in Tobago. It was so refreshing to talk to them after being bombarded with offers of all sorts by the local boys there (more on that later). We ended up spending a lot of time exploring Trinidad and limin with them and Seitu’s sweet photographer cousin Kieron.
A Brief History
I didn’t fully understand the complexity of the history of the island and it’s current significance until I was experiencing it firsthand; eating tons of Indian and Jamaican food, meeting people whose physical appearance and life stories drew from Africa, India, South America, and Europe, and listening to the incredible sounds of music that was influenced by all of these far off places as well. Mike gave me a brief rundown on the first day and I’ll share it with you now. Basically Spain was the first world power to colonize the island of Trinidad but they had so many colonies that they didn’t manage to do much more with it than wipe out the native peoples, as they were known to be disgustingly good at. For a long time the island was mostly unpopulated. Spain invited the French in to grow sugarcane, but of course they didn’t want to do it on their own so with them they dragged tons of African slaves. Eventually the slaves were emancipated and many of the French left once their free labor evaporated. I think around the same time Britain decided it wanted in. The British brought with them Indian indentured servants and it sounds like they were basically slaves for a long time as well before they were freed from their contracts. Each of these cultures contributed language, food, and traditions that make up the beautifully eclectic tapestry of the island’s culture today.
We were initially pretty surprised to learn that Mike (who is from Guadalajara, Mexico and met Jody while traveling to Trini) survived primarily on performing and teaching Chinese pole, fire spinning, and acrobatics. Jody and Nalini seem to be doing pretty well for themselves too and we got some great insight into their lives. They have done an incredible job of carving out a niche for circus and bellydance on the island; Nalini is an excellent negotiator. They seem to have work year round but it definitely helps that there is a defined yearly season during which lots of musicians are trying to outdo each other and put on the most amazing show possible in hopes of winning the various Carnaval competitions. Depending on when Fat Tuesday falls there is usually a 2-3 month stretch after Christmas that is teeming with Fetes (large, rather expensive one-night music festivals), competitions, street parties, and parades. This year the Carnaval season was short but they were still extremely busy! The cool thing is that during Carnaval tons of money gets thrown around and there are lots of corporate sponsors and big name artists involved who are willing to pay dancers and performers quite well to be onstage with them. Granted, just like in the states, lots of things come together last minute and are pretty disorganized, but the fact that artists can make a reasonable living doing their art was so inspiring to us!
By the second week, Claire was yearning for more beach time (a day trip to Maracas was nice, but not enough) and while she was feeling better after catching an icky cold for the first few days, I was back on my ass with the cold-that-will-not-die. We had just undergone a strange ordeal with Rabbi in which we ended up paying for everything when he and friends took us out to Macqueripe Bay for a sunset swim (including his ganja after he asked me for cash and told me he was going to buy rum for everyone). They talked our ears off about themselves and didn’t listen well at all, and we ended up finding our own way home in a van full of Trini’s from the outskirt town of San Juan (which they pronounced Sawa). We laughed all the way home with them because it took 5 minutes to understand each word they said. Rabbi and friends were upset we’d left and offered to hook us up with last minute ferry tickets to Tobago, but then wanted us to pick them up early in the morning and said they didn’t have cash and that we’d have to pay. We declined the offer and we never got the money back but $40 wasn’t a terrible price to pay to be rid of someone’s energy-sucking ways. You live and learn. Anyway we got our own tickets to Tobago on our own schedule and were fortunate to meet Daryl and Ahday and Francois on the journey, which helped to restore our faith in people again.
After our day on the beach with Francois we washed up and walked the 15 minutes back to the main stretch to find food (interestingly Arabian food was in abundance) and check out the nightlife. It was early but we wanted a drink so we ended up at one of the nightclub/bars with no other women in sight. We were immediately bombarded by a bunch of guys (many of whom had tried to get us to go on their boats or jet skis earlier that day) vying for our attention. We moved from the bar to the table and still they took turns inviting themselves over and even rudely pushing each other out of the chairs to talk to us. It was hard to understand how they all lived together in such a small little town when they exhibited this behavior. We ended up drinking more than we wanted, dancing less, and making our escape pretty early because it quickly got overwhelming. It reminded me of small beach towns in Brazil where men were quick to put words in your mouth, make you feel “not normal” for rejecting their advances, and manipulate you into feeling like you were the only one who had ever broken their poor tender little hearts.
I was still feeling pretty sick, and a little hungover on top of it, so we opted out of doing any expensive tourist things and instead spent the whole day on the beach at Store Bay (pronounced “Stobey”), deflecting the advances of the aforemetnioned guys the best we could. At least we got a free umbrella and chair out of it. It was a relief to meet Seitu and Raquel and the crew and have some real conversations that involved more than “your eyes are so beautiful” and “are you a model?” We learned from Seitu and crew that there are two main explanations behind the local mens’ behavior, especially as compared to the rather hands-off manner of the men in Trini (at least outside of Carnaval). 1) Tobago caters much more to tourism and a lot of these guys are trying to get your money in addition to your attention…often using one to aid in the acquisition of the other. 2) Many older European women do come here for a kind of sexual tourism and a lot of these men are looking for Suga Mamas who will reward their attention with a fancy new car or boat or house. It didn’t make it any more pleasant to deal with constantly but having some context made it easier to understand and dismiss. We met up with an awesome girl named Vanessa from Couchsurfing and Seitu’s crew later that night for Karaoke, where Claire and Raquel stole the show with a beautiful duet.
We were ready to go back to Trinidad by the next morning (we were hoping Nalini could get us in free to the Tribe Fete they were performing at and we also had a rehearsal for the Soca Monarch competition we’d been asked to stilt for) but were able to get in some good beach time at the quieter Pigeon Point first. By now we had noted a significant lack of public violence (at least in the more densely populated areas we had been to) and a very hands off approach from the cops on both islands, especially compared to the horrific state of things in the US right now. We did witness a marijuana bust on the beach (we heard the police often crack down right before Carnaval) but even so the cops seemed mellow and rational from afar. It definitely seems to help that People of Color are the majority there, and most of the cops are also dark skinned, so racial tensions are, at least on the surface, much less obvious than they are back home. We would later learn that there definitely are still issues, and the amount of money you make is often directly correlated with the amount of melanin in your skin, but at least the violence and brutality doesn’t compare. It was also such an eye-opening experience to be overwhelmingly the minority everywhere we went, and to be treated differently because of it. It wasn’t fun getting charged more for everything, but I think it’s so good for any privileged group, white americans especially, to directly experience discrepancies and disadvantages based on nothing but our skin color, accents, and our obvious foreigner status.
The Carnaval Festivities
Luckily the ride back from Tobago was way smoother and Darryl offered to pick us up from the ferry station and get us to our rehearsal. Things were rather disorganized because the artist who was hiring us, Peter Ram from Barbados, had learned very last minute that he was competing and everyone was scrambling to get his show together. We ended up just talking about our plan, which involved telling the story of the history and culture of Trinidad through dance and costuming. Nalini had managed to pull together a diverse group of beautiful woman (we represented the British) who’s appearances and talents represented the array of worldly influences found on the island.
As it turned out they couldn’t get us into the show that night but we decided to use the money we’d earned from the Soca Monarch gig to go experience a big fete anyway. People were dressed to the nines and everyone looked amazing. The energy was fun and Mike and Louise did an amazing job with their fire and aerial pieces. Unfortunately the all inclusive fete managed to run out of rum, but Jody and Mike snuck us backstage where it was still flowing and there was more room to dance. We got to see Omi sing his cheerleader song from the sidelines (though apparently he was lip syncing because he’d pushed his voice too hard-oops!) and shortly afterwards Machel Montano, the reigning king of Soca, took the stage. The energy was super high and his dancers (including Shakir who we had met rehearsing in the dance studio) were incredible. I was getting down super hard on the sidelines and about half way through the show one of his female dancers (Amanda) approached me and said she’d been enjoying watching me from the stage! I was so honored and we exchanged info-turns out she lives in LA and comes down here all the time! Amanda came to our going away party and we danced all night! We left a little early (meaning 4 am) because Jody wanted to take us to the Canebrûlée performance, which is a traditional early morning reenactment of slave history that tells the story of their struggles working in the sugar cane. It was already so packed we couldn’t see much but it was amazing to get a glimpse and to see so many people out at that hour. What a fun and fortuitous night! And so the festivities began…
The next morning Rian picked us up and took us just outside the city to Cocorite to visit the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture and finally connect with Dragon. He wasn’t there when we arrived but we met Dandy, who we would come to refer to as Papa Jumbie because he was always taking care of everyone, and got tall with the two young girls he was teaching to stilt. Their stilts were all wood and so tall and heavy we couldn’t believe it! Dragon showed up just before we had to leave and we didn’t get much more info about the carnaval plan but at least we got a little face time. We rushed back and started costuming and getting ready for Soca Monarch.
The event was set up in a rather strange way with a bunch of dressing room tents in a back backstage area. We heard that because it’s a competition they don’t want to allow competitors near the stage while other people are performing so there’s all this controlled and confusing ushering in and out of everyone and their entourage. When we were trying to find somewhere to get tall we walked around a corner and ran into our friend Ezra from Oakland who used to study in Trini and had kept his trip a surprise! What a small world!
We made a bit of a scene backstage on our stilts all in white and our performance was super short but it was so fun to be on that huge stage with our friends. A man named Junior approached us just before we went on and offered to be our handlers and help us navigate the dark backstage area. We later discovered he runs another Moko Jumbie school in San Fernando and seems to have a lot of international connections and a pretty organized group. We had a great time talking with him and his crew after the show and we definitely want to connect with them more next time.
After we got down we managed to sneak backstage with Louise who was performing on silks with “The Voice” who ended up winning the competition with his song “Cheers to Life” (which we had been hearing on the radio everywhere constantly). Afterwards we dragged ourselves to bed, already completely exhausted and Carnaval hadn’t even really begun!
Luckily we had a little down time Saturday and got to sleep in and take it easy before making dinner for Jody and Mike. That night we walked to the Savannah to watch the Panorama competition with Seitu and meet his cousin Kieron. We had a great time just sitting outside where the bands enter the grandstand and listening to them practice before going in. A girl approached us and somehow knew my name and it turned out she’s a stilter from New Orleans who knows my friend Ginger and was down there helping Dragon with Carnaval costumes. Small world again! Unfortunately she had to leave before Tuesday’s festivities so we didn’t get to stilt with her but we definitely hope to connect now that we are back in the states.
Sunday we escaped the hot city and went back to Maracas with Jody and Mike. We did acro on the beach and I brought out my hula hoop for the first time in forever. We met a great couple who we have kept in touch with, Dexter and Ayo as well as a really awesome local family. We had a great time playing with the kids and fooling around with partner acro.
Kieron joined us later and we met up briefly with Claire’s friends Tai, Stephen, Melissa, and Sue who were also visiting from Oakland. We headed to bed early in hopes of getting a little sleep before Jouvert morning.
Jouvert is a ridiculous street party that starts at 3am and involves people covering each other in everything from brightly colored paint to clay to cocoa paste. Just as my friend Melissa told me, there’s something really magical about getting totally disgusting and dancing super hard under the cover of darkness and then having the sun come up and still not caring what you look like. It’s a really beautiful contrast to the immaculate costumes and pristine bodies that glitter the streets during the “Pretty Mas” parades the following days. We didn’t go out until about 5 am and we didn’t join a specific group and instead rounded up an awesome group of friends and bounced around among all the groups so we got covered in a bit of everything. It was a truly ecstatic feeling. We ended the adventure with a couple rounds of doubles (spicy chana, or chickpeas, in a light fluffy crepe-like wrap that I’m dying to make at home) and went down for a nap before more madness.
We still didn’t have any info from Dragon about stilting with a band so we decided to rest during the heat of the day and venture out on our own on stilts later to see what was going on.
Monday is sort of a rehearsal day and lots of the bands just wear t-shirts…monokinis also seem to be very popular for that day. Kieron and Seitu accompanied us and took a bunch of awesome photos and we walked around, checked out different groups, and took a lot of photos with people for a couple hours. The heat was still intense so that was enough to wear us out.
We were still waiting on info from the Moko Jumbies and made a backup plan with another group that Rian connected us with. I’m sure it would have been fun but they didn’t have any other stilt walkers and that’s the main reason we wanted to come to Trinidad in the first place. We went to bed a little disappointed but planning to meet them around 10AM.
At 7AM we were woken up by a call from Dragon saying we needed to meet the band halfway across the city at 8AM and pay 500TT, almost $100 U.S., to stilt with the Showtime Band (in Trini a Carnaval “band” usually consists of one or more trucks with sound systems and a big block of dancers in several tiers of costumes). It was more than we were expecting, especially for only one day and given the fact that we had made our own costumes, but this was what we had been hoping to be a part of. There was no way we were going to make it in time but we decided to go for it and we got ready as fast as we could (putting on a beaded thong over fishnets is no small task, ok!?!). We dragged our stilts around for about 1/2 hour trying to communicate by phone with a guy named Jason who was trying to help us find the band, which had already started moving. We got tall so he could find us easier and finally made the connection but were still quite far from the band. We ended up hitchhiking and getting a ride around the parade so we could catch up, and somehow we still ended up being the first Moko Jumbies to arrive! Dandy and the crew finally caught up and we were so happy it included three badass tall ladies.
Almost everyone was 2 or 3 feet taller than us—I’ve never felt so small on stilts! Some of the guys were absolutely fearless and would go hopping and skipping through crowds and jumping off ledges—it was such an honor to be up there with them and they were impressed to see professional level stilters from the US who could make it through the whole parade!
We hadn’t really eaten much at all but we found some peanuts and rum definitely helped.
It was interesting because we kept getting stopped because people wanted to take photos with us…that didn’t happen as much with the other stilters and we couldn’t figure out if it was because we looked foreign, they liked our costumes, or if we were just more accessible because our stilts were shorter…perhaps a combination? It took about 5 hours of walking and dancing past judging stands before we made it back to the Savannah, and then the waiting began. I was surprised that, unlike other Carnavals I had experienced, this was much less about choreographed group dances (in fact we saw almost none of that) and much more about the costumes and the party. While I love the dancing, this was also appealing because without the time commitment of rehearsals the event is much easier to participate in…though it’s still quite expensive. It turned out a guy named Vladamir from New York who I had met at the Tribe Fete was also playing Mas with Showtime so it was fun to meet his crew.
The other problem with being a different height than almost everyone around was that we couldn’t really dance with anyone but each other! Each band takes its turn “crossing de stage” which is the most televised and celebrated judging point. Dragon suddenly appeared and there was much shuffling and reorganizing as we positioned ourselves for the big moment.
About halfway across one of the tallest and most daring stilters slipped and took a pretty hard fall, almost wiping me out on the way down. People jumped in right away to get him back on his feet but what they didn’t realize was that the small piece of rubber they use for traction on the bottom of the stilts had come off one of his. As soon as he was up he was back down again, and again. I noticed and pointed out the missing piece but the poor guy had already taken 3 hard falls. I’ll never forget the look of defeat written all over his body as they pulled his stilts off and helped him off the stage. I heard afterwards that he was ok (Dandy said they are used to those types of falls-yikes!) but man what unfortunate timing. We all did our best to keep the energy high and make up for it. At least at that point we were just happy to be done! We got down and nursed our blisters and Mike met up with us and helped get us home.
Mama Joan and Jody fed and revived us a little and we finally got to take our costumes off (to reveal a pretty crazy fishnet tan!) and lie down. Stephen and Tai came by with friends and Claire hung out with them in the studio while I failed at napping (as usual). Somehow we mustered the energy to go back out and it was fun to be on the same level as everyone. Things were wrapping up but a few trucks were still playing music. It didn’t last long before the cops started patrolling heavily and shutting things down…Carnaval was officially over and the city was starting to revert back to it’s facade of good Christian morals.
Back to “Normal”
We spent the next couple days recovering, nursing our ridiculous blisters, eating everything in sight, and trying but failing to get to the beach (everyone goes to Maracas Beach right after Carnaval so getting there without a car is nearly impossible). Once we regained strength we got back into our daily yoga and gave Mike and Jody a couple stilt lessons. They did so well and were walking and winin’ (Trini style dance) within no time! We also played around with partner acro and pole tricks—such a fun exchange!
Seitu came to the rescue with a car and took us and to the gorgeous and peaceful Hindu Temple on the Water.
A few days later he took us for an adventure with Mike and Kieron to the stunning 3 pools waterfall, a quiet beach past Maracas, and the point above Las Cuevas for sunset. It was awesome to experience different parts of the island and replenish amidst the natural tropical beauty!
It took us a couple weeks of delving in and asking lots of questions of everyone we met to start to piece together an explanation of what we were experiencing culturally during our time there. At first it sounded like Carnaval was just this crazy cathartic experience for a very repressed society; a time when people (especially women) can let it all hang out and just celebrate life before they give it all up for lent and go back to church the next morning to pay for their sins figuratively and literally (many people take out loans for Carnaval season). And to some extent it is just that…but this explanation did not leave a lot of room for all of the incredible, talented, empowered, and autonomous people we had become close with. It seems that perhaps, similar to what I experienced in Chile, much of the younger generation is starting to slowly but surely push the boundaries of the conservative norms. Unfortunately the economic situation is challenging, and it’s not easy to make enough money to afford to take care of your basic needs and also live on your own. This leaves many 20-30 somethings continuing to reside with their parents and therefore at least appearing to live by their rules. A friend described it like this; “there are two things which dictate behavior in this country. Religion and fear of being judged publicly (especially by self righteous people). Even some of the most “esteemed persons” have their dirty ways once the “camera stops rolling.” It can affect career opportunities among other things. It’s a small country and because of that it’s easy to blacklist yourself without even knowing. I myself have become more reserved in some ways.”
I came to see Trinidad as a multi-tiered cake; each time I sunk my teeth in for another bite I discovered a new layer of flavor, a new perspective on what makes people tick, and gained a new appreciation for the richness and complexity of its culture and history. We were so sad to leave its warm embrace! We are already scheming about how to go back to this amazing island next year (and every year?!?) for a few months before Carnaval to train, teach, exchange, perform and sink in even deeper.