One doesn’t have to look very far to find Carnival in Port of Spain, the capital of the dual-island state of Trinidad and Tobago — it will find you. That became clear when my taxi took a right turn toward the city center, and smack into what might be the most entertaining traffic jam I’ve ever experienced.
Within seconds, hundreds of revelers, many of them wearing sparkling bikinis, elaborate feather headdresses — and little else — had engulfed our car, streaming down the street in the opposite direction. One woman in a sequined, beige one-piece flashed a cheeky smile and began “wining” with our front bumper. (That’s a dance that typically involves a woman and man standing back-to-front and “winding” their hips against one another.)
To my left a shirtless young man was grinding up against my window, while a woman behind him smacked his rear end. I was sharing the cab with three Londoners I’d met at the airport, and the woman among them burst out laughing: “I brought way too many clothes.”
Trinidad’s Carnival is second in reputation only to Brazil’s for both beauty and debauchery. The massive, joyous street party I’d experienced upon arrival, I soon found out, was actually an off night. The real action would begin the next day, with serious celebrants in serious costumes hitting the street as early as 8 a.m. and dancing until dawn on Ash Wednesday.
“You can’t come to Trinidad and not play mas!” said Linda Wells, a Trinidad-born nurse living in Brooklyn who’s been coming back to her home country every year for 20 years to celebrate. She was using the nickname for “masquerade,” a tradition that dates back to 18th century balls that French plantation owners used to throw (and their slaves mimicked) to let loose before the asceticism of Lent.
Ms. Wells is 56 but looks about 30 years younger, with a long blonde braid springing from the top of her head and the rest of her hair shaved off underneath. I had run into her and her girlfriends — an accountant, a bank manager, a former publicist — getting ready near Queen’s Park Savannah, where “bands,” or costumed groups, go to compete for prizes. (A shocking number of Carnival-goers I met were Trinis from New York City.)
The custom-designed dress Ms. Wells was to wear, she showed me, was flesh colored, with an intricate pattern of green sequins and a train of green feathers, and would have put everyone at the Oscars to shame. She’d be adding a “backpack” of flowing green and blue fabric, splayed out to look like a peacock’s tail that was so heavy it required the help of two young men to get it on. Then she would dance all day in it.
“I’m with the K2K band. You have to follow us. We’re going to be fabulous!” she said, and sent me down to the park under the protection of her husband, Earl Wells, a field surveyor who was wearing an antlered headdress, face paint and head-to-toe tie-dye. Soon I was in the midst of several hundred people twirling around in elaborate fabric wings, or getting down to soca music with sparkling suns on sticks attached to their backs that shot up 20 feet in the air.
Karen and Kathy Norman, Trinidad-born twin sisters living in New Jersey, designed all of the band’s costumes, and to join, all Ms. Wells had to do was sign up and pay for her costume in advance. This was her second year with K2K and she was sure she’d be back. “They’re so different. In Trinidad, you mostly see people in two-piece bikinis. But K2K, it’s about the fashion. You don’t see anyone wearing anything like that. I like the elegance, and you’re covered up! We’re old. We need it!”
Technically, Trinidad had not been on the original itinerary of the yearlong, worldwide trip I’m on for The Times, visiting each place on the 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. In an effort to convey to readers that the Caribbean, large swaths of which had been hit by two hurricanes last year, shouldn’t be avoided as a travel destination, my editors had put the entire region at No. 4. Working with data scientists from Kayak, the online booking site, we crafted an itinerary that would take me to two islands that hadn’t been affected by the hurricanes (Trinidad and St. Lucia) and one that very much had (Puerto Rico, which I’ll be writing about next week).
That lineup scratched a few itches: the desire to experience Carnival; to island hop (to me, another defining Caribbean experience); and to go somewhere that had sustained damage and see for myself what being “back open for business” really looked like. What would it mean to be a responsible visitor to such a place, and how could I both encourage tourism while accurately conveying the situation?
What followed was a visit to the Caribbean at a breakneck pace that I would advise no sane person to mimic. For complicated logistical and cost-related reasons that made sense at the time, I’d mapped out a plan with Kayak to go to St. Lucia, then to Trinidad and back, then off to San Juan — all in four days.
Traveling to Trinidad during Carnival turns out to be stressful even when you’re not on a 24-hour, please-don’t-try-this-at-home marathon. The Brits I shared my taxi with showed up only to find out that their hotel had given away their reservation (common, apparently), so they came to my place, President’s Inn, where we all encountered the surprise that the front desk only took cash. (For me, that meant a trip to an A.T.M. on a dark and isolated street. Our heroic taxi driver refused to let me go alone.) Still, as simple as our hotel was, it was in an ideal location close to the action. Just three blocks away, I found a calypso show called Pandemonium in a dirt lot and featuring incredible steel-pan players from as far away as Paris.
I had good luck finding that show, and the K2K band, while walking around, but nearly everyone I ran into seemed horrified to see me on my own. When I strayed from the show to look for something to eat, a young man raced up behind me. His name was Kadeem and he wanted to warn me that I had just narrowly escaped a robber who had been casing me, and who was blocking my way back to the show. “Be careful of that guy. He’s not a nice guy,” he said. “He won’t bother you, but he looked like he wanted to get someone at the corner.”
Later, back at the show, I befriended a female pan player named Lenitia Solomon who happened to be a police officer in another part of town. “Trinidad is not safe, especially around Carnival. A lot of phone snatchers. Believe me, I’ve seen it all. Be aware of who’s around you,” she said, before telling me the story of a Japanese pan-player friend of hers who had been murdered at last year’s Carnival. She insisted on taking me back to my hotel with a male friend who had come to walk her back to the show. Despite such warnings, Trinidad was vibrant and colorful and edgy, and I loved every minute of it.
But I also wouldn’t trade the serenity of the brief time I got to spend in St. Lucia. A volcanic island known for its twin mountains, the Pitons, it has a kind of rugged charm one doesn’t normally associate with Caribbean luxury. (It’s also the only island I got to spend any time on during my one previous visit to the Caribbean, on a friend’s sailing trip more than 10 years ago, and has always held special memories for me.) The hurricanes largely skipped the island, though Judith Verity, who owns the Mango Beach Inn, where I stayed, kept mentioning how much more beautiful her incredibly beautiful garden had been before the storm. “We are blessed people. God loves us,” said my taxi driver, Barry Augustin, of why the jungle paradise where he’s lived his whole life had been spared. “In St. Lucia, the economy is already so hard, so God protects his children.”
While I missed most of St. Lucia’s best attractions — a hike up the Pitons, the sulfur hot springs — I did get to experience some of its lush beauty. There are banana plantations everywhere. On the side of the busy Micaud highway, Mr. Augustin pulled over at a family-run roadside stand he calls the Creole Bread Place (real name: Golden Palace) that he claims makes the best baked goods on the island. A gray-bearded man named Mango was pulling spiral loaves out of a wood-fired oven with a wooden paddle, while Seco, his daughter, split them open and filled them with curried, shredded fish, and his son, Earl Joseph, who turned out to be the owner, handled the money.
Though there are far more luxurious places to stay — Mr. Augustin has a second job at one, the Ladera resort — I was charmed by Mango Beach Inn. There’s no way to get to its location, in an old building on Marigot Bay on the northwest side of the island, other than by ferry, and one day I came in to see that the maid had decorated my mosquito netting with rose petals. Down the stairs was Hassey’s Waterside Bar, which just might be the perfect vacation lounge, flush with the bay and covered in strings of lights. I met a 21-year-old beach worker named Jamal Felix, who described his job: “I put the beach lounges down, I go fishing, I climb the coconut trees, I use the swing on the coconut trees and fall in the water, I go swimming.”
I felt completely at odds with everyone else on the island, from the natives (like Mr. Felix) whose jobs included regular swim breaks, to the many couples on romantic vacations who were spending their days on hikes or boat rides. I mainly stressed out about how to squeeze in this ridiculous Trinidad idea, or sat in Mango Beach Inn’s lovely common room overlooking the bay and wrote.
As my taxi driver, Domitiana René, saw me frantically trying to post to Instagram on my way back to the airport, she told me not to worry. The island would still be there. It was blessed. It was paradise. I could always come back to check out St. Lucia’s Carnival in June and July. It was her favorite time of year. “I think we are becoming more and more like Trinidad,” she said. “Every year I’m noticing people wearing less and less clothes.”
Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. Follow her on Instagram @alphajada.
1: New Orleans
Next dispatch: San Juan, Puerto Rico