A year ago, I put in a 10-hour-day under a beating sun in the streets of the Trinidadian capital Port of Spain. By 9 a.m., I was drenched in sweat, by noon my muscles ached fiercely. And I loved every minute of it. I was "playing mas," as in masquerading, on Carnival Tuesday. Marching 'til sundown behind massive mobile sound systems and roving bars, I was surrounded by tens of thousands of (mostly) buff revelers wearing beaded, dental-floss-thin raiments, topped with elaborate feathered headdresses. The band that I followed had a Zodiac theme and my costume's accessories -- a black and silver sash and matching gladiator-like shin guards reminiscent of Oakland Raiders fanwear -- kept slipping off. In a cringe-worthy violation of taste, I had also worn a white t-shirt underneath and a baseball cap in a vain attempt to fight off sunburn.
If it weren't enough that I looked ludicrous in my ill-fitting ensemble, I utterly failed to "jump" with any semblance of rhythm, to master the groove of soca, the high-octane offshoot of calypso which can beat at speeds that'll make your heart vibrate. And none of that mattered. My neophyte comportment didn't stop pulchritudinous West Indians from "winin'" with me (that's "winding" in Trini-speak -- you get the idea).
By the time I'd heard the song "Wotless" by Kes The Band 50 times in rotation, I still couldn't get enough of its infectious, high-pitched guitar riff. That all-day sweat-athon was the culmination of a week's worth of whirlwind "liming," or getting your party on in local parlance, all of which makes Carnival in Trinidad such an exhilarating travel experience.
It had been 10 years since my friend Wendy Fitzwilliam, then recently-crowned Miss Universe, first persuaded me to head down to her Caribbean nation's spectacle. Back then, I just observed. In the meantime, oil -- and gas -- rich Trinidad & Tobago has boosted its profile, having hosted the 2009 Summit of the Americas and built a domed, glass and steel arts center that looks right out of London. And now their Carnival, more intimate than Rio's Super Bowl-esque affair, and devoid of any Mardi Gras frat boy vibe, is drawing ever bigger crowds from abroad.
As I entered the sleek new waterfront Hyatt Regency on my arrival last year, I had to weave my way through international trendsetters who had turned the lobby, patios, bars and vanishing pool into party central. I heard women swooning that heartthrob actor Idris Elba was in the house. And then there was the gal in the most-negligible of costumes parading her anterior enhancements through the lobby and inviting speculation as to the genuineness of her ample posterior. When the cameras stopped flashing (mine included) and I looked up, so to speak, I recognized her as a Brooklyn neighbor of mine.
On my second morning, I checked out a "mas camp," or headquarters, many of which are in old gingerbread houses, to admire the year-round work that goes into designing and constructing costumes for mas bands with names like Yuma, Tribe and Bliss. I started hearing about which fetes, or all-inclusive parties, were the most desirable. Alas, Brian Lara, the Michael Jordan of cricket, never did invite me to his annual private fete of all fetes.
I later visited a dusty courtyard where steelpan drum makers hammer out old oil barrels, temper, and tune them for bands whose numbers can reach a hundred members. Over late night rum drinks in the panyards, I watched bands rehearse their repertoire of everything from classic Calypso to Billie Jean.
After days of phone tag, the next night I spotted statuesque Wendy through the throngs in the national stadium. I didn't even try to reach her as soca star Machel Montano was tearing down the joint with his bawdy badinage and pyrotechnic show, for which he took home the Soca Monarch title and a gob of cash.
By the third day in town I was running on fumes. Yet, Saturday morning I managed to catch the Kiddie Carnival, where adorable tots to pre-teens parade downtown in costumes as creative as the adults'. For Panorama at the Queen's Park Savannah stage, top steelpan bands fought it out all evening and produced fierce walls of sound that had me hooked.
On Dimanche Gras, I marveled at competitors crossing the stage by wheeling their two-story-high costumes that weigh up to 200 pounds. The winning King's ocean-themed creation was engineered with Rose Parade sophistication, its tidal waves drawing awe from the grandstand as they crashed in synch to his bouncy step. During a break, I played more phone tag with Wendy before Calypso "artistes" sang into the wee hours and played out their political and social parodies of which I hadn't the faintest understanding. By this point, I was too gassed to stay awake to see who won that contest.
Likewise, I skipped J'Ouvert, the all-night Sunday street fest where carousers cover themselves in paint and mud. But I wasn't too tired to get up for a street-food breakfast of doubles, a chickpea and chutney mash in bread dripping with pepper sauce that I'd hankered after for 10 years. I'd need my stamina as the streets then filled on Monday for a half-day dress rehearsal march, and I wondered "Do these people ever sleep?"
Today, it's 35 degrees in Brooklyn, and I'm lamenting that I won't be hitting the scorching streets of Port of Spain again next week. But I have it on good authority whom to watch for during Carnival 2012: Wendy just emailed me that "the ladies holding their own are Nadia Batson and Michelle Xavier." She tells me that Kerwin Du Bois "is on fire" with his tune "Bacchanalist," and the reigning soca king Machel has yet another hit with "Mr. Fete." I'm downloading all the artistes now.
Mostly, I'm wishing I were joining the phalanxes of merrymakers who will cross the Savannah stage on Fat Tuesday, with flags waving and feathers flying. I'm remembering that pure joy of a final bacchanalian moment when thousands strut their stuff on national TV, working it before the judges and hoping to be declared the Masquerade Band of Year.