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Carnival Virgin? What To Know Before You Go!

While we may be squarely in the hot and hazy days of “Summer ’16,” if you’re like me your brain and your wallet is already focused on one of 2017’s major winter events—Trinidad Carnival. Bands are launching right now to accommodate the over 800,000 people who will play mas on Carnival Monday and Tuesday on February 27 + 28, 2017, and come this November all eyes and ears will be focused on securing fete tickets, costume customizations and accessories and more until the big week leading up to the finale. Technically, the carnival season starts on December 26th, however smart masqueraders are already planning and plotting their fun.

So if this is your first time, the time (literally) is now to start to secure your flights and lodging, band/costume, and then spend the winter getting your checklist sorted. It can all seem a little daunting at first, but once you cross the stage for the first time—you’ll know why this is one event that people return to time and time again, with some even jumping over to Barbados’ Crop Over and/or Grenada’s famed Spice Mas to get another taste. To help out our Parlour carnival virgins, I chatted with some carnival veterans and experts to break down everything they wish someone had told them when it was their first time. While this is tailored for Trinidad, the below can apply to all carnivals with some considerations made for location and culture. Ready for the “greatest show on earth?” Leh we go below!

Section Leader looks from TRIBE.

2017 Frontline + Section Leader looks from TRIBE.

Know Your Lines…And Your Budget
Trinidad Carnival is among the big three of carnivals, next to Brazil and Colombia in it’s size and extravagance. This means that it is also one of the most expensive carnivals. Crop Over in Barbados, Bacchanal Jamaica, Miami Carnival and other slightly smaller events will still put you back four-figures with travel, lodging, fetes and costumes included, but with Trinidad—expect to pay slightly more. So before you set your sights on a big and blingy Frontline costume, realize that the costume itself may set you back more than $1,000US alone. Individual or Section Leader costumes (such as the TRIBE designs above aka the most extravagant and exclusive) can range upwards of $1,500 to $2,500 and more, typically those prices aren’t advertised.  Backline costumes (less feathers, etc) will range from $600 to $800, this all depends on the carnival band you want to jump with. Remember that with Frontline and Section Leader costumes, you may have less mobility with your headpiece/backpack and there’s an expectation that you will be photographed more and generally attract more attention as you are representing a section’s creativity and overall aesthetic. In short, you have to be ready for it.

There is plenty included in that cost such as your road experience, which varies by band. And then there are fetes that lead up to and follow the main carnival procession, which range anywhere from $50 to $225US. The perks will vary from the opportunity to bring your own cooler and drinks, to an affair that is all-inclusive with food and premium drinks…Johnnie Walker Blue and curry crab dumplings anyone? And don’t forget about all the cute outfits that you will want to buy, along with some fly (and flat—don’t play yourself) sandals to rock. Do some research against everything and create a budget before you hit the button on any purchases.

In all, you could very well spend anywhere from $2,500 to $6,000US* with flights, lodging, etc included. To make the entire process easier, there are reputable carnival concierge services such as yLime (my fave/official pick), Karnival by Kandi, and Carnival Concierge that can handle everything for you from booking and confirming your hotel to securing and picking up your costume and fete tickets for one set price that you can pay down over time. Many will also throw in the traditional “cool down” that begins on Ash Wednesday, where masqueraders jump over to Tobago to recover for the rest of the week. Typically, this is way easier said than done as flights and accommodations can sell out before the summer is over. At press time more than 80% of Trinidad to Tobago flights are sold-out for Wednesday, with more flights generally added right before February. For a first timer who values convenience, a concierge service is highly recommended.

Carnival Is Not A Game
Our girl Tracey broke it down last year and I will reiterate. Carnival is absolutely the most fun you will have in your life—over a week of amazing fetes (parties) with the beauty of Trinidad as your backdrop and two days of feathers, glamour and glitter on the road. But be clear, this is all happening in the midst of 80+ degree weather, with plenty of (mostly free) alcohol flowing and dancing/whining involved. Between Carnival Monday and Tuesday, its possible that you will take well over 55,000 steps within the parade’s 6-mile route, which you will do twice. Fetes are starting at 2am, 11am, 3pm, etc and going well into the day and night. It’s common for folks to return home having lost a little weight, because you’re having hella fun, but you are also working your body! And this means you need to be ready before you come. As we are more than 6 months away, now is the time to build up your cardio and overall exercise routine and push yourself with it to get your body used to the pace of carnival.

Make an appointment with you doctor for a physical/check-up and make sure your blood work and pressure are ok well before you depart. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes or if you’re like me and subscribe to a particular diet, check in with your doctor and tell them what your carnival plans are to make sure you are prepared. If have seasonal or constant asthma, get a prescription for a travel inhaler and keep it next to your passport so you don’t forget it. If you have any allergies, have a dedicated travel kit in your bag full of extra medications and an EpiPen (if applicable) with everything clearly labeled for customs. In all, get your body together because you will have the most fun, when you are the most healthy! Carnival dehydration and fatigue are very real problems that you want to avoid.

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(image from Loop TT)

Recognize The Reality…And Embrace It
Every summer as Trini Carnival bands launch, you will see a parade of slender, long legged—and often lighter-skinned—bodies parade as the bands launch their costume options for the upcoming season and the registration process begins. Fast forward to February, where you will find yourself on the road in your beautiful costume surrounded by ALL types of bodies and skin-tones, from ebony to porcelain and “model thin” to “BBW.” It’s important to not get caught in the body hype during registration time and get your road mindset together. Yes, you will parade down a public street in what is a fabulous bikini with some AWESOME accessories like feathers and jewels, but you will be alongside women of all body types and tones, who are also wearing nothing but the same. There will be six packs and stretch marks, lean lines and plenty of curves and dimples to go around. And herein lies what could be one of the most freeing sensations you will ever experience, once you let go of your nervousness.

While a healthy body will definitely enjoy Carnival more, healthy doesn’t always equate to skinny. Embrace who you are, select a costume with options that flatter you and make you feel comfortable. And then go out on the road and kill it. Dance, sing, drink, take plenty of pictures and own the experience you’ve worked for.
A Parlour trick: Have at least two bands in mind when you go to register just in case your section’s costume is sold out or you can’t get a connect to register. And as life happens and people change their minds, you will see costumes go up for sale on re-sale sites such as Fine Ah Bahn, which is a go-to for last minute masqueraders for costumes and fete tickets.

Go With A Crew
In no way should one venture to Trinidad Carnival for the first time alone, for a variety of reasons including safety and experience level. Carnival is one of those events where having a crew can mean the difference between having a good time, or a great time. So if you are venturing solo, definitely consider a concierge service that can pair you with someone and start to make some friends so you can connect with them. With hundreds of thousands of people in one place at one time, having people who know where you are, if you have any allergies or medical conditions, who will get you home safe in case you go a little too hard is a life saver—there is power, safety and peace of mind in numbers. And even if your crew is small, never wander off alone or go anywhere alone with someone you just met without someone knowing who you are with and how to identify them. There are hook-ups galore during that week, and the same rules of engagement still apply, but someone who is there should know the full story in case anything goes awry.

Don’t Need No Holleration
Sorry. I’m a Mary J. Blige fan for life. If there is one thing that came up while talking with female veterans consistently, it was the issue of street harassment…or the lack thereof. It’s a simple as this, Caribbean culture and carnival are intrinsic, so seeing a woman in little clothing and glitter in close proximity is nothing new. With that, the probability of someone trying to touch you inappropriately while in your “pretty mas” or Monday wear is there, but strangely (for some) very low. Of course, there are knuckleheads everywhere, which is why rolling with a crew definitely helps. This quote, spotted in The Washington Post from last year sums it all up perfectly:

“In the Caribbean, you could be walking around in that thong and pasties and a dude could be standing one foot from you and he won’t touch you. He won’t touch or harass you because there’s a level of respect for masqueraders.” – Stephanie Okola

Aside from some verbal compliments (fun fact: girls with curves are winning), I’ve never witnessed or experienced anything offensive, a sentiment echoed by the women I spoke with. While on the carnival road, your band should have security staff in action to make sure no “stormers” or non-registered spectators infiltrate your section, which will leave you with registered male masqueraders who aren’t trying to get kicked out by being disrespectful.

At fetes, the same rules generally apply. Don’t feel comfortable dancing with someone? Pass. An experienced fetter will get the message and move on with class. Again, this is when having a crew is the absolute best!

Eat, A Lot…and Pace!
Is there a snack that you can munch on all day like peanuts, cheese bites, granola bars that will keep your energized? Bring them. Bring more than you think you will actually need. And bring the travel sized kind. These will be your lifesavers when you are coming in at 7am and then power napping until 12noon to get ready for the next event. And when you are on the road, these are also the things that will keep your body balanced with all the rum and coconut water, ginger, etc that you’ll be drinking. Coconut water is a special friend during carnival time, so learn to love it. Most bands will also include a full breakfast/lunch and snacks in their road experience, but that may not bode well for when YOU need to eat. And at all inclusive fetes where food is served—eat it all. Not only will you be trying Trinidad’s best (and amazingly diverse) food culture and discovering new delights, you are also replenishing your body with the nutrients it needs to keep you going at such an intensity. Besides, you paid good money to be there—get your grub on!

Remember, for every sip of a drink, two sips of coconut or regular water and a bite to eat is always a good idea. In all, pace yourself. Pace your eating, your drinking, the amount of fetes you have, and know that there is always another drink or bite at the next party, so you don’t have to “do it all.”
A Parlour trick: Wear a particular ring, bracelet, or even a small string around your wrist that is your “reminder” to eat while you’re out. Some even set reminders on their phones. Even when you’re bent-over mid whine, a simple glance at it will remind you to stay hydrated and with something in your belly. Because you don’t want to be that girl at the party…or home missing a fete all together while you try to recover. You didn’t pay to miss it!

Yuma Vibe. Image by Dwayne Watkins Photography. Check out his website for a beautiful glimpse into Trinidad Carnival!

Yuma Vibe. Image by Dwayne Watkins Photography. Check out his website for a beautiful glimpse into Trinidad Carnival!

Not All Bands Are Created Equal
There are well over 15 adult bands that participate in Trinidad Carnival that cater to all tastes, from “coach” to “first class.” Some are very local, and some cater to a more international clientele and there is something that they all offer that makes them unique. For more popular bands such as TRIBE, Bliss, Yuma, and Fantasy, actually getting “into” the band can get a little tricky–but not impossible. Other bands such as Harts, Ronnie & Caro, and Passion have a more open registration that can be handled instantly. For the tricker bands, this is where the benefit of a concierge comes in or having a good network to get  a registration invite from a band’s committee member.

So what’s the difference? It depends on who you ask. Most larger bands offer multiple premium open bars, DJs and sound trucks, lunch/breakfast and mobile bathrooms while on the road for both days. But beyond that, the features can vary. Every band has a reputation, from international celebrity appearances and performances to road features like cool down trucks, cups and bags and road treats like shots and snacks, to camp amenities and offerings such as massages, premium food and a comfortable resting place. Some bands have reputations for even being more ethnically exclusive or diverse, more upscale experience-wise, more party focused, more gay friendly, body-conscious, “stush” or cliquey…beyond your costume preference, definitely take into consideration what your band’s road reputation is before you commit. Think of it like this, in every major city there is a nightlife scene with promoters and clubs that are known for a certain vibe—it’s no different for carnival bands. Websites  and bloggers such as Trinidad Carnival Diary, LehWeGo and Global Carnivalist are great resources for first-timers as they offer plenty of costume galleries and band and fete reviews so you can make an informed decision. For fetes, Trini Jungle Juice is a  top source to see the full schedule as the parties are announced. Thanks to Instagram, a specific hashtag search can also give you a real look at every band and fete’s experience through the eyes of the people that were there…definitely get your spy on to get an inside look.

The whole “by committee” process can seem a little silly at first to secure fete tickets and band registration, but you can’t avoid it so you might as well figure out how to make it work for you. If you choose to go the independent route (versus a concierge service), work the carnival veterans that are also going in your crew for assistance. Any experienced masquerader knows that carnival is definitely an “each one, teach one” type of event and should be happy to help. And if they aren’t…don’t party with them and get down with an online group such as WFYG (Which Fetes Yuh Goin?) on Facebook that is full of friendly folks to help you out. Personally, the one thing I appreciate about groups like yLime and WFYG is the ability to also make plenty of friends virtually and in-person before your Trinidad experience, especially if you are coming alone.

The could be us but you can't whine. Image by Ryan Lue Clarke.

The could be us but you can’t whine. Image by Ryan Lue Clarke.

Know The Digital Code
If you ever plan on running for president or public office or generally don’t like the idea of the entire world seeing you dance to “Bend Down Pause” make sure your digital privacy game is together before you venture to Trinidad. Take a detailed look at your Facebook settings and switch to privacy mode for Instagram if needed, along with an edit of who is following you. Be mindful of what you post and what people can tag you in as you don’t want your good time to impact anything professionally. This is something that you should also establish with your crew beforehand, and once the rules are set—stick to them. Even though you can’t 100% control what happens once that picture is taken (there are photographers everywhere), you can take the necessary steps to try to tip the odds in your favor.

Don’t Forget About Monday and J’ourvet…and Don’t Overthink It
Remember, there are TWO main days and one night of Trinidad Carnival—J’ourvet Night/Morning, Carnival Monday and Tuesday. While Tuesday is the big show of feathers and more, Carnival Monday is it’s more relaxed sister where revellers have traditionally worn bits of their main costume or a particular swimsuit/bodysuit that compliments their costume…or not. Many women go all out for their ‘Monday Wear’ and purchase specially designed looks and packages from their registered band’s designers or keep it simple with a cute outfit such as boy-shorts and tank top  or designer swimwear (you can literally wear anything you want) and party away. Plenty of folks prefer Carnival Monday to Tuesday as the pressure to look your best (your bands are competing on Tuesday) is off and you can really “see” Trinidad while on the road. Just remember not to go too hard on Monday so you can bring it on Tuesday!

For J’ourvet, this is where the soul of carnival comes alive and the opportunity to get gloriously messy happens and experience the history that is behind the glamour. A simple breakdown on the differences between J’ourvet, Carnival Monday and Carnival Tuesday can be found here. Just remember to be mindful during J’ourvet as it takes place in the middle of the night and the routes vary. Stay with your crew, and don’t stress about the paint, mud, etc—it’s all in good fun! A comprehensive list of 2016’s J’ourvet bands can be found here, but they vary from year to year so definitely ask around. Most bands will supply you with a t-shirt, wristband for access, a covered cup and other treats for the road.

More “What I Wish I Knew Tips” From The Pros
First things first. Get your packing list in order…early. To help, we assembled one of the best lists we could find and will add to it as the season progresses. You can access it here!

  • Plenty of bands offer multiple “remixes” such as high waisted bottoms, monokinis and more. Once you are registered, reach out to your band to see if there are more options that are unlisted. Some bands will put you in touch with the designer of your costume directly for customizations or if you have any specific questions, but custom pieces will come at an extra cost.
  • Plan out your fetes thoughtfully so you don’t overdo it for your first time. And don’t be afraid to sleep in if you need to, which may cause you to get to a fete a little later than expected. Listen to your body and sit down when it tells you to.
  • With all the all-inclusive fetes and events, you will actually spend very little money while in Trinidad, but you should still have enough to get back to your hotel/home on you at all times.
  • You absolutely do not have to play mas in order to have an amazing Trinidad Carnival experience as the fetes from top promoters like Scorch, Caesar’s Army, Beach House, Roast and Sunny Side Up are memorable in themselves. For next year, Tribe is offering the chance to play mas just on Carnival Monday with a special designer costume, which is perfect for last minute and money-conscious ladies who still want to be on the road.
  • Get to know the the music of carnival aka soca before you arrive to get you in the mood to party. There are plenty of playlists on Spotify and DJs such as Private Ryan, Dei Musicale, Mastamind Evolution, Spice, Puffy, Dr Jay, Walshy Fire, Back 2 Basics and more are ones to follow via Soundcloud and their own pages to discover the new hits and classic tunes that you will hear on repeat plus parties to get you started locally. If non-stop soca isn’t your idea of a good time, reconsider carnival all together. There will be very little hip-hop to rock to.
  • Take some time to research the history of Trinidad Carnival in it’s entirety, it will help you appreciate your time even more!
  • When ordering your costume, order a size up. It’s always better to have to adjust a costume to be smaller versus having to “extend” or “expand” anything. Which brings us to….
  • Have your costume paid in full before you arrive to Trinidad with clear documentation, receipts, etc to confirm your paid status. This will make your costume collection MUCH easier. Check your costume fully before accepting and leaving the premises and handle any adjustments, swaps, etc that need to be made onsite. Try to be patient and gracious, but firm if a problem arises. Which also leads us to…
  • Unless something is being made especially for you, always pack a backup bikini top or bra and bottom in the same base color as your costume (shoutout to Amazon for a cheap & chic bikini) that you can remix into your look, in the event that you are left with less-than-expected coverage. This is where the extra gems and glue gun in our packing list come in handy!
  • There is an entire industry dedicated to carnival accessories such as customized shoes, bras and accessories, right down to your road cup. A quick search on Facebook and Google, plus a hashtag search on Instagram can yield plenty of vendors who can hook you up.
  • Use your glue gun (see our packing list) to seal all the edges of your costume’s gems to both secure them and prevent and snagging, etc.
  • Remember, you can not bring feathers into the country of Trinidad so any extra feather customizations, etc should be arranged to be picked up there. And leave ALL the cute camo looks you had packed at home too.
  • If your schedule permits, block out a day to SEE the beauty of Trinidad. Take a trip to Maracas Bay, go sightseeing, etc.
  • Plan for a vacation or a long weekend after carnival is over. You will need at least 48 hours to recover. If Tobago doesn’t work out, consider hopping over to St. Lucia or Barbados, or even a pit stop in Miami before returning home.
  • If Tobago IS in the plans, plan for an adventure at Piarco airport. Get there early, expect to wait in line and be patient yet firm in the event your flight is cancelled and you need to be rebooked. Never settle for “no” when there is a problem, there is always a way to work it out.
  • Compression socks under boots are amazing to combat swelling if that is an issue for you.
  • Don’t bring any sunglasses and accessories that will hurt if they get lost. Keep your expensive Prada frames at home and grab some cheaper H&M/Target styles to rock on the road.

And the most important tip? Have Fun! You paid your money for this experience…so come with good intentions and spirits, even if something doesn’t work out (or fit) exactly how you planned it. You will be surprised at what can happen when everything doesn’t go to plan—and that’s the beauty of carnival no matter where you experience it…and it’s what will keep you coming back for more. #TravelFly! Have more to add, use the comments below to share the knowledge!

*This all depends on your costume selection, flight price and home location, lodging, etc.

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When she’s not doing fancy creative advertising things, or getting her own #TravelFly life on—Shannon is busy making sure that the best travel content crafted by Black women for Black women globally is what you see here on Parlour as our creative and content director and trying to recreate her mother-in-law’s Bajan green sauce recipe. Give her a shout on Twitter at @shannboogie

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