Confessions of an Expat – Behind the smiling face of carnival

Women dancing on the street and wearing Carnival costume, Trinidad Carnival, Queens Park Savannah, Port of Spain, Island of Trinidad, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Whey hey hey, sista. Trinidad Carnival, Queens Park Savannah, Port of Spain

Look at any list of carnivals around the world and you will find Trinidad and Tobago.

The rest of the planet is aware of the importance of the annual festival in a country that seems almost obsessed with it. It might even be said that it is an unhealthy preoccupation with what is essentially a throwback to the colonial times of which most people don’t want to be reminded.

A Tobagonian tourism lecturer once told me that the lack of enthusiasm for tourism in Trinidad, if not Tobago, went back to the early days of independence and a wish to avoid anything that smacked of serving white people. The origins of Caribbean carnival lie in slaves enjoying themselves once a year at their masters’ expense, making fun of their oppressors and celebrating their own roots and culture.

Today the main focus seems to be on showing off the country’s womanhood, with increasingly unsubtle displays of a sort of sexual self-exploitation. While there are plenty of beautiful women here, this is certainly not unique to Trinidad. The world is full of young women keen to show how sexually liberated they are (provided they call the shots), but it is doubtful if there is a more explicit country in the world than this one.

The weather may have something to do with the exposing of flesh in this part of the world. While there are carnivals in dozens of places as unlikely as Slovenia and Belgium, it is hard to imagine persuading the girls to get their kit off in public when there’s snow on the ground. But in Brazil and New Orleans, as in the southern Caribbean, temperature can be crossed off any list of potential objections. The girls are every bit as lusty in eastern Europe – they’re just worried about their physical protruberances getting frozen and flicked off like berries.

carnival 5
I can’t smile too much – I’m on duty. Notting Hill, London

Even England has a carnival, albeit scheduled for the warm(ish) weather. And who is behind it? West Indians. The Notting Hill Carnival has become an accepted highlight of the British summer, popular with everyone except police officers who have to shepherd it and people who live along the route. It was a bone of contention in its early days and still has its opponents – and you can hardly blame them. Just like the Trinidad carnival, the Notting Hill version was conceived as a covert way of expressing hostility in the guise of fun and frolics. No doubt that hostility had good grounds in some cases, but as with all such ideas, it is all very well in the hands of intelligent people who want to live and let live, but can turn ugly when misinterpreted by the ignorant and vindictive.

Like Christmas, the religious aspect of carnival is lost amid the revelry. While it was once a final fling, a frenzy of consumption before the solemnity of Lent, carnival time is now all about exhibitionism (some would say debauchery), but it is hard to argue against that in today’s godless society. Although Caribbean nations have a relatively devout population, such considerations are slipping away all the time. Churches have always been full of old people, with a few children dragged along by well-meaning parents and most of the young adults conspicuous by their absence, kept away by shopping to do, sport to play and beds to stay in.

On the other hand it is difficult to imagine the young people of past centuries, the ones creating the boisterousness of carnival, having been any more mindful of the religious significance of the occasion. They might not have had mass-produced local rum to get drunk on, but you can bet your life they found something to get them out of their heads – and probably got a lot worse hangovers.

carnival 1
Would I go to the supermarket dressed like this? Err, probably not

The encouraging of carnival by people who don’t themselves get involved might be perfectly innocent, but may also be a way of diverting attention from the skullduggery that is going on – a modern variant of the situation that led to the old saying ‘Religion is the opium of the masses.’ The Caribbean region as a whole delights in its image of carefree innocence, and if reports of outrageously sexy girls parading through the streets of Port-of-Spain keep the astonishing murder rate off the rest of the world’s news pages, that is probably a good thing. But only probably.

Just as West Indies cricket eventually grew tired of its reputation of producing smiling entertainers without the seriousness to win very often, so the region needs to decide if it wants to be taken seriously.

It’s different for quieter islands such as Tobago and all the others that still live in the world’s imagination as palm-fringed paradises. Tobagonians are happy with tourism (or at least they haven’t got any better ideas), so the more jollity and frivolity the better. But big brother Trinidad is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: industrialised, violent and in recession. Perhaps they’re trying to remind themselves of the good old days.


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