With three major religions, one of the world’s biggest carnivals, and thirteen public holidays, Trinidad & Tobago is well known for its penchant for partying and celebration.
In many ways island life revolves around its explosiveCarnival, the Caribbean’s largest celebration. The hype and build-up begins as the New Year’s Clock strikes twelve, and culminates in four days of non-stop music and dance in February in the streets of the capital Port of Spain. From January, each weekend hosts a series of fêtes – in fact stage shows – with all night dancing and imbibing of rum. During the week calypso tents put on nights of less franticmusic, accompanied with witty poetry and social commentary. The country’s atmosphere builds in intensity until February when the main street paradeevent takes place.
Brought to Trinidad by the French in the 18th century as mardi gras, Carnival is the ‘parting of the flesh’ (carne-vale) before Ash Wednesday and Lent. The French indulged in masked balls while African slaves took to the streets with bamboo sticks banged rhythmically on the ground. Satire of the plantation system followed, combined with a number of West African folklore characters such as stilt walkers (moko jumbies) and demons (jab jabs) – all adding to the multicultural brew. After emancipation in 1834, the burning of sugar cane alongside wild dancing built up the intensity. Carnival in essence began to bring together the powerful and powerless once each year. Playing mas (masquerading) was acceptable with anyone; prejudices and lusts were brought into the open, and a truly Trini cultural identity was born.
Carnival now begins with the raucous Jouvert(pronounced ‘jouvay’) celebration (from the French ‘jour overt’). At 4am on Carnival Monday, huge bands of revellers hit the streets with a vengeance, most often covered in mud – a true setting free of the spirit before the (slightly) calmer pretty mas(costume parades) of Carnival Monday and Tuesday. The old traditions are still found in one form or another on the streets of Port of Spain – thoughsound systems, fast Soca music and bikini costumes have taken over much of the event. As Carnival Tuesday draws to a close and Ash Wednesday’s quiet streets begin to dawn, much of T&T’s population can think of only one thing:bring on carnival next year!!
But in Trinidad you never have to wait long until the next party. This is par for the course when you have a mix of races and religions in your country; Christmas, Eid and Divali are all national holidays, as is Indian Arrival Day, Easter, Independence Day and Emancipation (from slavery) Day. Hindu Divc ali and Phagwa, and Muslim Eid tend to be celebrated by many outside of each faith, including school children of all denominations. Additionally, every region has its own local festivals – in Arima people of mixed Spanish & Amerindian descent hold the Santa Rosa festival in August. Add to this yachting, steel band and oral tradition weeks, as well as regular cricket and football matches, and, well, you begin to get the picture.
One of the most colourful Hindu festivals takes place shortly after Carnival. The Caribbean version of the Indian ‘Holy’ festival, known as Phagwah, welcomes the coming of Spring with a flurry of pink die, sprayed, fired, tipped and smeared over all present at a number of Trinidadian locations. Not for the faint (or clean) hearted!
Trinidad really is a rainbow nation – aside from the Hindu Mandirs (temples), Muslim Mosques and Christian churches you will see all over the islands, there are even one or two places in Trinidad where Hindus, Christians and Muslims worship in the same premises – such as Kernaham village at Nariva. Intermarriage between people of African, European, Indian and Chinese descent is just seen as normal on these shores.
On Tobago, the festival calendar is equally diverse, if a little less routed in religion. Easter holds the world-famous goat race, accompanied by judicious gambling and partying, and attracting people from across the Caribbean and well beyond. The Great Race in August centres around fast boats competing to be the first arrival from Trinidad – though most people concentrate more on the liming and dancing than anything else! Biggest and smartest of all, however, is the Tobago Jazz Festival (www.tobagojazzfest.com), an international music event which over the past few years has featured artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Diana Ross, Steel Pulse and Sting.
Located just 10km off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad is roughly 60km long by 50km wide, and is the southernmost point of the Lesser Antilles island chain, a good way out of the reach of Atlantic hurricanes. Once a part of the South American mainland, the island shares a geology and natural environment with that of Venezuela rather than the other Antilles to the north. As a result, Trinidad boasts an incredible array of eco-systems, flora and fauna, combining those found in South America with those from other Caribbean islands.
Trinidad’s rainforest-smothered Northern Range mountains rise to 941m at the mighty peak of El Cerro del Aripo before dropping down to one of the Caribbean’s most undeveloped coastlines to the north, where stunning beaches become home to thousands of giant egg-laying turtles from March until August.
In the far south of Trinidad lies an incredible geographical feature – the world’s largest lake of natural asphalt, or pitch). Gradually self-replenishing, asphalt from this ‘lake’ was used for the world’s first paved streets – in Port of Spain and then followed shortly by Washington DC. Oil was also discovered nearby at La Brea in the 1850s, and Trinidad’s industrial heartland on the eastern coast and in the far southeast now produces around 150,000 barrels of oil each day.
Between the mountains and industrial areas lie diverse savannah environments complete with Morish palms and seemingly countless bird species, low-lying wooded hills with cocoa and coffee plantations, and fields of sugar cane and rice – all interspersed by the colourful Hindu flags of Trinidad’s East Indian population.
Another remarkable natural feature are the ‘mud volcanoes’ found across the south of the island. Spurting bubbles of sulphuric mud, these mounds have been known to erupt viciously at times, and once buried part of the village of Piparo in 1997.
For many, Tobago is a more ‘typical’ Caribbean island, boasting a western coastline of gorgeous white sandy coves and a couple of long swathes of pristine beach too. The water is of the postcard-perfect variety – turquoise and clear, with gentle waves lapping at the shoreline. A couple of phenomenal reefs lie just offshore, a divers’ paradise with schools of brightly coloured tropical fish. The Atlantic coast, conversely, offers surfing waves and a series of low-key fishing communities.
Around 40km long by just 15km wide, Tobago has a central mountain ridge which harbours the western hemisphere’s oldest protected rainforest. Though not as diverse in animal and plant life as Trinidad’s forests, there is still a great deal to see, including a few species not found on its larger sister isle.
The Culture of T&T
If there’s one thing that ties together all of Trinidad and Tobago’s population, it has to be liming. The Trinbagonian word for socializing or hanging out, limes can take place in peoples’ houses and yards, in bars and clubs, and typically outside at beaches and on riverbanks. There are definitely strong connotations of eating and drinking at a lime, and it’s a pretty open-ended pastime too – big limes can go on for days at a time!
Why not come and join the lime in person!?