What Not To Do at Paint-Fueled Carnival - OZY | A Modern Media Company

What Not To Do at Paint-Fueled Carnival

What Not To Do at Paint-Fueled Carnival

By Angelica Sydney

Revellers dance and paint themselves during the J´Ouvert Festival on February 11, 2013 in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
SourceSean Drakes/Getty


Because you can’t just observe a party.

By Angelica Sydney

Angelica Sydney is a Canadian writer, sports enthusiast and travel junkie.

I was covered from head to toe in paint, mud, powder and chocolate, and so was the camera. The problem? It belonged to my school. 

Just hours before, the sounds of barking dogs and crowing roosters filled the night air. It was a.m., and we were preparing for pre-Carnival celebrations known as J’Ouvert (French Creole for “dawn” or “daybreak”). My mother, in her Trinidadian accent, asked whether I had everything I needed. “Angel … do you have batteries? De camera?” 

You can’t play mas, if yuh ‘fraid powder.

Soon my cousin Martin — a “big boss man,” mom said — came to pick us up. Anyone who works for the government is a “big boss” man or woman in Trinidad. We were heading for the capital, Port of Spain, where he dropped us off near the big Queen’s Park Savannah — known as the Savannah or De Big Yard — leaving us  around 2 a.m. to meet up with the band. 

Music blasted from every corner, with Machel Montano’s “Like Ah Boss” being played by a number of DJs. Various J’Ouvert bands filled the Savannah, and my family and I were looking for a group wearing red firefighter’s hats and white T-shirts with the image of scantily clad women on them, along with the word “Inferno.” And the females were all wearing the customary “pum pum shorts” (short shorts).

It took about an hour before we found everyone and gathered along St. Clair Avenue at the southern side of Queen’s Royal College. It was beautiful to see everyone in their fireman costumes, and I started getting my equipment out to take photos. My back was already aching because of my heavy load — I was the only one in the band with so much equipment. The emcee started yelling, trying to excite the masqueraders and revelers. The truck started to move in front of us, and the group began chipping — a slow two-step with undulating body movements — down the road.

I stayed out in front to take photos and video. It was pitch black outside, and my external light refused to work. This frustrated me because I wanted to get behind the scenes, but I was starting to have a more pressing concern: Why was everyone still so clean? J’Ouvert festivities are notoriously messy — and it was that splash of color I wanted to capture on film.

By 4 a.m., my legs were burning. Then, just as the sky started to brighten, the screams began. People appeared with buckets of paint, and I moved in quickly to capture the moment as the colors flew. I was there to document the parade for a school project, not participate. I saw a photojournalist capturing the action, like me, and managing to stay dry, so I was hopeful I could do the same. 

“Look she’s clean,” I heard someone say. “No, no, no, I’m just here to take pictures, I have a camera, please don’t,” I screamed. But within seconds I was covered in paint. From then on, it was as though I were a moving target. People smacked paint on my shirt, my leggings, even my Nikes. Then came the powder posse — a group of revelers armed with baby powder — and the air filled with choking specks as the crowd was covered in both powder and paint. 

“How am I going to pay for this?” I wondered, fearing the equipment — which I had borrowed from the university to document the festivities — was ruined. The paint was in every crevice of the camera, and the strap was covered — so much so that the word Nikon had disappeared. The lens? Splattered. I started freaking out, thinking that my degree was at stake.

My brother Gaelen came along, also covered in color and mud, and saw that I was upset. He asked what was wrong, and when I showed him the camera, he told me — in true younger brother style — that I was in “deep shit.” But then he said something I’ll never forget: “Sis, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There is nothing you can do now — clean the camera when we get home and just enjoy the moment.” Then he gave me a big hug, smearing all his paint onto me, and carried on. As Trinidadians like to say, “You can’t play mas, if yuh ‘fraid powder.”

I thought about my brother’s advice. Why spoil the moment, and an experience my parents had spoken about all my life? So I wiped away the tears and started taking part. 

I marched, laughed and continued being showered in powder, mud, water and paint. And you know what? I still earned my degree and didn’t have to buy a new camera. Baby oil and hand sanitizer are a paint-covered-camera-carrying girl’s best friends. All the worry is a distant memory, and the joy I shared in celebrating the traditional fete with my family is something I’ll treasure forever. 

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