and dirty in Trinidad by
on photos for more images of Trinidad
travel alarm rang at 3:00 a.m., when party-happy travelers
the world over have already returned to their hotels.
I crawled from bed, snatched a set of throwaway clothes
from my suitcase, and braced myself for J’ouvert—the
grimiest, slimiest, most enjoyable street party you can
ever hope to attend.
More than just a party, J’ouvert (pronounced jou-vay),
a Creole distortion of the French jour ouvert (open day),
is the annual kickoff to Carnival in Trinidad. It’s
a confluence of massive processions in which thousands
of revelers dance, stumble, sing, and drink their way
through the streets of Port of Spain. Instead of wearing
the flamboyant costumes of the following day’s
Carnival parades, participants wear their unwanted clothes
and are covered from head to toe in mud and paint.
Port of Spain resident Sonja Dumas, a friend of a friend,
agreed to guide me through the early-morning festivities.
Just before 4:00 a.m., we arrived at an outdoor staging
area where a couple thousand participants had gathered.
We stumbled through the darkness, past clusters of sleep-deprived
party people dressed in shorts and ragged T-shirts. Everyone
had been splashed with mud and paint. It was as if Jackson
Pollack had risen from the grave to create a multicolored
masterpiece upon the masses.
One man, his bare chest smeared with blue paint, carried
a bucket of mud. He snuck up behind a woman and poured
the mud slowly onto her head. The woman stood there,
smiling, as the black sludge slid down her face.
Another man had become a walking canvas of green and
red brush strokes. A trio of yellow-blue women looked
as though Pollack had shot them with a paint-filled water
pistol. A group of paint-splattered gentlemen, their
arms caked with mud, stared at my clean white shirt and
Following Sonja’s lead, I rubbed baby oil on my
face, neck, and arms. This would make cleanup easier,
she said. Reaching into the back of a flatbed “mud
truck,” Sonja dipped her hand into a bucket and
smeared great, gooey gobs of mud onto her shirt and arms.
She then reached into a succession of buckets and coated
her face with red, blue, and white paint.
My anointment proved to be considerably less audacious.
I applied a tad of mud onto my frayed white shirt and
dabbed blue paint on my chin. Sonja shook her head and
laughed. Cleanliness, I would soon learn, does not go
unpunished at J’ouvert.
A moment later, the procession began. A steel pan band
beat out a killer calypso rhythm from atop a slow-moving
flatbed truck. Followed by a liquor & beer truck,
the infamous mud truck, and another truck loaded with
giant speakers that blasted non-stop soca music, the
calypso truck pulled out into the darkened streets. The
enormous crowd swarmed along both sides of the motorcade,
and behind it. The party had begun.
Powered by soca music—a fast-paced blend of calypso
and soul—Sonja and I engaged in a Trinidadian tradition
known as “wining.” Simply put, wining (wine-ing)
occurs when a man and woman grind rhythmically against
each other’s below-the-waist extremities. I saw
painted people wining face-to-face, from behind, they
even wined in groups of as many as eight or nine. It’s
an erotic move that, in other countries, is usually performed
After Sonja “wined on me” and disappeared
into the crowd, I needed a drink. Ordering a drink from
a man standing on a moving truck—surrounded by
hordes of drunken, mud-Spackled people—is as difficult
a task as you might imagine. Nevertheless, I trotted
patiently alongside the rolling bar until a rum and Coke
made it’s way to me.
I weaved through the throng of painted revelers, many
of whom had partied at fetes the previous day and would
continue to party the next day, and the next. I danced
to the deafening soca music, “wining on” strange
women and being “wined on” by them.
The procession moved along a maze of streets, past simple
homes and grandiose mansions alike. Residents, no doubt
awakened by the thundering noise, peeked from behind
curtains or waved from their porches.
When the sky began to brighten, I found Sonja among the
dancing hordes. She was wining with some guy wearing
a bloody mask.
As the sun crept higher and the wilting masses sat in
the street, waiting for the motorcade to move again,
a man walked toward me carrying a bucket. He shook his
head, looking at my barely muddied shirt and scarcely
painted face. “You are too clean, my friend,” he
said, his voice low and apologetic.
Suddenly, he dumped perhaps a gallon of mud on my head.
I stood in the hot Trinidadian sun as the wet muck oozed
down my face and neck. I stood there, smiling, loving
every filthy minute of J’ouvert.