Farewell to Dominica, then Couva & Carnival

Published: March 6th 2019
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Farewell to Dominica, then Couva & Carnival

After posting the last blog we still had a couple of days in Dominica which so far has been our favourite island as we loved the forests, waterfalls and geothermal features.

We returned to Portsmouth, site of Fort Shirley, but this time to visit Indian River, only a short walk to the south of the town. On the way we met up with a character, Gregory. At that point we did not know he was a boatman/guide from the river and at first Jim was reluctant to engage in conversation. But we soon realised he was looking for his first clients of the day and as we chatted it became clear he knew his fauna and flora. So on reaching the river we hopped into his rowing boat, preferable to a noisy outboard engine and floated along the river. It is called Indian River as it was the home of indigenous people until they were moved to a reserve, later called a Territory in the east of the island.

It was a slow and gentle journey looking out for birds and iguanas as Gregory described the vegetation. It is slightly tidal on the lower reaches and has some unique ferns growing along the bank. We saw green herons and an iguana high on a palm trunk.

On our last full day in Marigot we decided to try to climb down to the nearest beach where the last storm had rerouted much of what was left of the path. We had scouted out the top part previously and thought perhaps we could get down. People had said to take care as it was steep.

So we set off. The first part, a footpath through banana plants was fine. Then we reached the descent. It was steep enough to require a seated approach, sitting in the narrow cleft and gently working our way downwards. The problem was that the soil was loose and friable so even what looked like rocks crumbled if we touched them. We soon had fine powdered soil running down like a stream. So very slowly we inched downwards. Then the v-shaped gap turned around a bend to the right and dropped out of sight so I wriggled down a little further while Jim rested behind me. Suddenly I realised that I had reached a drop off and I could not see if there was land underneath supporting where I was perched. I felt very vulnerable so told Jim to turn round and go back up. Because of his height he could not turn so he had to go up still seated. Not easy! I was luckier as being short I could turn to face the rocks but because Jim's movement caused more mini avalanches I had to wait until he reached the top. Then, on hands and feet but low to the cliff, and certainly not moving with goat-like grace, more like a crab, I scrabbled back up to the top. There we rested a few minutes and calmed our breathing before returning to our hotel, disappointed but elated with our survival and happy that we had not had to be rescued. I could imagine that if we had people would have asked, 'What WERE you doing?' or commenting, 'at your age you should have more sense!' They would have been spot on.

We took the ferry from Dominica, again stopping at Martinique, and finally reached St Lucia very late, about 1am. It was lucky we had someone to meet us and take us for our two night stay in Castries. We had not realised it was the 40th Anniversary of Independence for the island so we went into the town next day to see the procession. Everyone was partying. The following day we flew to Trinidad and our accommodation in Couva near the west coast.

The Metro Hotel is good, huge rooms, friendly staff and good breakfasts. We chose to come here for Carnival as we did not want to be in the capital, Port of Spain, in case it became too rowdy but wanted to be close enough to go in to see the Carnival.

However Couva is not what we expected. It is too far from the sea to walk there which is what we had planned to do from the map and the walk did not look safe anyway. The town has a mixed population of Indian (from Asia, not indigenous Indian) and African descent. It is a slightly run down combination of retail, commerce, and small industrial businesses with an ammonia plant, air separation plant and a little further away an oil refinery. The most disappointing factor is that although they appear to have the same 14 seater van/buses as the other islands the hotel staff were very strong in their view that we should not use them. We checked with a number of people and they all gave the same advice so reluctantly we accepted it. The level of violence here appears greater than on the other islands. Plus there seems to be a growing problem of people from Venezuela rowing across in desperation to get food and other essential items, and according to local news, carrying out acts of piracy. From the south west corner of Trinidad you can see Venezuela on a clear day.

Our stay could have become very boring but thankfully it has been Carnival week! I thought Carnival took place largely on one day. No, it builds up for at least three months with the last week consisting of some activity every day even here in Couva. We are one block from the main car park which has been converted for the week with stage and seating, until the final couple of days when the seating was removed as the number of people in the area was too large to allow for sitting. There has been a programme of events including Calypso and Chutney Soca nights, singing competitions for children and adults, Miss Central Trinidad Queen Pageant (with huge monetary and other prizes for winners), Band competitions and the final Parade of the Bands. It has been non stop.

Events usually start with the National Anthem for which everyone stands respectfully, followed by a couple of minutes silence to pray to 'whichever god you like'. Then the fun starts with constant supplies of food and drink from pop up stalls. All the events are very informal. They have an MC or DJ but people feel free to wander around and dance or even pop up on the stage if the mood takes them. What they all have in common is VERY loud music.

We went to the Chutney Soca night not having a clue what to expect. I thought perhaps it was sponsored by a chutney manufacturer as sponsorship is important finance for Carnival. It was nothing to do with chutney. When we went home we looked it up on google. It is a fusion of Indian and African music and it says that if you can understand the words, which we didn't, you would blush all night. I did not need words to come to that conclusion. The explicit actions together with the giggles from the children and the tuts and head shakes from the more prim older ladies together with generals gasps and guffaws from the audience meant words were redundant.

We enjoyed the junior singing competition with ten young people who were the finalists, the youngest being only eight. All the songs were about social responsibility and the need to reduce violence and aggression In Trinidad. For example one had lyrics advising parents to listen to their children's music. It said that music can make you feel happy or sad, so what does non stop music about violence make you feel? Good question. Oh, I almost forgot the exception. One song was about the first female Trinidadian Prime Minister and what a good role model she is.

So we enjoyed the local Carnival activities comfortable in the knowledge that if the volume of the music became too much we could return to our room and still participate but at
St Lucia 40th Independence ProcessionSt Lucia 40th Independence ProcessionSt Lucia 40th Independence Procession

Think his legs are tired but he is still smiling
a slightly reduced noise level.

On the Sunday it was my birthday which turned out to be something of a damp squib for a number of reasons. I did receive some flowers, a new ebook and lots of ecards and birthday wishes all of which was lovely but our plans to go out for a special meal collapsed. Firstly, the only two decent restaurants were closed, one because it was Sunday and one because of Carnival. Ok, the third option was a very nice cafe/coffee shop with a good menu and we checked out in advance that it was going to stay open until five pm, closing earlier than usual because of the festivities. So we went in at 1.30pm for a special lunch. Except because they were closing early they were only cooking breakfasts. We had already had breakfast. The choice finally came down to fast food, pizza or KFC. We had a take away pizza in our room with a promise of a real celebration at another time. We did splash out on Haagen Daz ice cream but had to eat it all within an hour as the freezer was not cold enough to preserve it. Then the children's Carnival was delayed because of rain! Despite that day there were non-stop celebrations in the car park for the rest of the week.

On the Monday before Shrove Tuesday Jouvert takes place. Again this is a competition between groups who have bought a ticket to join a 'band' but the purpose of Jouvert is to present the opposite of Carnival proper. There are no beautiful costumes. Everyone is dressed in old clothes and band T shirts. The objective of Jouvert is to get as messy as possible as quickly as possible, using water, oil, mud and multi-coloured paint. Supplies of those are included in the ticket and some are provided by the Couva Carnival Committee. It was due to start at 6am but as most activities are at least an hour late we set our alarm for 7am. We needn't have worried about over sleeping. The bands woke us up at 4am as they prepared and tested their sound systems. When they party here it is no holds barred. By lunchtime when it drew to a close everyone involved was wet and multi-hued and so were the pavements and roads.

On Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival, we had arranged to go into Port of Spain with Tony, the taxi driver who had collected us from the airport. He was driver and minder. It had been made clear that was the only sensible way to visit. Who were we to disagree? The action takes place on the Savannah, a vast open area in the city centre. Tony managed to drive right in and park on the Savannah itself, no mean feat with the volume of traffic and roads closed off here there and everywhere.

We had to go through a security check point similar to an airport, a search and walk through machine, but when we came out the other side Tony said that he did not think much of their security as they had missed his flick knife! We had been warned by numerous people to take nothing of value so I only had my phone, no camera.

In fact, where we walked was not too crowded so it did not feel claustrophobic as it might have done amongst the crowds around the stage. The groups form and march very slowly, perhaps a hundred metres in thirty minutes, to the other end of the Savannah where a stage has been erected. Each group crosses the stage where they are judged as again there are big prizes for the winners.

We thought the music was loud in Couva. Here it was unbelievable. I had never imagined that the volume of sound could be so great that it felt it might kill you. Honestly. Each group has a truck alongside and they are so huge and close together, sometimes each one having ten to twenty speakers, and the individual speakers being bigger than me. The trucks at times are top to tail so you can start to imagine the volume. It was impossible to speak or hear, the thundering bases were so loud the vibration rocked our whole body especially vibrating in the chest region. Jim thought it was going to cause a heart attack. That was bad enough but a couple of times there was a certain resonance which affected my brain. It is hard to explain the feeling, not like an imminent faint, but as if there was a short circuit in the brain and although I could see it was as if I lost consciousness with my eyes open. It only happened twice and luckily only for a couple of seconds but was terrifying. Jim had exactly the same experience at the same time. Weird. Everyone else continued on as normal.

People join in the festivities regardless of size, shape or age. How it works is that individuals buy a ticket to join a band or group. They are then provided with costumes, music, drinks, food and security. They group together by their truck and ropes are held along both sides by security staff as the group moves forward. I think each group has its own song or music which is part of the competition. They are judged on appearance, music, style, energy and enthusiasm. Given the noise and heat I think they all deserve prizes just for being able to stand up. Although there is a lot of drinking I did not see any bad behaviour but it was still the afternoon.

We only lasted an hour and a half before we suggested to Tony that we leave. We were happy that we had seen enough but as we were quicker than expected Tony took us to visit the Temple by the Sea, a new Hindu Temple and the local beach on our way home. He said the serenity of the temples would help us all recover from the noise of Carnival.

In the evening the final local activity took place, the Parade of the Bands with steel bands on trucks moving up and down the main road. Again it was very noisy with even more people on the streets than we had seen previously. We resigned ourselves to a very late and noisy night saying that we could read and stay in bed tomorrow. We were shocked when at 11pm there was a short farewell speech and then total silence.

I am putting a selection of Carnival photos in the blog but they are from the phone so not up to camera standard especially when taken in low light conditions.

Next we are moving to a guest house in the hills to go birdwatching. That should be more tranquil than Carnival in Couva.

Additional photos below
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