Celebrating freedom at J’ouvert

The festival of J’ouvert kicks off the final two days of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, and if you’re doing it right you won’t get much sleep!

J’ouvert (the creole version of the French words for day break) has its roots in the history of slavery and emancipation in Trinidad. During colonial times, enslaved peoples created their own versions of the carnival celebrations of the French. And after emancipation in 1834 the celebrations came out into the open and took on a greater and more powerful significance. Well before sunrise, parades start winding their way through Port of Spain. The darkness itself masks revelers’ identities, allowing everyone to behave a little bit crazy and act not at all like their usual non-Carnival selves. The disguise gets even better when paint (and mud, colored powder, even oil) starts flying. Everybody dances and chips to the latest soca tunes following a band truck. And these days, probably a bar truck as well 🍻 Finally, at sunrise, folks wave the flag of Trinidad to welcome carnival Monday.

We met Jesse James’ bus at 2:00 am to ride from Chagaramas boatyards into town with a small crowd of fellow cruisers. We were all playing J’ourvet with the “J’ouvert Jumbeez” – a band of 3000 people, 3 DJ trucks, and 3 bar trucks. We had picked up our swag bags several days in advance and all the ladies had spent an afternoon of arts and crafts customizing our ugly yellow men’s t-shirts into something slightly cuter and more personalized. (None of us had paid extra for the sexy black “monokinis” that the more body-confident Trini ladies were rocking.) I had planned ahead and made coffee the night before in the hopes of finding some kind of energy in the middle of the night!

The bar opened at 3:00am (yes, I know this sounds completely and totally nuts) so we had time for a run and club soda in our matching insulated mugs to calm the nerves before the start of the parade. Good thing we packed ear plugs, because the soca music pounded so loud Capt Mike and I had to shout directly in each other’s ears to make our plans to stick together. We’d been listening to the DJ Private Ryan Soca 2023 playlist on Spotify for at least a month, so we knew all the songs and were definitely ready to “jump up” and put our hands in the air just like the Trinis (I’ve still got the song “Come Home to Me” by Nailah Blackman and Skinny Fabulous in my head – it just might be stuck there until next Carnival!)

The gates opened around 4:30am, and we slowly followed the trucks out onto the streets of Port of Spain. Mike and I made a pact to stick together and to watch our footing in the dark. Security staff held long ropes on either side of the street, so as long as you followed a truck and stayed between the ropes, it was impossible to get lost. Wow, there was a ton of energy! We didn’t really march, we pretty much bounced our way through town.

We had just gotten used to the crowds and the deafening music and the light show when the paint came out. Staff passed out plastic water bottles with sport caps full of red, blue, and yellow paint (supposedly washable, but you can’t prove it by looking at my sneakers) We shook our bottles and squeezed, spraying streamers of paint into the sky… and eventually back down onto our heads. I quickly dropped my bottle – there was plenty of paint flying from other revelers and from the trucks without my help. Capt. Mike took a more artistic approach, squirting smiley faces and polka dots on the backs of fellow JumBeez.  At a few points on the parade, colorful powder was thrown into the air to stick to the paint, and mud was splashed around our feet, but I avoided those variations as much as possible! There were even trucks with pressurized paint guns shooting paint 30 feet into the crowds.

Sunrise was subtle, but we gradually went from watching our footing in the dark to watching the crowds on the sidewalk who were out in force to see the parade. I have to tell you, there’s nothing cooler than seeing a full sized flag waving above the heads of a paint-splattered crowd in the first light of day. Back at the stadium, we “crossed the stage”. The DJs played the most energetic, jumpiest songs in soca and everyone, including the security staff, jumped up and down with hands in the air in celebration of daybreak, rebirth, and Carnival.

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