Carnivals in Trinidad are a vortex of swirling colours, sounds and rhythms, revealing a nation's electric soul.

Some call it a “national obsession”; others, a “fixation”. But whatever the label, the persona of Trinidad has been synonymous with its spectacular Carnival celebrations. Dubbed as the “world's greatest street festival” the whole machinery behind its multi-million dollar preparation begins to roll mid-year onwards.

Situated about six miles off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea to the north, the Gulf of Paria to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Columbus Channel to the south, was once known as the “Land of the Hummingbirds”. Columbus on his voyage of discovery named it “Trinidad” in 1498 to represent the trinity of mountains he saw on the island.

I arrived in the capital city, Port of Spain, smack at the pre-Lenten Carnival time in mid-February. It was a free fall into a vortex of swirling colours and a headlong dive into its electric soul.

The festivity began in the pre-dawn light — a parade of ghouls stoked from the netherworld. During the dusk-to-dawn J'ouvert(French for “opening day”) people covered with mud, black grease oil, chocolate or thick paint, chipped (a short dance step) through the main streets of Port of Spain. They pranced to the rhythms created out of anything — spoons struck against a bottle or pans, utensils and kitchen graters.

Dramatic personae

This is the time for the traditional Carnival personas to emerge such as the jab jabdevils painted in blue or red, some with monster masks, bedraggled hair or hair sleek with paint, wet mud or oil. Symbolically, it is believed to imply purging the flesh and society of all that is demonic.

In direct contrast to this slime-and-grime retinue was the main parade of the Carnival bands that exploded on the streets the next day with thousands of participants donning flamboyant headgears, tall, gaily-painted feathers, skimpy or near-nudity outfits, their bodies and face glistening with glitter and speckled with rhinestones. The sequins and multiple beads of the barely-there clothing swayed to the shimmy of their dance. Those gifted with a “snake oil waist” rippled their belly and derriere with fluid ease. Many either chipped or were wining (a very suggestive sexual dance where two or more gyrate together back-to-back or front-to-back swiveling and grinding their hips).

The beat of the steelpan or soca band playing on flatbed trucks reverberated from gigantic amplifiers and pounded up from the earth beneath our feet. The popular songs of the year instigated the participants to “jump up, jump up”; “wave their hands” “chip or wine”.

It was a heady river of high voltage celebration where the whole nation was melded in a mesmeric, almost orgasmic unity. Some chipped with their heads thrown back in a luminous cloud of ecstatic oblivion.

Behind this sparkle face of Trinidad's Carnival is a history of slavery, colonialism, emancipation. The widely held belief is that the Carnival dates back to the days of French Catholic planters in 1789. The upper class celebrated the Carnival with fancy masks and elegant costumes prior to the abstinence of Lent.

Debarred from participating in these festivities, the slaves and indentured labourers held their own separate dances and masquerades in their ramshackle yards and barracks.

With the abolition of slavery in 1834 and after Emancipation in 1838, the celebrations unleashed itself in full blast with wild dances, grease paint and grotesque masks out on the streets accompanied by loud drumbeats. The British government tried to curtail and abolish by force what was considered in those times as shockingly licentious and obnoxious.

It was a time when African dance and music completely changed the face of the Carnival and began to aggressively replace the hoity-toity masquerade balls of the French. In fact, it revealed the obscure origin of the festival that dated back to Africa and had no connection to Lent at all. For, it was customary in African tradition to wear masks and parade in circles through villages as a ritual to bring good luck.

Snubbed as the “jamette carnival” (below the diameter of respectability), the French joined forces with the English authorities to ban the loud beating of drums. But the ex-slaves resorted to beating tall bamboo sticks, the tamboo-bamboo, on the ground to create the rebellious thud of their rhythms. They crafted biscuit tins and dustbins into musical instruments making these the first “pans”.

Today steelpan music originates from empty oil drums that are carved and tempered over fire. During the Panorama competition of Carnival time, hundreds play their music on a large podium stoking a heady blend of acoustical magic.

Trinidad is not just Carnival and revelry. It is reported to have the wealthiest economy in the Caribbean that is based on its huge oil and natural gas reserves.

The recently established five-star, high-rise Hyatt Regency Trinidad is a major part of the waterfront project. With its fabulous view of the Gulf of Paria, it caters mainly to the business and convention travellers and investors.

Quiet retreat

Trinidad's little sister island, Tobago, is about a 20-minute flight away or a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride. In direct contrast to Trinidad, Tobago is a quiet retreat locale where you can unwind and dissolve into the surrounding peace.

With its ring of South Atlantic coral reefs, the magic of an underwater world teeming with iridescent marine life, beaches, sun, sea and sand, about 210 species of migratory birds and a rich rainforest, Tobago is fast becoming an ideal tourist spot and being mapped into the itinerary of cruise tours.

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, in defiance of its small size, is aiming to perch itself on giant shoulders and become the next “gateway to the Americas”.