6 Things You Didn't Know About Trinidad
Writing and Images by Yarminiah Rosa
Ok, OK. If you saw my Instagram Story about how I became a backup dancer for Machel Montano and saw how big the crowd was at that performance, this first point will surprise you: Carnival is not as hype as it once was. Here's the thing: most paid parties surrounding Carnival are jam packed and actual Carnival day was busy, but not as full as I would have imagined.
When I visited Trinidad this past February, I stayed for a month and was able to witness the ebb and flow of pre and post-carnival Trinidad. The build-up towards Carnival is akin to that of a human pulse. There’s a rich legacy to Carnival that I only began to scratch the surface of during my first visit to TT in 2013. Since then, my Trinidadian friend Arielle has done a wonderful job of introducing me to the very basics of the history of Trinidad's Carnival beyond feathers, boisterous colors, wining and drinking. There's an undeniably contagious, high-pressure anticipation that seizes the island in every aspect of daily life. There's a repetition that ties every thing together; the radio booming soca from every crevice of the island, announcers' stark voice constantly interrupting the musical program to promise you the best night of your life at one competition or another. The large costumes on TV are run by sweat, batteries, mechanics, remotes, electronics. The tinsel flowing graciously or haphazardly in the wind. It's a whole scene.
Surprisingly, that excitement didn't translate outside of the radio or TV screen. The bars were mostly empty save for blaring speaker systems. The world famous Savanah stage the Saturday before Carnival Tuesday was virtually empty. As we walked past these colorful stalls it was clear the place was dead. Walking past each booth was like walking through a theatre production, each a different scene of a dramatically colorful movie whose actors were missing.
It was my first time in Trinidad for Carnival so I have no litmus test, but almost every Trinidadian I met mentioned how Carnival is not the same and how dead it is in comparison to previous years. In many ways Carnival was like a mirage, it came and went and just like that when it was over, all the radio stations ditched soca for afrobeat, RnB oldies and Cardi B.
2. Trinidad is ethnically diverse
The thing about being brown while visiting a Caribbean island is that, depending on how well you fit in, you have the opportunity to walk around unbothered. And that's what I wanted, so I mostly kept quiet in group conversations and tried to blend in because I didn't want to explain where I was from or worry about being followed home when walking solo. I wanted to seem like a local. But in hindsight, there was no need to conceal my American accent - in Trinidad, there is no lack of “outsiders”
Wherever I travel, I treat the way I am received by the local people as a gateway to understanding a country's history, culture and current state of affairs. The people of TT don't try and hustle you for being an outsider. Trinidadians just go about their life doing what they need to do to get by. You don't have to worry about the coconut man charging you more because you are foreign.
Part of what makes Trinidadians so chill towards outsiders is the fact that each year thousands of tourists flock to the island to experience carnival, so Trinidadians are accustomed to seeing large swaths of tourists. In addition, the island is made up of several Venezuelan refugees, Syrians, Chinese, Guyanese and Indian people- a beautiful mix of cultures that (from an outsider's perspective) makes for a more tolerant group of people.
3. Trinidadian sarcasm is real
If a Trinidadian makes a joke about you, don't take it personally. My friend Arielle is one of the shadiest folks I know, but I didn't fully understand where she got her sarcasm from until I visited her in Trinidad. I quickly learned that her humor and shade were endemic to the island. Trinidadians have a particular brand of shade that simply cannot be replicated. It's actually hilarious. I love the honesty of the people I met there. There is something super refreshing about being around people unafraid to tell it like it is.
4. It's not as liberal as you think
Women all over the world hold the responsibility of being both desire-able and off limits. Personally, I've experienced some degree of street harassment in nearly every country I've visited, but I was rather surprised to learn that despite Trinidads Carnival being world known for its beautiful women in feathers and jeweled bikinis and boisterous peoples dancing and partying at all hours of the night, that Trinidad wasn't as liberal as one would think. I was able to glean just how Trinidadian women balance sensuality the other 360 days of the year that cushion carnival season. The short answer: they supress it. There is a distinct drama to the sidewalk as stage where concrete and female bodies are center piece. I was both fascinated and frustrated by this tension between release vs. restriction that I witnessed in daily life in Trinidad. The majority of women purposefully wear pants and long sleeved shirts in spite of the island's notoriously humid weather in order to minimize street harassment.
5. Not all Trini food is created equal
When it comes to frying dough and blending pepper, hands down, Trinidadians are the best to do it. Because my first time trying Trinidadian food in Trinidad was so epic, I naively assumed all subsequent meals would be equal. Nah. At all costs, please avoid the franchise Double King. Their doubles taste like boiled eggs. You should ask around for the most delicious doubles to get an honest opinion of what's good. Also, the bake and shark at Richards is epic. Get that and pile all the sauces on. The magic of Trinidadian cuisine lies in the sauce. They make the most aromatic, delicious flavorful sauces, so do not skimp on that.
6. Money is tight
I love the feeling of finally getting the hang of a new place I’m visiting. Slow travel allows that. Knowing that 55 TT (trinidad dollars) will get you a liter of coconut water, that a small pack of my beloved Soldanza plantain chips should cost no more than 4 or 6 TT and that a normally priced bottle of water is 6 TT but if you’re out at a club, it’ll easily cost 11 TT. Getting a grasp of these details gives me a sense of grounding and confidence as I get to know a new city. Knowing this helped me understand Trinidad's economy.
The economy of Trinidad is not doing so great right now, they are in the midst of an economic recession. One of the reasons is because the country's source of income was not diversified when the market crashed. Ever since oil prices dropped a couple years ago, the country has been struggling to get back on its feet. The demand for USD is very high on the island. Many Trinidadians have family in the US that they need to send money to or businesses whose product needs to be purchased in US dollars. But the good news is, the economy is forecasted to begin recovering this year. The receding price of oil combined with the lack of US dollars coming in has the country struggling to maintain the value of the TT dollar. Currently the international exchange rate is 6.74 to 1 USD. I exchanged at a rate of 7TT at places like this liquor store or with various locals who wanted USD. By doing it this way, I got a far better rate than any rate I would’ve gotten at my bank in the USA, and I helped some Trinidadians get their USD’s! Win win situation.