I’M LYING IN THE STREET. MY ORANGE HEADPIECE WITH PINK FEATHERS HAS FALLEN over my nose. A frantic drumbeat pounds through my chest. Orange-and-pink-costumed dancers jump inches away. But I’m not about to be trampled; the animated woman straddling me, gyrating to the music, protects me. She is smiling, showing off for the spectators lining the road, standing on cars and filling the bleachers above. She bends down, squats over my waist and shakes her hips wildly. She is helping me survive Trinidad’s world-famous Carnival. She is not my wife.
I met her earlier, marching through the streets of Trinidad’s capital, Port-of-spain. It was 10 a.m. We were shoulder to shoulder among hundreds of Caged Canaries. We’re in the band called Tribe, whose Carnival theme for its 5,000 members is “Birds of a Feather.” Ahead of us were hundreds of Kiskidees in yellow costumes. Farther up were the Brazilian Macaws. I had seen one earlier in spectacular blues, reds and yellows who bore an uncanny resemblance to the bird itself. Yes, dressed in Caged-Canary pink, I had Macaw envy.
But I had my doubts too. Approximately 60 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s 1.3 million residents are participating in today’s Tuesday Mas, short for Masquerade. Add some 36,000 visitors flying in for the festival, and that’s 800,000 people in attendance along this parade’s 6-mile route, making this the granddaddy of all carnivals in the Caribbean. It’s also embedded in history as the principal celebration of the island’s freed slaves.
I gave little thought to such things when I experienced Carnival on aruba many years ago, fresh out of college. I was single. I saw girls in skimpy costumes. I saw an anything-goes dance fest. A fun party. But now scanning my flock, bouncing more feverishly with each step, I wondered whether this carnival on Trinidad was really mine to celebrate at all. My white skin told me no. My wife, thousands of miles away, said no.
“Picture?” a plus-size Trinidadian woman held her camera before me. As I framed her in its viewfinder, she moved close to a friend of equal size. I expected to see downy smiles, perhaps an arm over the shoulder. Instead they danced seductively with each other — for Carnival, for freedom, for Facebook. So impassioned was her friend, she almost fell. Handing the camera back, I leaned in and yelled over the music, “You two aren’t afraid!”
“At Carnival, you can’t be afraid!” her friend snapped, almost head-butting me, smelling of Johnnie Walker and Coke. Maybe Coke.
“My friend is drunk,” the other apologized into my ear. “But she’s right: Don’t be afraid!” She nodded to bleachers alongside a section of road ahead, the first of three stages on our route. At each, a panel of judges will evaluate our flock’s dancing, energy and spirit. But the truth of it is the stage marks where “whining” commences on a grand scale. “Whining” is a tidy term for dirty dancing, but with rules. One: Women typically approach men by backing into them with their rear ends in full swing. Two: Men should not interpret this as love because … Three: It won’t last.
Of course, all this assumes a woman approaches a man in the first place. Confronted by the stage, judges and a competition that rewards outrageous dancing, I felt like the odd man out — our flock’s weak link. Worse, I had thoughts of dancing alone looking like, well, the lone white guy. My feet felt like cinder blocks. My hips welded to my waist.
“Look at me,” she said, still marching by my side, smelling the fear. I turned and saw her body billowing from an undersized pink bra and briefs. “I’m big,” she shouted. “You’re white. It’s Carnival. Just let go!”
I nodded. I told her thanks. I showed her my wedding ring and pointed to a pair of Kiskidees whining passionately on stage. “I can’t do that,” I yelled. She raised her left hand, revealing her wedding ring. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she said. Before I could ask what doesn’t mean anything — the ring or the whining — her friend bowled into us screaming, “It’s time!”
Our flock surged forward onto the stage. I never actually began dancing. I didn’t have to. The two large women acted as they had earlier with the camera; only this time, I was sandwiched between them. It was dirty and wrong, but there was no fighting it. The two were putting on a show. I was nothing more than their stage prop. My fears vanished, my feet lightened, and I even laughed. That’s when a booty bounce that should have sent me into the drunken friend instead put me on the ground.
I would get up, but she is straddling me, bending low in the knees and — uh oh — now the friend wants a turn. She jumps in, spins 180 degrees in the air and lands whining in a crouched position at my waist, facing my feet. Her rear end shakes mere inches from my chin. I turn my head to the side, but peripherally it’s still there. Shaking. I look to the sky. Still there.
People alongside the street are laughing. Others join — though their expressions are changing. Above me, the friend’s arms have shot outward. They’re making circles in the air. Her weight has shifted onto her heels, and she is falling backward. Canaries rush toward us I turn and close my eyes. The asphalt burns my cheek. I feel the pressure.
But that’s it. The Canaries caught her. They pull me onto my feet. I nod that I’m OK, and the group goes back into a dancing frenzy. Adjusting my pink-feathered headpiece to my forehead, I see the two large women now dancing with another man.
I’m alone, on stage, my worst fears realized, but not really. My costume is the same color as everyone’s here. We’re dressed for this moment. I’m part of a band, and we’ve just taken the stage. I bounce, I dance and by doing so, I blend. As for that other band wrapped around my ring finger, well, my wife will understand. Right, honey?
**EDDY PATRICELLI **is the editor-in-chief of ISLANDS. The next time he attends a Carnival party on a Caribbean island, he will definitely bring his wife.