Four years ago, an old high school classmate of mine invited me to St. Lucia via a Facebook message. Kim noticed I was a travel addict and told me I should come to her country and experience Carnival. I don’t think she expected me to buy a plane ticket that very same day, but I did. Before I knew it, I was sending her money for my costume and counting down the days to when I’d be shaking my tailfeather for all of St. Lucia to see.
It. Was. Incredible. In all my travels, I had never experienced anything quite like it. Culturally, it was beautiful to see so many people from across the island gleefully united for one huge celebration. Carnival in St. Lucia occurs every summer in July, and there is a series of events leading up to the big parades. Among them, I was able to participate in J’ouvert, the famous street party that kicks off the annual carnival festivities in St. Lucia’s capital city, Castries.
Part of sustainable travel means appreciating local customs and participating in local activities to help sustain the economy versus big corporations. I traveled to St. Lucia to enjoy this highly cherished local tradition and stayed with Kim and her family for an authentic experience.
The name is a contraction of the French words jour ouvert, meaning dawn/day break. Why give it this name? Because this party literally lasts from dusk until dawn, and that’s just the beginning. It is traditional that not a single participant is left clean during this particular celebration, giving me no option but to be doused with blue paint all night, which resulted in us looking like sexy smurfs by the end of it all. After a long night of drinking, dancing, and smearing paint all over our bodies, we cannonballed into the ocean to rinse off our sapphire skin just before dashing home to get dressed for the main event – the Parade of the Bands.
“Wow,” I said when I looked at myself in the mirror after putting on my gleaming green costume and glittery makeup. I couldn’t believe I was about to walk outside in barely nothing at all. I simply closed my eyes and silently gave thanks that all the squats I did before my trip actually paid off.
After we were all satisfied with our cosmetic efforts, we headed out to join our band. “Mas Bands” supply participants with costumes, security, and food during the parades. When you sign up to join one of the bands, you are then able to “play mas” which is a term that refers to people who participate in the parade festivities, which include the Parade of the Bands on Day 1 and the Carnival Pageant on Day 2.
The first day was enough for me (I spent the next day sightseeing while everyone else carried on with the rest of the celebration). I never danced so much in my entire life! But for the average St. Lucian, this is life at its sweetest. When St. Lucia isn’t celebrating Carnival, they are preparing for it. Carnival is life. And after experiencing just a taste of it, I see why.
ST. LUCIA’S CARNIVAL VS. OTHER CARNIVALS
Carnival is an amazing celebration of life and culture in St. Lucia and other places around the world. Compared to other countries, St. Lucia’s Carnival has some unique factors. One thing that stood out was the level of intimacy. St. Lucia is not a big island – comparatively, the area occupied by St. Lucia is slightly less than 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. Playing mas in this country is like partying with an exceptionally large group of friends and family. Then there is the music – ah the music! I will never forget the sounds of St. Lucia. Soca is a type of Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago and evolved over many years across the other islands. St. Lucians have truly made it their own according to Kim: “Our music is very unique to St. Lucia. A lot of it incorporates the French Creole or Patois language, and you’ll get to learn a lot more about St. Lucia just by listening to the music.”
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CARNIVAL
When it comes to misconceptions, Carnival is full of them. Some argue that this celebration is raunchy and overtly sexual in nature, but locals defend the revealing costumes and sensual dance moves as simply being a part of Caribbean and African culture. Pop star Rihanna is one of many who has received great backlash for merely celebrating her roots. Kim goes on to point out that Carnival was originally “a Christian celebration that was established before Lent, a 6 week period where everyone reflects and gives up modern luxuries, really getting into the root of religion and penitence.” She hopes that as more awareness of Carnival spreads around the world, people will truly begin to appreciate its cultural significance.
If you’re interested in participating in Carnival in St. Lucia, start planning now! As soon as Carnival ends, the planning for next year’s festivities begins, and if you don’t join a band in time, you may find yourself on the sidelines (which is pretty amazing too). If you don’t want to dance in the parade, no worries! Enjoying Carnival as a spectator is just as rewarding. Plan to arrive in St. Lucia no later than the Friday before the parades start to experience the electrifying street party scene leading up to the grand finale. For more glimpses into Carnival life through the eyes of a local, follow my lovely St. Lucian friend, Kimberly on Instagram. Happy travels!READ: 12 AMAZING THINGS TO DO IN SAINT LUCIA