A succulent taste of carnival

“Howww ruff his rockafaaall correctleeeee?”

I frowned as I tried to distinguish my grandmother’s words between the crackly pop of static. Her voice faded in and out over a  bad phone connection and I wondered whether she was at home like she said or whether she was at a phone booth inside of a popcorn maker. “Nene, I can’t hear you. What?!” I shouted, frustrated with the distorted voice on the other line. I moved my laptop from one corner of the bed to the next, hoping to get a stronger connection. I sighed and, within seconds, the static got lighter as if apologizing for being so difficult.

“Now what is Carnival, exactly?” my grandmother’s voice asked.

“Um…errr…it’s…”

“The phone is acting up again,” she said, “I didn’t hear a word you said.”

“Thank goodness,” I thought to myself. ”Well, just look on my blog and you’ll see the pictures. That will describe everything,” I resolved, anxious to flee the Guiness Book of World Records’ most staticky phone call.

“Ok, I’ll talk to you later,” I deciphered amongst staccato crackling.

I sat back in my bed and thought to myself. After two months, four hundred pictures, and even a successful attempt to dance with a Carnival group, trying to get me to explain Carnival in Guadeloupe was as difficult as giving a thumb’s up without a thumb.

When people asked me what Carnival was, I recited a twenty-second elevator speech sprinkled with colorful adjectives and vague images of large parties. I’d say a little something like, “Carnival is absolutely phenomenal. I mean, it is utterly sublime. It is a cup of Mardi Gras in New Orleans mixed with a tad of the Bud Biliken Parade in Chicago, a tablespoon of African dance, a teaspoon of a Broadway musical costume shop, and a pinch of the movie Drumline.”

Anyone in their right mind hearing that description would imagine sheer chaos with feathers. But Carnival was not that. As Carnival ended, I realized that I had to get a good description to share with friends and family. I knew just the person who would help me out: Professor Nabajoth.

Professor Nabajoth was a thin man in his early sixties with skin the color of red clay. He wore invisible frame glasses and his head was the shape of a Teddy bear. He was always smiling and he alwwaaays talking. In fact, Professor Nabajoth was infamous for leading discussions about any and everything. Conversations would start off about international relations in the Caribbean and ricochet to the topics of curdoroy pants and Cuban jazz to Michelle Obama and daylight savings time. Nabajoth was a professor most days, and intellectual everyday, and a member of one of the most historical Carnival groups in Guadeloupe.

One Monday afternoon before our two hour class started, I asked Professor Nabajoth, “C’est quoi l’origine du Carnaval?” He smiled as most intellectuals do when they are asked a question they cannot wait to answer. “Carnaval est à la fois une revendication identitaire…” (“Carnival is an assertion of identity, on one hand…”), Professor Nabajoth paused as if in deep thought, slowly lifting his hand as if signaling his thoughts to come toward him. “Et à la fois une grande fête” (“And a huge party, on the other hand”). He chuckled long and hard, the corners of his eyes wrinkling up like two Chinese fans bellow his temples.

“A big party it is,” I said to myself as images of big belly women in feathers, hard-bodied men in heels, kids dressed in polyester suits and monkey masks, and thousands of bouncy onlookers spun in my mental rolodex.

I thought back to my first time at Carnival. I was sitting on my bed when I heard the reverberations of drums, the clacking of high heels, and whistles blowing from out my window. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my camera, and ran around the corner to come face to face with a polychromatic pack of women in haute couture madras gowns, of tall shirtless men playing saxophones and painted seashells, and of children cracking long whips in the middle of the street. Group after group sashayed, jumped and marched down long boulevard, accompanied by the strong smell of incense and the rhythmic vibrations of drums, seashells, flutes and saxophones. I bounced up and down and shook my hips from side to side, entranced by the vibrant energy of the mass. The sun set and, before I knew it, I had entered the mass and was dancing with Mas An Nou, a group whose costumes were made of lacquered palm leaves and fabric. We marched from the Amédée Clara impasse all the way to the MJC stadium. We marched in front of crowds of onlookers, through bright lights, through television crews. We stopped, chanted, hopped, shook our hips, and marched fervently toward the stadium. I smiled, happy that I was a part of the experience. “This is what Carnival is,” I thought to myself.

The colorful parades begin in January and ended just before Lent began. Every week, there were at least two parades going on on different parts of the island. The parades mark the celebration of the many dimensions of Guadeloupian identity: of social affirmations and political assertions, of music and dance, of the artistic craftsmanship particular to the island, and of the island’s vivacity. Carnival is the time to feel the rhythmic pulse that breathes life into the people on the island. That feeling is ineffable. It is something that can only be experienced.