Tuesday, May 16, 2017

St. Thomas - a Deja Vu Visit

16 May 2017

We've been pretty busy, what with one thing and another.  Life, you know?

We had a fabulous time visiting St. Thomas, where we lived for 20-something years before we left for travelling in 2012.  Our visit was from 23 April to 4 May, right in the middle of St. Thomas' Carnival. 

I know, Carnival in much of the world is before Lent, and Carnival comes from the Latin "carne vale" - literally, "farewell to meat."  Carnival in Europe and South America is the last blow out before the somber mood, prayers, and deprivations of Lent.

But Carnival on most of the Caribbean islands has nothing to do with pre-Lenten bacchanalias.  Trinidad's Carnival is pre-Lent; all the other islands have Carnival at varying dates, usually related to something in the history of that nation or that particular island.

But sometimes, it's just because.

Example: St. Thomas's Carnival always is scheduled to
have the final week during the last week of April, unless Easter is in late April - then the final week is scheduled for one full week after Easter Sunday.  St. John has their Carnival culminating on July 4, because July 3 is Emancipation Day.  And St. Croix's Carnival is after Christmas, ending on Twelfth Night or Three Kings Day, January 6.   (And yes, that means the USVI has three Carnivals!)

I know, it seems illogical from a traditional viewpoint. But from a
celebratory and party viewpoint, this way people get more opportunities to enjoy Carnival, which probably is why it worked out this way.  

So yes, we planned our trip to coincide with the last week of Carnival on St. Thomas, the big events and partying in the streets of Charlotte Amalie.

Monday, I got my new debit card, no problem mon.  Tuesday evening, we went to the Carnival Village.  The huge parking lot next to historic Fort Christian (built in 1693, or at least that's the date on the building) is closed for three weeks while booths for food and drink are built, and rides and games are set up for the Children's Village.  During the last week or two of April, the village is open and there's music, dancing, meeting friends, eating, drinking, partying, and general merry-making all night long.

So we arrived, and of course ran into friends and co-workers we both haven't seen for nearly five years.  Lots of hugs, lots of talking to catch up.  Plus some of our favorite Caribbean foods (roti!), and lots of music.

My former school (the school where I taught for twenty-five years) has a traditional calypso/quelbe/and kind of jazzy band, and they were playing on the stage.  I went looking to see if I recognized anyone, and our registrar saw me.  So she took me up to the stage to say hi to the music teacher/band director - who gave me a hello and welcome ON THE MIC!!!  Seriously, my friends way in the back heard my name over the sound system - it was so funny to get this shout out across the village!!!

Then Wednesday is Food Fair - Wednesday is always Food Fair.  More traditional foods (another roti, and a small coconut tart).  More traditional drinks.  Traditional crafts.  Most of it served up by ladies wearing madras skirts and head wraps - yes, traditional clothing in the West Indies.  Food Fair (and much of Carnival) is all about the culture and traditions of each island or nation, so there are foods and drinks and arts/crafts that are handed down from generation to generation, old family recipes and traditions that link people to their past.  This makes Food Fair one of the most special days of Carnival, at least for us, because we get an idea of the St. Thomas of centuries ago.  Or it feels like that, anyway.  Although I'm not sure how far back the steel pan bands go - steel pan music is the soundtrack for Food Fair, so everyone sort of dances from booth to booth with some kind of calypso or reggae beat.

As with any major event, there are kings, queens, princes and princesses - and I met the 2017 Carnival Queen and First Runner Up, who happily posed for a photo.  Gorgeous and talented young people compete for the titles, both island wide (for the king and queen) and within schools and organizations (for the princesses and princes).  

And then, Thursday morning.  J'ouvert morning.  J'ouvert is French for "I open" and this is the early early morning road march.  People dress up in crazy ensembles and gather with friends to follow behind a flatbed truck with their favorite band playing this year's Carnival songs.  There's dancing, drinking, and all kinds of carrying on.  This year, powdered paint was the big thing, people covered in paint and huge dust clouds of color floating in the air - and occasional watering trucks to turn the pigment into true paint.  J'ouvert always seems to me to be the closest to a true bacchanalia - just chaos and a time to act as crazy as you've always wanted to act.  

We're part of the "sidewalk posse," meaning we just stand on the sidewalk dancing and watching the revelers, occasionally waving to someone we know, or getting a hug, or whatever.  We were at the waterfront by 5:45 AM, and saw all but one band go by.  Most had big crowds, though one sad band had no one following them.  (And we agreed, the music was pretty bad.) 

The winner of the road march is basically the band with the largest crowd following them - and downtown is closed while thousands of people gather for a  couple of miles along the waterfront drive, blocking traffic and just having a big street party for several hours as the sun comes up. 

After that early start to the day, the rest of Thursday is usually spent either napping or at the beach - though I think there were also horse races in the afternoon.  We went to the beach and enjoyed the warm tropical water, which we've missed.

Friday is the Children's Parade.  There are majorettes, bands, steel pan bands, school groups, community groups, princesses and princes, and anyone or everyone gathering to watch our island youth perform and keep the culture alive.  I'm including photos from the Children's Parade in 2012, because I didn't go - we spent time catching up with good friends, trying to see everyone and squeeze them all in.  But I've always loved the Children's Parade, with all the color and the kids trying so hard to do their routines, looking so cute and serious at the same time.  The older kids and the teens are more relaxed and happier - but the little ones are so cute in their concentration.

Yes, we had Sabbath services at the synagogue on Friday night, another chance to catch up with friends.  And then another round at the Carnival Village, with more music, more friends, more dancing.

Saturday is the Adult Parade - this is a HUGE event, and can run from 10 AM to about 9 PM, when the fireworks are supposed to start.  I had planned to meet up with friends, but my knee was complaining about the dancing from the night before, so I stayed in and iced it.  So my photos are again from Carnival 2012, but you get the idea of what it looks like - colorful, cultural, a little chaotic, and mostly joyous and celebratory.

There's a saying "Rain don't stop de Carnival" and this is true - it rained on the Children's Parade, it rained a little on the Adult Parade, and it rained on Saturday evening for the fireworks and the Last Lap (the last round at the village).

But we headed down to the shopping mall by the cruise ship dock, and had a light dinner.  Waited out the rain, and found a spot to stand right by the dock - and about 20 minutes late, when the parade was over, we had a spectacular view of the fireworks over Charlotte Amalie Harbor.  Loud and percussive, colorful and flashing bright, lighting up the clouds and skies and competing with the lights of the village.  Fireworks are always wonderful, and for me, the closer I am the better they are.  So it was a wonderful location, far from the crowds and actually closer to the fireworks themselves.

I should add that we've usually lived in an apartment with a decent view of the fireworks, so we never needed to go anywhere to see them.  In fact, several times we'd have friends come over for a fireworks party - dinner before, dessert after, fireworks a separate course. 

And then, sadly, Carnival was over.  Many people go down to Magens Bay for a Sunday party, and we've done this before, it's fun.  But we met up with friends for brunch, and skipped the beach.

We had four more days on St. Thomas, so we focused on seeing friends and co-workers.  I spent half a day at school, visiting principals and teacher friends.  And of course the murals I did with my students - two murals, each nine feet high and twenty-seven feet long.  Designed by students, and we even made some of our ceramic tiles because we couldn't find the colors we wanted or needed.  It took us four years to put up and complete the two murals, with a summer grouting (with a very good friend who volunteered to help with that aspect).

Understandable why I love seeing murals, especially mosaic murals, as we travel around the world!!!

You can also see why I'm so late posting all the fun times from St. Thomas.

I also need to add a shout out to our friends who own the lovely resort where we stayed - if you visit St. Thomas, this is a boutique hotel complete with studio or apartment rooms (yes, with a kitchen), pools, restaurants, and it's really close to Magens Bay, one of the top ten beaches in the world (according to National Geographic magazine).  Stay here:  http://www.magenspoint.com/

I'll try to catch up over the next few days, but we're now in New York, and you know how busy it can be in the city that never sleeps.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, my goodness...thank you so much for sharing..I never knew all this about Carnival in the Caribbean.
    We visited about 5-6 different islands before choosing Anguilla as our fave and then went there for years...built a house there in 2003, which we just sold last year.
    We were there for Carnival many times (early August, I think to celebrate their independence from Britain) but would never get up for J'ouvert despite intense pressure to do so...lol!
    It's, too!