“There’s something about summer, isn’t there?”
* * *
You sit down on the concrete, national-colored stoop that runs across the front of the open-air market next door. The sun is burning hot, not a cloud in the sky as you take cover in the only spot of shade under the overhang. There was very little traffic that day, being a Sunday in the heart of Carnival. Yet every car and truck that did go by, you made sure to notice who was inside. The anticipation had been bubbling up inside of you ever since you received that unfortunate text that your brother’s flight had been cancelled two days earlier.
Just then a navy, four-door vehicle appears around the bend of the green, Grenadian hillsides and barrels into the first stretch of buildings of your town. Inside the vehicle and sitting on the left-hand side, in what would be the driver’s seat back home, was the familiar face you had long-awaited to see. This was it, Tom finally made it to Grenada.
The past two days had gone by like a blur. After your parents had left that Friday afternoon, you hosted a couple of the new Response Volunteers, Stephanie Peña and Amanda Cady, for a stop at Fish Friday and Mansa’s with Don and G before the big Soca Monarch concert that was taking place in town that night. One of the biggest events of Carnival, it’s the competition where artists vie to be crowned the next “Soca Monarch,” thus earning the recognition of producing the best soca song of the year. It’s the type of show that you don’t want to show up before midnight, because the actual party doesn’t begin until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
At Mansa’s, it was Don’s surprise reunion with Terry, one of the regulars over at “D Banana Bar.” They had an instant friendship from Don’s first time in Grenada back in December, so needless to say Terry’s eyes lit up with baffling surprise and gleamed with joy as they left the bar arm-in-arm and laughing.
A few games of pool and a drink or two later, we had caught a bus down to the National Stadium in town. Getting through the gates a short while later, you arrived just in time as the second performer of the night took to the stage. Weaving your way through the crowd on the field, you settled on a small, open spot in the grass. Lights flashed brightly from the stage, illuminating the faces in the crowd bright colors of white, red, yellow, and green. You knew all the hit soca songs from over the summer, particularly with all the bus rides you’ve taken in the past month; consequently, you knew which songs were going to be the hits. The artists danced across the stage as they performed their songs, the crowd jumping and dancing to the beat. Swept up in the euphoric environment of the show, you never noticed the passage of time as the sky began to lighten. The judges announce the winner of the Soca Monarch competition, Lil’ Natty and Thunda with their hit song, Get In Your Section. For the second time in as many years, they were crowned the soca monarch for Spicemas Carnival 2018.
The following day you went to the Panorama show with much of the same group: Don, G, Stephanie, and Amanda, while joined this time by fellow PCV John Lyness. The steel pan show, known as Panorama, was cancelled last year since the stage was not constructed properly. Therefore, the steel pan bands, having been disappointed and neglected last year, came back with a vengeance as the various bands across the island performed their songs. It was a fantastic show, an easy-going highlight in the action of Carnival.
That being said, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t take a small nap in the stands during the show. It’s a Carnival thing, you explain to the others, who had looked at you a bit confused when you did. After all, when you’re celebrating for five consecutive days and nights, you have to catch a cat-nap anytime you can. You see it all the time at each of the shows. Their confusion turned to understanding as at one point or another, you saw each one of them sleeping in the stands, as well.
After the Pan show was The Biggest White Fete, so after changing into a white T-shirt you moved to the next stage over as the Carnival continued. What ensued was much like the previous night at the Soca Monarch, soca hits being performed on the stage and everyone on the field and in the stands dancing to the rhythm. The only difference this time, however, was everyone was wearing white. In the midst of the show, Ayisha, the director of Camp GLOW, appeared as she walked past you, and after a brief celebratory drink you parted ways. The GLOW family vibes were alive and well, as that was just the first of many encounters with the former fellow counselors of the Carnival season.
And now you’ve come full circle as it is now Sunday and Tom has finally arrived; after greeting him with a hug, you take his luggage and settle him into your apartment. It’s a waiting game now, for the biggest days of Carnival, Monday and Tuesday, were fast approaching. You pour a few drinks for Tom, Don, and G, the trio set to take part in what will be the party of the year.
“Mr. King!” a voice calls in as South, a good friend of yours, appears at your open front door.
“South!” you respond, hopping to your feet. “Come meet my brother, Tom, he just got in for the Carnival.”
“Your brother?” he asks. “Respect, man.”
He explains to us he’s cooked up an oil down, Grenada’s national dish, over at your neighbor’s apartment. So after handing him a couple of plates, he takes off to return a short while later, sharing the national dish with you and your friends. The perfect Grenadian meal before the ultimate Grenadian celebration.
* * *
You’re standing at the end of the road in Gouyave, unusually silent this early in the morning. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, you got a later start than you anticipated. You’re waiting at the bus stop out on the road, while the others sit in the bus shelter. The crickets of the night still echo reverently, as it’s only 3:00 in the morning. The waves slap subtly against the rocks on the shore across from you. You were told there would be buses running, but you haven’t seen any for the past forty-five minutes or so. A few other people are standing by the shelter with you, giving you a glimmer of hope that a bus would still be coming. Your hope is dwindling, however, as the J’ouvert (pronounced: “joo-vay“) was already beginning in town.
You hear a car door slam shut off to the right, catching your attention. It’s Nose, a local guy you compete with at the basketball court and a teammate from the tournament you played in back in March. You run over to him as he walks back from his car to his house beside the bus shelter.
“Hey Nose, morning. You happen to be heading to town?” you ask hopefully.
“Yeah, just now.”
“Any chance me and my buddies could catch a ride with you?”
“How many of you are there?”
“Myself, my brother and two others.”
“I’m not sure if you can all fit, but we’ll check you before we go.”
You return to bus stop, relieved you have a potential back-up plan to get to town if a bus doesn’t come.
Another fifteen minutes pass with no bus in sight; Nose’s car backs out of the driveway and pulls toward the bus stop. Two other guys standing at the bus stop jump toward the car: “Going to town? Can we get a ride?”
Your heart bottoms out, thinking these guys were going to steal your only ride to town.
“Well, you see,” Nose’s brother, Alvonn, in the driver’s seat, says casually, “My brethren right here kind of already asked for a ride.”
“Really?” you ask, almost surprised.
“I mean, if you guys can fit.”
“They can’t fit there’s too many of them! They can take bus let us go!” the others shout.
“Nah, we can fit,” you say confidently, opening the door and diving into the backseat of the small, four-door vehicle. Tom, Don, and G pile in behind and on top of you.
“Integration at its finest,” you laugh to yourself, relieved.
When they drop you in town, you begin the long walk to reach the J’ouvert. The faint blue of early morning light was beginning to threaten the black curtain of night. Vendors lined the streetlamp-lit Carenage, where you stop to grab a salt-fish and bake to eat. Walking on, you follow the stream of people heading toward the fast-paced thumping of music in the distance. As the daylight begins to break, you find yourself being surrounded by more and more people.
A few of them were still relatively clean, but the farther you walk the more people you find covered head-to-toe in thick, black engine oil. A young man stands, laughing in the middle of the road, slapping oil from a bucket on himself and his friends.
“Kelson!” you call out.
A former Camp GLOW counselor, his eyes light up with surprise when he sees you for the first time since the camp.
“I got my brother and some buddies here, mind if we get some of that oil?” you ask excitedly.
“Yeah, man!” He laughs as he begins pouring the bucket oil on you and your friends.
You continue weaving through what’s now become an over-crowded road. More oil rubs on you with each casual bump on the shoulder, the air hot with congestion of body heat and motor oil as you work upstream against the flow of the crowd. The road beneath your feet seems to shake as you pass the massive trucks, loaded with speakers booming to the fast-paced rhythm of soca. People surround the truck, dancing on and behind it as they follow it down the road. You pass one truck and its crowd, then another, and another, keeping an eye out for a few familiar faces in the sea of oil and paint.
Reaching a roundabout junction, the crowd divides momentarily before merging again to continue the march. On the side of the road were the faces you were looking for, Peace Corps Volunteers Hannah, Stephanie, Amanda, and Melinda, who were standing on the side grinning and laughing through their oil-smeared faces. Finally having the whole squad together, we dove back into the downstream flow of the crowd and followed the trucks.
“Scott!” a tackling hug hits you from the right.
“Roya!” you reply, laughing as you hug your oil-covered, former camp GLOW counselor and fellow Single Ladies dancer, friend.
A quick exchange of hugs and hellos between her and the other PCVs, she marched on with her entourage and we continued on with ours. From early morning up through noon we marched, following the oil-covered masses and dancing behind the trucks all the way to town. The sun lingered behind the clouds, mercifully saving us an extra few hours from the unbearable heat that comes from being caked in engine oil and caught in the sun. Coming up the final hill, the penultimate turn before reaching the Carenage and the end of the march, you step aside momentarily.
“Dude, this is exactly what I saw in my dream,” your brother tells you. “Literally, this exact scene.”
You’re surprised by the comment, but then again you’re not. You look ahead to the sea of oil and paint, devil horns and dragging chains, drums and horns, bandanas and flags all moving past you. It stretches straight down the road tucked tightly between a warehouse’s chain-link fence and a football field, the field astoundingly clean in comparison to the raucous in the street.
This was your second Carnival, your second J’ouvert: a celebration derived from its roots in Mardi Gras, colonialism, and slavery. Unable to celebrate Carnival alongside their colonizers and slave masters for being unjustly perceived as, “descendants of the devil,” the Caribbean people took it upon themselves to embrace the discriminate label and celebrate the “Jab Jab,” during Carnival by wearing devil horns and dragging chains, doused in oil. If you ask around, other islands might have a better Carnival, but Grenada is notorious across the West Indies for having the best J’ouvert.
Although chilling and even prophetic as it might seem, it’s no surprise to you he saw this hill’s viewpoint amidst the J’ouvert in his dream, because that’s exactly what it seems like. When you’re partying with over a thousand of your closest Jab Jab friends doused in engine oil, celebrating a unique cultural explosion that J’ouvert is, it’s every bit of a dream as much as it is reality.
* * *
You’re roused awake by the ringing of your alarm. Rubbing the sleep from your eyes, you roll out of the bed. Stumbling through the apartment, you nudge everyone awake: Tom, Don, and G, all napping on various couches, beds, and chairs throughout the place. Spots of oil streak the walls and seat cushions of your apartment, remnants of the J’ouvert just a few hours before. Gouyave’s J’ouvert, however, never stopped as the music still reverberates through your windows from the road outside. You shake your head, baffled that they’re still celebrating out on the road and haven’t slowed down the least bit yet. But your J’ouvert being over, you dress in brightly-colored t-shirts and light-up hats and catch a bus to town.
Once again you’re walking along the Carenage of St. George’s, remarkably clean considering the oil-ridden J’ouvert that occurred earlier that day. Sand was strewn across the road, as if blown over from a strong gust of desert wind. Strategically, however, it seemed to have been laid out to absorb the engine oil from the morning’s J’ouvert.
Reuniting with the other Peace Corps Volunteers from that morning, you all stop and grab some roadside barbecue chicken, licking your fingers clean from its deliciously tangy sauce. The afternoon light has faded, taken over by a curtain of darkness. The U-shaped road of the Carenage is illuminated, however, as the orange glow of the streetlamps clashes with the bright white holiday lights strung between them. The moonlight glimmers peacefully on the surface of the water, evidently having sustained the cleansing oil bathes of the Jab Jabs that jumped in that day. You walk along the Carenage, following the stream of people heading up the road and following the music just as you did early that very same morning.
A short while later, you reach masses of people waiting behind idly running trucks. The fast, pounding rhythm of soca, per usual, blares from the speakers. You walk past the first truck, then the second until you find the one you were looking for. Arriving at the band you were slated to jump with, Ignite, you found yourself suddenly surrounded by people dressed in the same t-shirts, fedoras, light-up swords, and mugs that you had. Gathering together, it was time for the Monday Night Mas to start.
What followed was another night of massive celebration, the streets filled with thousands of Grenadians and foreigners alike, jumping behind the trucks dressed in bright, blinking lights. The night was dark, but in the roads you wouldn’t know the difference, everyone’s faces illuminated bright as day by the overwhelming presence of lights. The rhythm of the soca once again melts into your bones as you begin dancing to the beat down the road. A man stands from atop the truck in front of you, his voice booming from the mic:
“The judges’ table is coming up! Wave our sticks to the right! Now left! Right! Left!”
You raise your blinking, light-up sword in the air and wave it in unison with the rest of the band. One light in an army of many, a sea of lights spanned as far as you could see both behind and in front of you. The judges’ table was coming up, though, which means our band was about to be judged for our coordination, performance, unison, and costumes.
The music slows suddenly as the crowd halts behind the truck, dancing in place and holding each other back. The rhythm begins beating louder, and louder, and louder as you can feel the pressure mounting behind you; suddenly, just as the gates explode open in the Kentucky Derby, everybody runs forward as the beat drops, waving our swords emphatically.
The Monday Night Mas once again, was the “highlight” of the Carnival in every sense of the word. It was a night spent in celebration with friends both new and old, foreign and domestic. It went by like a flash, dancing in the blinding sea of bright lights. With a snap of the fingers you found yourself back on the Carenage, the trucks turning back and forth along the U-shaped road as the celebration came together and ran on deep into the night.
* * *
Once again, you’re roused awake by the sound of the alarm on your phone. Soca music has continued all through the night outside your apartment, amazing you that anyone can still be out celebrating for so long.
“They really don’t stop do they,” you laugh to yourself, shaking your head.
It was Carnival Tuesday, otherwise known for its Fancy Mas. It’s the pinnacle celebration of Carnival, where men and women alike dress up in elaborate and decadent costumes. This parade, thankfully for your tired and aching body, you weren’t jumping in. But naturally, since the celebration wasn’t over, you still intended to go down to town and watch the bands go past. This morning, however, your numbers were finally going to dwindle.
“You all ready to go?” you ask Don and G, as they zip close their tightly-packed suitcases in the guest room.
Physically, they were ready. Mentally and emotionally, however, they wished they could stay for just one more day of Carnival. Unfortunately, a prior commitment forced them to take an early exit. They justified it, though, by arriving the week before while your parents were still on-island, which suddenly seems like weeks, not days ago. Their taxi arrives and you and Tom pile in after them, taking the opportunity for a ride to town for the Fancy Mas.
Don and G’s trip had a little bit of everything, from the beaches and waterfalls, the local bars and fish fry’s, to the jump-ups and chaos of Carnival. They took it on with every bit of enthusiasm and joy, a true testament to their exploratory and outgoing personalities. In fact, you found yourself laughing at how well they caught on to the culture, as if they were Grenadian themselves.
When you stepped out of the car after reaching town, they climb out as well for a farewell hug. Let’s be honest here: sometimes a fading wave from a vehicle doesn’t do certain friendships justice anymore. A certain bond forms when you go through a foreign experience like that, something as unique and stimulating as a week-long bender that is Carnival. You were happy to have friends as free-spirited and open-minded to enjoy the cultural celebration with you, for it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Don and G got to meet not only your parents and the locals of Gouyave, but your brother and the other Peace Corps Volunteers as well.
So with one last round of goodbyes, you send them on their way. As the car turns the corner and disappears down the road, you and your brother once again walk the length of the Carenage and up the road, following the music to the bands jumping in the Fancy Mas. You are sad to see them go, but you’re happy to have had them here for that experience. A quiet relief soothes you, admittedly, knowing now it was just you and your brother from here on out. With each entourage of visitors, you can’t help but feel a slight bit relieved when their trip finishes safely and successfully on your end.
“You made it this far,” you comfort yourself. “Now for the homestretch.”
You think back to the past couple weeks that have made up your summer already. You survived a week at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). You powered through your business and reunion trip to St. Lucia. You completed the vacation stretch of showing your parents your host community and country. You endured a Carnival with your brother and a few close friends.
Finding a nice spot of shade on the side of the road, you and Tom sit back and wait for the bands of costumes, feathers, glitter, and music to come dancing past for the afternoon.
It’s hard to believe all that has happened since the summer holiday started just six, short weeks ago.
What you didn’t realize at the time, however, was that the best part hadn’t even started yet.
“Oh, look! Here they come now…”
* * *
To be concluded…