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Fidel Castro has been trying to dissuade his fellow Cubans from throwing the celebration since 1960. In Haiti, the festival is so revered that Michel Martelly (a Carnival singer known for drinking and disrobing on stage) placed third in presidential elections last November. In Trinidad and Tobago, participants smear oil, mud or chocolate all over their scantily clad bodies, while in Curaçao, they happily set fire to a giant effigy of the king of the festival himself.
The wild world of Caribbean Carnival will detonate on March 7 and 8, just before the spiritual repose of Ash Wednesday. What cities like New Orleans and Rio merely hint at, the Caribbean grabs and runs with in its effervescent fashion sometimes for months. Many islands have simply done away with the idea of Lent season altogether, and you'll find Carnival overlapping Easter in Jamaica, or popping up around Christmas in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Several island nations hold their Carnival smack dab in the middle of summer in defiance of the region's hurricane season. It took the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti to shut down Kanaval there, the announcement made reluctantly at the last minute.
But how did a Catholic fasting season (carnevale means "meat farewell"), originating in medieval Italy, become one of the greatest debaucheries in the western hemisphere? Historians say Carnival in the Caribbean began in the late 1700s with slaves not only mocking the masquerade balls of plantation owners, but also following African traditions in using masks and dancing to scare away bad spirits.
Today, the Technicolor giant of all Caribbean Carnivals happens in Trinidad and Tobago, the island group just off Venezuela's northern coast. Tens of thousands converge to make it the biggest in the region. And Trinidad's is also unique in that it's colored by the country's former Spanish and English colonial powers, French planters, African slaves, Indian indentured laborers and other ethnic groups. Beyond the dancing-till-dropping in the 105-hectare Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, there are serious competitions for limbo and stick-fighting. You'll spot Carnival characters like the ample-bodied cross-dressing Dame Lorraine, and feel free to grind against your partner in the all-out gyrating style of dancing called "wining."
And then there are the bands. Armed with steel drums and other percussive instruments, just one Carnival band can have thousands of members. Everything from Mozart to American rock anthems are played to the distinct beats of soca (a speeded-up form of calypso music). Costumes are showcased months in advance, and band competitions televised live. Winners walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, and often contracts and endorsements.
"I found it to be a fairly overwhelming experience, unrestrained glee at an ear-splitting volume," recounts David Swanson, who has traveled throughout the Caribbean for 25 years and authored numerous guidebooks on the region. "Trinidad's Carnival is a huge industry."
The country's National Carnival Commission speculates the festival brings in tens of millions of dollars over a two-month period. At the same time, nothing detracts from its timeless societal catharsis. "One thing that surprised me was the element of spontaneity that still percolates into the festivities," says Swanson. "There's always a rule to be broken, a breach of protocol to be finessed." Wining, anyone?