Grenada Carnival: Spicemas 2023

A Week Aboard S/V Sabado: 8/13/2023 – 8/20/2023

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Last Sunday, we spent the day at home, relaxing and catching up on chores. Our once peaceful mooring field quickly filled with boats flocking to St. George’s ahead of Carnival. We sat on the bow and watched the chaos unfold as everyone tried to squeeze in wherever possible!

We were coaxed out of bed around 4 Monday morning by the sound of beating drums. Carnival had begun! We could see the flashing lights and torches ashore. We made a pot of coffee and waited until first light to join the party.

Historically, Carnival is very similar to Mardi Gras; a pre-lenten festival to reflect, celebrate, and indulge. While the wealthy threw extravagant parties, the slaves “played mas” (“mas” is short for masquerading). Using whatever materials available, they would dress up in mockery of their masters or as folklore characters like the Blue Devil, Fancy Indian, and the Midnight Robber, to name a few. After slavery was abolished, people still participated in masquerading as a means of celebrating their freedom and remembering the past. 

After Grenada gained independence in 1974, it was decided they would celebrate Carnival in August to differentiate themselves from the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival and allow expatriate Grenadaians/those with Grenadian roots to return to celebrate during the European and North American summer. As the event grew in popularity, they began calling it Spicemas, a nod to the island’s nickname: Spice Island. Spicemas is now one of the largest Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, with participants from all over the world. 

Monday morning was “J’ouvert,” (pronounced joo-vay) a Caribbean/Creole word derived from the French term “jour ouvert,” which translates to “daybreak” or “dawn,” marking the official start of Spicemas. It kicked off around 3 or 4am but was still going strong when we took the dinghy to shore at 6.

Thousands of people took to the streets, dancing through town to the staccato rhythms of Soca music blaring from trucks piled high with speakers.

The most popular character seen during J’ouvert is Jab Jab, a horned devil dripping in used motor oil or burnt molasses, carrying chains to symbolize the years of bondage and suffering during slavery.

Despite the dark history and striking costumes, the energy at J’ouvert is high. We were stopped multiple times by locals telling us they were happy to see us there, wishing us a good experience, and encouraging us to dance with them. Everyone was respectful and asked permission before putting paint or oil on us. We felt welcomed and safe. If you plan on attending J’ouvert, I’d recommend wearing clothes you can throw away after and leaving your phone/jewelry at home. We brought a tiny bit of cash and our GoPro in its waterproof case, but that’s it! You can prime your skin like the locals with a thin layer of shortening or Vaseline before heading out to help the paint and oil wash off easier after. 

We dinghied home through pools of oil, reflecting every color of the rainbow.

Other islands have banned the use of motor oil in their Carnival celebrations, but Grenada remains loyal to the tradition. After J’ouvert, the locals bathe in the ocean. We washed ourselves down with dish soap off our stern. These practices don’t necessarily sit right with me as an environmentally conscious person, but it is a complex issue with cultural implications I can not understand. Rather than criticize, we did our best to control our actions by steering clear of the oil as best we could!

The festivities continued through the night.

Tuesday morning was eerily quiet as everyone rested up for Fancy Mas. The familiar sound of thumping bass resumed just before noon, somehow sounding even louder than the day before. As we were getting ready to head ashore, the wind picked up, the sky got dark, and the rain began. We decided to stay aboard Sabado, keeping an eye on the boats illegally anchored in the mooring field. It rained heavily most of the afternoon; we even got thunder and lightning!

Though still gloomy, we climbed into the dinghy once the rain stopped to see what was happening on shore. Fancy Mas, sometimes called Pretty Mas, is a display of freedom. Men and women parade through the streets in extravagant costumes- showing as much or as little skin as they please. Many of the costumes include sparkling gemstones and brightly colored feathers.

This portion of Spicemas felt more relaxed than J’ouvert. The parade was broken up into groups, called “bands,” that were spaced out, breaking up the crowd. Although it is advertised for tourists to join bands and purchase outfits to participate, from what we saw, tourists were predominately onlookers. As the bands moved through the streets, participants danced and posed for photos, typically clutching large cups of rum punch and grinning from ear to ear.

We got home just before another wave of rain began. We decided to run the generator to give our batteries a good charge. The rainbow film of oil from J’ouvert had cleared out of the mooring field, so we made some water, too. I’m not sure what happened to the Fancy Mas participants during the rain storms, but the music didn’t stop until Wednesday afternoon!  

We spent the rest of the week crossing some things off our to-do list for the upcoming cruising season. We are planning to cross the Pacific, so we’ve been working on organizing insurance, visas and arranging for our safety equipment to be serviced beforehand. 

Friday, we went to shore to run some errands. We stopped by Spice Isle Coffee Company and chatted with the owner over a couple of espresso shots. He went from being a computer programmer in the USA to roasting coffee beans in the Caribbean! We bought a 5lb bag of beans and hope to return to check out their roasting process soon. 🤞🏼 

Yesterday we stayed home, anticipating a storm forecasted to bring up to 30kn winds. We took our sunshade down, secured our bean bag chair, and kept ourselves busy with chores. We got a bit of rain, but nothing close to what we were expecting! Today we’re planning on doing some routine maintenance tasks and cleaning. What are you up to? ❤️

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