Notting Hill Carnival has been my favourite 2 days of the year since I first went when I was 16, mainly because it’s the only time when it’s acceptable to have a bottle of alcohol in your hand from 9am, dance/jump around on the street wearing hardly any clothes, blowing your whistle/horn every 10 seconds, and having a laugh with random strangers of all ages and races.
The procession full of people in brightly coloured costumes is a big part of the Carnival, but I’d never considered playing mas (taking part in the procession in a costume) until 2012 when my friend did it. I went to find her behind her float, planning on just saying hi, but the atmosphere there was so amazing that I ended up staying dancing with her and the other masqueraders for an hour. It was then that I promised myself I’d play mas the next year.
I didn’t have any contacts in any of the mas bands (groups) so I just Googled “Notting Hill Carnival mas bands”, checked out all their websites and picked the costume I liked best, which happened to be with a band called Burrokeets. My friend and I signed up on their website, giving our measurements and the deposit. It was about £150 for the costume (which you keep after), 2 meals, unlimited alcohol and soft drinks from the truck all day, a goodie bag and a ticket to the thank-you party.
We picked up our costumes a few days before Carnival from the Burrokeets mas camp (each band has a mas camp which is their base where you can go to view the costumes and book if you don’t want to do it online). Thankfully it all fitted well, but I was still a bit hesitant about the whole thing. The costumes are obviously really revealing and there are always thousands of people watching the procession, and I’m not even a good dancer…
The morning of Carnival Monday came and all my fears went away once my friend and I were putting on our bright makeup and costumes and blasting soca music out of her speakers. Armed with nothing but our cameras, whistles and flags (it’s traditional to bring a flag of your country to Carnival), we set off on the tube from Liverpool Street. This guy was doing his best not to look at me:
We’d been told to meet at a specific side-road near the outside of the carnival around 8am because the truck was supposed to pull out at 9. We knew this wouldn’t actually happen because it was 9am “Caribbean timing” (in other words you have to add 1 or 2 hours to find out what time it will actually happen). Just to be safe we arrived there at 9.30am. Unsurprisingly we were one of the first masqueraders to arrive and the truck wasn’t there yet.
On that road there were about 5 other mas bands getting ready as well. Everyone was spraying themselves with glitter, taking photos and making final adjustments to their costumes. My friend and I bonded with 2 sisters from Trinidad. This is us while we were waiting to get on the road:
We were given breakfast and managed to find a toilet to use in a recording studio on the road (we needed to empty our bladders to avoid having to queue with members of the public for disgusting porta-loos along the route). Eventually at about 12 we all got behind the truck, the music started and we headed for the carnival route.
People who lived along the small roads heading towards Carnival were standing outside their houses smiling and taking pictures, but it was nothing compared to the attention we got in the actual carnival. I must have stopped to be in photos with about 300 different people throughout the day, including my mum who managed to find me after looking for 3 hours:
We danced along the road for 8 and a half hours and I was happy that I never had to use the toilet! I was planning to get drunk with the unlimited drinks but actually after 1 rum punch I decided I was too hot and sweaty so I just wanted water. Honestly the atmosphere had better effects on my hapiness than alcohol ever has.
The parade route goes round the edge of Carnival so I didn’t see what was going on at the static sound systems where I would have been had I not been playing mas, but I saw a different side of Carnival. It was so nice to see all different types of people just loving life together! Some of them were standing by the road just enjoying the colourful costumes and taking photos, and some people who didn't even konw anything about the soca music playing from the truck came behind our float and danced with us, telling us how great our costumes were and how much they were loving the carnival. All the other masqueraders made me feel really welcome and for example if a part of my costume was coming loose, they'd tie it tighter as soon as they noticed without me even asking.
I don’t see many occasions like this in England, where so many different types of people come together, talk to strangers and are happy, but I love it so much and it restores my faith in humanity. From that day I made a promise to myself that however old I am, whatever job I have, I’ll always make sure I’m in England for the end of August so I can be behind a truck at Carnival.
To read more about Zoe Reeve's adventures in England and abroad, head over to her blog at https://zoereeve93.wordpress.com/