Forget it, stop the music: I have become a real-live Guadeloupan. I'm haggling at the market, I'm cold at night when it's 18 degrees, and yes, I have danced in a carnaval parade.
Carnaval itself is a week in February, but since Christmas has been over for, what, almost two weeks? everyone agrees that it's time for a new party. So every week-end from now until Carnaval, plus a few afterwards (to tie us over into Easter parties), there are just-for-the-hell-of-it parades in select towns. My landlady sisters are the big bosses in a parade group called Magma, and Jacqueline said I should come along to Sunday's big bash in Trois-Rivières. My private calendar told me I wasn't going to be feeling great that day (ladies, are you with me?) but couldn't think of an excuse fast enough, and then suddenly she was dropping off my fruit seller's dress and giving confusing and vague instructions and that was that.
It turns out that a Carnaval parade is a very complicated procedure, with specific steps to follow. If everything goes according to plan, it can run like a well-oiled machine. Here's a rundown:
1. No one tells you what time you're leaving because no one knows for sure what time it starts - also because everyone here talks in circles around you and never actually answers a question directly, so that the answer to "what time are we leaving?" is something like "you see, I'm in charge of our parade, so I have to be there on time" or "you understand, it's better to be early than late" or even "we need to be there either in the morning or in the afternoon," until you say "okay, great! see you then!" - so Jacqueline shows up at your door at 2:30, throws a petticoat at you and yells, "the bus is leaving! go, go go!"
2. You drive at German highway speeds through town and chase down the Magma bus, then sit on some burly trombone player's lap because there are no more seats.
--> 2b. You smile politely as Burly Trombone Player makes racy comments about what you might be selling other than the fruit in your fruit basket. Hilarity ensues.
3. The musicians play and sing until you get off the bus, then again when you all get back on to go to the correct meeting spot.
4. You look at the other women in your group and admire their flattering costumes, extravagant make-up and glittering jewellery, and you think, "wow - look at all these curvy women! Traditional market ladies' dresses sure are sexy!"
5. You look at yourself in a car window and discover that in your too long and too big tablecloth dress and no make-up, you look flat-chested, short, flabby and pale, a sort of demented Bo Beep, and you consider getting back on the bus.
6. You strap on your straw hat, take your enormous basket and join the rest of your parade group, standing in the parking lot and waiting for the start signal.
7. After 45 minutes of standing in the sun in your long-sleeved tablecloth, you hear a rumour that it's starting, so you shuffle into parade formation in the street and get ready to begin.
8. You wait while the Magma bosses go find half the musicians, who went to a bar when they got tired of waiting.
9. Once reunited, and after three false starts, a broken drum strap and a last-minute pee break for Burly Trombone Player, you're off!
10. After about five minutes, you stop and clear to the side so that a parade group representing slavery - wearing newspaper scraps all over, with dirt-stained faces and huge terrifying whips that no one has told the children not to use when they're in the middle of a crowd of, say, US - can move in behind you in line. Parade resumes.
11. After about two minutes, it's decided that the slaves' drumbeats are conflicting with those of Magma and the other groups, so you clear to the side so that they can move back in front of you. White tourists along the side of the road turn off their camcorders again and make comments about folkloric charm. Parade resumes.
12. You remember too late that life in Guadeloupe is uphill, including parades. Carrying your car-sized basket and swinging your swaddled hips, you parade up and down through town until you get back to the starting point.
13. And then you do it again.
14. And you haven't had a washroom break in three hours.
15. While loving the exciting rhythms provided by the musicians who are walking behind you and watching said hip-swinging, you become suddenly and intensely aware of your shyness at dancing in a parade in front of hundreds of spectators. Your being the only white person in the entire affair - not counting the camcorder-wielding tourists giving you enthusiastic thumbs-up from their hotel balconies - doesn't help, as you are the hot topic of most conversations around you and the fact that you're wearing a traditional island costume, rather than the costume of the period's colonizing bastards, feels like a huge sham.
16. When it begins to rain halfway through the first circuit and you think, "too bad, I guess we'll have to pack it in," you are wrong.
17. When the rain becomes an all-out downpour, Carribbean buckets-from-the-sky style, and the spectators run for cars and bus shelters and the curvy ladies' soaked white lace dresses reveal the cleverly-chosen black bras and panties underneath and the rain distorts the sound so that you can't hear the beat from the twenty-five musicians who are three feet behind you and you think "okay, joke's over, it's more than time to pack it the HELL in," you are wrong.
18. In the end, though, with the musicians playing louder and faster in the rain, spectators screaming encouragement and honking car horns, and the ladies practically jogging to keep up with the beat, you start to feel like a real do-or-die Carnavaller. Wicked.
19. You find you have a new and overwhelming respect for women who can sexy-shake their booty AND walk at the same time, which is not so easy after all, even if you have more than enough of the booty itself. Ahem. You pray you don't look as stupid as you feel and make a mental note to practice when you get home.
20. By the end, wearing a big, wet and heavy tablecloth, your straw hat melting over your face and your bare feet aching because your wet shoes were too slippery and you couldn't keep up, you suddenly realize that you're shaking your ass for all it's worth, singing in Creole and winking at the die-hard-even-in-the-rain spectators who are screaming from under their umbrellas like you're Madonna in the Pride parade. You get to the end point, over three hours from the initial departure, and you think, "what, over already?"
21. Snuggling up against your new best friend, Burly Trombone Player, you sing along with the musicians the whole bus ride home, where you have a hot shower and a cup of tea and go to bed, only to shake your booty all through your dreams.