These past two weeks have been filled with milestones and experiences:
I traveled to my 30th country.
I experienced an (extremely small!) earthquake.
I played mas in another country.
And…oh, yeah…turned the Big 4-0!
Choosing the Perfect Costume and Navigating Travel for an Unforgettable Birthday Carnival Experience in Jamaica
Upon seeing the mas band launches, something stuck out to me: Jamaica Carnival would land on my 40th birthday. The Road March was on my literal birthday. Despite many of the frontline costumes jumping out to me, being a carnival novice, I had extreme trepidation about how I’d manage to bring it home (more on that later!)
After obsessing over what band to play with (thank you to FollowSoca and other masqueraders those who warned me about Xodus…whoooo, child!) and what costume to choose (so difficult!), I settled on a midline monokini in the Mystic Peaks section with the GenXS.
Teal/aqua/blue/green tones have long been a preference, so the choice wasn’t hard. My costume included a tiara, arm and wrist pieces, thigh pieces, and a neckpiece with complimentary fishnet stockings for $555. The wings were an extra $295 for a total of $850 (plus the “service fees”, which amounted to around what sales tax is in NYC.)
Next were the airline tickets and hotel.
Costume, airfare, or hotel first?
This is a common question in the carnival community. It’s hard to do one without doing all three in rapid succession, lest you make yourself susceptible to rapid price increases, thus fewer choices. (As a side note, I fear I may already be priced out of Trinidad 2024.) For Trinidad, that may look like a year plus of planning, booking the flight as soon as they’re posted (the March before), securing a hotel, then buying the costume when they launch in the summer.
Plan to spend minimum in the low to mid thousands in US dollars. I know at least one person who spent $10,000 USD. I also know people who’ve flown to Trinidad via Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and other countries, spending the entire day traveling, who saved mega bucks. Yikes! But you also have to understand just how coveted Trinidad carnival is.
My advice as a newbie is that you get a rough idea of how much you’re willing to spend, what concessions you’re willing to make (layovers 20+ hour layovers in Guyana for Trini Carnival, for example), and decide this wayyyy in advance.
Transportation Options to and from Kingston‘s Norman Manley International Airport
Knutsford Express, the country’s express bus company, will take you into Downtown Kingston. These arrive about every 2 hours, so it wasn’t a great option for me. There are also local JUTC buses that leave the airport for Kingston, if you’re doing it on the cheap. I used Viator and identified @islandridesja, which I ultimately decided to book for my return to the airport as well ($39.99 each way.) He was on time in a comfortable van and got us to and from the airport safely in a short time. I’d recommend his services to anyone.
Uber does work in Jamaica, though a word of caution. We were able to get rides to and from our hotel to locations in New Kingston without a hitch. However, when we attempted to use it in Ocho Rios, it wasn’t available. We also tried to get a cab later at night from Sabina Park and it wouldn’t work (though we suspect it may have been due to so many phone signals competing in one concentrated area.) This caused a sticky situation, as we had limited Jamaican dollars and had to find an ATM at 12:30am (!) Pro tip: carry a few thousand in Jamaican dollars so you can get a cab if the app fails.
Using public transportation is something I like to research and figure out before landing, but I never utilized it in Kingston. There are the JUTC buses, which are for travelling in the Greater Kingston area, including places in New Kingston/Saint Andrew’s Parish, as well as parts of Saint Catherine’s, like Portmore and Spanish Town. There are also private bus companies that work similarly to dollar vans in New York City and route taxis, which we used in Trinidad. We relied on Uber and walking.
As a New Yorker, walking is like breathing, so imagine us being in a very car-centric city. We didn’t encounter many others walking in New Kingston, though they do further into Central Kingston. That said, that sidewalks tend to be narrow and often in disrepair, plus crossing streets can be treacherous, so bear that in mind. The heat and humidity did a job on me. I applied sunscreen and hydrated almost religiously.
Finding Affordable Accommodation
Sometimes I must remind people that I’m essentially a budget traveler at heart. I don’t like spending unnecessary money, especially dropping big bucks on a place where I’ll mostly be sleeping and showering. Naturally, I filtered through aggregate websites for moderately priced lodgings that got great reviews and that’s how I arrived at Terra Nova Hotel. It fit the bill: located in New Kingston, $1,008 for 5 nights, a swimming pool, free made to order breakfast, and restaurant/bar on site.
The Terra Nova Experience
It was pretty quiet and there weren’t many other masqueraders that we bumped into there. Stefan was able to use the small gym in the morning and we were able to relax at the pool a few times. Breakfasts in the morning were a highlight. We’d get fresh fruit and juice made on site, coffee, and an entrée. I got to try their mackerel rundown and the ackee and saltfish with plantain were hits. The dining room is open air and overlooks lush gardens and a small goldfish pond. We also had wings and drinks at the bar one night, which was quiet, as we started pretty early.
The building is about 100 years old, just up the street from Devon House, and kept in immaculate shape with some modern touches while retaining its old world charm. The front parlor room, where we waited for many a shuttle or taxi, was adorned with antique furniture with soft instrumental music emanating.
I really liked the art on the walls, which was a mixture of tropical — think Monet or Matisse if they’d grown up in the Caribbean instead of Europe — and Afrocentric — masks with touches like dried flowers for hair protruding out of their heads and colorful patterns on their faces (a search shows that they were created by Jamaican artist Nakazzi Tafari.)
The Curious Contrasts of Kingston: From Bustling Streets to Tranquil Spaces
To be sure, Kingston is not known for its tourism and is a functional city. Sure, there are public beaches nearby (not on the level of the ones on the north coast) and historic buildings like Devon House and the Bob Marley Museum. People don’t typically come to Kingston for tourism. We knew this from the jump, and in all fairness, didn’t get to see a lot of Kingston proper.
As far as the Anglophone Caribbean goes, no other city is of comparable size to Kingston (Port of Spain, Trinidad, comes the closest but is still far smaller). That said, for a large city, we often found ourselves on empty sidewalks, as most people prefer to drive there. What also struck me as odd is that the transition from a frenetic busy city street (like the ones around Half Way Tree Bus Center) to a quiet, almost desolate one is rapid.
Business districts — like the area around Knutfords Express bus station — were also almost empty midday, which is in stark contrast to New York, or really, any capital city I’ve visited. Even on a Saturday afternoon, we were often alone for blocks as we made our way to Emancipation Park. It left me wondering where the heart of the city truly was that I was obviously missing. Because we never got the hang of public transportation there, our sightseeing was limited to walking and taking Ubers.
Hope Gardens – Chinese Garden
One place we did visit was the Chinese Gardens at Hope Gardens, a 15-minute drive from where we stayed. It seemed underfunded and understaffed, though the botany allowed for a much-needed escape from the sun and heat. There were very few visitors, so we had the place mostly to ourselves. It was less of a botanical garden in the way that, say, New York Botanical Garden is with an enclosed conservatory building with plants from various climates, and more of a park full of manicured greenery, like the Conservatory Garden in Central Park.
Is Caribbean KFC Really Better?
For ages, I’ve heard about how legendary KFC is in the Caribbean. For context, KFC — then known as Kentucky Fried Chicken—was big in the United States in the 1980s, then something happened along the way. The last time I had KFC was probably 15 years ago, and it was bland, greasy, and almost damp — just unsatisfying.
Stefan ordered while I took some video and waited in trepidation. At first bite, it was definitely different from what I’d remembered and in a good way. The breading was crispy instead of clumpy, the meat savory with a slight spiciness, and moist. I tore off the breading, which exposed visibly well-seasoned white meat. Ah, that’s the secret! I thought to myself. In any case, it beats American KFC any day and gives the best Popeye’s a run for the money. Guys, you did not steer me wrong.
Foodie’s Regret: Missed Opportunities in Jamaica
The Kingston Fete Experience
My primary objective was to play mas, so fetes were secondary, as most of my money was earmarked for airfare, hotel, and my costume. Still, I thought it wouldn’t be a full experience without at least one. Breakfast fetes, J’ouvert, boat cruises, all inclusive events, concerts: so many choices, so little time.
Maybe you know it, maybe you don’t, but I am an introvert (and a little shy.) I’ve travelled solo for years and loved every minute of it. This wasn’t one of those trips: I brought along my husband, who’s even more of an introvert. Listen, I love the music, dancing, colors, costumes, and bacchanal, but after a few hours, I’m ready to go home and diffuse.
After looking into everything that was going on, WiFETE looked like the best fit for us. I’ve seen a number of Soca performers over the past year and thought it would be a great way to ring in carnival. For $50 a ticket, I really couldn’t turn down seeing the live acts. However, as with most events, I didn’t stay until the end, so no Machel. Still a little sore about that but I’d be even more sore – and tired and irritable – if I didn’t get a decent sleep before the main event.
Highlights included Kevin Crown, who got the crowd hype and working up a sweat – I burned those drink calories off! – Nailah Blackman and Skinny Fabulous performing “Come Home,” and Bunji Garlin’s performing his Road March winner, “Hard Fete,” complete with live band. Gates opened at 4:00pm and even when we arrived around 7:00pm, people had mostly begun arriving. We didn’t stay for Voice or Machel Montano as it was getting late (Machel came on after midnight!) I guess means seeing Machel live is now a bucket list item. ; )
Leaving Sabina Park, there were so many phone signals in the vicinity that we couldn’t complete a Uber ride request and had to look for an ATM. Not the best idea and would definitely encourage anybody to carry some cash in Jamaican currency to avoid it.
Costume Pick-Up and Road Experience
Finding the location of my costume pickup was fairly easy (though the winding, snail-shaped street grids in New Kingston can be daunting to figure out.) However, I was still anxious until I had it physically in my hands. As a masquerader, we’ve all heard the horror stories of costumes never making it to the mas camp, pieces missing, and of course, janky, shoddy craftsmanship, leaving you with pieces falling off before you even get on the road.
Fortunately, GenXS‘s communication via e-mails and Instagram was top notch. The information was timely and concise, leaving very little room for confusion. GENXS did have an app, and the process was that you chose a half-hour window the day your section was released or any day after to pick up your costume. I arrived about 15 minutes early to the mas camp. However, I was promptly met, my information verified, and sent to sit in a large conference room used as the costume distribution staging area. An employee opened the box and reviewed what each piece was, then gave me my wristband, a physical list of instructions and logistics for the day, and a GENXS custom duffle bag. I was there for all of 5 minutes tops and on my way.
The brightly colored duffle “goodie bag” contained a cup with a straw and handle for drinks on the road, items like oils, complimentary and discount coupons to pre-carnival beauty treatments, a sachet of teas (which my husband is sipping, as we speak), soap, snacks, and some other small items. I know people from certain other mas bands were styling and profiling with their branded goodie bag items on the ‘Gram, but the truth is that while it’s a nice touch, that wasn’t really what I came for. One minor issue, though…
The Monokini Dilemma: Flattering and Unflattering Aspects of the Costume
Costumes not being tailored to larger women has been a topic for a while. I’m not just thick, I’m also tall. My entire life, since I was a toddler, was spent realizing that certain things would never be long enough on me. While I hated bikinis until the end of college, one-pieces traditionally never fit quite right. I’d often have to fashion a way to keep the straps from being pulled down as they stretched over my long torso. This was the main problem here.
Ready for the Road
Carnival Sunday and Breakfast at the Meeting Point
Carnival Sunday was my actual 40th birthday, though it didn’t feel like it. Breakfast was served at the meeting point, which was a large parking lot in Barbican, across from Loshusan Supermarket. I was concerned about waking up early, so opted to get ready and eat at the hotel. We took an Uber to the meeting place and seeing the food, I do regret not eating there, as it looked good. I did pre-game with two Mimosas and took a few selfies.
Now, while I clarified earlier that I traveled with my husband to Jamaica, I was solo on the Road. I’ve traveled alone and gone to many fetes alone, so I wasn’t too nervous. The drinks were flowing, people looked great in their costumes. Unlike my experience on Eastern Parkway (Labor Day Carnival), there didn’t appear to be any stormers.
That said, I saw revelers with the larger backpacks having challenges while moving, as people wouldn’t give them a wide enough berth, which is something I made a conscious effort to do. On the other end of the spectrum, some people lacked awareness and were inadvertently hitting people with their large feather backpacks. Some of the women had dangling feathers and ornamental pieces from the backpacks stepped on or torn off — nothing major, but you did see pieces on the ground. This made me glad I chose a midline backpack.
Unique Carnival Experience in Jamaica
In most carnivals, bands line up one after another on the route. Jamaica’s, however, gave each mas band their own route, start time, and lunch/dinner stops. It took about four or so hours to make it to the lunch spot, though it went by fast. Prior to lunch, there was a mini stage (more to encourage us to get on bad, as there were no actual judges) and spectator area set up at a car dealership. Here, we were able to get some snacks and drinks. I had some jerk chicken, festival, and a doubles, all of which were very good and a much-needed pick me up. The lunch spot was only maybe a 20-minute walk from there. I got jerk chicken, rice and peas, all of which were very yummy (though I dropped a piece on the ground trying to cut it while standing up…aww.)
The Only Challenge as Solo Masquerader
The most daunting part of flying solo is navigating the restroom situation. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get this monokini off and did rely on Stefan for assistance upon meeting up with him again near the lunch stop. The restroom truck was immaculate, and the stall was immediately cleaned after I exited.
As great a time as I was having, we both mutually decided it was time to get a cab and go back to the hotel to clean up and rest, as I’d had quite a bit of fun, if you get my drift. That turned out to be quite a smart idea, and I was out cold until I woke up at around 12:45 am the next day. I have my regrets about not finishing the carnival and immediately had tabanca, but overall it was an almost seamless experience.
And I know what you’re wondering: the costume was of decent quality, and none of the feathers or rhinestones came off on the Road.
The Challenges of Bringing A Feather Backpack Home
Travel is almost never without at least a hiccup, and for me, that was getting my feather backpack home. Some people throw theirs to the side of the road or give them away to children, but I had already decided that I was going to get this backpack home. This was the part of the trip that gave me the most agita. Months prior to carnival, I spent time googling methods of getting a carnival costume home without wrecking it, which surprisingly yielded far less content than I had expected.
Enter Carnival Capsule.
For me, the most useful tool to learn about fetes, carnivals, costumes, and tips has been Instagram by far. Somewhere along the way, I saw an IG reel about Carnival Capsule. Its creator, Tamara Belgrave from Brooklyn, New York, put a lot of thought into how people were going to bring the ginormous feather backpacks home from carnival. She created a solution to our problem and Carnival Capsule was born. I jumped on this when I saw it and ordered my own.
Upon receiving my Carnival Capsule, I was immediately impressed by its sturdy construction. The heavy-duty plastic gave me confidence that my delicate feather backpack would be well-protected during transportation. The 42″ diameter provided ample space for the backpack, ensuring it would fit without any damage. Stefan was able to bend the wire that fits over the shoulders and strapped that baby in. Thanks to the convenient handle, I could easily maneuver the Carnival Capsule through crowded airports. During my travels, I also received a few compliments from curious travelers as to what it was.
An Airport Ordeal: Overcoming Obstacles at the Check-In Counter
Once there, actually getting it onto the plane was far straight forward. If you plan to play mas in Jamaica, you should know that traveling with feather backpacks isn’t extremely common, and staff doesn’t appear to be trained regarding how to handle them. Upon seeing my Carnival Capsule, I received a variety of reactions from staff ranging from confused to curious to downright hostile, even as I explained what it was and that I wanted to check it at the gate.
After many questions and contradictory instructions, I was finally able to check it and go on my way, though airport staff made the experience much more complicated than it needed to be. Imagine my trepidation upon seeing a woman from my mas band with matching feathers and no kind of protection who thought she’d be able to place it in the overhead compartment. They made her check it, and let’s just say, I’m glad I wasn’t around to see what shape it was in upon landing.
Conversely, my luggage was the second item out of the baggage carousel and arrived in flawless condition, completely unscathed. It truly proved to be a lifesaver in terms of convenience and peace of mind. Carnival Capsule is a game-changer for masqueraders traveling home from carnival, so you know I’m gonna keep plugging it.
When it comes to attending a carnival, especially an international one like Jamaica’s, there are some valuable lessons I learned along the way.
Even if you’re not 100% sure you’re going to go. The earlier you start planning, the better chances you have of securing affordable prices for flights, accommodations, and other essential elements of your trip. I realized that waiting too long could result in skyrocketing flight prices from $700 to $2,000 or finding yourself locked out of available places to stay. Therefore, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time to research, compare prices, and make informed decisions.
Gather your crew
Whether it’s your boyfriend, sister, or friends, having a group of people to travel with can make a significant difference. Even if they don’t play mas, you can split the cost of a hotel room, transportation, and other expenses, making the overall trip more affordable for everyone. Plus, having familiar faces around can enhance the experience and create lasting memories together.
Do Your Research
Thorough research is another key aspect of making the most out of your Jamaica Carnival experience. Look into different mas bands, their costume options, and associated costs. Explore the various fetes and concerts happening during the carnival season, so you can plan your itinerary accordingly.
Researching local transportation options, such as shuttle services or public buses, can also help you navigate the city and save money on transportation expenses. By gathering as much information as possible, you’ll be better equipped to make informed choices and ensure you don’t miss out on any exciting opportunities.
Carry Local Currency
Carrying some Jamaican money at all times proved to be a valuable lesson. While credit cards are widely accepted, there may be instances where you need cash, such as for street vendors or transportation. Having Jamaican currency will save you from the hassle of searching for an ATM. Carrying some cash ensures that you have the flexibility to handle unexpected situations throughout your time at Jamaica Carnival.
With some careful planning, you can save money and have a more enjoyable and stress-free experience at Jamaica Carnival.