What could possibly turn a traveller away from these celebrations of pre-Lenten joy? Well, colour me claustrophobic but a swollen, lurching crowd is the last place I want to let loose. Then there are the practicalities of visiting a carnival destination, like skyrocketing prices and disrupted transport. Disorientation and paying double for a dorm bed have a way of quashing carefree revelry.
I want to like carnivals, and I envy people who do. Moving to London, I was determined to love Notting Hill Carnival. Regulars described a feast of Caribbean culture, vibrant processions, and community pride made merrier by copious booze. But jubilance is squeezed out of me (quite literally) when I’m wedged between a Fanta-coloured tutu, dancing fit for a mosh pit, and a lost five-year-old tugging at my jeans.
I persevered, using all 30cm of my available space to ‘have a good time’. I swayed. I clutched a can of something tepid. I watched costumed dancers jig past. But soon I was wringing Red Stripe out of my ponytail and dodging a rank-breathed gent who seemed sure we’d be concluding the festivities with a jig of our own.
For me, the party was over, despite the feeling I should be having the time of my life. But carnivals are rather like Hotel California: you can check out, but you can’t leave. Your party spirit ebbs into the gutter – along with so much warm beer and glitter – but the carnival behemoth stomps on regardless.
I fantasised about crowdsurfing out, kneeing my new ‘friend’ in the eye along the way. Instead I ducked between sharp elbows and tiptoed over a pool of vomit. Even then, I wasn’t free. Security personnel waved survivors through a diverted pedestrian system so confusing, Escher would have pegged it a masterwork.
Transport disruption, I’ve learned, is one of the four horsemen of carnival apocalypse (the others being rising hotel prices, vuvuzelas, and inexplicable beads). So I should have learned from my Notting Hill failure during a road trip in France when ‘diversion’ signs clogged my route to the medieval town of Besse-St-Anastasie. By sheer coincidence, I was arriving on festival day.
Oblivious to what lay ahead, I navigated my rental Polo through Besse’s narrow streets. Part-way through a U-turn, I heard music blaring. Suddenly a swan-shaped float careened around the corner, headed for my car. Masked party-goers leaned out and cheered as I stalled the car spectacularly (you try keeping a steady foot on the clutch when attacked by a papier-mâché bird). After painfully manoeuvring past the float, I completed the crawl to my hotel, slamming the brakes each time a reveller staggered into the road.
So spare me the hard sell on carnivals and their showcasing of culture. Call me a carnival curmudgeon but I’ll be there after the parades, once the last headdress has been downed, basking in the calm of returning normality.