The spirit of the Caribana Parade, now known and sponsored by the Scotiabank, is very free in every sense of the word and has not changed in the 40+ years of its life though the fences get higher and the carpet-baggers try harder.
I hadn’t been to the parade in years. It is difficult to find a friend to go with me since I passed my mid-twenties. I wonder if I, and my circle of friends, are getting too old and stodgy for that hot crowd, winding and rolling, jumping and bumping all down the Lake Shore Blvd. In fact many of the people I mingle with these days have never been to the Parade though they’ve lived in the city for years.
And when I did find a new parade partner – one of those newbies – I decided that this time I should go by the paid entrance at the Exhibition Place. Back when I was a teenager, the paid entrance was for chumps who didn’t know better. Back then, it was understood that we pay the parade and the parade pays us with rhythm and energy – a fair exchange. This year though, after having been away so long, I thought, I should go by the paid entrance; old ladies need a designated seat and more service. I was intimidated by the idea of that massive crowd.
What service though? Certainly not on the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival website which has the design, functionality and typos of an amateur community website. They advertised a start-time that was way too early for anybody to be there happily – especially when the parade always starts late – and did not provide much information about how to attend the parade for free.
I went to the CaribanaToronto.com website instead for information on the when and where as well as my pre-parade psyche.
We took the ‘Express’ route to the Exhibition Place and was then required to walk a few blocks to the ticket booths by the Princes’ Gates entrance. There wasn’t any obvious signage. Fortunately, uniformed and friendly police officers were available to direct us – though official parade volunteers would have been more appropriate. What was most maddening was the route from the bus stop to the gates led away from the sounds of the parade. When we got to the ticket booths, the line-ups for the $20 entrance fee were long and ugly while the music continued to call us.
That was enough for me to ditch my conservative idea and lead my newbie reveler by the hand towards the lakeshore, joining the mass of free people – free to not line-up and pay money. Free to join the music and get closer to the energy WAY sooner than those poor people who weren’t informed better.
Once there the vibe was just as I remembered as a wee lass. Toronto’s lakeshore is transformed once a year into a fantasy. The costumes and floats animate fairy tales and science fiction. Kinda like the Santa Claus Parade but this parade is Never and Wonder land mixed with Caribbean rhythm and soul that pumps the air with brightness and movement. Among the hard-core revellers were many children, seniors and strollers. It is as much a family affair as it is a wild party. The crowd isn’t that overwhelming as long as one takes time and leaves impatience behind. Some of the sound systems could use a little less bass. Is that me being old or just appreciating quality sound?
Some traditional Caribana survival guide rules still apply:
- bring a towel or something to sit on. Once one has enjoyed some dancing and music, one can rest near the water where it’s quieter.
- bring own bottle of water; prices are crazy
- Don’t buy food from the first vendor one sees. Shop around.
- Try not to need the washrooms. They are horrible.
- But don’t de-hydrate.
A new caveat I noticed this year is the ice-cream in the ice-cream trucks which taste borderline toxic, though that’s no reflection on Caribana. Did this ice-cream taste okay to me when I was younger or has something gone really wrong with the recipe?
Since I was a teenager, the parade organizers have tried to put up barricades to separate the crowd from the parade for safety and orderly conduct and the crowd, including me, are compelled to break through because we have to dance with the floats and the costumed people. Today, I must admit the fences are a good idea in some ways. The parade flows and looks better. Once the crowd gets in, the parade slows and gets disconnected. Floats might become a half-hour apart creating gaps of silence where there should always be music. Garbage quickly fills the parade route. All those beautiful costumed people clash with all us regular-looking folk. Let’s face it, we just cramp their style.
Still those few moments of being part of the parade is an incredible feeling. As well, there is no other way to get close-up pictures with those beautiful people.
Caribana 2013 taught me that it is never worth paying to be free. And certainly, I am not too old to feel young again.