With Thousands Of Spectacular Costumes, Food, Drink And Music
By Anton Anderssen, Broadwayworld.com
I love a parade. I also love festivals. My post-doctorate studies are in cultural anthropology; as an anthropologist, we recognize that festivals “offer a unified focus for learning about history, government, community, social interaction, traditional values, and social change” (Audrey C. Shalinsky). The greatest emerging national carnival catching the world’s eyes is Cayman Islands’ Batabano. The word refers to the tracks left in the sand by Sea turtles as they return to the beach to nest. Although it has many similarities to Mardi Gras and Rio’s Carnival, this festival has nothing to do with lent; in fact, it is held annually in May.
As an anthropologist, the striking notion about such festivals is that it gives a chance for people from all walks of life to share a common interest. The ultra wealthy and the struggling artist can stand side by side and feel a sense of togetherness; something that rarely happens in ordinary life. Community spirit gets strengthened and social cohesion is fostered; there is also the fact that festivals are fun for everyone.
I visited the Cayman Islands in February to learn more about Batabano. I could tell the people were looking forward to the festival; many shops already had mannequins dressed in flamboyant costumes with magnificent headdresses sequined and adorned with colorful plumes. Our host hotel, Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, sat right on 7 Mile Beach. Oh, the sugary white sand and turquoise water was to die for. This is one fantastic upscale resort!
Miss Cayman Islands 1981, Donna Myrie-Stephen, is the face of Batabano. “The Cayman Islands is special, and we do everything different,” said Myrie-Stephen, “airfare rates during May are highly competitive, so this a wonderful time to visit. It’s not too hot, it’s not the rainy season, and it’s a perfect time for the entire world to come and take part! We really don’t want to take away from other carnivals like Trinidad or Brazil have, so we have a schedule timed just right.”
“There are two carnivals,” Donna said, “Junior Batabano takes place April 30, the weekend before the adult Batabano. The first is a celebration for family and teenagers; all the schools, government, and Private groups participate. The adult Batabano is held annually during the first week of May; we have spectacular corporate events, with amazing entertainment, silent auctions, and fantastic prizes. The government helps promote the carnival, and every year we are finding more and more overseas visitors come to celebrate with us. We have one of the most famous parade routes in the Caribbean: 7 Mile Beach.”
“Our carnival is going on 33 years now,” Donna said, “the parade route has turned into a majestic pageant of colors and spectacle. The avenue is wide so large bands and floats can easily stroll the route with ease. We are a safe island, and visitors love coming here to celebrate life. Last year we had over 2,000 participants in the parade in costume; 27 of our local chefs created scrumptious delights and set up shops in the food court to showcase their culinary skills. They brought seafood stews, lobster and fresh fish as well as other tasty delicacies. Local distilleries also brought beverages for those who choose to imbibe; guests can enjoy tasting samples of rums and spirits.”
Donna Myrie-Stephen is a beloved celebrity in the Cayman Islands. After winning the crown of Miss Cayman, she became the Rotary Club International Sweetheart; she is often an honored guest at the organization’s formal events. The Rotarians launched the carnival in 1983 and Donna has been involved in its growth since day one. Fifteen years ago, Rotary International passed the torch to Donna, and she is now the official director of the festival.
“Trinidad is celebrating over 100 years of carnival,” Donna said, “we’ve been around only 33 years, but I feel we have developed it, and now we have a lot of international interest. There are seven of us on the team that run Batabano, and we all have full time jobs in addition to planning the event. We don’t have any formal office, or formal administrative salaries; we hold organizational meetings out of my fashion store. We are passionate about the festival, and we make it happen by any means necessary. We are hoping that the government will come on board in a big way after they see the benefits of promoting this tourism product, and get the proper funding to us so it can really take off and head into the direction it should go. The sky is the limit, since we have a safe island that is easy to get to. We love people here, and we’re ready for the carnival to explode once we get proper support behind us.”
The Cayman Islands was hit by hurricane Ivan in 2004, causing widespread devastation. Some people thought they should cancel the festival. “This was the time, like no other, to hold Batabano,” said Donna, “We are here to celebrate life and living; this is our testament to endure hardships and stay committed to our community. This was the time to participate in something that frees the mind and soul; experience the exhilaration of living. Batabano is a proven product that builds camaraderie and lifts morale; it can do so much!”
“We have over 100 nationalities represented in the Cayman Islands,” said Donna, “and we embrace everyone to come together to celebrate with us. By embracing other cultures, we learn about people, and get to understand each other more. We want everyone to experience our music, dance and food.”
“My vision for the future of Batabano is to invite the neighboring islands to join our carnival and have an international kings and queens competition. Trinidad has a competition as such, and the costumes are utterly amazing. Some of them are 20 feet high, on a rolling platform that spews fire, with pyrotechnics that are fantastic. I would love to sell to my island the opportunity to host something like that. It would have massive international appeal.”
Donna’s Batabano costume took two weeks to create. “I like very colorful costumes; I’m always in blues or greens. The blue represents our island’s water, and the greens represent our environment,” said Donna. “My costumes always have meaning. Over the years, my costumes have taken on different life forms, and they tell my story. I am carnival. It’s in my blood, it’s in my veins.”