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A Trip Fit for a Queen
A Trip Fit for a Queen
August 10, 2023
A country that had been on my “places to visit” list for more than a decade. A prayer request to do what I love most and get paid for it. A phone call that converged these two desires into a reality came on a Monday, and by Friday I was living in it.
The phone call came from a mentor and dear friend Juanita Britton, affectionately known as “Busy Bee.” A serial entrepreneur since childhood, she is most well-known for her successful retail businesses across the DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia), including a portfolio of more than a dozen airport stores. She also hosts an annual Holiday Gift & Art Show that attracts thousands of shoppers every year and manages an educational and cultural travel service company, which arranged the Cuba trip I wrote about last month. Oh and by the way, she also happens to be a Queen Mother in Ghana. Hence the pathway that led us to Trinidad…
How it all started
In October 2011, Juanita was officially enstooled as Queen Mother Botwe Nana Adobea II of Konko Village in the Eastern Region of Ghana, West Africa. She was bestowed this high honor through her non-biological connection with a family matriarch in Ghana known as a “King Maker.” Considering her extensive entrepreneurial success, in this role she is responsible for development projects and educational improvements for a community of nearly 600 citizens of Timber Nkwanta. Just in her short time as Queen Mother, she has helped to pave a 12-mile road there connecting her community with vital resources in other towns along the road, helped to build or fix nearly a dozen wells, and started a handful of businesses that are fostering economic development. She’s also supported the opening of a 3,000 sq foot library and medical post among other educational programs through Literacy Empowerment Action Project (LEAP) (By the way, they are in need of donations so if you’re looking for a great cause to support, consider donating!) On top of all that, she’s begun planning for a major festival that will further help to put this quaint town on the map, literally.
It was in this capacity as Queen Mother that she was invited to be part of the official welcoming and ceremonial cultural presentation for the Ashanti King of Ghana’s visit to the annual Pan African Festival commemorating the Emancipation Day celebration in Trinidad. Each year this major festival (only second to the festival of all festivals – Carnival) is held the last week of July, culminating on Emancipation Day, August 1. This day marks the day the enslaved Africans throughout the British Empire were liberated. Nearly 20,000 people from all over the Caribbean, Africa, and other countries across the world converge on the streets of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, to celebrate freedom and build a sense of identity and pride in their African roots. To sum up the experience in a few words…it was soul awakening.
The Home of Carnival
Upon arriving, we fully immersed ourselves in the Trinidad experience by indulging in some hot doubles, a local street food made of fried dough and curried chickpeas. I’m typically not into certain types of curry or chickpeas, but being the foodie that I am, you know I had to try! The verdict – delicious!
Next, we stopped by the Emancipation Village, also known as Queens Park Savannah, which is where most of the festival activities were held. It was here that I fell in love with the country and its people. From the talented vendors who sold their unique clothing, art, and food, to the performers who came from all sects of the African Diaspora to share their gifts with festival goers, it was truly a heart-warming and fulfilling experience.
Our Home in Trinidad
Our home for six days was the festival host hotel, the Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre. Sitting on a hilltop, the hotel overlooks Queen’s Savannah Park where we spent most of our days, so the hotel couldn’t have been more convenient. Out of all the things I enjoyed about this hotel, it was the views for me. A long corridor connecting the main building to the towers in which we stayed offered a breathtaking view of the Trinidad skyline and gorgeous sunsets. On the other side of the corridor was the hotel’s expansive pool area. I would’ve slept in that hallway if I could have.
While the executive suite where we stayed was quite spacious and offered two bathrooms and two large balconies, the furniture and decor left much to be desired. The hotel in general is in need of some upgrades, but fortunately, everything was clean and the entire staff was kind, welcoming, and accommodating. I give them major kudos for that considering the hotel was at capacity due to the festival and several other big events happening in the area.
As far as food goes, breakfast was my favorite meal of the day. The hotel offers a complimentary buffet breakfast that includes an omelet station, an assortment of fruit & pastries, meats, and even brunch items like roasted vegetables. Even if you don’t normally eat breakfast, a piece of advice – don’t skip it here!
While Tobago, the smaller of the dual-island combo of Trinidad & Tobago is better known for its beaches, we ventured out to Maracas Beach on our free day. A scenic one-hour drive to the beach from Port of Spain led us through a beautiful rainforest, which turned out to be one of the best and more memorable highlights of this trip. In addition to amazing photo ops, we indulged in souvenirs and local treats from vendors along the narrow rainforest road.
Upon arriving at the beach, which is located on Maracas Bay, tucked between a collection of magnificent mountains, we couldn’t resist indulging in another popular local treat – bake and shark. The bake part is fried flatbread and the shark is, well, pretty self-explanatory. Yes, in this beautiful island country, they eat the shark, not the other way around. What does it taste like you may ask? A really yummy fish!
The Queen’s Court
I was blessed to be invited on this trip to serve as a communications liaison for Queen Mother Juanita, along with two other Ghanaian beauties who were assigned the roles of linguist and assistant. Upon arrival, we immediately deemed ourselves “The Queen’s Court.” It was our responsibility to make sure that she showed up on every occasion representing well, and we were grateful to do so.
But don’t get it twisted, the queen’s court was not all work and no play. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves during our time off shopping in the village, sitting poolside at the hotel, and of course schmoozing at the lobby bar, the center of all the action. By the way, if you visit the Hilton Trinidad, be sure to grab a drink from my favorite bartender Micaiah and tip him well. He was awesome (not to mention easy on the eyes)! Tell him I sent you.
The King is Here!
Each year, a new dignitary from a country within the African Diaspora visits Trinidad for the purpose of experiencing how the continent is recognized and celebrated in this country. This trip for the Ashanti King Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, known as the Asentehene, was no different. Arriving a few days before Emancipation Day, he received a grand welcome from the Ghanaian delegation in town for the festival at the hotel. From what I understand, on the spectrum of welcoming presentations, it was pretty low-key, but to me, it felt like I was in a real-life version of Coming to America. Though this movie would be called Coming to Trinidad (smile).
By the way, I can say that I had another first on this trip. I got to meet a real life King! Of course, his handlers wouldn’t allow photos, but having the memory etched in my brain is enough for me.
To prepare for this welcome, Queen Mother’s court went to work dressing her in the finest of Ghanaian kente cloth and footwear. What struck me most about documenting this experience was the level of care and respect that is offered in honoring these traditions and celebrating their heritage. From the undergarments to the jewelry, everything is placed and worn for a specific reason and communicates something different.
Let Freedom Ring
Of course, on Emancipation Day, the grand welcome and fanfare went up several notches. A red carpet was rolled out, dignitaries were escorted on stage according to their roles and positions, and the crowd assembled on the other side of the red carpet to take in the momentous occasion. The speaking program included a range of speakers from local leaders and organizers of the festival to the Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago and foreign diplomats. The nearly two-hour program celebrated a rich African history, while also educating the diverse crowd on lesser-known facts about the country’s challenges with overcoming the effects of slavery.
The speaking program was followed by a lively parade and street procession filled with dance troupes, trucks carrying steel pan bands and African drummers, and colorful Moko Jumbies (stilt walkers) dancing among the crowd. It was quite an experience to be in the mix of it all. The Pan-African Festival website articulates perfectly that it is “a profound experience of ancestral reverence and joyful celebration of the triumph of the human spirit over tyranny.” It truly lives up to its claim of being the best and biggest celebration of the continent outside of Africa.
If you are someone like me who has had the desire to visit Trinidad, specifically for Carnival, consider the Pan African Festival and Emancipation Day as an alternative, or in addition, if you have the coins to swing it. Not only will you get the excitement and spirit of the country, but you will also get a true immersion experience into the rich African culture that exists at its foundation.