A man staggers under a burning atlas, warning us of global warming. Behind him, a vulture rides on the back of a crocodile perched on the head of an African woman going to market. She turns and smiles at the crowd who duck and dive to avoid the crocodile’s teeth.
“Today we’re celebrating fifty years of Notting Hill Carnival,” shouts a steward.
A masquerader lifts her walking stick and conducts the cheers of the crowd. As she moves the slit in her shimmering gold skirt reveals her bandaged legs.
“And she’s been at every one of them,” says Elma, an ex-carnival queen, standing next to me.
She raises her eyebrows at two women, one black, one white. They’re wearing nothing but discrete jewels between their legs and red feather headdresses that trail down their backs. Their breasts, like upturned ceramic bowls, are painted in delicate red and white stripes.
“Things have changed a bit since my time, “ she adds.
Elma is sister-in-law of one of the original members of Taspo, the first steel band to play in Britain in 1951.
“You should go to Panorama in Hyde Park and listen to the steel pan,” she advises.
“What about the Calypso Tent?” I reply. “ That was great this year. ”
We gossip about the different acts in the calypso competition held at the Tabernacle in Powis Square. Contemporary ditties of the credit crunch were no match for the favourite, Passport to Love, a witty tale of women who are betrayed by husbands seeking a passport.
Carnival is no longer a one-off event. Besides Panorama on Saturday, the Children’s Procession on Sunday and the Adult Procession on Monday, there are calypso, samba and soca events; talks and films about the history of carnival and its roots in slavery. Notting Hill Carnival has become an important annual, multi-cultural event. Anyone can join a carnival, samba or steel band.
Heads turn as women in crinoline skirts, decorated with bars of music, point their toes and raise their lutes above their powdered wigs adorned with lime green feathers. Other women beat drum shaped crinolines with bright yellow pom-poms. This is the London School of Samba.
Flag waving revellers. Click image for more photographs of Notting Hill Carnival.
I join a flag waving, whistle blowing crowd and dance to music pouring out of loud speakers balanced on a slow moving truck. I smile to myself, at my fellow revellers and at the crowd. Where else can you see women wearing crocodiles on their heads or dance in the streets to the music of New Orleans, the Caribbean, Africa and South America? Only the occasional British flag, a route master bus and London policemen remind me of where I really am.
A version of this article was placed in the Guardian travel writing competition. www.theguardian.com/travel/2009/sep/19/uk-holidays-readers-writing-competition