Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rio, New Orleans, and... Notting Hill?

Sure, everyone knows you can let the good times roll in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, or samba the night away in Rio during Carnival.  But who knew that the biggest street festival in Europe was London's Notting Hill Carnival?  I certainly didn't.  In fact, the only reason I even knew about the carnival were all the posters in the Tube.  But since we didn't have any other plans for Monday, we decided to check it out.

While I tend to associate Notting Hill with the sort of affluent Englishman portrayed by Hugh Grant in the movie Notting Hill, or with the celebrities who actually hang out there, this neighborhood also has a vibrant Afro-Caribbean population from places like Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Virgin Islands.  The carnival arose as a way to bring them all together and celebrate their heritage, and it attracts more than a million people over the bank holiday weekend at the end of August.  We happened to pick the "adults" day (Sunday's festivities were geared towards kids), which was centered around a day-long parade with lots of music and vendors selling jerk chicken and other Caribbean foods.

There was some concern about holding the carnival at all this year, in light of the recent riots, but they beefed up the police presence and moved back the closing time to 7 pm to discourage any unpleasant behavior.  We were surprised to see that the entire neighborhood was closed to cars -- probably close to an entire square mile of London was devoted solely to the carnival.  I imagine many of the local residents left town for the weekend, especially since they couldn't even park their own cars on the street.

Here are some photos from our day at the Notting Hill Carnival...
Local shops and restaurants selling tropical fruit and jerk chicken
Many shops, restaurants, and homes were boarded up as a precaution
We knew we were in Notting Hill because everyone was taking photos of the
Travel Book Shop

Many of the costumes had an Olympic theme

The parade moved slowly, and people kept ducking in to pose for photos.

It got more crowded as the day progressed

In between dancing groups were massive trucks blasting music

A mobile dance party followed this truck down the parade route
Several trucks carried entire steel bands
The parade rounds the corner and comes down the hill

By 6 pm, we had had our fill of loud music, crowds, trash, and the smell of grilled jerk chicken mixed with marijuana smoke.  For security reasons, there were no trash cans within the carnival area.  While there were feeble attempts to create designated trash areas, by the end of the day the streets were covered with food containers, bottles, cans, coconuts, pineapples, and chicken bones.  There are no open container laws here, so people were drinking entire bottles of wine and hard liquor in addition to cans and bottles of beer and soft drinks.  No wonder they were concerned about riots! 

As we walked back towards Kensington, we saw at least a dozen police vans heading towards the carnival area.  It was hard to imagine that there were any police left who weren't already there, but I guess they needed to send in reinforcements to make sure the carnival actually ended at 7 and to get people to clear the area.  We later heard that there was a stabbing just as we were leaving, but police still claim that this was one of the more peaceful carnivals to date.

We were hungry enough to stop for dinner at Josh's favorite place in Kensington, the Old Dutch Pancake House, on the way back to the Tube station.  Perhaps all that secondhand pot smoke gave us the munchies...

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