Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Notting Hill Carnival '09

Last summer, I went to the Notting Hill Carnival for the first time. It was everything you would expect... Loud. Busy. Beautiful. 1 million people turn to the streets of Notting Hill every year over these 2 days of August. Just imagine the Rio Carnival, mix it up with the narrow streets of London, and this is what you end up with.

One or two Notting Hill Carnival facts:

-The Caribbean community leads the event
-It's the largest carnival in Europe and the second largest in the World
-Bangin' tunes fill the air from stands set up on different streets in the area (the sound systems are insane - each individual speaker is pretty much the size of a fully grown man. Each stand has about 8 of these speakers... I was pretty much deaf for a week).
-food stands provide the Carribean flavours
-the atmosphere is electric. There is a definite buzz...(although that may just be the drugs everyone is on).

We danced and we laughed and we ate and we sang. We were young and alive and invincible.

At least, that's what we thought.

Our massive group of 20 friends broke up into smaller and smaller groups. We wanted to go in 17 different directions, so instead of arguing about it in the heat and getting nowhere, we chose to separate. It was 2 o'clock. By this time, the streets were full of people from all walks of life, from 4 corners of the world. Black. White. Brown. Grey. Purple. I had ended up with 3friends, Izzie, Lara and Marianne, and we were standing in a huddle, deciding which street to explore, which adventure to go on next.
Over the general buzz of people dancing and singing and drinking and shouting, we heard someone ahead suddenly scream out oh my God, RUN!

Things started moving very quickly from this moment on. Without words, a decision had been made, to run down the road as fast as we possibly could. What exactly we were running from, nobody knew.

The bottles started crashing then.

Little yelps of fear could be heard, in the flurry of fear, as this herd of people, pumped with adrenaline, ran as one, down Portobello Road. Glass bottles were crashing. Ahead of you, behind you, to your left, to your right. You couldn't see them, but you could hear them. Front, side and center. They were being thrown at us, one after the other, one after the other.

Our safe and intimate group of 4 split up again. Marianne grabbed my arm. Lara grabbed Izzie's arm. We were all running in the same and only direction: straight down this narrowing road. None of us knew what we were running from. In the time taken for us to figure out what it was, we were each running from our own, personal, worst nightmare. We ran and ran and ran for what seemed like an eternity or two. We stopped only once. When the fear of the unknown was too much to take, we stopped and looked and acknowledged. Surely knowing what we were running from, was better than not knowing at all? Better than running for sheer life? The blind, leading the blind. That is what we were, until that split-second of understanding of this reality you've been thrust into.

We were being chased by a group of 60 young men. All black. All screaming angrily and passionately. All throwing glass bottles at us. Us, the emotionally outnumbered group, physically outnumbering them by far. The mind does funny things when panic strikes. Logic seems to hurl itself out the window, leaving you with this gut instinct. To protect. Yourself and those around you. It is overwhelming, and it leaves no room for pride or dignity. In my case, anyway. It all happened so quickly. We were running. I was running, and then I stopped. I was like a deer caught in headlights. A fish flapping on dry land. I had dropped my phone.

This wasn't just any drop. The back cover had fallen off, and the battery had fallen out. My phone was now in 3 parts. Bending down and retrieving it would take me 3 times as long.

Marianne had to stop too. Her hand was still clenched in mine. She acknowledged the dilemna I was in, and thankfully, made the decision for me. Life or Phone. She yanked at my arm and we carried on running, leaving the phone behind, on the stampede-ridden ground below.

Eventually, another decision was made by the masses. It was time to stop. The crowd systematically separated in 2. One half stood along the walls of the right hand side of the road. The other half stood along the left hand side, leaving the middle of the road empty. For the gang to pass through with no obstruction, for a brave soldier to step onto no man's land. We formed a human shield along the road, one row of people after the next. We didn't attempt to put up a fight, or to demand a justification.

And then we had to wait. Nobody knew what this gang wanted, or who they were looking for, or if they were looking to fight, kill, cry or laugh. Nobody knew how they would react when they reached the end of the road, to us, pressed up against each other, fearing the worst.

I was pushed, and pushing against a woman who's tears needed an escape. She was in hysterics, tears rolling down her cheeks, repeating "I don't want to die". A man whose face I can't remember, who was pushed against me, was a comfort to have there. As selfish as it may sound, I was glad somebody stood between myself and No Man's Land. He quietly comforted the lady behind me, who was going to get us all killed. I remember uttering a completely insincere and weak "It's going to be alright" before giving up entirely and listening to the silence of the street.

The biggest anti-climax in the history of anti-climii/anti-climaxes (take your pick)followed. The big gang, in all its glory, came running, jogging, and skipping its way down our road, passing the fearful eyes of us all with every step it took, screaming out some weak form of territorial threats to the silence. My heart was beating as fast as ever, and things slowed down an extra notch as they were making their big exit. My eyes never strayed far from the ground. I would get picked from the crowd and beaten if I looked any of them in the eye. My heart skipped an extra beat the moment they passed me by. And then it was over.

They did not attempt to put up a fight, or to make any demands. Just to make themselves known. This was their land, and a carnival wasn't going to change that. (I expect the thrown glass bottles were more for dramatic effect than an actual intent to do harm.)

My phone was no where to be found. I went home, and told my parents it had fallen out of my pocket while I was dancing.