Salome Semper stood in the drizzle on McCulloh Street outside Druid Hill Park with a smattering of parade spectators, listening to the sounds of steel drum bands playing in the distance. They could hear something like a parade way off toward Druid Park Drive, but still there was no sign of the costumed marchers or floats.
Many had waited at least two hours amid spurts of heavy rain for the parade to wend its way from Park Heights to Druid Hill to kick off Baltimore's annual Caribbean Carnival Festival, in its 29th year this weekend.
But no one appeared to be complaining. For Semper and others, the festival offers a chance to celebrate cultures and homelands, sing along to familiar Caribbean songs, dine on Caribbean cuisine the way it's cooked back home, and revel in the camaraderie and not a little bit of rivalry among the island nations. Parade-goers waved flags and cheered for their native countries.
"It's like a tradition," said Semper, a Baltimore resident who was born in Trinidad. "In the islands, you have Carnival season. As people migrated to different cities, they bring their culture with them."
The parade of costumed dancers and steel bands, which was scheduled to start at noon, finally arrived at the park almost four hours later, and Semper was lured to the street, shimmying to the beat of the 12-piece Trinidad and Tobago Baltimore Steel Orchestra, a band founded 40 years ago by her husband. The musicians tapping out melodies included her husband, two sons and grandson.
On the corner of McCulloh and Gwynns Falls Parkway, a woman who identified herself as Claudia D from New York, and originally from Jamaica, sold Caribbean nation flags for $3 apiece, asking people as they passed by, "What's your country?"
The three-day festival, which runs today from noon to 9 p.m., also features musical acts such as today's headliner, Triffik Jam, from Trinidad and Tobago, and groups including Daddy O, Mr Muzik, Jam Down and The Image Band. The festival typically attracts about 20,000 people.
The rain didn't stop some festival-goers on Saturday from staking out their spot early in the day. About 1 p.m., Bernadette Nanton sat in a chair along Druid Hill Lake Drive, not minding that it would be hours before the parade would reach her. She had already walked around the lake twice for exercise and was settled in for the day, listening to the radio on headphones. The special education teacher said she often finds herself at one festival or another most weekends.
"They're free events, $5 or $10 at the most," she said. "Where can you go for that amount of money, have fun and try all types of food?"
Like many along the parade route, Semper was among the spectators swept into the growing mass of marchers who followed bands, dancing, singing and moving their feet in unison.
"Everybody take a jump, take a jump, take a jump up now," one band member sang. "Because, it's Carnival."
Their destination was a fenced-in area of the park, where organizers charged $10 and vendors sold jerk chicken and pork, sundresses and snow balls.
Earlier in the day, vendors had worried about whether crowds would show up. Cheryle Haynes and Andrew Barker of Upper Marlboro said business had been a bit slow at many of the festivals where they go on weekends to sell sundresses and handmade hats from Madagascar.
T-Danielle Holloway was setting up a stand with snow balls and drinks and already had a strategy for luring in business, no matter how attendance turned out. Holloway, a Ruxton resident who runs Xtra Clean Janitorial as her full-time business, said she decided this summer to start a part-time vending business and chose the Caribbean festival as its debut. When she awoke to all the rain on her first day of business, "I said 'What a beautiful day,' " she said. "We have to have some rain to balance out everything else."
But that didn't mean she couldn't be practical. Her strategy was to keep her prices extra low: $2 per flavored ice.
"I just want to recoup what I put out," she said. "That would be nice."