>>I I promised a Mardi Gras blog, so here goes. I had an absolutely awesome time, and even though it was a last minute decision, I am very glad I went. My cousin, Gary, is a native of New Orleans. I have visited the city a number of time over the years, but I had never (until now) been able to go for Mardi Gras. As some of you know, I taught school for a long time, and principals frown on teachers “taking off” in the weeks leading up to standardized testing.
Anyway – I digress…
Mardi Gras (the season) cranks up about 2 weeks before Ash Wednesday. The actual “day” of Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday. The two weeks include lots of activities and parades in various parts of the city proper, but the big bash begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday. I flew down on Sunday, so I was able to see the last three days of the big celebration.
My cousin and his wife picked me up at the airport at about 2:45 Sunday afternoon, and we went straight downtown to catch my first parade. I was wearing “nice” plane clothes, so we ducked into a Subway sandwich shop bathroom for me to change. This year was almost the earliest Mardi Gras has even happened “calendar wise”… it was also almost the warmest Mardi Gras on record… you would think those two distinctions wouldn’t go hand in hand, but I’m here to tell you that it got warm in the daytime… sleeveless warm.
My first parade was the Thoth parade… don’t ask me to explain the origin of the name. Some of this stuff goes way back. In fact, the earliest parade in Mardi Gras dates back to the 1850′s. But Thoth was filled with marching bands and plenty of very cool floats. Catching beads is, of course, the name of the game. I found out pretty quickly that you have to pay attention – sort of like at a hockey game. The long necklaces with the fat beads are very heavy and can really hurt if they whack you in the head. Despite my vigilance, I did get hit in the head one time on Sunday and again at another parade on Monday.
It’s hard to avoid. Most of the floats are two-story affairs, and even though you might be waving to one person on the float and holding your hand out, someone to the left or right of you may toss something that you don’t see. Many of the beads are “plain”, but there are also some really cool ones mixed in. Occasionally other things get thrown – stuffed animals, footballs, doubloons, and even painted coconuts in one parade called Zulu. Actually, float riders are forbidden fron tossing the coconuts because they are dangerous, but enterprising parade-goers actually show up with long-handled fish nets so the guys on the float can “drop” a coconut gently in the net.
Later in the evening, I weighed the sack of beads from that first parade – 24 pounds!! After that I had to be more discriminating. I ended up bringing home about 30 pounds of beads and leaving behind about 25 more pounds with Gary and Linda.
The parades are family affairs, even the ones at night. Folks bring lawn chairs, coolers, whatever they need to be comfortable for the long haul. Families sometimes bring six foot step ladders with small wooden seats on top for the little kids… pretty wild. Everywhere we went people were courteous and friendly. No outrageous parade behavior… nothing that would be alarming for kids. There were two young teenage boys standing near me at one point who would catch beads and then hand them to me or put them around my neck. Everyone wants to catch the beads – not everyone wants to take them home.
Mardi Gras takes some stamina. Monday we were in town and on foot for 8 hours straight. Fortunately, my cousin’s son works at a hotel near the Quarter, so we were able to use clean restrooms – a definite perk. The streets in the French Quarter are too narrow for parades, so most of the big parades go down Canal Street which borders the Quarter. The best band we saw was the LSU marching band. One float was a train six cars long! They had quite a time making the turn at the corner where we were standing.
Monday was a busy day… saw two parades, a concert by Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters (on the riverfront) and also took in some fireworks when the King of Mardi Gras arrived (wearing a mask) by riverboat. His identity is a closely guarded secret until you see him in the Rex parade on Tuesday.
Tuesday is the culmination of all the hoopla. We were downtown on Bourbon Street by 9:15AM. This is the day that folks dress up and walk around the Quarter. We did see a few tasteless displays, but mostly the costumes are clever or funny… the Blues Brothers, Merlin, super heroes of every ilk, etc. My favorite moment was seeing famous jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain. He is old and sick, but he was riding in a little cart with all his “walking club” in front of him. My very favorite strand of beads is from that group. A sweet older man held up his cheek for a kiss and then handed me a strand with a large Pete Fountain medallion.
Of course, I had beignets at the Cafe du Monde. On Wednesday we went to a seafood restaurant on the edge of the bayou that had food so fresh it had been caught just down the road.
My trip home was another adventure. We were late leaving New Orleans, so when we got to Atlanta, many people had missed connecting flights. I was rebooked on a later flight to Knoxville, but that was oversold, so I had the chance to get “voluntarily” bumped and put up in a hotel with compensation for future flights. I then was to fly out at 10:30 the next morning, and again an oversold flight. In all, I let myself be bumped three times and ended up with $1000 in Delta dollars. My husband coudn’t believe it. Now I have enough to get my ticket to RT in Pittsburgh and probably a trip for hubby and I as well.
Before I left New Orleans, we drove out in the area known as the Ninth Ward. Like the rest of New Orleans, some places are coming back, some are not. I saw huge stretches that were nothing but concrete slabs where houses once stood. Many of the houses have not been torn down and still bear the spray-painted X’s and info that the police and others used to show which houses had been checked. Some houses stand drunkenly as they did when the water receded.
But there is hope. My cousin’s neighboorhood is about 90% back to normal even though he lived in a FEMA trailer for months. They tore out sheet rock, insulation, and all sorts of other stuff in order to make the place habitable again. And the damage was extensive, even though they had only 8 – 12 inches of water as opposed to feet.
In the Ninth Ward I saw the exciting area called “Musician’s Village” where Harry Connick, Jr. is helping rebuild houses. The Easter egg colors are lovely and at least two dozen of them are finished. But the contrast is bleak, because two streets away, destruction still remains.
The city was proud of Mardi Gras this year. The people are proud of what they have survived.
This was my first Mardi Gras, but it won’t be my last.
Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!