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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Riding a Float - New Orlean Mardi Gras Part 2

I'll be honest. I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I volunteered to ride a float with the Krewe of Morpheus. First I had to join the Krewe. Membership covered the cost of the costume and pre and post ride bash. Being in Australia I missed the social events that went on during the year, such as the Captain's Crawl, a pub crawl through the French Quarter accompanied by a jazz band...that would have been fun.

The next major decision was which "Throw Package" to purchase. I had visualised a few strings of beads and a packet of doubloons. trusty Float Lieutenant, MKL,  informed me. The route is 6 miles long and you will run out very quickly. So, taking a deep breath, I invested in a throws package guaranteed to restore the economy of Louisiana. That was all we had to do was turn up.

My dear friend, AK (a friendship that has dated since we were both the nerdy kids with funny accents in a new school in Australia), met us at New Orleans airport and took us straight to the float staging area where the throws were being loaded. Naively I had assumed this to be a large warehouse with busy people loading throws on to floats. It was a dark, deserted street in the old port area down by the Mississippi.  We bumped down pot holed, unlit roads and over rail lines to where the dark silhouettes of the floats loomed against the sky. The always prepared Aussies had torches so we carried AK's bags of throws down the long, ominous line of floats where weird faces loomed at us from the dark and no other living soul seemed to be around.

The theme for our parade was Friday Night at the Movies so we passed Batman and Pirates of the Carribbean floats. Ours (Number 16), one of the smaller floats, had a Star Wars theme. I have to say that unlit and in the dark you realise they are just  painted canvas contraptions built over a frame  and pulled by tractors. I had paid for our throws to be preloaded and nearly died when I saw the HUGE pile of stash I had invested in. "We'll never get through this," I said to DH (darling husband) as we eyed the 26 bags of beads and 5 big blue bags of other throws.

We have our take away slushies...
Friday, parade day, dawned and festivities kicked off at 2.00 pm with the pre-ride bash at Generation Hall but first we had to lay in supplies for the ride. DH and I packed water (sensible) but we stopped off at a take away Daquiri shop (yes I did say a take away Daquiri shop) and purchased large frozen slurpies of daquiri, white russian and (for me) margerita. These were stowed on ice to be loaded on to the float.

Ready to rock at the Bash
Admission to the pre-ride bash was by silver bracelet and tunic (our costume was a turquoise blue with silver sequins worn with a silver face mask and a hat that looked like an upside down icecream container crossed with a French Foreign Legion hat). Hardly flattering but it guaranteed anonymity.

Mixing with Royalty. The Queen of Morpheus
Generation Hall was already pumping to an 80s cover band, Bag o'Donuts. The King and Queen of Morpheus and their court was duly presented. There was plenty of food and drink and by the time the floats arrived at 5.00pm we were ready to rock!

Float 16, Star Wars and one excited rider

I actually think, in retrospect, that the long, slow ride to the staging area (under police escort) in the gathering twilight of a New Orleans evening was probably the most pleasant part of the day. We broke open the first of our bead bags and organised ourselves as best we could around the bags of throws (with 4 of us in one small area it was cramped). The addition of a cheerful DJ called Sidney with a dubious taste in rapper music that blared loudly right into our ears all night, made it even more squeezy.  We had 19 or 20 floats (I didn't count) and being small, we were towards the end of the parade. High School marching bands squeezed in between the floats.

The slow ride to the staging area

Morpheus Throws
Then we were off...and then we stopped...then we started again...and then we stopped. It seemed ages before we finally seemed to be moving and the whole parade began to blur. The early crowds were thin but eager. By the time we reached the beautiful St. Charles avenue, it seemed to be a sea of hands reaching up, children perched on their parents shoulders, fishing nets reached out from strategically placed ladders. Everyone clamouring for more stuff to be thrown. It took a while to get in the rhythm  I quickly learned that you needed to make eye contact with a potential recipient, not just throw willy nilly on the off chance someone would catch it. I saved the soft, fluffy toys for small children. Among the beads, I had special medallions, doubloons (very popular and collectable), hundreds of plastic cups, bags, sleep masks, flashing balls, flashing medallions, gold medallions, yellow "sleep hats". Interesting to see what is popping up on EBay! And beads, literally 1000s of elegant purple, yellow and green beads. We threw them in groups, we threw them still in their bags. Sweat began to pour from under my mask! Overnight rain had turned the dusty float into mud which had seeped into some our throw bags. I was hot and muddy! Thank heavens for my frozen Margarita!

I hated seeing beads and cups fall to the ground unheeded. Hey, mister, I PAID for those!!!!

Half way, sweaty and muddy!
We stopped again. Chinese whispers said we only had half a mile to go. DH and I looked at our undiminished stash and began jettisoning overboard. The wait dragged on...45 minutes while a broken float from the previous parade and a flat tyre on one of our floats were dealt with and then we jerked forward again. Not half a mile...half way through! We still had half the parade to go but by the time we turned into Canal Street, unrecognisable behind the stands, DH and I had run out of throws. Seriously...we had run out!
Canal Street
Kind Krewe members took pity on us and passed over spare throws.  I had one "gold medallion" I was saving for the token drunk Aussie we would see in the crowd but six miles passed and not one identifiable drunk Aussie, token or otherwise!

The float made another turn and it was over. We saw other Krewe members from earlier floats, walking back up the path towards us. I wore no watch (too much risk of it going overboard with the throws). DH told me it was 1230. We had been on the float for 7 hours and it had gone in a flash!

Exhausted riders!
Suddenly I was terribly tired but the night was not over, we collected what was left our bits and pieces and trudged back toward Generation Hall where the after party was in full swing. Our feet ached, we were hot, mud ingrained our fingernails, our hair clung to our foreheads in sweaty bands...but we needed to eat and drink and we desperately needed to sit down. Being peripherally related to the Queen we gained entrance to the royal court where we just collapsed, clutching a beer and a plate of sandwiches. up...and dance...

It was 3.00 am before we got to bed but it took a while to go to sleep as the passing sea of faces and hands, the thump of Sidney's execrable music still echoed in my mind.

On Monday we posted two expensive parcels with our memorabilia from the night to share with disbelieving friends and family back home...$150 worth or memories. Can't wait to unpack them.

But Mardi Gras was far from for Part 3 or How I Nearly Got Shot in Bourbon Street...

Monday, February 25, 2013

In which the Author does not get shot in Bourbon Street...New Orleans Mardi Gras Part 3

It is a standing joke in our family that my DH (darling husband) routinely tries to kill me on every holiday. In fact I am the only person I know who has to train for holidays - teach me to marry Action Man. 

So it is no surprise that on the night we went to Bourbon Street, there was a shooting. I am happy to say at the time we were half a block away from the shooting and heading away from the revelry when it happened but it still counts as one of my closer brushes with danger! More on that later...

Bourbon Street revellers

In my last post I wrote about the experience of riding a float in a Mardi Gras Parade. As you can imagine the next day was somewhat leisurely. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the levee and my friends showed us East New Orleans, where the damage from Katrina is still evident in destroyed houses and vacant blocks. I last visited New Orleans in 2001 and I have to say, in general, that from the ashes (or is that mud) of Katrina, there is a new vibrancy about New Orleans. My friends told us that the first Mardi Gras Parade after Katrina was an extraordinary experience, a tribute to a city that would not die and it is a city with a huge heart. But it has its dark side...for example residents of the beautiful Garden District, employ private firms of security guards to walk them from their cars to their front doors at night.

My friends had procured tickets for a balcony at the Royal Senestor Hotel in Bourbon Street for the Saturday night.  During Mardi Gras, hotels and other venues in Bourbon Street, rent out their balconies and suites (a bit like a corporate box at the football) so a couple of free tickets were not going to be wasted.

Ferry across the river
We caught the ferry from Algiers across the Mississippi to the French Quarter. When we arrived it was still fairly early and the crowd had just begun to build, but as we approached Bourbon Street, the energy level hefted up a notch. Bourbon Street at the best of times is not really a pleasant place populated as it is with  bars and cheap souvenir shops and an overarching smell of bad drains.

An already well lubricated crowd milled down the street clutching Hand Grenades (green plastic containers with a vile looking drink), laden with beads, some wearing masks and costumes. At each street corner, neatly dressed men  clutching bibles, placards and crosses handed out leaflets exorting the revellers to repent. Fat chance!

A balcony in Bourbon Street - Saturday night

Above us, more revellers lined the balconies, throwing beads into the crowd. Beneath our feet, broken strings of beads and muddy puddles made the going treacherous. But you find yourself drawn into the moment and there is a satisfaction in catching your first throws. Beside me, a woman peeled back her tee shirt exposing her breasts. So, the stories about the ritual flashing were true...a phenomenon first recorded in 1889 and definitely one for the tourists.

The view from the balcony
We found our suite at the Royal Senestor. The balcony was already crowded but playing the "I've come all the way from Australia" card, I managed to secure a small corner. We had a couple of bags of beads saved from the night before and I joined the others, dangling my wares over the balcony.The roof across from us was covered in badly thrown beads!

 Like the float, you needed to make eye contact and I caught the eye of a couple of young men who happily flashed their chests for me - oh well...when in Rome...

Beside me a young man waved a large, gaudy string of beads for which several women seemed keen to expose themselves. When 
Throwing beads from the balcony
DH took my place, the young man, now comfortable in the company of another male, explained that while he may offer the exotic beads,  he never threw them. Bastard!

Waving an Australian flag in an attempt to find that elusive token drunk Aussie...(oh wait, that may have been me?)... I garnered a bit of attention until the beads ran out.

By 9.30 we had enough. Our drink vouchers had run out and the suite was dangerously crowded. Below us the crowd had thickened and there seemed to be an electric element in the air that said it was not the place for the middle aged who needed their beds.

As we walked out of Royal Senestor, DH remarked that he heard fireworks. Police were running up the street towards us. It was only later on the ferry back to Algiers we heard that just half a block from the Royal Senestor there had been a shooting with 4 people badly injured. Holy, lucky escape, Batman! Of course it hit the news in New Orleans and at home. You can read about it HERE.

DH and I returned to the French Quarter on Monday, during the day. Crowds still thronged the streets but the electric atmosphere had been tempered and the feeling was just one of good will. We walked the streets, admiring the decorations and the Mask Market, listened to the music, watched the arrival of Rex on a Coast Guard boat,  ate beignets and coffee. drank a beer at Pat O'Briens  and had po boys for lunch. For all its undercurrent of violence, there is something innately loveable about New Orleans.

Mardi Gras decorations - French Quarters
Tuesday was Mardi Gras day. In the city the Krewes of Zulu and Rex were parading. We watched the parades on the television before joining our friends at a local parade for the Krewe of Grela in the Gretna Parish. Here the local fire department (yes fire trucks!), the sheriff and local councillors joined the parade, tossing throws, cups and doubloons. The King and Queen of Grela passed by and the local high school marching bands, entertained us. I stood on the side of the road, my own hand upreached... "Throw me something mister...". 

Despite the showers (and a howling cold), I drank bloody marys, ate King Cake and watched the parade sitting on the tail gate of a pick up truck. It was homespun, fun and a wonderful end to the Mardi Gras experience.

The King of Grela
High School Marching Band

And a firetruck - of course!

Mardi Gras Explained - New Orleans Part 1

Sometimes we have things on our bucket lists that we don't even know we have written there. When an invitation came to ride a float in the 2013 New Orleans Mardi Gras, DH (darling husband) turned pale, gulped and then smiled bravely. We were going to New Orleans.

To an Australian, the concept of "Mardi Gras" means only one thing...the Sydney Mardi Gras, an annual celebration of gay pride. Visions of gold spangly shorts and nipple tassels sprang into my friends' eyes when I  announced our impending visit to Louisiana. No, we were not coming out! The New Orleans Mardi Gras, like Rio's Carnival, has its origins deeply rooted in Christian tradition. That's right... Christian tradition.

So before I share my own experience of riding a float in the New Orleans Mardi Gras, I feel a little explanation about the New Orleans Mardi Gras is required!

"Mardi Gras" means literally "Fat Tuesday" and is the day we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. It was the day of celebration and feasting before the privations of Lent - hence our own pancake day tradition. In New Orleans it is a season commencing with Epiphany (the day in the Christian calendar when the   baby Jesus is visited by the three wise men) and the appearance of the King cakes. King cakes are a highlight of the Mardi Gras. A sort of cinnamon roll (or doughnut pastry) iced with the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green (meaning faith), gold (power) and purple (justice) and containing a trinket - a small plastic baby symbolising the baby Jesus. My friend, M, a teacher tells me it is a tradition to bring King cakes to school and whoever finds the baby in their piece has to bring the next King Cake. 

A King Cake - baby in centre

 The New Orleans Mardi Gras, as we know it, began in the 1850s with the first parade by the Krewe of Comus and is these days, a highly efficient and regulated event. For example no advertising material is allowed and costume is to be worn at all times on the float. Costume consists of a hat, mask and tunic (no little spangly shorts involved!). As I discovered, being a float rider is both hot and dirty work so the costume serves a practical purpose apart from preserving the anonymity of the rider!

Mardi Gras is not just one parade on one day, a whole  parade season begins two weeks before Mardi Gras day with daily parades. No parades now go through the French Quarter itself - the main route is St. Charles Avenue and down Canal Street. Many parishes (local council areas) in New Orleans have their own local parades as well. 

A KREWE is a social grouping,  each responsible for the organisation of its own parade. There are at least 50 Krewes in New Orleans. Some are all women, many just all men (the more traditional Krewes), some are for African Americans (Krewe of Zulu - although I was astonished to see that some of the riders in Zulu were white people in black face!). Our own Krewe, the Krewe of Morpheus is a comparative newcomer, formed in 2002 and being a "co-ed" Krewe, meaning both men and women can be members. More on Morpheus later!

While each Krewe has its own King and Queen, there is one King for the whole Mardi Gras Season, called Rex. The Krewe of Rex and the Krewe of Zulu, the two oldest and (arguably) the most important of Krewes are the only Krewes to parade on Mardi Gras day. The Krewe of Morpheus parades on the Friday night before Mardi Gras day and is the last Krewe to parade, commencing officially at 7.00 pm,  following the Krewes of Hermes and d'Etat.

Morpheus Throws
"Throws". Originally these were glass beads, a rather expensive option leading to alternatives such as Coconuts (wouldn't want to be hit by one of them!) which still form part of the Zulu tradition. In addition to the coloured plastic beads of every shape, size and description, each Krewe has its own merchandise (soft toys, plastic cups etc.) and doubloons (aluminium coins). These items are thrown from the floats into the waiting (and expectant crowd). "Throw me something mister..." is a catch cry of the parade. A note...the items are purchased by the individual float riders. 

Bourbon Street crowd waiting for throws
Finally a word on Bourbon Street. As I said, the parades themselves no longer enter the old French Quarter, but Mardi Gras celebrations are firmly centred on Bourbon Street, where revellers, some masked and costumed and clutching a vile green drink called a Hand Grenade, celebrate into the night. Party goers line the balconies of the beautiful old buildings tossing throws into the crowd below. This is where things get interesting and the "tradition" of flashing for throws is to be seen. 

So now, dear readers, you have some of the background to Mardi this space for Part 2 (on Wednesday) and my own experience of riding a float in the 2013 New Orleans Mardi Gras!

Alison waiting to ride Float 16....