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Back in early December 2013, I was swinging in a hammock in Puerto Maldonado, Peru when I heard an American couple discussing Mardi Gras. My sister Olivia having recently moved to New Orleans, my interest was piqued as they discussed Fat Tuesday’s late calendar date of March 4th. At that point, I was tentatively planning to return to the US mid-March, just in time to catch a friend’s wedding in California. But as I sat there, swinging in a hammock in the remote jungles of the Amazon, my plans changed. I was going to Mardi Gras.

At the time, Mardi Gras was a fuzzy concept to me. I could play some vague word association with it: yellow, green, purple, beads, Bourbon Street, boobs… and things kind of fizzled out there. But I was about to learn the best way possible — I was going to experience Mardi Gras like a local.

Lesson number one. Mardi Gras is far more than Fat Tuesday. For us Mardi Gras began on Thursday night with the Knights of Chaos parade.

I was surprised to learn that no parades enter the French Quarter, New Orleans’ most iconic district. I was pretty grateful, however, that my sister’s apartment was within walking distance of the parade routes we were hitting on both Thursday and Friday night in the Garden District. Though it was a long walk to St. Charles Ave, it was certainly better than wrestling with traffic and parking. Win!

Because most out-town-tourists wouldn’t arrive until late Friday evening, this parade had a great local atmosphere with plenty of families and lots of Louisiana accents. It was pretty easy to make our way to the front and enjoy the politically satirical floats up close. In retrospect, Thursday night was my favorite part of Mardi Gras in terms of actual parade-watching. The floats were funny and smart and the only annoyance was having to pay $3 to use a porta potty in a McDonald’s parking lot.

Immediately following Knights of Chaos was the Krewe of Muses, an all-female krewe. Krewes, I learned, are private social clubs that essentially make Mardi Gras happen by planning, funding, and throwing their parades as well as balls and other social events. I was surprised to hear the city of New Orleans is essentially hands off with Mardi Gras — their only involvement is to issue a parade permit to each individual Mardi Gras krewe. As you can imagine, being a member of a krewe is both a great honor and a serious commitment.

From what I hear, Krewe of Muses is one of the most anticipated parades among NOLA residents, both for their clever parade themes and their fabulous throws. While beads are the most common throw among the various parades, certain krewes are known for their specialty throws — Muses, for example, throw shoes. Intricate, hand-decorated, glitter-coated shoes.

Energy levels were stiletto-high when these floats rolled through, and parade-watchers vied for their chance to land a rhinestone-encrusted pump. With names like Fashion Weak and High Fashion (featuring an elegantly dangled blunt), these floats defined sass.

I was so glad I hauled my big  to these parades. Though I find shooting in crowds and shooting at night to be fairly frustrating, I couldn’t resist the challenge with subjects like these.

Friday was still a work day for most, but you wouldn’t have known it by the enthusiasm levels in the bars of the Garden District post-parade. Reminding myself that it was a marathon and not a sprint, I took a cab home around midnight, hyped up for the days ahead.

Friday evening, after listening to my sister and her roommates describe the pain they had suffered at work that day, we went out to do it all again for Krewe of Morpheus. At this point I wised up and downloaded a , which let us track the various parade’s movements in real time — that way we knew exactly how late we were as we sprinted back to our parade-watching spot on St. Charles from the evening before. (If you’re ever planning on heading to Mardi Gras, downloading one of those apps would be the first tip I’d give ya!) This time we paid less attention to the parade itself and more to socializing with Olivia’s various friends, coworkers and neighbors that we kept running into. New Orleans really is a small town masquerading as a big city, a disarmingly charming combination.

Post-parade we headed downtown to catch a Shpongle show at the with my sister’s boyfriend, an eight time Mardi Gras veteran who showed these two newbies the ropes. The venue was stunning, the show was fun and the company was great. But the obvious highlight of the night was getting to put my Full Moon Party masks to good use once again, this time in the spirit of Mardi Gras.

My local Mardi Gras experience continues as the weekend fired up… stay tuned!

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41 Comments...
  • Fiona
    May 9 2014

    Mardis Gras in New Orleans is on my bucket list. The photos are amazing. What are your tips for shooting at night?
    Fiona recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Hey Fiona! I certainly don’t think I’m an expert on shooting at night but I can give you a few tips that have worked for me. First, shoot a lot — it makes more work in editing but I take as many shots possible testing out various settings and then later I study which shutter speeds and apertures seemed to work best. I probably delete nine out of every ten I shoot, if not more! Once I cull down the photos I want to keep, I run them through a plugin called Noise Ninja which removes a lot of the digital noise and then usually run an action called Slice Like a Ninja to sharpen them back up again. Hope that helps!

      • Fiona
        May 12 2014

        Thanks, I think I have the same canon point and shoot as you. I can adjust the aperture and shutter speed so must play around with it. Next clear night here I’m going taking pictures of stars!
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        • Meihoukai
          May 13 2014

          Actually these photos were taken with my dSLR (shown in the first photo) not with my point and shoot! Sorry if I was unclear!

  • The Guy
    May 9 2014

    Porta Potty -is that what I think it is? :-/

    The floats/exhibits look great as you’d expect from such an event. I’m interested to see your future articles on this as I think it may look better in the day time? I’m not sure the floats all lit up works for me.
    The Guy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      I preferred the parades during the day from a photography standpoint but I loved the energy of the evening ones. And yes, I think porta potties are what you’re imagining but you can always verify with Google 🙂

  • Erica
    May 9 2014

    Incredible photos! they really capture the spirit of Mardi Gras!

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Thank you miss Erica! Many more to come. I figured I spent all this time taking and editing these photos, I’m going to post them all dangit 🙂

  • Meihoukai
    May 9 2014

    We used to celebrate Mardi Gras in my home village in Provence, all the kids with fancy dress touring the butcher, the bakery, the general food store, the bar and the chemist for a few coins or candies.
    No one knew about Halloween these days and Mardi Gras was the Big Event for us kids along with Xmas.
    It’s almost a forgotten tradition now, while Halloween has become a very mediatic event dwelling in the French kid’s calendars…
    Good news to see Mardi Gras is a big thing in Lousiana, it might cross the Atlantic again one of these days!

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Wow, that sounds like a lovely memory, thank you for sharing it! I didn’t even think about Mardi Gras being celebrated in France.

  • Katie
    May 9 2014

    You couldn’t tell that you had a frustrating time shooting at night – mine would have been a big blurry mess. $3 for a port-a-potty?! Damn!! Was it at least clean-ish? I had to pay a Euro once a bathroom outside of Oktoberfest in Munich, and it was completely backed up and probably overflowing. I still made a drunken attempt at it… Gotta get my money’s worth! 🙂
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      I have to give them credit — it was clean! Though perhaps that was because it was the first night of parades 🙂

  • becky hutner
    May 9 2014

    all my love for new orleans & i still haven’t been to mardi gras! i know i’m missing a big piece of the puzzle.

    ps, i heart the garden district. those houses!!!
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    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      My sister lives in a stunning house in the Garden District. She shares it with three other teachers, but I couldn’t believe how affordable it is! You’d live in a closet in NYC for what they pay!

      • becky hutner
        May 11 2014

        one of many reasons i want to live there. and maybe i will….?

  • Janice Stringer
    May 9 2014

    Looks fun – how true is this. I have been told there is only one street decorated for Mardi Gras?
    Janice Stringer recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Hmmm, I think there were several streets! The “decorating” is pretty home grown, a lot of residents string beads on their fences. But I don’t know, it seems the whole city was kitted out to me!

  • Laryssa
    May 9 2014

    Taking pictures of Mardi Gras parades is one of the biggest challenges EVER. Great job, Meihoukai!

    I still haven’t been to Muses…. need to make that a priority!

    You HAVE to see my Krewe (Tucks) roll next year! We’re the best. 😉

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Okay, deal — you need to go to Muses and I need to go to Tucks! I can’t believe you haven’t been, the shoes are too much 🙂 I think next time I attend Mardi Gras I will have a much better idea of how I want to do it, this time was pretty much all following around others and being confused!

  • MCVK
    May 9 2014

    Great start for your story! My one time at Mardi Gras was in 1980, when I was 23. First parade assembled outside our house, filled with Tulane grads all, and we went out in our pajamas to see the sights. It has changed a lot over the years, but I still have my Bacchus 1979 necklace (rare because it was thrown one year late) and lots of pics and memories. I will never go again, but I’m happy to say I met Jimmy Buffett (he was Grand Marshal) on Fat Tuesday in the Quarter and he played 3 songs for 12 of us. Can’t wait to see the next entry!

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Sounds like a special trip! I watched Bacchus as well, great parade. And meeting Jimmy Buffet! Nice one — I’d love to be able to say the same someday!

  • Amanda
    May 9 2014

    Nice shots! My nighttime ones never come out that nice.

    I had no idea that the city of New Orleans pretty much has nothing to do with these parades! That’s amazing.
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      I know! I couldn’t believe it. It really is the people’s party. I think it’s pretty special that New Orleans residents love Mardi Gras enough to basically fund it themselves.

  • Looks great, love the giant high heel (if that’s what it was). Would love to go one day.
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      It was indeed a giant high heel! Let’s go next year 🙂

  • Sally
    May 10 2014

    Oh Mardi Gras!! I’ve yet to experience it in NOLA but did up in Baton Rouge and it’s amazing! Your sister’s very lucky to be based in Louisiana/NOLA – one of the best states in America 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      After just one short visit I have to agree! I can’t wait to visit her again as soon as my schedule allows.

  • Steve
    May 10 2014

    Great photos Meihoukai. They the spirit of Mardi Gras.
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  • Amy
    May 12 2014

    I would love to get to this festival one day, it looks a bit like Notting Hill Carnival in London. Your pics came out great, I always have such problems shooting at night – looking forward to seeing the next installment!
    Amy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 13 2014

      I’ve never heard of Notting Hill Carnival… but I’m off to see if the dates happen to coincide with my one week trip there!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    May 12 2014

    Looks fabulous and it looks like a great experience to find out a little more about local culture.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 13 2014

      Indeed, Mardi Gras is like a crash course in New Orleans style living 🙂

  • Jasmine Brown
    May 13 2014

    Never been to a Mardi Gras, from the looks of the pictures it sure is a lot of fun! I’d like to witness it first hand.

    • Meihoukai
      May 13 2014

      Make it happen, Jasmine! Totally worth it!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    May 13 2014

    Curious to read the rest and see if you’d actually do Mardi Gras again. My Episcopalian college shut down for it each February, but because I played college tennis–and spring is tennis season–I never got to go. And I can’t say these days I have a desire to either…
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 15 2014

      I actually really enjoyed it and would do it again! I think I had a pretty different perspective than most because I was with my sister who lives there so I rarely felt like I was competing with other tourists for this ideal Mardi Gras experience, if you know what I mean. I would cross my fingers for better weather on Fat Tuesday next time, though!

  • Alana - Paper Planes
    May 13 2014

    Mardi Gras is high on my list to go to sometime – it seems like nothing else!
    Alana – Paper Planes recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 15 2014

      You’ll love it! It really is unbelievably unique.

  • I have heard about Mardi Gras, but never really knew what it was :). So thanks for this blog post! Looks like great fun!

    Great photo of you and your sister! You are so alike, you look like twins. 🙂
    Maria from Nerd Nomads recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 16 2014

      Happy to share the Mardi madness with you, Maria! And yes, my sister and I are told that all the time! 🙂