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 Canon dSLR 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 parade tracker app, 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 Civic Theater 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!