Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Big Easy

My first Mardi Gras was AMAZING! I would guess that this is definitely not something for everyone, but I enjoyed every darn minute of it! I’m certain that my friend, Missy (the most amazing tour guide and Mardi Gras veteran), had a lot to do with my utter enjoyment of the 3-day carnival, and I’m guessing that it helps to go with a girlfriend so you can let your hair down!

When we arrived in New Orleans, the Thoth parade was already in full swing. Our hotel was located on St. Charles, the main parade route, so our cabbie had to drop us two blocks from our hotel and we had to drag our luggage and enter through a side door. We took absolutely no time to get settled and head down to the street. With childlike excitement, I couldn’t wait, but my adult leeriness wondered, what was I in for? God knows I love a good parade, but this just seemed crazy. They take it very serious here. I wish I had paid more attention to Greek mythology, as the first parade is the Thoth (the Egyptian god of wisdom) parade, the inventor of science, art and letters. Oh, he was important!

The King of Thoth
Those of you, who know me well, know that I love the history behind the pageantry. I'm all about the details. So, I’ve done a bit of research to so that I have the full story.  The Krewe of Thoth was organized in 1947 in the uptown neighborhood and presented its first ball and five-float parade with 50 members the next year. It now has over 1,200 members and 40 spectacular floats, all of them covered with glitter and bright colors. The men onboard wear quite elaborate costumes and all of their faces are covered by masks. I discovered right away that it’s a law that if you’re on the float, you cannot show your face. Let me just say…wow!

Shortly after Thoth ended, along came Bacchus (the god of wine and vegetation; he showed mortals how to cultivate grapevines and make wine). What would we ever have done without Bacchus? As it began to get dark, the floats (pulled by tractors) were illuminated by extensive rope & Christmas theme lights, but I also noticed that they had generators on board, and real light bulbs!

Many of the floats are flanked by street walkers called Flambeaux that light up the night with heavy blazing torches. Before batteries, generators, and electric lights, the flambeaux carriers were the beacons for parade-goers to better enjoy the spectacle of night festivities. The flambeaux carriers were originally slaves and free men of color parading, twirling and fooling around in robes. Although they no longer were robes, the sight of African-Americans lighting the way of the elaborate floats is unforgettable. Nowadays, these men are poor or homeless and the crowds toss coins to earn money for their task of lighting the way for the floats, now a symbolic historic footnote and a great example of performance art. The torches may be lighter and use butane or kerosene, but the entertaining exchange between the crowd and the flambeaux is really touching to witness.

Each parade has its own royalty, a king and a queen. Andy Garcia reigned as Bacchus XLIII. The king, and only the king, throws doubloons (an aluminum coin from his float). The coin is minted with his likeness, name, and the year. It is quite a feat to catch a doubloon from the King. This girl, at her first Mardi Gras, came home with one!

So, along with being a parade watcher, means you’ve just got to get in it and holler, wave your arms, and beg for beads, right? Soon you could hear me saying “hey mister, throw me something,” the official cry to get beads. Folklore tells us that there are many ways to get beads during Mardi Gras, and as the night gets on, some of those may be true and some I have indeed witnessed.  I noticed that it’s not the crowd begging to do crazy stunts to get beads; it’s the guys on the floats enticing the crowd with their elaborate beads and throws. As the floats passed by, we had mountains of beads hurled at us and by the time we decided to go in, I was barely able to walk. The weight of these beads is just insane and my neck hurt. You literally could just stand there and they would fall on your head, however, you may have to challenge your neighbor a time or two.

After nearly six hours of standing, parade watching, and hollering, I barely had a voice left and my feet hurt!

Lundi Gras (the Monday night before Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras)

We awoke and headed a few blocks down the famous Canal Street to the French Quarter. Now, this is the New Orleans I wanted to see.  Now that I've been here, I can see why so many are forever grateful that this area was untouched by the Hurricane, as this is where the original French settlers landed and the buildings with the famous balconies still stand. I loved it here. All of the buildings are built around a courtyard that you can’t see from the street, much like Paris. We had a wonderful brunch at the historic The Court of Two Sisters. It was here that I got to witness a rare Second Line parade (an impromptu brass band parade where walkers fall in line behind the band to just to enjoy the music, thus they are called the "second line." The second line's style of traditional dance, often has participants walking and sometimes twirling a parasol or handkerchief in the air, is called "second lining." It has been called "the quintessential New Orleans art form" — much like a New Orleans jazz funeral -- without a body.  I'm told these are rare and I was lucky to witness one.  Even more so, as I saw another after lunch!
Absolutely loved the architecture, the hurricane shutters, and the gas lamps!

I can still hear them!  This was a different wedding march for sure!

After brunch, we joined the masses and fought our way down the infamous Bourbon Street (10 blocks long) -- full of bars, peep shows, and clubs of every description. First, second and third floor balconies were already full of drunken people hurling even more beads and fluffy toys and random items to the passersby below. Truly a sight! At just midday, this was enough of Bourbon Street for me, wall-to-wall people. I can’t imagine the night time chaos!

They don’t really have any drinking rules in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  People wander the streets and in/out of clubs and pubs with their drink of choice. The drinks are served in plastic cups and you can take them anywhere (even to the local shopping mall).

That evening, we again found ourselves on the street for another 6 hours of parade watching. Tonight’s big events: Proteus and Orpheus. Proteus began @ 5:15 p.m. and is the Second oldest Parade at New Orleans Mardi Gras. Founded in 1882, Proteus, the son of Poseidon in the Olympian theology was made the herdsman of Poseidon's seals, the great bull seal at the center of the harem. He can foretell the future, but, in a mythical theme familiar from several cultures, will change his shape to avoid having to do so.

In 1893, the Krewe first introduced the tradition of call outs, where masked costumed Krewe members invited ladies in attendance to step out on the dance floor with them. This custom was then adopted by many other Krewes including Rex.

By now, I am a full-fledged bead w h _ _ _ -- just like all the other girls. I can catch one in my right hand, one in my left, and one in my teeth (just kidding about the teeth, however, one strand did hit me in the mouth). A girl cannot, repeat CANNOT, have too many beads. Only I find myself getting a bit picky over the throws. I only want the best. My big catch here @ Proteus is a neon lit trident (sword) and a Mardi Gras football.

Then along came Orpheus. The Krewe of Orpheus, founded in 1993, has consistently stunned the revelers on Lundi Gras, and has exploded as the largest new Krewe in the past 30 years. Since that first ride, Orpheus has been one of the most eagerly anticipated Mardi Gras parades of the season. The Krewe of Orpheus derives its name from the mortal Orpheus, son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope. The story of Orpheus illustrates the power of music in both this world and the next. Legend is that Apollo presented Orpheus with a lyre, which he played with perfection. The music of Orpheus was so beautiful that wild animals ceased their hunting, mountains bowed, seas stopped spraying and trees bent near to listen when he sang. His music was celebrated and cherished by all who heard it. His melodies inspired the noblest love. When Orpheus sang every heart was opened.

So after another 6 hours on day two of parade watching, my bead stash is considerable. My friend makes me edit the beads when we come in. Apparently, I can’t take them all home. Oh…and the feet now have real blisters.

Fat Tuesday (officially “Mardi Gras”)

Today, we have an early wake up call, as our hotel grand stand reservations require we be out there by 8:30 a.m. for a good viewing location. We nosh on a King Cake breakfast in our room. Yum! What a wonderfully sweet and colorful cake associated with the pre-Lenten celebration of Mardi Gras. The cake has a small trinket (often a small plastic baby, sometimes said to represent Baby Jesus) inside, and the person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket has various privileges and obligations (such as buying the cake for the next celebration). Although the parade starts @ 8:15 a.m., it will not reach us until 10:30.

Thank goodness for Bloody Mary’s!

Glasses are just as a good as a mask, right?
The first to arrive is the Krewe of Zulu. Early in 1909, a group of laborers who had organized a club named "The Tramps," went to the Pythian Theater to see a musical comedy performed by the Smart Set. The comedy included a skit entitled, "There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me," about the Zulu Tribe. While the "Group" marched in Mardi Gras as early as 1901, their first appearance as Zulus came in 1909, with William Story as King. The group wore raggedy pants, and had a Jubilee-singing quartet in front of and behind King Story. In 1915, Zulu heralded the first use of floats, constructed on a spring wagon, using dry good boxes. The float was decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four Dukes along with the King. That humble beginning gave rise to the lavish floats in the Zulu parade today. To me, it looked a bit out of place with grass skirts, leis, coconuts, and palm trees; but fantastic nonetheless.  Yes, I said coconuts.  They throw coconuts!  Back when Zulu first started, the Krewe could not afford expensive bead throws, so they painted and decorated coconuts, aka the "golden nugget" - the most sought after parade throw (although they are really just handed to the crowd to avoid injury and liability.)

The Zulu King
Thank goodness for Bloody Mary’s!

The last and final parade of Mardi Gras is Rex (founded 1872) and is the largest parade on Mardi Gras Day. Rex is Latin for "King", and Rex reigns as "The King of Carnival". Rex was organized by New Orleans businessmen in part to put on a spectacle in honor of the New Orleans visit of Grand Duke Alexis of Russia during the 1872 Carnival season. Also in the minds of the founders of Rex was the desire to lure tourism and business to New Orleans in the years after the American Civil War. (I think they succeeded!)

King Rex!

Oh…and goodness Bloody Mary's for thank! (hiccup)

After the final parade, we went to my favorite find, Daisy Duke’s café (really a hole in the wall, but I couldn’t get enough of the local New Orleans grub). Often times, it is the local dive that serves the best food.

After the Zulu and Rex parades pass on Mardi Gras, the truck parade follows in their wake. Founded in 1935, the Krewe of Elks Orleans is the oldest and largest of all the truck float Krewes. The Elks Orleanians are a group of over 50 individually designed truck floats that parade following Rex down St. Charles Ave. The organization is formed by 4,600 male and female riders. Let me just say, this is a spectacle for sure. The “trucks” are all 18-wheelers with big boxes on the back end and they literally throw every single thing “throwable” out to the crowd. The barricades are breached, the cops become invisible, and the crowds surge into the street. There is no pomp, no bands, just diesel trucks one after another all blowing their air horns for hours and hours. Oh, and a Denvergirl who needs more beads! (So many beads, in fact, I find that I cannot take them home – I have to edit my stash before packing; and let me tell you, I had a hard time parting with my treasures!)

After the truck parade, I have now stood on my perch and watched a good 9-hour (minus our lunch break) of Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras-ness. I was sad to see it end.

Check the loot!
Our last day in New Orleans was full of sightseeing. We awoke early for a breakfast of Beignets and the rode the St. Charles Trolley uptown to visit the Cities of the Dead, the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which turns out is much like the city itself, a mirror to the opulence and desecration of a mysterious and enchanting city, which dances back and forth between beauty and ruin (leaning more towards beauty). Like New Orleans, the cemetery surely has hidden secrets... secrets that most will never discover. Oh…I wish these tombs could talk. (I’m told that they do; in fact, the “haunted” cemetery tour is a must.)

St. Charles Trolley Line.  Take notice:  even the trees grow beads!
The city’s “way of death” may be the most distinctive part of New Orleans culture. For more than 200 years now, the people here have housed their dead in small, above ground tombs. They are built along streets in miniature cities of the deceased and the forgotten. This “City” provided hours of discovery for this history seeker and amateur photographer. I’ve always wanted to see this and I just couldn’t stop taking photographs…and I wish I had brought a few of my bead treasures to leave behind to pay my homage to the dead. 

After searching...I found an A. Thomas grave.
Coincidentally, my paternal grandfather was A. Thomas.

Lots of wonderful details here to practice my photography skills.

Lucky for us, the cemetery sits by the wonderful historic Garden District of New Orleans, a very impressive, magnificent testament to 1800’s architecture, said to be one of the best preserved collections of historic southern mansions in the United States. The 19th century origins of the Garden District illustrate the wealthy newcomers building opulent structures based upon the prosperity of New Orleans in that era. If ever I get my hands on a cool million or two, this is the place to live. We walked by some very famous homes here including Nicolas Cage, Anne Rice, and Sandra Bullock. I loved, loved the historic details; the cobblestone sidewalks, the hitching posts that still stand, and the occasional carriage stoop. The wrought iron detailing is something to be admired. The front gates have doorbells, intercoms, and most of them grow beads! As do some of the trees…only in New Orleans!

Knock, knock...is Sandra home?
I loved New Orleans. I loved the history. I loved the people. I hope to come back.

Laissez les bons temps rouler! (it’s French, and the New Orleans official slogan…look it up.)

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