An Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us not from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about Mardi Gras. Before our last trip to New Orleans I’d read a few books about it and seen some documentaries, but there was still a lot I didn’t understand. So we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

 

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

 

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

 

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

A souvenir that lasts – 5 tips on getting tattooed while travelling

This is such a touchy subject, and one I’ve actually really been looking forward to writing about. Getting tattooed, while you’re travelling overseas. The irony of this is that “overseas” is different for us all. I live in Melbourne. Maybe you live in London. Or Rome. Or Seattle. Or Vancouver. Does that mean that you, living in Seattle, wouldn’t feel safe getting a tattoo in London, even though hundreds of people are probably seeing tattoo artists there every day? Of course not, that’s completely ludicrous!

 

I think that the main issue with this topic is that many people have preconceived notions that:
a) Only irresponsible idiots get tattooed to begin with.
b) If you get tattooed while you’re travelling, it must have been a spur-of-the-moment idea that you probably had while drunk and will really regret it later on.
c) Because it was such a stupid, unplanned decision, you’re probably just going to get it done in some dirty, back-alley garage by a big guy in a torn leather jacket who doesn’t sanitise his needles or even wash his hands between appointments, which he smokes his way through.

While point irks me to no end, being the happy owner of around 20 tattoos, I’m not writing this as a rant against people’s uninformed assumptions. Instead, I’m writing this for those of you who, like me, are admirers of art, and have maybe seen some work by talented artists across the globe who you might consider visiting on your next trip. Or maybe there’s just a city you really love, and want to take a memory of that city home permanently, and you need to find the right person for the job. Either way, there are a few things to consider….

 

1. Do your research regarding design:
* Don’t just turn up with a vague idea and expect it to be perfected immediately. They’re tattoo artists, not magicians.

* It should go without saying, but if you’re planning to get a tattoo in a language you’re not familiar with, for goodness sake, make sure it means what you think it means, and make sure it’s spelt correctly!!

 

2. Do your research regarding tattoo artist:
* If you’ve been following someone’s work for a while, this step is a lot easier. Otherwise, search online for “best tattoo artist in XXX” and read through all the lists that come up – if certain names seem to keep popping up on every list, chances are that’s for a good reason.

* Check that reviews/lists are actually recent and still relevant, not advice from 10 years ago.

* Try asking around on online forums, like Trip Advisor and Yelp.

* If you’re in a country where you don’t speak the native language, be sure you’re going to be able to communicate exactly what you’re wanting.

 

3. On the day:
* Does this place take walk ins or do you need to make an appointment in advance?

* If you need to make an appointment first, is a deposit required? Is it refundable (often it won’t be)?

* Are they a cash only place when it comes to payment, or are you able to pay on card?

* How can you get in touch if your plans change?

 

4. Consider the point in your trip you’ll be getting tattooed:
* Generally, you don’t want to expose your new tattoo to long periods of time submerged in water or exposed to the sun, so if your next few destinations are going to involve swimming and sunning yourself, it’s probably not the best time to do it.

* If you’re a party person, it’s also worth considering how many big nights you’re going to be having, and not getting your tattoo done the day after. Alcohol thins your blood, which means you’re going to bleed a lot more, and that’s not ideal.

 

5. After care:
This will be a bit easier if you’ve been tattooed before – while the general guidelines are pretty similar everywhere, only you know how your body heals and responds to certain ointments. As such, this advice is not to be taken as gospel, but for me, I know that:
a) I need to use Bepanthan cream for 4 – 5 days on my new tattoo, then switch to a gentle, non-scented moisturising cream.
b) my tattoos heal best when they’re kept covered for the first few days, and then left uncovered with a layer of Bepanthan where possible, or covered with plastic wrap over the Bepanthan again if they’re in an area that needs to be covered with clothing.

Knowing this, I packed some plastic wrap, medical paper tape and a tube of Bepanthan – I have sensitive skin, and after so many tattoos, I’m not willing to risk trying anything new at this point when this system has been working well for me for the past 12 years!

 

As you can see, we not dealing with some secret tricks – it’s basic common sense for the most part. If you do decide to get a tattoo in a foreign language made up of some cool characters that you’ve seen on a street sign after leaving a night club after having way too much to drink, and you do stumble into the first tattoo parlour you see with a quick iPhone snap of the street sign, then yes – you are an idiot and no one feels sorry for you and the crappy tattoo you’re going to end up with. For the rest of you who are looking for a lasting piece of artwork as a souvenir from a meaningful time or experience that you can literally carry with you for the rest of your life, I hope this helps! 🙂

 

As for me, I left home wanting to add to my collection, and …

Done by Martin at Sweet Hell Tattoo, Reykjavík, Iceland
Done by Pabby at Downtown Tattoo, New Orleans, USA

Photo Journal: The Yellow City of Hoi An

I read an article on Singapore Airline’s inflight magazine, SilverKris on our way to Vietnam; it featured some stunning photos by a photographer whose name I can’t now recall of Hoi An. He decided to base his photo series on the beautiful yellow shades of the city, which you can’t believe the brilliance of if you’ve never seen them.

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I may not be a professional photographer, but I know beauty when I see it, and did my best to capture the golden city through my own eyes…

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Photo Journal: Cloud Gate at Millennium Park, Chicago

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Cloud Gate. The Bean. That weird silver thing. Whatever you want to call it, it’s become a Chicago icon since it’s unveiling and dedication on May 15th, 2006, nine years ago today. The man who can take credit for this beauty is an Indian-born British artist by the name of Anish Kapoor. It’s a 66ft long, 33ft wide, 110 ton stainless steel arch of sorts, inspired by liquid mercury, and providing the most beautiful reflections of a stunning city. It’s a favourite for both tourists and locals, and especially photographers; I got to Millenium Park at 6am on Christmas morning, 2014, to get these shots; it was more than worth the early start to be able to sit there for a while and watch the reflections as the sun came out.

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