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.

 

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Corner Washington Ave & Prytania St, New Orleans
http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/lafayette-cemetery-no-1/

 

In stark comparison to the clean lines of the mostly shiny white marble of the St Louis Cemetery No. 3 and a little closer to the beautifully dilapidated St Louis Cemetery No. 1, Lafayette No. 1 is surrounded by the most beautiful trees (as one might expect for a cemetery located in the middle of the Garden District). We visited in winter, and most of those trees had shed their leaves onto the tombs below. It gave the impression that the elements were somehow protecting their residents.

This cemetery is not only the oldest of the seven city-operated cemeteries in the city, but it’s also a non-denominational and non-segregated resting place for not only natives, but also immigrants from 25-odd other countries . Over 7, 000 souls in total are entombed in the cemetery.

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Photo Journal: New Orleans, 10 years post-Katrina…

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It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina tore apart New Orleans; 10 years ago I was half way through my university degree, still living at home, in a relatively new relationship with the guy that would become my husband. When we first started dating, we spent a lot of time talking about all the places we wanted to travel to (and it was a bloody long list), the places we wanted to see and, more importantly, experience. New Orleans was a city pretty high up on both our lists, and we were both equally surprised at the others’ desire to visit. New Orleans, pre-Katrina, wasn’t exactly a big ticket city; at least not for 2 Aussie uni students. It wasn’t a Paris or a London or  a New York. But we both wanted to go. He wanted to go for the music, the night life, the care-free atmosphere in a city that seemed to be built on fun. I couldn’t actually put into words why I wanted to go; it was one of those weird “I don’t know why, but I know I belong in that city” things. Something about the music, the art, the voodoo, the cemeteries, the literature, the food – I just knew that any place there was a coalescence of all those things was a place I needed to be.

But we were still kids. We were both full time uni students. We had big dreams, but no money to fund them. When Katrina hit the city, we were both devastated; for some still unknown reason, we felt a strange connection to this mysterious city on the other side of the world. We debated over and over again whether it’d still be a city we’d want to visit post-Katrina. Would it be somehow tainted? Would the recovery effort have taken away all of the magic and the charm we wanted to visit for? Would they, a people so fiercely proud and protective of their city, still accept visitors as openly? We weren’t sure, but we were both determined to visit anyway and find out for ourselves.

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Ten and a half years after we started dating, and nine and a half long years after Katrina hit, we finally made it. We finally visited this city we were both so strangely drawn to. And while the spirit of the people was so strong, the physical effects of Katrina were still so punishingly visible.

This storm caused damage on a scale that can’t be accurately understood through words. We’ve all read the numbers, the statistics, but even they seem completely unreal.
80% of the city under water.
Almost 2000 lives lost.
Close to $110 billion in damage.

There have been hundreds of articles written about it all, and nothing I write will be as meaningful as some of the first-hand accounts written by the residents and survivors (I’d especially recommend watching  HBO’s Treme and reading Nine Lives by Dan Baum). What I can say, as a complete foreigner and outsider, is that New Orleans changed the trajectory of my life. Even post-Katrina, it was still magic. All of the imperfections made it so perfect. My soul was different for having visited. And all of our reservations were completely unfounded; the charm was still there, the recovery effort was incredible, and the people couldn’t have been more kind and welcoming. Instead of writing about the recovery ten years on, because (let’s be honest) I really don’t have the insight into it like the locals will, let me show you New Orleans through my eyes almost 10 years on. And I’m not talking the pretty touristy sights. Let me show you some of the more real, less brochure-worthy, genuine places and things I saw.

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Finding myself in St Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans

St Louis Cemetery No. 1
425 Basin St. New Orleans
http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/st-louis-cemetery-no-1/


I wrapped my oversized cardigan around me a little tighter as my feet crunched over the leaves that peppered the footpath, and the early morning wind blew as if it were trying to pass right through me. I’d woken up that morning in New Orleans, the city I’d been inexplicably drawn to, and a long way from home back in Australia.

 

It was with some trepidation that I passed through the entrance of the St Louis Cemetery No. 1. It wasn’t the whole being in a cemetery thing that had me unnerved; I’m oddly at ease among the graves and stories of the past. What I wasn’t at ease with at that time was myself. I arrived in New Orleans with this feeling I couldn’t shake, like I didn’t fit in anywhere, like I didn’t belong. On that thought, the wind blew through me once more, as if urging me on through the front gate, as if pushing me toward answers.

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I moved silently through the decaying tombs, many dating back to the 1700s. Generations were contained within single crumbling structures; how many were truly remembered? What were their stories? The tombs would have been beautiful originally, but the deterioration they faced over the centuries only made them even more striking. Intricate wrought iron crosses and arrows decorated gates encircling tombs, while large stone and marble placards listing the names of the souls resting within lay on the floor beside many of tombs, gently pieced back together, having fallen from the places they’d originally occupied.

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Looking out over the praying angels perched on top of mausoleums, eyes turned to the heavens, I could see Treme Street and the housing projects beyond. Arriving just as the gates were unlocked for the day proved to be the perfect time to visit, with no one else around. I was a long way from the mayhem and commercialism of the tourist hub that is Bourbon Street; I was, proverbially, definitely not in Kansas anymore.

 

I guess travel is the ultimate opportunity to reflect and recharge; we all know the cliché of people “finding themselves” while travelling. New Orleans was so different to anywhere else I’d been. The people there seemed to live authentically, fearlessly. Free. As someone who’s spent the best part of her life held back by fear, I was hypnotised by that thought, ready to start my own new chapter. And, as if the spirits had me in their hands, the last thing I saw before I left the cemetery was an old book, the pages browned and torn, sitting on top of a tomb; as I walked past, the wind blew the open pages shut.

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Shop here: Faulkner House Books, New Orleans

Faulkner House Books
624 Pirates Alley, New Orleans
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Faulkner-House-Books/213477855446762

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How incredible, to be standing in the former home of literary giant William Faulkner in the middle of New Orleans’ French Quarter… The winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as two Pulitzers, is one of America’s most celebrated writers, and his former home in the French Quarter, lovingly and carefully restored by Rosemary James and Joe DeSalvo (who also live on the floor above the book store) is one of the most beautiful tributes a writer could hope to have.

It’s tucked well away and easy to miss, but if you have the address, just follow the map (or ask for directions!) and enter wonderland. It’s tightly packed with as many books as the little room can hold, with an unsurprisingly great section on Mr Faulkner himself and poetic works from a range of writers. I was pretty happy to pick up a copy of Gumbo Ya-Ya there, and spent a solid 30 minutes browsing the books, lost in the perfectly chandelier-lit happy place.

Faulkner House Books embodied everything I love – old houses with soul, creaky floorboards that tell a story, floor to ceiling shelves of books, history, and the smell of gumbo wafting from down the street. When you’re in New Orleans, make sure you drop in and pick yourself up some new reading material, and enjoy walking into a gorgeous little world away from the mayhem of Bourbon Street for a while.