I said it before and I’ll say it again. People are awesome. I simply don’t know where to begin. My party mode switch has been left permanently switched on from the carnival festivities reverberating through out my bones for the rest of time and life will never been seen, felt or experienced in the same way again. Such is the effect New Orleans will have on you, Mardi Gras or no Mardi Gras.
I was going to narrow it down to my top five Mardi Gras favourite moments but the truth is, there were too many to chose from. Every turn onto a new street led to a new adventure, kooky stranger or bonkers moment, piling up on top of another to create a three day montage of gorgeous insanity. Music blared and bounded from every nook and cranny of the town with drums, trombones, beatboxers, guitars, choral singers and saxophones and friendly Louisiana accents twanged around the streets with cheery jingles and laughter from bewildered tourists, like myself. The city didn’t let up for a moment, and neither did we.The journey there itself was more than eventful. I met a lovely nuclear physicist on my first plane who appreciated Elton John as a fellow musician but not a person, was just offered a job in Lynchburg and who, despite his opinions on nationalism being applicable to the USA but not anywhere else like “that Korea country or those middle Eastern ones”, I still managed to persuade that socialism could be a good thing and capitalism was flawed.
He turned out to be rather charming and wanted to buy me wine but I had to get my connecting flight where I met a New Orleans native returning for the carnival from his boring sales job who gave me many dos and do nots for the festivities. We discovered we had once been at the same club on the same night in D.C. Small world I guess. Next I met two rowdy business men, already wasted on the shuttle bus who were very disgruntled about being held up by the bad weather up north but perfectly delightful to me regardless. It was their first Mardi Gras too.Finally it was just me and the driver on the bus who until now hadn’t uttered a word but suddenly became very vocal about the state of New Orleans in Mardi Gras time and felt like he had bonded with me over this even though I was half falling asleep, half fascinatingly peering out the window at the pizza boy in a tuxedo on a skateboard, the half naked party goers, the people rocking out to an ambulance siren and the piles and piles of beads strewn on the streets, muddied yet still glinting with a magic and mysterious quality I was yet to understand.Eventually I arrived very very late on Friday night and had a much needed catch up with my lovely friend Brigid who I stayed with just off St Charles street with her equally lovely roommates and company. On Saturday, we woke and dressed, me in Mardi gras colours and heels with curled hair and Brigid in a much more sensible but still beautiful outfit. It didn’t take long for the humidity to get to my hair or the crooked cobbled streets to wreak havoc with my heeled feet but this didn’t stop me having what would be the first of three amazing days.
We started off with a carnival on St Charles, a stones-throw from Brigid’s apartment. I had never seen anything like it, it was mental. Everyone was dressed up in crazy outfits and screaming at the top of their lungs as floats led by tractors (with often miserable drivers we would attempt to cheer up as time went by with increasingly ridiculous measures) went by and threw out beads and, if you were lucky, other various objects like sunglasses, plush toys, coconuts or masks.As a subdued Brit, needless to say, I didn’t immediately get into it. It seemed to go against everything I had ever known to be shouting out for attention for something as meager as a shiny beaded necklace made in China*. Brigid explained the origins of the Mardi gras Carnival floats came from when their were times of great disparity and the rich would drive around once a year and give out gold and stuff. Somehow, this heritage didn’t make me feel better about the whole thing, only worse, so even though it was still technically the AM, we went to a cute little cafe/bar in an old trolley car and I ordered a straight whisky as well as getting talked into a neon red rum filled cocktail drink I would come to know and love called a ‘Hurricane‘. They were consumed in minutes and suddenly the festivities seemed much brighter and yelling at complete strangers seemed very ordinary indeed.We wandered down town and I got a peek at the famous Bourbon street, famous of course for many a girl flashing her boobs to get the attention and goodies of the festival goers on the balcony. Despite being the middle of the day and few to no things occurring I still got my first sight of public nudity of the weekend. Since we had managed to out walk the carnival to Canal street, we decided to kill time by grabbing some food (and yes more booze) where I got a taste of delicious Louisiana cuisine.
I started off mild and had some yummy crabcakes and while Brigid was in the loo, took the liberty of ordering some more hurricanes which came in fetching gold goblets that handily hung round your neck leaving your arms free to frolic. We went back to the main drag and got prime spots for another parade, and this time, I really threw myself into things. I even caught myself screaming for a gentlemen’s club who suavely came by on motorised reclining chairs, sipping Jack Daniels and smoking cigars and pipes. People get a little bit vicious and literally steal things out of your hands in the commotion but despite this we came away with a good haul including some Elvis sunglasses, garlands and many, many, many beads. My favourite thing I saw in the parade though had to be an elderly couple dressed up as pirates clearly wasted wandering through the procession about four floats ahead of where they were supposed to be, holding themselves up and laughing as they went by. When the parade finished, one of my all time favourite moments in life commenced as a few (probably to be honest, Frat) boys ran into the street after it and started an impromptu dance off to the music one of the nearby vendors was playing. Within moments, dozens more people rushed to join them and just as Kesha’s Die Young started to play, we joined in too, diving into the crowd of young lunatics, dancing like no one was watching, despite the hundreds of onlookers around. It was incredible, but Brigid did lose her phone in the madness. Of course this is New Orleans, and that story goes on to have a crazy end to it. I assured Brigid the universe would return it to her and lo and behold it surely did.
We texted Brigid phone to see if anyone had picked it up and received a message from a guy called Koen. Later that night in a bar downtown (where I had the good pleasure of meeting another fellow UEAer and other wonderful company), we all started to wonder about who this Koen character could be. A tall dark handsome hipster? A shy jazz musician? An old local who wore bow ties and would tell us wild stories about fights with alligators? This is what happens when writer friends get together. Our imaginations tend to run away from us and in New Orleans where anything is possible, our creative juices were flowing like run away trains on steroids.
The next day commenced with a plan to rendezvous with Koen at a hotel on Canal street. We assumed he worked there but when we asked the concierge she had no idea who we were talking about and grew very concerned about our safety. She escorted outside to the drinks stand which played the music responsible for the street dance the day before and looked around at the various people hanging about. Could the man waiting on the corner be Koen? Was Koen a man at all? Eventually we phoned him and it turned out to be the most normal guy in all of New Orleans, which when you think about it, is a little extraordinary. Unsure of if he would want a reward, we quickly left.
The rest of the day was completely chill and utterly mad. We went to the birth place of Jazz (very exciting), Jefferson square where I tried blackened alligator which was just lovely. Then we sat down by the banks of the Mississippi. It was gorgeous and so peaceful. You could feel the warmth waving up from the water as we sat on the old wooden Jetty. Within moments we were offered wine from a hobo who had nothing and lived under the nearby bridge and then weed from complete strangers from Memphis who shared with us a taste in films and a passion for travel. We declined both. Brigid, her roommate Yasmin and myself could hardly tear ourselves away from the bank, it would have been a perfect weekend of have simply just stayed there the entire time, making various Huck Finn references, getting into deep talks with strangers about moving to Australia and watching the steam boats go by.Fortunately for the rest of fated events though, we did eventually move and went home so I could finish an essay because I’m hardcore like that. After bashing it out, we visited the adorable French Market with its fairy lights, friendly vendors with loveable dogs and kooky merchandise which was unfortunately being packed away on account of it getting on for 1am. A few bars were lucky enough to enjoy our presence including Maison, a jazzy live music venue which presented us with a poetry slamming midget accompanied with a afro haired slap bass guitarist. After joining and mocking some scene kids upstairs by imitating the dances they were taking far too seriously, we came back down to witness the magic that is the beautiful Big Easy Brawlers.
I wish I had clearer photos of them because they were stunning, not just as human beings but especially as musicians. The lead singer/rapper doubled (of course, because its New Orleans) as a trombonist and was accompanied by many musicians including the most handsome pair of sexy saxophonists, some guitarists, a keyboard player and a bassist. If their looks weren’t impressive, they’re sets which consisted of jazz funk covers of Led Zeppelin riffs, broken down covers of the Beatles merging together into an awe inspiring blues version of Baby Got Back would hush the most harsh of critics. Their intensity was stunning. Their tunes were danceable, enjoyable and so distinct, it was as if they had constructed an air of melodic indulgence around you which you simply wanted to just camp out in till the sun came up, regardless of climate. Between dancing with a guy dressed as scooby doo, drinking local beer and making intense eye contact with sexy saxophone guy number one, we were lucky enough to chat to some of them outside and they’re great guys. You can find them on reverbnation and facebook but unfortunately not spotify. Brigid told me on the way home that this is what her life was like and she saw bands like this all the time. It’s probably my first sincere moment of jealousy in my life.
The walk home at about 5am, in case you haven’t realised a pattern emerging here, was also cray cray. Brigid was insistent on taking me to Cafe Du Monde, supposedly famous for its coffees and pastries known as beignets. So famous, a tall Louisiana old man on the way there remarked how he wasn’t a stalker but knew exactly where we were headed and why. He was convinced he had no accent, lived in swampland and owned a truck. We asked if it was red. Eventually he told us it was silver and when Brigid said this was a mistake he replied in the thickest Southern drawl I have ever heard, “I did not!” He was also fairly insistent Cafe Du Monde was closed. It wasn’t. The floor appeared to be covered in snowfall, coated with the icing sugar of the hundreds of beignets already served for the day by staff who seemed to be stuck in a timewarp harping back to the fifties. This is also where we met Kevin, Galaxy, Addleburg and Gabriel for the first time. Yes those are their real names. They were (and still are) charming Californians who we would cross paths again with the next night.
The coffee was good and the beignets were fun. Brigid and I left hastily after an icing sugar fight and wandered along the river once more before reaching a bandstand where we proceeded to sing at the top of our lungs. Belting out Ichytoo Park, we were cheered on and joined in by some enthusiastic motorists who started to beatbox with us, probably unaware what we were singing but agreeing that life really is #aaaall tooo beautiful . I may have also sung in a police officers face. I actually saw him the following day, apologised and had a brief chat about gun control laws. We met some guys from Miami in our final drag and proceeded to have a sarc-off fest which was so sarcastic, we didn’t realise they were being serious when they asked us to show them our boobs. Once the creepiness became apparent, we quickly left, had a deep talk for the rest of the journey which was so engrossing I couldn’t tell you about all the other mad things that were probably happening right in front of us as we walked.
Monday is supposedly the day to stay up all night so we kicked things off, me dressed in a rainbow tutu, at Juan’s Flying Burrito, a cute little Mexican restaurant where we drank margaritas in preparation for a night of debauchery. And debauchery was had. An insanely large group of us gathered in Brigid’s apartment for predrinks before heading down to, what is now in my mind, a very hazy parade. Quick note about the parades, aside from the fact that they’re awesome- Everyone only really cheers for the floats because they’re the only ones with the beads. You’ll have a great time if you remember to cheer for all the awesome school children brass bands and cheerleaders though because once in a while, you make these obviously exhausted but still enthusiastic kids smile, and that’s just lovely. Anyway, after the parade we went to a pub, made some questionable choices on the jukebox machine, had a few drinks and then made our way to Bourbon street for the evening.
I cant begin to describe the craziness that is Bourbon by moonlight, its just one of those things you’ll have to see for yourself. Brigid and I, wanting to fully emerge ourselves into the situation, went to a strip club in order to gain access to one of the upstairs balconies so we could throw beads at people down below. We didn’t degrade anyone, don’t worry, but it wasn’t the most pleasant experience in the world and so we once again, quickly left in search of more alcohol. I became an official booby scout for the boys, not that they needed one, seems as there was so much on show, in fact after about half an hour walking down, we started to crave some more socially acceptable human interaction and decided to go back to the French quarter, not before a group of somewhat over zealous Christians attempted to save our souls of course.
We ended up going back to the fabulous Maison, where an incredibly kooky band with a tiny crazy girl in a red shiny top rocked out and sang on a trombone bigger than she was. It was hilarious, don’t get me wrong, but I got into to it anyway, started to dance when I sunddelyr ealised I was dancing with Kevin. I turn round and see Gabriel. It cant be! In the confusion I rush outside and Brigid and Yasmine are talking to Addleburg and Galaxy! Yes the universe had conspired to reunite the charming Californians with us in a random corner of New Orleans. Such is a small example of just how right everything somehow seems amongst all the madness of Mardi Gras. We talked to them for a while, drank for a while, danced a while, made future plans to meet up on at West Coast and eventually at an odd hour, called it quits, said our emotional goodbyes and started to walk home where I would meet my penultimate fasncinating stranger of the trip.
Random Creepy North Laandaan guy. Walking home, remarking on how blissfully happy we all are, I suddenly realise how Brigid, in her normal extroverted manner, is no longer beside us, but in fact a few paces behind remarking how she overheard this guys accent and is questioning his nationality. Turns out he’s a North Londoner with the most amusing dialects and starts talking about football and wanting a boy he would name “Johnny Jnr” and “two gells” to boot. He then literally out of nowhere, accosts and snogs me because I’m “laavley” which we take as our unmistakable cue to leave. Very quickly this time. We half walk home before giving up and getting a taxi, again indulging in casual philosophy and semi-deep conversation as well as reviewing the past few days with dopey smiles on our faces remarking how not very drunk we are, when probably this is not the case.
The next morning, I begrudgingly start to pack, stuffing beads and other prized possessions in amongst my new tutu and green, pink and gold clothes before heading down to my last awesome parade. By this time, I don’t need the assistance of liquor to scream my lungs off to have complete strangers throw beads and coconuts in my vague direction. It becomes apparent how much Mardi Gras has changed me. I say my goodbyes in the street to the awesome people I have met, go to collect my stuff and then, whilst waiting for a taxi for the airport meet my final New Orleans stranger. I’m stood on the side of the road, freaking out about missing my flight when Thing 2 out of nowhere comes running down the road and then stops with no explanation. I immediately think of my Dr Zuess obsessed friend back in Catawba, and being caught up in the socially acceptable forward craziness of the town, I chased him down and got a picture. Turns out his name is Ryan, lovely guy. He rode off on his bicycle moments later like it was the most normal thing in the world. Thing 1 was lost in the Ether that is New Orleans.
Later in the airport, I discover my neck is blue from all the beads and have amusing conversations with all the staff about their own festival shenanigans. I’m so charmed by the nacho lady and so tired and broken and hungry, I end up purchasing a ton of nachos I don’t even like which I subsequently fall asleep in. Brigid sends me the following message:
I’m sitting here trying to glue my brain back together. Only problem is that there are bits all over the place and they keep getting lost under all the beads.
And as much as I can relate, I find myself having no regrets. Even after I discover my kindle is broken. Even after I wake up in my disgusting nachos. Even after the long bumpy journey on the two suspiciously small propeller airplanes which I’m forced to do my reading on in prep for school the next day, when all I really want to do is pray for it all to stop. It was the best three days of my life and I can’t thank New Orleans or more importantly Brigid enough for it. <3