Two-and-a-half hectic, fun, weeks in N’Awlins.

We went into a delightful holding pattern at the Rainbow Plantation in Summerdale, AL waiting for the Mardi Gras Airstream Rally to begin. We moved to NOLA on February 12 arriving a few days early to explore on our own before the festivities began. The rally camped right next to an earthen levee on the New Orleans University Campus on Lake Pontchartrain.

Our rally encampment by the levee.

Standing on the levee, Lake Pontchartrain on the far left, our campsite to the right.

This was a bit of high ground during the Katrina flood, so FEMA built this campground, among others, to support the infamous FEMA trailers during the recovery. The trailers are all gone and the University now owns the campground, and we, along with two other RV groups, set up camp for Mardi Gras.

Now, Mardi Gras to us Northerners is a single day, Fat Tuesday, set aside for parades, parties, and outrageous behavior to be given up when Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. In N’Awlins, Mardi Gras is the same day, but the Carnival building up to it begins on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. It’s not one parade, it’s FIFTY-THREE! And these aren’t simple half-hour, march-down-Main-Street-on Fourth-of-July parades we’re used to up North. They’re multi-hour events with thousands of marching participants of all types, and anywhere from thirteen to thirty huge floats. The total number of floats that roll in the 53 parades is over 500! Parades are an industry in N’Awlins. (By the way, parades don’t “begin or start” they ROLL).

Most floats are multi-level, some with a scores of costumed participants throwing  favors to the crowd. These consist primarily of beaded necklaces of all descriptions, but also include stuffed animals, frisbees, plastic cups, aluminum doubloons, and coconuts, yes, coconuts (all of these are called “throws”). By law, all those on the float must be masked and all those in the street unmasked.

Parades roll day and night. We saw six nighttime and three daylight parades. In each case, three parades rolled one after the other with a break in between. Lonnie, our intrepid rally organizer had booked bleacher seats for us along St. Charles St. It was nice to sit once in awhile, but mostly the bleachers gave us a place to stand for a better view.

One after another, floats would pass by, we’d wave our hands and scream “Throw me something Mister” and the throws would fly, and we’d attempt to catch them. Photography is quite hazardous under the flying beads.

At the end we’d gather up our loot and trudge back to meet the bus–exhausted.

Each parade is staged by a “krewe”–they use the old English spelling. There are many krewes named for various Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythological figures, but the top dogs are Rex and Zulu. Rex (king) represents the old white establishment New Orleans and Zulu began as a spoof of the Rex parade by the black community that has now gone mainstream. Rex and Zulu both march on Mari Gras day ending in a huge by-invitation-only formal ball with the court of Rex and his Queen, debutantes, the whole aristocracy of Mardi Gras dressed to the nines. This craziness has been going on since the late 1800s and shows no sign of slowing down. Even Katrina couldn’t stop it, although the Mardi Gras that followed had a fashion theme made from blue plastic tarps.

Rex arriving by Coast Guard cutter.

In the last few years, Mardi Gras has expanded into Lundi Gras–Fat Monday before Fat Tuesday when Rex arrives by Coast Guard cutter down on the Mississippi and a great street party ensues with fireworks, rock bands and all.

Lundi Gras festivities.

Left out of all this, for the most part, is jazz, except for some Dixieland and a few progressive high school bands.

Taking place separately from all this craziness are the Mardi Gras Indians and their second lines as seen in the HBO series, Tremé. The Indian Chiefs don wonderful, colorful suits they have worked on for a year or more: elaborately beaded panels, usually depicting the Indian alliances with early slaves, surrounded by magnificent feathers that billow in the breeze. The suits are difficult for outsiders to view unless come upon by accident. We saw two during our 2008 trip, across the Mississippi, in Algiers, and on this trip, displayed in an African restaurant, Golden Feather, on Rampart Street that’s owned by a chief.

The music played by the second lines is the root of jazz. It all began in the Tremé area on Congo Square in what is now Louis Armstrong Park along Basin Street.

The Airstream Rally ended, but we didn’t feel our visit was over, so on the 15th we hooked up and moved about a mile to a commercial RV park called Pontchartrain Landing where we’d stayed in 2008. They provide a shuttle service into the French Quarter that makes life easier and allowed us to explore NOLA and its jazz.

–Bruce

 

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One Comment on “Two-and-a-half hectic, fun, weeks in N’Awlins.”

  1. Jodie Says:

    Gorgeous pictures! I hope you had a blast!


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