New Orleans may be known for its Mardi Gras celebrations, but the party begins long before Fat Tuesday… 29 days before to be exact.
For an entire month before the Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday, the entire state of Louisiana is in carnival mode, and there is no mistaking when this special time of the year begins in New Orleans.
During carnival, the faint but rhythmic sound of marching bands in the distance seems to be almost constant. Parades both big and small fill the streets almost every day. Walk by any local bakery and you’re almost guaranteed to catch a cinnamon-y whiff of the traditional King Cakes that true NOLA residents only eat during carnival. Homes and other buildings all around the city are decked out in purple, yellow, and green, and the phrase “Happy Mardi Gras!” rolls off everyone’s tongues almost as easily as absurd amounts of alcohol roll down their throats.
There is more to Mari Gras than drinking your life away on the city’s world famous Bourbon Street, but partying is definitely a part of the experience too. As my friend/host/seven-year resident of New Orleans put it, “Mardi Gras is for getting drunk and going to parades.” And so that is exactly what I did to get my first taste of carnival when I arrived in the Big Easy on the Thursday before Mardi Gras.
My friend and I put on our homemade glittery bras, tutus, wigs, and light up headbands with bunny ears and stars. We made a sign for me to hold up with big, bold letters that said, “MARDI GRAS VIRGIN.” Basically we were doing anything and everything possible to stand out among the crowds. Contrary to what movies and TV shows teach you, at Mardi Gras parades they throw out some goodies far more interesting than flimsy beads.
Each parade during Mardi Gras is put on by a type of social club known as a krewe. The krewes have events throughout the year, but Mardi Gras in the big deal they all prepare for. Between all the beads they throw at the parade they will also throw stuffed animals, Frisbees, cups and all sorts of random things that are personalized with the name or symbol of that specific krewe. People will literally jump over you and trample you with no shame to get those.
Some of the bigger krewes take things a step further and throw out even more highly coveted signature items. There is one krewe that throws out decorated toilet brushes, another that throws bedazzled purses and another that gives out hand-painted coconuts (more on that krewe and what I did to get their coconuts later). The all-female krewe my friend and I went to watch on my first night in NOLA is known for the gorgeous hand-decorated shoes they throw to a few lucky people in the crowd. We were on a mission to get one of those shoes, and that’s why we went all out to draw attention to ourselves.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we also went all out with the whiskey we drank before leaving the house. How else were we supposed to survive in 40-degree weather with just a bra on?! Sigh… Although we had an amazing time catching beads, dancing to the beat of the marching bands and even challenging people in the parade to random dance battles, we completely forgot about the mission to catch a shoe. I don’t even remember seeing a shoe at all that night so that part was an epic fail, but at least we had fun!
The next few days were spent nursing my hangover and avoiding alcohol to mentally and physically prepare for Fat Tuesday. Yea, my 25-year-old self does not have nearly the same party stamina that my 21-year-old self did #PracticallyOverTheHill.
The only great thing about my newfound and temporary sobriety was that it allowed me to really appreciate the details of all the celebrations going on around the city. The French Quarter was busier than usual and filled with people in creative costumes that matched the festive décor of all the buildings and homes in the area.
Bourbon Street was a hot mess at all hours of the day with crowds that made it almost impossible to walk around, but people found a way to go bar hopping and beg for beads from the revelers who made it up to the balconies of the different bars. Again contrary to popular belief, the ladies DON’T have to flash their bare chests to get some beads. There were plenty of people giving away beads freely even though there were also plenty of exploitative creepers asking for a peep show.
So, side note to my ladies: If you love to show off what your momma (or a surgeon) gave you, then go for it. If you like to keep the girls to yourself, don’t feel bad either. We have choices! *End of PSA*
We went to the parades going on every day in different parts of the city. We joined in on pre-parade tailgating and mass dance parties in the streets that popped up spontaneously. We admired the elaborately themed and decorated floats as they rolled by and competed with the crowds (some feistier than others) to catch as many beads and other throws as possible. Every night we went back to the house with so many beads that our necks hurt from all the extra weight.
All that was in preparation for the biggest day of carnival celebrations: Mardi Gras aka Fat Tuesday. And this time we were not going to forget our mission of catching one of the signature throws from the krewes rolling by.
Zulu was our main target. They are one of the biggest and most popular krewes in New Orleans, and their signature throws, hand-decorated coconuts unique to each member of the krewe, are difficult to get. So what did I do to catch their attention? Wear a coconut bra with the name Zulu bedazzled on it, obviously! And a big purple tutu, of course.
I don’t know if the Zulu krewe members were impressed by the fact that I was barely clothed in 40-degree weather to show off my fandom or if they felt sorry for me or if my outfit inspired some PG-13 and up kind of feelings (I’m pretty sure it did), but either way I left that parade with around 10 coconuts. I would’ve had more if it weren’t for the coconuts I gave away, dropped and had stolen from me. Yes, people literally stole some coconuts from me. Most people at the parades are nice enough, but there are definitely some vicious ones when it comes to the signature throws.
I didn’t mind, though, because not only did I get my coconuts, but I was also a mini-celebrity at the parade with tons of people wanting to take pictures with me while others somewhat creepily took pictures of me when they thought I wasn’t paying attention. As we walked around the parade route, people cheered and waved to my friend and I (she was also in a bra and tutu combo), and they even asked us for coconuts.
We became unofficial members of Zulu, and I call that a success. Now, whether it’s a good or bad thing that there are probably hundreds of photos of us floating around the Internet is yet to be determined. So in the meantime, here’s another one just because…
After the parade, I was ready to go back to the house, regroup, maybe warm up a little bit and then head out to Bourbon Street for one last round of partying, but the Mardi Gras gods (yes, I made that up) had another little surprise for me.
Down a side street away from the parade route, I saw a man walking around in what looked like a giant ball of bright yellow and blue feathers. Up until that point, I had heard all about these “Mardi Gras Indians,” but he was the first one I had seen in person, and as he got closer I realized that what he was wearing was far more elaborate than a ball of feathers. His costume was a hand-stitched outfit that looked like a mixture of the costumes worn by samba queens in Brazil’s carnival and the traditional wardrobes of Native American tribes. There were feathers everywhere, jewels and even some embroidered flowers and animals.
As I admired his costume, I learned an important lesson about the Mardi Gras Indians: They travel in tribes. Not longer after I spotted the first Mardi Gras Indians I saw dozens more coming down the street from all directions and intersections. They walked together in groups that could be identified by their matching feathers. They paraded down the street with small bands behind them and as one tribe crossed paths with another they each greeted the other in their own special way with dances and chanting. It was like watching a special ceremony that anyone in the area could join in, and I gladly joined in following the tribes as we marched and danced down the side streets far from the huge crowds of the parades. Few people had the opportunity to see the Mardi Gras Indians in all their glory, and that made the whole experience even more special.
After going to parades, catching coconuts and dancing with Mardi Gras Indians, the only thing left to complete my New Orleans Mardi Gras experience was partying on Bourbon Street, and that is precisely what we did. We braved the crazy and slightly smelly street to go bar hopping, throw beads to some drunkards, get flashed (trust me, I didn’t ask for it), and meet people from all over the world.
And when the clock struck 12, a different kind of parade started on Bourbon Street: a parade of police officers traveling by foot, on horses and in their cars with sirens blasting all in an effort to sweep the party-goers off the streets and signal the official end of Mardi Gras and carnival season.
“Only 364 days until Mardi Gras,” my friend said to me as we walked home.
And I’ll be patiently waiting…