On Wednesday 11th February we left Florida and headed for New Orleans, travelling by Greyhound bus. Although we have done a lot of long-distance bus travel during the past five years, we had not travelled by Greyhound since our first ever visit to the USA almost 40 years ago. Our friend Jane picked us up at Sarasota airport, where we returned out rental car; we had lunch together and then Jane took us to the bus station. We had a long stop in Tampa, which enabled us to have a brief look round the city. Then it was an overnight bus journey, with two changes on the way. We arrived in New Orleans at 8 am (Central time) and were met by Vicki, whose condo we had rented for the next five nights.
Mardi Gras parades
We had been to New Orleans before, but booked this trip in order to experience the big Mardi Gras carnival held there. Over a period of six days we watched about 20 parades. They tended to follow a similar format, basically alternating floats and marching bands from high schools or universities over a very wide area. Some of the floats were extremely well done, with elaborate figureheads, and perhaps lit up for night parades. We particularly liked two articulated floats, one illuminated like a funfair (each segment representing a different stall or ride) and the other a dragon.
Other floats were differentiated only by the scenes or cartoons painted on the side (these were often very good, although we didn’t understand all the political references). Each of the standard floats had two tiers of people on board, wearing masks and throwing things to the crowds. These most common ‘gift’ was a string of coloured beads, so people who had watched a parade could be seen walking round the city with a dozen or more strings around their necks. Sometimes the people on the floats would throw, not just a single string, but a whole packet of beads. This could be quite heavy, when thrown from some height at a force. One such packet hit Sandie in the face, and knocked her specs off. It was very lucky that Ian was able to grab them before they were trodden on by someone in the crowd.
Other things were sometimes thrown from the floats, such as plastic cups with the parade’s insignia, and small soft toys. None of them were worth more than a few cents at most, yet people in the crowd were desperate to catch them. They stretched out their arms and jumped up and down, calling for the people on the floats to throw their goodies to them. We found this amazing. A woman who stood next to Sandie at one parade related how she had tried to encourage people to throw gifts to her. Her latest attempt was to bare her breasts every time a float went by. She stated very forcefully ‘I want free stuff!’. Yet she was also telling a bystander where she would be next morning to give away her acquisitions. We decided there was scope for a PhD study of the psychology of Mardi Gras.
One giant party
When we arrived in New Orleans and saw our first parades, the city was relatively quiet. But over the coming days more people arrived and he atmosphere steadily built up. The streets filled with people drinking, wearing fancy costumes and forming impromptu parades. By Tuesday – Mardi Gras itself – New Orleans had become one giant party. The only people not enjoying themselves were religious fundamentalists – a large number, from all over the US, whose express purpose was to warn people of the dire consequences of their merrymaking.
When visiting a place or event for the first time, we normally research pretty thoroughly before booking our accommodation, to ensure that we choose the most convenient location. In this case, we failed! Our mistake was to assume that the French Quarter – the heart of historic New Orleans, the picturesque part where all the tourists flock – would be where all the action took place. We had the option of a hotel to the west of the French Quarter, and a condo to the east. They were equidistant from the centre, and for various reasons we chose the condo.
We were stunned to discover, on arrival, that the big parades do not come into the French Quarter at all, because the streets are too narrow to accommodate the floats! The nearest they come is Canal Street, which forms the western boundary of the French Quarter. Too late, we realised that the hotel would have been a much better location. After watching the big parades, often late at night, we had a long trek back to the condo, and not enough time between parades to go there and rest/wash/change clothes. However, although there were no parades there (except for a few small walking parades) the French Quarter was certainly buzzing with partygoers.
The weather was unfortunately not on our side most of the time we were in New Orleans. The first three days were pleasantly warn and sunny, but when the sun went down the temperature plummeted. The first evening was bitterly cold, with a strong wind blowing, which made it hard to enjoy watching the parades. Determined not to suffer on subsequent evenings, Sandie bought a winter coat next day from a new/used/retro shop in the French Quarter. Ian bought a heavy scarf, and we both equipped ourselves with hats and gloves.
This was just as well, because we saw no more sun while in New Orleans, so the days were cool too. On Monday evening there were very heavy storms, so the parades were curtailed and we were grateful for our rain capes. On Tuesday – the climax of Mardi Gras, and our last day in the city – it was extremely cold, so despite having a good vantage point, and warn clothes, we had to quit the first parade early and seek shelter in a café. We were being prepared for our return to the UK!