From the January/February 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
The best of New Orleans’s annual celebration isn’t in the French Quarter but out in the neighborhoods, where the good times go local.
My bearings are off. It feels as if I'm in a maze of fun house mirrors. I'm standing at an intersection in New Orleans and before me is a blue-skinned Vishnu, the Hindu protector of the universe, none of whose many eel-like arms seems to point me in the right direction. Behind me, a rooster crows. I turn and realize it's a man wearing a gold beak and blood-red cockscomb. Above, ribbons dance like spotlights against a bright blue sky, and people perched on wrought-iron balconies flap their arms like sparrows. A masked woman—or is it a man?—rides by on a dragon. This is Mardi Gras? I wonder. It seems like an alternate universe.
This parade—put on by the Society of St. Anne—is not the boozy, Bourbon Street Mardi Gras you hear so much about. It's an unofficial event held in the Bywater, a bohemian enclave—one of 16 distinct neighborhoods in the Crescent City—that's a world apart from the throngs in the French Quarter.
I arrived in this city at the mouth of the Mississippi a week before Fat Tuesday to glimpse the faces behind the dazzling masks of Carnival season. I also wanted to discover how a place still in recovery after a devastating hurricane celebrates and regenerates. So I set out to explore local neighborhoods that many tourists miss—and visit some of the people who put the magic in Mardi Gras.
"Everywhere else it's just a Tuesday," says Sam Rykels, referring to the final day before Lent, the culmination of weeks of festivities in January and February collectively known as Mardi Gras. Rykels directs the Louisiana State Museum overlooking the French Quarter's Jackson Square. "But here, it's a day when the poor become rich, black becomes white, men become women, common men become clergy," he says. "It's this idea of becoming the 'other' that makes the celebration so unique."
We're touring the museum's second-floor gallery devoted to the colorful craziness that has become part of the city's DNA. Sequined mannequins parade behind display glass as Rykels explains the significance of Mardi Gras. "Its mix of music, food, and celebration represents the attributes of the people of New Orleans. They're here to celebrate life, and during Mardi Gras, life is as good as it gets." I learn that in 1857 the city's first organized Mardi Gras parade was led by the Mystic Krewe of Comus, named for the Greek god of festivities and nocturnal dalliances.
For years, the celebration was an elitist affair presided over by a king, or Rex, Rykels continues, where posh society types introduced their debutante daughters at exclusive black-tie galas. Then, in 1909, the Krewe of Zulu, a traditional African-American fraternal society, began parodying the elites—tossing coconuts to spectators rather than coins—and riding outlandish floats. "Thanks to them, Mardi Gras went mainstream."
Today, I can ride a simulated float in the museum, but to see the real thing, I'll need to cross the Mississippi.
Melodies from a steam calliope waft over the water as I take the ferry to Algiers, a historic district where krewes store parade floats in "dens," or warehouses. Also here is Mardi Gras World, a 77,000-square-foot parade float factory run by Blaine Kern, aka "Mr. Mardi Gras"—mail addressed this way actually reaches him. Kern is a flamboyant character given to shiny blue suits and sweet-talking charm.
Today, during my visit, the factory is in a frenzy as workers sculpt fiberglass and Styrofoam into a massive upside-down dog and a chicken leg with angel wings.
Everywhere are floats—he supplies more than 40 parades (whose routes are found in Arthur Hardy's annual Mardi Gras Guide). Trimmed in shimmering foil, they look like costumed dancers awaiting a curtain call. "Honey, I bring happiness to millions of people," says Kern, who's been in business since 1947. "That is what my job is all about."
During Hurricane Katrina, Kern recalls, he lent tractors, used to pull Mardi Gras floats, to schools and police; the built-in generators provided emergency power for weeks after the storm. As soon as flood waters receded, Kern encouraged everyone to come back to town to get ready for Mardi Gras again.
"I told them, 'If we don't parade, New Orleans is going to be let down.'"
It's still a few days before fat Tuesday, but the bucolic St. Charles Avenue, lined with oak trees and Greek-revival mansions, has already been overtaken by a huge block party here in the Uptown neighborhood. Families have gathered to watch as the Krewe of Thoth parade rolls by. Kids sit on ladders topped with makeshift highchairs, the better for their little hands to snag trinkets. Krewe members toss a shower of cups, coins, and strings of beads.
Then comes the Box of Wine parade, a band of merry hipsters wearing purple balloons—bunches of grapes—who fill our glasses in preparation for the next in line, the Krewe of Bacchus, whose crowned king this year is actor Val Kilmer, standing high on a float. High school marching bands power past, bringing their knees to their elbows as they blare out jazz tunes. Men holding kerosene lanterns, or flambeaus, leap at the crowd, their faces masklike in the flickering light.
To help me understand the role of Mardi Gras in New Orleans' revival (the city population of 311,000 is up from a post-Katrina low of roughly 158,000), I arrange to have coffee with famed voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman. She runs the Island of Salvation Botanica, a quirky little shop in the Bywater neighborhood offering spiritual supplies and artwork. Glassman explains to me that voodoo is both a religion and a philosophy and that it seeks to integrate the spiritual and physical worlds. New Orleans, she continues, is ruled by a raucous family of spirits, called Gede, that encompass death and regeneration.
"How fitting," I say, "in light of the hurricane."
"This city has a live soul," she replies, nodding. "Mardi Gras is one of the ways that soul manifests itself. That soul is the reason why so many people have returned." To celebrate that spirit, Glassman and friends arise early on Mardi Gras morning to perform a voodoo ceremony across the street from her shop.
To do Mardi Gras right, I need a costume of my own, which brings me to New Orleans Masks, an 1830s-era Creole cottage also in the Bywater where sisters Laura and Ann Guccione live and work. I push open a pair of wooden doors into a room covered floor-to-ceiling with intricate, delicate masks depicting jackals, jesters, cats, and clowns fashioned from leather, wire, feathers, papier-mâché, and even silverware. The dazzling guises seem to watch me intently, while the Guccione sisters themselves are less elaborately adorned. They're still in their pajamas.
"The costume starts with the mask," Ann declares, fiddling with a row of devil horns on a table. The two of them still have over 50 orders to complete. Some Mardi Gras parties require guests to arrive with a fabulous facade. "We stay pretty much covered in glitter," Laura says. After much deliberation, I select a mask of twisted forks, their tongs splayed out in oversized eyelashes that seem to wink at me.
Just northwest of the French Quarter I find Tremé, a predominantly African-American neighborhood hit hard by Katrina and now being gentrified. Tremé is an odd mix of freshly painted homes displaying Sotheby's For-Sale signs and waterlogged cottages still marked to show they've been checked for corpses.
Known as the birthplace of jazz and the location of an Edgar Degas studio in the late 1800s, Tremé is also where some 25 groups of local men (and some women) known as Indians assemble on Mardi Gras morning dressed in highly stylized versions of Plains Indians dress. From here they parade, dancing and chanting, along Claiborne Avenue in a decades-old tradition that started, in part, as a tribute to Native Americans who resisted the U.S. government and to show solidarity with indigenous peoples.
Throughout the year, Tremé "Indians" use cardboard, feathers, and beads to fashion costumes (often weighing over a hundred pounds) that depict warriors and horses. Dozens are displayed at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, including some by the late Allison "Tootie" Montana, the "chief of chiefs," who often spent thousands of dollars on a single creation.
I attend a group rehearsal in a dimly lit neighborhood bar. Beneath the sagging blades of a ceiling fan warped by floodwaters, the men chant rhythmically to the beat of tambourines. It sounds half tribal, half gospel.
During a break, Leon Joseph, a tall, middle-aged man, points to a blue ribbon tacked to the wall. "That's the color of my costume," he says. "Want to see it?" I learn that Joseph is one of the first Indians out on the streets each year, waking up early like a child on Christmas morning. We walk down the street to his home, where beads drown a coffee table and a huge feathered masterpiece engulfs his living room. "It's in my blood," he says of the parade. Then we hurry back to the bar. There's more dancing to be done.
The next day I visit the Mother-in-Law Lounge, run by Antoinette K-Doe. She is the widow of Ernie K-Doe, a singer who parlayed his one hit song, "Mother-in-Law," into a lifelong career as a New Orleans bon vivant. The lounge, on Claiborne Avenue, is Tremé's hub of Mardi Gras festivities. As I enter, Miss Antoinette sits at the bar, nibbling on a turkey neck. She offers me some red beans and rice simmering in an electric pot, then gives me a tour.
Inside are white leather couches, a big-screen television, and a life-size effigy of her late husband, perpetually in costume and available for pictures. There's a back-room stage for performers, and, outside, a tiki lounge decorated with toilet-bowl planters and murals of Ernie, Tootie, and other local legends. It's only a few hours until Mardi Gras, and she promises the bar will be open by 5 a.m. "We've got no hours—just swing by," she says. "I can't turn people away."
At dawn, I head out looking for the "Skeletons"—Tremé men who traditionally dress in papier-mâché skulls and wander the streets, rattling chains to scare away evil spirits. No luck. But as I drive back to the Mother-in-Law Lounge I encounter a mother and daughter in matching Indian costumes that are an explosion of aqua feathers. They have stopped traffic, and I can't help but stare.
When I arrive at the lounge, Miss Antoinette isn't there to meet me. She died of a heart attack in the night. "Antoinette loved Mardi Gras," says her friend, seated at the bar, her eyes bloodshot from tears. She hands me a beer. "At least she's with Ernie now," I say, and am reminded that the Gede spirits are a powerful presence in New Orleans.
As the city awakes, I make my way to the Bywater home of antiques dealer Marcus Fraser, whose 19th-century Victorian house on Clouet Street is where the Society of St. Anne parade starts. Hundreds, if not thousands, of paraders in costume have already assembled. Chickens and devils say their hellos. Bumblebees, unicorns, and lobsters snap photographs. Marie Antoinette curtsies. Horns and drummers warm up. There's a dragon and a king. My head swivels, taking it all in. Fraser, the host, wears a powdered wig and dress coat, his cheeks spotted with rouge. "Welcome, welcome," he says, kissing guests on either cheek. "Don't we have the most remarkable day?"
The sun warms the crowd, and the colors are so rich it's as if I had stumbled into Oz. Then it's time to march. No whistle is blown. No one's in charge. We just start moving. People we pass on the street join in (there are spectators at parades on St. Charles Avenue but not here). We dance and march by the cottages of the Bywater, past the porches of Marigny, pausing here and there to celebrate in place. An oversize cherub in blue stands on a platform, directing a circle of drummers, waving his arms in the air. At times, the parade gets jammed, with people spilling into side streets and pooling at neighborhood bars.
As we twist and turn through the lanes, I become disoriented, but no matter. I just follow the parade as it seeps deeper into the city. Suddenly, I realize we've reached the French Quarter. A friend pulls my hand, and soon I'm looking down on the crowd from a balcony. I'm just a few blocks from Bourbon Street, epicenter of the touristy Mardi Gras. As I watch the revelry, it's clear that the best of Mardi Gras—its quirky neighborhood celebrations—is already behind me.
Intelligent Travel: New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana, is on central standard time. The area code is 504.
Antoine's Restaurant 1713 Rue Saint Louis; 1 504 581 4422; www.antoines.com.
Backstreet Cultural Museum 1116 St. Claude Ave.; 1 504 522 4806; www.backstreetmuseum.org.
Bar Tonique 820 N. Rampart St.; 1 504 3246045.
Café Du Monde 1039 Decatur St.; 1 504 525 4544; www.cafedumonde.com.
Cochon 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; 1 504 588 2123; www.cochonrestaurant.com.
Feelings Café 2600 Chartres St.; 1 504 945 2222; www.feelingscafe.com.
Galatoire's Restaurant 209 Bourbon St.; 1 504 525 2021; www.galatoires.com.
Island of Salvation Botanica 835 Piety St.; 1 504 948 9961; www.islandofsalvationbotanica.com.
Handa Wanda 2425 Dryades St.; 1 504 813 3496; www.facebook.com/pages/handa-wandas.
Lil Dizzy's Café 1500 Esplanade Ave.; 1 504 569 8997.
Louisiana State Museum 751 Chartres St.; 1 504 568 6968; http://lsm.crt.state.la.us.
Mardi Gras World (Blaine Kern Studios) 1380 Port of New Orleans Place; 1 504 362 8211; www.mardigrasworld.com.
Mother-in-Law Lounge 1500 N. Claiborne Ave.; 1 504 947 1078; www.k-doe.com.
New Orleans Masks 939 Montegut St.; 1 504 945 2435; www.neworleansmasks.com.
Preservation Hall 726 St. Peter St.; 1 504 522 2841; www.preservationhall.com.
Snug Harbor Jazz Club 626 Frenchmen St.; 1 504 949 0696; www.snugjazz.com.
City of New Orleans Tourism 1 504 566 5011 www.neworleansonline.com.
New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau 2020 St. Charles St.; www.neworleanscvb.com.
Assistant editor Janelle Nanos edits our blog, “Intelligent Travel.” Associate photo editor Krista Rossow photographed the St. Anne parade dressed as Frida Kahlo.