Nov 15, 2009
|An exciting look into MARDI GRAS - Sunday morning, November 15
Sunday morning we boarded the campground shuttle for a return visit to downtown New Orleans. Our itinerary for the day included a morning visit to Mardi Gras World, followed by a Gray Line bus tour titled Hurricane Katrina. Two ventures as different from each other as two activities can be.
The shuttle left us at the same French Quarter drop-off as the day before, and from there we walked along the waterfront to the World Trade Center which stands at the foot of Canal Street. Mardi Gras World which was once located across the river on Point Algiers, has recently moved to the south side of the river and it is now located on the waterfront east of the New Orleans Convention Center. Mardi Gras World offers a free shuttle to and from Canal Street, and when we called them they sent it to pick us up.
The driver was a friendly young man who had gotten his family out of New Orleans in time to miss the hurricane, and who then returned to the city and worked for several years helping out with the recovery. On the trip to Mardi Gras World he told us his story, then he wished us a good time and said to call him when we were ready to leave. We thanked him, then turned and entered a world like no other place on the planet.
Mardi Gras World is not a museum, but a working combination of shops and warehouse where last year’s carnival floats are stored until they are either used again or torn down, and next year’s floats are planned, constructed and stored until they are towed to the parade. If the floats are big, the building where they are stored is enormous. Here larger than life sized figures of every description are fabricated out of clay, Styrofoam and fiberglass, and they are painted in colors so vibrant and rich it makes you smile just to stand in front of them.
Our guide for the tour was an enthusiastic young woman, who started us off with ‘King Cake' and a movie. King Cake is a Mardi Gras tradition and it is served at every party and get together. It resembles ordinary cinnamon coffee cake covered with frosting in several primary colors, but a small plastic ‘baby’ is baked into every sheet. The sheets are then cut into individual slices, and whoever gets the slice with the 'baby’ has to make the next cake and throw the next party.
I asked her what would happen to one of us if we got the baby and she said we’d get a prize. Neither of us got the baby, but the cake was good and the movie was too. From the movie we moved out to see the rest of the building, and it was about as much fun as a tour can be. We walked among faces and figures both strange and familiar, and we got to see characters under construction, and some finished but not yet painted.
Mardi Gras dates back to the 17th century in New Orleans, and it is essentially a final big party to let off steam before taking on the rigors of Lent. It is therefore tied to the Easter holiday and always starts exactly 47 days before Easter. That gives revelers a week to party hearty before Lent Begins. In addition to balls and parties all over town, there are also parades. Our guide said that many people believe there is just one parade, but she said last year there were 54 separate parades and each one is different, with different floats and different themes.
Participants pay a lot of money to ride the floats, and they buy their own beads and trinkets to throw to the crowds. The trees on St. Charles Street are draped with many necklaces of beads, and since it is considered bad luck to remove them they stay there until they rot or fall off. Floats are built, paid for and operated by social clubs called Krewes, and there are many Krewes in the city. Most floats are used for only one year and are then torn down and turned into something else for next year, but there are some ‘signature’ floats that are so special they are used year after year without changing.
On the tour we met a nice couple from the northern California peninsula, and we exchanged picture taking with them. We caught the shuttle back to the French Quarter and had just enough time to get some lunch before taking off on our next activity which was the Hurricane Katrina Tour. The color and cheer of Mardi Gras World was in stark contrast to the sobering sadness of the bus tour, but at the end of the day we were glad to have had both experiences.