“You’re off to Mardi Gras? Whatever you do, don’t catch the beads!”
The immigration officer at Houston Intercontinental airport laughs out loud as he stamps my passport. I smile back, hoping that whatever happens in New Orleans will indeed stay in New Orleans.
Booking somewhat reasonably priced flights and hotels had involved some complicated airmiles redemption tricks and days of web browsing nine months ahead of time. By the time carnival season approached, 98% of the city’s 30,000-plus rooms were booked out. I thought I’d have some time to get settled before the king of all street parties kicked off, but I clearly underestimated the sheer scale of this event.
As I leave the airport, hundreds of people are lining up in a seemingly endless taxi queue. When I finally get into one, the driver grins as I tell him my hotel is downtown on Canal Street: “You might have to walk a couple of blocks, ma’am.”
Upon approaching the city, we pass the huge revamped Superdome stadium. The round concrete outer walls are all lit up in the traditional Mardi Gras colours: purple stands for justice, green for faith and gold for power. It is hard to imagine that just 10 years ago, this very place became the symbol of all that went wrong in the emergency relief after the devastating hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
More than 20,000 people had fled to the Superdome, many of them poor or elderly, with no means to evacuate the city. They were stuck inside for days, some as long as a week, with little food or shelter facilities. Part of the roof collapsed, the electricity failed and the heat was intense. Many years on, victims and aid workers still talk of the overwhelming stench of rotting garbage and human waste.
When the levees protecting New Orleans failed during Katrina, more than 80% of the city flooded. Some residential areas, including the badly affected Lower Ninth Ward, were submerged by more than 10 feet of water. Close to 1,000 Louisiana residents died in the storm and subsequent floods, mostly from drowning, injury and trauma and heart conditions. Nearly half of all victims were 75 or older.
The hurricane displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region. Up to 600,000 households were still displaced a month later. At their peak, evacuee shelters housed 273,000 people and, later on, at least 114,000 households lived in caravans. The independent Data Center for Southern Louisiana estimates that of the $120.5bn in federal spending, the majority went to emergency relief, not rebuilding.
I am contemplating the almost unimaginable loss behind these figures as the taxi driver tries to navigate road closures and crowds. It turns out that I am arriving right in the middle of the satirical Krewe D’Etat parade. Colourful floats covered in slogans and cartoons tackle topics from fracking to the gentrification of the city’s formerly run-down areas. Someone holds up a sign mocking US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency highly criticised for its handling of the post-Katrina clean up.
Later, at an exhibition in the Louisiana State Museum, I learn that the 2006 Mardi Gras parades even featured costumes made out of the blue roof sheeting provided by the authorities. It seems exemplary of the resilience of people here that they were able to put on this kind of a spectacle, mixing lavish celebrations with gallows humour just six months after disaster struck.
The hotel receptionist on Canal Street laughs at my enthusiasm when I rush to check in and head straight back outside. Shouting over the beats and marching band drums, he explains that what I am witnessing outside front door is just a warm-up. The more than 100 (!) parades crossing town will keep getting bigger and better each day in the build-up to Fat Tuesday, which this year fell on 17 February.
The city’s population is still only 78% of what it was before the storm hit
While Mardi Gras has been celebrated in New Orleans for over 150 years, the event only became rapidly commercialised in the past three decades or so. Although the various Krewes are non-profit and floats are not allowed to carry advertising, carnival provides a great boost to the city’s economy. According to a University of New Orleans study, the historical party before the start of Lent now generates more than $840m annually.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors join the celebrations each year, but it is worth remembering that the city’s population is still only 78% of what it was in 2000, five years before the storm hit. The population halved right after Katrina and although numbers are slowly increasing, living conditions for many residents remain challenging. New Orleans had a poverty rate of 29% in 2012, with child poverty figures standing at a shocking 41%.
On the surface, Mardi Gras looks like the one event that bridges inequality gaps. People from all ages and all walks of life dance to the sound of trumpets and trombones. Those who stay downtown would be quick to assume that the fun has no boundaries. Yet every year, the party is tainted by criminal incidents too. On the day I arrive, two boys in their early 20s were shot alongside a parade route on the outskirts of town. The alleged killer, a 19-year-old boy, was arrested within minutes. There have been eight shootings along parade routes since 2004.
All city police are on duty, many working 12-hour shifts for days on end. They are backed up by fire brigades, army personnel and even prison security staff to manage the crowds. While the crime threat is very real in certain areas, the event for the most part is friendly and inclusive. Children and adults alike go crazy for the colourful signature beads thrown from parade floats. On-duty officers are offered drinks from cooler boxes and food from barbecues lining the pavements.
On Lundi Gras, the Monday before the great finale, I search second-hand shops for a mandatory fancy dress costume. I prepared myself for this trip by watching all 36 episodes of David Simon’s HBO series Treme, which paints an authentic picture of the city picking itself up post-Katrina. If I’d learnt one thing from the Mardi Gras episode, it was that the locals go all out when it comes to fancy dress. Keeping this in mind, I pick an elaborate head piece covered in glitter, with a crown of coloured feathers. I also get a dress decorated with tiny bells that sound every time I move.
At night, I decide to do one lap of Bourbon Street to see if it really is as bad as it looks on tacky TV shows like Girls Gone Wild. I remember the words of caution by the border control officer in Houston and wonder if he has seen Girls Gone Wild too. Within two minutes beneath the balconies on Bourbon, I see three women – aged between about 18 and 50 – flash their boobs, followed by a loud cheer from the crowd on the balconies.
With the streets pretty much covered in beads and parade Krewes throwing more to everyone, the balcony flashing seems a rather unnecessary action, but I suspect the street’s cheap signature drinks might play a role here too. One of the classic cocktails is ironically called The Hurricane. There is also the Hand Grenade and something in a tall plastic cup with a fishnet stocking print called The Legs.
One of the locals assures me that if I want to get robbed, all I need to do is walk around with a fluorescent Hand Grenade cup to advertise the fact that I am a tourist. Luckily, I am not one for overly sweet mixers anyway, so I settle for a bottle of Budweiser instead. I escape the scene, agreeing that the real party does not happen on Bourbon.
One woman dressed as a nun holds a banner that reads: ‘Everywhere else, this is just Tuesday’
By Tuesday, I have caught more beads –from floats, not balconies– than I can possibly wear. I join the queue outside one of the Creole restaurants in the French Quarter. I have the famous gumbo, a sort of shellfish soup, and jambalaya, a distant relative of paella. Both, like most of the local mix of Creole, Cajun and French cuisine I sample, taste delicious. Some coffee and equally famous sugar-coated beignets follow and I am ready to Let The Good Times Roll, or laissez les bon temps roulez, as they say here.
The party, frankly, is everywhere. Bicycle rickshaws are turned into mobile discos, with huge speakers blasting from the back seats. Outrageous outfits make for spectacular scenes and funny signs are everywhere. One woman dressed as a nun holds a banner that reads “Everywhere else, this is just Tuesday”. Crowds form on street corners, outside bars, on balconies and wherever there is someone with a musical instrument of any kind. TV stations broadcast all proceedings live, from the arrival of the King of Carnival to the traditional ritual meeting of the Mardi Gras Indians with their huge, stunning costumes.
As I roam the streets, I am amazed by the deep-rooted jazz, blues and carnival culture, which manifests itself way beyond the parades and street parties. Museums and music venues display newspaper articles, concert posters and original instruments to pay tribute to the legendary artists who were at the forefront of it all. A hospital I pass turns out to be the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic: a “medical home” for more than 2,500 local musicians and tradition bearers. They receive the care and support they need here, regardless of their ability to pay.
Day becomes night, and then day again. Streets are swept clean, tinsel removed from those lovely French balconies. Cafes serve Bloody Marys to nurse the city’s collective hangover. Perhaps curiously, the majority of the partygoers then make their way to one of the many Catholic churches to observe Ash Wednesday, the next day on the carnival season calendar. For those too tired or hungover to get out of their cars, one Methodist church has a “no questions asked” solution: an ashes and blessings drive-through. I smile and think what I have been thinking ever since I immersed myself in this wonderful madness almost a week ago: only in New Orleans. Only in New Orleans…
Photo: Flickr/ Christian Bélanger