New Orleans: A Mardis Gras Diary

A British student who became a correspondent as New Orleans was ravaged by floods finds Mardis Gras in the jazz capital is on form...

 

Over a year ago I made the decision to travel to Louisiana in order to start my dissertation research in jazz music.

The legendary culture and musically historic settings of New Orleans seemed to make it the ideal place for my year as an exchange student.

I spent last summer romanticised about spending evenings in the Big Easy soaking up the ambience at Preservation Hall or simply watching crowds go by, aloft a French colonial style balcony in the Quarter.

However, these somewhat over Tennessee Williams-influenced dreams were dashed with two simple words, Hurricane Katrina.

Having been at the Louisiana State University for barely two weeks I had not actually taken the bus from my campus, in Baton Rouge only an hour away, before the city was destroyed.

In the months following the tragic events I followed the progress of the humanitarian and clean up efforts with interest, taking advantage of my unfortunate location by writing for BBC News Interactive.

Months past and as 2006 finally approached the promise of Mardi Gras suddenly refilled me with the exhilaration I felt prior to the hurricane.

Planning for the weekend was swift, finding a place to stay with a welcoming friend of a friend at the local Tulane University. However, as I drove into the city I past the stacks of rusted cars from the flood waters and my sense of enchantment was suddenly deflated as I realised that the damage was still so palpable.        

Trying not to become too disheartened I walked into the heart of the French Quarter and I was suddenly shaken out of my stupor by what can only be described as chaos.

All of my romantic pre-misconceptions about New Orleans vanished in a second as I stepped on to Bourbon Street, which acts as the main vein of the quarter, feeding the rest of the city with its sleazy, boozy raucousness.  

The thing about Mardi Gras is that it’s a party, but by no means is it a civilised one!

The drinks sold are not gauged by flavour or class but by the volume of alcohol they contain. Usually sold in florescent plastic containers the ‘world famous hand grenade’ claims to be the strongest drink at Mardi Gras; an incredibly potent mixture of just about... well, everything. 

As you can tell, the party down Bourbon Street is not for the faint-hearted.  As the night surges on the throngs of people push past one another, occasionally stopping to catch a set of the traditional Mardi Gras beads thrown from the ornate balconies above.

Girls choosing to indulge in nakedness compete with canvassing strippers for the attention of photographers and tourists alike.  Drunkards in fancy dress brush shoulders with right-wing Christian fanatics holding ten foot tall crucifixes, but however surreal it all felt there was an overwhelming sense of harmony due to the noticeable but not intrusive New Orleans Police Department.    

I was told that during the months after the hurricane the combination of raw sewage and death made New Orleans smell unbearably repugnant.  Now, standing at the first Mardi Gras after the destruction my nostrils were filled with an equally foul smell.  The sheer number of people meant that by the end of the first night (with four solid days of partying to follow) the floor of Bourbon Street has become a pungent river of beads, beer and urine.  

Escaping the pandemonium of Bourbon Street I spent a surprisingly calming afternoon in Jackson Square.

The sound of street performers drifted by as I strolled round the parameter of the sculpted gardens encased in ornamental railings.

Wondering past palm readers and artists I arrived to at the Café du Monde, home of the world famous beignet and cafe au lait.  A huge pile of warm doughnuts dusted with more than enough white powdered sugar later and I felt content enough to continue in the celebrations further across the city. 

St Charles Avenue proved to be the best place to enjoy the seemingly endless parades that make Mardi Gras so special.

A perfect combination of the partying of Bourbon Street mixed with the more relaxed family atmosphere of Jackson Square, St Charles stretches for miles through to the picturesque Garden District.

Those there had dragged couches and chairs under the, sadly still not functional streetcar tracks, and were wallowing in each others company amid the afternoon sunshine.

Cruising past the houses still marked with the black high-water marks and spray painted FEMA crosses, the parade revellers filled their evenings enjoying individual parties and fighting playfully over beads thrown from the sides of the floats.

Despite all of the chaos, to the many thousands of displaced locals attending Mardi Gras this year it was not all about the partying.

One man I met spoke of the “need to show the world that New Orleans is coming back”. However, to me, jazz soul legend Dr John, a life long resident of the city, put it best when he finished his performance at the world renowned House of Blues on Monday, by proclaiming that “we never left!”. 

On my last day at Mardi Gras I walked home away from Bourbon Street and along the vast St Charles Avenue.

I realised as the sun rose that New Orleans was truly an amazing city.  A city with so much hedonistic beauty, such a vibrant musical culture and resilient population, truly deserves a massive amount of credit for putting on Mardi Gras this year and proving that they have not given up the fight to keep their city united.

Buildings may have been destroyed and the streets may have once been rivers but the people of New Orleans are constructing their levies higher and partying as hard as ever.