In Boston, it was cold.
The sky was gray.
The drizzle dragged on.
And so did my classes.
But alas, Spring Break was upon Boston University students, and the plane tickets that sat in my desk drawer for months would finally be put to good use: Boston to New Orleans – BOS to MSY. It was the Thursday before Fat Tuesday, and I was ready to experience the Gras.
After numerous flight delays (thank you very much, New England weather), my flight touched down in the city that care forgot: New Orleans, Louisiana. As soon as I was out of the plane and into the airport, I could feel and smell the humidity. I felt a little silly wearing pants, two long-sleeved shirts and a wool jacket. I met my brother and his friends at the gate and headed to baggage claim.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice if you travel to New Orleans is that drinking in public is not only legal, but quite commonplace. Beer in hand, I grabbed my bag off of the conveyor belt and headed out to the parking garage. The humidity hits you when you get off the plane, but walking from inside to outside and experiencing a 25-degree temperature shift on a March night was not a concept I was accustomed to. Nevertheless, I’d rather be in the heat than the cold, and escaping the sub-Arctic weather Boston had all winter was fine with me.
If the first thing you notice in New Orleans is the emphasis on alcohol, the second thing you’ll probably notice, especially if you’re from the Northeast, is that things are a little different down there. To say the least, people are much more laid-back. I was squeezed into an elevator with about a dozen people, the better half of whom lacked a seemingly essential article of clothing, be that a shirt or a pair of shoes.
The first place my brother took me was a bar.
It’s not so much that we were in a rush to get drunk – it was just a coincidence that we were meeting his friend Brad there. In an ironic twist, Brad was missing Mardi Gras to fly up to Boston the next morning to attend his fiancÚ’s bridal shower. Don’t ask me why. A drink was definitely in order for Brad.
What happened between Thursday night and the following Wednesday morning remains a bit of a blur. Sensory overload is probably the best term to describe it. These eyes saw some things they have never seen before, and probably will never see again. But it is difficult to remember what happened when and how. All of it fits into one big story: Mardi Gras.
The most overwhelming aspect of it all, but one that you quickly get accustomed to, is the people. Without exaggerating, I can say there were millions of people there. Mardi Gras 2000 was supposedly the biggest one on record. There were times when it took 30 minutes to walk one block on Bourbon Street because the crowd was so dense. That said, it is somewhat expected that a certain amount of pick-pocketing goes on. On several occasions I felt hands in my back pocket; fortunately my quickly depleting source of money was in my front pocket.
Beads. Beads are a form of currency during Mardi Gras. The simplest origination of them is from the floats. Parades will go on four hours on end starting two weeks before Fat Tuesday. The parades consist of giant floats with dozens of masked members tossing “throws” at the crowd. These include beads, cups, stuffed animals, doubloons and more. The idea is to have the best beads possible. The equation is simple: the larger, longer, and more elaborate the string of beads, the better they are.
Be advised: beads are constantly being thrown from floats, from balconies and by people in the crowd. If you don’t pay attention (and even if you do, really), you will be hit. It may hurt. Also be advised that people will do everything short of kill (I hope) to get beads once they’re airborne.
Another thing to consider, as if I haven’t harped on this point enough: alcohol is everywhere. Men will stand outside bars or beer stands holding picket-like signs advertising “HUGE ASS BEERS.” By that they mean 32 ounces for $3. It comes as no surprise, then, that people get drunk. Really drunk. And they will do whatever it takes to get good beads. You will see behavior you typically do not see in public.
If you’re looking for the craziest experience Mardi Gras will offer, the French Quarter is the place to be. Some places will be more crowded than others (Pat O’Brien’s and Tropical Isle will probably be the most packed), but you can have a great time at any. I have pictures of my girlfriend and I having a great time at a bar called O’Flaherties. I remember, towards the beginning of the night, that a man dressed exactly like Rod Stewart came in and started singing Maggie May. Mardi Gras: there’s no place like it.
On average, I got home at about 3 a.m. every night. I suppose you can consider me a lightweight because, for the most part, the party does not stop. If it were physically possible, you could partake in the Mardi Gras celebrations 24 hours a day.
On Wednesday morning at 5 a.m., the alarm went off. Soon I was on a shuttle to the airport. After what seemed like an eternity, I was back in New England, where it was still cold, gray and rainy. It’s okay, though – I went to bed, sufficiently partied out.