24 Hours for Mardi Gras

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Well it’s been a little short of two weeks since I returned from my first cruise outside of the Mexican Riviera, and my first Caribbean trip, beyond the Mexican waters. It was doubly sweet, because one of my wish list cities was included in our point of departure; New Orleans.  The upside to everything? Mardi Gras week was going on when we arrived. Doesn’t get much better than having your first New Orleans experience coincide with the craziness of Mardi Gras.

I’m a fickle creature when it comes to domestic travel, with honestly very few cities on my bucket list. Most are on the West Coast, which I’ve already seen; San Francisco revisited (I was born there, but left at a young age), Portland, Seattle. A few on the East Coast that I’ve yet to see; New York City obviously, Boston and the  New England area in general. A small handful in the South; Most are music related, like Austin and Nashville. And then there stands the gem of it all, New Orleans, which really holds nearly every appeal that I have for each city previously listed all rolled into one fantastic place.

I feel like there is this weird connection I have with New Orleans, most of it based solely on my Ex and his relationship with the town.  NOLA was almost like the other woman during our tenure together, with him constantly disappearing there. Later when he and I ended, she had that “meet my new girlfriend” vibe about her, and it created this combination of jealous and curious vibes intertwined. But it’s the New Girlfriend that you realize you would have really liked had the circumstances not been so strange. So while I wanted to hate the state of Louisiana, I was drawn to her at the same time. Start reading Anne Rice and tell me you wouldn’t want to visit. Watch Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and again tell me this isn’t on your list. Alas, time, money and parental commitments kept me from fulfilling the dream of visiting sooner, but I always knew I would end up there sometime. I just don’t think I knew how strongly I would connect.

So much time has passed between my ex and I, that it felt like a clean slate arriving. I wasn’t going based on his memories, or visiting places based on his recommendations. I joked with my daughter about whether or not I should contact him when I got there to see if he wanted to meet up, but we have a very strange relationship at best now, so that was never going to happen. Instead I had taken copious notes from a network of current friends on what areas I needed to visit and what foods and drinks I needed to try. Unfortunately our time there was so very limited I didn’t even hit on a tenth of them. Fortunately I was able to pick and choose what mattered most to me, and my travel partner was either easy going enough to comply or had the same on his wish list.

Is it weird to say that at my age, this was the furthest east I had ever flown, outside of connecting a flight thru Miami a few years back? As much as I love to travel, I have to admit my circle has been oh-so-limited. Oh talk to me about the ports of Mexico and I’m a pro. Ask me about that one time in Costa Rica and I can go on forever. But outside of that, I am a blank canvas. Flying in and seeing the Mississippi River beneath me was sort of surreal. This is the M-I-Double S-I-Double S-I-P-P-I  RIVER for Gawds sake! Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn!! I felt like a child seeing an ocean for the first time. I was both repelled by the brown churning earthiness of it, and enthralled by the vast history and size of it.

Grabbing a cab to head to our hotel I couldn’t help but absolutely wonder at every minute detail I could absorb. This is the SOUTH, I screamed internally! That piece of trash lying next to that bus stop, is Southern trash! That homeless man is a Southern homeless man!! Bus stop, BMW, local delivery truck. All Southern. Unfortunately all airports are about the same once you exit with the bustling taxi’s and corporate or industrial vibe, so the fact this stuff was Southern vs So Cal really shouldn’t have made a difference. But it did. Cause that’s how I roll. I like to be all chill on the outside, but inside I’m as big a goober of a tourist as the woman in brightly colored floral prints calling out loudly to her husband Floyd that she thinks she just saw a movie star. You’d just never know it by looking at me.

The cab ride didn’t offer too much in sites as we weren’t heading into downtown New Orleans. We had a hotel about 10 miles outside in Metarie, and unbeknownst when we booked it, it was a pretty industrial area. I could have been in Fresno, or Bakersfield for all the culture it provided. The hotel wasn’t something I would recommend, but it wasn’t awful. It just had this sort of dank, humid smell to it and a slightly too dark for my taste, hallway. Maybe all hotels in New Orleans are like that. I only know from this one. Plus,  I’m weird about hotel hallways. Too much Stephen King, and of course nightmares of my haunted hotel experience in Hood River, Oregon that cemented it for me. After getting settled in we looked for a place to grab a bite to eat, and pick up a bottle of hootch to smuggle on the cruise ship later. Neither of us wanted the hassle of bringing a bottle onto the plane from Los Angeles, and where better to get more booze than the capitol of drinking?

He looked up a local place that we could walk to for both and we headed out; Across a fast food parking lot, and industrial complex until we arrived in a sprawling outdoor mini mall that afforded us everything we needed – except the bottle of booze. We ate at an English Pub, which I found sort of ironic. Here I am in the mega city of good eats, and the only thing we can find is an English Pub. Scratch muffaletta’s, or po’ boy’s from the dinner menu. I got over that quickly, especially considering how starved I was. I let an icey martini wash over me and release the stress of two airports and rude airline workers and rushing here and there. Suddenly, all was right in the world. It wasn’t until after we ate and walked more that we realized we had mistaken a Sprint store for a Spirits store. See the letter connection? Sprint? Spirit? When I say we, I am being generous in absorbing some of the blame by the way. 😉

Can I just cut to the chase and say in the end we decided against the hassle of trying to locate and carry a bottle around New Orleans, and decided to go for the outrageous cost of buying it direct from the ship. We had committed ourselves to a poker and shot crawl, otherwise I think we would have just scrubbed the whole idea.  It just dawned on me that I still owe him half for that bottle.

The next day we decided to grab a cab and head to downtown. Our original plan was to start at the top of Canal Street and see a cemetery or two (we are both fortunately weird in that way. Or I am, and he is accommodating in that way), and then take the trolley down Canal Street to the French Quarter. At this point I can’t say I was disappointed in New Orleans, I was just a little disappointed in the lack of stereotypical culture I was hoping to see. Where were my Southerners goddamn it?! The closest to old southern architecture I had seen were a group of condos with a slight fake antebellum vibe about them.

Ask and ye shall receive. Our cab driver couldn’t have been more of a stereotype, had he been written by a comic book; Thick, lunk-headed, bigoted, deaf, good ol’ boy. I think at first we were shocked at his lack of filtering when talking about the different races in New Orleans. He must have taken our silence or lack of agreement with him as judgment because he went into a tirade about how in California races were different than they are in the South, blah blah blah. He peppered his racist rants with a booming HUH?! after everything we said. It was so clichéd it was comical. He did have that thick Nawlins’ accent I had so wanted to hear and he was born and raised in Loo-see-anna, he explained. I realized that I should be a tad more careful in my wishful thinking moving forward.

He explained to us between scattered vitriol about the locals, that the trolleys weren’t running because of Mardi Gras, so we had to quickly scratch our plans and make new ones. We asked if we could walk Canal Street down to the Quarter, and while he said it was possible, he didn’t advise on it, because of some of the *ahem* neighborhoods we would have to walk thru. After assuring him we were fine with those neighborhoods, he dropped us atop the main parade route at Carrollton.

Getting out of that stifling cab made me feel like a kid with an all-day pass to Disney! “We were here!” I wanted to scream to Tony, but I think he was sort of feeling it too. I didn’t care what we did or where we went, we were technically in the city of New Orleans, baby!

The walk down to the Quarter was a good couple of miles, and I loved nearly every moment of it. I had the option of bringing my good camera, but all I heard were horror stories of thieves and con men who were on the lookout for such a Noob as myself. So instead I opted for the good ol iPhone camera, which did a decent job. Let me say, this walk was a photographers paradise, once you understood to watch your step. The sidewalks and gutters would dip and rise like a raging mini volcano’s, and not paying attention I imagine, could cost you a scraped face or worse. Next time, con men be damned, I’m bringing the good camera. The architecture alone was worth it.

It’s funny — that just made me flash on a guy I dated when I was very young. He was a few years older than me, and a student of architectural studies. He would take me downtown to look at all the different styles of buildings in Los Angeles, and I didn’t get it. I mean I saw the difference, I just didn’t get the love. I would smile weakly, or nod to agree with whatever he was telling me, but I thought he was a tad crazed.  Once I got into photography and saw the beauty in angles, and styles I totally understood his fever. No big surprise after a date or two we realized we didn’t have that much in common. I wonder if he ever became an architect?

Anyway I was snapping away at this picture and that. Houses. A huge old church. Huge columned homes that had been turned into businesses. I would have really loved to have taken pictures of a lot of the people, but I’m still a little shy when it comes the invasiveness of taking pictures of strangers. The camera would have helped because it gives me some distance with a good lens and I can be a lot less intrusive. The street was starting to line up with groups; families, friends all vying for perfect positions as the parade comes by. Some had barbeques going, and although I wasn’t hungry the smell of smoking ribs, or even burgers was so enticing, my stomach rumbled more than once in agreement. Music blared from boom boxes that could be heard even from the center islands where most people had set up camps. Hard rock, hip-hop, classic R&B, it just seemed to flow from group to group.

After about an hour of walking we found ourselves again in a more industrialized area of Canal. No people lining the streets here. A teaching hospital, a few medium sized corporations. I was beginning to wonder when we would ever hit Bourbon Street. We ran into a couple of police officers and asked them, while explaining the story of the cabdriver we had earlier. They were sweet and apologized on behalf of the people of New Orleans. They explained we were about half way to Bourbon Street, but headed in the right direction. You never realize how far two miles is until you start to walk it.

Soon the industrial area gave way to a poorer section. Old hotels and theaters boarded up, but still retaining some of that Nawlins’ charm with the old neon signs, and brick everywhere. Freeways above us, and traffic around us. I still didn’t care.

Once when I was at Disneyland with my oldest daughter, we were having a hell of a time finding the characters. I wasn’t sure if it was because it was a week day, or if they all took lunch at the same time, but no Mickey. No Minnie, or Donald or Pluto. It was my daughters first venture and she was so young, that there wasn’t any disappointment in her eyes, but there was in mine. Somehow in stopping to rest, we ended up near a small alcove and lo and behold there they were. An entire nest of them. We must have found the wormhole where the characters enter and exit the park, because suddenly a drove of them were there. We quickly grabbed the snapshots we needed and headed on our way, pleased that we had been able to gain such access to them all at once.

That’s how I felt when we hit a street filled with sirens, and float after float after float passed by us. We had found the New Orleans wormhole from where the floats came from. Granted the floats were empty, but you saw where the beads would later hang, or the balls or whatever that float was throwing to the crowds. They were almost eerie in their quiet emptiness, with large sculpted heads, and garish loud colorfully painted characters and themes. We couldn’t cross the street, and the parade seemed never ending, so we did what anyone would do and took picture after picture. Finally we found a lull and slipped between and crossed over.

We knew that we must be getting closer to our destination because the crowds were thickening on the streets. We had at one point not come across another person for blocks and little by little we starting to fit nearly shoulder to shoulder in some areas. The streets were definitely more bustling than before, and open businesses were more abundant. Young girls in skimpy colorful outfits, and small kiosks selling purple, green and gold feather boas, hats and tees.  We stopped into a liquor store tourist trap for a bottle of water, and thirty dollars later had a couple of souvenirs. We knew Bourbon Street must be close.

I don’t know if I expected a huge sign announcing the entrance, or what but somehow we walked right past it. We figured that out when we hit the Mississippi. Turning around and finding a map showed us we were about 5-6 blocks too far. As we headed up, Tony bought me my first Hurricane from a restaurant that had a side window that specialized in just that. As we stood there a woman came up to us, asking if we were with the cruise group. She had recognized us from Facebook. We immediately hit it off, and asked her to join us. She ended up being one of my favorite new meets of the week and I look forward to vacationing with her again soon.

Bourbon Street felt a tiny bit Disney-fied when we first hit it. Much smaller and narrower than I expected. While you can walk the streets, literally in the street like an outdoor promenade, occasionally a car will be brave enough to slide thru. As we got deeper into the Quarter though, I did start to see the charm of it all. It was still relatively early by Mardi Gras standards. Maybe noonish. We hopped from shop to shop, each looking for something different. My new friend told me not to buy beads, I’d have plenty of them by the days end, but I couldn’t help picking up a strand or two that were more unique and definitely not something you’d catch from a balcony. Tony did the same, picking up a strand that paid homage to his Irish roots. But she was right. Before the end of the day I didn’t want anymore. I was weighed down enough by what I had, and not a boob to flash to obtain one of them. 😉 After we had all found what we were looking for, we decided to let the drinking commence!

It seems like every place in the Quarter is selling some fruity high octane concoction, and the first place we hit up, –this dive-ish bar with great ambience– was no different. We started off with a Hand Grenade, a super sweet bright green drink with a little plastic hand grenade in it. It wasn’t bad. As I’m want to do, I struck up a conversation with the two people sitting next to us; two college graduates that decided on impulse to drive from Virginia Beach to Mardi Gras the night before. Fifteen hours straight thru. They found a last minute place on AirBnB, and soon I was hearing their life stories. He a graduate heading to Med School, she a graduate working for in the defense industry. They were super cool and nice and soon talked us into our second drink; a Shark Attack. Same premise of brightly colored and overly sweet alcohol-laced-party-in-a-cup, but this came with more toys; a small plastic gator that floats atop your drink until a loud whistle was blown and a large, cup sized shark is dumped upside down into your drink with loads of red (grenadine perhaps?) liquid permeating the drink, giving the illusion of blood stained waters. Cute, but way too sweet for my taste. Doesn’t mean I didn’t drink it though.

Shark attack

We ran into that couple on the street later, and by then we were all happily buzzed and in the “I love you maaan!” phase of our drinking. Tony gifted the gal Heaven (yes her real name) with a strand of beads you could only get in Las Vegas at the Rio, so they were special. She was so happy (and pretty drunk), she actually teared up a bit. In the meantime her friend was being accosted by two women tying him up with caution tape. The revelry in the streets was definitely happening now.

This sort of seemed the rinse, lather, repeat. Hitting different bars, and drinking fruity concoctions. While I got pretty drunk, I was not the blitzed, wasted shell of a being that I was warned about becoming by drinking the lethal Hurricanes. In fact, by count – one at the restaurant on Canal, one at the dive bar, two at lunch (which were far better than any I had anywhere. I only wish I could recall the name of the bar that served them) and at least two more in Pat O’Brien’s I should have been plastered up against a wall holding on for dear life. Instead I was able to walk my way over to Café Du Monde and try the infamous beignets and chicory coffee. This was after we lost our new friend, who thankfully made it back to her hotel room safe and sound.

Here is where I need to interject that sometimes the hype of the local Must-Have/Must-Do is not all that it lends itself to be. Pat O’Brien’s we actually found by accident. We had slipped off of Bourbon Street and onto St. Peters, actually attracted to a VooDoo-ish type of shop that both Tony and I wanted to check out. As we came out, VOILA there it was, one of the most famous bars in the nation. The bar itself was pretty cool, but of course this being Mardi Gras week and all, it was packed.  We had to order the infamous Hurricane seeing as we were at the original location of the drink, so one would think this is where they are the best. Mmmmmm — not so much in my opinion. The bar we had lunch at, a smallish narrow little dive on that originally lulled us in with a small two piece live music show had in my opinion the best Hurricane’s of all. Pat O’Brien’s were almost too tart for me. Too slushy.

It’s all a matter of taste. But the same held true for the beignets. Now I love me a fried pastry. I mean I can go all Homer Simpson on your ass with just a glimpse of a pink bakery box; It’s my Achilles Heel. So trying these little fried concoctions were top of my list (even if they were last on what we did). I was impressed with Café Du Monde. We had a sweet Beignetslittle French waitress who barely seemed old enough to work there. The vibe was almost 50’s, with the bright lighting or maybe it was just the bright glare against the darkness we had been in for so long. (Or so it seemed. Later I would learn how absolutely early it was when we got there. Just one more reminder that the Hurricane’s were a tad stronger than I wanted to admit.) We were lucky and were able to walk right in and get a table, instead of waiting in these monster lines I had heard tales of. I think it was timing. I over ordered as I’m known to do. If they were that good, I didn’t want to take a chance of having to actually wait for a second order to come thru. They were good. Very good. But were they Wait-In-An-Hour-Line-To-Try worthy? Not so much. I liked the coffee more. Deep, dark and full of chicory flavor. I could have lapped that up for hours. But again, if you don’t like a dark bold black coffee, this might not be for you. Plus no free refills. I think I spent more on coffee than on pastries.

Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t try a Hurricane at Pat’s or a beignet at Du Monde. It’s sort of like coming to L.A. and not seeing Hollywood. You sort of have to say you’ve at least tried it. But would I say go there for the experience, or go there for the product? I’m going to say in these two situations, pick the former vs the latter.

This is where the New Orleans for a Day trip, sort of ends. We lucked out on snagging a cab as we came out of Café Du Monde. Both of us were pretty tired, even though it was so very early in Mardi Gras time. The cab ran us twice as much as it did going because we hit a horrible traffic jam on the freeway. Sometimes things just make you feel right at home, and sitting in traffic, watching the meter go up up up in a cab was just like L.A..

I have to end this by saying I absolutely have to go back. I was thrilled with what we got to do, and doing it during Mardi Gras was a boon, but even a day or two more is absolutely necessary. I want to take that trolley down Canal. See those magnificent cemeteries, and pop over to the Garden District. I need to take more pictures, and have lunch at the Commander’s Palace with 25 cent martini’s. I need to hear a Jazz trio, or better yet a small informal Blues band. I need a bite of a muffaletta, a bowl of authentic jambalaya and most definitely a pecan praline.

It’ll happen. Sooner than you think. 😉

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