I was walking by myself to my favorite co-working spot in New Orleans (a cafe that only serves foreign street food). It was lightly raining and I wasn’t even half way to my destination so I was walking faster than normal. In the distance, I heard a train.
The rain increased in diameter and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a downpour. I arrived at the point where the train track intersected with the street and found a stalled train blocking the intersection. A hundred feet away I could see the problem was with the track itself. Apparently the track had rotted away due to storm damage.
With about a dozen other people, I stood looking at the mess in the pouring rain. We looked at each other with a shared feeling of mild frustration and bewilderment.
Just then, the driver of a giant green school bus that was also stuck in the clogged streets rolled down their windows and started playing jazz music loudly. A second later, a man jumped out of his truck, grabbed a trombone out of the bed, stood ankle high in a puddle and accompanied the other driver’s music.
Unsure of what to do, the two dozen or so people involved in the train blockage stepped out into the rain and started to dance.
This was New Orleans. It wasn’t pretty and it didn’t make sense most of the time but if nothing else, it was home to people who knew how to have a good time.
It was in this bizarre city that I experienced one of the world’s greatest parties. The next week Mardi Gras started.
Whereas a hurricane is marked by a calm before the storm, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is marked by a storm before the calm. The entire week of parades, parties, shows and general craziness comes to a peak on Fat Tuesday and then quickly ceases on Wednesday as Lent starts. Bourbon Street, the tourist area known for strong drinks and strip clubs is cleared at midnight by a police on horseback. And just like that, the party ends.
Unlike most tourism events that I have attended, the locals of New Orleans absolutely love their celebration. They would and do celebrate like crazy people even when tourism dollars don’t flow in. The biggest display of this is with the parades. Krewes (social clubs) from all of the city organize and compete to create the biggest and best parade in the city. The parades occur over the weeks before Fat Tuesday and are huge events. The organizers spend months building elaborate floats and loading up on free gifts for the parade spectators.
The part of Mardi Gras that surprised me the most was just how involved the city was in the process. New Orleans is a major American city. Even still, during the week leading up to Fat Tuesday, the city completely stops and reorganizes itself for the event. City officials shut down the major streets in order to accommodate the parade routes and business opening hours are slashed. Getting around the city or running errands becomes next to impossible. These niceties are suspended for the sake of the celebration.
Happily, it all pays off. The parades are amazing community events and for one week, everyone in the city wakes up with the same excitement.
I woke up early on Fat Tuesday. I couldn’t help it, there were hundreds of people in full costume playing music outside my door as they marched toward the city center. Despite the expected rain, hundreds of thousands (maybe more?) packed the streets of New Orleans and showed off what made them weird. Drinks and beads flowed freely and music-blaring speakers and bands competed on every corner. It was exactly how a city should throw a party.
I was with my friends Ian and Eddie. We have had our fair share of partying together (Burning Man, NASCAR at Talladega, Fraternity parties, Impromptu Vegas trips, 4th of July street parties) but even we couldn’t complete Fat Tuesday in one session.
For hours we walked around the party mob that was the French Quarter. Street corner after street corner, the roads were packed with people dancing and drinking. Every bar was overflowing and most houses were throwing parties. From the balconies people were flowing beads and it seemed that every electronic device in the city was playing music.
We earned beads, met people who were likely insane, drank speciality party drinks and ate some street food that seemed like a good idea at the time. :-) We damn near made it to sun down. That was until, we realized the night party was just getting started. The party was just too big to do all at once.
Carnival vs Mardi Gras
Two years ago, I was lucky enough to attend Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Carnival and Mardi Gras are celebrations of the same holiday but are quite different in experience. While the customs are similar (parades, beads, amazing craziness), the feel of the events are different. Whereas Carnival in Rio feels like a city full of competing parties, Mardi Gras in New Orleans feels like a city filled with one big party. All of the locals and tourists I met in New Orleans were welcoming and inviting. The party in their houses spilled out into the street and then back again into other people’s houses. It was one giant blob of a party.
Rio on the other hand was separated. While the parties did spill out into the streets, there was a clear difference between the affluent ticket holders in the city’s temporary downtown parade stadium and the happy drunks crowding the streets closer to the beaches. While the energy of the people partying at Carnival was higher (the parades lasted for days and people stood singing for hours at a time), the crime was also more of an issue. Really, that is just true in general for Brazil.
Mardi Gras with all of its openness and friendly participants secured its spot in my mind as one of the best parties in the world. It was fun, totally crazy and lived up to the hype. I look forward to earning more beads in Mardi Gras parties in the years to come.
So Is Mardi Gras the Greatest Party of All?
Prepare to get mad at me :-) I enjoyed Mardi Gras in New Orleans more than Carnival in Rio (in general it was a more welcoming crowd) but not as accommodating as the people at Queens Day in Amsterdam. The general level of hysteria was more than Sant Joan in Barcelona but had less explosions :-) It was Burning Man-esque in creativity while being less of a commitment.
Overall, it was certainly one of the best parties I have ever been to. If you are anywhere within 1,000 miles of the event, I highly recommend you go.
But is it the best party in the world? The verdict is still out. I’ll keep you updated as I investigate other parties :-p
I am coming to the end of a month-long stay in New Orleans. I am feeling bittersweet tonight as I am excited to get back to Seattle but sad to leave this city of wanderers :-)
P.S. It struck me hard tonight how incredibly grateful I am to have the opportunity to pursue my life list. It is absolutely insane that I have had the privilege to go to as many amazing events as I have I have attended. I sincerely thank everyone who has helped me get to this point of my journey.
P.P.S Check out my friends new book on how to do online marketing. It is free today and tomorrow only! It is a quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Be sure to check out the chapter on LinkedIn marketing.