Travel Stories »

Dazed in New Orleans in Mardi Gras

Finding a hotel room (as opposed to a crawl space) during Mardi Gras is just the beginning…

I hunker down on the street in the real early morning light and pan my video camera 180 degrees. ‘This end of the street, the artists walk their poodles,’ I whisper, my voice sucked up by the humidity. ‘However, on this other end of the street, they’ve got guns in their pockets. And this isn’t a very long street. We’re talking about polar opposites here – and only in New Orleans could you claim that the polar opposite of a poodle is a gun.’ I’ll be the first to admit this pseudo-documentary is an unsophisticated way of going about creating a travel diary but I am into the role of milkweed tourist, here, and prepared to do my bit.

It’s my first morning in New Orleans. I’ve come down with a fever on the plane – the air-con, I suspect – and the results aren’t pretty. Sweats, leg-shake and pallor. I get to some plantation-house style hotel, but everyone’s out on the last day of Mardi Gras. Ah, yes, Mardi Gras. I’d booked an air ticket to anywhere with the last spare money I had – you know, the kind that doesn’t go on bills and food and the wheels and gears of life. I’d booked a flight to New Orleans, because the hype surrounding it was so pretty. It was only the day before travel that I realized my plane was going to touch down in Louis Armstrong Airport on the very last day of Mardi Gras. All I knew about this place was that I was going to love it (probably) but that some parts were very dangerous, and being a tourist I wouldn’t know my ass from my elbow.

Evening. New place. Still got the sweats. I stick my rucksack under a bush and go to a small family sitting on their porch opposite, ask them what they think I should do. They tell me they’ve got no idea what the house opposite is (my hotel), or who owns it (a guy who later invites me to his home to see his mad Mardi Gras collection of paraphernalia from floats and parties he’s attended in the last twenty years; he prides himself on knowing everyone (Maybe just not the poorer neighbours, huh?). The family goes on to say that black people don’t really bother with the parade and all.

Eventually I get into the hotel – a staff worker wanders back in a drunken daze and lets me in but seems unable to sort me out with a room key. I stick my rucksack in a kitchen cupboard – damn, this thing’s my best friend out here and I keep sticking it in places like a stinking corpse – and head on out. At least now I can let myself in the kitchen. It feels like New Orleans is letting me in step by step.

Mardis Gras does it for me. With the application of tequila my fever disappears. On a whim I tell some gay guys with purple sequin pants that I’m part of a BBC film crew and get lots of fun footage. Was this mean? Maybe. It’s Mardis Gras. When they put their asses together, the sequins on their pants spell out the name of their website.

The evening passes in a whirl of chat-up lines, dapper old gentlemen toasting me in the street, nakedness and revelry, all the colour and fizz of fireworks taken from the sky and spread out across a town. Get home, sleep in kitchen. Next morning, get keys.

I still have ten days in New Orleans and Mardis Gras is over. This is the bit I really came for. My favourite haunt is a jazz bar nearby with three walls, one having been pulverised a few weeks back. White Russians, dancing with soldiers, get adopted by a seventh-generation local waitress who once lived in Liverpool and shacked up with a guy in winter because he had the only heater. That distresses me, to see someone with so much energy go to such great efforts to do something new but basically be exchanging her body for a warm room. I have this flash of her whole life stretching ahead of her. Best I can see for her is her becoming a cut-rate Courtney Love.

Asked along to a jazz funeral, a young trumpeteer, his friends expressing some serious grief, crawling on the ground like snakes. Get invited to a voodoo ritual by the local priestess but don’t go because it’s in a dangerous part of town, way out of my league, and I’m on holiday and, quite frankly, can’t hack it.

Get pleasurably waylaid by some people who own the local headshop (in fact, even though I’ve never met them before, have no idea what they look like and know only some of their names, they’re the folk I’ve officially come to see on an ambassadorial visit from a likeminded environmental group in Britain). They’re all young with fierce hearts. They strap me onto a stool placed between the driver and passenger seat in their van, making me wonder what the speed limit is here, how drunk they are and if I should view this as a safety precaution or an amiable kidnapping – then they gun the engine and drive off at a surprisingly sedate pace to yet another strange locale, spraying folk with silly string. When we get to their house I relax with one of the girlfriends, singing along to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on TV. The only downside about being here with these nice folk is that they send me into the corridor when I want to smoke a cigarette and tell me they hope I feel just like a dirty crack whore.

In ten days I’ve met some wild ones and some slow, deep ones. I’ve chatted to shopkeepers and bullshit merchants and chess champions. It’s not me, particularly. It’s them. They like to talk, they take an interest. If someone came to my country, they might not have such a good time if they just walked in cold.

I like these people a lot. I like how they are.

Ten days is nothing at all. But it’s my time, and I could have spent it in worse ways.

On my last morning, I wake up and have a cup of tea on the porch, the leaves all lush and wet, the air solid and quiet. There are a few people around, in the same frame of mind, so we take it easy. Goodbye. Time to go.