Mardi Gras: Changing the Bucket List

IMG_0797I’ve never really had a Bucket List. But when I decided to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I called the trip a Bucket List adventure to anyone who raised eyebrows at me. No, I had no desire to bare all on the street for some beads. But I did have an intrigue about this tri-colored street party, enough to plan it out and go once and for all—or, as we say in the restaurant world when setting out for an after-shift drink, for “one and done.”

Mardi GrasI stayed at Le Pavillon, an historic grand hotel a few blocks from the noise of Bourbon Street. Le Pavillon is a hotel with a tradition of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served for guests at 10 o’clock nightly. Mardi GrasWhat’s more, guests are invited to sit on the plush and ornate furniture of the beautiful lobby as if it’s our own personal living room. (I was to learn in the coming days that this is signature New Orleans style: a happy and open welcome.)

In the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, Andrew Jackson defended the city from the British—with the help of the privateer and pirate, Jean Lafitte. Lafitte and his men were instrumental in helping to defeat the British. A city defended by pirates? I was starting to like this town more and more.

Twenty minutes on Bourbon Street and I found myself with a drink in my hand, a glitter-painted mask on my head, and a feather boa around my neck. The good times were rolling.

Mardi GrasMid-street conversations with jovial strangers were the norm. Some revelers in the street asked me to trade masks with them. When asked which bar was making the giant hand grenade drinks, my friend and I comically pointed in opposite directions, but later found that we were both right: The Tropical Isle has three Bourbon Street locations. One day, I wore a Captain America t-shirt, and everyone referred to me as “Captain” everywhere I went. And later in the week, when asked directions to different points of interest, I’d spent so much time on foot in the French Quarter that I knew the right directions to give.

Mardi GrasBy day, you could traverse the Bourbon Street crowds easily, and there was music everywhere—especially live music on the side streets. At night, the movement was much slower, and thus, more chatty, especially in areas with balconies above Bourbon because partiers tossed (on Sunday) and threw (Monday’s Lundi Gras) and outright rained down cases (Tuesday’s Mardi Gras) of beads onto all of us in the street below. (There’s a misconception that the only way you get beads is to flash someone. Not true: Beads are freely given, thrown, and traded.) Each day and night, you literally skated on the beads that had fallen on Bourbon Street. (And Bourbon Street was cleaned every night.) Then on Tuesday, you waded around heaps of them so tall that you pushed the mounds to see make sure there weren’t people underneath them.

Mardi GrasThe things I saw: I saw a man in nothing but a thong who’d taken a black wig and stuffed it into the front of the thong. I saw women in nothing but body paint—beautifully ornate body paint. I saw a terrible cabaret show. I saw some definite (enhanced and real) body parts, but as my friend put it so perfectly: “The ones you see are not so much the ones you want to see.”

I saw the Bacchus parade on Sunday night, gorgeously lighted. I saw the Rex and the Zulu parades on Tuesday afternoon and I tried to catch an ellusive coconut as they were tossed from the floats. (In New Orleans, an organization that puts on a ball or parade for Carnival season is known as a Krewe, pronounced “crew.” Officially, the parades were called the Krewe of Bacchus, Krewe of Rex, etc.) I saw parade watchers on balconies attempt to throw beads across the four-lane street to the opposite balconies. I saw them succeed in the endeavor, too. I saw people on top of the parade floats, dressed in feathers that extended an easy six feet over their heads. I saw a parade marcher give a news interview as he drank a Bud Light. I saw float riders toss beads to the crowd with one hand while drinking from a jug in the other. I saw the absolute mess on Canal Street at noon on Tuesday as the parade passed through. I saw the city of New Orleans take to the cleanup effort as if it were no big deal at all.Mardi Gras

I saw the police march down Bourbon Street at 12:05 a.m. Wednesday morning, a happy phalanx clearing the street for a water truck to make its way through. The truck driver then bellowed, “Here comes the hose!” and I watched as an all-out surge of soapy water was pumped onto Bourbon. (You can’t be on the street after midnight. But you can be in the bars if you want, no problem.)

Mardi GrasQuietly walking the French Quarter daily, I learned of the history of French and then Spanish rule, the architecture that is mostly Spanish as two fires during Spanish occupation destroyed all but three buildings of the original French Quarter. I learned that the bend of the Mississippi River built up the French Quarter to now 11 feet above sea level, while the rest of New Orleans remains below sea level. I learned that that bend in the River created a crescent-shaped coastline along New Orleans, dubbing it the Crescent City. I learned that my hotel, Le Pavillon, sits in what was the American Quarter, which is separated from the French Quarter by Canal Street—known as neutral ground where different people and different ideas could come together safely. (Eventually, any central traffic median in New Orleans became known as “neutral ground.”) I learned that New Orleans has a history filled with the intermingling of different peoples and cultures, who, like their brilliant cuisine, find ways in common to celebrate life. I learned to slow down, raise a glass, and enjoy.

Mardi GrasI traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras as a way to put a check onto a Bucket List that I hadn’t actually made. And I still haven’t made one.

What I found is that Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, and New Orleans itself are not Bucket List adventures. The celebration, sharing, the community of strangers, and the downright enjoyment of life are like feeling the sun on your face after a long, cold winter. That’s not something suited for one and done. It warrants no check mark. It’s something to be lived–again and again.

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“The value in living out your Bucket List is in changing your entire perspective on life, one brave step at a time.”
Jody Brown, blogger, poet, traveler, and author
                of Upside Down Kingdom

Under the Boar’s Head on Siena’s Craggy Streets

Siena boar's headA couple years ago, I attended a metal smithing class in chasing and repoussé with master metalsmith Valentin Yotkov, who had arranged to take us to the nearby town of Siena to sightsee for the day.

We were dropped in Siena, in Italy, and my classmates and I broke into groups and agreed to meet back at a designated time. Well, we broke into groups to an extent. A pattern had been established where one participant consistently wanted to go off by himself, specifically to find a pub. This time around, some classmates placed good faith bets as to whether Todd would make it back on time. I alone was on what I called “Team Todd.” I believed he’d make it back. And I took a lot of good-natured ribbing for it. Given the track record, the odds were not in my favor.

We split up, wound our way through the craggy and steep streets, ate lunch at the town square, the Piazza del Campo, looked at olive wood in the small shops, dodged the rain on a bank terrace, and eventually found our way back to a butcher shop under the boar’s head. The shop had been about to close up when the shop owner spotted Valentin’s assistant Sharon, and immediately, the shop was re-opened for our group and we proceeded to indulge in wine and cheese that appeared out of nowhere for us inside the little shop. And lo and behold, Todd was in the shop when my foursome and I arrived. He was telling the story of his adventures that he began again for our benefit.

He’d walked the same streets as we had, down to the Piazza del Campo, and found a trattoria/pub that overlooked the square. When the rain started, he watched the square clear out as everyone huddled under the storefronts ringed around the piazza. The entire bustling place was suddenly hushed. That’s when he saw one couple, hand in hand, walk into the center of the piazza. Slowly they made their way, and once in the center, the man stopped. He turned to the woman, got down on one knee, the woman nodded and he sprung up, and they exchanged hugs and kisses as everyone in the distant perimeter erupted into cheer. Todd said the people on either side of him were in tears seeing this, and everyone in the pub started hugging. He’d been filming the event on his phone, and hoped to find the couple somehow and send it to them.Siena, Italy

I think of this story from time to time, and it never fails to make me smile. It also reminds me, that no matter how many times someone has let you down or shown up late or managed to get lost at the most inopportune times, there is always room for belief in each other. Bet on that.

Go, Team Todd.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

Insha’Allah

JordanFrom my travel journals… This is an experience in Jordan:

…We are going to stop at the Jabbok River, but in order to stop, we are driving on a 3-lane highway on top of this mountain, looking for an overlook…

Back on the bus again. Here’s what just happened: We initially stopped on the highway, where we’d probably been going 60 mph, and looked out the windows of the bus. Let me repeat: we were now stopped on the highway. Our driver, Wasfi, then decided there was a better place, an actual overlook, about 50 meters behind us. So we backed up, slowly of course, right in the third lane of the highway as traffic sped up the hill alongside us. I thought we were going to die, but it was not in the cards this day.

We got out and froze in the wind on top of the overlook, took some pictures, Paul read the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God and God changing Jacob’s name to Israel, and we jumped back into the heat of the bus where I now write.

First thing: It was a great view.

Second: No wonder we always hear about bus crashes!

Incidentally, “Insha’Allah” is Arabic for “God willing.” I say it a lot lately, and I let it go at that. Insha’Allah.

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My first book, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon. I’ll sign it for you.

’99 Me and the Abbey House

GlastonburyA zillion years ago, (or perhaps 15), I traveled to Glastonbury, England on a writer’s retreat with author Emily Hanlon. Glastonbury is said to be King Arthur territory, and before that it was entirely covered by tidal water. It’s mystical, full of myth, ruins, and lore. The entire place seems to hum, from the ground up.

A group of us, all female, stayed in an old Abbey House for a little over a week. We wrote, met, discussed, ate, danced, explored the town, and wrote some more. It was a week of adventure, friendship, and writing discovery, from which I have great stories–actual and written.

Recently, I came across an exercise that Emily asked us to do during our very first meeting, which involved making a list of what we would like to get out of the Glastonbury experience. My list includes 16 items, mostly about becoming a better writer, trusting the ability, making friends, etc., etc., the usual suspects. I don’t mean to belittle these things. They’re important, and I believe in them. But stuck toward the beginning of the “My Intentions Are” list was #3.  And #3 just knocks it out of the park:

“3. To move the blankets when I sleep here–to sleep with such fury and passion with ideas that I move those heavy blankets in my sleep and have to completely remake the bed in the morning.”

Remembering that trip, where I was, who I was, the way I thought about writing (even then), the pieces I wrote then and since, and finding #3… I was stunned silent. After a little while, I smiled and thought, “Dear ’99 Me: You can, and you will.” 

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My first book is called Upside Down Kingdom. Check it out on Amazon. You won’t be disappointed.

Drink it Presently

I make it a point to get a new journal before traveling anywhere, and the journal needs to have the right feel. It can’t weigh me down, and it can’t be so small that I can’t comfortably write in it. (I especially like when journals have a place for your pen.) I don’t usually get into the ones with long strings so you can close them up tight. Travel journaling, for me, means scribbling something down at a moment’s notice, not taking the time to wind and rewind. Details, details. But the right journal sets the tone for the trip.photo-2

My travel journals become treasure troves of information pieced together with history, conversations, travel tips, my crudely drawn maps and diagrams, and the general feeling that a place gives me. Today I discovered an entire page in my Jordan journal that I devoted to the ritual of Arabic Coffee: The extremely fine grind, fresh roasting, boiling, cardamom, strength, right-to-left presentation, and the sentimentality and bond of offering it “on the house.”

And then suddenly there’s this little gem: “Drink it presently. Don’t set it down. Setting it down is a sign to the host that you need something.”

And just like that, there’s life.

Right in the details.

~

www.JodyBrown.com