Somewhere between the fanciful merriment and logistical reality of Mardi Gras lies the city of New Orleans itself. For its residents, this world-renowned Carnival is both an intrinsic element of our culture and oftentimes a very real impediment to the functionality of our lives. It’s a month-long party that we can’t escape, whether we like it or not. For those of us who live in the Uptown “Box,” I mean that literally. So, if you find yourself visiting us here in NOLA as a tourist from elsewhere, or are a resident who merely needs a refresher on your Mardi Gras p’s and q’s, I urge you to read on.
I’ve broken this guide down into major categories. While I’ve attempted to cover the crucial elements of Carnival etiquette, there will undoubtedly be pieces missing from the following list. An FAQ of Mardi Gras is “What do I wear?” The answer is: ANYTHING (with comfortable shoes). No-brainers such as “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” “Never travel alone,” “If you see something, say something,” and “Don’t screw with city property” should go without saying. Respect one another and yourself.
In case you haven’t noticed, New Orleans is a very small city. We are also a very old city. Our roads are bumpy, narrow, and easily clogged (with water, cars, beads, beer, bodily fluids, etc.), so please be courteous. If you are attempting to drive to/during a parade, there’s a high likelihood that you will get stuck in traffic from another parade. In some circumstances, for hours. If you didn’t consult the WWL Parade Tracker app or WhereYat.com before departure, you better have come prepared with snacks. Who can be in a bad mood when there’s a fresh bag of Zapp’s to pop?
On this note, please do your research and know where the closest bathroom is. We’d prefer you not use the street. Should you decide to opt for Uber, prepare for long waits, unreliability, and surge fares. Ubers also cannot pick you up on Bourbon Street. Especially if you’re kicking around the Quarter, your good ol’ yellow taxicab can be the best bet. If you can find one.
Ah, the French Quarter. Every New Orleanian’s dream come true and worst nightmare. You won’t catch us on Bourbon Street, but should you choose to indulge, please be aware of yourself and your belongings. Pickpockets know it’s where distracted tourists hang out. And while you’re wandering, you will certainly be approached by shot girls from a number of establishments. These friendly young ladies will often quite forcefully offer fruity libations in the form of test tubes or Jell-O shots. It’s all fun and games until you’ve accidentally racked up a $50 tab on sugar water. A word to the wise—you can politely say no! And no, your bartender absolutely does not want your beads as a tip.
On The Route
As a transplant myself, I find the single hardest part of Mardi Gras to be the parades themselves. It’s a cross between a tailgate and Burning Man, the key takeaway being that you must bring everything yourself. Some kind souls on the route may have treats for sale, but unless you want to be subsisting on Zapp’s alone, you need to bring your own ice chest and food. And alcohol (no glass bottles). On the route means away from the bars, and if you want to stay lit, don’t expect it be raining from the sky like how it is everywhere else in our beloved Big Easy.
As someone who didn’t grow up climbing a ladder and yelling, “Throw me something, Mister!”, my first Mardi Gras as a college student was a lot to wrap my head around. But the marked takeaway was undoubtedly how family-friendly it was. Parades are not Bourbon Street (read: no boobs). Carnival is generally geared towards kids. So please don’t stand in front of them. Conversely, if you really must catch throws, don’t stand near kids, because they will be favored. As far as the more DIY parades go (Krewe Du Vieux, Chewbacchus, Muses), understand there aren’t a lot of throws to go around because most are lovingly hand-made by krewe members throughout the year. Be respectful of the time and artistry that goes into creating Carnival.
Please be cautious and aware of your surroundings on the route. Don’t expect people to move when you are trying to work through a crowd, and don’t sit on the ground or you will get trampled. Two words: lawn chairs. Know what neutral ground and street-side mean (this will also help with finding your friends). Stand back from the floats or the crowd monitors will physically shove you, or you’ll get tuba’d in the face. You may be able to cover that shiner with glitter, but you’ll never be able to get your pride back.
Now that the cobwebs have been shaken off your pristine Southern etiquette, get out there and enjoy the kaleidoscope of color and festivity that is Mardi Gras! And don’t you dare go into someone’s home without paying respect to they mama.