day 1

my little friend from the flight had been a foreshadowing. after a fabulous holiday inn-dian buffet breakfast (haha…i funny), where i discovered that i do not like idli, tilda, chris, and i stepped out of the hotel. a group of indian guests was waiting outside for a cab, and one of the women openly stared me in the face. i would look away and glance back to find that she was still gawking. unflinchingly. i was a spectacle. tilda, on the other hand, was a major celebrity. eventually, the woman approached, and i heard the phrase, directed to tilda, that i would quickly grow accustomed to: “one picture?” (not “a picture”—always “one” picture.)

as surprising as it was to me, this scenario, i learned, is common. i didn’t know that white people were rare in india. also, having once been the conquering colonizers of the place, i would have assumed they would not be revered. well, talk about making an “ass” out of “u” and “mption.” apparently there is nowhere in the world where a white woman is not put on a pedestal. meh. the photo opp was done, chris had finished arranging our cab, and we set off for the day.

coming to india is like being dropped inside an ant farm. never before—not in honduras, mexico, or jamaica—have i experienced a more teeming, streaming, swarming, thronging mass of people. nor such a twisting, winding, tumbled up jumble of a city. the ramshackle-est of shacks are precariously perched among high rise builIMG_0177dings; vending stalls share blocks with vaguely modern shops, stick-and-tarp street dwellings, a 27-story palace built for one, and abandoned building shells. i found it nearly impossible to tell the difference between a well-off part of town and a slum. our posh hotel overlooked slums, in fact (see pic above), and when we passed the notorious dharavi slum, i didn’trecognize much difference between it and anywhere else around. there must be more corrugated tin per square foot in india than anywhere on the planet.

i found the drive to our destination heartbreaking. not because of the poverty but because of the beauty. as i clutched in my hands the finest piece of photography equipment i had personally ever known (a canon rebel t3i–my first grown-up camera), we whizzed along past a sea wall where women sat in glittering saris, gazing out at the water, past tall buildings with colorful garments dangling from windows, dancing in the breeze, past a black tuk-tuk* where a lady’s leg draped under a sparking golden-threaded fuchsia sari sat gracefully just in sight of its open doorway. everything i saw was a photograph. and there was nothing i could do about it.

we eventually arrived at the colaba causeway, a tourist trap where a shirtless man scarily snapped an enormous braided whip about his body and cab drivers urged you to shop (apparently, there are kickbacks involved). beyond this lay, however, the gateway to india, a hundred-year-old monument overlooking the arabian sea but closed to entry due to previous terrorist activity in the area, including two bombings. to get there, though, we first had to cross the street.

tuk-tuks

tuk-tuk armada

traffic in india is a neverending stream of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, and scooters. for the most part, its movement is incomprehensibly self-regulating as lights are few and far between. there are also no lanes, per se, and the vehicles all move about like bumper cars, constantly closer to each other than you would ever believe without seeing. they squeeze into every available opening, nook, and cranny, with barely inches between them. but somehow it works…they merge and forge their way with arm signals, resolve, and an incessant conversation of horns. it is truly masterful.

crossing the street in india is an equally masterful feat. it entails a combination of bravery, timing, skill, and athleticism and is not for the faint of heart. with little regulation by lights, the pedestrian is left to his own devices to cross exactly—exactly—like the character in the video game frogger. you wait and wait for what looks like a potential opening, and then you dart out into the road, sometimes crossing only one lane at a time such that you become part of the traffic. in particularly difficult crossings, people may link hands to form a human wall. the cars include you in their conversation, you merge and forge, and eventually…somehow…it works.

the gateway to india towered above me, the arabian sea opened before me, and the tumult of finding passage across began. boats arrived and departed, people swarmed about, and, just as on the roads, there was little to regulate or inform the traffic. we merged in with what felt like the unfocused yelling, waving, and paper-exchanging frenzy of an old-school stock exchange. we managed to pay for passage, boarded a boat, and were dismayed to be greeted with another toll for entry to the top deck. with that reluctantly paid, we climbed up and found chairs, tables, and even sofas there. the sun was beating down, so we took shelter under the tarp with all the other indians and briefly discussed how dreadfully undesirable indians find it to be brown.

IMG_0206once underway, a vendor came around periodically offering snacks (chataka pataka, anyone?) and beverages while strands of mirror pieces tinkled away to wonderful effect against the railings. after 45 minutes or so, elephanta island was finally in sight. four other boats of equal size were already perched side-by-side against the dock, and our boat made five, such that, to reach land, we had to cross through each previously docked boat.IMG_0215

the land was a long walkway dotted with vendors of snacks, fruit, sun hats, and other items. before long, a set of rail tracks appeared. these were for the small train that could take one up the hillside. for a fee, of course. we walked on, passing the occasional goat, and reached a clearing with a small restaurant, some vending stalls, and an increasingly wild menagerie of roaming animals. goats, dogs, cows, train cropbrahman bulls, and–finally–a few [initially adorable] bonnet macaque monkeys. monkeys! free-roaming monkeys! i snapped away in awe.

the previously dotted line of vendors became a solid stripe that edged each side of the long, tarped stairway up the hillside to the centuries old elephanta caves. “miss, please.” “have a look.” “one second.” “best price for you.” by the time we reached the top and stopped to eat, i was in a full sweat and had a mild headache. the bottle of water i had dragged along with me had reached about 98.6 degrees, and even the brand new bottle i bought wasn’t cold enough. as it turns out, both ice and napkins are luxury items that would not be available to me there. i guzzled cool water and ate vegetable biryani that made my lips burn. monkeys swung about and ate in the trees right behind me, but i had adapted to them so quickly that i no longer paid much attention. well, except to the one in a tree eating a wedge of watermelon. what? a monkey eating watermelon?! *SNAP, SNAP*

watermelon monkey

IMG_0264we made our way to the caves, which contain a few carvings of deities, some sacred ground, and some columns…but mostly just old caves. i was underwhelmed. the monkey activity turned out to be much more interesting. we watched a pair double team some grown men, robbing them of a bag of food and a bottle of water, and later we watched one menace a child of equal size to it. the child, maybe close to three years old, was a few steps away from his family picnic and tossed some food to a monkey. the monkey returned for more, and there was a brief face-off between the child and the monkey. the monkey got closer, and the child, spooked by this, struck out at it. the monkey angered, struck back at the child, and bared its fangs with an evil hiss. i was petrified. the child burst into sobs, and adults chased the monkey away. having at this point seen a few of the monkeys menace in this way, i no longer found them cute and worried slightly for my person, tucking my IMG_0295water bottle out of sight from these macaques that were quite adept both at stealing them and opening them.

we made our way back down the hillside, shopping for souvenirs along the way. i learned that my established companions knew to always get a better price by saying “no, too much,” and setting out to walk away. i felt guilty every time, though, particularly when tilda bargained a lady down from ₹600 for an anklet to 400, and i then sheepishly paid with a 1,000 rupee note. we cleared the way for a lady being bustled along on a litter (such passage being available to anyone who wants it, for a fee), and hopped onto a boat back (extra fee to sit at the top).

this time, the warm setting sun, the breeze from the water, the lengthy excursion, and the gentle rocking of the boat nearly lulled me to sleep. i was kept awake, however, by the children who, unfazed by my difference in appearance, included me in their fun. with all the seats taken, tilda, chris, and i had made do with sitting on a flat metal berth at the back of the boat. a few others joined us, including a small child, maybe three, who enjoyed using me to prop himself up. also, much like a bonnet macaque, he enjoyed stealing the water bottle from my purse. more than these things, though, he enjoyed watching the adults as they threw food to the seagulls that trailed along in the air behind our boat and tossed handfuls of confetti’d paper that consistently fooled both me and him into thinking we were seeing a flutter of butterflies in the breeze.

IMG_0376

returning to the gateway to india

after stopping for frozen yogurt (₹60 each), we caught a cab to chor bazaar. also known as “thieves market” (or to me as “so many goats!”). chor bazaar is a web of blocks and side streets organized into vending categorIMG_0412ies. there’s a strip for auto parts, an area for meats, some blocks for produce, and so on. it was also here that i discovered that my surreptitious photo taking need perhaps not be so surreptitious. i tried to shoot a group of several kids all attempting to ride a bike simultaneously, and when they saw me, i was suddenly swarmed by narcissists. they waved and posed and photo-bombed like…well, like children. unfortunately, i hadn’t yet figured out how to best adjust my camera for the very low light of these back alleys at night. the lighting blessed me, however, when i saw a small girl dressed in green perched on a scooter with her father. i snapped the picture, and when she realized what i had done, she brightened and smiled at me. :-)

 

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as we left chor bazaar, it happened. the traffic in the street we needed to cross was thick, nearly impossible to cleave. as was his nature, chris barreled ahead while tilda and i were still looking for our opportunity. he was about two car widths deep when i saw the moment of quick decision, of too many entities jockeying for the same bit of street at once. there was a sidestepping of one vehicle, and then the loud smack sound of impact from another. a short scream came out of me, like a bark, and i felt it hanging in the air as i lost sight of him behind a bus. when the traffic cleared, i saw that the two guys on the bike that had hit him were stopped and yelling. i also saw chris’s back from the other side of the street.

i made record time crossing after that. sheer adrenaline. when i reached him, he was already at a cab demonstrating to a concerned witness that he could indeed still move his arm and leg on the side where he was hit. once tilda reached and we were all together again inside the [getaway] cab, i learned that chris’s hasty retreat had been based on the knowledge that, in the case of an accident, tempers can rise quickly and mobs have been known to form. chris was totally going to leave us there if we hadn’t made it across in time. guess i can’t say as i blame him.

we coasted along in the cab, passing several inexplicable open fires in the street before arriving at haji ali. there we found ourselves in a well-l313it open air market with vendor after vendor selling knickknacks, snacks, and muslim-centric items, including prayer rugs. in many of these stalls, men sat slicing some sort of pale IMG_0427vegetation to resemble a splay of petals. buckets full of these waited to be strung with red roses and mylar ribbons into garlands that hung in the stalls. the market ended in a concrete path that led across the haji ali bay to the little islet on which the actual haji ali mosque sits. along this long dark path, to either side, were poor peddlers and children with scales that, for a few rupees, you could use to weigh yourself. once at the mosque, naturally only chris was allowed to go inside, so i’ve nothing further to report.

we happened across a hindi temple on our way from the haji ali. here there was also an open fire. people were collecting trays that included half a coconut with liquid inside, a bundle of dried herbs (sage?), and a few other things. embers of the fire were scooped with a long-handled tool, the herbs were set afire in hand, heads were bowed, coconut water was splashed. subsequent research shows that this was probably a homa ritual.

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our next stop was the intercontinental hotel, where i nearly bathed my entire person in the washroom because i felt so filthy from all the walking about and sweating. i had my first fresh lime soda of the trip and pretended that the fireworks we saw in the distant skyline across the water were in celebration of my long-awaited arrival in india. we finished the day with a dinner at kebabs and kurries in the itc hotel—i had dal bukhara and butter naan and the rare experience of being cold in india. out of curiosity, i asked about dessert availability at the end of our meal in hopes of learning about what other desserts indians like besides gulab jamun and that thin rice pudding that is always served at indian restaurants in the states. dessert offerings at kebabs & kurries? gulab jamun and thin rice pudding (kheer).

upon first arriving in india, every once in a while, i would think i was seeing a black person from the corner of my eye. i was, of course, wrong each time. after my entire first day in mumbai, i ascertained that there was about one white person for every 500 indians and precisely one black person for every 500 thousand. that meant that, upon my arrival, there were about 24 negroes in all of mumbai. i suppose i made number 25.

 

*tuk-tuk is the word i knew to describe the small, three-wheeled vehicles used as taxicabs in many asian countries. in india, however, the more common term is auto–which is short for auto rickshaw, i.e., a combination of a car and a rickshaw. since auto to me is short for automobile, however, i had (read: have) a hard time employing that term to describe…well, tuk-tuks.

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hi, mumbai!

the airport was amazing. brand new. plush red paisley carpet lined wide, seductively-lit hallway after hallway, and the walls were decorated with fantastic and very modern art in creative, often multi-dimensional media. at the end of these passages, i emerged into a brightly lit immigration area. i filed into a line and worried that i didn’t have my friend tilda’s address to put on the form. the agent gave me a sour look. “just put the city,” he instructed, before stamping and returning my documents to me with a dismissive wave. so far so good. now i worried over how difficult it would be to find tilda, if she was even there, in such a large airport. i retrieved my bag and discovered that it wasn’t difficult at all.

exiting an airport in india is like stepping out onto a stage to greet your fans. there is a retaining rail, twenty or thirty odd feet from the exit, behind which all receiving parties wait, facing the exit doors. you emerge, feel the immediate change in climate from cool and dry to sultry and damp, and, if you’re lucky enough to be me, your (comparatively) very white friend pops up into the air waving to you from behind a wall of very brown people. welcome to india!

the cab ride to the hotel was brief, but the short night-time journey had a familiar feel. the handmade feel of poverty–much the same as one sees in honduras or mexico or jamaica–as opposed to the slickly manufactured feel of most places american. the mumbai holiday inn, though, was comparatively posh. after a mini-christmas for tilda (kraft mac & cheese, starbuck’s coffee, clothes, and some mardi gras swag) and the explanation of her brother chris’s dramatic bout with the law (briefly: three stray bullets in his bag had made him an arms dealer stripped of his passport and tossed into [the notoriously awful] arthur road jail; he had been in india for weeks trying to clear his name and be granted leave of the country), we all turned in. i slept a little but woke up early, as if it were christmas morning, which, for me, it kind of was: my first day in india had arrived!

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flying to india

so swiss air is pretty awesome. they had lots of oscar-nominated movies available, and i determined that i would watch several of them in order to stay awake as much as possible. that way, sixteen hours of travel across two days and ten time zones would leave me so exhausted that my nighttime arrival in india would see me sleeping along with everyone else (and thusly not having to overcome a jetlag issue).

on the flight to zurich, i sat between kristen and matt, who turned out to both be environmental scientists. she is doing her ph.d. at berkeley (forestry something or another), and he is a 6’5″ french scientist living in north carolina and working at syngenta(?). they had so much in common—and neither was wearing a ring—so i hoped to add on to my small collection of intros that led to lasting marriage by getting each one’s name and introducing them. after that, they talked over me at length about science-y stuff like GMOs; i tuned out, only chiming back in to suggest that they exchange cards before parting ways. they agreed to, but i didn’t see it happen. ah, well. “dallas buyers club” and “gravity” were excellent movies.

the flight out of zurich saw a changeover from, say, four black people on the plane to one. yours truly. sole negro. there was a cherubic little indian girl in the row next to me, maybe two years old. sometimes her parents would let her move around in the aisle a bit, and sometimes we would make eye contact. she would spend several unflinching seconds regarding me—five seconds, ten seconds—with no expression, and then her face would open into the most heartwarming, delighted smile. then she would tuck it back in and repeat the process. other than that, the only thing of note was when i looked over and noticed that her father had selected “12 years a slave” as his in-flight movie. i’m sure it had nothing to do with me (well, maybe not), but i was touched either way. as the lone african american on the plane, i thought it was nice that he would take an interest in the plight of my people.

swiss air fed us several times, including a dinner of indian food. i slept a couple of hours, watched “frozen,” read an entire book (the absolutely true diary of a part-time indian), and then…I WAS IN INDIA.

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index

skull and bone gang

my favorite part of my first mardi gras day was the very beginning. i had set my clock for about 5am, but i didn’t make it up until closer to 5:30. still pretty early, but not early enough. by the time i had showered, bundled up in my mardi gras uniform (two pairs of long johns under my pants, a thermal top under my shirt and sweater, my down coat, a scarf, and some gloves), heated up my breakfast, and headed out alone into the cold, quiet streets, it was already past 6am, and i was already too late to catch the mardi gras indians.

i had been informed that at least one tribe would be setting out from tremé’s backstreet cultural museum at 6am, and i was hoping to knock seeing indians off my mardi gras to-do list right from the get-go. as it turned out, even if i had been on time i would have missed them; as i later discovered, they actually left around 5:30. i guess next year they’ll have the museum tell people 5:30am and actually leave at 5. hmph.

any-hoo…i was none the wiser, so i sat there on a bench across the street from the museum with a few other early-rising lookee-loos waiting for a ship that had already sailed. what did emerge from the museum on my watch was not the feathered spectacle i was expecting but a more macabre ensemble. right in front of me, wearing bulbous papier mâché skulls, skeleton painted clothing, and white leather butcher aprons, was the bone gang, the tale of which i’d once heard spoken of like the myth of bloody mary or the candyman.

“i heard they might knock on your door on mardi gras morning and tell you you’re next.”

“next?”

“to die.”

“are you serious? how do they choose you?”

“i don’t know, but it sounds scary.”

well, i wasn’t scared; i was thrilled! the myth was real! the rest of the early birds and i were lucky enough to follow the bone gang on their mardi gras morning pilgrimage. one member walked on stilts and had dreds hanging out behind his mask, lending him a menacing predator-like appearance. others carried animal bones or even the whole animal foot. they used these to bang on doors or tambourines while the leader breached the calm of the morning by bellowing refrains like:

“skull and bone gang!”

“north side skull!”

“mardi gras morning!”

“get up out the bed!”

“bone gang comin’!”

“it’s too late!”

not to mention a creepy brrr-r-r-r-aaahh sound and a crow-like shriek that gave me the chills.

they stalled traffic, menaced drivers, banged on doors, and delighted the children of the tremé neighborhood, many of whom answered their door expectantly, showing me that the bone gang was as much a part of their childhood repertoire as santa claus or the easter bunny. nonetheless, i instinctively kept behind them a little bit, hoping not to call any attention to myself for fear of being one of the few recipients singled out for their one trademark mardi gras tiding that might actually have made me nervous:

“you next.”

_____________________________________________________________
the following is an excellent piece on the fascinating (and, for me at least, unexpectedly deep-rooted) historical significance of the skull and bone gang. the text, along with excellent accompanying photographs, can be found here: http://www.charlessilver.com/signsoflife.html. i’ve pasted the text below because i think it’s terribly interesting and because i know some of you lazy lima beans won’t bother following the link!

————————————————————————–

SIGNS OF LIFE: NEW PHOTOGRAPHS FROM NEW ORLEANS
by Charles Silver

An amended exhibition text from the Carnaval Noir exhibit curated by Judy Boudreaux at McKenna Musuem of African American Art, 2003 Carondolet Street, New Orleans:


Part 2
Shadows and Spirits: The North Side Skull and Bones Gang

SKULL AND BONE GANGS

“Too late … it’s too late,” the Bone Gang warns us that death is unpredictable yet inevitable, so live right today, and they remind us to enjoy today. “Scared straight” describes the frightening role of the Bone Men since 1819, welcoming in Carnival’s dawn. From cemeteries they rise to preserve the “oldest” Indian tradition in New Orleans.

Every year in New Orleans the “Skeletons” are the first to kick-off Mardi Gras Day customs and traditions. They are known for taking to the streets before sunrise beating drums and shouting chants to wake up Carnival.

Best known of all, the North Side Skull and Bones Gang is a kind of secret society.  Its living oral traditions were most recently passed down to “Big Arthur” then to Big Chief Bone Man Al Morris and to Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes. Donning handcrafted over-sized skulls and skeleton suits, wearing butcher’s aprons and carrying freshly butchered gigantic animal bones, they can be seen waking the community in the old Treme neighborhood.

Very early on the morning of Mardi Gras Day with tambourines, drums and shouts of  “Skull and Bones!,” “Bone Gang’s here!” and other chants and alarms that echo down the empty streets, the Bone Men make their way through the old neighborhoods. They run onto porches and using gigantic ham bones they knock on doors and go into homes where they yell “Wake Up! You Next!” and can be seen challenging sleepy children: “Did you do your homework? Don’t Lie to me, I’ll know. If you don’t do your homework you’re going to see me again, tonight.”

Similarly dressed  Skull and Bone gangs can be found parading through the streets during Carnival celebrations throughout the Caribbean, Central America, the West Indies and Africa.

Some theorize that like Carnival, the Skull and Bone gangs originated in Europe in the fifteenth century. Skeletons appeared as apparitions and as embodiments of the concept of ‘memento mori’ (“remember that you are mortal,” “remember you will die”) during Carnival and Lent. Others say that the spiritual presence of the Skeletons echoes the calacas of Indigenous Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes (Day of the Dead) and Haitian Voudun’s  Barron Samedi (loa of death-like Orisha of Santeria or The God of Christianity).

Not only are they often spotted parading with the Mardi Gras Indians, they also maintain a similar hierarchy within their organizations. Skull and Bone gangs just like the Mardi Gras Indians have a chief, a second chief, a spy boy, a flag boy and a wild man. There are other similarities as well. Such ancient rituals preserve customs and traditions from generation to generation. They also illustrate the complexity of African and Indigenous cultural survival amidst New World Colonial Creolization.

SACRED GROUND

The acting Big Chief of The North Side Skull and Bones Gang, Big Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, described his Mardi Gras preparations in this excerpt from an article SACRED GROUND by David Winkler-Schmit, from the Gambit Weekly that appeared during Carnival, 2008.

For many New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is a neighborhood cultural celebration. In the wake of Katrina, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods — Treme — clings to its traditions against a tide of change.

Early in the morning, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes begins his Fat Tuesday preparations to march with the North Side Skull and Bones Gang.

On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Indians converge on Claiborne Avenue under the I-10 overpass. For Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Mardi Gras day begins quietly in the darkened pre-dawn hours as he takes a solitary journey to a local cemetery to commune with the dead. Kneeling before graves, he asks the spirits of the past to enter his body so that he can become their living vessel, joining his soul with theirs as he takes to the streets. Later, at sunrise, he emerges in full costume, calling out and waking up the Treme neighborhood with his group, the North Side Skull and Bones Gang, which has followed the Carnival tradition for decades.

We’ll bring all the past dead spirits to the streets,” Barnes says. “Mardi Gras is the one day we do that.”

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glossary

bloody mary

noun

a bloody mary is an alcoholic beverage made up of the following:

vodka
v8
horseradish
celery salt
worcestershire sauce
hot sauce
lemon wedge
lime wedge
spicy pickled green beans
wait…did you hear me?
i said spicy pickled green beans

dude…wtf? you ever seen a drink with string beans in it before? you ever seen a bar with a jar of string beans on it before? well, i’d never seen such a thing in all my born days…then i moved here, and it became par for the course.

“of course there are string beans in my bloody mary.”

“who doesn’t put string beans in a bloody mary?”

who doesn’t know there’s a plastic baby in the cake??”

*smh*

any-hoo, if you do not have or do not wish to acquire all the above ingredients, a bottle of zing zang is the new orleans approved pre-made mix to substitute. and why am i mentioning any of this right now in the middle of my scintillating mardi gras coverage? because just as a king cake is the quintessential food of mardi gras season, a bloody mary is the thing to drink on mardi gras morning. i haven’t bellied up to that bar yet, but guess who has…

big red demonstrates his complete cultural assimilation

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glossary

lundi gras

noun

okay, let’s review. “lundi” is french for monday, so what does “lundi gras” mean? correct—it means fat monday. and what’s so special about fat monday? well…nothing, really. it’s not like there haven’t been mad festivities going on for some time already up to this point, but just in case there wasn’t enough drankin’, dancin’, and/or debauchery to go around, the zulu social aid & pleasure club, inc. (<< yeah, inc.! and don’t you forget it!) decided, in 1993, to start having a festival on the day before mardi gras.

luckily (or not) for me, they have this festival right in woldenberg park, i.e. the riverfront right along the quarter, i.e., in strollin’ distance of my house. so what the hell…stroll i did. and what did my elvish eyes see? well, there were stages with good musical acts, and people who’d brought their chairs out to sit and listen, and vendors selling really good food, desserts, dranks (yes, dranks), art, jewelry, and other stuff. there were kids and balloons and people in costume, including a full court of alice and wonderland characters, from the dormouse on up to the queen of hearts. i ran into darren sharper’s parents there, too.

if i’d stuck around or come back, i could have watched the arrival of the king of carnival, rex. he arrives by boat on lundi gras. but you know what? blah blah blah. it was sort of a family-friendly fête, and that don’t impress me much these days. i’ll skip this next year and hang onto the $8  i spent on food instead. not that the hot crab and catfish combo wasn’t good, but man…mardi gras season sure does wind up costing a girl.

this zulu rascal wouldn't give me one of his golden nuggets. (hmm...did that sound weird to you, too?)

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glossary

king cake

noun

i can now, from experience, say the following: you know mardi gras season is upon you when the king cakes start popping up. king cake is the quintessential mardi gras food item. it will be at every new orleans party you attend from new year’s day until ash wednesday. when i first heard of it, before i came here, i was excited about it. a kind of cake i’ve never had? woohoo! then i got here and discovered it’s just a glorified cinnamon roll…and not the delicious, dripping-with-butter kind either. more like if you took several cans of pillsbury cinnamon roll dough and twisted them into a big ring. pour white glaze and colored sugar on top, and—voilà—king cake.

small parts warning required

there are two things you can put inside a king cake, though, that make it special. one is the baby. there has to be a baby. native new orleanians will grumble your ears off about the fact that the bakeries don’t put the baby in anymore, instead placing it on the side for the purchaser to insert. the reason? liability. someone somewhere must have choked on a plastic baby and the bakery got sued and that was the end of that. i always look sheepish when the natives get restless over this issue…

“who doesn’t know there’s a baby in a king cake?” they exclaim.

me and everyone else that’s not from here, that’s who! is what i’m thinking in response. any idea what the word “mardi” means, jerky? no? i didn’t think so. now thank you for performing the heimlich on me. good day to you.

i suppose at some point the plastic baby represented the baby jesus, but what it represents now is who has to buy the next in the seemingly unending procession of mardi gras king cakes. a fellow americorps member of mine was hoping to get the baby when her job site had a king cake. she did get it and was laughed at hysterically when the others found out that she thought buying the cake “next time” meant next year.

“next year? hahaha! try tomorrow!”

dumb non-natives strike again.

the other thing that can be put into a king cake to make it a treat is filling. i didn’t mess with any of those fruit ones, but i did have the cream cheese filling, and believe you me—it makes a world of difference. it takes that ol’ oversized breakfast bun and turns it into something worth the caloric intake. you gotta spring for it, though; the difference between a filled king cake and an unfilled one is a good four dollars. i sprang for cream cheese for the mardi gras party at my house, and of the three (count ‘em, three) king cakes that turned up that night, mine was the only non-plain one and the only one that got finished. i may be a dumb non-native, but hey—at least i’m not cheap. ;-)

anatomy of a *good* king cake

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