United States of America
Louisiana’s Other Mardi Gras
Dressed in worn jeans and tattered shirt with loads of camera gear strapped to my back, I feel like a bore. I zoom in on a gent pulling a pair of tighty-whities over his costume. They have a set of red balls hanging from the crotch. And I thought New Orleans was wild!
The cause for celebration is Courir de Mardi Gras, or what some call Cajun Mardi Gras. It’s held in towns throughout southern Louisiana, but one of the bigger events takes place right here in Eunice, about 250 kilometres west of New Orleans.
The day, misty and moody, began at 6am at the town’s community centre. Inside I asked the friendly folk who appeared to be in charge if there was any coffee. They pointed to a table lined with whisky shots. Partaking didn’t seem quite right since the sun hadn’t yet risen above the horizon, so I declined. Once dawn broke though, I reassessed the situation and helped myself to several. Hey, they were going fast.
Suitably buzzed, my friend Sarah and I climb aboard the float we’ve been invited to join. It’s actually a trailer with a corrugated tin roof and walls decorated with 3XL underwear, and is being hauled by a pick-up truck. Almost immediately we make friends with those already in position. They pass a Crown Royal jug from which we dutifully down a couple of swigs.
Cajuns are giving people and fiercely loyal to their European traditions. Many of them are descendants of the Acadians, French settlers exiled from Nova Scotia by the British in the mid-eighteenth century, while others’ families came from Quebec and even France itself. Their Mardi Gras is a completely different beast compared to the one celebrated in New Orleans.
It’s a tradition that dates back to medieval France. The rural poor, dressed in masks to hide their identities, trailed from house to house begging for food and money. The garb worn in Eunice these days is much the same, with the body covered in scraps of material, some of it turned into fringing, simulating the rags used centuries ago. The signature hats – conical caps called capuchons – add a whimsical flair as their wearers dance and beg along the parade route.
In Eunice, the revellers trail along the back roads, past acres of prairies and shallow ponds used for crawfish farming. All along the route, families lounging on lawn chairs or piled into the trays of their pick-up trucks await the parade. In another tradition that dates back generations, many of these homeowners offer food, everything from sandwiches to full buffets, to those on the move.
The Cajun people we’re with today bring new levels of artistry to pleading. The men crouch low on the bitumen, moving slowly toward the spectators much like hungry alligators hunting prey. Coins shower down on the footpath and the drunken fools scurry to gather them up. Further along the road mature ladies seem to know how to handle the younger men. They hold up coins and command them to roll across the road like trained mutts.
A horde of eager participants races after the bird through slush and mud. In what seems like no time, the winner stands triumphant, holding the rooster in the air like a prized trophy.
Remember the tighty-whitey guy? He decides to craft a musical instrument (of sorts) to join those playing tunes along the trail. He walks up to a home, asks for a black gumboot and PVC pipe, and marches back rocking out with his newfound boot fiddle.
By far one of the most anticipated parts of the day – and they happen at various times – are the chicken runs. Mounted on a horse, Capitaine Pat Frey, who has been in charge of proceedings at Eunice for 20 years, holds a rooster in the air, before releasing it and taking off at a gallop. A horde of eager participants races after the bird through slush and mud. In what seems like no time, the winner stands triumphant, holding the rooster in the air like a prized trophy.
In the past, the chickens were put in a pot of gumbo later that evening, but today they are treated more like poultry royalty. At least one of the victorious chicken-chasers carries the bird along the entire route, stroking its feathers. Several merrymakers take their chickens home to roost in the henhouse.
Two of the more comical chaps on our float have an obsession with muddied mischief. One is dressed in a costume covered with a tiny crawfish print, while the other’s is printed with miniature Confederate flags. They dive into dirty ditches then hop back on board the float wringing wet. It’s only a matter of time before they come crashing down on me, so I curl up in a ball caressing my camera like a sleeping infant.
There is some order to this madness though. The impressive co-captains of the parade – handsome men sitting tall on their steeds with lassos hanging from their saddles – blend in perfectly. With their flowing green and gold capes they’re almost like superheroes, eager to help anyone who finds themself in distress.
At midday, the krewe stops for lunch alongside a vast crawfish pond. Throngs of parade-goers line up like starving zombies, eager to scoff down a lavish link of boudin. It’s made the traditional way – a blend of spices, liver and rice squeezed into a slippery skin of pig intestine. You suck the yummy meat out of the casing into your mouth. Sure, it looks slightly X-rated but no one cares when everyone is this hungry.
As the day wears on, the music gets louder, the lips looser and the beer – well, it’s everywhere. Pick-up trucks bearing eskies filled with cold brews provide refreshment all along the route.
One of our by now extremely muddy cohorts jumps into a ditch and emerges with two crawfish to demonstrate his knack for making creature-feature earrings. “See, look, you just put the claws next to that meaty part of your earlobe,” he says, turning his head towards me and wincing a bit. “Then a quick pinch and you have a crawfish earring.”
By now, we’ve been going for hours and exhausted revellers hop on trailers to rest for a while. Jumping aboard a moving vehicle, however, is a bit tough, especially if you’ve been imbibing all day. They pick up the pace, running as fast as they can. Some have beads tangled around their necks seemingly about to choke them. With one giant leap, they stumble aboard the trailer and everyone cheers, raising their beer cans.
I’m now perched on the edge of an esky, just enough to keep my balance. There’s crazy stuff going on around me, so I scribble some notes to prove to myself later that I wasn’t hallucinating. A strange light is emanating from some silver silos, making them look like spaceships. “Hey, y’all, I need another swig of that Crown,” I yell, believing yet more alcohol might sharpen reality.
The landscape slowly changes from farmland to a few scattered homes before we finally enter downtown, where families with young children eagerly await the floats. With that, the masked marauders retreat to their roots.
One lively Cajun approaches a small boy and falls to his knees with hands clasped, begging for money. A bit timid, the youngster creeps forward then slowly drops a few coins into his hands. The masked gent bows his head in thanks, and slowly steps away. The minute his feet touch the road once more, he breaks into a Cajun jig.
United Airlines flies from Australia’s east coast to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport via San Francisco. Eunice is about a three-hour drive from NOLA, and there is a consolidated car rental centre, with nine operators, at the airport.
There are a number of chain hotels, cottages and guesthouses in Eunice. For convenience during Mardi Gras, Days Inn & Suites is located close to the community centre. It’s also near local music venues like Fred’s Lounge and the Savoy Music Center, as well as historic Nick’s on 2nd where you can get a Cajun plate lunch, sit at the bar or catch some local music. From about AU$110 a night.
Eunice’s Courir de Mardi Gras celebration is spread across five days, with multiple parades, live music, the Fais Do-Do Barn Dance and much more on 2nd Street. Dates change each year, but the festival lasts for four days, finishing on Fat Tuesday.
Words Deborah Burst
Photos Deborah Burst and Sarah Trepagnier