Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Orleans Traditions

A bit of background - this gets very complicated but I'll explain the best I can. I will also include some links at the end of this blog with further information for those who are interested. This is all information that was completely new to me.

Mardi Gras Indians
We first learned of the Mardi Gras Indians when we toured the Backstreet Museum. One of the major exhibits was the suits worn by the Mardi Gras Indians. Many Mardi Gras Indians explain that they are descendants of Native Americans and that there were black-skinned natives prior to the African slave trade. Others say they named themselves after Native Indians as a sign of respect for the help slaves received when they sought freedom. The Mardi Gras Indians have formed tribes, I think there are 32, with a hierarchy that begins with the Big Chief, the Queen, and so on down from there, all with specific roles. The Big Chief decides where they will parade, where they will stop, and whether they will pass by other tribes or have a symbolic fight. They don't participate in the typical Mardi Gras parade that most of us are familiar with. Historically, few in the ghetto felt they would be able to join the traditional parade so the black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras with their own unique parade. This isn't one of the funeral parades but is held during Mardi Gras. I think I would prefer seeing this parade if given the choice.

Backstreet Cultural Museum

We were able to get a personalized guided tour of the Backstreet Cultural Museum located in an old house in the Tremé neighborhood. The Museum holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of things related to New Orleans’ African American community-based traditions. There are exhibits for the Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs.

Mardi Gras Indian suits are astounding. They cost thousands of dollars in materials alone and can weigh upwards of one hundred pounds. Our guide told us that some of the suits are valued at $50,000 or more. A suit usually takes between six to nine months to plan and complete. Each Indian designs and creates his own suit. Elaborate bead patches depict meaningful and symbolic traditions.

The beadwork is exquisite. I think these suits belong to a Queen and either a knight or bishop.


For some reason I was fascinated by the suit on the left, below. The part hanging in the lower part of the suit is called the apron, and this one consisted of a complete castle - I can't imagine how much it weighed or how long it took to make. 

Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Parades, and First and Second Lines

Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs can be traced back to 19th century benevolent societies that provided health care and burial services for their members. Today many of the members of these clubs can't afford to pay for insurance so the clubs help with health care costs, funeral expenses and financial hardships. There are over 80 clubs and it was wonderful to hear about the sense of community and caring they provide. I don't know what the dues are, but evidently once you belong to a Club you know you will be taken care of.

The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs represent their different communities, and one of their main forms of expression is the funeral parade. The jazz parade follows a pre-planned route with different stops along the way to stop and perform, as well as involve more members of the community. 

Everyone is welcome so we joined two different funeral parades, one small and one pretty large. 

The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are the organizers, originators, and sponsors of the Second Line parades for which the city is famous. The parade has a grand marshal, who could be a man or woman.

Club members who are usually dressed in coordinated suits and classy hats. They jump, dance, twirl decorated parasols, blow whistles and wave feathered fans.

The brass band follows the parade’s grand marshal and club members. The Club members and brass band are known as the First Line.

The people who follow behind the First Line to join in the festivities is the Second Line, which gives the term Second Line Parade to these parades.

We were pretty fascinated by all of this - it was nice to get away from the typical tourist areas and learn something new. The links that follow have more in-depth information -

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Orleans

Brian's family had a mini-reunion in New Orleans. His niece Claire has moved there and his nephew Jake, who now lives in Berlin, planned to be there for a visit. It's been a while since we've seen either of them so this was a good opportunity to get together with them as well as his sister Laurel (mother of Claire and Jake), his brother Bruce and our sister-in-law  Eileen. We had a hectic but interesting visit.

Claire's place is in a neighborhood called Tremé (featured in the HBO series of the same name), close to the French Quarter.  Tremé is not only America's oldest black neighborhood, but was also the site of significant economic, cultural, political, social, and legal events. Free persons of color and eventually those African slaves who obtained, bought, or bargained for their freedom were able to acquire and own property in Tremé. It's an interesting area and we enjoyed the chance to explore a different part of New Orleans. We took a few walks around the area.
As in much of New Orleans (except for the main tourist areas) there are abandoned buildings next to nicely restored homes.

I'm not sure what the term 'Uphill' refers to on this building, but it could stand for many things.

We spent some time at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art which has a varied collection. Particularly touching was the digital archive commemorating the 10th year since Hurricane Katrina hit. There were cards posted that people who had been present for the hurricane filled out. They completed the phrase "What I remember most is..." and many of them brought tears to our eyes. Such a disgrace.
Following that we did something a bit more uplifting when we had lunch at Cafe Reconcile. The cafe is a nonprofit restaurant that serves Southern staples (think catfish, etouffe, jambalaya) cooked by at-risk youth who are receiving job training. It was very special to have good food while supporting a good cause.
Café Reconcile, Central City Photos

Another walk took us to St. Augustine Catholic Church and the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. The crosses, chains and shackles are dedicated to the nameless Africans who met an untimely death in Tremé as well as American Indian slaves who met the same fate.

Congo Square was another stop. The statue below commemorates slaves who met on Sundays to dance, sing and drum in authentic West African style. The legacy of this tradition is the foundation of music that it unique to New Orleans, including jazz.

There is a statue of Big Chief 'Tootie' Montana. He's known as the chief of chiefs, a cultural icon, and Mardi Gras Indian for over 50 years. He died of heart failure while defending the tradition of parades and Mardi Gras Indians in front of the City Council in 2005.

One of the entrances to Congo Park had a great statue in honor of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans musicians.

More to come on our New Orleans visit once I get more time to blog......

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

John Prince Park to Pensacola, Florida

After leaving Brian's sister in Port St Lucie we moved about 50 miles south to John Prince Park in Lake Worth. They have a nice campground that we had stayed in before, and it's near our friend Chuck who lives in Boynton Beach. It was a nice visit and we enjoyed our stay.
I was up early one morning and had a pretty fun time watching an older heron chase after a young heron that had invaded its territory. I first saw the young heron looking for something to eat.

Then I saw the older heron which by this time had decided it was time to reclaim its territory.

It began to stalk the younger one, whose crest rose on its head as it realized this wasn't a good spot to be hanging out.

A bit of chasing ensued

with the older heron victorious

and the younger one vanquished.

The only other witness to the spat was this odd looking duck.

The following map shows our route from when we left Port St Lucie on August 12 to our arrival in Pensacola on August 18, a total of 840 miles. We had never been on the Tamiami Trail so we decided to take that route through the Everglades. We had planned to spend the night in a campground located on the Trail but we were attacked by hordes of mosquitoes when we pulled in and got out of the Bus. No way we were staying there so we continued driving until we found an RV park near Naples which worked out much better. We spent the next night at Lazydays RV Center near Tampa where we originally purchased the Bus. Lots of fancy coaches. From there we headed to Pensacola with an overnight stop in Tallahassee along the way. Our goal was to get to Pensacola in time to see the Blue Angels practice, which we did, and will cover that in another blog.