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Festival Mumbo Jumbo and Gumbo: My Return to the Land of Mardi Gras

Austin is a city that lacks very little. After about seven months of being an adopted Austinite and UT student, I’ve come to realize that I could stay here for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Austin has stolen my heart. But it isn’t my first love.

Louisiana is.

The Bayou State.

Home to a culture as rich as Bill Gates himself and a place I call my first home.

Story and Photos by Alexa Babin

Since becoming a college student last August, I’ve made trips home to Shreveport, LA sparingly. It seems that most Texan college students know they’ll travel home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and some random trip or two in between. Yet, for me, going home for Mardi Gras was always in the plan. It wasn’t a sporadic, last minute idea of mine — no. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion. I couldn’t miss Louisiana Mardi Gras.

I brought two Longhorn friends home with me that wondrous weekend in late February — Stephanie and Laura. Neither had experienced Mardi Gras before. After six hours on the road, we arrived in my driveway, already prepared to celebrate.

The float loading party came first. Well, almost. Upon walking in my back door, my friends got to see firsthand the art of the Mardi Gras house décor. Let’s just say my parents went a little overboard while I was in Texas this season. After a hearty, home-cooked dinner of shrimp etouffee, my mom, Stephanie, Laura and I drove across town to the Krewe of Centaur’s float loading party. We ended up taking a detour because several of the main roads in town were blocked off for the parade the next day. Mardi Gras isn’t taken lightly in Louisiana: Entire sections of streets are barricaded in preparation for the procession.

Lisa Babin, Shreveport resident, attends the float loading party. This family tradition unites old friends each year.

Lisa Babin, Shreveport resident, attends the float loading party. This family tradition unites old friends each year.

We arrived and entered the scene, stepping into a mystical realm filled with extravagant costumes and decked-out floats. The floats were huge — larger than life, even. We stood next to a float with a monstrous, smiling sun on the front. Its rays rotated around the face in the middle. We watched in awe. Zydeco music played from speakers stationed around the party, which was partly inside warehouse buildings and partly outside. People danced and drank, snapped photos and reunited with old friends. This was merely a taste of what would happen the following night.

Parade floats are showcased at the loading party. Each float is themed and the entire crew dresses in the theme, too.

Parade floats are showcased at the loading party. Each float is themed and the entire crew dresses in the theme, too.

Night number two in Shreveport — Saturday, February 22: the long-awaited parade.

The night had finally arrived and the action seemed endless. Nothing excites my senses more than catching a whiff of bona fide Cajun food and then getting to eat it. Because of this, being at the parade is always a joyous occasion.

As a college student in the heart of Texas, people often ask me about Louisiana, especially about Mardi Gras. In a nutshell, beads are thrown at you, king cake can easily be found in every grocery store in town, and you are more than likely to witness (and participate in) the gluttonous consumption of Cajun food. On a basic level for me, it’s all about the food. But the delicious cuisine is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The parade grounds are somehow magical. I go wild every time. The aroma of seafood and southern seasonings fill the air, music blasts all around, people dance and shout and floats pass by every couple of minutes while beads are tossed into the air and then plummeted down into the crowds. Mardi Gras creates a community I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Forty floats pass through the crowds as families gather to watch and catch the flying beads. The Krewe of Centaur makes its appearance lively, entertaining, and vibrant.

Forty floats pass through the crowds as families gather to watch and catch the flying beads. The Krewe of Centaur makes its appearance lively, entertaining, and vibrant.

Despite the fun, it actually isn’t all about the crowds or the drinks or the whizzing colors that pass by — it’s about the connection. As people, we like to feel connected, to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. Mardi Gras does that for me. It unites me with people that I love, welcomes me into new friendships and even creates a space for fleeting moments of friendly intimacy.

Picture this: You’re standing on the side of the road surrounded by friends and family. Everyone’s wearing purple, gold and green. Music is blaring but gradually fading while the previous float continues down the road in the processional line. A marching band approaches your section of the route and you see high knees, tall hats and white gloves that appear to glow in the dark. Trombones and trumpets explode. Bass drums and tubas boom. It’s too dark to see the expressions of the players, but you imagine their hot faces as they strike drums and blow wind instruments.

Here comes the next float behind the band. You watch as the edge of the crowd line yells at the float and beads of all colors are pitched out into the masses. It’s getting closer, closer. At last, you look up and are close enough to see the intricate costumes of the crew. Feathers flow and jewels shine. Masks, headdresses, full-body outfits — you see it all. The top deck of the float is filled with people tossing cups and doubloons as far as they can; the people on the bottom level quickly handle packages of beads and throw them as soon as they are able. The float is passing by now and you see the faces of these strangers — faces that you feel like you know. “Throw me something mister!” you exclaim. You make eye contact with a man in the middle and he points to you and hurls a handful of beads your way. Because you’re skilled at Mardi Gras, you catch them.

In that moment, I tend to briefly forget about my family and friends. I don’t listen to the screaming chaos around me. I connect with a stranger for the sake of beads and hope I come out victorious.

It’s likely that I’ll never know who I saw or befriended for those 2.4 seconds, but the feeling is always familiar. It’s the same feeling you get when you meet someone new or see a friend in a crowd. You are on the same wavelength as another human being, just for a moment.

And that’s the magic behind Mardi Gras. There’s no voodoo or witch’s concoction. The enchantment is found in sharing a piece of life with someone else, even a stranger.

As we Louisianians are known to say about this time of year (and always): “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

Let the good times roll!

Cajun cuisine is always popular in Louisiana, but especially during Mardi Gras season. Meat pies, gumbo, and jambalaya can all be found on the parade route.

Cajun cuisine is always popular in Louisiana, but especially during Mardi Gras season. Meat pies, gumbo, and jambalaya can all be found on the parade route.

 

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