Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Let the good times roll! I just came from New Orleans with the LSU biochem lab to watch the climax of Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. In medieval Europe especially in France, fasting began on Ash Wednesday. The day before is the last time people could feast, eat meat especially pork and hence the day is known as Fat Tuesday or in French "Mardi Gras". In England and the Commonwealth, the day is known Shrove Tuesday. In Pre-Reformation England, the English used to "shrive" or go to confession on that day and eat pancakes. Another name for this day is Pancake Tuesday.

In the Philippines, we don't have a celebration on this day. Our Mardi Gras are really celebrated for the feast of the Holy Child, so we have Sinulog, Dinagyang and their variants. Iberian Catholicism frowned on excess and emphasized penance unlike its Gallic counterpart. But according to historian Ambeth Ocampo, Manila had a carnival on Mardi Gras and this was controversial at times since some of the activities offended Catholic sensibilities. World War II ended this tradition and so the Manila Carnival is only a historical note.

New Orleans Mardi Gras parades are the ones that vistors come to watch. More than a hundred thousand people come to the parades on Fat Tuesday. The whole Mardi Gras week may attract a million tourists to the city, thereby boosting its economy. On the parade route are numerous Cafe du Wheels and a corn dog and a drink can cost up to 10 dollars. Since most people will end up hungry after the revelry, the vendors will make a killing on that day.

The krewes or clubs organize the parades. The more famous of them are the Zulu and Rex krewes. The Zulus are composed of mainly African-Americans and the Rex are composed of Americans of European ancestry. There are about 60 krewes in the city and during the rest of the year, they are into charitable activities.

As we all know, New Orleans was ground zero for Katrina. The scars are still there. Along Charles Street, there are many buildings that are for sale. Some tall glass office towers remain boarded up. While the Superdome has been renovated, the rest of the city has an air of decay.

A local told me that the city lost 200,000 of its citizens after Katrina. They have moved out.

Wars have brought the same destruction to other cities. But there was a determination to rebuild. In New Orleans the citoyen has the same determination but he/she finds it increasingly difficult to do so. For example insurance companies have found all sorts of loopholes not to pay claims to affected parties. Even Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's move to the city hardly inspires confidence.

And so this is the context that 2007 Mardi Gras is played out. It is really a grand party of defiance showing that New Orleans is still above the water. I cannot but raise my glass to the citizens of this most charming of American cities.

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