Havana, Cuba for 28 Hours


So this happened on my 45th birthday.

A cruise (Norwegian) took us to Havana for 28 whole hours.  Not much at all, but at least there was an overnight in Cuba instead of just a few hours of one afternoon.  There’s so much I didn’t see, haven’t figured out, and want to learn more about.  And that’s just in Havana – not the rest of the country.


Because I walked everywhere I could (except a short bit on a group tour bus after our walking tour), I only saw Old Havana and a little farther into the Centro area of the city.  Next time I want to see things further; take a colectivo taxi to the Vedado area, see the university and the cemetery, take the ferry to Reina or Casablanca across the bay…so much more to see and do.  And I also need to learn some Spanish, because being able to say hello and thank you is NOT enough.  I mean, I knew this before the trip but I could only pack so many Duolingo lessons into my life (and now I know how to say “he eats apples” but that didn’t come in handy).  The successful conversations I had with Cubans were few and involved much miming, sadly. But I tried and I want to do better next time.

Havana Map

That’s a far as I got but it was fascinating!

This post is not a review of anything in particular or a place to air my opinions on politics and history (I have to educate myself much more – I don’t claim to understand all the sides of the Cuba Conundrum), but more of a list of things I learned/confirmed that I thought other first time travelers to Havana might find useful.  I DO think it is worth a trip to learn the culture and history and interact with the Cuban people, even with all the hoops U.S. citizens have to go through to be a legal visitor.  I won’t go into all that either, because I’m no authority – I just did what I was told was required of me.  You can also fly there from the U.S. but there are definitely benefits to cruising (although the drawback is a short time there).

  • The Money Situation:  Yes, you really can’t get Cuban currency anywhere ahead of time.  Yes, there really is a 10% penalty when you exchange U.S. Dollars.  Whether it makes financial sense to exchange U.S. dollars for Canadian or Euros before the trip really depends on how much you’ll get charged for that exchange and what the exchange rate currently is, as well as how much money we’re talking about.  For example, I exchanged 40 U.S. to 36 CUC (the currency visitors are supposed to use) in the cruise ship terminal after going through customs, knowing if I wanted more I could exchange more later.  Losing those couple of dollars in the exchange was way worth it compared to the hassle of changing money at my bank (which charged a $15 fee) for the amount of money I was using.  I did ask to exchange some CUC to CUP (the currency Cubas are supposed to use) but I was told I would have to go to an exchange elsewhere for that.  Didn’t say I couldn’t have it, but I couldn’t get it there. I didn’t really need it anyway, although prices were sometimes confusing to me if something didn’t specifically state CUC or CUP.  Plus, if I were given coins as change, I had no idea if they were CUC or CUP.  I tried to not be a dumb American, but sometimes I am.

    Our guide mentioned that really, some people would be willing to take foreign currency but that was not our experience.  Especially my dad, who had brought Canadian dollars with him and didn’t have time to exchange before our tour.  I actually swapped a $5 for 5CUC with a woman because she said she had no way to exchange it. At least, that’s what our poor mimed/Spanglish conversation made it out to be.  She pointed to her uniform saying “when they see this, no.” So I don’t know if Cubans are not allowed to have American currency or if it’s just not worth all the penalties to exchange.


    CUC has monuments, while CUP has heroes/leaders.

  • The Bathroom Situation:  If you’re THAT kind of person, this is not going to make you happy.  You know what I mean – the ones who cringe at the thought of using a port-o-potty and would never squat in the woods.  The bathrooms are as clean as they can be and usually have running water in the toilet but not necessarily the sink.  Bring hand sanitizer.  Bring toilet paper or Kleenex and you will NOT put it in the toilet but in the trash can.  I know that freaks people out but don’t clog up Cuba’s plumbing, they have enough problems. Bring peso coins because I didn’t see one bathroom during this trip that didn’t have a little old lady manning the door and they deserve your pesos.  One bathroom I used, the lady had to go in after every person and stick her hand in the tank to lift up the flapper to make it flush.  Every. Time.  I saw a guy offer a pen instead of a peso and I was like, really dude? I handed her a pack of tampons for the guy because I heard they were hard (or impossible) to come by.  Not useful for her but maybe a family member or to sell. She and her friend looked confused and another round of What Are We Saying ensued as she mimed placing one under her arm and I pointed out the correct area and we all laughed.  I left a box in every bathroom I visited. I’m the Tampon Queen of Havana now I think. Often, the ladies have a small portion of toilet paper to give out so you may get lucky if you forget the Kleenex.   I also don’t think I saw one toilet with a toilet seat so practice your hover technique.  If you go shopping in the market a few blocks from the cruise ship terminal, those are the best I saw and even had small bars of soap next to the sink.  But always remember to bring the pesos, please.
  • Check Out the Grafitti: There is some amazing street art out there. This is relatively new to have graffiti touching on social issues and for the most part, it is being tolerated by authorities.  Google “Cuban graffiti” for very interesting articles on some artists and their work. Street art is one of the things I’m always taking pictures of when I travel and Havana has some of the best.

Like that show “Life After People”…but with people. These buildings were really something in their day.

  • Water: Don’t do it. This was the biggest topic of conflicting information I read about before the trip.  So we asked our guide if the water was safe to drink. NO, he said, not until you boil it and add a little chlorine bleach.  Especially in the summer. Buy a bottled/canned drink; don’t ruin your trip with giardia or some other beastie.

Nope, just not that brave on this trip.

  • Politics: I said I wouldn’t talk about politics, but I guess I meant I wouldn’t give you my opinion on political issues. Cuba got a new president last Thursday!  He wasn’t elected by the people exactly – the people get to vote in provincial elections.  The new president was not a surprise; they’ve known this was happening for some time.  Two different people, I asked about how they felt getting a new president.  Both grimaced and said things would be no different.  I found out Cubans dislike Trump and overall love Obama, except for his ending of the “wet foot dry foot” policy.  In my self-centered American mind, I didn’t even realize that was the name of the policy that allowed Cubans resident status if they made it to American soil, and that it had ended.  One of the many reasons I want to learn more about Cuba and the history it has, with and without the United States.

Gotta have at least one classic car photo, right? Here’s the reality of cool old classic cars (and I know all about that).

  • Safety:  I thought I was done 2 bullet points ago but I keep thinking of things to add.  I was reading an update on a new favorite blog, Here is Havana and it touched on a misconception we have about violence.  Americans are getting extremely used to random acts of violence and I think that does not help how we see the rest of the world.  I would never tell you not to be wary wherever you travel and to use common sense, but gun violence?  Not in Havana.  Crimes of opportunity like getting a pocket picked? Sure.  But some civilian asshole walking into a school or store and gunning down people? Nope.
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In Spite of Fear

I wrote someone a letter this morning and told them to be brave, but know that it is also okay to be afraid.  Later I  had several people ask me what I’m doing for spring break. I told them I was going to drive, somewhat randomly, around the southeast and see what there is to see.  They each eyed me with a mixture of suspicion and envy and told me to be safe.  No one told me to be brave but what they don’t know is I’m scared as hell.


I’ve grown increasingly afraid over the years to go anywhere and do anything, weighing the possible awful things that could happen with the relative safety of just hanging out at home.  I had thought maybe it had (partly) to do with the decline of my vehicle and that the one bright side of getting a new one would be that wonderful feeling of freedom I used to have.  It’s still gone and I’m not sure why, but I keep pushing myself to do the things that I theoretically want to do, trying to ignore that feeling of Impending Doom.

Eventually, luck will run out AND I DON’T KNOW WHY THAT THOUGHT COMES SO EASILY.

I’ve always been a prepared (and maybe a bit paranoid) traveler but this is something completely different, this Impending Doom feeling even if I’m going out to run errands.  Like time is running through that Days of Our Lives hourglass.  Is this what happens in your 40’s or is the anxiety that I’ve been able to control on my own for years starting to crawl all over me in a way I don’t know how to manage?  I go on acting as if everything is fine and planning to do all I want to do but in the back of my mind I’m dreading every decision that I make because it could be The Wrong Decision that makes everything fall apart.


I used to feel this way but now I’m not sure wonderful is not knowing for sure…

Just so you know, my Grand Southeastern Tour begins Monday morning.  Until then I’ll be wondering why the hell I think this is such a great idea when I seem to be dreading it so much.  I’m sure it will be fine and all this worry is for nothing.  Until the next time I want to leave the house.

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Epitaph: The Mighty Geo

The Mighty Geo

The Mighty Geo

(Disclaimer:  This is about my car.  If you aren’t into cars you may want to skip this post.  It’s also a work in progress.)

Dear TMG,

I knew it would be painful when the time came to let you go – partly because I figured we would go out together in a fiery crash as the wheels came off or catastrophic engine failure occurred on the highway.  You know we were headed in that direction. I was going to drive you until the end of time (mine or yours) and I tried, just as you did.  I think you tried harder, and you were a better car than I ever deserved.

You brought me from North to South, where mechanics would marvel at your road salt-corroded undercarriage.  There was that brief custody battle where I learned what “title holding state” meant, and experienced both the horror of vehicle property tax and joy of no state inspection.  The southern heat tried to break you but only succeeded in breaking a few door handles over time.  The important parts were indestructible.

Together for 21 years; that’s a long time for any relationship.  You were my most important possession. My safe place.  My escape route when I felt I needed one.  My freedom when I felt trapped.  I’m sorry we never made it across the country like I wanted to, but we saw oceans and highways and mountains and swamps and Mardi Gras and Disney World and Canada.  We were in a parade.  We were in a funeral procession.  I covered you with blooming Rustoleum vines and you managed to keep your dignity while making everyone smile who saw you. You have always been my joy.  You will be the car I drive in heaven.

Make no mistake – you have not been replaced.  Everyone knows you and will miss you.  People will see me get out of a nondescript black car now and ask where you are, and no matter when, it will still be too soon.

A water 2


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When Work is Not Your Passion: It’s Okay

I joked with a friend today ( The Amy Experience ) that I’d need to get irate about something soon because I’ve been so long without a blog post. And then it happened, simmering all evening and boiling over right in the middle of trying to get through a workout (sorry Shaun T.).

Passion. Work. It would be wonderful if those two things went together, but most of the time they really don’t. A lot of jobs are not meant to be your passion to begin with, so you don’t have any expectations to eat, sleep, and breathe them. For example, I loved my McDonald’s gig in high school, but nobody expects you to or cares if you do. My current field is not like that and maybe yours isn’t either. But guess what? It’s really okay if you aren’t in love with what you do for your paycheck, as long as you do it well. It’s okay and don’t let anybody tell you different.

Oh my God I’m a terrible person. Wait – no I’m not – I have a life outside of work that is important to me. I have people in my life who don’t understand or care what I do for a living and that’s just fine with me. I have a job with a high burn out rate AND I live where I work, so you’d think I MUST love this gig to be doing it so long.  Nope, I just seem to be good at it. Passion is not as important as competence. Passion also shouldn’t replace work-life balance.

Ask your supervisor which is more important: that you are good at what you do or that you love what you do. A good supervisor will say they want you to love what you do so that you are happy; an honest supervisor will say they need you to be good at what you do so that they are happy. A lot of your job is probably doing things that make your bosses’ jobs easier. So be good at it, but don’t let people make you feel like it has to be your entire life. You know why people like you to labor under the illusion that you must have a passion for what you do?  If you talk yourself into believing it, you’ll be more likely to work yourself to death doing it.  YES! you think – when those other shameful rats are going home on time to be with family or take care of personal business or exercising or pursuing their dream of becoming the next hot YouTube makeup vlogger or going on vacation – I WILL BE HERE!  SHOWING MY DEDICATION!  GIVING YOU EVERYTHING I HAVE! SACRIFICING FOR YOU BECAUSE I AM SO ESSENTIAL!

Not to break your heart, but you can be replaced at work without much trouble.  We all can.  Your family, your friends, the things that make you thrive?  That’s where your passion needs to be focused.

For a long time, I thought something must be wrong with me for not pursuing those next-step jobs or that higher degree or writing that article or becoming well known in my field. Guess what? I don’t care about that stuff. I DO care about having health insurance and a place to live – I’m pretty passionate about that.  But I like working behind the scenes to make people’s lives easier. I don’t need to be the best of the bunch at work but I do need to do the job to the best of my ability and I do.

Don’t suck at your job, but don’t forget about your life. Your life isn’t waiting around for you to finish running yourself ragged and it is impervious to disapproving looks.  If you happen to be in a career that you absolutely love, I am so happy for you!  Feel free to let me know if you find a job with solid pay, travel to fun places, and lots of chocolate.  I’ll be all over that.  Until then, I work for a paycheck, not passion.

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Beyond the Packing List: Tolerance and Humor at Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is not for the faint of heart.  It’s not a “vacation” in the sense that you will come home rested.  You’ll come home tired, maybe hung-over, hoarse, sore, possibly with a cold or upper respiratory infection (we like to call that the MG Crud) and with random bumps and bruises you either can’t or won’t explain.  That’s because you were having a hell of a lot of fun and forgot you were old/ill/serious/tired/a parent/a grandparent/a responsible member of society.  But Mardi Gras will also try your patience.

A friend pointed out two things that need to be brought with you that I did not think to write about in “The Packing List” but they are pretty freakin’ important:

Tolerance and a sense of humor.   (And a First Aid kit wouldn’t hurt either.)

Accidents happen.

When I say that Mardi Gras is Anything and Everything you’ve never even dreamed of I mean it.  It will push you out of your comfort zone, which for some is exhilarating and others is exhausting.  The city of New Orleans even during “normal” times is pretty weird in the most outstanding way, but Mardi Gras really cranks the weirdness up a notch or twelve.  If you are travelling with uptight people, you may want to conveniently lose them in a crowd your first day so you can enjoy the sights on your own.  When they find you several hours later and they are all huffy you can be like “What?  I didn’t hear the phone ringing!”

Beerkat the Meerkat NEVER answers his phone for needy travel companions.

There will be crowds and noise and lines and traffic and your food will take a long time to get to you.  People will spill drinks on you.  You will spill drinks on yourself.  You’ll get squished cheek to cheek with people who look and act nothing like your quilting group in South Cakalaky.   You’ll be called Sugar, Baby, Darlin’ or Honey – and if you don’t like it that’s too bad.  The sooner you accept these facts the happier you will be.  It’s barely controlled chaos, and you aren’t the one controlling it so stop trying.  It’s nice to go with an idea of the things you might want to see or do, but don’t over schedule yourself.  Go back at a different time of year if you want to do things like cemetery and swamp tours.  Do the Mardi Gras stuff.  Everyone’s got their own ideas of what those things are but some that are usually at the top of people’s lists include watching a parade (it’s not like your hometown holiday parade), having beignets at Café du Monde (24/7 you have to grab a table when you see people getting ready to leave), walking down Bourbon Street (try daytime first), catching some beads (from a parade or a balcony) and general people watching.  There’s no better spot for people watching than this city and this time of year.  Okay maybe Fantasy Fest in Key West but this is slightly more affordable.

Even people who love crowds can get worn out.  Cherish quiet spots when you can find them; they are few and far between.  We’ve all got our secret places.   I discovered one year that Harrah’s casino is surprisingly calm when compared to the outside craziness. I’m not much of a gambler but plop me in front of the penny slots for an hour and it soothes the savage beast.  A good place to chill if you don’t have a close hotel room to take a break in.  If your nerves are shot, they won’t get better until you find some downtime.

Remember to eat!  You can’t live on just Hand Grenades – food is everywhere if you stop and look for it.  I know you’ve seen those Snickers commercials where people turn into bitchy divas when they get too hungry.  Don’t do that to your travel companions and don’t let them do it to you.  If you are afraid of local cuisine like gumbo and muffalettas there is always the fallback of McDonalds and Popeye’s on Canal.  Plus, many of the bars you are lurking in serve actual food.  The second floor of Johnny White’s on Bourbon gives you a great balcony view while you eat so you don’t feel like you are missing anything.  If for no other reason than it’s a New Orleans legend, get a Lucky Dog from one of the many carts milling around.

Eat when you can – you never know when you’ll remember again.

There is no costume too inappropriate for the French Quarter.  Don’t be offended by any of them – you are wasting your energy and 30 seconds later you’ll see one even more outrageous.  Instead, take lots of pictures because there’s no way any of your friends back home are going to believe your descriptions without them.  Don’t be afraid to wear a wig, silly hat, or something you would never wear at home.  Whatever it is, I promise you someone is 100x weirder and no one is laughing at you.  Well, maybe they are but I consider that a good thing.  No – a GREAT thing.  After all, you made someone laugh and I think that is a wonderful gift.  Costumes and masks are really for Fat Tuesday, but people dress up every day – especially the weekend leading up to Tuesday.  There are plenty of shops selling costume ridiculousness but I like shopping during Halloween sales and bringing stuff from home.  Super fun at airport security!  Some of the best costumes come out of the LGBTQ community.  I’m talking Oscar quality.  Embrace the awesomeness; a lot of time and money goes into many people’s costumes as they try to outdo each other (and outdo what they made for the year before).

Okay, not an elaborate costume, but we’re having fun anyway.

You’ll see every kind of person at Mardi Gras.  College kids, families, old people and young people, cops and con artists, gay and straight, couples, locals, tourists, sinners and those who want to save you.  That last group is one that I really see trying people’s patience and another example of taking a deep breath and appreciating the diversity coming together for the season.  You’ll see plenty of them – religious groups of some sort (I think they claim to be Christians but it’s sure not how I was raised) handing out pamphlets and throwing themselves in the thick of it all with bullhorns and giant signs.  You’ll be told you are going to hell and that God hates you.  If you read some of their signs, it’s clear they think God hates everybody including women and sports fans.  Wha???  Don’t fall for it.  They are trying to bait you into an argument that neither one of you will back down from.  It’s a waste of breath.  A better use of your time is taking a picture with them and their signage and moving on.  You do your thing and don’t bother letting them poison your trip.

As my experiences grow, I come up with other thoughts that may or not be helpful/entertaining to you – I suggest reading my Random Advice next if you have time to kill.

Happy to say I know the guy on the LEFT!

I’ll admit that towards the end of my trip every year I get pretty fatigued, both mentally and physically.  There’s a lot to take in, put up with and thoroughly enjoy.  If you grow to love New Orleans you also start to feel for the city and the way it gets treated during the carnival season.  You’ll be amazed at the patience of law enforcement and medical personnel.  But in your love you’ll become a supporter of a unique place with amazing people and history like nowhere else.  (After you recover you’ll start thinking about plans for next year…)  Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!

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Random Mardi Gras Wisdom that Fits Nowhere Else

I think I’ve finished up whatever helpful information I have for Mardi Gras newbies; this is really more of a catch-all location for random tidbits that pop into my head as I am packing and planning for The Event.  Rather than figure out where to shove them into the older posts, I’ll just be sloppy and list them all here in no particular order.  Enjoy and laissez le bon temps rouler.


Just thinking about Mardi Gras parking gives me chest pains.  Transportation is probably my biggest worry each year, whether I drive or fly in.  It doesn’t need to be, but I am a worrier so I can’t help it.  If you have a hotel that allows you to park without paying extra, you are golden.  Most will charge @$30 per day though so budget for that.  If you are driving in each day it’s possible to find free or cheap parking veeeery far away from the CBD and FQ if you roll in early enough in the morning.  Some people will actually park at the airport and take the airport shuttle if they are staying a few days.  The last two years I drove, I parked at Harrah’s casino.  This worked great for me but they may have changed their rules so CALL AHEAD and ask about their parking fees.  At the time, I got my parking ticket validated by signing up and getting a player’s card, and gambling for 30 minutes.  On anything.  I played penny slots for a half hour one year and it validated my parking for the entire trip.  $4 for the entire trip, holy shit.  Last I heard, you have to gamble 30 minutes a day for each day you are there.  That’s still an awesome deal, and you might even get a free drink out of it.  But I have NO IDEA if this is still the case, so do your homework.  I’m assuming you don’t have friends who live in the city and will let you park at their house.


Uh huh.  Free map to Heaven indeed.

Airport transportation:

These days people are using the almighty Uber or Lyft more often to get around but I’m old-school and don’t know about any of that (yet).  I think 2017 will be my first try, so here’s my thoughts on the usual MSY ground transportation.  I hate cabs.  HATE cabs.  I will avoid cabs at all cost because they are too expensive (@$36 one way per person to CBD) and usually smell like salami.  But, it is the easiest way to get from the airport to your destination (unless you are blessed with someone who will pick you up).  Find some folks at the ground transportation area and see if you can’t share a cab – most of you are going downtown or the French Quarter.  I’ve never taken the bus but I know such a thing exists to get downtown.  You can also rent a limo.  My transport of choice is normally the airport shuttle, although considering the things I hate about that, a cab might be the way to go for my sanity from now on.  The shuttle is $24 one way or $44 round-trip (as of Feb. 2017), and the frustrating part of the trip is actually waiting to go.  You’ll stand around for a long time and eventually you’ll be allowed on a shuttle…where you will sit for a long time, wondering what you are waiting for.  The shuttle will be full.  There will be other shuttles there for new folks.  You’re hot and impatient and everyone will be looking at each other and wondering what the hell is going on.  This process once added an extra two hours to my trip and I was ready to kill someone when I finally escaped.  I mean you’re going to New Orleans during Mardi Gras – you sprinted off the plane and jumped up and down with anticipation waiting for your luggage, and now to have to sit on a full, unmoving shuttle is TORTURE.  And no matter where you are staying, your hotel stop will be the last one.  You’ll crawl through the FQ in that van watching people outside having a great time and you’ll be about to explode.  Seriously, the cab is looking better all the time.  If you do a round-trip with the shuttle, make sure you are waiting for them EARLY and have a backup plan.  One year, they stopped at my Canal St. hotel either 30 minutes earlier than my pick-up time OR they didn’t come by at all (more likely) and I was almost screwed.  I had to run across Canal on Fat Tuesday during parades to the Marriott and catch a cab, hyperventilating and yelling into the phone at my husband over the sounds of truck horns and sirens “I CAN’T GET OUT!  I CAN’T LEAVE!”.  I was ultra-pissed and they gave me a refund at the airport for the return trip, but I was freaking out about almost missing my flight.  By the end of the trip every year, I am just worn to the ground and want nothing more than to be home in my own bed.  By that point I have no more patience for humans, sequins, feathers or beads.

Open Container:

My first Mardi Gras, I spent half the time asking my friend Susan if it was really legal for me to be drinking out in the open on the street like I was.  I spent the other half drinking.  I’m a Yankee – I’d never heard of a “go-cup”.  While it’s not cool to be drinking from glass on the street, an open plastic container with alcohol is no problem.  That may not be news to you but it blew my mind.

Jen models a “go-cup” but anything not glass will do.


I can’t say this enough:  Take lots of pictures.  Of you, of the people you are with, of the city, of the parades, of all the wonderful weirdness that is New Orleans and Mardi Gras.  I’m lucky to have a ton of great people around me that are taking and posting their pictures so if I miss something, chances are good I can get a pic anyway.  The moment is not lost.  But you probably don’t have that 100+ person support system, you have to rely on remembering to document everything.  Although I might break my own rule some years I say always take a cheap camera.  One that can take a beating.  Attach it to your belt or on a string of beads so you are less likely to put it down and forget it.  Many a camera has been lost, broken or stolen on this trip.  And yes, there is a large camera store on Canal if you find you need a new one.

Camera causalities happen to the best of us.


Crime in New Orleans is really no different from crime in any other big city.  It happens.  Mostly to people who are not using common sense.  So use common sense like you would anywhere else and don’t let people who have never even been there make you think you are going to be unsafe.   BTW, there’s a police station on Royal Street and  they have a vending machine with all sorts of NOPD shirts and trinkets.  Go in and check it out – your support helps them which in turn helps all of us!

NOPD Royal Street vending machine – best deal in town for souvenirs!

Float Loading:

Find out where a parade starts and what time the riders start loading throws on to floats.  Grab a cab and go check it out.  It’s a great way to get a close up view of the floats.  Bacchus loads at the Convention Center Sunday afternoon and I often show up there to see the sights before its dark and crazy with people on the parade route.  I’m trying to catch throws at the parades so I don’t often notice how awesome the floats are.  This gives me the time to wander around and look at the artwork and take pictures.  It’s also way cool to see how the riders load up all their throws.  Remember that riders are not supposed to be throwing anything during this time, so don’t bother them for beads, just appreciate all the trouble they take to give us a great party every year.  If someone happens to give you something that’s a nice bonus.

Bacchus Baccha-Gator

Krewe Balls:

Have you been invited to a ball?  By all means go!  Balls are not for everyone, but I say try it at least once.  It’s a different way to see a parade.  Many balls are open to more than the krewe members.  For some, you need to know or locate a krewe member to purchase a ticket but I know for Orpheus you can purchase tickets online through their site.  Tickets generally run @$125-150 so it’s not the kind of thing most people do a lot, but it’s a special experience.  Pay attention to the dress code – they are serious about it.  Formal attire is required so bust out that old prom dress!  Okay, maybe not but you will probably need a floor length gown.  I have an orange glittery number that I have worn to Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus.  I refuse to buy a new dress each time and no one knows or cares.  You can party for a few hours before the parade rolls in and then you get the craziness of the parade but indoors instead of out with the masses.  I actually prefer to be outside but others love the balls.  Make sure you bring a sweater though – inside doesn’t mean it will be warm, especially when the floats start rolling in.  You can purchase catered food for the event but are also able to bring your own – many people roll in with big coolers of food and booze.  Mixers are provided (soda, seltzer) but it’s BYOB.

It’s not a Purse Holder:

That’s a urinal in the Port-O-Potty.  You’re welcome.

Be ridiculous. You’ll have a much better time.

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Mardi Gras Packing and Survival Guide for Ladies (or anyone really)

I wrote this years ago and revise it every now and then.  It’s part one of a five part “tutorial”.  You cyberspace strangers don’t know this yet, but I’m kind of a Mardi Gras fanatic and over the years have been lucky enough to amass a second family of sorts in all the wonderful people I have met going every year.  They are the people in these pictures, not some random crazy strangers.  Now that New Year’s is over, it’s time to turn to the next big holiday – many of us plan all year but I try to hold the crazy at bay until January so I don’t burn out (and spend way more money than is necessary).  This CAN be a simple trip, but over the years we sometimes get a little more elaborate with events and costumes…

What to bring to Mardi Gras?  Is this your first trip and you don’t know what to expect?  Expect anything and everything that you’ve never even imagined.   These are just MY opinions, taken from many Mardi Gras – I’ve been going since 1998 with the exception of 2 years – and lots of travel.  And who am I to say that you are anything like me? (Broke and always looking for a clean bathroom.)  Mardi Gras can be really complicated or really simple, depending on what kind of activities you are involved in.  But for the average attendee who is there to see the sights, this is for you.

Orpheus Ball, 2010


Think about most of your vacations, and what you packed.  You probably took too much stuff “just in case”, right?  This would be a good time to practice packing light.  Especially if you will only be away for @4-5 days, you are flying and don’t want to pay extra to check tons of baggage AND you are sharing a hotel room with 3-8 people!  (Maybe you aren’t trying to pack people in like sardines but many years we’ve made this choice for budget reasons so I don’t judge if you lie to your hotels.)  Mardi Gras is really fun and it’s also pretty low maintenance – unless you have an elaborate costume for Tuesday or need to bring formal wear for a Krewe ball.  Don’t think you need to thrill us with a whole new shiny outfit every day.  You will be using the hotel room to shower and sleep, and the rest of your time you will be walking around New Orleans.  WALKING!  You only need ONE pair of shoes, and they better be comfortable!  They are also going to get gross: covered in BUB (Beer/Urine/Barf).  You think they won’t but wait until you trip into a full gutter on Bourbon Street.  Some people bring old sneakers that are on their last legs and can be thrown away at the end of the trip.  Put some cushy insoles in those babies and you are set.

February in the South doesn’t mean it will be warm!  Bring a jacket or sweatshirt and a pair of pantyhose or silk long underwear to wear under your pants in case you need an extra layer of warmth.  Layers are your friends!  It’s up to you if you want to carry a small bag, or if all your necessities fit into your pockets, but a long sleeved shirt/jacket tied around your waist will be helpful when it gets cooler (and breezy) at night.  Jeans are good – they will soak up any BUB that might get spilled on you.  My suggestions for clothes (and everything should be able to take a beating – not your most prized items):

1.  Comfy shoes. No sandals or flip-flops! – You will get stepped on, and there are streams of BUB.

2.  Two pairs of jeans or other comfy pants (it would be good if they have a front pocket on them to hold important stuff) The bottoms of these pants will get nasty, especially if it rains and especially on Bourbon St.

3.  A pair of pantyhose/long undies that fit -like you want to be pulling THOSE up all day.

4.  Socks and undies (I know – sometimes you gotta list the basics or you forget to pack them!)  If you feel a bit of exhibitionism coming on, you might want to pack the fancy underthings.

5.  Jacket or sweatshirt that can be tied around your waist. Watch the Weather Channel before the trip to see if you might need something different.  It’s seems to be getting colder for the past few years, or maybe that’s me getting older.  I also don’t drink so I don’t get that protective layer of drunk keeping me warm like you might. A packable raincoat would be ideal.

6.  A bunch of little shirts that don’t take up a lot of room, at least one with long sleeves.

7.  Something to sleep in (I don’t care if you sleep naked at home- respect your roomies).

Your average Friday morning at Mardi Gras

And now, for your days on the town! 

You will be out all day if you are not staying in the thick of it, so think about what you want to carry around with you.  Some people only need cash, car or hotel key and some Chapstick and they’re set.  Other people like to have a camera, umbrella, sunscreen, water…Just remember that unlike your mom, nobody’s going to carry your things when you get tired of doing it.  Don’t put your purse down.  Or your phone.  Or your camera. Another thing to consider when deciding what to carry is how much you want to worry about something getting stolen.  I don’t mean to make you paranoid but security is part of being a responsible, safe traveler. Your most important items should be in a front pants pocket (and I safety pin it shut because that’s me) or a travel wallet that sits around your waist under your clothes.  If you have a backpack, can you feel if someone in a tight crowd is trying to unzip it?  Don’t put important things in the outside pockets, put your water or spare TP there (I’ll get to the TP in a minute).  What I carry around:

In my pockets:

1.  Money

2.  One credit card (for “emergencies”, of course)

3.  Hotel Key (and car key if I drove in from the ‘burbs)

4.  Lip balm (I need this at all times or I panic – I know you know people like this)

5.  Driver’s license

In my little backpack:

1.  Wad of toilet paper or Kleenex pack, because by the time you are desperate enough to use a port-o-potty or bar bathroom, there will be none or it will be wet.  Hotels will NOT let you in to use the bathroom.  Believe it. And hand sanitizer!

2.  Camera and extra media card/batteries. Think seriously about how expensive a camera you want to bring but bring one.  Oh, the pictures you will get.  These days, many people prefer to use their cell phones for pics but I still prefer a real one.  Old-school.

3.  Small bottle of water (nice to have in between alcoholic beverages)

4.  MAYBE – a small umbrella (or risk having to buy the ultra-sexy tourist poncho if it pours!)

5.  A small flashlight (oh yeah, port-o-potties don’t have lights either)

6. Cell phone for when I get lost from my group and so I know what time it is

7.  Any obnoxious Mardi Gras accessories you might want (feather boas, masks, body glitter, whatever.)

You will also end up shoving plastic cups, doubloons, beads and other assorted parade crap that you pick up along the way if there is any room in the bag as well.

Bacchus parade prep. 2010, that trophy really got around.

Other stuff to bring on the trip (some of this is optional depending on your grooming or lack of):

SMALL travel sizes (not Sam’s Club sizes) of:

1.  Sunscreen – even if it’s cold you’ll get sunburn being out all day

2.  Toothpaste/toothbrush

3.  Shampoo (if you have a favorite)

4.  Body wash or soap (how far will a hotel bar go between 8 people?)

5.  Contact lens stuff

6.  Deodorant (yes please)

7.  Any medication you might need, including aspirin or sinus/allergy pills – yes, even in February.  You’ll most likely be staying or walking near a Walgreen’s or CVS pharmacy if you forget anything.  Many people I know proactively pack cold/flu medicine as well.

8.  Barrettes/Ponytail holders (downtown is windy)

9.  Extra batteries/chargers for cell phone, camera, accessories that light up…

10. Small breakfast bars if you need something in the morning right away and your hotel doesn’t offer it.  My first MG, we stayed in the ‘burbs and parked far away from the Quarter and my friend insisted we have breakfast at this place she heard about.  We walked and walked and walked.  I was SO hungry and couldn’t wait to have a big ol’ breakfast, with bacon, pancakes, eggs, etc.  We kept walking and finally got to…Cafe du Monde.  You know what’s on their menu, right?  Beignets.  That’s it.  Sugar covered fried dough, and juice or coffee.  No bacon.  While I appreciate Cafe du Monde now, I was kind of pissed at the time.

11. Sunglasses

12. A small bath towel (if you are trying to pack a room to save money)

13. A pillow and blanket if you are sleeping on the floor (an inflatable camping or pool mat can help).  No joke, I have slept on a pool mat on a hotel floor.

14. A plastic bag or two (at least, preferably a big duffel bag) to take home all your beads!

15.  Earplugs!  To protect you not only from street noise but roommates who snore.  They think they don’t, but they do. You don’t of course. Neither do I.

16. A costume if you are costuming on Fat Tuesday (at LEAST buy a mask at the mask market on Monday!)

Masks are a Tuesday thing – you should get one!

What NOT to bring:

1.  Expensive jewelry or camera that you would be upset about losing, including your diamond engagement ring.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard about people losing their rings while throwing beads or leaving a camera on a bar.  I wear my wedding band and that’s it, except for cheap MG-themed stuff.

2.   Anything uncomfortable that you can’t wear for an entire day.

3.  A great big blow dryer and huge bottles of hair/face products. Embrace trial sizes.

I don’t care that you will see some very glitzy ladies wandering around the French Quarter, making you feel like a schmo in your comfy jeans – they are staying in centrally located, expensive French Quarter hotels.  They can run in and out of them all day – changing, resting, fixing hair and lipstick, whatever.  This packing list is also for people who stay on the outskirts and drive in every day, or are staying many blocks away!

Part of the Tuesday morning KOE parade


No, I didn’t say tits, but let’s talk about them.  And alcohol.  There is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON why you need to show anyone your breasts.  None.  You will bring home bags of parade trinkets and enough beads to cover the moon if you keep your clothes on.  I promise.  There are two arguments regarding the Boobie-Economics of “flashing”, both of them valid:

1.  It is disgusting and degrading for women to bare themselves for worthless plastic beads.

2.  It is funny that so many people will spend a lot of $$ on beads just to see some skin. It’s a win-win.

No judging here — it depends on how you feel and what the circumstances are.  Flashing is illegal, just so you know.  A caution about the French Quarter:  almost every person is armed with a camera of some kind, and the ones on the street level are close enough to touch you.  It’s what many of them wait for.  If you really see something on a balcony that you like, don’t stand there debating with the person.  The longer you do that, the more attention will be on you and a big crowd will be watching to see you do something.  Either get someone’s attention and flash, or say no thanks and walk away.  Many people will throw you beads either way.  At parades, there is less flashing going on, and there are many families at certain parts of the parade routes, so it is NOT acceptable – especially during the day.  (Of course, during the day is the best time in the Quarter – there are good beads and people aren’t quite drunk enough to be too dangerous.)  At night, during parades that go down Canal Street you will see some men on the floats that want you to flash.  They are going to throw beads out no matter what you do, and they are also not supposed to be encouraging flashing.  You’ll get picky toward the end of the trip because you will have so many beads!  Remember that there are men with cameras on the floats too.  No guarantee that you will end up on the Interwebz for your dad to see, but no guarantee that you won’t.  If you are interested in the flashing aspect in the French Quarter (which is a tourist thing) and have a mask that you can see out of, that might be a good idea.  Clothing tip if you are comfortable with an occasional flash: go without a (gasp!) bra.  Wear tight tank or athletic tops instead because readjusting yourself back into a bra is a pain.  My pet peeve about flashing that I must share: women who flash for any old ugly beads that you can get at a parade – Ladies Demand Quality!  For more on this topic, I suggest reading the Flashing Manifesto .  Read it with a sense of humor and understand that flashing is not a requirement (or even a recommendation) for Mardi Gras.  It’s not all Girls Gone Wild.

Alcohol reminder!  You DO NOT need to drink to have the time of your life!   Drinking too excess is wasting your money, it will make you feel terrible for your whole trip if you are hung-over, and your companions will be really pissed if they have to spend their time babysitting you.  Plus, you are much more at risk of getting mugged (or worse) because you can’t defend yourself well and aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around you.  And the more you drink, the more you have to… well… did I say hotels will not let you use their bathrooms?  Hotels by all the action give wristbands to their paying guests to allow them access.  And most restaurants will either be closed when you need them or not let you in either.  You WILL get arrested for public urination.  That being said, if you choose to drink in New Orleans I would suggest one of their specialties like a VooDoo, Hurricane,  Separator, or Hand Grenade.  When in Rome you know.

The Hand Grenade – a source of many bad decisions

There’s plenty more I could say, but hopefully this helps with your basic travel needs for Mardi Gras!  To see the rest of my Mardi Gras advice series, just click the link in this post for the Flashing Manifesto and that post will have a link to the next and so on.

KDW marching in the Box of Wine parade

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