Tuesday, March 27, 2012

New Orleans Trip, part 7

Feb 14
This was my last full day in New Orleans, I was flying home on the 15th. Finally on this day, the weather returned to what it was the week before I arrived. Tuesday the 14th it was a gorgeous sunny day in the 70's, with beautiful clear blue skies. Everyone was out and about in t-shirts and sleeveless shirts, enjoying the warmth after the frigid weekend! THIS is the weather I had packed for! I definitely wanted to spend the day outdoors, so I decided to go to the Audubon zoo.

The zoo is one attraction that was not in close walking distance to the French Quarter and the Business district. It's located in a large park on the western side of the city. So I would need to get there by bus.

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The red line is the bus and streetcar routes and the blue line is where I walked.

I started by taking the St. Charles streetcar line, which is the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world! I got the day pass for $3.00 which is good for unlimited rides all day on any New Orleans bus line, this is the best deal when you will be getting on and off or transferring. You can ride this streetcar all the way to the park, but I decided to get off on Washington avenue in the Garden District, so I could see some of the mansions and the Lafayette Cemetery.

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Lafayette Cemetery number 1 is laid out much more orderly and graceful than St. Louis cemetery number 1. The tombs are arranged in wide avenues, with trees lining them, so it really feels like a miniature city.

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While I was there, I saw a skywriter who spelled out "You + God = :)"
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Then I continued walking down Washington to Magazine street, where I caught the Magazine street bus. This bus line also goes to the Audubon park and stops closer to the zoo than the St. Charles streetcar.
By the time I got to the zoo it was around noon and it was really warm! This is good news because all the animals were out soaking up the sun. This zoo only has animals from warm places like Africa, the Amazon, etc. It doesn't have polar bears or other cold climate animals. So I just know, that if I had come to the zoo during the cold snap, all the animals would have been in their indoor heated enclosures and there would be nothing to see.
But on this gorgeous day, lions were out sunbathing
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white tigers were out sunbathing
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pink flamingos were out sunbathing
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red foxes were out sunbathing
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turtles were out sunbathing
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alligators were out sunbathing
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everyone except for the white Leucistic alligators, who have to stay indoors so they don't get a sunburn!
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In the great apes area, the gorillas area was right across from the orangutans area. The male silverback gorilla and the daddy orangutan were having a staring contest!

Are you lookin at me??
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I'm look at YOU!
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The baby orangutan wanted his dad to play, this is the cutest thing EVER.

The best place to eat in the zoo is the Cypress Knee cafe in the Louisiana Swamp habitat area. Don't eat at the main food court area, go to the swamp exhibit in the very back corner of the zoo. It's got a big covered shady deck with ROCKING CHAIRS, seriously! You can order your food and a cold drink and enjoy it in a big comfy rocking chair overlooking a swamp full of alligators! And there is awesome cajun music playing! I could have sat there all day it was so relaxing and nice.

When the zoo closed, I took the Magazine street bus back to what I call "The Hipster Quarter". There is a stretch of Magazine street uptown that has lots of little indie boutiques, shops, bars and restaurants. i got off the bus at Magazine and Louisiana street and just walked for a bit, exploring.
I was drawn to this gorgeous little sweet shop called Sucre. It was very crowded because this was Valentines day, so all the forgetful frantic men were in there buying last minute gifts for their ladies!
They also had Mardi Gras King Cake, which was voted the best King Cake in all New Orleans.
I bought a little valentine gift for myself, a box of beautiful, jewel-like Macaroons.
The flavors I got were: Hazelnut, pecan, salted caramel, almond, pistachio, chocolate, and chocolate-covered. I didn't try them until I got home (aren't you proud of my willpower?) and they were all just delicious. My favorites were the salted caramel and the chocolate-covered. This shop is a must if you are exploring Magazine street, and the packaging is so pretty I saved the box and the shopping bag!

For dinner I ended up eating at Joey K's. I got an Abita Fall Fest beer which was very good. I also recommend the apple cobbler a la mode!

After dinner I caught the Magazine street bus back to the business district, and from there it was a short walk back to my hotel.
Then I started packing and trying to figure out how much of the beads and throws I would be able to cram in my bag to take home!
Luckily my flight going home was not as early as the one going to N.O., so I was able to get a good sleep, and the next morning have breakfast at IHOP on Canal street, and do a little last minute souvenir shopping before I had to catch the bus for the airport.

On the flight home, I sat next to a woman who lives in Sonoma (north of San Francisco) and we were chatting about the similarities between New Orleans and San Francisco. She mentioned that both cities are a food lovers paradise, but in New Orleans restaurants everyone is so FRIENDLY and warm to you! I guess that is what they call southern hospitality. You won't see that in San Francisco restaurants very often, it seems like servers here are a bit standoffish or act like they don't want to be there. That is something California restaurants could learn from NOLA... we got the food part nailed, but we could work on the service and the attitude.

I had an awesome time in New Orleans, I just fell in love with the architecture and in the weeks since I have been home, I find myself thinking about the city often. Even having random fantasies about living there, although I know I could not tolerate the heat for at least 4 months of the year. Oh well, maybe if I ever win the lottery, I could buy a little shotgun house and just spend the winters there!

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Orleans Trip, part 6

Monday, Feb 13
Monday the weather started warming up again. It was in the 60's which was such a relief. I had made plans to go on a plantation tour at Oak Alley Plantation. There are a handful of plantations near New Orleans that have tours, but I picked Oak Alley because of the landscaping on the grounds.

I walked to the Grey Line Tours building on the riverfront to catch the tour bus.
The red line shows my path for Monday.

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This map shows the location of Oak Alley Plantation upriver from New Orleans
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You have probably seen this plantation in movies, it's been in a lot of movies because of the amazing trees, such as Interview with a Vampire.

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These magnificent live oak trees are almost 300 years old, but the plantation and house are only 173 years old. The trees were actually planted a long time before any house ever stood here! No one knows who planted the trees or why. (they are definitely planted by a person, because they are all lined up in perfect pairs for 1/4 of a mile. ) These trees are mysterious and magical! Walking underneath their arched branches is an amazing experience.
You would imagine that the trees were planted to highlight the house, but it was the other way around. The house was built at the end of the alley of oaks, which were already large and mature in 1839 when the house was built.

The plantation house is beautiful but it's not actually that large. It looks bigger than it really is, because it has 13 foot wide verandas on all 4 sides. The footprint of the house is much bigger than the actual indoor space. The wide verandas are to make sure that direct sun never strikes the walls of the house, and keeps it much cooler inside.

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It's only got 4 bedrooms upstairs, and a parlor, dining room, study and butlers pantry downstairs. (for fire safety, the kitchen was always a separate building in those days, not attached to the house)
There used to be some additional "bachelor houses" for the sons of the original owner, but they are not there anymore. The old kitchen was turned into a garage and has some nice antique cars in it.

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The slave quarters are not there anymore but they are being rebuilt. I think some of the other plantations do have slave cabins, but I doubt if they are original. They are probably reconstructions, because the slave cabins just were not built very sturdy like the big houses. They were shacks so I don't think they could survive for 170 years. The main house has brick walls 16 inches thick, in comparison!
They did have a display that showed a slave "inventory" from 1848, as well as the dollar value of each person.

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The slaves all had French names because the original owner was French.
Oak Alley was a sugarcane plantation and I think sugarcane was one of the most backbreaking crops to grow and harvest before the invention of tractors and whatnot. Cotton was hard too but I think cane was the worst. Seeing the names and ages of these people, and then a dollar value, really reminds you of the ugly side of this history. The house is beautiful but it could only exist through the suffering of so many people. But then the same is true of any historical building, when I visit old churches in Europe, I can't help but think of the Spanish Inquisition! When I visit castles, I think about how the peasants lived.

The tour guide was an older gentleman named Tom (all the guides wear period costumes) who was wonderful to listen to, he had a real French-creole accent. Very different from most Southern accents, it has such a debonair lilt to it. He told a lot of great stories, including about the descendant of the original owner. After the civil war, the family lost their fortune, so by the 1960's, the descendant was just an average working joe. He married into the Fernandez family who owns Cafe du Monde, and then his son helped expand Cafe du Monde into the worldwide business it is today (selling the coffee and beignet mixes all over the country).

The plantation also has a restaurant and gift shop, and a historically accurate working blacksmith shop.

After I got back to the city, I had an early dinner at Ralph & Kacoos and had a sidecar, to make a little change from beer.

After that I went to have a massage at Serenity Spa in the J.W. Marriott hotel. I had the 60 minute swedish massage plus 20 minute foot massage. My feet needed it more than anything! I am a work-from-home couch potato desk jockey, so all the walking this week had really been rough on my feet. This was the first professional massage I've ever had so I don't have much to compare it to, but it was very relaxing and made my sore muscles feel much better. I wish I could have had that foot massage every night on the trip!
In my regular life, I would probably benefit from a neck, shoulder and upper back massage on a regular basis. I sit at the computer all day and have terrible posture at my desk, so I often get soreness in my rhomboids and trapezoids. (especially on the right side because that's my mouse hand)

So after a good dinner, cocktail and massage, I'm sure you can guess I went strait back to the hotel and had a great night's sleep!

Today's musical selection is Muddy Waters - Louisiana Blues

I'm goin down to Louisiana, baby behind the sun
(aw, take me wit you man, when you go!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

New Orleans Trip, part 5

Sunday Feb 12
For Sunday, I had plans to go over to a costume sale in the Fauborg Marigny district, because I have an internet acquaintance who lives in New Orleans and she was going to be hanging out there, so we had loose plans to possibly meet up. There was also going to be a small parade that afternoon in the French Quarter, the Krewe of Barkus which is DOGGIES IN COSTUMES!
I love dogs and I love costumes, so what could be more fun?

The first thing I did Sunday morning was to buy a warm knit hat. It was another COLD day, and I decided to cave in and buy a hat. I hated to do it because I knit, so I have a million beautiful handmade hats. But they were all at home! I didn't pack one because it was supposed to be warm. So even though another hat is the last thing I need, it was really something I did need at that moment. Many other tourists were apparently in the same boat, having packed for warm weather and being blindsided by the cold, so both Walgreens and CVS were completely OUT of hats other than baseball caps. I finally went into a little menswear shop on Canal street and got a wooly knit hat which really made a high difference in my comfort.

Then I went for breakfast at Daisy Dukes in the French Quarter. They have great breakfasts, 24 hours a day. If you love breakfast for dinner as much as I do, this is your spot!
After breakfast I continued on walking down Chartres street and I saw lots of people with their dogs in Jackson Square. They were all dressed up, but they weren't part of the parade, even the spectators had brought their dogs. There were just adorable puppies everywhere you looked, plus the square had all kinds of street artists, buskers, some food stands, etc. It's a real gathering place and fun to just sit and people-watch.

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I think this square was the center of community life in Old New Orleans, the main church is here too, St. Louis Cathedral
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The red line is my path on Sunday. Click the photo to see full size.

I continued on Chartres over to Frenchmen street in the Marigny. Unfortunately, my friend had already left the costume sale at the Blue Nile by the time i got there, but I got to see Frenchmen street and it's a really cool, funky little neighborhood.

I headed back to the French quarter to watch the doggie parade. I passed some ADORABLE shotgun houses. I have always loved tiny houses (maybe they remind me of dollhouses?), and these are just so cute and charming, I would love to live in a little house like this. For a single person it's just the right side, about the size of a one bedroom apt. New Orleans has lots of these, they are very narrow because the property tax was based on the width of the house. It kind of reminds me of narrow houses in Amsterdam (which were also taxed based on width, at the time they were built), the difference is that Amsterdam houses are usually 3 or 4 stories tall, and shotgun houses are traditionally one-story.
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Aren't the so cute? They have little front porches and shuttered windows, I am in love with these little houses.

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More wonderful texture and patina

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The Cornstalk Fence Hotel, in the French Quarter
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After a last-minute minor route change, finally the Krewe of Barkus parade began,

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The parade was very cute and fun, and afterwards I headed over to the Insectarium on Canal street. It's included with the Audubon pass that I bought, and it's pretty cool.
They also have some baby alligators
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I stayed there until it closed, and then I walked out the door and saw another parade was going down Canal street! The Krewe of King Arthur parade had a theme of Louisiana culture and history, so they had floats for things like jazz music, cajun culture, the bicentennial of statehood (which is this year), etc.

Again I got a ton of beads! I just can't beleive how much stuff these parades throw, the parade routes are really quite long and they throw this much stuff the ENTIRE way! I saw one parade hand a huge 2 foot tall stuffed monkey down to a lucky child. The really amazing thing is, NONE of the parades have any commercial sponsors. You won't see a single advertisement on any floats or trucks. The Krewe members pay for all of it themselves, some float riders will spend hundreds of dollars on throws, per person!

By the end of this parade I was just exhausted. My feet were throbbing and sore. It was not late, but I decided to make it an early night. I had a quick dinner at Popeyes and went back to the hotel to soak my aching feet and muscles in a hot bath, and then relaxed watching TV in bed.

Today's musical selection will have you dancing in your chair!
I'm goin' down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand

That harp solo is out of this world! James Cotton is KILLING IT!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New Orleans Trip, part 4

Saturday, Feb 11
I love water. I am a water sign (Cancer) and I love being near water, on water, on boats, etc. I would never want to love somewhere that wasn't near a body of water, and when I travel, I always seem to be drawn to the water. If I go someplace that has water, I usually like to take a boat ride at some point. When people visit San Francisco, I always urge them to get out on the bay if they can. Seeing the sights from the water just gives you a different perspective.
So when I visited New Orleans, I knew I wanted to take some type of boat ride. I had a lot of choices- there is the steamboat paddlewheeler which has lunch and dinner jazz cruises, there are different boat tours that go to civil war battlefields or plantations, there are airboat adventures in the swamps, etc. I eventually decided on a swamp tour on the slower boats (not the airboats), because you got to see more of the scenery and wildlife, and I wanted to get out of the city for a little bit to see more of the surrounding landscape.

I had scheduled to take a swamp tour on Saturday morning. The tour company would pick me up in a bus at my hotel at 8 am, and drive me to the wetlands south of New Orleans.
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I had a quick breakfast of a Krispy Kreme lemon donut because it was such an early start. By Saturday, it had gotten freezing cold. I mean literally- it dropped below freezing overnight, and it was only 37 degrees when I left in the morning. It was very sunny and clear, but COLD with an icy biting wind. I had not packed for this arctic weather, because the week before the weather had been in the 70's! That was the weather I packed for. I only brought thin knit tops and light cotton sweaters. Even the locals were surprised by this extreme cold, it just does not usually get this cold in New Orleans, it's not normal!

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So off I went to the swamps. The tour was really interesting and educational, but I was freezing my ass off on the boat. I got to see some cool birds, including great blue herons, lesser herons, egrets, red tailed hawks, cormorants, and kingfishers.

Here is a great blue heron
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Unfortunately, I didn't get to see many reptiles, because they do not like the cold. The tour guide said that the week before, there were lots of gators out and about, but they stay in their dens when it's cold. I don't blame them!
And I held a baby alligator that was so cold he wasn't moving at all.
The tour is really good though and I recommend it, just take it on a warm day and you will see a lot more stuff.

skip to 0.27 for the music

So after the swamp tour, I went back to the hotel and I layered on almost ALL the clothes I brought with me, before heading back out to see an afternoon parade. I wore tights under my jeans, 2 pairs of socks, 3 tops, a cardigan, a light jacket and my raincoat, all at the same time. AND I WAS STILL COLD. Because all the layers were thin and light. >: I wish I'd brought a cashmere turtleneck or a polarfleece pullover!

Then I went out to Canal street to watch the Krewe of Pontchartrain parade.
I got a TON of beads and a cup from them, as well as some little stuffed animals.

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I got a funnel cake from a food truck but it was not even cooked all the way, the middle was still liquid batter. :( So I ended up throwing most of it away.
Then I went back to my hotel to stay WARM until the nighttime parades.
By the time it got dark, it was even colder, but I bundled up as best I could and headed down to St Charles to see 2 more parades. Krewe of Sparta's parade was followed immediately by the Krewe of Pygmalion, so it was a pretty long night. Instead of beer, I got some hot chocolate!

The parades were beautiful and I got another TON of beads and throws.

After the last parade I was very tired and freezing to death, so I went back to the hotel for a HOT bath and warm bed!

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Orleans Trip, part 3

Feb 10 was Friday and the weather turned colder. It was also raining lightly in the morning, just sort of sprinkling and misting. I thought this was a nice atmosphere to visit a cemetery!
New Orleans has many beautiful old cemeteries, which are famous because all the burials are above-ground. New Orleans is at or even below sea level, and the water table is very high, so you just can't bury people underground. The water will push the coffin right out of the grave! This is the same reason that New Orleans houses don't have basements, and why there is no subway system.
I chose to visit St. Louis cemetery number one, there are three cemeteries named St. Louis, but number one is the oldest and the closest to the French Quarter.

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Red line shows my path on Friday Feb 10
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I started my walk on Dauphine street in the French Quarter. I passed Carl Mack costume shop, which had such beautiful handmade Mardi Gras costumes and masks on display I had to go inside and explore. I was a costume design major, so this place was heaven for me!

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This is the side of Mardi Gras that I love- the costumes, the floats, the pageantry, the SHINY THINGS, the creativity, the fantasy. It's like a giant moving art show. Forget about 'girls gone wild' tittie flashing and getting shitfaced on cheap sweet cocktails, for me it's all about the ART. I guess I am getting old!

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speaking of costumes...
He met Marmalade down in old New Orleans..

I continued on through the French Quarter and I just love the architecture of this place.
It's got such a distinctive sense of place, it doesn't look like anyplace else.
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I love they have kept so much of the original character and texture of age.
Everything has this amazing patina that I find so beautiful. I'm not really into "shabby chic" because it's too pastel, too twee, too chocolate-box. But the shabby/distressed textures of New orleans had this look of faded elegance and richness...
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I crossed Rampart street, the northern boundary of the French Quarter, and went to Louis Armstrong Park. By now, the light mist had turned into heavier rain.

Enjoy my favorite song by Louis Armstrong! Born and raised in New Orleans.

I left the park and walked towards the cemetery, but it was now raining so hard that I was getting soaked, even through my raincoat. I saw a tourist information center called Basin Street Station and I ducked in to hopefully wait until the rain eased up a bit. It used to be an old train station and is now a museum, which has free exhibits of the history of the city, focusing on music history and railroad history. This is really a little hidden gem, it's totally free and has some wonderful old photos and memorabilia from the early days of jazz and blues. I especially liked the audio exhibit that detailed all the different influences of jazz music- african, spanish, brass band marching music, blues, gospel, etc. Instead of just reading descriptions of the influences, you can actually listen to them.

There is also a wonderful miniature model of the city as it looked in maybe the 1920-20 period?
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Basin Street Station was a great place to get out of the rain , but it showed no signs of easing up so eventually I went back out to visit the cemetery next door.
All the books and websites I looked at had warned not to go into the cemeteries alone, because there were muggers that hid among the labyrinth of above-ground tombs. They even have a warning sign at the gates
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But I was there alone, so whatever! I was going in anyway. I hoped the muggers stayed home out of the rain, LOL.

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This cemetery is small compared with some others in N.O., but very densely packed with tombs so there is a lot to see. The tombs were apparently build where ever there was an open space, without much planning or organized rows and pathways.

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This is the tomb of Marie Leveau, the voodoo queen. People draw 3 X's to ask for favors or protection, and they leave gifts and offerings.
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zombie, voodoo, gris gris, and the Witch Queen of New Orleans

The cemetery has LOADS of that aged, decaying beauty and texture that I adore

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It was raining quite hard so I got some raindrops on the lens of my camera, the blurry spots are raindrops, not ghosts!
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After exploring the cemetery (and seeing no muggers, just other tourists!), I headed back down to the French Quarter to find someplace to feed my hungry tummy and get dried off a bit.
I went to Oceana Grill on Conti & Bourbon, it was in between lunch and dinner time so it wasn't crowded. This is the best time to go to eat, you won't have to wait and you get very good service. You also won't feel rushed to finish so they can turn over the table. I had a delicious fettucine Alfredo and 2 Abita Ambers, which was the most delicious of all the local beers I tasted on this trip.
I warmed up inside and out and had a nice chat with my waiter, who had visited San Francisco the year before. We were comparing the two cities and he gave me some great recommendations for where to see music: Frenchmen street in the Marigny district.

When my coat and feet were fairly dry, I ventured back out to Bourbon street and I saw my first parade. The Krewe of Cork had a small walking parade through the French Quarter. (the big parades with floats do not go into the French Quarter because the streets are just too narrow). The Krewe of Cork has a wine-lovers theme, and I got some cool custom beads from this Krewe. (second from left)
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Each Krewe has special custom items to throw such as cups or beads with their names on it, in addition to the generic strings of beads. I really liked getting the special beads, because these can only be gotten in the parades, you can't buy them in stores.

The balconies of Bourbon street bars have people throwing beads
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I also went to Marie Leveau's House of Voodoo and bought a beautiful little handmade voodoo doll
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The mask is from a different shop on Bourbon street

After the Cork parade, I walked back to my hotel to change into warmer dry clothes, and then I headed down to St. Charles street to watch the Krewe of Oshun parade.
The rain had eased up a bit but it was getting much colder, definitely not the balmy weather I saw on my first night.

For parade watching, I went into a little deli and got a Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale, brewed in Mississippi. New Orleans lets you drink alcohol on the street, as long as it's not in a glass or metal container. So you just get your beer or cocktail in a plastic Go Cup, and you're golden.

The Oshun parade was beautiful, and much bigger than I expected.
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I was amazed at how MANY beads they throw! They don't just throw one string at a time, they throw fistfulls at a time, sometimes even a dozen or more strings all tied together. I collected so many beads, it was really fun. And no, you don't have to flash your boobs to get beads. In fact, I didn't see anyone flashing anything for the whole week I was there! The parades are much more family oriented, there are kids in the audience catching beads and stuffed animals, and there are lots of high school marching bands in the parades.

After the parade it was late and I was freezing, plus I had early plans the next morning, so I went back to the hotel for a long hot bath and sleep.