Becoming the Mask: New Orleans, Myth and Masquerade

 

NOLA01It’s early June and I am sitting pretty in my economy class seat, trying to hold back a grin. As my United Airlines flight descends towards New Orleans, I see the familiar brown, flat surface of Lake Ponchartrain. This is the same lake whose waters swallowed so many of the city’s neighbourhoods in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina.

I breathe a sigh of contentment when I step off the airplane and feel the Louisiana humidity envelop me: after living in Australia for a year, I am elated to be here. New Orleans has always been a special place for me. This is my seventh visit.

New Orleans is a city of many contradictions, and it is these contradictions which have so firmly wrapped their fingers around my imagination. On the one hand, there are the colourful buildings of the French Quarter and the year-round Mardi Gras atmosphere. Yet the sunny surface of New Orleans’ party culture is juxtaposed with dark motifs of cemeteries, Voodoo, ghosts and death. The Disney quality of Bourbon Street is countered by a multiplicity of authentic musical genres and cultural traditions, most of which cannot be found elsewhere in the United States.

In recent years, New Orleans has experienced significant upheaval at the hands of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. This is not new to New Orleans, as it has always had a turbulent past. Yet its hardships never extinguish the collective spirit.

NOLA02There is a continuity of past and present here that is so tangible, so potently concrete that you can taste it in the air. It feels like voices from days long ago are whispering just around the corner. Coming here is like plugging into a socket of powerful, otherworldly energy. The history is shrouded in both myth and masquerade, and this gives me an extraordinary child-like sense that all things are possible. This is the place where my friends and I eschew conventions of normality, and embrace the city’s carefree Mardi Gras attitude.

After a half hour taxi ride, lunch and a stroll by the Mississippi, I eagerly anticipate what the evening holds in store for us. It will be our inaugural night out in the French Quarter, and we will engage in what has now become a tradition for my friends and I. In our hotel room, we patiently apply layers of latex, eye shadow and blood gel: the transformation is complete. We now honour the city’s spooky myths by becoming a horde of shambling undead zombies.

We exit our hotel on Toulouse Street and shamble over to Bourbon, letting out a few groans. I pretend to chew on my friend’s arm. We are a unique sight to behold: a group of thirty-somethings who have totally suspended their disbelief and embraced the spontaneous carnival atmosphere of New Orleans. We stagger down Bourbon, our limbs moving stiffly to mimic the effects of rigor mortis.

NOLA03Even at night, New Orleans is hot, so our zombie makeup gets itchy. We stop for a beer or two and growl at passers-by. The group shuffles past Jackson Square where I take photos of its population of feral cats. We continue towards Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, our favourite bar. On the way, we encounter two haunted tour groups, who give us a round of applause for our “performance.”

In the city of perpetual Mardi Gras, it is completely and 100% socially acceptable to live out your fantasies in the streets. This is not my first time playing dress-up: I have in the past walked around as a devil, a pirate and in some crazy outfits too bizarre to describe. Engaging in the masquerade is not just about wearing a mask, but rather about becoming the mask, if only for a time. As adults, for a few brief days, we get to become children again, freed by imagination and living in a world of make believe. Displays of creativity and fantasy in New Orleans are normalized and accepted.

All of us find something in New Orleans that we cannot find anywhere else. Here is a place where we are truly free to be ourselves in a way that we cannot at home. While New Orleans is indeed plagued by a myriad of social and economic problems, it remains dichotomous. Where there are flaws, there is also deep beauty and remarkable resilience. Those who know New Orleans cannot help but love it. With all of its flaws and strengths, it is a perfect metaphor for humanity.

After a few hours of wandering, our voices hoarse from moaning, we head back to our hotel, tired from our long day. I look forward to the next, knowing that in New Orleans, the masquerade is a daily reality, and that we are only limited by our imaginations.

About the Author: Suze Tkachuk is a Canadian writer, blogger and traveling foodie. Since 2002, she has visited over 35 countries. She is active in the Twitter travel community and publishes a travel blog, Batsuze Geographic, as her alter-ego Suze von Zombie.

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