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Running With the Cajun Mardi Gras

people in Mardi Gras costumes hugging and others riding on a wagon

They gather
for an hour or so
late in the morning—
all ages—
and most of them
in costume...

...in a farmyard out near Church Point, on the open prairies of southern Louisiana in a place that's come to be known as Acadiana. It's early in February, and despite the damp chill still hanging somewhat in the air the women and children have come to meet the boys and men halfway through their annual ride through the countryside at the true Cajun Mardi Gras, their  "Courir du Mardi Gras".  It's time to stop a while, open another beer, eat some homemade sausage they call boudin right off the barbecue, and dance with the chicken to the melodic whine and stridant chanky-chank of the fiddle and the accordion.

There at Church Point, the original character of the ride as a coming-of-age ritual for the young men of the region reaches far back into their European origins, and women and children are definitely not permitted to ride with them. Some may follow behind at a discreet distance, but they cannot board the brightly decorated wagons (that with their banners and emblems reminded me of the medieval gypsy caravans pictured in books from my childhood) to drive the mules, barbecue the meat, and tend the ice-chests of beer brought along for the ride— these chores are strictly reserved for the older men.

I chose to ignore these facts when the ride started back up; my daughter pressed a cold Sam Adams into my hand and called out "quick, climb on board!" so I pushed my granddaughters on ahead of me up the steps at the rear of Keith's wagon.  The two old white mules at the front jerked the whole enterprise forward while Mindy, Keith's wife, boldly swung herself up onto the rear step, grasping the handrail and wedging herself between the narrow privvy— it's door slapping open and shut as we lurched along— and the red-hot barbecue where a taciturn gentleman was turning porkchops, his eyes averted. Her presence reassured me that we might just get by this time, but I soon learned that I had foolishly underestimated the power of tradition.

As we went along at a leisurely pace through the countryside, on gravelled roads and roads macadamized long ago in something unrecognizably ochre, Keith would occasionally ride up, nervously looking about with one ear to his cell phone while consulting with Mindy about the unfolding state of things. There were already some complaints about the presence of women and children on the ride, and although Keith and Mindy hold fast to each other at the cutting edge of tradition— eager to make it relevant to the political realities of the 21st Century without abandoning the values of their heritage— there are certain social standards that must be kept. There seemed to be hurried consultations somewhere beyond my earshot up the line, and, eventually, the decision was reached: we were to be evicted, and made to walk the plank, right there on the spot.

At the time we were passing a small group of homes alongside the road, where people had gathered to watch the procession go slowly by at a walking pace, still miles from town. We descended quickly as the wagon paused, and leaped the deep ditch there to stand in a soggy field and cheer the procession on, calling out what seemed to be the traditional cry:  "Hey, Mardi Gras! Cinq Sous! Cinq Sous!"  pointing with all five fingers of the right hand into the palm of the left, extended, and the young men would respond laughing, tossing garish strings of beads in our direction which the children scampered to retrieve.

We might have been out there all day, but after an hour or so a shirt-tail relative heard about us castaways and made her way through the procession in a quickly borrowed van to pluck us up and race ahead towards town. Although it was an outlandishly enormous recreational vehicle, meant for living in rather than driving, and filled with a technology that made the dashboard resemble an airliner's, she navigated the narrow roads expertly, slowing down slightly to take the abrupt turns between ricefields and canefields and speeding up past the semi-submerged fields where crawfish are farmed, as we made our way back towards town.

In town the people had begun gathering on the sidewalks— again, primarily women and children— ready to greet the arriving procession. I noticed there were few cameras, and fewer out-of-towners; the entire scene felt like a festive European city from centuries ago awaiting the heroic men that would soon return from their sojourn, like soldiers from war or fishermen from the sea. In time the siren of the Parish Sheriff's patrol car could be heard approaching as it made its very gradual way into town. Behind the car the Capitain maneuvered his horse about, his flag waving with great flourishes and his cape billowing out behind him, and gallantly taking his time with the ladies that called out to him along the road:  "Hey, Capitain! Hey, Mardi Gras! Cinq Sous! Cinq Sous!"

This is where my daughter caught up with us, relieved to see her children safe and sound enough, busy as they were whooping and waving at the riders as they rode by, calling out for the strings of beads that dangled by the pound from their arms and flew from their fingers through the fragrant afternoon air. Piles of beads in all colors grew at our feet, with occasional stuffed animals, souvenir beverage cups, foam footballs and frisbees; and if a rider shrugged and opened his arms to show he had nothing left to throw, or shouted "Sans Sous! Sans Sous!" they would throw beads back to him and he would signal his temporary gratitude, crisply saluting the boys with a gesture to his brow and blowing the ladies a kiss. An elderly woman a few days later explained, with distaste, "We had no throws Out Here until a few years ago, that was what they did in N'Awlins, not what we did until the past few years."

Dylan looked questioningly at the now-warm bottle of Sam Adams still hanging out of my coat pocket and I made a wry dumb-me face at her, saying "you know, it's not a twist-off like all the others!" and she laughed, taking it from me and replacing it with a cold, sweet Burgie Lite.

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