Saxman Village, Ketchikan

How we ended up in the small town of Ketchikan, Alaska, literally 48 hours after the close of cruise ship season, is a story for another day. But being in such a small town at such a quiet time gave us the perfect opportunity to see it in peace and to meet quite a few locals on our way through. One of them recommended a visit to the Saxman Village, just out of the centre of town – we dutifully waited an hour for the one bus servicing Ketchikan and hitched a ride out to Saxman.

In tourist season, there are shuttles that head out there, and day tours – on arrival, you pay your entry fee, can follow someone around who can tell you about everything you’re seeing, and even get to watch some totem pole carving in action. We had missed tourist season, so we were on our own. The bus driver was kind enough to tell us when to get off and direct us to the correct street – luckily, because if not for her directions, there wasn’t much else to point us the right way. We walked up a pretty quiet and residential looking street, and found the totem poles guiding the way.

Without the option of a tour guide, we were glad to find a plaque outlining the background of Saxman:

Tlingit Indian Village, established 1894, is named for school teacher Samuel Saxman, one of three men lost Dec of 1886 while scouting for a new location for people of Tongass and Cape Fox Villages. Totems here, comprising world’s largest collection, including poles moved from Pennock, Tongass, and Village Islands, and from Old Cap Fox Village at Kirk Point. Many are poles restored under federal works project directed by the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 1939.

Husband and I both had an interest in the Native American totem poles before the visit; he adores the art work, and I love the stories and myths that go with them (I’d highly recommend Tlingit Myths and Texts, Recorded by John R. Swanton for a solid collection of these stories), so we were really stoked to be able to see them in person, and all alone. The colours are simple, just red, black and teal, but that’s all they need. And the reasons for carving the totems are as varied as recording a momentous event to shaming someone who had committed a crime. But they were all incredibly detailed and beautiful…

The clan house, the centre of the village, was magnificent. The façade is decorated with a tri-coloured beaver, the clan’s crest. Traditionally, the clan houses housed several families from that clan, and also doubled as a clan function centre, and in tourist season, it is opened to the public. We just got to enjoy it from the outside, which was pretty magnificent, anyway.

After spending a bit of time walking around and staring up at the enormous totem poles, it looked like it was about to start raining again. We made our way back to the bus stop and hoped it wouldn’t be another hour wait – as luck would have it, the bus saw us coming and waited for us so we’d have a ride back to town.

A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…