Sunday, February 17, 2013

New Orleans - Mardi Gras - 2013

Formation of the Organization

This is the trip with seven friends of mine from my Wal*Mart days (early 1990 time frame) to New Orleans.  We were the first group of people of Indian origin joined Wal*Mart in early 1990 when Wal*Mart was slowly expanding into Mexico and setting the goal of crossing $100 billion revenue mark (current revenue of Wal*Mart is more than $400 billion).  During the dot com boom most of the early Bentonville settlers moved towards west and settled in Seattle.  We started meeting monthly for beers and in one of those beer summits the idea to form the group "Men without Borders" and having an off-site meeting somewhere fun ;-)

Plan Development

After looking at the time frame when every one of us could travel for a couple of days and places of interest, New Orleans Mardi Gras was selected as the off-site summit location winner.  Within a next couple of days, the tickets were booked before anyone could change their mind.  There were five of us confirmed to go from Seattle and invited a few more people who were settled in Mid-west.  Couldn't believe what kind of excuses people gave not to leave their family at home and go for the "Men without Borders" summit:  The dishonest excuse is "I have to study for my MBA classes" and the honest one is "my wife will not like this".    Three other friends from the mid-west also decided to go to New Orleans and bought their tickets.  We all decided to land in Baton Rouge and decided to drive from there because the ticket prices to New Orleans were pretty expensive during the Mardi Gras time.  The Seattle gang and the mid-western gang were landing almost the same time in Baton Rouge.

Since there were eight people, we decided to book two cars.  The Seattle gang had more than 5 hour lay over in the Atlanta airport and we suggested to a friend ours from Wal*Mart (Velu) that we could visit their Atlanta home during the lay over.  Without knowing what he's getting into and with the excitement of seeing all of his old friends, Velu invited to his home.  For this mistake, he and his wife (Vasanthi) paid very dearly by coming to the airport @ 6 am to pick us up, cooking a great southern breakfast (south Indian of course) and dropping us in the air port after that.

Booking a car in Baton Rouge is not a problem but booking a hotel in New Orleans was a shocking experience.  We wanted to stay where the main actions were happening to avoid parking and driving drunk at night.  We couldn't find any hotels in the city center areas that're less than $350 per night, but we were able to find Residence Inn that was able to accommodate 4 adults in one room.  There're very few hotels that allowed more than 2 adults in a room and we were lucky to find one that could accommodate four adults.

To Do List

Just a couple of days before the departure, Ravi, from Dallas, developed a draft plan for our activities in New Orleans and it is:
1.       Purchase your beads!!
2.       Bourbon St will have the most people on this day.  The best time to walk Bourbon St. is the late afternoon until around 9PM.  After 9PM there are so many people on the street that it is best to be on the balconies.  There are several clubs were you can get access to the balconies:
a.       Bourbon Heat (711 Bourbon St. It should be free to get in.  Last year they had 3 for 1 beers on the 1st floor as you walk in)
b.      Cat’s Meow(Next to Bourbon Heat.  There might be a charge to get to the balcony)
c.       Voo Doo Blues??(I don’t have the address or the exact name, but it is close to the Royal Sonesta Hotel which at 300 Bourbon St. Last year, they had 3 for 1 drinks on the second floor)
3.       Go to the Endymion Parade.  It passes near the Marriott(Canal and St Charles Intersection)
1.       It is a great day to be out in the French Quarters.  The crowds are smaller, and a lot of the college kids leave town.  It is a great day to walk on Bourbon St and go on the balconies. 
2.       I heard Harrah’s Casino has a good Champagne Brunch.  Hotel Intercontinental has a nice brunch as well.
3.       Go to the Bacchus Parade.  This parade will pass right in front of the Marriott. 

Atlanta Lay Over

The flight from Seattle to Atlanta was red eye flight and I was able to get some decent sleep and ready for the southern hospitality at Velu's home.  One of the guys in the Seattle gang, Girish, could not travel because of work and planned to take the flight next day directly to New Orleans.  Since none of us checked in any bags for this three day trip, we just got out of the flight @ 530 am and picked up by Velu to his home.  After chatting over the coffee for a while, we took a tour of his basement that's: cricket/baseball/tennis training area with ball machine, music training room and golf training area.  It is very impressive how he has optimized the basement to suit his ever-changing interests from cricket to baseball to tennis to music to golf.  The breakfast was very good and if not for Mardi Gras, we would have stayed there for lunch too.  We had Idly, Pongal, Vada, Coconut chutney, tomato chutney, sambar and Gulab Jamon.  Despite it being 5 am at Seattle, the delicious food made us forget about the jet lag and enjoy the food.  For whoever reading it and I will be sending this blog to my other friends who may be inviting us, this is the bar that Vasanthi set and I'll see whether anyone can cross it ;-)

Drive to New Orleans

The schedule for our flight from Atlanta was changed to land one hour after the flight from Dallas that our mid-west friends were taking.  The day before departure, one of the mid-western friends Ramesh asked Suresh, who is from Dallas, and me whether to bring any formal shirts/pants for New Orleans.  Without even talking to each other, Suresh and I jokingly told him not to bring any shirts and we'd be walking around without shirts ;-)  Even after looking at the weather in New Orleans and believed what we said, he just brought some T-shirts but didn't bring any jackets.  So the mid-western guys, instead of waiting for us in the airport, went to a close by mall to buy a jacket for Ramesh and he went through hell for believing in us.

As we got closer to the down New Orleans, the traffic came to a sudden stop and we were just 5 miles from our hotel but it took us more than 90 minutes to reach the hotel.  After checking into the hotel we left to see the parade but before walking out of the we wanted to have drinks but the Residence Inn does not have bar ;-(

Cultural Immersion - Day One

Once we getting closer to the St. Charles Street, we could feel the party atmosphere and the Tucks parade was still going on.  The sidewalks were completely packed with people and started walking towards the canal street while looking for a nice location to watch the parade.  We had seen the effective use of the ladders as the gallery stand to watch the parade ;-)   We bought some hurricane from the roadside stall and dipped into the party atmosphere.  Near intersection of the Canal and St. Charles, we parked ourselves to enjoy the parade and to catch some beads.  As soon as the parade ended, we started the cultural exploration in the Bourbon street and it was packed with fun.

Bourbon Street Entry

We were ready for next round of drinks and decided to have it in the Pat Obriens because we had been instructed by one of Ravi's friends that it's the place to have hurricane, also it's part of the to do list ;-)  It was madhouse to get in to drink there and started to look for a place to eat both the vegetarian food as well as sea food with the condition of nice seating.  All this conditions ended in a disaster and we ended up getting the food from a gyro place to sit on the sidewalk to have our dinner - Pat Obriens helped us to ignore the surrounding ;-)

Walking down in the Bourbon street, watching and learning the art of how to earn the beads from the people in balconies.  I and another friend of mine (can't disclose the name according to Men without Borders Article II ;-) ) started screaming to encourage the people to give as well as to collect beads.  For my part, I was able to gather some beads.

One great thing about that place is that there're people partying as well as some religious people standing with placards stating everyone who drinks going to hell and preaching about following god.  This co-existence without hurting each other was great and not sure whether it is case any other parts of the world.

Mental Wall

Once we reached the gay/lesbian section of the Bourbon street, one of guys in the gang, didn't want go to that section of the street.  It looked like there was a wall built there.  Leaving him behind, a few of us got into that section but there's not much activity going on in that section and as the crowd was thinning down we turned back.

Sleepy Heads

Some of the guys in the Seattle gang couldn't sleep in the red eye flight was feeling sleepy, so insisting that we go back to the hotel.  One of the other guys in the gang was cursing the guys who wanted to go back, instead of splitting, we all decided to go back to the room with the guarantee or promise from the sleepy heads that the next day we'd stay 'til 2 am..;-)  Not sure how many drinks that we all had when this episode was going on and to be honest, we didn't have many drinks today.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw the few last floats of the Endymion parade and could see the piles of trash on the streets.  By the time we reached the hotel, Girish from Seattle also arrived and we decided to sit around to talk about the day with some beer.  Ramesh and I walked to a small grocery store that's a couple of blocks away to get some beer and snacks. After the beer and snacks, we went to bed around 1 am with the idea of meeting for breakfast at 9 am in the hotel.  It sucked so much in the hotel to have the breakfast from 630 am to 930 am even during the Mardi Gras time.  My review of the hotel and comments can be found here.

Day Two

All of us were awake by 930 am to have our breakfast in the hotel and there's no breakfast meeting take place because the people in one of the rooms got up very early (because of their old age ;-) ) and finished their breakfast even before the other group woke up.  Just to be clear that I was in the second group ;-)  Girish mentioned that there was a shooting in the Bourbon street where we were hanging around and four people were taken to the hospital.

Bloody Mary

When we were ready to go to the River Walk, we were stopped near the intersection for more than 20 minutes for the parade tractors, buses and limo to go.  After having a bloody mary and nachos at the River Walk, some of us were interested in going for the swamp tour to kill some time before going to Bourbon street and after paying for the tour we had a tough time finding the location where we were supposed to catch the shuttle.  The direction that Suresh got was that it's in front of the Harrah's hotel entrance but there're five different entrance were there for Harrah..;-)

The ride to the boating dock for the swamp tour took more than 90 minutes and the boat tour was nothing impressive.  The tour was for about 90 minutes and we could see a couple of alligators.  My review of the boat can be read here.

Awful Lunch

The shuttle bus dropped us near the Roosevelt hotel, walked a couple blocks to the St. Charles street to see the parade going on and by the time we reached the St. Charles street, the last float of the parade was passing us.  All of us were hungry and started to look for a place that serves good Cajun dinner and we didn't want to go to the Bourbon street for dinner.  Girish googled, found Daisy Dukes, which was close by and had a good selection for both vegetarian and meat lovers, on top of it, they were serving unlimited hurricane.

The waiter at the restaurant seemed to be a new and he was struggling to take our orders and when he was delivering drinks it was a mess too.  The vegetarians got their food quickly but the guys who ordered meat dishes were waiting for a while and the waiter indicated that a certain dish that Gopi ordered was not available so he had to change his order.  Joe, who ordered the jambalaya got his dish, but it was cold when he sent back the dish to the kitchen, someone from the kitchen came over to apologize and told us that there's a problem in the kitchen.  The overall dinner experience for the meat eaters was not good and the omelets that the vegetarians had been good, the review of that place is here.

Staking a Spot 

We started to look for a nice spot to park ourselves to watch the biggest of the Mardi Gras parade but looks like people just lay claim to the prime spots from the noon.  After walking a couple blocks, we were able to find a place close enough to the road, may be the second row seating ;-)  While waiting there for an hour before the parade cross our section, witnessed a fight for the seating location in the first row and a cop had to interfere to resolve the dispute but all ended up fine.  The guy who was standing in front of us seemed to be a professional bean collector and very aggressive about not allowing anyone to cross his standing area.  That guy started to have an argument with Ravi because Ravi move the patio chair that was there and we decided to ignore him.

We could have avoided the head ache of claiming a spot on the road side by purchasing the ticket for $40 per person in a grand stand, yes are reading correctly, the space in a stand to see the parade cost $40.

The Bacchus parade was really grand and all of the floats were very well decorated.  It was disgusting that a couple of people were smoking while watching the parade and Sridhar was getting the head ache with the smoke.  After watching the parade for some time, Sridhar, Girish and Suresh left because of the cigarette smoke, and others were watching parade 'til the end.

Bourbon Street - Re-Visit

Once the parade was over, we had coffee in a close by coffee shop before heading out to the Bourbon street.  Despite the next day being a weekday, the Bourbon street was more crowded than the previous day and there's hardly any space to walk around.  After screaming, watching, taking pictures with some interesting characters and collecting beans for some time, we had hand grenade in the Tropical Isle (recommended by Ravi's friend).  It was really awesome to meet too many random people and becoming friends with them.  Even before the hand grenade, it was really difficult to stay as a group and we ended up waiting for one person or the other every 15 minutes.  I can't even remember how we spent three hours in the Bourbon Street that night.

Dancing in the French Quarter

We headed towards the French Quarters around mid-night with the goal of enjoying some Jazz music and even though the it was about half a mile away, we felt pretty safe - on the way we were meeting a number new friends and giving away our beads.  We found a club where the action was still going on with manageable crowd and settled down after ordering some drinks.  While most of the gang was sitting and enjoying the drinks, a few of us were dancing.  There was an old lady, may be 75+ years old, came into the club with her son (I guess) and we made her dance with us ;-)  We didn't allow any one close to us to sit and enjoy the music, we literally forced everyone to dance with us and the good part is that everyone became friends.  When we were ready to leave, they were asking us to stay for more time (and it was 3 am) and a lot of hugs before leaving the club.

Ravi's Breakfast Treat

From the Jazz club we walked to the Cafe De Monde for breakfast and the French Quarter in the morning fog was very beautiful.  In the restaurant, Ravi wanted to make sure that everyone liked the breakfast by asking us whether we liked the breakfast a number of times ;-)  Looked like the guys we had more drinks behaved sensibly than the guys who had little ;-)  The coffee and the beignets were really good and after enjoying those, we headed toward the hotel around 4 am.


The original plan was to have brunch somewhere and to buy some Cajun spices before heading to the airport but by the time everyone got ready there's little time to follow the plan.  After settling the hotel bill and saying good-bye, the Seattle gang left the hotel 11 am to catch the 2 pm flight to Atlanta.  Most of the way the drive was good but in only for a short amount of time, we had to drive through the heavy rain and we stopped to have lunch closer to Baton Rouge.  Arrived on time to return the rental car and catch the flight, since the Baton Rouge airport was small, there's no long queue to go through the TSA check.  There are no surprises or shocks on our return trip from Baton Rouge to Seattle except a 15 minutes delay in Baton Rouge.


The Men without Borders summit was a great summit that enabled unleashing spirit (after having "spirit") within each one of the members of the organization ;-)  There was no other better location or occasion other than Mardi Gras for the very first summit and we are all looking forward for the second summit.  While looking for the location for the second summit, I came to the realization that there's no better place other than New Orleans, so we need to tone down our expectations for the next one unless we get some sponsors to fly us to Mardi Gras in Brazil or La Tomatina in Italy ;-)

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