Social Magazine arrives at San Diego’s 22tMardi Gras Quarter Gaslamp Parades and Celebrations on February 6 for the first running Saturday event. Although most of us associate New Orleans with the annual Mardi Gras carnival—the somber festival of worldly pleasures before Lent—the West Coast version is among the top 10 events in the US, historically generating more than 30,000 fun-seekers every year. Traditionally, San Diego Mardi Gras occurs on a Tuesday, but this year organizers moved it to a Saturday, allowing revelers to stay up late without worrying about work or school the next day. Hence, “Fat Saturday” was born.
In the hours leading up to the celebration, partygoers throng San Diego Gas Light Quarter district, a 16 ½ block historic neighborhood crammed with bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels, and Peterco Park, home of the San Diego Padres baseball team. (BTW, this neighborhood is the perfect place to throw your next bachelor or bachelorette party.) Groups of friends enjoy pre-party food like huge burritos washed down with aquarium-sized margaritas at Don Chidosor on grass fed beef and free turkey burgers at BurgerLounge. Those looking to get the festivities off to an early start will find live entertainment and cocktails at Drunk Crow or at the official Mardi Gras pre-party at Blush.
By five in the afternoon, the line outside the festival had stretched for several blocks. Adding to the drama and liveliness of the event, mysterious strangers burst through the crowds, wearing masks of colourful feathers, black lace, bone-like ceramics, or even intricate laser-cut metal.
Once inside, the celebrant found five musical stages, including Silent Disco Stage, an innovative setup in which participants receive wireless headphones that transmit songs from dueling DJs. Each station is related to a color that illuminates the headphones. The crowd dances along to different beats, and to the audience it seems to occur in silence. Dancers listening to the same station can find one another by the colour of the other person’s headphones. At a glance, it’s simple to see which station is the most popular on the dancefloor at any given time as the DJs duel for the crowd’s hearts and feet.
As they walk from stage to stage, listening to DJs including Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys, stopping for kebabs, beignets, and neon drinks in plastic cups, or in and out of the bars and restaurants that line the streets, pleasure-seekers admire the gorgeous Queen of Samba from Mardi Gras. Throughout the night, these beauties dance tirelessly on pedestals, decked out in colourful bejeweled costumes and elaborate giant feather headdresses, and searching like tropical birds of paradise.
Local artists perch on a small stage like an island in a sea of people, capturing the scene alive on canvas in real time. Body painters practice their art on the lucky guests’ bare skin. Weird characters on stage join the crowd, performing exaggerated jumps and dance moves. The human gyroscope rotates in a huge glowing circle. As the clock approaches nine, the roosters line up to watch Big Easy Paradewith scores of revelers finding perches in the second-floor windows and balconies of the historic buildings that line 5th Road. Here, some people engage in the famous Mardi Gras ritual of showing off the crowd in exchange for beads.
But all eyes were on the parade once it started, with a brisk and acrobatic capoeira performance by a group of semi-naked muscular men. Behind them is a dancing wall of feathered samba queens, followed by diverse floats including a Game of Thrones float with costumed characters. The parade included local dignitaries, belly dancers, and random cameos from personalities including Miss Middle East 2015, Elona Brando. Then, in a tribute to southern California popular culture, the flamboyant show lowriders equipped with hydraulics processed on the way, jump and fall to please the audience. Parade observers cheered and waved, competing for the colourful strings of necklaces thrown by the entertainers. Beads flew, trumpets sounded, and drums beat with a primal boom.
After the parade, rainbow confetti showered the scene, and thousands of joyful, undulating guests poured down the street, heading Bone-n-Harmony Thugs on the King Club stage. After more than seven hours, the festivities continued with an after-party that was held at Thin rooffeaturing live music from Cassie B Project. From start to finish, the night was crammed with the joy and expectations—sexy, wild, and magical—of a grown-up circus.
After trying Mardi Gras in San Diego, where will the joy makers go next time? Other Mardi Gras destinations you may not have considered include Barranquilla, Colombia; George Town, Cayman Islands and Port of Spain. As they say at Mardi Gras, Laissez les bons temps rouler! And remember your mask.