For Joseph Barth III, the trip to the 19th annual Festival of American Folklife was a difficult one. His huge papier-ma che' Mardi Gras float, a Brazilian water goddess, was stopped on the highway by Georgia police.

"I think it was too wide for regulations," Barth said.

For palmetto weaver Elvira Kidder, who says her hats have lasted decades, the trip from Arnaudville, La., was pleasant. Smithsonian officials arranged her flight and dormitory accommodations in Georgetown.

And for kolom painter Piohammal Nagarajan, the trip was convenient. Smithsonian officials thought they'd have to go to India to find someone with Nagarajan's skill, but they found her in Rockville, where she makes floor paintings, designed for Hindu worship, every morning at the threshold of her house.

They arrived at the Mall yesterday, along with hundreds of other representatives of India and Louisiana, to kick off the first day of a two-week festival celebrating their respective cultures.

"It's a family inheritance," said Azzie Roland, who was chewing tobacco, whittling some split oak and making a basket. A retired steelworker who returned to Marion, La., after 30 years, he took up basket making just five years ago, recalling his father's technique. Now he's teaching his grandchildren.

For David Allen, a Homer, La., native who has been making walking sticks for 50 years, the culture demands finding a piece of hickory, cedar or maple oak with "a future" to it -- a shape that will yield an attractive design. He displayed a snake wrapped around a stick ($65) and was working on a pelican-stick.

"I started out when I was 5," Allen said. "I was a country kid and I had a pocketknife."

As the artisans talked, whittled and weaved, musicians filled the Mall with sounds of urban gospel, river blues and New Orleans jazz. There was food, too -- catfish fried in a peppery batter, hush puppies and gumbo.

"It's good, but there isn't much of it for $3," said Debra Roush, on her lunch break from the Department of Energy.

At the other end of the Mall, a juggler was sticking a bicycle spoke through his nose and out of his mouth while two street performers impersonating white monkeys threatened to lick the faces of onlookers -- all part of an Indian "mela," or fair. Most acts needed no translation to draw laughter from observers.

The white monkeys are two of Indian theater director Probir Guha's most popular street performers. "They're the best of the lot," he said as one of the actors stuck a cigarette in his nose and blew the smoke out of his mouth. As they nimbly pounced from person to person, milking laughs, their stringy tails dangled behind them.

Anjaniputhra, the juggler, started performing in circuses in India when he was 7. Now 22 and married, he said he earns a good living from weddings and parties. He juggled swords, occasionally swallowed one and, after throwing a round, 10-pound rock in the air, caught it on his elbow.

When he signaled to the audience that he would catch the rock on his head the next time, the crowd urged him not to. He threw the rock up and, at the last minute, stepped out of the way, laughing.