USA: New Orleans, LA

Jazzing it up in N’Awlins, LouWEEZiana! – November 2009

The linear journey on Route 55 from Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana is a pretty straightforward one.  It’s also an interesting one, and as you get closer to the coastal metropolis of Nawlins (as locals prefer to call it) the subtropical climate becomes more and more apparent as the expanse of greeny-brown waters  of Lake Pontchartrain notify you that you’re arriving into the watery climes of alligator country!

New Orleans is very much a city still in mourning from the devastating disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which killed 1,500 people, and no sooner had it’s skyscrapers first come into view our tour-guide, Mandy, was describing some of the effects of it all.  “That’s the Louisiana Superdome over there”, she said, pointing towards a large stadium-like building, “it was used as an evacuation centre during the hurricane for some of those who were left homeless”.  It seems almost beyond comprehension that such a large, thriving city could allow itself to become a victim of Mother Nature, but this is New Orleans – an area geographically characterised by water, swamps, marshland and the consequent threat of natural disaster that such surroundings can bring.  The threat of hurricanes and flooding is constant.

Arriving into New Orleans – the Superdome visible ahead

We pulled up on North Rampart Street at the site of what was easily the best hotel of the Trek – the French Quarter Suites Hotel which was – as you may have guessed from the name – in the city’s French quarter next to the Mississippi River.  This affordable yet comfortable hotel was simply divine compared to the hostels and motels which we had been used to staying in.  The rooms were decorated with all the grandeur that you may expect from the French, the beds were four-poster and there was even an outdoor swimming pool in the centre of the courtyard (a few months later, I would be reminded of this hotel whilst staying in Bali, such was it’s luxurious feel).  After depositing our bags and taking a few photos on the loungers which surrounded the pool, we went for a venture into the city.

“You have to be real careful here” warned Mandy, “if you go walking around the streets, you better hold on to your stuff.  And walk on the opposite side of the road to the parked cars – thieves tend to hide behind the bonnets and then jump out at the pedestrians on the pavement.  And if you go out in the evening, you MUST get a taxi home.  Do NOT walk around these streets in the dark.  It’s dangerous”.  This advice was somewhat daunting, but we knew we mustn’t dare ignore it.  As we made our way along the backstreets we were all aware of a somewhat ghostly vibe.  “This saloon is one of the oldest and most haunted buildings in New Orleans” said Mandy, as we passed a grey building on the right with shutters for windows and a balcony adorned with vines.  Any second I was expecting a ball of tumbleweed to come rattling past in the wind, such was the ghostly feel of where we were.

The vibrancy increased as we got closer to the river, and so too did the volume of music.  It was at this moment that I really noticed just how colourful a city New Orleans is, particularly in the early evening just as the streetlamps are turning on.  The buildings are a rainbow of bright colours which all turn golden from the bulbs, and the brassy undertones of live jazz only add to this effect.  The city feels like one giant street party to which everybody is invited and even the most straight-laced of people would find it hard to resist a rhythmic shuffle of the feet here!  One of the first sights we saw was the world famous Cafe du Monde, outside which a brass band played ‘Everybody (Backstreets Back)’ on a variety of tubas and trumpets, which thrilled me no end!  Cafe du Monde is positioned right next to the river and also neighbours the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, which in the night light looks like something straight of Disney Land with it’s tall spires and bright white exterior.  This is the oldest cathedral still in operation in the United States and it sets up a beautiful backdrop of the city.  There is no better vignette of New Orleans than to stand gazing at the Cathedral, listening to the jazz, smelling the fresh coffee from Cafe du Monde and hearing the whistle of a steamboat cruising up the Mississippi River.

St Louis Cathedral

That night we went to a gumbo restaurant.  Know what that is?  Neither did I.  Gumbo is the most famous traditional dish of Louisiana, and so we had to give it a try.  It’s a type of stew-slash-soup which usually contains shellfish, spices and a thickening agent.  I tried a Creole gumbo (Creole is the word for the people of Louisiana who descended from the French and Spanish colonial settlers in Louisiana).  It’s certainly an acquired taste – some members of the party enjoyed it but others, such as myself, did not.  In fact it caused me to spend 10 minutes in the only ladies toilet in the restaurant, which is a little embarrassing to do when you’re around people you’ve only known for 5 days who are waiting in the queue behind you.

Gumbo… an acquired taste…

After the restaurant, we went to experience some live jazz at the famous Preservation Hall which is a utopia for jazz fans.  Prior to the trip I knew nothing about jazz.  My knowledge on the genre extended only as far as the fictional saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy from The Simpsons, and songs about how I woke up this morning (WA-WAAAAH-WA-WAH!) and brushed my teeth/looked out the window/put the bins out etc etc.  I can’t say that this experience made me any more enthused about jazz but I’m definitely glad I got to experience it, as it is a key feature of New Orleans.  The act were called something like The Saints of New Orleans and they were dressed in the standard black and white suits.  I remember thinking that the clarinetist looked like ex-President Bill Clinton, and the soulful black lead singer looked the epitome of passion as she so emotively sung those words, ‘Oh Georgiaaaa’.

Preservation Hall is on the most famous street in New Orleans – Bourbon Street – a permanent party in which drinking is allowed on the streets and beads of purple, gold and green are thrown from the balcony all year round (allegedly only at the good-looking people, but I managed to get some so that means that anybody can!).  This ritual descends from the festival of Mardi Gras which takes place each Lent and is central to the New Orleans tourist industry, attracting partygoers from all over the world.  After the jazz concert we went to a couple of bars and listened to some live music.  Whilst walking there a musical procession went through the streets in aid of somebody’s wedding.  New Orleans is definitely not the place you’d go to for some ‘quiet time’ but it’s definitely a ‘good time’ and we all enjoyed a few drinks – we had to – we were in New Orleans, a lively, ‘inyourface’ place where aged men pay young women to dance with them, stuffing dollar bills down their boobs in the openness of the dancefloor whilst everybody else dances on around them.

Jazzing it up

The next day it was raining and we were overcome by the smell of wet leaves.  Much of New Orleans used to be a plantation, and the city is full of many different types of tree including palms and cypress trees.  In some areas the city seems reminiscent of a time where man has long been extinct and vegetation has become way overgrown, but it also feels fresh and with the coastal breeze coming in from the lakes and the gulf of Mexico, New Orleans is like one giant, open-air botanical experience.

The leafy streets of Nawlins

Awaiting breakfast in Cafe du Monde

We had our breakfast outdoors at Cafe du Monde and sampled the famous French-style beignets (VERY sugary doughnuts.  Don’t eat with gloves on).  It was a great experience although the service was very laid back as illustrated by the relaxed way in which our waitress happily sipped her coffee whilst taking our order.  We spent the next few hours wandering around the city and ventured into the neighbouring Garden District via the famous St Charles Streetcars which traveled along grassy verges in the middle of the wide streets.  Whilst exploring, we came across the Lafayette Cemetery, the tombs of which are above ground.  They say that this is because the water-table in New Orleans is so high that it can sometimes ‘push’ coffins from out of the ground.  Encasing them in a stone tomb above ground prevents the likelihood of this and also means that multiple family members can be buried together.  It gives the cemeteries a truly haunting vibe and they are often referred to as ‘cities of the dead’.  I felt a strange snap in my stomach when I first entered and couldn’t venture in too far, but I got a photo at least!

Above-ground cemetery

We spent the next couple of hours doing decidedly ‘non’ New Orleans-related things – namely going to McDonalds and looking for a place to cash travelers cheques.  It was hard-going – the emphasis of New Orleans is on jazz and parties, not conveniences.  By the end of the trek within a Trek, Vicky and I were more than happy to jump into the outdoor pool at the hotel and swim off the stress of “fucking travelers cheques!!” in the rain before getting ready for our second evening in New Orleans.

That night a few of us went for dinner at the famous ACME Oyster House.  Like oysters?  Neither do we – but we did enjoy the root beer floats and the chips and gravy.  The food was good and the atmosphere was great.  Our South Korean Trekker, Min, was brave enough to take a shot of vodka which had an oyster in the glass – so typical of New Orleans!  Afterwards we each brought a pina colada from a street vendor and walked around the streets absorbing the atmosphere – stopping off in another bar to do shots of jagermeister.  The fact we were all sat soaking in our rain jackets didn’t mean a thing – New Orleans is a place where absolutely anything goes and you can just be yourself.  And so we did, and many giggles were had.

We left New Orleans the next morning and I was delighted to still have my phone, camera and purse.  From there it was another straightforward journey to the Sam Houston Jones State Park in the left hand corner of Louisiana near to the Texan border.  On the way we had spent the afternoon taking a Honey Island Swamp Tour.  No trip to New Orleans is worth it unless you visit one of the nearby swamps and try and glimpse an alligator.  Unfortunately when we went, it was the wrong season to see any – but gliding through the bayous and looking at the riverside homes which had been destroyed in the Hurricane still managed to make it a worthwhile experience – the bright green of the cypress trees and rumbling of various forms of wildlife within the marshes taking us back to a somewhat prehistoric age.  It was desolate, but in a very natural way, and there was no better way to end the day than staying in log-cabins and cooking fajitas together.

Remains of a home destroyed by Katrina

Wildlife amongst the swamp (you can’t stand on that green stuff, by the way)

This was to be the end of our time in Louisiana before moving onto Texas.  Prior to the Trek I had known very little about Louisiana but as with other places I have traveled to over the years – this is often the key determinant of an awesome place!!

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