Published: July 14th 2010July 14th 2010
Almost as soon as we crossed the state line from Texas into Louisiana, the heat turned from dry to steamy as the wetlands and swamps appeared beside the highway. The scenery was very interesting considering we were driving along a major interstate highway, and it was beginning of the best week of our travels so far. (The first few paragraphs may make you think I am saying this with more than a small hint of sarcasm, but believe me, this week was what travelling is all about for us.)
As the interstate cut its way through the muddy brown swamps and bayous of west Louisiana we drew closer to our first night's accomodation on the outskirts of a town called Lafayette and were treated to a lovely,if not a little humid, sunset as we unpacked the car and more importantly emptied the cool box into the fridge. After the exciting couple of hours doing laundry, sewing our badges* and getting things ready for the morning swamp trip we had booked, we hit the sack as we needed to be up and on the road to the swamp for 8am. *As mementos of our travelling, we have decided to collect things for our big rucksacks from various places we go. For example, a key ring from New York, a weird clippy thing from Niagra and various badges from the southern States of the US.All good fun, apart from the sewing bit!
When we woke up on Tuesday morning, bright and early, we opened the door to a very wet, very grey and very miserable (still damn hot though!) day. Great, at least the boat for the swamp tour is covered though so we should be fine. We rang the swamp tour leader, who told us due to the flash flood extreme weather warnings all round the area for the next couple of hours, we would have to try again the following morning. This shouldn't have been a problem, as the tour was about equidistance between Lafayette and our next destination Baton Rouge.
The weather cleared, or at least the rain did as we left Lafayette and drove east to the state capital, Baton Rouge. We passed a couple of the local attractions incuding an Acadian* Village, but nothing was worth using our precious dollars on with the ominous sound of thunder rumbling above, which would bring the kind
of downpour which would cut short any excursion other than rainwater harvesting or puddle jumping. *Acadian is the derivitive from which Cajun was drawn. French, Carribean, African and Spanish settlers in Louisiana led to this interesting mix of people to which we owe cajun music, food and dance.
One of the main things we were looking forward to in Louisiana was the food. Creole, cajun, shrimp, crawfish, catfish, gumbo, jambalaya, cornbread and dirty rice were all high on our list of things we wanted to sample from the place they all come from, rather than from Tesco in Trent Vale. So we were licking our lips in anticipation as we went out for dinner in Baton Rouge, to a restaurant several people and visitor guides had recommended, especially as there was a Cajun band on as well. The anticipation turned very quickly into disappointment as we found out the place was closing for the night. At 9.15pm. Oh well, our quest for delicious food would have to wait until the next day. We made do with a Qauker Oats bar, and for me a small tin of Ravioli. Gourmet dining I am sure you will agree!
the title of the blog and the theme so far, I am fairly sure you will be able to guess what happened on Wednesday morning when we again woke early ready for the swamp tour take 2. Yep, you guessed it, driving rain and winds meant that we got a phone call from Captain Swampy to tell us that there was no tour today again! The pair of us went to the second point of interest on our list of things to do in the area after the swamp tour. A visit to Angola and the Louisiana State Penitentiary and Museum.
At the start of the 45 minute drive to Angola (after we had stopped for a car wash and to post the 2,712,987 postcards we had bought and written over the last week), the sun came out and we thought our weather fortune may be turning. Wrong! As we pulled out of Baton Rouge along the single lane highway 66 (no relation to the road I rambled endlessly about in an earlier blog.) the heavens well and truly opened. Ah, just a quick shower to clear the muggy air, we thought. Wrong again! The deluge continued endlessly as
we crawled along the highway at 25mph. Despite the weather and hazardous driving conditions (I was pilot today as Rachel's back was still giving her major grief) we were in good spirits and a form of siege mentality came over us as we struggled grimly through all that Louisiana could throw at us!
2 hours later and still barely able to see 10 yards in front of us due to the rain, we arrived at the penitentiary (that's a prison to us British). It was almost like a scene from a prison movie as the skies were dark, wind howled, rain poured and thunder rumbled at the gates to the bleak and desolate looking prison. Louisiana State Penitentiary was the sight where famous films including Dead Man Walking and also some scenes from JFK were shot. The prison museum was small but very detailed and interesting. Exhibits, newspaper cuttings and prison records detailed the early 20th century when Angola was known as the harshest and most punishing prison in the United States, through to a room housing Gruesome Gertie, the electric chair used to put various murderers and rapists to their death in the 40's, 50's and 60's onto
stories and artefacts of homemade prisoner weapons, news of escape attempts and floods at the prison due to hurricanes through the years. The final part of the museum detailed prisoner artwork and the story of Warden Cain (no relation, and he spells his surname right!) who hauled the prison from the brutality and hopelessness of the early days to strict but fair discipline and rehabilition of the last few years. It was a positive end to what was at times a very bleak museum.
Thankfully, the rain abated as we left the prison behind and wound our way back along Highway 66 and the river road lined with plantation houses and churches, harking back to the days when grand families and their enslaved staff grew sugar cane, towards New Orleans (pronounced Noo-Orlens (all one word) by the locals). We stopped at a plantation house which was very grand and unique looking, called the Myrtles (supposed to be one the most haunted houses in the US) and at a Walgreens Chemist to pick up a heat pack for Rachel's back which was getting worse. All these hours in the car were taking their toll!
The bridges and highways leading
to New Orleans were basically a dual carriageway on stilts through the watery swamps, lakes and rivers below. The water seemed to be rising quite high and was only a foot or so below the road as arrived in The Big Easy and found our gorgeous little hotel in the French Quarter of the city. The French Quarter was the earliest settled area of the city and was a curious mix of, well everything! The buildings were quaint with wrought iron balconies, the streets were small, dark and narrow and the people seemed a mix of tourists, locals, artists and street performers and grifters.
I think both Rachel and I fell in love with the place as soon as we stepped out of the hotel to go for dinner. A lovely walk throught heavy dusk air to the main drag (drag being the operative word) Bourbon Street. This street was gawdy, neon and alive with men, women and some who couldn't decide between the two. Everyone it seemed, was having a great time. We passed strip clubs, smokey jazz bars and fine dining restaurants as we made our way to a little eatery called La Bayou where we tucked
Improvised Tattoo Gun
I think I would steer clear of this one!
into alligator, crawfish, fried oysters, hush puppies, catfish and shrimp. All fried in a spicy batter. Delicious. And all caught in the Gulf Coast (bar the oysters) and unaffected by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
On Thursday morning, we stepped right out of our comfort zone and into the unknown as volunteers at the New Orleans Mission for the homeless and addicts. The volunteering website where we found the oppurtunity entitled the day "Cooking With The Chef", and we were looking forward not only to giving something back to this amazing but currently quite downtrodden city but also to learning some cajun and creole cooking tips from the chef.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a huge building, that looked like a church from the outside and a warehouse from the inside. There were a lot of people milling around and we were led to meet the chef and organiser of the mission, Loretta. She was terrifying! A small, round women comparable to Mrs Trunchbull from Matilda, in looks, size and personality. Her first words to us where "You are in there" and pointed to the kitchen. We didn't dare say anything but ok and shuffled sheepishly
into the orgainsed but basic kitchen in which lunch preparation was already underway. Lunch for the 120 or so people who use the mission was to be Shrimp Gumbo. Shrimp, sauce, spices, rice and a sprinkling of New Orleans magic. We helped open countless tins of tomatoes with okra, chillies and spices and poured them into the huge pot in which the tomato stock was already bubbling away. Loretta added the shrimp and after we cooked the rice (to perfection thank goodness, otherwise I don't think I would have been here today writing this!) it seemed as though lunch would just need to bubble away for an hour or two.
Loretta then gave us our next task, gardening. She had hurt her leg a week or two before and couldn't tend to the Mission's garden which needed some work. She led us down a block to the garden (which she told us she had put together with zero budget) and it seemed being outside in the beautiful sunshine seemed to soften her and she explained how she and other volunteers had put together the garden from scratch. We were given our tasks.... sort out the compost, weed the flower
and plant beds and have a general tidy up and be back in an hour for lunch! We took to our task with gusto, and were soon sweating buckets! The sun was relentless but the task seemed enjoyable because of who was going to benefit.
It was lunchtime before we knew it and we went into the mission for lunch along with over a hundred people who for some reason or another were homeless. Some through drugs, alcohol and broken relationships, others through the equally tragic events of 2005 when Katrina devastated the city. The hurricane caused a huge surge in the number of homeless people in this part of the city. We ate the gumbo, which was lovely and chatted with Loretta and her husband Buddy. They had both been homeless and had had difficult lives but had worked hard to get into the positions they were. They were very spiritual and it was apparent that the mission was based on healing and rehabilitating people through faith. Loretta also had some words of advice for Rach and her multitude of mosquito bites. (Something had taken a liking to Rachel overnight and left her with about fifteen nasty red
bites all over her legs and back.) Apparently, rubbing mustard on them relieves the itching and she gave Rachel more than enough sachets of mustard to sort out the problem. Here we were taking from a homeless shelter, how bad of us!
Washing up and cleaning the kitchen followed before we said our goodbyes and left what was a thoroughly humbling and enlightening experience. Before we left we took down the address of the mission in Miami where we could leave anything we can't take to Jamaica with us such as the coolbox, chairs and any clothes we dont want/need. We also made a list of things that the mission was short of so we could go and buy them and donate them to help out.
To add to Rachel's back problems and mosquito bites, I woke on Friday morning with a recurrence of my sore neck from the little bump I had in the car in April. We are falling apart!! We thought today would be a good day for a city tour. In an air conditioned bus! The tour picked us up from the hotel and drove us round the city with the driver giving us
all sorts of information on what we were seeing. It was a great tour as we learnt the history of the French Quarter, saw the heartbreaking aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward (unbelievable to see 5 years after the disaster, the dirty water mark still stained deserted and crumbling houses), an aboveground cemetery and shrine to Saint Roch and the affluence and old money grandeur of the Garden District. It was a riveting three hours and more than scratched the surface of this peculiar and alluring city. Seeing the areas (85% of the city) flooded and battered by the hurricane in 2005 pushed us to buying a book called "1 Dead in Attic" and half way through it, I can say it's humourous and incredibly moving and anyone who wants to borrow it when we get back is more than welcome! The city is surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain to the North and the Mississippi River and bayous and swamps to the south, its easy to see why this blog is called what it is and also very easy to understand how the city was flooded so badly.
You will be delighted to hear that on Saturday
morning we finally got to encounter more water and go on an elusive swamp tour! Ok, it was a different swamp to the original plan but we were both very happy with our choice of tour once we had finished. Dr Wagners Honey Island Swamp Tour was the tour in question and I would recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We went out on a boat with around 15 or so other people and our captain (who's name escapes me but he was a college educated ecologist) into the swamp. Within five minutes of entering the bayou, we were greeted a very unnerving site drifting towards us, all we could see in the murky waters was the head, and a very large head it was! When it came closer and the alligator's full size became apparent I think we all edged towards the centre of the boat. It was a 15 foot long, 1000lbs male alligator called El Whoppo! We got some great photos and learnt an awful lot about the alligators in the swamp from our captain. As the journey continued we saw amongst other things: female alligators, a Great Blue Heron, Egrets, Black Hornets (deadliest things in
the swamp apparently), various breeds of turtle and other birds. We passed some lovely houses on the swamps edge and a lot of weekend fishermen in their boats angling for catfish amongst other things. We didn't want the trip to end but unfortunately it had to and we made our way back to New Orleans ready for our Haunted Voodoo Walking Tour in the evening.
Sounds exciting doesn't it, a haunted Voodoo Tour, in the evening, in one of the most haunted cities in the world. Well it wasn't! We visited a Voodoo Shop with our guide (a voodoo Priestess no less) and learnt that Voodoo is a religion with a god. And saints, called lwa, who do God's bidding on earth and can be won over with rum, champagne, red meat, perfume, cigars and money. I want be a lwa! After about 45 minutes, Rach and I slunk off quietly in between two of the sites we were visiting and went for dinner! Disrespectful to a religion yes, but the Priestess didn't make tour particularly interesting, so Rach has decided that she will get a book on the subject to learn more about it.
We had been
told by a lot of people that we should spend an evening on Frenchmens Street which has some great places to eat and great music, so we did just that. We had a lovely meal including Red Beans and Rice, Andouille Sausage Jambalaya, Cornbread, File Gumbo, Collard Greens, Ribs, Chicken and Praline Bread Pudding. It was fantastic. Louisiana cooking is such a great mix of simple, hearty food using simple ingredients but with a complex blend of chillies and spices that give the food a lot of depth. We followed up dinner with listening to a band called The Revealers, who played a mix of reggae and funk and was a lot of fun.
Sadly, all good things come to end and we had to say goodbye to Noo Orlens on Sunday morning. After stocking up at Walmart (where else?!) we drove North out of the city and across the worlds longest bridge that spans Lake Pontchartrain, the 24 mile Causeway. It took near a place called Covington and we stumbled across a "pick-your-own" farm slightly off the beaten track. It began one of the most interesting and enjoyable two hours of our journey so far. The proprieters of
the farm were a couple called Danny and Linda. Danny greeted us and began to tell us what he grew on the farm and as the conversation meandered along we spent the time talking, picking the fruit and eating the fruit. They were so interesting, and told us all about how his father had owned the land and when he died they had split it between the sons. Danny had designed and built the house on the farm that they had moved into in 2005, months before Katrina. He told us all about the hurricane, the damage it caused, how they recovered and how it was three months before they had internet or electricity! We picked blueberries, peppers, chillies, cucumbers and figs (which both Rach and I didn't like, until we tried these ones!).
The minutes turned into a couple of hours and we chatted and played about with their two gorgeous Australian Shepherd dogs and we even had a drink of water from their well, which was cool and refreshing and just what we needed as it was very warm. They seemed genuinely interested in us and what we were doing and also they seemed to enjoy the
The Lower 9th Ward
Still damaged from Hurricane Katrina
company and a break from the norm. The farm is purely for people to pick their own fruit and they dont sell to shops or larger farms. Their main customers are locals and they don't get many English people eating their figs! For us, it was a great chance to meet and talk to some kind and genuine rural Americans from a place that we had enjoyed thoroughly. It was another taste of real America and brought home to us just how wonderful this trip is. I think both of us would happily do an exchange with Danny and Linda and let them live in Newcastle under Lyme for a few months whilst we looked after their farm.
We left the farm behind with our coolbox loaded with fruit and veg, our water bottles full of pure mineral water and big smiles on our faces. We really loved Louisiana, it wasn't anything like anywhere we have been before and if you take away the Walmarts, MacDonalds and American accents, it was like we weren't even in the USA. A really unique place that we would both love to go back to. And if anywhere in the world didn't deserve
Rescuers went house to house and left markings to indicate where they were from, the date and how many dead inside.
the triple whammy of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and the BP Oill Spill then its this place and these people!
Our next stop was the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast, which I will write about in the next blog. Don't worry, it wont be nearly as long as this entry! Sorry for going on and on but we loved it here!
There are more photos below