Published: January 30th 2012January 30th 2012
Supersize me. Then kill some poor foreigners to pay for it.
NB: Pics are grouped by city, but out of order, due to dodgy internet connection. Also, if you play the videos, turn down the volume a bit.
I am ever more amazed by my increasing ability to sleep whilst travelling. I managed a good snooze on our overnight flight from Sydney to Honolulu, waking to see a spectacular sunrise out the window. Immigration was simple; when going to the US, most of what you need to do is taken care of online, with the ESTA system. If you are pre-approved, and pass muster at the airport, you're in. It is all electronic, and very convenient. If you can manage such questions as "Are you now, or have you ever been, affiliated with an international terrorist group?", you'll be fine. The only issue we had before going to the US was booking an onward flight. They want proof that you won't be staying illegally (not that the Irish ever do that in the US). This is true of other countries, but for some reason US flights to Mexico or Canada don't count as "onward". We
ended up booking for Ecuador instead, making our plans complicated: Mexico would have been the best and cheapest place to fly to Cuba. Also, the Qantas NZ staff were arsey when we checked in, asking for proof that we were going to the US and not staying illegally in Australia! Yes, having just spent 3 weeks in Australia, we left, booked an expensive flight to Honolulu - also with Qantas! - and checked our bags through to that airport...but really our intention is to sneak out of the airport in Sydney. Idiots.
Anyway. We flew on the 17th of December from Auckland, through Sydney. Our overnight flight arrived the next day, the 17th. "Say WHAT?", I hear you say. We crossed the international dateline is what, so we got to live the 17th twice. As Áine is fond of pointing out, we ate 7 major meals on the 17th, and we were in 3 countries. We took a transfer to the hostel on arrival, and went to check in. The area looked a little sketchy, but it turned out to be ok. Statistically, you are more likely to be the victim of violent crime in a US
street than in many other countries commonly considered dangerous. This may have something to do with the massive gap in American society; the poor are completely so, without proper social care, while the middle and upper classes are isolated and indifferent. Attempts to rectify this are branded communist by the Republicans and Fox News, so little changes. Desperate people commit desperate crimes. Honolulu is beautiful and lavish, but by night, the darker side of American society is more visible here than anywhere else I've been in the US. We saw more homeless and vulnerable people here than I would care to mention, people who should really be cared for, with obvious mental issues. If you can't make it on your own, it seems, you're in trouble.
The hostel was an odd set up. In one building, the staff, common area, communal kitchen and the lounge occupied what used to be a penthouse apartment. Down 6 stories, further up the street, a hotel provided the actual rooms. If you wanted to go to the common area, you had to phone the staff to come get you with the lift; an electronic pass is required to make it work.
This got very irritating, as the person with the pass always seemed to be somewhere else, checking in guests, etc. We had to wait 30 minutes on one occasion to get stuff from the fridge. Most of the time, though, we just used the hotel room. It had a 4 ring hob, cutlery and utensils, so we didn't need the kitchen. The hotel also allowed us use of the pool, but we never bothered as the beach was so nearby. Just two blocks down was Waikiki, the famed surf beach of Honolulu. Pretty much none of the main stretch of beach is accessible without passing through the resorts that own sections, and what you find there is row after row of deckchairs and overpriced drinks. Not my idea of beach paradise. Further along the strand is a small area with concrete walls enclosing a snorkelling area; you can go outside the walls to the outer reef for better viewing, and this public area was much better to hang out at.
On the 18th, we woke late - adapting to the new time - and went for a very American breakfast: pancakes at iHop. The coffee was excellent,
bottomless of course, and we even had an overly familiar portly woman serving us, calling us "darlin'" and "honey". Very USA. It was kind of fun. The pancakes were awful though: I ordered five, and managed three, just about. They were so thick and heavy, and that was before adding any of the wide variety of syrups. I felt really ill for half the morning, just from the sugar dose. Some people eat this every day for breakfast. Our first touristy stop was the Bishop Museum, which was pretty cool. The planetarium was doing a show on Polynesian explorers, focusing on their methods of navigation using the stars. The Facing Mars exhibit was excellent too, all about the problems of sending a manned expedition to the red planet. There was a lot of other information and more displays, geology being the main one given Hawaii's volcanic nature. On the way back to the hostel, we stopped for dinner in Chinatown. Honolulu's Chinatown is reasonably big, and the food was excellent.
The next morning, we went to see the site of Japan's infamous attack on US soil: Pearl Harbour. The memorial to the USS Arizona, destroyed in the
attack, and the site of the greatest loss of life that day, is the most visited attraction in Honolulu. You take a boat out to the memorial, overlooking the sunken ship and listing the names of both the dead and survivors. The latter is a short list. The Arizona was in dock on 7th December, 1941, when the attack began around 07:55. 1,177 people are thought to have died when a Japanese bomb penetrated the ammunition stores on board, igniting them and causing a gigantic explosion. The Arizona sank in place, and is one of few ships that were damaged or sunk that day that were not salvaged for use later. It still sits on the seabed, leaking oil 70 years on. The Japanese attack was successful, but not in the long term. American carriers that had not been in dock entered the war in the Pacific, and defeated the Japanese carrier forces. The attack had a huge impact on the American psyche, though, and played a part in forming American foreign and military policy for years to come.
At Pearl Harbour, we also visited the U.S.S. Bowfin, a submarine nicknamed the Pearl Harbour Avenger. She was
launched one year to the day after the attack, and was successful in sinking enemy tonnage. It is cramped inside, though maybe not so bad as you would think. The worst bit would likely have been for the folks sleeping in the torpedo rooms; sometimes, older torpedos would activate spontaneously. I imagine the ticking noise would have illicited some speedy responses. Seeing the vaccuum tube and copper coil electronics and computers of the day was fascinating. It is unbelievably difficult to make a torpedo hit, so advanced slide rules and mechanical computers were used to calculate a firing solution. A hit rate of one in three was very good. Contrary to popular belief, most torpedo attacks were made from the surface, and during the night. Our last stop at Pearl Harbour was the Aviation Museum. This, too, was of a military theme, featuring many of the important and pivotal aircraft of the conflict, as well as the stories of their pilots. Japanese Zeros, American Wildcats and B-25 bombers, and a few Korean War era fighters were on display, as well as a civilian plane that was in the air on the day of the attack, and had been fired upon.
Some of the collection was in Hangar 79; the windows of this hangar still have bullet holes from Japanese planes firing on it during the 1941 attack.
I was surprised at Pearl Harbour that the tone was not propagandist. It was very definite that the attack was to be thought of as dastardly, but overall the place was more about reverence for the people who fought the war afterwards, and pride in America's ability to bounce back and come together. There were three survivors of Pearl Harbour on site to meet; we shook hands and chatted briefly. These old rogues - in their 90's - were still sailors at heart, chatting up the girls in the queue. One of them, Herb, took quite a shine to a Texan girl, and asked if she was available.
The rain started to come down on the 20th, so we waited for it to ease off and then went to climb Diamond Head. It was an easy hike, up around 200m. The area was used for naval surveillance and coastal batteries, so the trail and steps you ascend were installed by the military. Unfortunately, the old observation tower
was closed for maintenance the day we were there. The summit was open though, and we braved the strong, cool winds to take some pictures of Honolulu from on high. Diamond head sits at the edge of a crater; the inside is national park, where you can hike around; you have to be out by 18:00 though, as the military close the tunnel at that time.
The next day was brighter, so we went to Hanauma bay. Hanauma is a protected beach, and they charge $7.50 to go down there. It is spectacular though, and I think it is worth it to contribute to conservation there. As it is, the 3,000 visitors each day do plenty of damage to the inner reef. We brought our snorkel gear and lunch, and went looking for life in the shallows. I was lucky enought to spot a coronet fish, very rare in the area apparently, and we also came upon a small green sea turtle grazing the reef! By the time I led Áine back out to see it, the tide was well out, so we watched the turtle for a bit and walked back to the beach to go.
The bus back to town was wedged as everyone decided to go at once, but we made it, did some shopping, and went to pack for flying the next day.
Our flight was at 23:15, so we had the day to hang around. We did more snorkelling, at the public area with the concrete walls. For such a busy area, there was a ton of life around, including a mottled eel, some colourful boxfish and a few angel fish. After an excessive lunch in Chili's, we went to the airport and awaited our flight to Seattle. We were both excited to go there, firstly because we had heard about how cool and laid back it was, and secondly because it was where we would spend Xmas.
And a lovely Xmas it was. We arrived on the 23rd to a very friendly reception. The staff at Seattle City Hostel were really great, and many of them were away from home for the holidays too, so we didn't feel at all lonely. The hostel is insanely decked out, with a small cinema in the basement, really well stocked kitchens and several toilets on every floor, a
hot tub out the back and rooms featuring unique paint jobs by local artists. Crossing the international date-line, we had made an error, booking the hostel for the 22nd. They refunded the fee for that, no problem. We set out to the Space Needle, taking in the wonderful view of the city. Seattle is an attractive place, with Puget Sound, the lake, the mountains and a not-too-ugly skyline. It was cold but clear; we could see the hostel from the top.
We descended the Space Needle and went next door to the EMP/Sci-Fi museum. There are a number of museums in the Seattle Centre area, all housed in a building designed by Frank Gehry. The EMP is home to masses of displays on music, such as the famous guitar gallery (guitars belonging to Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Angus Young, Dave Grohl, etc.) and the Jimi Hendrix auditorium, where bands play music all day, every day. The Sci-Fi museum is also in the EMP building, though it is diminished these days. Now it consists of a permanent Avatar display, which does feature some incredibly innovative and in-depth displays, and a display on Battlestar Galactica - both the old and
new series. I had a lot of fun looking around here, though I wish it had been Star Trek displays.
The next morning, we went Xmas shopping for each other. Áine told me she wanted to browse the big shops like Macy's, and suggested that I would be bored doing so. I agreed, and said I was going back to the EMP. We're both bad liars, so we knew well that gifts were being bought. I had a bit of an ordeal, thanks to an unannounced stop on my bus - over 1 hour to get back on track - but managed to get a Kindle e-reader for Áine. Áine was more practical, getting me travel supplies for the remainder of the trip. I did have a lot of holy socks. We went back to the Seattle Centre that evening, but not to the EMP - we went ice skating! I hadn't been ice skating in about ten years, and then I had only done it twice. It was a lot of fun when I got going again, though my ankles were aching. When we got back to the hostel, they had free chocolate and baileys, and
hot buttered rum for everyone! We hung out and chatted with everyone, and turned in slightly mouldy.
On Xmas morning, we woke earlyish to have a holiday brunch with the staff, again something they did just because it was nice, and exchanged our gifts. After a bit, we started cooking our take on Xmas dinner. We had met Cat, from San Francisco, and Brian and Yuki a Taiwanese/Japanese couple, the night before, and invited them to join us for dinner. We made stuffing, and roasted it in a chicken, as well as baking some pork loins (in brown sugar and honey). Served with mash, roast potatoes, gravy, sprouts and carrots. Cat made creamed spinach, and Brian and Yuki brought some booze. It was really nice, and our fears about it being weird and lonely away at Xmas were put to rest. And we even had some left over for sandwiches the next day! Later on, we all went to the basement cinema to watch Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman. A pretty good day, I reckon.
We made some calls home the next morning, then headed out to take the Seattle Underground
tour. It was fascinating, though very busy. Seattle was built on a mud flat, and on the cliffs behind the flat. There was a lot of flooding on the flats, which led to backwards flow of sewage to the clifftop homes - exploding toilets! Fortunately, the whole city burned down. Businesses wanted to reopen immediately instead of waiting for the flats to be regraded (raising the streets to prevent flooding and...exploding toilets), so they built their new premises on the site of the old ones. The streets were raised, and the sewerage pipes were laid higher up, avoiding the back flow issues. Of course, they had not gotten around to building the sidewalks quite yet, so people had to walk around in the dark below, climbing ladders to cross the street. Nobody died in the fire that burned Seattle; 17 people died falling from the ladders. These deaths were recorded as "involuntary suicide", as "fell off ladder" was thought to be too embarassing. When the sidewalks were finally built, the underground floors were abandoned, and the first floor above ground became the new ground floor.
The tour was also great for information on the city founders, a
real rogues gallery. The research was done by Bill Speidel, a man who disliked the practice of sanitising history for the kiddies. His book revealed the true characters of Seattle's first leaders, and the tour company is named in his honour; they also honour and continue his irreverent sense of humour. Beneath the streets, we looked in on old bars, hotels, etc., as well as a bank and its vault, all lying disused beneath modern Seattle. If this sounds familiar to Terry Pratchett readers, it should: The underground of Ankh-Morpork was inspired by Seattle's underground, as was the story of the rat-catchers in "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents" (the city once offered 10 cents for the tail of any rats caught; industrious Seattle folk began breeding rats). Also, Ankh-Morpork's Guild of Seamstresses is based on a Seattle census, where there were two dress shops in an area and over 700 young ladies who listed their profession as "seamstress". An in depth study into the issue was carried out by the mayor and a dozen of his best (male) friends.
On our last day in Seattle, we had a late-ish flight, and decided to squeeze in
another activity. We went to the Museum of Flight, much larger and more extensive than the Honolulu one, and not solely focused on war planes. We did begin with a tip-to-tail tour of the SR-71 Blackbird (actually the earlier A-12 drone launching variant), the fastest aircraft ever produced. Built in 1968, it had to be flown without computers, and the pilot needed a spacesuit for the 80-90,000 feet altitude. It was used for spy missions, as it flew too high and too fast for missiles to intercept it. Its cruise speed was around 2,250 m.p.h., over Mach 3. The physics of the thing are incredible, as the behaviour of air changes as you break the sound barrier. There was an autopilot system for maintaining altitude and course, but navigation was manual. One of the Blackbird pilots once said "You're never truly lost, until you're lost at over 2,000 m.p.h.". The museum also had severed cockpits from another Blackbird and an FA/18 hornet to sit in, and some true classics of aviation history: Boeing 707, Concorde, an Air Canada Super-G Constellation ("Connie", pretty much the last large prop-powered plane), the first Boeing 747 ever built (the "City of Everett", 1969), the
Boeing 707 used as Air Force One by numerous presidents (including Nixon and Reagan), Boeing's first true passanger plane the B-80 (the A variant, with 6 extra seats), American fighter jets like the Phantom and Sabre, as well as the Russian Mig 15 and 21 fighters...it goes on. It was a dream for me, and I just ran around gawking at everything. They also had the "Red Barn", a reproduction of Boeing's first factory, and a the Personal Courage wing, featuring fighter and bomber craft from both World Wars. There was a ton of stuff to do besides looking, as they had 360 degree flight simulators, kids play areas, etc. When we had thoroughly exhausted the possibilties, we headed back to town and grabbed our bag for the flight to San Francisco. On a Boeing 737, as it happens.
On arrival in SF (NOT San Fran, apparently, locals don't like that), we caught the BART into the city. SF is well connected with public transport, having BART, busses, the famous cable cars and a tram. We booked a hotel on a website called hotwire, which sells last minute hotel rooms at knock-down rates. Only thing is you
don't know which hotel you'll get. We lucked out, getting the Mosser hotel. The room was tiny, but the location was perfect, just a couple of blocks from Union Square in the middle of the city. We began, as usual, with a walk around town. San Francisco is where many people say the hippie movement began, around Sausolito and the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. There isn't much evidence of that in the centre; it is mostly large skyscrapers and a gigantic Macy's. That is not to say it is unattractive. Any building over 10 stories has to build a POPO space, or Privately Owned Public Open space, like a small park (though some of them go to great lengths to hide them, on the roof for example). We walked through Chinatown, which really did remind me of Beijing. We even had some bubble tea, though they call it pearl tea in SF. It is funny to see an entire community transplanted: in the streets, they smoke Chinese cigarettes, read Chinese newspapers and sell Chinese goods. From Chinatown we hoofed it to the waterfront area, around pier 1. The piers are evenly numbered above the ferry building and oddly below, increasing outwards, so
pier 1 is in the middle. Many of the piers are still in use for shipping - freight, fisher fleets, ferries, etc. - but several have been co-opted for commercial use, home to trendy stores, restaurants and tourist areas.
We walked up as far as pier 39, the most famous pier in SF. It is hideously tacky, but the old wooden section of pier is home to a group of sea lions. The sea lions migrate usually, but for the last few years some of them have chosen to stay at the pier all through the winter, so you can visit them all year. On the way to the piers, and on the way back, we tried to catch one of SF's iconic cable cars. They were installed after Andrew Smith Hallidie, a London born engineer, saw a horse run out of steam going up one of the steep hills in the city; the horse collapsed, the horse and the cart rolled down the hill, and several people were hurt. With a cable system, even if the power fails the car will stay in place. In any case, we were unable to board the cars. They were
absolutely wedged. To be honest, they are quite overpriced too. It's 6 dollars for a ride, the excess going towards maintaining the bus routes.
In the morning, we went to see the Golden Gate bridge. Well, I say see...the thick, soupy fog meant that visibilty was pretty poor. The cargo ships in the bay were blasting their fog horns; not one of them was visible. Our tour of the bridge was courtesy of SF City Guides, who offer free walking tours all over the city. Tips are kind of expected, as the tour is free, though the tips all go towards funding the company rather than into the pockets of the volunteers. The tours are great, very informative. At the bridge, we learned about Strauss, the engineer who championed and designed it, and some interesting facts, to whit: the centre lanes of the bridge are America's most dangerous mile - there is no median strip; a safety fence for pedestrians was installed only 5 years ago, when a toddler walked out onto the road; there are no suicide fences or nets, though they are planning to install nets, and 2 people jump from the bridge every month
on average; another 8 or 9 potential jumpers get talked down every month on average, by a dedicated crew who go out in a pickup truck dressed in maintenance workers clothing. We walked up as far as the gigantic south tower and back, then went to see some civil war bunkers along the river bank.
After the bridge tour, we took the bus back to town and walked along the piers again. We had a decent seafood chowder at a place called McCormacks, and went to see the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, a World War II liberty ship. The liberty ships were made to carry cargo across the Atlantic; they were simple, meant to be built faster than the enemy could sink them. It took less than 60 days to build one. Only two remain, the rest having been sunk or scrapped, and only the Jermiah O'Brien still sails. It was pulled from scrap, and sailed under its own power to be restored at the piers. They do dinner cruises these days. You can tour on board, but we had been on enough war era boats already, and the liberty ships were very plain and blockish anyway. We
also killed some time at the very cool Musee Mechanique, where you can find more than 300 restored arcade machines, penny-film shows, diaramas and Wurlitzer player pianos, arm wrestling machines, kiss testers, love testers, tarot and psychic machines (like the one in "Big", with Tom Hanks), some over 100 years old - and all working perfectly. Nostalgic, old-timey fun. On the way back to the hotel, we paused once more to check out the crookedest street, a section of Lombard St. We had seen it in the distance; up close it is insane. 8 switchbacks were put in the road to overcome the extremely steep grade. Over such a short distance, it looks extreme. Queues of cars are always waiting to come down it, combatting the tourists standing in the road trying to get a good picture.
The next day, we rose late and headed to Japantown. Much smaller than Chinatown, but better organised, Japantown is a great place to find Asian food of all kinds, and Oriental markets should you wish to cook it for yourself. We picked up some Sushi, and brought it out to Golden Gate park for lunch. The park is massive, bigger
than Central Park in NY. Inside, there is just tons of space devoted to different activities. There are sports fields, a frisbee golf course (yeah, I don't know about that one myself), a small lake for model boats, running tracks, sit up racks, an archery range, bison paddock...We sat and ate our sushi, then walked west to the beach. Again, it was foggy and windy, but the beach is huge. On a sunny day, it would be a great place to hang out. In the evening, we went ice skating again at the Yerba Buena centre. I found the skating a little easier, getting up some speed, though again I had to keep stopping to tighten the laces for ankle support. If I just had better boots, I'd be like Brian Boitano...but not a loser.
And the next day was the last day of 2011. We started out with a Bay Cruise, on the Red and White fleet. They have been running ferries and cruises in SF for over 70 years. We went under the Golden Gate bridge and up to Angel Island, before swinging around and getting reasonably close to Alcatraz. Only one company runs tours
to Alcatraz, and they were booked out for several weeks. Touts will sell you tickets for massively inflated prices; here, as elsewhere, please do NOT support that. The tour groups are huge, and frankly I don't think it would have been great. What was interesting was seeing the graffiti left by the native Americans who occupied the island in 1969, claiming any unused government land could be taken back. They were kicked out fairly quickly. Back on shore, we went to the Exploratorium, a fantastic attraction for kids and science nerds. Nearly everything there is interactive, much of it designed and built on site. Different branches of physics are represented, light, sound, liquids, etc. There was a great installation where you sat in a chair, put on headphones, closed your eyes, and got a blind persons tour of using the trains in San Francisco. It was amazing to hear how the guy navigates, listening for musicians near the platforms or for falling change to locate the ticket machines. The psychology section was great too, with loads of displays guaging your responses to stimuli, or challenging your perceptions of other people. One display asked you to identify trustworthy faces; the ones
most people said looked trustworthy were politicians who had been elected several times; the others were unsuccessful candidates.
After a shower, and having donned some nice duds, we headed to the piers for dinner. We went to Cioppino's on Fishermans Wharf; most places use the family name for their restaurants, but Cioppino's refers to Italian sailors, who were unable to pronounce "chip-in", the manner in which many sailors bought lunch together. We were surprised they had a table, as the place was wedged and prices were low. Moreover, the food was fantastic. I had a seafood risotto, and Áine had linguine with seafood. We had a fantastic wine too, 2010 Fess Parker Riesling. Look for it. After dinner, we walked down to pier 3 to catch the fireworks. We had planned to go to pier 14, the centre of the show, but it was crazy busy before we even got half way. Pier 3 had a good few people, but we managed to get seated on top of a large, metal bin. It didn't smell, or anything! The fireworks went on for about 15 minutes, and were pretty spectacular. Maybe not on the level of Syndey, but
still great. The best were the shaped charges, which left heart shapes and smiley faces when detonated. What was surprising was how much was happening on the bridge; tons of small fireworks were going off right around the lanes, and traffic was still going over.
On new years day, we went to see some famous areas we had been neglecting. Castro St. is the home of the LGBT community is San Francisco, famed for its open attitudes, wild nightlife and rainbow flags. It is also a really pleasant place, with tons of trees and airy cafés. Haight-Ashbury was less impressive. It may once have meant something, being the home of hippiedom, but today it is where you will find the same, tired crap associated with the new hippies: overpriced vegan cafés, smelly young people with dreadlocks, no jobs, and a bad dose of east-worship, and more alternative medicine shops than you can shake a serious illness at. Scott MacKenzie sang of meeting gentle people with flowers in their hair. I don't think he meant little idiots blindly following an image, funded by Daddy's credit card. After Haight-Ashbury, we finally caught a cable car. It was a fun
jaunt along California St., and we were lucky enough to get the coveted outside seats. The hills were ridiculously steep, and the views were spectacular. One more walk home to the Mosser, and we got packed up. The next day, we headed for N'awlins!
New Orleans, The Big Easy, Sweet Lady Gumbo, Old...Swampy. Our arrival was marred by the non-arrival of my bag. They gave seats to people on standby, putting the plane overweight, and had to take off some bags. How they took mine and not Áine's, I don't know. They promised my bag would arrive the next morning, and they would drop it to the hotel. It was the early hours when we finally checked in at the Holiday Inn (another hotwire booking), so we rose late the next day. We were still a bit shattered, but wanted a look around. We were staying on Royal St., right in the French Quarter and one street over from famed Bourbon St. The French Quarter is a beautiful place, mostly made up of old colonial buildings with fine features and intricately designed iron railings. It is always buzzing, with jazz and blues bands playing in the streets,
along with a veritable army of solo buskers. In the middle, near the river, is Jackson Square, a lovely little green space in front of the St. Louis's Cathedral; in the middle of the square is a statue of General Andrew Jackson, a hero of the south (not just in the civil war). Many of the French Quarter buildings have plaques detailing their history; the oldest date back to Spanish inhabitation, like the Cabildo, the old seat of government. Napoleon House is another good one: it was the home of the governor of Louisiana, who offered to accomodate Napoleon Bonaparte as part of an abortive plan to free him from his exile on Saint Helena island. The only disappointment was Bourbon Street. It may once have been the home of jazz, blues and kool kats, but now it is a hideous, gutted shell, filled with hugely overpriced tourist joints and seedy strip bars. It is completely ruined, top to bottom. Locals will tell you to go to Frenchman St., where a more authentic musical experience can be had away from screaming American college students.
We headed back to the hotel in the afternoon; no sign of my
bag. I checked online, and the delivery status changed to a later estimate. This would happen twice more during the evening; the bag finally showed up at 1am. I wouldn't have minded so much, but I would have bought a change of clothes had I known it would be so late. And for the privelege of having my bag so well handled, I was charged $25. My email to United Airlines went unanswered. Don't fly with the fuckers if you're in the US, they're about as useful as wheels on a tomato.
In the morning, we headed to take a cruise on the mighty Mississippi. On our walkabout, we had come across the Steamboat Nachez, the only steamer still operating on the river. Another paddle boat goes out, but it's diesel powered. The Nachez looks the part, decked out like a grand old boat, complete with dining room and bandstand, though she was only built in 1975. On the roof is a steam caliope, an organ which runs on the steam of the engines. Before the Nachez sets sail, Debbie - otherwise part of the kitchen staff - goes and plays for a while. It is incredibly
loud, though nothing compared with the steam whistle, which we could hear from wherever we were in town when she went out. The cruise took around 2 hours, with a lunch of local favourites - fried chicken and grits, followed by bread and butter pudding. We got a look at some of the levees of New Orleans, same as the ones that failed and exacerbated the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, and some docks that have still not been repaired.
When we got back in, our first stop was the Katrina display at the Presbytere museum. Huge swaths of the city were damaged by flooding due to the hurricane. What was shocking was that it had happened before, and measures to decrease the threat, begun in the mid 70's, were not complete, due to disagreements among civil and military authorities over who should do what. 30 years, and the levees were not complete. In addition, many of the levees were poorly designed, weak and prone to failure. People were trapped in their home with no food, no clean water and no way out. Emergency response was slow: President George Bush sent in troops to stop looting, with
orders to shoot to kill. They hit the streets before the aid parties. There were many examples of chaos and mismanagement; at one point, the authorities were feeding and clothing people in the Superdome stadium, totally unaware of thousands of people in a building across the road. That building had also been identified as a shelter, but nobody showed up with water, blankets, food, etc. The agencies searching the city after the storm marked doors with symbols indicating the number of people, live or dead, within. One of these doors is preserved in the museum, with the note "1 dead dog, DO NOT REMOVE. Owner will bury". Many people had to abandon pets when they evacuated. Also in the museum was a piano belonging to Fats Domino, destroyed in the flood. The museum was excellent, focussing on how the disaster occurred and how it might have been prevented. There was also a section on the community uniting and recovering together; I found this section a little difficult, having seen the great number of homeless still in New Orleans. Many of the people worst affected were poor and uninsured, living in the least well constructed housing in the wards. They returned
to find nothing left, and some still have nothing. That said, the city has an indomitable spirit. They held a funeral for the hurricane, marking closure on the event.
Upstairs from the Katrina section was a display on Mardi Gras. The yearly "Fat Tuesday" event is a huge party, involving excess in every regard. The traditions go way back, and are practiced in different ways inside and outside the city. Outside, it is horse races and cooking; inside, gigantic parades, and bared bosoms for beads. There are a number of marching companies who put on ever more extravagant shows every year, massive floats and costumes that would put Priscilla Queen of the Desert to shame. We left the museum, and headed out for dinner and a few drinks. We went to Pat O'Brien's, where the pianists are supposed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Having iPads probably helped them, a bit. It was a good time though, and we had a fair few drinks, including the famous Hurrican cocktail. The mix is a carefully guarded secret, but I know for sure it involves masses of vodka. In the morning, we felt a little unwell. Can't imagine
why. We pretty much just ventured out to see the Cabildo (seat of Spanish power, before the French, British and Americans). The displays inside were divided between the histories of the natives and the various colonial powers in the area. The best piece was the Death Mask of Napoleon, supossedly lifted from his corpse by his physician. Some claim it is actually a cast of his lookalike, who posed as him for security at times.
The next day, we went for another typical NO experience: a graveyard tour. The low city land meant that they had to bury their dead in an unusual manner, above the ground in concrete tombs. The tombs were reusable, and when someone had to move in, the last body was removed, tagged and cremated. These plots have been in families for many years, and are still in use. Some earlier graves that were tried involved putting stone slabs over the buried coffin. This kept them from surfacing, at least, but when the grave flooded, the coffin would make an eerie banging against the slab. For those that could not afford the large, family tombs, or even the smaller compartments in large, shared
areas, there were the society tombs. The major immigrant groups built some, including the beautiful Italian one (famously, the female statue was fondled by Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider"; people recreating the scene have damaged it greatly). There are also Masonic and military tombs. The most interesting tomb was that of Marie Laveau, the one time queen of Voodoo in New Orleans. Voodoo was brought with African slaves to America, and in some areas it is still practised, though heavily altered to resemble Catholicism (the Voodoo gods have been replaced by saints). Forget Hollywood, too; Voodoo is actually a positive religion. Ask a practicioner to place a curse on someone, and they would be greatly offended. Voodoo dolls are meant to be used for prayer, rather than harm.
Further damage done by myth is much in evidence in the cemetary. Laveau's tomb is marked all over with "XXX", which crap, fake guides will tell you is a Voodoo luck symbol - absolute nonsense. Other tombs in the graveyard have been desecrated in this manner, despite records clearly showing that the people within were never involved with Voodoo. The damaged graves have no names marked on them, so
the fake guides make up spooky stories about the people supposed to be in them. One other odd fact: Nicolas Cage had a tomb built in the cemetary in recent years, in the shape of a pyramid.
After lunch, we took a swamp tour. The wetlands of New Orleans are expansive, running almost out to the Gulf of Mexico. They are navigable via man made canals and natural "bayons". We went through swamp (which has trees) and marsh (no trees), on a little flatboat with a narrator and guide. It is alligator country, but the big guys are all hibernating at this time of year, so we only saw a few small ones swimming along. We also came across a few snapper turtles, but none of the alligator turtles. The guide had preserved shells and heads to look at, and a small, live alligator that we got to hold. The skin feels tough and leathery, and you can feel the muscles moving below. The little ones are quite cute, though, tiny teeth poking out of their mouths and all. There was also a live snapper turtle on board; the guide had rescued him from the shore after
finding him tangled in fish line. He had obviously become tangled a long time ago, as his bod continued to grow until the wire was cutting into his sides. He's a bit oddly shaped, but he'll live. The swamp was oddly beautiful, despite the murky waters and heat. Not sure I'd want to live in it, and frankly neither do the Cajuns. They live on plains beside the swamp, not in shacks inside it - Hollywood at play again. Bobby Boucher does not represent the Cajuns.
We finished our last day in New Orleans with dinner on a balcony, sitting beside one of the famous iron railings, and overlooking the Joan of Arc parade. The parade runs each year along the statue of Joan (Joanie on the Pony), in honour of the beatified saviour of the French. It is a much smaller event than Mardi Gras - doesn't even have a band - but the period costumes and horses are nice to watch. New Orleans was very cool. I would recommend it to any visitor to the southern states, for the food, the atmosphere, the history and the people.
The headline of this blog
may sum up the way of life for Americans, whether they know it or not, but I'll say nothing against their hospitality. The "greatest nation on earth" (choose to interpret "great" in any context you like) is built on an unfair international system of repression, exploitation and hypocrisy, suppressing democracy whilst naming themselves champion of it. Their human rights and foreign affairs records post World War 2 are dismal. Public awareness of issues is marred by a biased and fundamentalist media. This is not (directly) the fault of everyday Americans, however, and as their awareness increases (the 99%, Occupy movement, etc.), perhaps there will be some change afoot. And hold on there, buddy - we all partake of the same exploitation, as first worlders. America-bashing has become a past-time amongst self proclaimed western intellectuals; they conveniently ignore the contibution they make to the inequality in the world. I would prefer to remain critical where it is due, and try to be realistic about my own actions, avoiding blaming America for everything.
That much said, fuck the tea party. Flipping idiots.
There are more photos below