All that jazz - New Orleans

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March 16th 2016
Published: April 25th 2016
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Our journey started sunny and bright, with temperatures in the low- to mid-80s. Daylight Saving Time had kicked in overnight so we gained back the hour we had lost yesterday. What?! We crossed the state border into Alabama but we were only there for the narrowest bit of the state, though we did stop at the Tourist Information rest-stop which was very nice but poorly provisioned as they couldn't accept cash there so I couldn't buy even a postcard to prove our presence. Oh well. I almost managed to snap a photo of the state sign, welcoming us in true Lynyrd Skynyrd style but a tree decided to just stand there at that very moment and spoil the shot, taken at speed from a moving vehicle. Again, oh well. I was becoming quite fascinated with all the road signs that indicated places I had heard of – ‘Oooh look, Mobile, Alabama!’ and I started taking pictures of those too because, you know ... Thankfully, the American interstates were really good at getting us around major conurbations without having to drive right through them. I took to the wheel and got us safely into Mississippi and we stopped again there, to pick up useful maps and stuff.

I chatted to a young woman who was exercising and playing with her dog at the rest stop. She had just come back from deployment in South Korea and had driven 1500 miles to collect her dog, Cricket, the blue heeler, who she could keep with her on her new deployment in El Paso. She was doing all those miles, and back again, in a very short space of time and made our journey look like a gentle ramble. In our very early planning stages I’d tried to develop a musical themed trip. You know, Nashville, Motown, Detroit, Muscle Shoals, Graceland, 29 Palms, etc, and I wanted to drive down Route 66 in a Little Red Corvette. We decided the distances between were just too big to make this a viable venture – though at one point I think we were 24 Hours From Tulsa. She put me to shame - I won’t complain again about a couple of hundred miles a day with one night stops in between ... In fact, we were feeling quite full of vim and vigour so I was hoping all those jet-lag-time-shifty-totally-knackering parts of our travel were behind us.

We drove into Mississippi, again at its narrowest point, and on into Louisiana in the late afternoon. We were heavily dependent on the satnav to get us to our accommodation in New Orleans. Unfortunately, it was on the far side of New Orleans so we had to drive into the city and out again to get there. Luckily, Steve was once again behind the wheel by this time so, while I can’t pretend it was a fun drive, at least we were in safe hands. We were checked in to the Express Inn and Suites at Westwego (city centre accommodation was just toooo expensive) by a nice but dim young lady who was completely thrown by the UK forms of ID (passport and driver’s licence) and didn’t seem to understand the concept of there being other countries beyond the USA. She initially allocated us a smoking room which reeked dreadfully, but we were quickly switched to a non-smoking room. It was clean and comfortable (sadly, we couldn’t afford the ‘convenient’ element on this occasion) but the red stain on the carpet convinced me it had been a crime scene at some point in its recent past. Maybe CSI could confirm? There were some ‘working’ vehicles in the car park (electricians, construction crews, etc) and I felt a tad vulnerable when I was outside and all the workmen were returning from their jobs. Though they passed the time of day quite politely, I quickly emphasised that I had a non-smoking husband just the other side of the door when one of them asked why I seemed so lonely! While the room offered a fridge and a microwave the only source of coffee was from the reception area, and then only between 6 and 9 am, so having a lie-in was not an option. My old barmaid skills came into play, carrying multiple cups of that can’t-do-without caffeine back to our room in my pyjamas. It wasn’t our best choice of accommodation ....

We discovered that we could park right outside the Basin Street Station Information Centre in the centre of New Orleans for only $5 and we girded our loins for the trip into town but the satnav took us straight there (though slowly, with all the traffic). We caught the HOHO bus from the Centre, very reasonably priced at $39 for 3 days. And what great value these were! The tours were informative and covered lots of ground and we hopped on and off them while we were in New Orleans, parking up the car each day and using the buses to get us around.

Our first trip took us through all the main interesting parts of New Orleans and we saw Canal Street, the Central Business District and the WWII museum (where lots of oral history is still being collected). There was a Vietnam war veteran on the bus and he was applauded by other passengers. These vets now seem to have earned the respect of their countrymen though we did see many on the streets of America begging for support. We saw Magazine Street, the Garden District, Louisiana and St Charles Avenues, Mardi Gras World (we had just missed the St Patrick’s Day Parade and the trees and balconies were still festooned with sparkling coloured beads and we were told the parades were financed by independent ‘crews’ just for the entertainment of random passers-by and visitors), the Convention Centre, the Riverfront, Jackson Square (the site of St Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the USA), the French Quarter and Market District and the Esplanade. Of course, the best thing about these tours is the information the guides give you and, though the versions we got from the different guides on the different buses were not always consistent, they were all very interesting! They pointed out the Little Gem Saloon where Louis Armstrong learned his trade, the places where Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth had lived and worked (yes, they both had connections to New Orleans!) and the Elysian Fields Avenue of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Street Car Named Desire’ fame. We heard how the street cars were originally pulled by mules and how the mule tradition continues in the city (you can still take a ride on mule-drawn carriages and there are many still-used horse-head hitching posts), how the street cars still operate at very reasonable prices ($3 for a whole day or 40 cents for seniors). We saw the Winston Churchill statue (he had insisted on visiting NO because this was where the Higgins boats were built and he thought them instrumental in the winning of the war) and a nearby real-person human statue of a lady sitting on top of a set of traffic lights in her barely-there swimwear, just because she wanted to and could! We saw the Customs House (now a showcase for insects – yup, insects) and the original Mint building, now a jazz museum. We heard how NO is the biggest and busiest port in the world with 80% of the USA coffee coming through its docks, how the Mississippi River has water from 39 states draining into it, how many of the houses were long and thin (called ‘shotgun’ houses because you could fire a shotgun from the front door and straight out of the back door) because they used to be taxed on street frontage. We heard about the (fiercely protected) Vampire community in the city, how NO is welcoming, celebrates diversity, is non-judgmental. And, of course, all the history; how the French and Spanish influences had come about, how you had to be Catholic to live in NO before the Louisiana Purchase Act, how many Irish children were shipped over into the Catholic community there during the Potato Famine when they couldn’t be cared for at home, how the Creole community was established and evolved (we heard some people still speaking the Creole language, which sounded almost French but not quite), how the Americans first began to live there, how the statue of St Joan (of Orleans) on her horse is known locally as ‘Joany on the Pony’ .... Oh my word, there was so much it was impossible to take it all in or to remember it all. I bought a book ......

Then, of course, there is the recent history, particularly around the Hurricane Katrina disaster. There was an interactive map in the Information Centre which showed which areas of the city were flooded as a result of the hurricane. We saw the Superdome stadium which was used as a refuge centre at the time and we heard how 40,000 people refused to leave the city because they weren’t allowed to take their pets with them. The law has since been changed to permit this and thus safeguard human (and pet) life. We heard how inadequate the government emergency response had been and how dire the situation was (interestingly, we had seen a FEMA vehicle at our Pensacola hotel where the occupants were staying and we were still tracking that hurricane moving across our future travel path with some concern). We saw how much rebuilding had taken place such that it was almost as though the disaster hadn’t happened until you stumbled across pockets of rebuilding work on roads and property still taking place. A lot of people have made significant personal contribution to the rebuild and it shows, though Sandra Bullock is now trying to sell her house there, more to do with her marital woes than with any disenchantment with the city, I think! Overall, I was really impressed with the resilience and spirit New Orleans and its residents demonstrated and I fell in love with it.

We explored a lot of New Orleans (miles and miles of it) on foot, after picking out the places to revisit from the bus tours, or going to the places the buses couldn’t or didn’t get to. We were greeted in the car park one day by a huge muscle-bound man who hovered menacingly beside the car window – ‘Quick, Steve, lock the doors!’ It turned out parts of the car park had been taken over by a film crew, due to an episode of NCIS New Orleans. Maybe they would like to come and investigate that red stain on our motel carpet? I understand that film crews for TV and movies are welcomed in the city and we saw several of them, though how they could just take over a public car park was beyond me and I think they were just fibbing and trying it on. No matter, there was plenty of space left for us to park. We used our HOHO bus ticket to take us to the Lafayette Cemetery (remember my new enthralment with cemeteries?), now surrounded by million dollar properties, and we spent an interesting hour or two there, wandering up and down all the paths looking for a family tomb with the same name as us. We couldn’t find one, but no matter. A lot of the crypts are known as oven crypts, where ‘cooking’ in the heat was instrumental in body decomposition. I can verify from the heat of our time spent there that it wouldn’t take long – golly, it was hot and even I sought out the shade when I could. There were a lot of ‘community’ plots for, for example, firemen and orphanages, and some plots were on the wall and therefore cheaper, but most were private family plots, some with fairly recent additions though many dated back many years and you could tell when Yellow Fever hit due to the number of deaths at that time. Fascinating stuff!

We took the bus down to the riverside where I had a delicious and typical Poboy sandwich (no sauces, no spices, no embellishments – just a plain old bread bun with a meat filling - lovely) while overlooking the Mississippi. You can wander down to the riverside and take a bridge to the levee there and dip your toe in the river but it is brown in colour and not very inviting. The river is still very much a working environment and we saw lots of huge container ships sailing up and down and the Natchez steam/paddleboat still plying its trade to the tourists, as well as the ferry which takes pedestrian commuters across to the other side for just $2. America still has a significant railway infrastructure and the goods from the docks are transported on enormous trains which travel right through the pedestrian riverside area with no barriers or safety features in sight, just the magical noise of the wheels on the tracks and the sounding of the whistle to warn everyone they were coming through. The French Market offered lots of culinary delights and I bought a few trinkets there. I simply adored the architecture of the houses and other buildings with many covered in iron fretwork, originally used as a display of wealth and most having balconies and wooden ‘stoops’ where occupants still sat to watch the world go by. The side passages often led to verdant garden areas and patios.

And then there was Bourbon Street ..... Bourbon Street is the ‘tourist strip’ part of the city and it is said anything goes there. From my experience I would say it is also the mirror to the heart of the city. It was brashy and loud, with a permanent Mardi Gras vibe, but with all of the things that make the city what it is. It had bars and pubs on every street corner, strip clubs, souvenir shops, restaurants and street performers all intermingled with the facilities to support everyday needs such as corner shops and laundromats. And hovering over it, like a layer of protective balm, was the music, mainly jazz, either falling out of the bars, being played by impromptu bands on street corners, buskers on the stoops or tumbling from the balconies of the private residences, of which there are many on the less well trodden parts of the street. Indeed, a few short steps would take you from the hustle and bustle of the main drag to the calm of the residential area where the only sounds to be heard were the bird song and occasional wind chime. Quite incredible. We soaked the atmosphere up, like sponges, and tried to get every moment embedded in our memories. I was joined in my photo of my foot on one of those pavement street signs by a resident going about his everyday business in his slippers (who knows why but I wished I’d worn mine given the miles we walked) and the fun we had in those brief moments just about summed up the whole experience. It was simply wonderful.

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