Wednesday, 7 September 2011

New Orleans

Ah yes, the Big Easy. What is there to say about this city that hasn’t already been said in great works of literature, expressed in the beautiful poetry of jazz or experienced by thousands of carnival goers? Elsje and I came to the conclusion that we LOVE this place. The city and its people have got spirit, and loads of it and you can feel it rippling through the streets, off the buildings. It is certainly a unique place and so unlike any other American city that I sort of feel at home here.  It’s also the first city that we’ve had plenty of time to explore. There’s something about the people that reminds me of Cape Town and yet there’s something special going on here that I’m sure can’t be found anywhere else. The people are very proud and there seems to be a real sense of community here; a bond created through shared experiences, both positive, like carnival time, as well as negative, like Katrina. New Orleans is most definitely a party town and yet it is simultaneously incredibly rich culturally.  Lots of art and artists, musicians obviously, beautiful buildings, particularly in the Garden District and many antique stores. The food is amazing and is a particularly interesting and striking reflection of the mixture of people to be found here.
There’s always something to do, some live band to see, some bar, restaurant, shop, neighbourhood or cemetery to go to. Also both mine and Elsje’s ideas and mental picture of the city have been informed by the writings of Anne Rice, so there was this constant feeling of familiarity wherever we went. We spent six days here, each one filled to the brim, touching and tasting lightly as much as we could and we barely scratched the surface. I like the fact that you can walk down the street and act as weird as you want and no one is too fussed. Awesomeness.

We got here in the midst of tropical storm “Lee” and stayed with our first couch surfing host in her beautiful shotgun house in the Garden District. The next day we braved the wind and rain – with a borrowed umbrella – and went to check out the French Quarter. Tropical storms are strange because it’s hot outside and yet it’s chucking down with rain, so we were outside in shorts and t-shirts, but clutching the umbrella. Unfortunately the streetcars weren’t running so we took a bus in to Canal Street, where we made a quick detour down Bourbon Street, seemingly pulled by the vibe.

We were informed beforehand by our host that we had come in the middle of the “Decadence” festival, which effectively amounts to a gay pride parade, but without the parade, just crowds of half-naked men doing a lot of drinking.  It was an amazing vibe though; people walking from bar to bar with drinks in their hands, live music blasting out of nearly every place, half-naked women standing in the doorways of the “gentleman’s clubs,” waiters standing outside trying to entice customers into their restaurants, shops of every description, including voodoo and occult shops, and even a dedicated clutch of Christian conservatives marching down the road with banners and placards, determined to let us know that “Homo sex is a threat to homeland security” – and all this activity, all this life, taking place in the midst of howling winds and pelting rain. A most spirited introduction to New Orleans.

It’s a bit difficult to describe exactly what we did, because most of the time we spent here was spent in awe, just walking down the streets, going into shops and art galleries, gawking at the wonder of it all.  We did things any tourist would do in any city and yet it’s different when done in New Orleans, and I can’t explain it any better than simply saying that it was the feeling, the vibe; it’s contagious and it gripped me from the outset and hasn’t let go yet.  There’s just so much richness here. I’m convinced that if I lived here my writing would be better.

On our fourth night here we met up with a most enthusiastic and eclectic fellow called Jorge who was to be our host for a night. He lives on famous Magazine Street in a room filled to bursting with books, music, masks, hats and costumes, paintings, Mardi Gras memorabilia and random trinkets picked up here, there and everywhere. In my opinion this guy is like a little slice of  the soul of New Orleans itself (see picture below). He was definitely in touch with what goes on there. He told us some amazing stories about his antics during carnival time, about the history of the city and it’s various eccentric characters. He knew where all the best bars and clubs were, where the best musicians played and how to do N’awlins on a budget. He took us to his local bar, The Maple Leaf, where we saw a funk band called “Papa Grows Funk;” very cool. We only spent one night with him, so it all felt a bit rushed, but we really got a feel for the local scene here and meeting him was definitely a highlight. 

On the same day we met Jorge the last of the storm was blowing away and in the afternoon, coming back from the Quarter, we saw an amazing brass band, just standing on a street corner, also blowing away [see video - I think they're playing a song called 'Casanova'].

After that the weather turned beautiful; all blue skies, sunshine and cool breezes and we got a chance to ride the streetcar into town, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We also moved to a great little garden cottage guesthouse further uptown.


Smiling in the rain

Some precautions against Lee

Ignatius J. Riley and I

Elsje under an oak next to Anne Rice's house

A wind-torn flag


Our host Jorge's cavern of amazing treasures

Papa Grows Funk, oh yes he does

A water snake

On our last day we visited the Barataria swamp, just outside the city. There were no people there because most of the trails were closed due to high water, but we went in anyway to experience the unique and potent landscape.

All in all we had an amazing time in New Orleans, too much to write about or show with photos. We highly recommend it, at any time of year. My mind was blown the whole time I was here so I can’t imagine what is must be like during Mardi Gras. Jorge said that New Orleans teaches you to pace yourself. Good advice I reckon…

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