Monday, 16 July 2012

travel: new orleans

i barely know where to start with this one. let's start ourselves off with an eloquent statement: mind = blown.

all you can do with a place like new orleans is to drink it in. many, many times throughout the trip i was filled with that desire i get as an aspiring writer to try and catch everything, pin words to paper, shrink the wide breaths of my experience into chewable portions to share with everyone else. i guess i resisted the urge at the time, because similar to trying to photograph or record an experience as a treasure, thinking of the words to allocate to this would have meant i missed out. and i really, really didn't want to miss this one.

i spent 4 nights in new orleans, louisiana, with my family- aunt and uncle, cousins and partners of cousins and family of cousin's partners, and partners of family of partners of cousins (still with me?)... and more. we were a party of 13 by the time we all arrived and settled in. i'd love to write this down day by day, to keep it solid in my mind, but the truth is it's all melded together, delicious and sweet.

new orleans is hot. like, humidly wetly warm. even spring heat and humidity was more than enough for me. i've never been comfortable with the sensation of sweat dripping down my back, from my knees, under my eyes. probably out of my ears as well, let's be honest. i've never been a hot climate person, but it's interesting to see how the climate affects the new orleans population. the locals, what i saw of them amongst the tourists, seem pretty damn laid-back. you get the feeling the place runs on new orleans time, which is just a half-beat slower than everyone else's watches. i don't think i was even wearing a watch by the end of the weekend.

i mention tourists. the first night we were there we headed for the famous bourbon street. it's all neon signs, cheap sugary cocktails and semi-naked women beckoning for you to come into their establishment. on one level, this is awesome. on another, you fear that your weekend will quickly become a drunken trashy nightmare, where you drag yourself out the other end saying "culture? what culture?" wearing plastic beads about your neck and questioning your life choices. happily, this was not how we were destined to spend our weekend.

we found a bar with real live jazz going on, and enjoyed mint juleps while we soaked up the music. it's such a good and soul-warming kind of music, where you can really appreciated how well the band knows their stuff. there's something inspiring to me about people who are musicians for life, and while i imagine it's not as rose-coloured and glamorous as it looks, there is still something romantic in the fact of it.

it was lovely to awake on our first full day in the city and feel its undiscovered potential beating just outside the window. new and unknown cities such as this one are delicious: i loved having a few things on my "must try" list and i loved the unfilled day beyond those few things. in all the foreign glamour of the famous town, i confess that one of my favourite times of the day was the very civilised breakfast with my aunt and uncle in the hilton breakfast bar. luxurious air-conditioning, a lox bagel and plenty of hot fresh coffee... the part of me that needs routine and calm loved sitting there, covering all or none of the pressing issues of the world with bob and sally. it's not to say that those mornings were without their touch of n'awlins; our server was definitely inclined towards calling us baby (not uncle bob, but i'm guessing he didn't mind), bantering with us in that glorious southern accent. breakfast is often best served with a side of banter, as long as it's friendly, and there's already been coffee handed over.

to think about it, i'd say that most of my favorite things that happened, happened on that first day. there were beignets, a delicious fried doughnut-type thing famous 'round those parts. there were markets, where sally and i dared to sample alligator jerky (turned out to be a rather soggy form of sausage, which i was fine with until sally commented upon its texture being close to that of masticated human... after that it was more a challenge against my imagination and my gag reflex to finish it), we wandered with strawberry Abita (local beer) in our hands, we tried fresh oysters (to wash away the taste of alligator)... there was shopping in the markets, with several pairs of goofy sunglasses purchased and modelled to perfection by moya, there was lunch and window shopping round the french quarter.

we found a little bar with a more local feel in the afternoon and took it over, all 13 of us, comandeering the jukebox, the pool table, the bar, the comfy window seats. we were so enthusiastic and just generally awesome (see ross and heather's posing skills) that the owner of the bar invited us to his shrimp boil a little later in the day. ladies and gentlemen, a shrimp boil is something of a southern treat. it's a bit of a backyard event, sort of like a barbeque. we all lined up dutifully at 6pm with plates, along with plenty of other local characters, having tipped the chef a few dollars, to get our fill of shrimp boiled up with full heads of garlic, lemon, chilli for a bit of bite, and various veges. but it was mainly about the shrimp, and holy crap were they tasty. big fat juicy ones, attacked with fingers to be pulled apart and enjoyed standing on the street outside the bar, of course with more beers on hand.

we got a free show, too. there was a guy and a dog called hair, yes, hair, and there was another guy who may or may not have said something that may or may not have been offensive to the dog-owner. anyhow, it all got smoothed over by george who just bought everyone a drink and put his arm around them in a friendly and reassuring way. it's hard to know exactly what went down, but everyone seemed ok at the end. the other part to the free show was the ambulance collecting someone further down the road... it all happened there, all at once.

there were many other highlights. we took a cruiser bike tour the next morning, a prospect that filled me with anticipatory dread (wouldn't currently consider myself to be a very competent biker) until it became obvious just how flat new orleans really is. we saw all manner of houses, we learned that americans were known by n'awlanders (of the spanish/french persuasion) as hallway lovers, for the housing of choice was a 'shotgun', so-called because if you opened the doors that ran through all the rooms (no hallways) you should make a shot clean through the house. i learned a lot about history in the south, including the slave era, which i'd never come across as an australian citizen. it was a glorious day for pedalling through the colourful neighbourhoods, enjoying the tree-lined streets and smiling at the locals. there were even hints of breeze from time to time which minimised sweatiness.

i ate fried shrimp, fried oysters, po-boys, all manner of seafood. i enjoyed the world's best ham at Mothers. i learned that a freshly made hurricane is much much tastier than a mix-made one. i managed to keep hydrated; no mean feat in the humid southern weather. in any tourist town, there is a beaten track. not to say it wasn't an awesome track as far as the beaten go, with the expected kaleidoscope of locals from friendly to tolerant to slightly amused. it being the weekend, there was of course an oyster festival in town which we enjoyed in small shady portions- by sunday afternoon it almost seemed too much, and to find ourselves in a sports bar watching america play canada in the soccer was hardly a surprise given the soccer-driven company (in case you're curious, i was all Canada: seemed fair when everyone else was on America's side).

we saw some quite amazing jazz on a saturday night: i think i might still be in love with the trumpet player, who not only played some epic trumpet (yes, it's a thing), but also had one of those husky female jazz singer voices that makes you feel sexy just by sitting there listening. there was amazing dancing along with it, a perfect side dish. we clapped and cheered a lot, and being a healthy sized group, the band couldn't fail to notice. so then we got to feel a little famous by conversing with them between sets. no big deal.

myself, bob and sally managed to sneak out of the city itself on sunday morning, off in search of a real live plantation house. we found one, complete with a local tour guide with a wonderful southern accent and a not-quite-right sense of comic timing which only served to make him more endearing, if a little awkward. he walked us through the basement, the house itself, the kitchen gardens, the slave quarters... i'm glad i had the chance to see it all, and pretty interesting to have the opportunity to soak up some history that was both strange and familiar. to add atmosphere, the weather was sweatily humid. humidity, my friends, is not for me.

it's hard to know if i've communicated the magic of the place with this travel entry. i mentioned at the beginning, way back there, that i was struck by the desire to capture it at the time, in the moment. i resisted so n'awlins could swallow me up, and swallow me it did. on saturday night we sought out a place to eat called elizabeth's, recommended to us by our cruiser tour guide earlier in the day. the food was very tasty, and we all ate until our bellies were full. struck by a need for momentum after the solid sitting eating portion of the evening, we walked back into the busy part of town. and that's the magic bit that got me. it was dark by the time we started to walk, but only dark in the way cities are dark, with streetlights and passing headlights and people home in their houses spilling livingroom lights out into the world. it was still plenty warm but no longer sweaty, and we drifted apart into twos and threes to wander the broken up streets (literally- huge potholes). there were trees and flowers and the air smelled sweet. the simple walk in the night with scraps of conversation as we walked, fading in and out, warm and comfy, on our way to hunt for another spot of n'awlins jazz.

i just want to end this post with an expression of thanks to my aunt and uncle, sally and bob, without whom this magical weekend wouldn't have been possible. i love and miss you, and am so happy i got to have that time with you. lovely and amazing barely begin to cover it. so i send you loads of love.

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