Thursday, August 12, 2010

One Day in the Big Easy

There's a free tour of New Orleans which leaves from the visitor centre in the middle of town. People line up early as only twenty five free tickets are given. We just happen to be there early, seeing as how we thought the centre would have already been open.

Sure we had to wait around the streets, but getting into the city before nine meant we could take advantage of the early bird parking special. Roll in before nine, and get out before two – only five dollars. That's much better than the eight an hour it would otherwise cost.

Now, why anyone would want to take this tour is beyond me. Clearly to line up early they had already heard about it, which leaves me questioning what they were told. I'll sum it up – thirty minutes of walking half a mile, listening to information printed on the sign outside the building. You do not walk through the city, just by the water which is not scenic, nor does it offer any real purpose for being there. If you're up early, skip the tour – go to the green and white striped cafe and enjoy some sweet sweet French donuts covered in powdered sugar. That's your best option.

But, if you were roped into the tour, then at least you ended off at the church – it's a nice looking building, as churches tend to be. Not only that, but it makes for a great starting spot to begin exploring the town. Walking beside the church puts the traveller smack dab in the middle of Pirates Alley. This is where pirates were said to meet up and talk in secret. And who doesn't love a good romanticized version of pirates? Sure we hate the ones that rape, pillage, and murder today – but hundreds of years ago on tall ships? Those rapists, pillagers, and murders were so wonderful that Disney still operates a ride depicting all of those things.

At 624 Pirates Alley you'll also find Faulkner House Books with many first editions behind glass.

The most obvious place to wander is through the French Quarter. This is the well known area of New Orleans, and the one spot that did not get flooded. Hundreds of years of history are still intact and well preserved. The cottages, and shotgun houses line the streets. It's like looking at a place long forgotten – and strict laws preventing people from remodeling aim to keep it that way.

You'll find balconies overlooking the streets, plans overgrowing the iron enclosures. Brightly coloured doors with contrasting coloured walls aim to make every house noticeable and distinct. And the shops – oh the shops. While the buildings may be authentic, there are still just as many places here looking to grab tourists and shake them poor as you would find anywhere else.

Beads for sale on every street, and voodoo dolls. Shop keeps point to signs reading, “no pictures,” and will pick up dolls – walking towards you – should you refuse. Ironic since they'll be the first to admit these dolls were used as a way to allow people to communicate their pains an problems when languages did not match up, never to inflict pain.

Still, it is that pain infliction which drives sales. That small monkey brain eating boy what could pull still beating hearts out of peoples chest from The Temple of Doom made sure this iconic artifact would stay entrenched in the publics mind for all time.

Powders, potions, and plastic skulls can be purchased if you feel the need – and why shouldn't you? Who doesn't need a plastic skull or two? As for the potions – extra energy, peaceful sleep, etc – the corner stores sell bags of mixed pills with the same labels. I'm not sure which I find more distressing.

And there is art here. There are a number of galleries ranging from the unknown to the blue dog. One gallery claims it to be the only one dedicated to body painting. All the pieces are photographs of the artists paintings on models. His brother who runs the shop will be more than happy to point out some of the ladies and describe them as his girlfriends best friends. There's something awkward about this. Still – most of the pieces are interesting, and do not focus on sexuality, rather remaining as true art. I still can't help that it proves my thesis, put forward back in Oslo, that art exists as a means for men to get women naked.

Cemeteries. The Cemeteries are another interesting stop in your tour of New Orleans. Being below sea level, the tombs are all above ground. Flooding causing the bodies to bang against the top of the graves gave way to rumours about vampires and other such monsters. Which must have been fun for those frequenting these places by choice or necessity.

Marie Laveau is buried here. You'll know the grave by sight. It's the one with all the X's on it, and the pile of pennies, student cards, beer glasses, creams, shells, marbles, and who knows what else in front of it. People make their marks, and leave items in hopes of having their wish granted by this once great voodoo priestess. She has become title character in many novels, and even a song written by Shel Silverstein of The Giving Tree fame.

Walking these plots has been something I had wanted to do for years, and standing in this area was the first moment I felt that I was in New Orleans – that I was somewhere different.

New Orleans is best known for its party scene – late night drinking, drive through beer stores, and people living fast loose and easy. But for those of us on a road trip, with early mornings, miles to cover, and a motel outside of the town proper, this was not an option. There would be no drinking here – and thus, one of the greatest aspects of the city is washed away. I admit I will not know that which most love of this town.

The day was growing on, and we had to move our car. Wandering back to the lot, and trying to leave we were told the fee was fifteen dollars. That's more than five, I thought. As it would turn out we would only get the five dollar rate if we left after two, not before. That made little sense to me, but shrugging, I re-parked the car. We now had unlimited time in the city. Whatever feelings of rush that had once existed were now gone.

With so much time to expend, we wandered in the local mall – saw food, and were overcome with a desire to eat. But here, in New Orleans there had to be something better than fast food. To just fill our stomaches cheaply would be missing out on a culture experience. Even I could see that. And after last nights tasty meal, I was ready to live and love the south through my stomach.

Leaving the French Quarter we hit the warehouse district. The change was instantaneous an jarring, Gone were the quaint houses, here was a modern city. I wondered what percentage of tourists ever made it this far. An hour of wandering yielded no food – no acceptable food. We made our way back to the prettier part of the city. Near the church was a restaurant called the Gumbo Pot. We went inside.

Claiming to have award winning gumbo, I was excited. This food, it was new to me and what a tasty treat it could be. Jambalaya, red beans, creamed spinach, delicious fresh bread, and spices shrimp on rice. Every bite was perfection – and the bread pudding for dessert? Phenomenal. This is why you need to order the full meal up front. I can't recall the last time I had restaurant dessert. I always want it going in, but am too full by the end. When it's already ordered, it matters not how full you are – once it shows up, you're good to go.

Once more, I couldn't help but feel just how much of an experience eating the local food is.

As we headed out, and returned to the car there was just one more place in the city I wanted to see. The field where the Battle of New Orleans took place. One of America's most celebrated battles. Never mind that the battle took place after the war had already ended.

It was just a field like all others, but the blue sky, the green grass, and the power plants in between? Well it was something. I can say I've been there, walked the field, if nothing else. Lets see – I've now touched the American Revolution, The War of 1812, The War of Northern Aggression, World War I, World War II – and I think that's all. No doubt there were many others I've wandered through without knowing, historically speaking, but there it is – without knowing.

I'm still slightly upset I never got to Vietnam. I really wanted to say, “this reminds me of when I was in Da 'Nam.” That day will come eventually, I'm sure.

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