The Bayou, the Quarter and the Valet
Most of the highway into New Orleans is really just a long bridge over old-fashioned swampland. Once in a while you cross dry land and occasionally you cross an actual river. The river is where I saw the first alligator. Later I saw 4 more…one was on top of the other. Could be he was just trying to reach something up high, could be he was just trying to keep his friend warm, could be there was some gator sex happening out there in broad day light. But I’m a born and raised Tennessee girl and gator hating is in my DNA so I chose to believe I witnessed a bonafide gatorcide. That top gator was doing his best to kill the bottom gator.
Traffic in Louisiana is BAD! Like we’d just been in southern California and had a broad base of comparison and still thought it was bad. But traffic in New Orleans is basically just a noisy parking lot. You can holler out the window at your neighbors, ask their name, get to know their life story and make plans to meet for drinks next week and you’ve still only moved six inches. But they were nice. Every time Jim asked me to switch lanes and I flipped my signal on…people made a hole.
We actually think this might be partially related to another phenomenon we noticed…people are afraid of people who drive buses. Maybe they’re just afraid of the bus…maybe they saw YMCA on the bus and thought we were hauling kids around…I don’t know but we never had a problem getting over.
We did have a problem parking. When you make a hotel reservation in New Orleans you’re also supposed to make a parking reservation. Not that it would have mattered because we weren’t driving cars…we were driving 20 foot long buses! So we paid $200 to the valet and he let us park them on the curb…right in front of the hotel. Blocking traffic. We would quickly discover that everything has a price in New Orleans, and if the price is right you can have anything you want.
New Orleans was MY end of the trip. The Grand Canyon had been for him but I’d spent 3 weeks researching the French Quarter and had another 10 pages attached to my itinerary with history and addresses. We were gonna do it all and see it all.
We showered and dressed and hit the road…we were staying on Camp Street which turns into Chartres Street which runs parallel to Bourbon Street…but it’s one street over. Got that?
We should talk about perception vs. reality for a bit. I’ve always been mildly interested in New Orleans. I never really sought out information about it before this trip but I also didn’t pass it by if it presented itself. Plus, I’d just done three weeks of research so I thought I had a pretty firm handle on the Crescent City. I thought there was a richness to the culture…in the accents, in the history, in the pride.
The reality is we met one person with a faint Cajun accent…and I may have imagined it. I was indulging in cocktails. Which brings me to my second point…New Orleans smells bad. Bourbon Street is the worst but the entire French Quarter smells of old beer, pee, and garbage. Sometimes if the wind blows just right you can ignore it, but mostly it just stinks. And while Bourbon Street does have a few nice restaurants and boutiques, it’s mostly sleazy.
The Quarter is laid out as a grid with the skyscrapers (the hotels) at the north side and the river at the south. It’s fairly easy to navigate once you learn that and we noticed that as you cascade away from Bourbon Street the shops get nicer and the bars get fewer. Around dusk each night the police put up barricades stopping traffic from traveling north and south. At the same time the nicer places all close up shop and go home for the night. And as the sun sets the French Quarter shreds all signs of respectability and becomes a writhing frat party with naked girls dangling from windows and drunk people urinating in the street. Fun!
We kinda stumbled onto Pat O’Bryan’s. We just looked up and there it was. It’s one of the most iconic eateries in New Orleans and famous for having invented the hurricane…which is NOT named after the hurricanes that pummel the coast…but for the hurricane lamps that were used for lighting back in the day. The lamp also did not get its name from the storms. Go figure.
We ate in the alley. Yah. They have a large alley and it’s set up with a bar and bistro tables. It’s actually pretty nice; we were close to the bar and had a view of two water fountains. But…the food is wonderful! I kind of had low expectations…it’s know for inventing a cocktail…how good can the food be? But it’s delicious. I had brisket with potatoes and I loved it. Jim had the trio…jambalaya, red beans and rice, and gumbo. He loved it…I didn’t. It was dry. The 2 foot tall hurricane I chugged made it better.
After dinner we wandered a bit just taking in the sights. A Creepy tall man invited us into a club to see ‘free titties” but…I actually brought mine with us…told you I don’t pack light. Then we stumbled onto Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo!
I had done my research on Marie and was excited to see the shop. If you’ve ever experienced the inevitable let down associated with walking into one of the surf shops in Myrtle Beach….you know how it was. Mass produced chotsky’s. It looks like they’re printing books, post cards and magnets right there in the shop; low quality graphics in black and white. The voodoo dolls look like they make them with discount fabric from Walmart. And the staff was two skinny college guys eating fast food and ignoring everyone. I expected a plump Cajun woman with a colorful cloth wrapped around her head and sparkling eyes hiding a deceitful nature.
The voodoo Queen and celebrities
The next day was better. After a good night’s sleep and some breakfast we headed to Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo Shop to meet up with our tour guide, Pam. We did a tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 but the first hour we just wandered the town as she gave us a history lesson. I was pretty much in heaven. I can’t remember even half of what she told us but in a nutshell…the French founded the city, the Spanish took over, then the Americans came.
The people of New Orleans hated the Americans so much they created a neutral ground to hold meetings…literally a grassy knoll between the French Quarter and the American area on the opposite side of Canal Street. To this day, what we call a median, they call neutral ground. And if you get caught in rain and it starts to flood, the news will advise you to pull onto the neutral ground and wait for the pumps to pump out the water. And…if you call work and say ‘I’m gonna be late I’m stuck on neutral ground’ not only is it an acceptable excuse for being late but they seriously don’t expect to see you for at least an hour and a half!
The cemetery is next door to a visitor’s center with a LARGE digital map of the city. Pam spent some time showing us the pumping stations and what actually happened during Hurricane Katrina. It’s pretty scary, especially since it can happen again if a hurricane pushes up from the Gulf.
The cemeteries in New Orleans are infamous. Officially, there are roughly 7,000 people buried in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1…unofficially they suspect more than 70,000 are buried there. All of the Quarter is basically just a sinking swamp. They didn’t know this in the early 18th century when they were burying the thousands of people who died from yellow fever. So they buried them IN the ground. They’d pop up and float away or get reburied every time it rained. When the Spanish took over they brought their above ground burial system.
Finding bodies in your backyard is so common…they’ve developed a procedure for it; first you call the NOPD to determine if the body is old or new. Assuming it’s old, they have to do DNA testing to determine the nationality. If it’s Spanish, French, or plain old American, you have two choices; if you dig it up you have to pay to have it re interred. Or you can just leave it there.
Pam told us about a body that tuned up recently when a local man was having a hole dug in his backyard for a pool. Ultimately, he left the body there. I think knowing a body was under my pool would be disconcerting. BUT…the older bodies in NO aren’t just your average hard-working settlers. Once the people of France learned they couldn’t grow anything on the swamp land and that yellow fever ran rampant, they refused to immigrate. So, in desperate need of settlers, they emptied prisons and insane asylums and shipped the occupants to the Crescent City. When these new ‘settlers’ demanded wives, they emptied the women’s prisons and sent them over. Which means the average Nawlin’s ghost is a criminal, a crazy person, or some combination of the two. I would not want those ghosts tethered to my pool!
The cemeteries attract all kinds of crazy and the Save Our Cemeteries organization lobbied successfully to close them to tourists. In order to enter you have to be a tagged member of a paid walking tour and the tour guides are personally responsible for making sure they leave with the exact same number of people as they entered with. Unfortunately it means you’re also limited in what you can see. They don’t have time to show you every single tomb and they can’t let you wander off on your own. It also means it’s difficult to photograph anything without also photographing the 45 tourists meandering about.
Despite all of that we still had a really good time. She showed us the tomb that people mistakenly believed to be Marie Laveau’s for decades. It’s covered in XXX’s. Apparently the working theory is that you make a wish and mark it to Marie with three X’s. When the wish comes true you come back and circle those X’s. None of the X’s are circled! BUT…that might be because the tomb they’re marking is NOT Marie Laveau’s.
When she was buried the tombs weren’t marked so no one really knows which is hers. The Catholic Church supposedly dug through existing church records and determined that a much newer and cleaner looking tomb was hers. There’s some understandable disbelief. But the Church produced an impressive placard and had it attached to the tomb anyway.
The new and improved Marie Laveau tomb receives a fair amount of attention from fanatics. In December of 2013 someone painted the entire tomb pink with standard house paint, so the Archdiocese paid someone to clean it. That someone had no idea the tombs are built with a special kind of brick and mortar, and then covered with another layer of mortar. This concoction is essential because of the high humidity and allows the tombs to ‘breathe’’. He attacked the tomb with a pressure washer and almost destroyed it. A fundraising campaign was started and raised $7000 of the $10,000 needed to repair it. Some industrious reporter reached out to the most famous of Marie Laveau’s descendants… Desiree Rogers…famous for the White House party crashing incident…and she immediately offered to pay the difference.
After the tour we shopped. My first priority was finding VooDoo Makeup. Cait is fanatical about her makeup…it has to be cruelty free and she only likes very specific brands. Voodoo Makeup is one of the few places I’ve heard of where you can have custom colors mixed…I had a laundry list of products to buy for her. But…turns out the New Orleans location closed down months ago. The shop is still there and it looks like they just closed up for lunch, but we asked around and no one could remember seeing them open since before Christmas. Major bummer!
But we did find a few other boutiques with perfect gifts for the kids…and souvenirs for us. Trashy Diva is an awesome retro shop where Jim picked out a pair of sunglasses for me. I’ve been obsessed with sunglasses lately! And Fleurty Girl has great New Orleans themed souvenirs that aren’t tacky. And…Lost and Found is a mix of vintage pieces and cute boutique items. I found a gorgeous baby doll dress for Candice and adorable tortoiseshell sunglasses with little cat ears for Cait.
We had dinner at Deuce McAallister’s restaurant on Royal. They had a Cinco Cinco special on margaritas…so I had TWO! In my defense, they were delicious! I had short ribs and Jim had a steak and everything was so good! It’s seriously hard to find a bad meal down there.
Then we wandered. We walked Jackson Square and browsed through the art work, then we hired a horse carriage for an evening tour of the city. Our driver was…weird. I thought he might be on drugs at first and worried that we’d end up at the bottom of the Mississippi in some kind of freak horse-drawn carriage incident. But it turns out…he just speaks slowly. He was really funny and knew all kinds of gossip about the French Quarter. For instance…he pointed out every single house owned by a celebrity. Did you know Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie live across the street from the house Matthew McConhaughey rented? Or that the two actors stood on their balconies talking and Matthew tossed beers across the street to Brad? Now you know.
He also pointed out the Delphine LaLaurie house…the most haunted and notorious house in New Orleans. The story of Delphine laLaurie featured prominently in season 3 of American Horror Story: Coven. Delphine had a nasty habit of torturing her slaves and killed several. In 1834 her 70-year-old cook, who was chained to the stove, set the house on fire in a desperate attempt to escape the torture. Neighbors observed Delphine running in and out of the house trying to ‘rescue’ her valuables.
When the fire marshal arrived the cook told amazing stories of torture and death. They searched the house and found slaves chained and caged throughout the house. Many have been tortured, some had their mouths sewn shut and were missing appendages. Ignoring the Code Noir Delphine had used them for her own twisted medical experiments and to satisfy her sadistic nature.
When the neighbors learned of the disturbing events taking place, a mob descended on the home. But the Lalaurie’s escaped before the mob was able to enter the home. No one knows for certain where they went…the trail just disappears that night.
DAYS EIGHT & NINE
Momma I’m coming home
We left Friday morning and headed to Atlanta. It was a ‘quick’ 6 hour drive which we desperately needed. I’d visit New Orleans again…but I’d definitely wear better shoes. By Thursday night our feet were so bruised from walking the broken and uneven cobblestone sidewalks that we literally limped back to the hotel. Plus the long hours in the bus are kind of cathartic. Your mind gets to wander, you get to reflect on what you’ve done and seen…and you get to day dream.
I decided somewhere near Biloxi that I could be a Sherpa. A Sherpa for European tourists wanting to explore the vast wilderness of America…
Tourist 1 – Is so windy, I need moisturizer
Me – Whoa Eidelveiss…this is Chicago…Chi-town! You don’t need moisturizer, you need a gun. Gimme the La Mer and see if anyone has a spare
Me – Ok, we’re going to leave the hotel and travel east to McDonalds. Remember the bob and weave technique I taught you…practice it…it may save your life.
Tourist 2 – hehe…is like we do Congo!
Me – Yah…Lederhosen how bout you go stand in the front of the line.
Me – There is a 90% chance that 30% of you will NOT survive this outing. When we get back there will be a short break while I do a head count and make sure everyone paid in advance, then we may venture out to explore something we call the ‘subway’.
Tourist 3 – are our chances really that bad?
Me – they’re better with Lederhosen in the front…but just the same I wouldn’t make dinner reservations.
Tourist 1 – Look! Baby gun fits in Fendi baguette
Me – That’s great Edelweiss. You go to the front of the line too…that’s right…next to Lederhosen.
I should point out that I’ve never actually been to Chicago. I probably couldn’t find a hotel, much less navigate my way to McDonalds. And apparently I’m a mean Sherpa…
We stopped for the night around 6, found a store to restock supplies and then went to Pizza Hut. I was going to take a mini vacation from my vacation and indulge in the indoor swimming pool…but we got back to the hotel so late it was closing.
The next morning we hit the road bright and early. We got home around 5. But there was no rest for the weary. We had no food in the house. None! So I went to the store while Jim washed the buses and prepped them for the big handover. Then…we slept!
At the beginning of our adventure I thought of first class plane seats and deluxe suites as luxuries. By the end of the trip I was looking forward to being able to pee whenever I wanted! It’s amazing how something so simple can be so gratifying. And being able to walk across the house for food…instead of having to hunt it like some kind of modern day caveman…pure bliss!
We’ve been home 8 days and we still feel like fish out of water. When I get into my car I reach to the wrong spot for my seat belt and still try to shift gears by the steering wheel. I keep forgetting I have a counter-top full of cosmetics and toiletries and find myself using the same few items I took with us. But going out is the worst…Hope Mills feels alien to me. I barely left the house the first 5 days we were back. Now I drive the same streets I’ve been driving for six years and it just feels…unfamiliar? Like it’s changed somehow. And I’m constantly surprised that I don’t recognize anyone in the cars passing me or in the stores. And it’s not like I knew everyone here before…so it shouldn’t surprise me. But it does.
The first few days we were back Jim kept smiling and saying ‘I can’t believe we did that!’ We left our comfort zone and we had a true adventure…no kids, no dogs, no agenda.
Just the two of us…