One week in Nawlins, and a big fat Tuesday was enough for me...
02.03.2014 - 07.03.2014 6 °C
Hi there everyone,
My next stop took me on a slight hook turn from the north west to the deep south, all the way to New Orleans, Louisiana. When I was planning my trip all those months back, I could not resist heading on down for one of the world's greatest Mardi Gras festivals. This even after Mum had relayed the dangerous reputation of New Orleans from a man she'd met on a tour in Europe, his son having been randomly gunned down in the street. So I bid an ambivalent farewell to Portland, a city of exceptional planning and avant-garde culture that shivers through the wet and the wind, in search of southern hospitality, warmth and raucous chaos. I flew in via the Houston "George H Bush Intercontinental" Airport (no joke, he's not even dead yet and they named the frigging airport after him. He wasn't even born in Texas!) replete with a charming and forward looking statue of the President. While the statue was proudly upright, Bush strutting with jacket over shoulder into a industrial fan, I was shocked to see so many people getting around by buggy; apparently the walk from security screening to the gate was too far for their corpulent mass. They were however able to make a stop off at one of the deep friend fast food chains along the way.
Mardi Gras. Outside of the gay world, the holiday in Australia conjures up images of pancakes, church and, well, pancakes. My image of Mardi Gras in New Orleans however was of ostentation, frivolity, boobs and beads, marching proudly through the city streets with everyone drunkenly partying along. My feelings were guided by a disposition of mild curiosity and study... lolkatz. Before I get to the real story, I have to mention Paul, a former school teacher in New Orleans who decided to supplement his retirement by shuttling passengers to and from the airport. He had that twangy accent and over-the-top enthusiasm that reminded me of Wallace Shawn (think Princess Bride). He was so helpful and informative, giving me all the best tips to sample the finest food, see the best parades, and encouraged me to do as many tours as possible, like the wicca and vampire tours. Paul is one of the first people I genuinely felt deserved a tip; he wasn't just making the effort to extract that extra money from me either. I know some of my American friends hate me for constantly bringing it up (April Millage in particular) but the tipping 'culture' is so ingrained, with 'suggested' amounts stated on receipts, that people don't actually excel to deliver the best service; it's not needed when you're customarily going to receive the tip anyway! I completely understand that bartenders and waiters rely heavily on tips to get by, but tips should be more a service above expectations. Furthermore, while hospitality staff are obligated to declare tips for tax purposes, most people just lie and therefore are essentially paid "cash in hand". Some restaurants will actually use tips to cover wages, so a waiter can be earning $2.50 per hour and the remaining to make minimum wage is taken from the tip jar. What the???? An American at the New Orleans hostel explained to the ungrateful Australians and Europeans that tips "stands for To Insure Proper Service"
I definitely wanted to give him a tip on his acronym construction (however I feel like I have just invited some spelling and grammatical criticism from my mum). I'd like to suggest that prices, and correspondingly wages, are upped 20% and bibbidy bobbidy boop! no more tipping unless it is well earned, people are appropriately taxed, you pay the advertised price (when they include taxes too!) and everyone is happy.
Anywho. Booking accommodation for Mardi Gras, even several months in advance, is difficult, with price gauging and very limited options. The cheapest and most central accommodation is booked up a year in advance, which left me little choice either paying an exorbitant amount or settling for something a little less desirable. I settled with the Marquette House, a hostel in the Garden District about three miles out from the French Quarter. The house itself is a quintessential New Orleans post-colonial gem one block back from the street cars on St Charles. That's where the appeal stopped. The building was rundown; the flooring was warped and the walls cracked from the humidity, the toilets (located at the entrance to each dorm building) were blocked and the doors didn't lock. The kitchen had no plates, cutlery, stove top, microwave or clean sponges (although it did have tupperware without lids). No lockers were provided, and the sheets had been used as drop sheets (I told myself those stains were paint). Making these security issues worse was that I was sleeping not in a six person dorm as I had booked, but in a 24 person dorm. It has been the only hostel I have stayed in during this trip where I thought my laptop and passport were ripe for the picking, so they often came with me into town. This would have been fine with the convenience of the streetcar on St Charles, however the St Charles streetcar DOESN'T RUN DURING MARDI GRAS. The staff were so ignorant that not even they were aware that the streetcars didn't run. This photo below is basically what St Charles (an historic parade route) looked like each morning after the parades and why the streetcars were unable to run -
My big gripe with New Orleans in general was the lack of public transport during Mardi Gras. Nawlins has been hosting Mardi Gras parades since the 1830s, so you would think they would be prepared to transport people to and from the French Quarter with buses and street cars and directions and marshalling and
It is a free for all. Most seasoned partyers got around on bikes, smugly skirting the crowds and traffic. I became so desperate one night I was about ready to accept a lift from the man who stopped to solicit some... services, just in the hope that he would drop me back at my shitty hostel. He was definitely a creeper and don't worry Mum and Dad I resisted. The taxi drivers (like much of the city) are less than law abiding, rarely using the meter and instead charging flat 'negotiated' rates. One driver thought it best to drive through the French Quarter just after the end of the parade, against my no brainer request, and was astonished at the traffic. Oh would you look at that, the meter (only time it was ever used) is running up. How about that? Another drove through a police road block while talking on his phone, only to be waved through by the police. The best solution - if the street cars are offline during the parades, how about some replacement buses? Or at least some dedicated taxi ranks?
Now the positive stuff. As soon as I dropped my things off at the hostel, I changed into a shirt and shorts to enjoy the warm night air and partake in the revelry of the city. A friend from Seattle had put me onto another friend who was down for the week and after exchanging a hundred texts and establishing a means of transporting myself downtown (taxi driver on his phone) I dived head first into the Mardi Gras chaos. I'd agreed to meet Aaron and his friend Evan at a pub around St Anne Street, to which my taxi driver assertively drove. He pointed me to the bar and I walked in expecting to find the two guys. What I had actually walked into was a dimly lit cavern, full of leather bound patrons, semi naked bar tenders, unidentifiable sticky substances on the counter tops and floors (and a glob that fell from the ceiling onto my shoe), two men partaking in felatio at the bar and a huddle of men in a dark corner doing what I was barely game enough to imagine. A few more text messages revealed that I had actually stepped into Rawhide, a gay leather and sex club. I quickly ran out of the club still with the beer in my hand I had bought while waiting for Aaron and Evan (honestly, as soon as I knew I was in the wrong place I got the hell out of there!). In my disorientation I managed to get a wrist band to "come back any time" and made my way down to the real bar to meet the guys. It was only when I entered I realised that I had walked down the street with an open beer. Evan and Aaron reassured me that, while open glass alcohol bottles are not permitted, consuming alcohol from a plastic container is permitted anywhere in public areas. Score! After a couple of bevies and shots at the bar (no perverse acts undertaken, to the chagrin of Aaron) we moved onto a few different places. The streets were overrun by a party of parties that dominated all the senses and sensibilities. I had my first of so far two Michael Jackson dance offs during this trip, with a beautiful women that awarded me her feather boa. Evan and I were harassed and close to molested by a small woman from Georgia who was obsessed with tall men, bending over for us and trying to lure us back to her hotel (not gonna happen lady!). The end of the night is well summed up by this photo:
A bitter cold morning awoke me the next day, with the Arctic winds having snaked their way south over night. The cold and wet weather settled in for the week, forcing me back into dressing in jeans, jumpers and my delicious but cumbersome winter coat. Once again I was foiled by the lack of public transport, waiting half an hour for a bus a few blocks from my hostel. I got talking to an Australian girl who informed me she had been waiting 45 minutes, so I took some initiative and set off on foot down the street. Its approximately an hour from the Garden District to the middle of the French Quarter, which gave me an opportunity to explore Magazine Street. This is one of the main boutique shopping strips in the city, with an eclectic array of good including Mardi Gras costumes. The streetscape is mesmerising with mid-19th to early 20th century shop fronts and dwellings defining this neighbourhood. New Orleans is proud of its history and has taken great pains to preserve the historic districts, even in the face of natural, financial, racial and political adversity. Between the Garden District and French Quarter, the Warehouse District is becoming a trendy gentrified neighbourhood, dominated on by the monolithic World War Two museum and city efforts to move out the junkies and hookers. Finally I made it to the French Quarter and met up with Aaron and Evan. We watched the all important transfer of the City keys from the Mayor to the King of Rex Krewe, an important Mardi Gras custom. Traditionally, the King of Rex (arguably one of the most important societies and floats in Mardi Gras) was a descendant of the original European immigrants to the City (including Creoles); however a City ordinance introduced in the 1990s required all Krewes to comply with anti-discrimination legislation and the City's Human Relations Commission. Some of the major krewes decided to remove themselves from the Mardi Gras parades rather than reveal their membership to the City; however the ordinance has been overturned as it was considered unconstitutional (first amendment apparently). So below are some photos of the Rex Krewe King.
During the event, I was lucky enough to indulge in the famous Muffuletta from the Grocery Co, a must have while in New Orleans.
Food is symbolic and sacred in New Orleans, representative of the diverse cultures that have made this city into what it is today. The Creoles (a mix of European and Caribbean/black heritage born in the then French and Spanish colony) and Cajun (Acadian descendants from Canada) are the most influential, the result being delicious seafood and chicken dishes like Gumbo and Jumbalaya. I treated myself to a delicious lunch at the famous Gumbo Shop, the outcome being these delicious dishes (and my fat tum-tum).
As you've guessed from previous posts (yes I know this one has been a long time coming) this trip is taking a very gastronomical theme. The quality of the food in the states, the meat, the fruit and vegetables and the drinks (free pour!) have been exceptional. And each state is distinct from the next, a reflection of the people and the diversity within the country. To keep this tangent short, this trip has made me realise that saying "urgh that's so American" is so inappropriate, akin to saying "urghh you're so European/Russian" to a Ukrainian (its funny and relevant). This country is just as diverse as Europe and somehow manages to celebrate and promote it's diversity whilst maintaining and defending its unity.
That night Evan, Aaron and I battled the bitter cold to view the Lundi Gras parades. I've posted all of my parade photos up on Facebook, but the ones below are some of my favourites, and the end result after catching ALL OF THE BEADS. There is a statue adjacent to Louis Armstrong Park dedicated to throwing the beads, with the catch-cry "Hey Mister, throw me something". I was especially proud of my pink dice, for which some poor kid was desperately trying to trade me. I was such a tease, I got him up to $20 at one stage. Afterwards we went over to Frenchmen Street to a jazz bar and listened to a fantastic local group at the Spotted Cat. The drummer sang a couple of songs and, even though he was a middle aged white guy, sounded as grizzly and soulful as Louis Armstrong himself. I feel so lucky to have experienced such fantastic Jazz music in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras morning, or Shrove Tuesday, is the climax of the parade calendar, with the biggest and most renowned floats parading down St Charles Avenue and onto Bourbon Street. Even though my hostel was a turd of place, it was perfectly located to enjoy the frivolity and wonders of these incredibly creative and spectacular displays. However, 2014 was the second wettest Mardi Gras on record and also one of the coldest. I feel guilty saying this, but instead of partaking in the revelry of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, I stayed in bed, huddling for warmth with my blankets and coats. Technically, I sorta kinda missed the official Mardi Gras parades. My bad! Even worse, I spent that afternoon in the Starbucks cafe on Magazine Street with a cup of hot chocolate and free wifi access. I had bid farewell to Aaron and Evan, my fantastically patient and fun babysitters who flew back to Seattle Tuesday afternoon, and decided for the rest of the week to make the most of the city's hangover to explore this historical place.
I downloaded a self-guided tour for the French Quarter from Frommers, which provides suggested itineraries, food and hotel suggestions for a multitude of cities around the world. For history boffins on a budget, this is a fantastic website! Again, I've uploaded all my photos to facebook so you can have a look at them for yourself, and I've copied the introduction to the French Quarter from their website below:
"If you only spend a few hours in New Orleans, do it in the exquisitely picturesque French Quarter. In these 80 city blocks, the colonial empires of France, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, Britain, intersected with the emerging American nation. It's called the Vieux Carré or "old square," but somehow it's timeless -- recognizably old while vibrantly alive. Today's residents and merchants are stewards of a rich tradition of individuality, creativity, and disregard for many of the concerns of the world beyond. This tour will introduce you to its style, history, and landmarks."
On my last day, I paid for a walking tour of the Garden District, the super enthusiastic tour guide beginning with an impassioned history of the city and why she, as an import from California, loved the city so much. She has been part of the Muses Krewe for a couple of years, famous for being all-female, throwing shoes and light-up purses. The City has had a complicated history, changing between French, Spanish and American hands, as well as dumping ground for weary travellers from all over the world due to its importance at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Notably, proud Creoles will have the Fleur de Lis tattoed on their necks or wrists as was customary for immigrants during the French ownership. In actuality, it was the incarcerated and the institutionalised that were forcibly branded with this mark, as a property of the state. This diversity helps explain why there are so many accents, rather than the distinct southern accent, present in the city as compared to the rest of Louisiana. Notably, the city was excluded from Abraham Lincoln's declaration of war on the south; the city is a bastion of quasi-liberal lifestyles that distinguish it from the rest of the state and the south. The tour guide went on to discuss the City's recent chequered past, with New Orlean's former mayor Ray Nagin convicted of corruption and collusion in the clean-up and rebuilding following Katrina. Unfortunately many of the areas devastated were the poorest neighbourhoods in the city and are still yet to fully recover, nearly 10 years later. A public bus route that goes through these areas inadvertently became a defacto tourist route, rightfully causing a lot of grievance in the community and pulling into question the city's desire to use tourism to rebuild the city.
The tour started in the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. This cemetery is a national monument, constructed by the Creole population in the 1830s for all peoples; it is non denominational and non-racial, and characterised the area prior to the mansions built by the Americas in the following decades. Burying the dead was not an option due to the rising water table and the ensuing results. As a compromise, bodies are placed to rest in mausoleums, traditionally of white marble or granite. Families can buy a plot on the proviso that they maintain the plot to preserve the history of the cemetery; any derelict plots are resumed by the City and resold. Bodies are bound and placed on the top shelf of the mausoleum, and decompose relatively quickly due to the intense heat and humidity of New Orleans. When another family carks it, the remains of the previous body are pushed to the back of the tomb down a cute to the lower shelf with the previous family members. Most tombs have around 10 names inscribed; some are reserved for the City's fire fighting departments, and some are allocated to the Krewes of the Mardi Gras floats. Attending a traditional funeral service in New Orleans (I assume Christian) is quite a sight to see. The procession is led by the casket and the mourners with a brass band playing sombre jazz. People will dance with so much emotion and physicality that they seemingly throw themselves to the ground, only to pick themselves up and continue with the procession, wailing and calling out. Once the ceremony is done however, the band and the mourners will celebrate the life of the deceased, with upbeat music and lively dancing, proceeding out of the cemetery and down the street. The crowds for well-known people in the city can be in the hundreds. The cemetery has been used in a few movies, most memorably for me in Double Jeopardy with Ashly Judd. New Kids on the Block also shot a film clip there.
After the Lafayette Cemetery, our enthusiastic guide led the group through some of the tree-lined streets of the Garden District, home to exquisite mansions from the plantation era during the 1800s. The mansions vary between Greek and Roman Revival and Italianate styles, with some incorporating all three. The Garden District is recognised as a site of historic significance in America for its well preserved architecture and urban design; while many of the properties have been subdivided and more modern additions constructed, the wide frontages, well appointed gardens and ornate fencing still dominate the streetscape. The area was developed with the influx of Americans to New Orleans, keen to avoid the Creole population east of Bourbon Street. There is a clear separation between the opposing sides of Bourbon Street, illustrated by wider streets, a greater number of trees and a clear distinction between residential and commercial areas. The Garden District feels more orderly but also much more passive; private security companies were employed to protect these properties for months after Katrina in 2005 until residents began to return. Today, property prices are back to sky high levels, with many celebrities either living in the area or at least owning properties, such as Sandra Bullock and John Goodman. Nicholas Cage at one time owned several properties in the French Quarter and Garden District, until he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The city was happy to see Mr Cage leave, having made several controversial imprints on the city, including in the Layette No. 1 Cemetery by building a pyramid shaped mausoleum that took up three plots and was to preserve only his remains.
That same day I took the opportunity to explore the Irish Channel district to the south of the Garden District. It is appropriately named after the Irish immigrants who took up residence in the area; it's less salubrious than the Garden District but again is very clearly distinct from the French Quarter. This area also felt a little unsafe for me, with a number of menacing looking people hanging out on stoops and in the gutter drinking in the middle of the day. I did have a purpose there which was to meet up with someone I had been chatting to on that wonderful of social networking apps we Darlinghurst frequenting men have come to know and love... I've forgotten his name now but he was grizzly and wore a snapback. I had one other Grindr meet up that was much more innocent, a young musician originally from Shreveport in north-west Louisiana with a strong Texan accent. He invited me out for a drink and then to watch a movie back at his place in the trendy warehouse district. We (legitimately) watched a movie called Bernie, starring Shirley MacLain, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey which I highly recommend for everyone to watch, and that's coming from someone who doesn't like Jack Black movies. Its based on a man in a small town in east Texas who gets caught up in a dysfunctional relationship with a wealthy but bitter, jaded widow. Jack Black was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. It was a good introduction to Texas which is my next stop after New Orleans. Sadly nothing more came of that night but it was good to spend a night with a local.
My last touristy endeavour was one of the most moving experiences I have had on this trip. Housed on the ground floor of the Louisiana State Museum, beside the beautiful Andrew Jackson Square, is the Katrina and Beyond exhibit, dedicated to the tragic hurricanes in 2005 that devastated this city and many others along the Gulf coast. Hurricane Katrina killed 1800 people and caused an estimated $81 billion damage. The category 5 storm, the most powerful of hurricanes, levelled the city and destroyed the antiquated and completely inadequate levy system that protects the city from the Mississippi and the Gulf. While the millions of residents were forced to evacuate prior to the storm, approximately 100,000 residents (generally those without cars, house bound, eldery or homeless and disproportionately black) were left behind. Many of the resultant deaths were from heat exhaustion, dehydration, electrocution and drowning in the aftermath of the storm. Thousands upon thousands were left to fend for themselves with inadequate food and water, surrounded by water-born diseases. The exhibit was pointedly silent on the intense criticism felt by the Bush administration in its response to the disaster, instead educating the public on the inadequate levy system and response protocols of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The exhibit used multiple media to convey the abjection people felt while waiting for rescue, and the time it took to rehouse those that had lost their homes and businesses. There were whole walls from houses, with diary inscriptions detailing the physical and mental trauma people experienced; clothes and pictures of pets, testimonials, flags. But the exhibit also celebrated the resilience and community spirit of the city, and the belated realisation of the infrastructure and processes required to survive the brutal environment.
I feel a little unlucky with the weather during my time in New Orleans, as it definitely marred my experience of one of the biggest parties in the world, as well as one of the most diverse and historically significant cities in America. By Thursday, I was one of two people left in the 24 bed dormitory at the hostel, and shared a couple of bevies with some other Australians and Brits who were left over as well, bitching and whingeing about life as we tend to do. At this point I feel like I can tick Mardi Gras New Orleans off my list; however, if I were return I hope I could explore and enjoy the city for its full potential. Next stop: Austin Texas, for the South by Southwest Festival.
Ciao ciao xx