Shiny Metal Tiger

Experiences in Baltimore, MD

Road Trip days 12-15: N’awlins

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New Orleans marked the halfway point of our trip, and was definitely one of the highlights. Top pick for my companion, though the Grand Canyon takes that honor in my book.

As usual, our first objective was to find a place to stay. I had already scouted out a few hostels online (courtesy of Starbucks wifi), so it was a simple matter to drive around to each of them in turn. We ended up staying at the Olivier House the first two (weekday) nights, and then having to relocate to the St. Vincent guesthouse for the weekend. The former was fantastic: smack in the middle of the French quarter, and oozing personality, with nooks and crannies and hidden passages. We even met perhaps the most influential person for our stay in N’awlins there, but I’ll get to that in a minute. St. Vincent’s, on the hand… everything was spotted, had holes in it, or both. The kitchen was closed down. One of the guys in our dorm had been missing for a week. It was perhaps the dingiest hostel I’ve ever stayed at, including the ones in China last year. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers, and we’d knowingly neglected to make reservations for a weekend that featured Halloween, a major music festival, a vampire convention and lord knows what else.

The Olivier House

Now, I would be treating St. Vincent’s unfairly if I didn’t mention the one great thing about our stay there, namely breakfast at the nearby Blue Plate Cafe. Luverly place, lots of eggs and waitresses dressed for the occasion (Halloween, not breakfast). I had a pair of tremendous crawfish cakes with hasbrowns, topped with fried eggs and crawfish sauce. Very yummy, and quite enough to fill me up. So why did I order dessert afterwards? To put it simply, a phantom message flowed through the cosmos like the tears of the gods, informing me that my anointment would come in the shape of pecan pie a la mode. Either that, or I had fallen under a hoodoo spell of compulsion urging me towards the same end, for unknown and nefarious reasons. Either way, the pie turned out to have been made by Brahma himself, using ambrosia and locally grown pecans. Words cannot describe the sublime flavor of this pie…

Pecan pie with ambrosia and vanilla ice cream.

As I mentioned, we met a wonderful Spanish woman at the Olivier House who had been living in New Orleans for a year and a half. She gave us some great tips for good times in N’awlins, of which my personal favorite was our night in Tremé.

You might have heard of this neighborhood through the new HBO series by that name; if not, it’s an old old part of New Orleans, with a powerful black history. Part of this heritage is the brass band tradition, and that’s exactly the reason we headed to the Candlelight Lounge that Wednesday night. Not in a million years would we have found this place on our own, and even if we had stumbled upon it I’m not sure we would have gone in. We had walked through dark and lifeless streets for a good while before we could make out a deep beat that eventually brought us to an unremarkable single story building with a hefty doorman outside. On the inside it had the same almost quaint atmosphere, with tables and chairs right out of a school cafeteria and improvised decorations here and there. It was obvious that everyone but us were regulars, and you got a distinct impression of this being real people doing their own thing. Once the horns started blaring everyone was tapping their feet and nodding their nods, and most of us got up to dance. We’d been told that these places usually give you free red beans & rice, and the Candlelight Lounge delivered as promised. They had a big old pot cooking in the back, and it was a veritable treat (and a brilliant partner to the booze we were consuming) I think this was my friend’s favorite part of the whole thing. Aside from this, they were selling gumbo and cakes outside; not a great deal compared to the free red beans, but you needed to go outside anyway, to cool off. In one of these breaks we fell to chatting with an odd couple: a slightly crazy somalian woman and her friend/ex, who was supposedly a pirate/musician and the owner of three functional cannons. Additional good times ensued, as you’d expect. Totally cool experience, and I’m unreasonably satisfied that I got to see something other than the French Quarter.

Not that the Vieux Carré was a bad place to be, not by a long shot. Architecturally it was great: old colonial houses with elaborate iron galleries and shuttered windows. Interestingly it’s actually built during the Spanish rule, as the original French houses mostly burned down in 1788 and ’94. The narrow streets do admit cars, but it’s nevertheless very pedestrianized; there are street performers, sidewalk cafe and countless bars. Literally, countless bars. On Bourbon street alone there’s one every five meters or so, no kidding. I tried to count them but failed because I was drunk. During the day the whole place (but especially Bourbon street) has a distinct ‘morning after’ feel, for obvious reasons. When you’re on vacation, though, that’s not such a bad thing (aside from the smell). We would get up and saunder around, perhaps stop somewhere for a po’boy or muffaletta, or go to the landmark Café du Monde for some coffee and beignets. We did the latter a lot, both during the day and after a night of debauchery; the Café is open 24/7, and all they serve is coffee (+/- milk) and the french doughnuts with powdered sugar. Very yummy, and feels downright European to get your coffee in cups while sitting outside. Until you notice the assembly line of coffee and doughnut dispensing machines whence the waitresses claim your order, that is.

Jackson Square, heart of the French Quarter

We quickly grew weary of Bourbon street though, for any number of reasons. It was all very tourist-minded, drink-until-you-barf minded, spring-break minded. We always had a ton of things to do the next day, so ‘pleasantly drunk’ was our modus operandi. When we weren’t hunting down brass bands in shady neighborhoods, we generally followed the advice of pretty much every local we talked to and went to Frenchmen street just west of the Quarter. Similarly bar-studded, it was far more college-students-enjoying-themselves minded, which suited us just fine, and (as had been the case ever since we entered Tennessee) there was live music in most of the bars.

Although I’d originally planned to spend Halloween trying to crash a notorious college party in Houston, we ended up going with the safe option and staying in New Orleans. A $55 shopping spree at Walmart eventually produced Togaboy and The Grand Prize, and with our alter-egos thus in place we headed out into the hallowed night. There was a big parade that we caught the end of, and just a ton of people walking around (mostly) in costume, with more privileged revelers tossing beads from galleries and windows. Basically a miniature Mardi Gras, except that the beads weren’t really currency for anything. With no roots tying us down, we basically spent the entire night walking back and forth between Frenchmen and the Quarter, getting drinks at different places (and some beignets, for good measure), checking out costumes, listening to street musicians, dancing on vans and talking to people. Reveling, in other words.

The Grand Prize suits up

After a few days in New Orleans, you had almost forgotten that you were on a road trip through America. Aside from the European atmosphere (legally drinking on the street!) and unique cuisine, there were just so many things that were somehow different. One of these was of course the cemeteries, where everyone is buried in mausoleums above-ground to prevent them from literally rising from the grave in wet weather. These modern-day necropoleis are veritable mazes of ironwork fences, religious icons and mausoleums of all shapes and sizes. It’s not just for show, of course, and many of the tombs are decorated with flowers or votive candles. A few of the most famous ones, like the one(s) supposedly belonging to voodoo queen Marie Laveau, have large piles of appropriate offerings. It’s quite a sight, and probably even cooler by night.

Necropolis

We really did too many things in New Orleans to describe them all, so I’ll finish off with one that it would be a crying shame to omit, namely a tour of the Honey Island swamp. Cruising around the swamp in a small boat was fun in itself, but what really made the experience was our tour guide, Captain Ted. Claiming to have grown up in this swamp, he certainly was an cornucopia of stories about its vegetation, history and inhabitants (human and otherwise). Expertly maneuvering the boat close enough for photos of birds and gators, all the while explaining how ‘donuts’ aren’t really doughnuts because  (unlike beignets) they are made from cake batter rather than dough. Or that the Spanish moss hanging from most of the trees down here isn’t actually a moss or lichen, but rather a close relative of the pineapple, and then going on to explain how his grandfather would harvest the stuff by hand (well, with a rake-like tool he’d made) and sell it to people needing to replace the horsehair stuffing of antique furniture. With his weathered face and independent attitude he seemed the iconic American; a John Wayne of the Bayou.

Captain Ted baits the gators

One of the things I left out was a visit to the Audubon Zoo. Nice place on a nice day, but I’ll do the show and (maybe) tell in a separate post. After that I’ll get to our true Journey to the West, through Texas and the Midwest deserts. Stay tuned!

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Written by Martin

2010/12/15 at 19:26

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] I mentioned in the New Orleans post, we spent a nice afternoon at the Audubon Zoo. To avoid getting started on animal trivia, […]


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