About ten years ago, I was working at home one early summer day, sitting at my kitchen table listening to one of those early Internet radio stations (RealPlayer, or RadioVH1 or something like that). I had randomly tuned into a French Jazz channel. As I hummed along while working, the sounds of New Orleans rung in my ears, and I was struck with a rather random thought. “Hmm…” I pondered. “I’ve never been to New Orleans before. That would be a fun place to visit.” I stewed on the thought for a few hours, and later that afternoon, on a whim, I called one of my old roommates to run a crazy idea past him. “Hi Paul, what would you think of taking a vacation to New Orleans with me this summer?” I asked.
Part of the reason I called this particular friend is that he’s always been a great sport—up for almost anything. “Umm, New Orleans? Why?” he asked. “Why not?” I answered. “Neither of us has been there before, and they have jazz and seafood, and the street names are in French. It would be a fun experience.” He acquiesced: “Okay, that sounds like fun. Count me in!” In the span of one afternoon, I had gone from a whim that popped into my head, to a full-blown commitment to travel across the country with a friend. After a few minutes of searching online, I found I could get a round-trip ticket from Denver to New Orleans for only $320. As a young man with a wife and two kids, finances were tight, but even I could afford that. After a few emails back and forth to confirm time off from work and other logistics, I bought my ticket with Continental Airlines. It was official: I was headed to Dixieland.
When the time came, my wife dropped me off at Denver International Airport and said goodbye. The first leg was from DIA to Bush International in Houston, TX, with a short layover in between. During the flight to Houston, I experienced the worst turbulence I’ve ever felt on a flight—it was so sickening and so frightening that when we finally landed in Texas, I laid down on the ground and nearly kissed it. I spent my entire layover on my laptop looking up car rental rates to see if I should just rent a car and drive to New Orleans rather than face another turbulent flight. Since my budget (and timeline) for this trip was very strict, I decided against wasting any extra time or money on an unplanned car rental. I felt sick to my stomach as they called for final boarding for the flight to Louisiana, but I begrudgingly boarded anyway, telling myself it would be over soon.
I was incredibly thankful when we landed at Louis Armstrong Airport; my flights were now over for at least a whole week. After walking off the plane and exiting through the airport’s large front doors, I felt, for the first time in my life, the hot, humid smack in the face you get when leaving the comfort of an air-conditioned building and braving the natural atmosphere of the South in summer. I had never experienced such humidity before—it felt like walking right into a steam room at the gym, it was so warm and wet. The air was thick with water, and I could feel the moisture going deep into my lungs with every breath. I instantly began sweating even though it was late at night. My friend had flown in the day before and had already booked us a hotel room, so he came to pick me up in his rental car.
The next day, we decided to hit the town, not knowing exactly what the hotspots were, or how to get there. I looked up the city of New Orleans on my very limited and often inaccurate “TeleNav GPS” app on my Blackberry, and we headed towards the French Quarter. We found an exploitatively priced parking lot, parked, and started walking towards the most famous place we could think of: Bourbon Street. (On a side note: by now, I’ve been to 25 states, and 5 countries outside the USA, and while I haven’t parked in the world’s largest metro areas, I can say that New Orleans has the most expensive parking of anywhere I have been.)
We found Bourbon Street after a few minutes of wandering and stopped at a charming two-story restaurant where we decided to have lunch. We sat on the second story balcony and perused the Cajun-inspired menus while a torrential downpour beat down on the building in the most magnificent way. I ordered a shrimp po’boy while smoking a cigar, and my friend ordered an alligator po’boy. (Of course, in New Orleans, they don’t call it “alligator” — they call it “gator”). We downed some beers from Abita (probably the most well-known local brewery) and pondered all we’d seen so far. We’d only been in the French Quarter for maybe an hour, and there we were, on Bourbon Street, taking in the food and scenery. It almost seemed too easy. (For those who may be wondering: yes, gator does taste like chicken. It’s a bit chewier, but that’s the only difference).
That first day in New Orleans was magical. We found hand-rolled cigar shops, we discovered the unique drive-through daiquiri stations where you can buy an alcoholic drink at a drive through, we saw homes and churches built over 200 years ago, we toured kitschy gift shops selling alligator skulls for tourists, and more. There are many wondrous things to discover in a city with so much history.
One of the pleasant discoveries I made was that the laws are such that you can drink liquor from an open container in public, as long as you use a plastic cup. Due to this, the liquor stores all have big red solo cups at the check-out counter and ask if you’d like your booze opened. If so, you pour it into the cup right then and there and recycle the bottle. It’s quite convenient and very clever.
The most unpleasant discovery I made was that of fire-biting ants. I encountered them while taking a picture of the equestrian statue at Jackson Square Park. Trying to fit the massive sculpture in my camera’s viewfinder, I stepped backward a few paces, off the pavement and onto the grass. Faster than I could realize what was going on, angry red ants climbed up my shoes and onto my legs, then dug their fiery jaws into my flesh, instantly putting red welts all over me. I stomped around, jumping and convulsing while screaming like a madman, trying to figure out what had even happened. My friend and several other tourists watched from a distance, dumbfounded at the sight and hiding their giggles.
Across from Jackson Square, we saw some street performers, which included not just musicians but also “living statues,” and gymnasts doing backflips and acrobatics. We headed to Café Du Monde, which is a coffee shop that claims to have been open 24/7 for over 140 years (except during hurricanes). I had previously scheduled a rendezvous with another friend I’d known for a few years, who was living in New Orleans. This was the place he recommended we meet, and I’m glad he did. This is just one of the things you do while in town: you go to Café Du Monde and order the beignets and a Café au lait. When he arrived for our meeting, I laughed at him when I saw the enormous umbrella he was carrying. As I would find out over time, the rain in New Orleans is relentless. He knew better than me. We chatted for an hour or so, wiped our sticky fingers from the moist powdered sugar that covers the sumptuous French pastries fried in pig fat, and said our goodbyes.
The next day, my travel buddy and I got back into our rental car and decided to go exploring, with no maps, and no agenda. Since we had driven in from the airport on I-10 from the west, we decided to head east on Highway 46 to see what was on the other side of that big, rusty, metal bridge. Once we passed over the canal, we started driving slower and slower as the scenery changed from beautiful old buildings to decrepit and abandoned gas stations, and homes with missing roofs. I was bewildered and wondered: “Why are these homes and buildings in such bad shape?” I surveyed the rusted, rotten wreckage barely ten minutes from the heart of the French Quarter and mumbled quietly to myself: “Crazy. At least nobody lives here.”
That’s when I saw them.
I looked closer at some of the homes with gaping holes in the roof, or front porches so rotten you couldn’t walk up the steps, and I saw people poking their heads out the front doors. Or I’d see a flickering TV light through a window, indicating that the home was inhabited. I even saw one or two grandfatherly types sitting in a chair on the front porch of a home that—in any of the cities I’ve lived in—would have been condemned as unlivable. Who were these people? Why were they living in such deplorable conditions? Didn’t they know this is unsafe? I had much to learn.
We kept driving, and turned north, following what looked like a path of destruction. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. A hurricane? Hurricane Katrina? The hurricane that hit New Orleans three or four years previously? How could there still be so much damage all these years later? I would ponder these questions for a long time, later realizing just how naive I was. Of course, to an extent, this was the whole purpose of my trip: to become exposed to a new place, new people, a new culture, and a new way of thinking. I was there to explore, to learn, to listen, and not to judge.
When Hurricane Katrina hit land back in 2005, it was an incident that happened far, far away from my life in Colorado. Honestly, the only memories I had of Katrina were running on a treadmill at the gym and watching waves crash into buildings on the overhead TVs that were playing CNN. At the time, I thought: “Huh. That’s sad.” But that was it. Now, I was seeing the devastation first hand. To be more honest, I was seeing devastation—of any kind—first hand, for the first time in my life. What had been more than 1,000 miles away from me in the past, so remote and disconnected, was now in front of me.
Anybody reading this who is familiar with New Orleans in general, or Hurricane Katrina specifically, would know what I didn’t know at the time. I had, completely by accident, stumbled across the Lower 9th Ward—the neighborhood hit hardest by the hurricane. I know this now. At the time, it was just a random coincidence, and I was trying to make sense of the scores of homes I saw in shambles, which were boarded up with plywood, and had cryptic signs spray painted on the front of them. At first, I had thought maybe this was graffiti left by white supremacists or other folks with racial motives. I later learned that these were markings left by the FEMA Urban Search & Rescue team, indicating whether the home had been evacuated, whether the gas and water had been turned off, and whether anyone had been found inside the home—dead, or alive.
Those first two days in New Orleans were an eye-opening experience. The rest of the trip was enjoyable and interesting, but the lessons I learned in the first 48 hours after landing still stick in my mind. As I took in everything I saw, I felt an almost urgent need to ask the obvious question to the folks I met: “If your home was destroyed by a hurricane and you evacuated to survive, why did you come back?”
The response I got from almost everyone was consistent, and striking: “Because it’s all I know. New Orleans is my home.” I asked people all over the city to tell me their “hurricane story,” and everyone who lived there had one. The details varied slightly, but the basic idea was the same: they escaped the hurricane, found a friend or family member to stay with, and came back eventually, having lost everything, to start over again. Most folks I talked to went to Texas, especially Houston or Austin. Some went to Arkansas, some went to Georgia, and some went further: Oklahoma or Missouri. As I mentioned, by virtue of the fact that I met them in New Orleans, it was obvious that they had chosen to return to the city where they lost it all.
I tried not to be offensive when asking a follow-up question: “Please pardon my ignorance,” I’d say, “but isn’t there going to be another hurricane again someday?” All of them agreed that there would be another hurricane at some point in the future. And all of them were willing to come back anyway. I wasn’t sure whether to be troubled or inspired by this way of thinking. Was is brave? Was it foolish? I didn’t know how. Some people told me they lost their guitars in the hurricane. Some lost their cars; some lost their cats, some even lost their grandmothers. …but they all came back.
A mantra I heard them share, with pride, over and over again, was: “We do things a li’l different down here.” That was obvious.
I’m not sure whether I should be proud or embarrassed to say that during this trip I had my first experience as a racial minority. One day while driving back to our hotel, we needed to pick up some groceries, and we stopped in at a small mom-and-pop grocery store called something like “Bruno’s.” I found what I needed, and loaded it into our cart, merrily going my way when I had a realization: my friend and I were the only white people in the store. I can’t say people were “staring” at us because I don’t think they were, but everyone was looking at us. I started to wonder: are we on the “wrong side of the tracks?” Then my mind raced: “Wait, is that even a thing in the South?” All in the span of a few seconds, I was working through a conflict in my mind. Was the mere fact that I was thinking these kinds of thoughts offensive? Was I unfairly stereotyping the South with some “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” caricature from years past? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now. These were challenging ideas, ideas I had never encountered up to that point in my 23 years of living.
New Orleans is a funny place. It’s very hot, it’s extremely humid, and it rains nonstop. It’s so temperate that banana trees grow like weeds. It’s old: when I was there, the city was celebrating its 290th birthday, and they like to remind people that their city is older than the USA. They have a wonderful culture full of jazz, zydeco, gumbo, alligators, jambalaya, cypress swamps, and all kinds of things you won’t find anywhere else in the USA, or the world, for that matter. It has a dozen nicknames: “The City that Care Forgot,” “The Big Easy,” “Crescent City,” “The Birthplace of Jazz,” and more. The residents have homes that get decimated by hurricanes every decade or so, and they keep coming back and rebuilding. They eat things like crawfish, and instead of grilling steaks on their birthday, they eat “mudbugs.” There are topless bars and strip clubs just a few blocks away from centuries-old hand-hewn stone cathedrals. It’s a city full of drugs, both legal and illegal, and gospel music. It sports cigar lounges, jazz clubs, and luxuriously expensive hotels whose guests drive Ferraris, though right across the bridge, people are living the most extreme poverty I have ever seen in the USA.
In New Orleans, you can visit antique stores that sell supposedly authentic receipts for slaves sold at auction in years past. Did you catch that? Receipts. For. Purchasing. Slaves. I saw one bill of sale that had listed among the “goods sold” at auction: “One male negro in good health; missing a few fingers on his left hand.” Just thinking about the fact that I was standing in a store in the 21st century looking at an item like this that was for sale, made my head spin.
New Orleans is proud of its French heritage, even though almost nobody speaks French these days, and for decades, children were beaten for speaking French or Creole in schools. It’s a city full of cemeteries with above-ground graves since it floods so often. It has the most infuriatingly unpronounceable names for things, like “Atchafalaya Basin,” “Tchoupitoulas Street,” “Lagniappe,” and “Tujague’s Restaurant.” I think they love that outsiders can’t pronounce these.
To me, New Orleans was a mystery. An absolute delight. A warm, humid, intoxicating surprise that sounded like music in the night. It enchanted me, and I will never be cured. I’ve been back once since my first visit, and intend on making a regular pilgrimage to this old, strange, and paradoxical land. I highly recommend you do the same if you ever get the chance.