Friday, November 11, 2011

New Orleans - Louisiana USA

We took our first Greyhound bus from Savannah to Atlanta from where we would be flying on to New Orleans.  The driver of the bus was a regular comedian and really enjoyed his microphone time, preaching lessons of peace along with general funny comments which achieved a nice vibe on the bus.  Atlanta is a massive airport and was where we met Latasha who was making her first ever flight so we helped walk her through the various hoops you need to jump through which must seem rather daunting on your first attempt.  We needed to take a train to our platform where we waited until we were called.  The flight went smoothly and we soon touched down in Louisiana from where we took a taxi to New Orleans and the house of our Couchsurfing host.

Thanks for riding with the 'Big Dawg' Greyhound

Arriving in Louisiana

Painted building downtown

The house was positioned downtown in a bit of a rough neighbourhood down river in Gentilly but within walking distance of Frenchman Street, Royal St. and Bourbon St. in the French Quarter although it could be a risky walk after dark.  We were greeted by Daniel who introduced us to the second of three housemates Jason and showed around the shotgun house.  The house is so named because one could theoretically fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door as there is no corridor and the doors are at either end of the house.  Nearby there were many abandoned houses which have been unoccupied since hurricane Katrina in 2005 and since fallen into disrepair.  Many of the houses still had the markings that emergency services had sprayed on the doors and walls to briefly declare important information such as who inspected the property and whether people had been found inside, dead or alive.  

The districts of New Orleans

The state of affairs after Hurricane Katrina

The X codes that are sprayed on the doors of abandoned houses

Renovated house stands next to almost identicle run down property

We started our first full day with a trip to Canal Street, a popular tourist area in the CBD which serves as the border between uptown and downtown New Orleans.  For just three dollars you can get a day pass to ride all three tram routes which are connected and can be accessed from the Canal Street tramline or ‘street car’.  We began with a trip down St. Charles Avenue where the main attraction here is spotting the beautiful houses that line the upmarket streets along with the Universities and the Garden District.  We got off at the end of the line and wondered around but other than a few bars and an industrial looking Mississippi River there wasn’t loads to see.  The train driver gave us a blast on his horn as he went past which was pretty cool but we were soon on our way back to Canal Street.  Canal Street was great but there weren’t many reasons for us to hang around as we weren’t here to shop and the bars didn’t have as much personality as other areas. 

Canal Street New Orleans

The tram or 'Street Car'

The train at the end of St. Charles Avenue line

An industrial looking Mississippi River

The beautiful suburbs along St. Charles

Next we boarded the Riverfront Line which had access to many of the popular tourist areas and after a short ride and a transfer we got off at French Market.  There were plenty of souvenirs to buy in the market along with plenty of food options albeit a little overpriced.  Instead we bought a sandwich and ate at the riverfront next to the Holocaust memorial statue next to the river.  We visited Jackson square in the heart of the French Quarter which is a beautiful square and boasts horses and carts peeling away from the pavement with happy tourists in the back.

Some of the food on offer in French Market

Joan of Arc statue

Jackson Square

The Mississippi river in a more touristic district

Holcaust memorial

That evening Daniel was able to take us out for a quick tour of the neighbourhood and look at some of the damage that still resided years after the Katrina flooding.  It still felt like the poorer areas of the city were trying to get back on their feet whilst there was no evidence of the destruction throughout the more popular tourist areas.  Then the three of us went out to the French Quarter to a club called Ye Olde Dungeon.  It’s a metal bar and is themed uniquely with caged booths and gothic design throughout and had five dollar pitchers of beer on the Thursday nights.  Not really in the jazz spirit of New Orleans but it was unique and great fun.  We made the most of the cheap pitchers, played some pool, cranked on some great tunes and had an awesome night. 

Abandoned house in the neighbourhood

In the Dungeon bar

The hidden toilets in the Dungeon Metal Bar

The next day began with a brewery tour with Daniel and his housemate Chris.  The New Orleans Lager and Ale Brewing Company occasionally opens its doors to the public to offer FREE tasting sessions!  This was an incredible treat and an iconic time to visit the brewery as they had just begun canning NOLA beer where previously it was only available on tap.  Stacks of cans waiting to be delivered to various locations and the shiny metal brewing vats formed the backdrop as the sliding door opened.  We were first in the line to begin our day with a pint of Hop Chocolate which was as good as breakfast and very tasty indeed!  Following this we made our way back to sample the various NOLA beers including the Hopitoulas, Blonde and Brown Ales and Smokey Mary.  They all had different personalities and some more than others.  I particularly liked the tang of the Hopitoulas and the Brown Ale.  We thought we would show some gratitude by making a purchase of the NOLA beer soap for five dollars, not much considering we had our fair share of ale over the couple of hours that it was open.

The New Orleans Lager and Ale Brewing Company

The new NOLA cans

Kate, Daniel and Chris at the brewery

The four of us together with the stainless steel tanks in the background

We cranked up the car stereo and the guys introduced us to Bob Katsionis, guitar and keyboard shredder extraordinaire, as we cruised around a local neighbourhood before heading to Will’s apartment.  Will is a friend of Daniel and Chris and also happens to work at the Brewery.  Will and Daniel have a current home project of brewing their own beer and we got to try some whilst we were there which was cool.  Later on we went to the British pub where Will also worked behind the bar.  There was a beer on tap which was the usual Smoky Mary but fused with Bacon and tasted pretty damn good.  I played a bit of darts with a local, well he played darts and I got my ass kicked, in this pub filled with dogs before we headed back.
Will's taps in the fridge housing the beer

Will working behind the bar in the British Pub

Kate and Daniel

There was a festival the next day in honour of mirlitons, a vegetable which is apparently better known as chayote.  No I had never heard of them before either, but locals certainly had and in the park bustling full of shops and people there was a fair amount of food dedicated to the vegetable and they even crowned their very own mirliton queen.  Little Freddy King and Lightning Lee played the next set with a few blues numbers before Lightning Lee took centre stage and did his stuff with the band.  Soon it was time for the main event with local hero Kermit Ruffins.  Not only does he have a great name, but he has an amazing talent when it comes to playing the trumpet and singing (and dressing) with his band.  There was an amazing vibe and he really got the crowd going with some great jazz covers.  There were a couple of talented female vocalists who took to the stage and a great male vocalist too all adding to the occasion and at one point Kermit got all the ladies up for his rendition of ‘I got a Feeling’ by Black Eyed Peas.  It was a great festival but the night was far from over.

Arriving at the Mirliton Festival

Little Freddy King

The festival goers

Lightning Lee

Some storeholders showing off their headgear

Kermit Ruffin

A guest appearance by a guy with a great voice

Guest appearance

Another guest appearance

Stock photo of merlitons in case you were wondering

Following the concert we hit Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighbourhood.  There was an amazing atmosphere and it was all about the music as we entered the jazz bar ‘The Spotted Cat’ which I immediately fell in love with.  There were live musicians playing traditional jazz with brass band, vocalist, pianist and even a washboard player.  The band were very professional and well-rehearsed which would have been enjoyment enough, yet on the dance floor were partners who were very capably dancing which was very classy and romantic.  The dancers would rotate partners after each song as is tradition and there were some real characters out there.  We stopped at practically all the bars, most of which had live jazz musicians in attendance.  Just as entertaining were the buskers positioned along Frenchmen who were of an excellent standard and gave the area buckets of personality.  Towards the end of the night we even found some of our beloved street food and bought a couple of large jerked chicken thighs for only seven dollars which was a great find.

The Spotted Cat Jazz bar

The street performers including a saw player

More live music

Our last night in N’Orleans was to be a blast.  We had a surprise lined up for us by our Couchsurfing hosts and we weren’t given any clue as to what was in store for us which was kind of nervy but also exciting.  We needed to wait for Chris who was finishing work at midnight so we had a couple of beers and tried not to think about what was in store too much!  When Chris made it back we jumped into his car and headed out on our mystery adventure.  We had been driving for about half an hour until we reached what looked like the entrance to something.  Once we were in it became clear by the rollercoaster in the background that it was an abandoned theme park which was extremely cool and very spooky.  Daniel explained that the theme park had been abandoned since Katrina and checking it out on Wikipedia it has had ownership problems ever since. 

The 6 Flags Theme Park during the Katrina flooding
The chair swing in the Park

No ice cream in here

A rather sorry looking carousel

We began by the entrance just looking out over the whole landscape and soaking up the silence which was extremely eerie.  The feeling of being in an abandoned theme park is quite hard to explain and although it was in a state of utter disrepair the rides and buildings were easily recognisable and on first glance you wouldn’t guess it had been closed for over six years.  We made our way around the park checking out the various crumbling rides and taking a viewpoint from the rollercoaster with a beer.  It was a completely unique experience, quite sad in many ways as it was another example of the devastation caused by Katrina but also special because it was something that very few people would have had the opportunity to do.  An early morning Po Boy at Gene’s was the first order of the day which was a monster of a sandwich that would be a challenge to eat alone so we shared one between two.  It was another great example of the food on offer in the South. 

Riding the rollercoaster

The viewpoint from the rollercoaster

Daniel and Chris

The directions to the rides could have been better

The Ferris Wheel

New Orleans had been a really fun experience and a non-stop party.  With the benefit of the guys in the shotgun house we had managed to see not only a brief insight into the touristic side of the city but were also lucky enough to see things that we would have missed such as the NOLA brewery, Frenchmen Street and the Theme Park.  The Merliton Festival and jazz bars gave us a full dose of music and enabled us to really soak up the vibes of the city.  We had had a lot of fun and I would love to go back one day.  There are still plenty of problems in the city and lots of these could easily go unnoticed to the average tourist, many of the folk here feel neglected by their government and there are communities that remain broken.  In spite of the problems or perhaps in many ways owing to them, New Orleans has a unique spirit and plenty of energy that will without a doubt leave an impression long after you go.   

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