March 13, 2014

New Orleans

That pretty little port town in deep south Louisiana.  New Orleeens, N'awlins, N'worlins....However you decide to pronounce it (and no, you'll never nail it like a local), it's still a magical place to visit.

I've been there countless times since I was 16 years old.  One of my very best friends is from the West Bank, the more laid back residential section.  The area most folks hit is what we refer to as The Quarter....the French Quarter- Downtown, East Bank, Business District, Red light District.  It's an amazing place full of history, magic, and mystery.  There are Voodoo shops, strip clubs, 5 star hotels, Armani stops, and Walgreen's.  Little restaurants tucked away in unexpected corners.  It's rare that I get to go and play the part of the tour guide, but in the last year or so I've had that pleasure a couple of times.  Once for some Austinites who accompanied another best friend of mine in for a weekend, and then this week with my sister in law who hadn't been there in a decade.

I've noticed anyone who goes more than once or twice in their life has a "thing" they have to do when they are in the city.  Mine in particular is to go by Marie Laveau's Voodoo shop.  Not really for anything to purchase per se, but I go and put a coin or two on the altar there just for her.  It may not be my preferred spiritual practice, but I try to stay in good graces with the local traditions.  You never know.  For one of my photography friends, it's the chance to stand by the river and take another perfect camera shot of St. Louis Cathedral.  My personal favourite photo of it happened when I was leaving on the cruise ship and caught it just in time through the trees.  For my sis in law, as with several other folks I'm sure, it's the Cafe'.  Cafe' Du Monde on Decatur street.  Known the world over for their beignets, they serve them piled high with powered sugar and dark roasted chicory coffee with cream.  As long as you don't inhale or exhale as you bite, you're OK.  Inhaling powdered sugar isn't fun...and the exhaling...well, it's OK as long as you aren't wearing black!  

St. Louis Cathedral with Jackson's statue
Walking through the streets, I'm used to following...or at least semi-navigating.  This last trip was unique in that I was leading.  I always said that I could feel my way through the streets but most of that was bravado...until now.  Getting into and out of the business district is still a bit tough for me without GPS of some kind, but once I'm parked and on foot....the rest is muscle memory.  Bourbon St., Royale, St. Charles, St. Peter, Jackson Square, JAX brewery, Canal St...it's all there in my feet.  Not to say I don't get turned around and have to find my bearings now and again...but once I stand by a land mark for a minute and work it out in my head...I'm good.  Having only gotten into the true tourism part of it in the last few years, I've only been on two guided tours there.  The college years were the party years, Bourbon St. was all we knew.  I've taken a carriage tour and a Vampire tour...I highly recommend both as well as any others you can find.  This city is so filled with history it's overwhelming at some points.  From the "coffin girls" to Voodoo, there is always something to learn.

Tarot and art in Jackson Square
Burned and flooded, NOLA has withstood literally everything nature and man could throw at it.  It has survived war, storms, drunken businessmen and college frat boys.  Even on a random Tuesday evening, if you walk down Bourbon street you will find it full of people- young and old- carousing and living it up.  Good times are not confined to Mardi Gras, Hallowe'en, Voodoo Fest, or the Jazz Festival...although those are the most fun (and dangerous) times to go.  As with any tourist attraction there are hard and fast rules to follow when in the Quarter.  Don't wear anything too flashy, don't keep your money or valuables in places that are easily reached (back jean pockets, cloth purses), and don't get plastered if you don't know the city and have no one with you to take care of you.  Simple things like avoiding alleys, don't go anywhere with anyone you don't know, and stick to your crowd.

Every city has panhandlers, but in NOLA they are a whole different ballgame.  In the Quarter, there are dozens of street performers.  You will see them from the business end of Canal St. to the middle of Bourbon.  They play instruments, sing, tap dance, ride unicycles, stand completely still....this is what they do.  To throw a few in their hat or can is completely acceptable...there's a fine line between street performers or buskers and panhandlers.  Everyone is out to make a buck, you have a 50/50 shot of buying their next meal or their next hit.  Use discretion and common sense and you should be fine.  If you're feeling particularly frisky, you might stop off in Jackson Square and obtain a Tarot reading for a nominal fee.  Artists and Gypsies alike flock here to peddle their wares.

There are times when I just need to go walk.  Take it in.  Let all of it- the good, bad, and ugly- wash over me.  Humanity at it's finest is right there in that little 10 block radius.  I've gone down for the afternoon or evening, stayed too late and watched the sun come up over the mighty Mississippi, stayed for days and walked the streets eating at little family run restaurants and corner hot dog stands.  There are a lot of famous folk from here or simply own homes here:  Brad Pitt, Anne Rice, Master P, Ellen DeGeneres, and Harry Connick Jr. to name a few.  I could spend weeks and never see it all.  What can I say....the city speaks to me......

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