(71 days in)
It’s recently come to my attention that my chosen travel partner and I are about a 3rd of the way through this huge adventure. We’ve been in the States for over 2 months now – learned their ways, eaten their food and mostly driven their roads. This time lapse was a startling revelation as it’s both flown by and also lingered. I feel like it was only last week that I was back in London, going to work and drinking heavily, but on the other hand this way of life has become the norm. We now have each and every night booked/planned for the remainder of our time here and that, more than anything, gave me pause for thought.
BUT ANYWAY – my last post contained everything that we had been up to in the first week of having Kate and Steve (Megan’s parents, if you’re only just joining us) accompany us for a late summer holiday. We had left a trail of destructive British politeness through Nashville and Memphis, sampled some fantastic barbeque, learned the origin of some of the best music around and had far too good a time firing some guns. At the time of writing I believe we were holed up for our first night in a cosy hostel in a quiet part of New Orleans. We are now in Santa Fe, New Mexico and have returned to having no one else to talk to but each other (M: and strangers, but I think that’s still a step too far for Pete), so, as anyone who knows the distance between those two cities can guess, I have some catching up to do!
A truly charming city
New Orleans has always been on my bucket list for places to experience. Ideally this would be during Mardi Gras but since our timeline didn’t quite match up (by about 7 months) we had to make do with exploring the fantastic city. What I failed to realise before we got there was just how close to the bayou/swamplands it really is, and this meant that I was thoroughly unprepared for the humidity and heat each street pumped out. Nevertheless, I can confirm that it is a beautiful city, with its huge French influence as a result of the characteristic Cajun and Creole people that occupy it.
Our first night in this literal hotbed of activity saw us check in to our accommodation and then get immediately one-upped (if not two or three-upped) by Steve and Kate’s accommodation. We had a small private double room in a hostel, with a shared bathroom, shared kitchen and everything else you would expect from a hostel. They had a room in a B&B that the owner had put almost half a million dollars into and that could easily have roomed our building’s worth of dormmates on each of its floors. The small victory here was that they had to go up twice the number of stairs we did to get to their room, but it was short-lived when you remember that they had their own bathroom and A/C unit.
But either way, we spent a brief time having our noses rubbed in it before walking to the building next door for dinner. The restaurant in question was called ‘The Burger and Seafood Company’, so I won’t be giving out any medals for guessing their menu, but the beer was served in large glass chalices so they’re alright in my book.
Our first morning in the roasting oven allowed us to take in the sights and sounds of the central city. Myself and Megan decided that a walk would do us good (we were wrong) so met the other pair outside the Butterfly House on the edge of the French Quarter, about 30 minutes from our abode. This was just a meeting spot though – we were all caked in insect repellent so thought a trip inside the building would have been pretty fruitless.
We headed off in the direction of the famous markets and the port of New Orleans, popping into shops every now and then to look at whatever they were selling (and mostly to take advantage of the air conditioning). We got to the dock just in time to see the ‘last steamboat in New Orleans’ set off on its thrice daily tour, and finally came across a small roofed area, packed to the rafters with market stalls and like-minded people trying to find some hidden treasures. It was nice to have the sun off my genetically exposed scalp (M: hahaha), but the increase in surrounding body temperature meant we didn’t stop too long. We spent just enough time to see some of the local arts and crafts and have it confirmed that “Yes Pete, you would definitely be more annoying if you had a harmonica”.
From there we headed in search of a late lunch on the renowned Bourbon Street. Well known as one of the party hubs of the city and lined with all manner of bars, hotels and restaurants, we were enticed in for a quick tipple before actually making it to our destination for food (this again had more to do with the fact the place had A/C).
Eventually we found somewhere that sold food as well as ‘Hand Grenades’ – the most powerful drink in the city – and ‘Yards of Margarita’. It was here that we embarked on the harrowing adventure of converting US drink sizes to UK drink sizes. If you were not aware, the US serve drinks by fluid ounce, never using millilitres or even just pints. But, the US pint is a different size to the UK pint as is the US ounce different to the UK ounce. I found a helpful way around this by just ordering by the bottle, simple. Unfortunately Steve, a bolder man than I, went for an actual measurement and ended up with a ‘Half Ass’ plastic cup of beer (the menu did seem to make it look like it was that or 2.5 pints). With bellies full we headed back onto the main street, but unfortunately almost the entire length was carved in two by roadworks. This was a little disheartening but since it was early afternoon and almost every venue was already pumping out awful club music, we weren’t too upset and simply headed back to our ‘homes’.
Day 2 of our trip into the bowels of Satan’s halls saw me and Meg wake up in a foul mood (M: he’s using the term ‘wake up’ lightly here, but I appreciate we’re at the point that we’re sharing a singular mood). This was due to the air conditioning in the hostel breaking the previous day. You would think that a place gets colder in the night time but at around 80% humidity, this is not true of New Orleans and even with the windows wide open in our room, we could not cool down. After talking to the incredibly apologetic staff at the front desk we were assured that an engineer was scheduled to arrive that day. It’s worth noting at this stage that the front of the property (not the end with our room) runs on a separate system so once we had come out of our pressure cooker to complain we were greeted by a waft of the most blissfully cool air imaginable. This did not help our collective mood.
We vented our grief to Kate and Steve on the drive to Mardi Gras World. As I mentioned previously our timeline missed Mardi Gras’ by a country mile but this attraction houses a huge number of floats, past and present, for ‘The Greatest Free Show on Earth’. Spread out within a huge warehouse there are workshops for current artists, display areas for the work they’re doing and have done and a brief exhibit of the history of Mardi Gras and its associated festivities. The tradition itself is a Christian celebration known by the name of Shrove Tuesday in Britain (very different I know, no pancakes here). It was brought to Louisiana by the French in the early 17th century and since then has exploded into the world-renowned festival it is today. The massive floats take over the streets, along with costumed performers and entertainers giving out valued trinkets and ‘Krewes’, the official mystic societies that dominate the show. It’s worth noting that around the world, Mardi Gras is mostly known for the giving out of beaded necklaces, especially to those of the fairer sex who decide they want to bare their breasts for the passing entertainers. This part of the tradition is actually quite harmful to the ideal of Mardi Gras and any locals of New Orleans look down heavily on the parts of the city where this happens. Mardis Gras at its heart is a festival for the whole family and these acts aren’t exactly helping the cause. But either way, there was none of this sort of behaviour as we made our way through the store house, taking in some breathtaking artwork and, frankly, worringly large sculptures before braving the melting pot once again.
To anyone who isn’t aware, the majority of New Orleans is built below sea level. This did not help during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. What this also means is that they have a very high ground water level, so none of the houses in New Orleans have basements as they would be full of water in a few days. It also means that no one who dies in the city is buried underground – instead, their remains are kept in tombs and crypts. Once we’d had our fill of Mardi Gras, we spent a short time wandering one of the main cemeteries nearby and taking in the history and lineage that found its home there.
By mid afternoon we’d decided that we wanted to take in some of the nightlife that New Orleans had to offer, so it was time for an afternoon nap to recharge our batteries. Then we were off to Frenchman’s Street. Much like Bourbon Street it was lined with bars, clubs and fast food joints. We dropped into one that had a live jazz band playing and even though there weren’t any seats with them in view, we periodically went into the crowd to take a video or a picture, or just enjoy some incredible local talent. Also, to our gleeful surprise (and by ‘we’ I mean Steve and I) there was a brewery representative sat at the bar who very kindly offered to buy us our first round if we wanted some of the new Belgian ale he was peddling. We did. A few hours in the establishment and the surrounding town saw us merry and ready for bed (after an emergency hotdog to stave off any morning revenge from the alcoholic perspective). A short Uber ride home and our time in N’awlins was drawing to a close.
A whole lot more water
Following the great Mississippi River we wound our way to our next stop: Oak Alley Plantation. It’s one of the few remaining Plantation houses in the area and opened in 1837. Covering a large 25 acres it housed around 120 slaves at its peak, all of whom served the family that lived there and farmed the huge sugarcane fields in the grounds. We took advantage of the tour they offered and were taken on a vivid exploration of each room and each of the family members involved in the household (I would like to mention that the young lady giving us the tour was incredibly knowledgable and professional, dressed as someone from the time with a full hoop skirt and continuing on even after one of our tour group had passed out and started throwing up).
Another stint in Manone and we found ourselves in Lafayette, a city right out in the bayou (a large area of swampland, if you didn’t know). The road in was a straight bridge about 20 miles long, up on stilts that gave you an impressive view of the surrounding marshland.
We made it to our Airbnb for the two nights we had booked, a charming little building that is in constant renovation as the owner wants it to become a full time B&B. John was a great guy and fantastic host, putting a lot of effort into making sure we were happy and made the most of our time in the town, as well as making us breakfast every morning at 7 even though we weren’t down until about 9. But most importantly, John had a small above ground pool erected in his garden and, if you’ve been paying attention, it was the perfect kind of weather for a dip. So that’s pretty much all we did on our first morning in the city – we experienced bliss with an early beer and the sun streaming through the trees into John’s backyard. I’ll point out now that this is the first time that either myself or Megan had gotten into a pool on our trip, which is surprising given the amount of pools that are available to you with every hotel booking and given my affinity for spending hours in any body of water (unless I’m being attacked by a shark*).
So, we were in Lafayette, in the heart of some of the best swampland around, and what better way to get to know the area than by taking a boat tour! Kate had expressed interest in the swamp tours offered in the area before I even knew where we were going and what it would be like. She had found a tour company that did a 2 hour boat ride for the relatively cheap cost of $20 and helpfully booked us on the sunset ride.
As a lot of you will know, I’m not the best when it comes to meeting wild animals, something that exasperates Megan . But, for reasons I can’t explain, the alligators of the bayou didn’t ellicit the usual fear from me. From what I know of reptiles, they’re pretty lazy and mostly enjoy hanging out in the sunshine for a lot of their time (though I understand that it might be a bit bloodier were you in the water whilst one was hungry). This meant that I was incredibly excited as we arrived at the small dock and found a small group of people with varying degrees of interest on their face.
We climbed into a steel boat that was almost too small for the 15 of us and were greeted by Bob, our tour guide and the most southern southerner whoever southerned. He continued to talk almost non-stop for the entire two hours, explaining each and every type of tree and species of bird and giving an endless stream of anecdotes from his 20 years in the area. He showed us everything we could want from the swamp: basking ‘gators, thick bushland, enormous herons and even the handmade duck blinds in the centre of the lake for anyone looking to hunt the local waterfowl. The experience was worth every penny as we got some excellent shots and even saw a mother ‘gator with her 12-inch-long pups up close and personal (I may have been a little tense at this stage). With heads full of swamp knowledge and aching bums we finished off the tour, thanked Bob and made our way back to the house. And, finally, sampling some more of the local cuisine brought our time in the two-storey city to a close.
With all of this crazy excitement it was almost time for Steve and Kate to bid us farewell and leave us to our own devices once again. One last stop was to a relatively new rum distillery in the bayou called, surprise, Bayou Rum Distillery. All four of us like a good tipple now and then so we were keen to head into a place that gave ‘free tasting and tours’. We were shown a short intro video of lots of people looking far too excited knowing that a hangover was around the corner and then whisked around the small factory by a hipster-type youth named Jordan. It was obvious that he had given this tour a number of times each day by the practiced eased of his explanations. From the bottling room, the distilling vats, the aging barrels and the 12 foot high mural of an old fellow crating bottles of rum out of his shack on the swamp, I was amazed at the reach of their product based on the size of the distillery as apparently it spans all the way back into Europe. From the end of that tour Jordan took us round to the in-house bar, lined up 4 shot glasses each and gave us just a little of their 4 main products; the standard, the spiced, the ‘gold’ aged and their satsuma blend. I have to say that I do like rum more now than I had previously and may have to ask them to import to the UK once we’re done… I treated myself to a t-shirt and we both agreed that a bottle of the spiced would replace the void that Megan’s parents were about to leave.
We then spent a couple of nights in yet another Airbnb in Lake Charles, but as Megan and I did nothing with our day apart from attempt to plan Australia there’s not a huge amount to mention… oh, apart from the drive-thru daiquiris that Kate and Steve kindly brought back from their shopping trip, and the huge amount of meat we consumed in the Texas Roadhouse that evening.
It was then time for us to have a last lunch with Steve and Kate and let them go onto Houston for their dreaded flight home. It might have been a slightly more emotional goodbye then Megan was expecting (M: Moi? Emotional? Pfft.) but with that we went our separate ways.
That’s all for now folks. I understand that I am actually quite behind on this blog and need to speed things up. The lack of Wi-Fi is a hinderance but it is my fault! Hopefully I will have another post or two up and running very soon even though it might be less detailed but we have Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon coming up and let’s not forget VEGAS BABY!!! I’m excited if you couldn’t tell.
*A minor incident whilst snorkelling on a beach in Tobago. Reports vary depending on the author but we can all agree that I am a lucky hero that definitely didn’t swim as fast as possible away from a shark that was definitely more than 8 inches long. (M: And I definitely didn’t almost drown from laughing so hard.)