Saturday, April 14, 2012

New Orleans Day 1 (Tuesday)

It goes without saying (almost) that one never gets to or from Newark Airport without some kind of ordeal. In my case, my flight to New Orleans was delayed 50 minutes, and then the gate was changed to the other side of the terminal. However, arriving in New Orleans made up for it, as everyone there was markedly more cheerful and helpful. I got to my hotel at the same time I'd originally anticipated, so it was all good.

The shuttle driver asked if I was there visiting friends. "No," I said. "I hope to meet some new ones."

"Now THAT's the way to do it," he said.

I was checked in to my hotel by midnight, which is early by New Orleans standards. I thought about going out, but then realized that I really didn't know where I was going at that point, and I'd rather learn in daylight first. I woke up fairly early the next morning and headed over to Decatur Street in the French Quarter. I had a place in mind for breakfast, but it turned out to be closed. So, I ended up happily at the French Market cafe, where I had one of the best breakfasts of my whole life. I was going to visit the Ursuline Convent, but it appeared to be closed in spite of signs saying it was open. I noticed that many houses of worship in New Orleans (especially Catholic ones) were very difficult to get into, in spite of their "open and come in" advertising. I'm not sure why that is. I ended up wandering around the French Quarter, taking photos, and checking out its offerings. I walked all the way up and down Royal and Bourbon Streets. I also spent some time walking along the Mississippi River, and while there decided to sign on for a tour of St. Louis #1 cemetery. A friend had warned me not to go to any of the New Orleans cemeteries alone, so I took her advice.

The streets of New Orleans are beautiful, with ornate iron balconies often covered in flowers, and colorful houses. I noticed that many doors have shutters over them, which I've not seen at all up North. Demaine Street seems to have a lot of voodoo and esoteric places. I had read that there was a voodoo temple at the top end of Demaine Street, but I didn't make it up there.

I had stopped for a drink, and tried the local Abita Amber, which was pretty good, though not my favorite. I decided to postpone lunch til after the tour. I spent a lot of time sitting in the shade, as my pale genetically-European skin was already burning to a crisp in the hot sun. The tour of the cemetery was largely in an open space that was hot and filled with stone, so it was like being in an oven, though the guide took us to stand in shady places under large monuments.

If you've not been to a New Orleans cemetery, you should visit one if you go. They are unlike most cemeteries in the world, as they are entirely above ground. When the French settlers arrived in New Orleans nearly 300 years ago, they found that if you dug a hole, it would immediately fill up with about a foot of water. If you buried someone in the ground, the first storm would send the coffins floating away, usually into your back yard. This was a problem for the French and then the Spanish who lived there, and when yellow fever epidemics broke out and wiped out more than half the population, it got worse. So, they developed this step-tomb system, which contained anywhere from 1 to 3 slots for caskets. The person would be placed in a wooden casket, and then put into one of these slots. The slot was then bricked up, plastered over, and the initials of the burying undertaker were written in the plaster with the date. (This is still done, by the way). Tombs could be rented or bought, and if one couldn't afford to buy, they had the tomb for a year and a day before the next rent, and when their time was up, the body would be taken out. The sun is so hot in New Orleans, the bodies actually bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit within those tombs (also called "ovens"). So, not much was left of the body, and what was left would be crumbled and put into the caveau ("cave", an empty space at the bottom of the tomb). The tombs are ornately decorated in many cases. Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo queen, has her monument in St. Louis No. 1, but she's not actually buried there. This doesn't stop people from marking her tomb with large X's and leaving offerings in front of it.

The weirdest and most out of place monument in the cemetery was a large pyramid, which our tour guide told us belonged to Nicholas Cage, and housed 5 of his deceased cats. She noted rather dryly that Nicholas Cage was the only person she ever knew of who could be arrested for drunkenness in New Orleans. She also told us that wild parrots could be found throughout the town, and mentioned an incident where one stole her hat while she was giving a tour. She came back the next day and found pieces of the straw on the ground. "Stupid parrot. Hope he chokes on the rest of it. That was an expensive hat." Then she looked at me and laughed. "I'm probably being too mean to that parrot. But I was pissed off."

On the ride back, our tour guide told us that they used to give tours of St. Louis No. 2, but no longer do so because it is too dangerous. They did a tour for a Halloween event one year, and they had to be accompanied by armed guards. She recalled an incident in that cemetery where someone actually jumped out at the tour group with a gun and demanded their money. The second woman the gunman approached happened to have a black belt in Judo and wasted the guy into the ground. But the tour guides weren't thrilled, as people still could have been shot if she wasn't successful in subduing him.

After the tour I went and had dinner at the Crescent City microbrewery. I found that all the sunlight did not make me that hungry. New Orleans is a peculiar choice for me in some ways, because I don't eat vegetables and I'm not fond of most seafood. Still, I did not have a single bad meal while I was there.

I ended up wandering into Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo, which is a great place with a great vibe. Afterward, I headed down Bourbon Street to the Old Absinthe House. This is not the original Old Absinthe Bar where Aleister Crowley used to go--that is now a rather cheesy-looking tropical bar. I had the Absinthe Frappe (not cheap--$20), and a nice chat with a woman visiting with her husband, originally from Toronto.

"This place is really wild," she said.

"Yes, I think the nights can get quite wild."

"Not just the night--all day! People are drinking here all the time! And you can take it anywhere, as long as its in a paper cup!"

This is absolutely true. And I'd heard from many others, tourists and natives alike, that New Orleans visitors and maybe the locals start drinking early and don't stop. The woman and I talked politics for awhile, and the workings of dual citizenship (she was both a Canadian and American citizen). After her husband was ready to go, she said goodbye, and I pressed on to Pirate's Alley Cafe, which is also an absinthe house. I figured that I won't get properly-served absinthe up North, I might as well drink it here.

They were very nice in the Pirate's Alley place, and got to see an authentic louching machine. In order to release the flavor of absinthe, it has to be "louched". One puts a small amount of absinthe in a glass, then puts a special slotted spoon over it with a sugar cube. (Sometimes they set the sugar cube on fire, but that's an American thing.) Then they do a slow drip of water from the machine into the glass, over the sugar cube. This creates a clouding effect in the absinthe, and releases the flavor. Some of the machines are quite ornate--another bartender told me he'd gotten one from a museum that was closing, and the design was of 3 women's bodies bent over. I met some more people in this bar, and one very nice woman from Milwaukee bought me another absinthe. The bartender, learning it was my birthday, gave me a shot of something called "Toxic Baby". I have no idea what's in it, but it tastes like mint. I was also talking to a man from Chicago, who was a regular visitor. He told me to avoid Bourbon and Canal between 10 pm and 2 am, as it got to be quite dangerous.

It was getting late at that point, so I headed back to my hotel, via Royal Street, avoiding the sex shops and revelry on the block before me. I went to bed and only suffered a minor headache, for which I considered myself lucky. Tomorrow I will post about my second day in the Big Easy.

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