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Way Down in New Orleans

Published
August 22, 2021
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AFTER Wichita Falls, I was back in Houston and all set to make use of my 45-day Amtrak pass. I had New Orleans in my sights. It was going to be my first experience of a long-distance train ride in the USA, although in truth it was only six hours including the stops along the way.

I liked the train because of all the backyard views you get. I mean, you get to sit back, relax, and watch the scenery pass you by. It is a good opportunity to take photos too. Being on the train really introduced you to America.

I left Houston, Texas with a smile and got on my first train at 12 p.m. I would arrive in New Orleans at six in the evening.

I met a lot of people from New York on that journey. They seemed to love coming on the train rides to the far south, the soulful south. During the ride, I met a group of retirees who were part of a tour group, complete with a tour guide who was escorting them all the way to New Orleans to see the city.

I met a woman who was from the local town of Lafayette, and she said that the recession had really hit that area because the price of oil was so low, and that you could even see in Galveston that they aren’t drilling for oil. When the price of oil is low, they just don’t bother. It’s only when the price is higher, that they do oil exploration.

She told me that in many of the towns in Louisiana people were losing their businesses and the government was doing nothing for them. She said people around the area were not very rich. She indicated to me that people were really struggling. Louisiana depended a lot on oil money.

All I had to do was look out the window and see the derelict housing to know she was right in saying the recession had hit the area hard.

I also met a guy who was a train inspector. He was inspecting the food they were serving on the train that day, which I thought was quite interesting! He told me that several train routes no longer provide cooked food anymore. The food on the train was reasonable: $8 for breakfast and there was a downstairs area with a café section. You could buy peanuts and snack food, salads and pies. And then there was the restaurant. He was looking at the quality of the food and was improving the menu.

The train went through Lake Charles and passed Lafayette before finally arriving in New Orleans. All along the way we passed rice fields on rice fields, it was amazing. I discovered that crawfish live in the rice fields. Crawfish was the name for freshwater crayfish, smaller than saltwater crayfish or lobsters. We have them in New Zealand, known by the Māori name of kōura, though these are completely different species from the ones in America.

I decided I’d try and find somewhere to buy some and eat it, fresh. The crawfish breed in December in the rice fields and the lady from Lafayette said that the train stopped once because there were flamingos in the rice fields.

As the train pulled into the station, I was really excited. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed my train ride — I had — but come on, I was in NEW ORLEANS! This wasn’t my first visit to New Orleans. I had been there once before, but that was before Hurricane Katrina, and I hadn’t been back since. It had been a long time and I was anxious to see whether the place still had its mojo — a word that came into our language via New Orleans, I believe! I got a bed in a hotel room in the French Quarter. The name of the place that I stayed at was the ISP French Quarter House Hostel, the one and only hostel there too. There was no signage out the front, so it took me a little while to find it.

The hostel was a beautiful two-story villa painted a burnt brown, with a grand staircase to the upper story greeting me in the entrance way. I thought it was quite nice for a hostel. I was going to use Airbnb but the cost of that service in New Orleans was ridiculous, $200 a night!

I got there, sorted myself and my room, and then I hit the town and went to Frenchmen Street and saw some excellent jazz.

African Americans make up most of the population of New Orleans, with the remainder made up mostly of equal parts of white Americans and people who are identifiably Hispanic or Latino. There is a strong Catholic presence as well as African vodou (a.k.a. ‘voodoo’), from where the word mojo comes. I had been to New Orleans before, and had visited the House of Blues with its Voodoo Garden that time!

This time, I met a couple who were staying in the same hostel, they had both quit their jobs and were going to work in Whistler. He was a great piano player and was playing on one for public use on Frenchmen Street. Only in New Orleans do you have a piano for public use in the street, along with the post boxes and phone booths of a normal city.

The next morning, I did a tour of the city, which also included a look at the devastation still left behind by Hurricane Katrina, which they said was America’s most expensive natural catastrophe, the damage in the USA amounting eventually to $125 billion. Over 1,200 people also died in and around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, which hit in August 2005. The storm caused damage all the way along the coast from Florida to Texas. There was a huge investigation into the performance of local and federal bodies after the hurricane hit, because of their lack of response, and new books and articles about what some call the ‘man-made disaster’ and others the ‘unnatural disaster’ continued to be produced more than a decade later.

The tour guide told us that the houses were being done up and everyone was pretty much sorted. That was not the case. Over ten years afterward, people were still living in condemned houses and still in battles with insurance companies.

More reliably, the guide also informed us that much of New Orleans is below the high tide sea level and there had been a storm surge. The city was between the tidal portion of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, protected from both by flood barriers, and the water just went over the top of everything after the flood barriers failed. A later inquiry found that the barriers should have held, but that they were badly designed and built.

An evacuation of the town was supposed to take 36 hours, but you had to have your own transport to leave, and the winds were about 135 miles per hour. Since Hurricane Katrina, the government have said that it is necessary to be about 55 miles outside the city for safe evacuation. People had died because they had fled New Orleans itself but hadn’t got far enough away from the low-lying coastal areas that turned into open sea in the storm surge.

The French quarter had come out mostly unscathed, however because it was positioned on the highest point in New Orleans.

One of the saddest things I heard, long-term, was that after Hurricane Katrina 135,000 people left and didn’t return.

The tour went around the streets of New Orleans. It showed us the old ‘high society’ homesteads in the historic Garden District, an area developed in 1832 as a new suburb of wealth. The Garden District has some amazing houses. It is one of the best-preserved areas of colonial mansions in the South.

The old mansions often have high, triple-sash windows that extend from ground level to near the ceiling. It’s possible to step in and out through these when they are fully pulled up. People say that triple sash windows were invented to get around a tax on doors, but there’s no real evidence for that. It just seems that they were an olden-days equivalent of the modern ranch-slider, often opened right up for ventilation in the muggy climate of New Orleans.

We saw the location of New Orleans’ most famous event, the Mardi Gras. This has always been something that interested me, and they had quite a bit of information about that too. During the Mardi Gras, one of the floats is called Muses and they throw away shoes, then you have the Zooloo who throw away coconuts, then the Nikes who do the handbags. So, it is a pretty amazing parade, and I would like to attend it one year!

New Orleans really is a cultural melting pot that exemplifies all things spicy, saucy, vibrant and lively. Everyone seems to be in a permanently good mood, every day is a good one and everyone is in a party mode, in spite of everything. On the tour, they also talked more about the history of New Orleans.The city was named after the Duke of Orléans when it was established by French colonists, at a time when the British had only established themselves, as yet, on the Atlantic coast of North America.

Louisiana became a part of the USA in 1803 by way of the famous Louisiana Purchase, which involved the acquisition of a vast area west of the Mississippi in addition to the present-day State of Louisiana. The whole of that area was named Louisiana at the time, after the French king Louis XIV. It was given that name by a French explorer named René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, generally known to present-day Americans as de la Salle or La Salle. In fact, this is an error. Sieur de la Salle was an aristocratic title meaning ‘master of the hall’. So, renaming Cavelier as La Salle in historical memory is exactly as if some similarly upper-class British explorer, Lord so-and-so, had his title misread as the surname ‘Lord’!

Cavelier, or La Salle as he is so erroneously but stubbornly known by the Americans, pops up in the origin stories of many parts of the mid-western USA, from New Orleans all the way up north to Chicago and beyond. In other words, all the parts of the USA that were at one time part of La Salle’s historic Louisiana, a territory that extended past Chicago all the way up to modern-day Canada. Whence, all those towns and rivers in that vast region that still have French-sounding names today, names such as Detroit and Des Moines, the Platte River, Bâton Rouge, and so on. They were all named by La Salle or by others who trod in his footsteps.

Many people in New Orleans still speak French. The United States has a French- speaking minority of some one and a half million, with many of them concentrated in and around the modern state of Louisiana. At one time, I had thought that French-speaking populations in North America were confined to Québec, or at any rate to Canada, but this isn’t so.

Besides the swinging jazz clubs and music, the sumptuous food and eating places, New Orleans has one of the largest and busiest ports not just in the United States but in the world — something I hadn’t learned on my previous trip.

In a stark contrast to the Garden District and French Quarter, there were still a lot of people living in condemned houses in New Orleans. There had been a lot of work done on fixing homes after Hurricane Katrina, but a lot of people didn’t have the money to renovate their homes or have them fixed as they didn’t have insurance or were still trying to sort their insurances out and get the companies to pay up. It was a similar situation to one I was already familiar with back home, namely that of Christchurch where, years after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, people were still waiting for their insurance companies to pay out.

They say it takes a year to get your house rebuilt if it burns down, because of all the paperwork and investigations to make sure you didn’t burn it down yourself. And that’s just one house. In an urban disaster, it seems that the insurance companies end up being just overwhelmed with arguments over precisely whose fault was that some building did not quite stand up the way that it was supposed to.

So, if the government doesn’t step in with some sort of corps of engineers or its equivalent to build a whole lot of new houses straight away, you will still have people living in substandard conditions while arguing the toss with their insurance companies, years later. I wonder whether society was as disorganized in tackling the task of re-housing the masses after World War II as it seems to have been in Christchurch and New Orleans? Or are the ongoing problems of New Orleans and Christchurch just symptoms of present-day free-market economics?

On the evening after the tour, I went to Preservation Hall in Bourbon Street. The audience was a jazz appreciation society, and all these old guys were playing the trombones, the drums and the trumpets. I finally got to try the crawfish and it was outstanding. I did notice a difference in Bourbon Street and Preservation Hall. When I was here earlier, before Katrina, the shops were all mixed and locals used to mingle there, whereas as it now seemed a little overrun with tourists. No doubt that was because so many of the locals had fled, leaving New Orleans to become a sort of museum of its own past, a past which I was fortunate enough to see before Katrina.

But this is only relative, not absolute. I found my way to another area that was not as touristy as Bourbon Street, and it was alive with jazz music too, possibly of a more home-made kind. Everyone was playing music in the streets and dancing. I got a photo with someone dressed up as a jester, it was a lot of fun.

I also met this guy who told me he’d been out on a bayou tour earlier that day and the boat was getting a bit close to some of the boat homes of the folk who live deep in the winding estuary inlets (which is what the famous Louisiana word bayou means, from the French), and the people living on the boat fired a few warning shots. That was a bit scary so I decided I would not go on a bayou tour this time. Really though I suppose it’s infringing on people’s privacy and maybe tour operators should be more respectful, after all it is the bayou-dwellers’ home.

It was Columbus Day that day, too. It was a National Holiday that celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus into the Americas in 1492, but it is also celebrated in other countries like Spain and Uruguay.

The second televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump occurred on the 9th of October and it was a bit of a shocker. Around this time, everyone watched it and people got put off politics. No one was impressed, the millennials least of all.

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