Friday, January 29, 2010

New Orleans, 26-29 January

It’s around this point that I started to really realize how little time I’m spending in each cities. This is my fourth time to NOLA, I think – maybe fifth? – and I was excited to be in some relatively familiar territory. This was also the first city I stayed alone in. After about an hour and half of walking to find the hostel I'd be staying in, being somewhat lost and somewhat on the wrong side of town, I found the India House Hostel ( just off Canal Street. The place was big and airy, with high ceilings and artwork all over the walls. Paintings and drawings of women in Indian-Goddess-esque poses adorned the walls, along with a few elephants, trees, and vines in all sorts of colors. There was a communal kitchen and a grand total of five fridges spread throughout the place; two smaller living rooms, and a typical Spanish courtyard in the center. A large pond with gold and white koi and a small fountain lay on one side; a mosaic-tiled floor was installed nearby. A grill and a few picnic tables, as well as a small swimming pool, filled up the rest of the space. Music, at discretion of the hostel employees, was always playing.

Restless after my long train ride, I left my stuff in the room and headed over to the gaudy, over-toured French Quarter for some fresh air and sightseeing. I’d been in and around the area for Mardi Gras last year. New Orleans’ charm, as expressed by the tourism bureau, lies in being cheap, garish, and welcoming. In and around the Quarter, tourists pay a lot of money for very cheap stuff (i.e., $6 for two strings of low-quality plastic beads). It’s easy to find friends for a night, and everyone is in a buoyant mood, always looking for the next laugh. The city is built on entertainment, and the town's hooked on its own drugs. The effect on the residents was apparent in their outlook on life, and in the types of conversations they strike up. It is fun, it is easy.

I walked around for a couple hours, stopping in the art galleries on Royal Street and strolling through the easy music on Frenchmen Street in the early evening. After the sun set, I headed back for the hostel.

Not long after I got back, a couple other people staying there invited me to go out with them to see a brass band in the Uptown. I headed out with them and stayed out for a few hours, dancing and drinking in a large crowd. The band – four trumpets, a trombone, a sousaphone, snare and bass, saxophone, cowbell – was good, really entertaining and they had a great stage personality, but they played a few too many standards. I caught a taxi back with a super-drunk Aussie and a 60-year-old Kiwi who was on his way to South-By-Southwest.

The next morning I got up early to go for a run – I’m horrendous at sleeping in – and discovered NOLA’s City Park. It’s huge, with a stadium, an art museum, a small train that goes all through it, a sculpture garden, soccer fields, and large lake with islands for picnicking on. Later that afternoon, I met up with my friend Amy’s little sister, Tory, who is studying at Tulane.

New Orleans has a couple streetcar lines that run on the medians of the larger streets. They’re fairly cheap, straightforward, and easy to use. One line goes along St. Charles, which is the main drag through Uptown and the Garden District – the poshest areas in the city. I read that the aristocrats who built up this part of town were trying to outdo the French-Creole elegance and style in the Quarter. Every house has lavish and tasteful Mardi Gras decorations, a balcony or two, widow’s walks, gables, eaves, Spanish moss, covered walkways – you name it. Southern grandeur at its finest. I’d love to poke my nose around inside some of the houses. The streetcar ride is a great way to see it if you don’t have much time to explore.

In any event, I decided to take a city bus that wove around a few other neighborhoods instead of the streetcar. I didn’t know anything about the areas we’d go through, but was curious to see more of the city than just touristy places. Bus #34 went through poorer areas, with cracked roads full of potholes and interspersed with government-funded housing projects. Only two blocks to the left were the edges of Uptown and its beautiful houses. I was struck by how sharply the atmosphere had changed in so short a space and time. The bus let me off at Audubon Park and Zoo, which I got to walk through in order to reach Tulane. The man who designed this park also designed Central Park in New York City. I wish I would have had more time to explore it.

That evening, I went to see some free jazz for a bit at a small and smoky club on Frenchmen Street. Beer was fairly priced and the audience was easy and friendly.

My last day in New Orleans, I ran again to City Park before going to Café du Monde for its famous coffee and beignets. I sat in the National Jazz Historic Park and watched the tourists and the peddlers on Decatur. I spent the late morning walking to the Museum District and checking out the Preservation Hall (, trying to learn more about the history and architecture of the city.

That evening, my friend Harry’s brother came to meet me at the hostel. He gave me a driving tour of the city, including the “hip” Marigny district, which I’d wanted to see for quite some while, and the Ninth and Lower Ninth wards. There isn’t much to see in the Ninths; most of the debris has been cleared, and a few seemingly abandoned houses lay scattered in between new, “green” architecture. Every one of these new houses is high off the ground and unique in design. Candy-bright colors and dramatic, the avant-garde architecture give an air of hope and renewal to the area.

Maybe it should stay a flood plain; I wonder how many and what alternatives to rebuilding the city considered.

The Lutons hosted me for dinner that evening; I wasn’t able to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked there. Another friend’s family, the Threlkelds, was kind enough to give me a ride home (along with a few goodies!) across the 24-mile Lake Ponchatrain Bridge. I wish I had another couple nights to spend in the city; I hear the pre-Mardi Gras celebrations are much better than the actual parades, and I wanted to have more time to explore the city in-depth.

New Orleans residents are easy to get along with, genteel, and super-friendly. Oftentimes, though, relationships are hard to maintain and strengthen – people float. I'm itching to get beyond the visitor-level information and knowledge of the city, but at the moment all I'm getting are a few glances below the surface.

Getting up at four a.m., I gathered my stuff and left for Birmingham, to visit my Aunt Dixie for a night.

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