Aside from the obvious – heat, crawfish, lots of people who kinda look like me – I didn’t really know what to expect when I decided to join in on the trip mother was making to New Orleans.
Part of this was through my own negligence: as per usual, I can be quite gung-ho about actually purchasing plane tickets to given destinations, obsessively checking travel sites, scrutinizing fares, and generally wheeling and dealing my way into a good enough rate.
However, once my credit card has been billed and the all-important travel points accumulated, my preparation and enthusiasm dies off significantly until such time as I actually set foot on the ground. To wit, I signed out three different New Orleans travel guides from the library and had to renew all three no less than five times (each renewal comprising a period of three weeks).
The tiny bit I did bestir myself to read (mere days before my departure) related more to the history of the city than any specific sites I might want to take in.
“New Orleans [is] the most unique city in the United States”, Frommer’s EasyGuide to New Orleans proclaimed, which struck me as rather reassuring. I’d never journeyed to the American South before, and if I’m to be honest, as a black Canadian, I can’t say doing so was high on my list of places to see before I die.
New Orleans, though, has an artsy, jazzy, boozy, easy-going, party-city reputation of which Mardi Gras is only the most overt and all-encompassing example. It also has an interesting social history of probably the most closest approximation of intercultural integration in the pre-Civil War South, which included,
- Slaves permitted the private practice of Voodoo and regular Sunday gatherings by their masters so long as they put forth a Catholic front;
- People who could trace their ancestry back to two or three different continents, forming a vibrant Creole cultural comprising French, Spanish, German, African, and Acadian (from Nova Scotia in Canada) roots, and
- A growing population of gens de couleur libre (free people of colour) by the early 1800s.
Feeling hot, hot, HOT
The very first thing I did upon arriving, before even leaving the airport, was try to acclimate to the heat.
I am a lover of warm weather and like to pride myself on withstanding high temperatures with little more to say than a rather Captain Obvious-esque observation that “It’s hot today.” I’m fond of telling people (and myself) how I survived three days of 46°C (115°F) camping in the Australian desert.
However deserts have a dry heat and New Orleans, smack in the middle of Lake Pontchartrain to the north, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and with the muddy Mississippi River running right through it, is about as humid as it can get.
Still, because I’m contrary and prideful and, at times, a bit of a show off to boot, on the hottest day – 104°F (40°C), not counting the humidity – I took myself to what Frommer’s exhorts is “one of America’s coolest parks”: the 1,300-acre, well-appointed City Park.
For two-and-a-half hours I sweat my way around the outdoor botanical garden and statue garden there before finally retreating to the air-conditioned comfort of the New Orleans Museum of Art. The day I went on the swamp tour to see that alligators was hot as hell as well, but the covered tour boat often moved at a mighty clip, kicking up a pleasant breeze in the process.
(Unfortunately, when it didn’t: MOSQUITOES.)
A good air conditioner is never too hard to find in NOLA to also help beat the heat. All of the buildings in the Vieux Carré (the French Quarter) boast architecture clearly showing the city’s French and Spanish colonial heritage. They also all have very modern cooling systems poking out a front or rear window.
Bourbon Street and Frenchman Street are hot in more ways than one with their seedy bars, strip clubs, neon-coloured daiquiris (Bourbon Street), jazz clubs, classy restaurants, and night markets (Frenchman Street), but you don’t have to walk too far along either before you’re blasted with frigid air escaping through an open door.
It’s sweltering outside yet freezing – much too cold for me – inside most places, which saw me doing a constant shuffle between inside and out, the latter immediately causing my glasses to fog up upon contact with the sultry air.
As is the case in most hot climates, the food of New Orleans is spicy to compensate. Yet unlike most hot-weather lovers, that’s the sort of compensation both me and my timid digestive system would as soon do without.
Still, when in Rome, do the Romans, as a high school friend of mine once (intentionally, I’m convinced) misquoted. And so, TUMS close at hand, I cautiously took hold of my fork.
I mostly ate seafood, not only because I was clearly the only vegetarian in the South that week but also because seafood is what New Orleans is known for: crab cakes, shrimp and grits, fried catfish, fried catfish on bread, i.e. a classic New Orleans po’boy sandwich. Key lime pie and beignets (deep-fried French doughnuts heaped with powdered sugar) for dessert, and a hurricane cocktail to wash it all down.
It’s hard to be a vegetarian in the Big Easy. Hell, it’s hard to be an omnivore; in the two-mile radius from my accommodations and those of my mother, I couldn’t find a single grocery store, fruit stand, or banana that cost less than $3.
It’s even hard to be a carnivore who’s diet doesn’t consist mainly of food that’s fried, fast, or fast and fried. It wasn’t hard to determine the cause, at least in part, of the widespread obesity I observed.
The circle of a hard life
I was struck while being served at various restaurants that here were the people who looked kind of like me while most of the other tourists did not.
Barring a few individual exceptions, I didn’t receive the best customer service I’ve ever had in New Orleans. This made me wonder what kind of investment goes into service employees and I suspect it’s not that much. Poor customer service is simply the result of poor training.
The minimum wage in Louisiana is $7.25 an hour for people who don’t receive tips (otherwise the hourly wage is less). Service employees are thus being paid a poverty-inducing wage where they have to try to make up the difference in tips and are then not provided top-notch customer service training.
To me, this seems likely to make it hard for these employees to both live comfortably in the present and to move on to increasingly better jobs in the future.
Another thing that makes upward mobility difficult is a lack of time. At the café in mom’s hotel, the barista (a young woman who happened to not look much like me) worked every single day of the five days my mom was in the city before me, plus all six days I was there as well. One day, she was so dead tired on her feet, she could barely scoop granola into a cup of yogurt or make proper change.
Eleven straight days of work doesn’t leave a person a lot of time to do something productive like take a course or even look for a better job to help improve their situation, thus forever trapping that person in a low-wage, low-prospect way of life.
“Disasters don’t discriminate. Recoveries do.*”
New Orleans is a beautiful city, but one needn’t look to hard to see ugliness as well.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the place with days of floodwaters, lost homes, and massive loss of life.
According to one of my mom’s friends who’s from New Orleans, Katrina impacted white and black people equally (for all that the media, with its penchant for making a spectacle of all things black, disproportionately showed images of black people perched precariously on roofs and bridge supports).
However the recovery efforts from Katrina have not been so equal. My mom’s friend took us on a driving tour beyond the French Quarter to see the city from a local’s point of view. There are many parts of the city where it’s impossible to tell they were once submerged in six feet or more of water.
And then there are those where you can tell: the broken, rotted remnants of houses still bearing the markings the search and rescue soldiers made on them; the businesses that their owners fled to which they never returned; the streets lined one after another with boarded-up buildings, the entire community destroyed.
Without question, this occurred more frequently in predominantly black neighbourhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, which was particularly hard-hit by the flood.
How do you change the world?
I enjoyed the experience of being in New Orleans, but at the same time, the challenges faced by many local people was never far from my mind.
It’s hard to know what to do about racial and class inequality and to feel you’re helping contribute to a system that keeps certain people under thumb.
Martin Luther, the German monk, theologian, and key figure in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, is quoted as saying,
If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.
It doesn’t seem nearly enough, but it is something I can do – to not just blog the braggy parts of my trip, but rather tell the truth the way I see it and the way it is.
*Tagline of the New Orleans non-profit lowernine.org.
(Images by J.G. Noelle unless otherwise specified)