New Orleans wears its sensuality on the outside, right where everyone can see it. All the senses are stimulated at once in a way seldom experienced elsewhere. The air itself it, heavy with moisture, caresses your skin at every moment. Odors and scents of all kinds are carried along by its humid breath. Everyone is smoking. Cigars, cigarettes, joints, bongs, even old-fashioned tobacco pipes. I’ve never smelled so much marijuana on the street anywhere in the world. And all the cigars and cigarettes would break the heart of any public health official. You can also smell the Mississippi everywhere, draining an entire continent’s worth of smells and exhalations. Food is perhaps the most important smell here, and food is taken very seriously in New Orleans. In that sense, it’s like Rome or San Francisco — almost impossible to get a bad meal, and good food is everywhere. You can smell jambalaya, red beans and rice, boiled crawfish, pralines, fried chicken and fish, and every other imaginable dish as you pass restaurants right and left.
Visually the city is a feast. Like Mexico, the houses are brightly and creatively painted. And so are the people. Street performers, mimes, drag queens, mardi gras queens all sport colors that would shock elsewhere. Here they merely blend in. And the sky has an amazing azure tone, flecked with beautiful clouds. Until those clouds turn hostile, and fill with blue-green thunderbolts to create the torrential rain for which the Gulf Coast is famous.
And sound, is any city in America more famous for sound? As you walk through the French Quarter, music pours forth from every doorway. Hard rock here, dixieland there, blues around the corner, cool jazz down the street, and the sound of barkers. Come and see the show! In the background the streetcars rumble and ring their bells. People are laughing, singing, performing everywhere. From time to time you can hear the rumble of train cars, and the distant wail of steamboats on the Mississippi.
Did I mention taste? The city is famed too for its food and drink. Walk down Bourbon street and people are drinking. Beer, cocktails, wine, sodas, anything you can imagine. People are drinking spirits out of fish bowls and it’s one endless party. But the food is what’s really special. Don’t go to New Orleans for a steak, though I’m sure you can find a great one. Go for the complex, slow-cooked dishes, the gumbo, the jambalaya, the slow-cooked barbecue, the complex mix of flavors that can only be had with time, patience, and skill in the kitchen.
I set out to experience as much of this as I could. Before I left Boston, I threw my rollerblades into the truck. Then I thought to myself, “Kim, are you nuts? Are you really going to rollerblade in Mexico with all of the holes and obstacles in the sidewalk?” It was a good point, but with a whole truckbed to haul stuff, I wasn’t persuaded to remove them. And yesterday I decided that they would be a perfect way to get around New Orleans. Faster and easier than walking, but slow enough to allow me to see everthing I wanted. I also packed a pair of flip-flops into my backpack just in case I wanted to go inside somewhere that would frown on the rollerblades.
I parked the truck on Basin St, and set off. First stop? St. Louis Cemetery #1, named for the street it’s on. Among other notables, here lies interred Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ most famous Voodoo Queen, who died in 1881. Why are all the tombs above ground? As former swampland, New Orleans has very unstable soil, and legend has it that caskets placed into the ground will eventually be pushed back up to the surface. Better to just leave the dead high and dry. No need to risk their unexpected return.
Similarly to Mexico, tombs receive offerings. I’m not sure of the significance of this tomb, but people frequently make offerings to dead voodoo priests and priestesses, hoping against hope that their wishes will be granted.
After visiting the cemetery, I decided to head toward Canal Street, and then into the Garden district via Lafayette square. I doubt Ben Franklin is wearing beads in any other city.
At the Robert E. Lee memorial, there was a crowd of african-american guys hanging out. It struck me as mildly ironic.
From there I headed southwest along St. Charles Avenue, where I stopped at the Voo Doo Barbecue and Grill for lunch. They were completely unfazed by the fact that I was wearing rollerblades in their restaurant. There, I had the most incredible jambalaya, made of smoked pork, chicken, and shrimp. It was spicy and piquant without being overpowering. Honestly, it was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. Price with a pint of beer and tip? A mere $13.
My friend, “G,” originally from New Orleans says that eccentricity is not only tolerated in Nola, but it’s celebrated. People definitely were quite supportive of my going around on rollerblades, which as I’d later find out, was more challenging than I had expected.
After lunch I proceeded southwest on St. Charles Avenue, then moved over to Magazine Street, which is filled with funky stores that remind me of San Francisco, another city that cherishes eccentricity.
And it would appear that New Orleanians have a rather different conception of a computer geek than the rest of the country. Or maybe it’s just a fresh reinterpretation of the old marketing adage, “sex sells.”
There are touches of color everywhere.
And New Orleans is a city that takes parades just as seriously as any city in Mexico. I can’t help but thinking that somewhere in China, there’s a small factory city working full time to supply N.O. with mardi gras beads.
And I saw a few more sights as I continued along. Unfortunately, by this time I was getting tired, the sidewalks were becoming even more cracked, broken, and uneven, and finally I fell. Fortunately I escaped with only a minor scuff and miraculously didn’t damage my camera. About 20 minutes later I fell again, and decided that that was the sign that I should go back to the truck and continue on foot.
After I retrieved my shoes, I headed back to the French Quarter.
And I managed to snap a few more photos, before I headed into a bar for a drink.
In the bar, I met a handsome and charming man who we’ll call “X.” X and I ended up chatting for a good hour, and then we went to dinner where we had more incredible food. Later we took a stroll around the French Quarter. I then dropped off X at his house, and then returned to my hotel where I collapsed, exhausted but deliriously happy.
Today we drive to Houston. Saludos!