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05 June 2011

New Orleans, I Love You

Day 10: Monday, May 30
I was sleeping soundly on the couch, and Ueli was still snoozing on the air mattress when Allen and his dog came down the stairs. It was already 8:40 and we needed to leave for breakfast by 9. We rushed ready and Allen drove us across town to Elizabeth's, which unfortunately was closed. We then headed back across New Orleans, Allen giving us a really detailed and local tour along the way. We learned about bounce music, the experience of LSU playing the Sugar Bowl, and passed by a Banksy piece.

The neighbor Isaac met us at the restaurant, Shelley's (or something starting with an "s") on Magazine. which had some great breakfast selections (I had a boudin biscuit and eggs, while Allen opted for some amazing shrimp and grits). Soon Allen had to go to work, and it was Ueli and I left to explore the city.

New Orleans is an incredible city. It is by far the most interesting and unique place that I have visited in the US. Every street corner oozes with history and culture. People here are very genuine, which can often mean that they're excessively upfront and rude, but they're also friendly, just like many Southerners. People here will approach you or comment on something you do without thinking twice about it, but they do so without the slightest hint of judgment. New Orleans is truly one of the most unique places in the world. It's a city of music, jazz, the historic South, cajun culture, swamps, river barges, and (most unfortunately) neglect and natural disaster. And all of these aspects of the city blend together until they become indistinguishable.

Ueli and I began our exploration with a walk through Audobon Park in the "upriver" part of New Orleans. It was a very pleasant place to stroll (it's too hot and humid to run, even in the morning). We then walked through a portion of Tulane University's campus, which was gorgeous. Interestingly, right next to serious academic buildings and historic 19th-century plantation-style houses were trees covered with beads thrown during the mardi gras parades.

We took the St. Charles Streetcar into the center of the city, getting off near Lafayette square and walking (using no maps) into the French Quarter. Bourbon Street was the first stop, naturally. I was somewhat shocked by how tacky and touristy it was. It smelled funky and the buildings did not look very impressive either. There were sex shops and lots of bars. But not the kind of bars I expected; these were places that sold hand grenades (a touristy drink in a souvenir glass) and had doormen urging you to come in.

It's a place to party and get drunk, which all seemed so artificial in a Vegas kind of way - the exact opposite of New Orleans. And this was during the midday, too. Imagine it at night.

Well, we gladly moved away from Bourbon Street and explored the rest of the French Quarter, which was a significant improvement. Street performers everywhere. Prettier buildings. We then met Laney by the St. Louis Cathedral and then walked over to the famous Cafe du Mond to try some Beignets (French donuts). We sat on the riverbank, eating and sipping on some iced coffee, the river sprawling widely before us. After a stroll through Frenchman Street, Laney left us to get her car, and Ueli and I walked to Gene's to buy a daiquiri, strawberry and jungle juice flavored. It was hot and a perfect day to just sit around.

Laney then picked us up and gave us a driving tour of the lower 9th Ward, most famously devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The cityscape (if you could even call it that) was fascinating: Empty lots everywhere with new, modern/eco-friendly development scattered about, and a few run-down buildings still standing around.

We drove to the edge of the neighborhood, overlooking the wetlands that (formerly) used to protect the city, but which have been destroyed by saltwater intrusion, due largely to the construction of the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet Canal (MR-GO) by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Driving back through the Lower 9th Ward, I really had to imagine that these streets, and the houses that stood here, had all been submerged underwater.

The roads were in very poor condition (as in much of New Orleans). There is also a very high crime rate (one of the highest in the nation); and Laney shared that she's more afraid of stray bullets than getting robbed.

We then saw some "green" homes built by Laney's organization in the Holy Cross neighborhood and walked for a bit along the levee. There were nice sweeping view across the river and toward the city itself. A very nice place to relax and enjoy some sunshine.

Laney then drove us back to the Quarter and we said our good-byes. Ueli and I walked back through the area and stopped to have a Muffaletta, sitting on a balcony overlooking the streets and river below. It was now later in the day, and Bourbon Street had come alive, with music blasting from every bar in sight.

We took the streetcar straight back to Allen's place, enjoying the amazing old houses lining St. Charles Street.

We rested for a bit and continued planning (i.e. sending CS requests) the next legs of our journey. I watched some TV, having forgotten that shows usually airing at 8pm air at 7pm in the central time zone.

Allen arrived (he was actually next door the whole time), and we then went out to Frenchman Street for the night. We met up with Steffen and his friend at Maison, where there was live music and no cover (and of course, no bouncer or anything at the door). I liked the music - the band was playing a kind of funk. Allen wanted to check out another place down the street, but the food that I had ordered (an alligator sausage) took forever to come out. So we waited and waited. After maybe 45 minutes, the food arrived; I ate, and we left. Except Steffen and his friend stayed. But instead of paying the $5 cover at the other bar, I chose to spend my last night in NOLA walking down Bourbon Street. It was tacky, loud and touristy - a place just to get drunk. I could've known.

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