My first task on arrival into New Orleans was to make my way to the hostel I was to be staying in for the next four nights. I was originally to be staying in a hostel recommended by a friend from home only to be commanded by the Oracle by the name of Matthew Fraser to avoid the recommended hostel at all costs, cancel my reservation, stop dilly-dallying around, and place all my bets on his hostel of choice: the world-reowned, celebrity-endorsed Marquette House.
I duly arrived and checked in at my place of residence and had my bags taken to my room by a man in a white vest with a bottle of something in a brown paper bag that certainly wasn't water. Things got worse. On the way to my chambers suspicious looking characters lay slumped in deck-chairs around the communal areas nursing yet more brown paper bags in their hands. Things didn't get better when I was shown to my room: unless stained mattresses, dirty carpets, and bed bugs (yes, real, live, bed bugs) are your kind of thing. It later transpired the hostel, in addition to housing travellers, also acted as a sort of unofficial halfway-house for ex-criminals and recovering alcoholics. Great.
All in all the first thing the wonderful New Orleans taught me was simple: don't trust a word Matt Fraser tells you.
However, I was not alone in my suffering as a friendly fellow-Brit, Henry, had checked in soon after me. After preliminary introductions whilst settling into our austere dwelling we teamed up for the night and made our way to the famous French Quarter to sample some New Orleans cuisine and nightlife. We met a German chap called Chris who Henry had met previously and arranged to meet and took a walk down the infamous Bourbon Street. Bourbon St. had a distinctively Magaluf-esque feel to it (though I could hardly comment on the comparison).
Bourbon St. by Night
We were advised by a friendly chap with one eye to head to Frenchman Street where apparently the party really was getting started. We ended up in an intimate jazz bar which served decent food and beer (even to me). The music was great, and the beer flowing, so we camped out there for most of the night.
Good jazz and good beer - a winning combination
Just as we were settling in for the duration Henry appeared from a long absence at the bar with news that a local girl he had struck up conversation with was going to a bar somewhere "off the beaten track". With some hesitancy we hopped into a taxi, hot on her heels. Off the beaten track the bar certainly was: and a buzzing hub of activity it certainly wasn't. An interesting country western band played some music and I was taught the 'Louisiana two-step' by an enthusiastic local.
Country western with dress, tights and a washboard
Country-Westerned- and danced-out, we caught the quirky New Orleans' street car back to our palatial residence.
Thursday, 11th August 2011
The morning couldn't come soon enough. The whirring and spluttering and grinding of the Palace's air conditioning unit made sleeping a sport of mild to extreme difficulty, and periodically I was awoken by the non-paying inhabitants of our dormitory sinking their teeth into my delicious ankles. That morning another resident joined the family: Nestar - a friendly and excitable New Zealander who was travelling through the US on his way to a teaching post at a university in Canada.
None of us had eaten so we ventured towards the French Quarter market in search of sustenance. Having failed to find a traditional breakfast cafe we opted for breakfast New Orleans style: a generous helping of jambalaya.
Jambalayad-up the rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the French Quarter. Henry's guidebook handily suggested a tour we ought to take to see the sights of the more interesting part of New Orleans. The tour mainly consisted of winding our way through the charming side-streets of the French Quarter soaking in the local sights.
New Orleans, French Quarter
Exotic plants and wrought-iron balustrades
One of the highlights of the tour was passing what claimed to be "the most photographed fence in the world" - being unable to disprove this unsubstantiated claim, we accepted it as good; but out of protest we broke the ultimate tour-taboo and passed on by without stopping for a photograph.
The tour ended at the St. Louis Cathedral - an impressive building, inside and out.
St. Louis - exterior
St. Louis - interior
After some more pottering around we paid a quick pit-stop back to the hostel to check on the bed bugs and spruce ourselves up for another night out on the New Orleans streets. Whilst walking up the seedy (and oddly smelling) Bourbon St. we were tempted into a nice outside bar with dirt-cheap mojitos and a leisurely-looking jazz quartet. You get what you pay for, and it turns out $4 mojitos taste like crap, so we moved on after one in search of food grabbing some beer from a street vendor as we marched onwards.
We ended up back at our old haunt from the night before enjoying more good music, food and beer. I called it a night when we reached the smaller hours and returned to my bed for to give the bed bugs their evening feast.
Friday, 12th August 2011
I had my most manly breakfast of the entire trip - alligator sausage sandwiches (I resisted asking the waiter to "make it snappy"). After lunch the Three Musketeers all made our way to one of New Orleans' most famous attractions, the National WWII Museum.
Foyer - National WII Museum
I spent a good few hours in the WWII Museum which whilst having some very interesting exhibits puts a very American spin on the whole thing - I was saddened to see very little mention of the barbarity of the US's treatment of Japanese US citizens during the war and their mass internments in prisoner camps. However, an interesting place nonetheless and worth the visit.
The remainder of my daylight hours were spent travelling towards and through the Upper and Lower 9th Ward districts of New Orleans in search of abandoned buildings. In the meantime, some random inspirational New Orleans graffiti to keep photograph appetites satisfied.
I returned to the hostel as dark fell and teamed up with Nestar and Henry for a trip into the French Quarter for drinks and some music. We ate along the way and sampled many of Bourbon Street's (musical) bars. We ended up in a bar with a rather natty jazz band on Frenchman Street and bumped into some people we had struck up conversation with on the street car on the way in. Nestar befriended a middle-aged Canadian couple, Bill and Nancy, who were duly initiated into our troupe. After a few potent drinks, Nestar and Bill swapped shirts - my memory of the night's events after that turn a little fuzzy. We ended up being politely asked to leave a bar, in the early hours, after Nestar did something even he doesn't remember.
We crawled back to our den of iniquity before the sun began to rise - the resident alcoholics and bed bugs, once again, waiting to greet us on our return.
Saturday, 13th August 2011
Having got a decent 8 hours of sleep I didn't rise until the afternoon was underway. I had planned to go back to the Lower 9th Ward, but I scrapped that idea in favour of recuperating in a nice air-conditioned cafe and then Starbucks downtown and catching up with various things I'd been putting off since leaving Denver, but been unable to do since Matt Fraser's suggested hostel/crack-den didn't have internet. Henry had left after 2 hours of sleep earlier in the morning for his flight to DC, so Nestar and I were to fend for ourselves that night. We ventured downtown for food and a walk around, but it seems the French Quarter is even seedier and grotesque than normal on a Saturday with even more drunk people than we had hitherto experienced.
I turned in early, with the thought a 6am start looming, somewhat disappointed with the image of New Orleans I had witnessed that night.
Sunday, 14th August
I bade farewell to the bed bugs and mouldy bathroom early to catch the early Sunday morning bus to the airport. All went smoothly and I caught my flight to Washington DC.
I left New Orleans with mixed emotions. It surely ranked as one of my (if not the) favourite places I had visited on my travels - it exuded life and character of a kind that I had not experienced anywhere in the US or Canada; but perhaps that's because Louisiana really isn't the US at all (or not as we know it, anyway). But, the coin of experience has two sides, and the flip side to one of my favourite cities was a bleak one. Poverty, abandonment, and a sense of despair permeated much of the city - even in the tourist-infested French Quarter - and racial divides remain evident. Whilst much of the city has recovered from Katrina and the tourist industry has more than revived, it all comes at a price: commercialisation and a huge dose of seediness somewhat spoil this gem of the South.