<%-- Page Title--%> Travel <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 147 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 2, 2004

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Three Days in Cajun Country

Samia Islam

When a colleague heard I was going to New Orleans in March, he said, "Be careful down there. It is a nasty place. Boy! The things that go on!" He shook his head, not caring to elaborate, perhaps mindful of propriety. After this conversation, my enthusiasm regarding the upcoming trip admittedly wilted. So, the day we landed in the city for the Southern Regional Science Association meeting, all I wanted was to return to the familiar as soon as I could.

At the airport the announcement over the loudspeaker was in French, the signs to the baggage claim were in Spanish, French and Chinese and the shuttle driver spoke Spanish. The first English words I heard in Louisiana were my own. It was official--I was in another country.

Driving from the airport to the hotel, the first thing I noticed about the city was the number of catholic schools and churches along the way. I wondered how a place so obsessed with religion could have a seedy side, and that also so flagrantly publicised.

As luck would have it, the conference I was attending was scheduled for the week after the 'hurricane' of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) had passed through town. There was consolation in that thought--it will be all quiet now but in all honesty, not without a twinge of disappointment.

The first night I had dinner at Mulate's with David Hughes, an old friend. The restaurant was cozy and rustic, resembling a country kitchen complete with red checkered tablecloths and unfinished wooden furniture. David had lived in Louisiana for nine years before moving to the North East. Over a dinner of grilled alligator fresh off the bayou, a hearty gumbo and delightful crawfish étouffée, I asked him if he missed living there. He said: "I can live without the crime, of course, and the humidity in summer. It's like a soup in July! But", he added wistfully, "I do miss the Jazz festival."

New Orleans is also the birthplace of jazz, as many a tea towel, hatpin, keychain or fridge magnet will tell you. Even as we ate, couples of all ages were two-stepping around us to live Cajun music. And if you want to know: alligator is good eatin' just like chicken, only a tad chewer.

While browsing a local newspaper the next morning, the obituaries section caught my eye. Each entry mentioned the cause of death. Needless to say, this is not a common practice elsewhere in the U.S. The real shocker, however, was that along with the common causes, there were a good number of "gunshot wounds".

That afternoon, Santiago Pinto, a charismatic Argentinean, was explaining to me the concept of Lent. But eventually as his own confusions began to rattle him, he blew the unruly hair off his forehead and concluded: "Well, Mardi Gras ees what they haf in Braseel the carnaval-- that ees all". He was showing me around the French Quarter (aka, Vieux Carre) and one could not have asked for a better date, with his accented English and boyish good looks. As I marveled at the iron lace balconies on the pink, yellow and blue houses along narrow streets delightfully old-world in the sun he talked about the transformation that these unassuming streets went through at night.

Right in the middle of Bourbon Street, a man was standing with a cardboard placard. The sign read: 'Huge a__ beers to go'. It was around 3:40 pm. I had never known a place where one could buy alcohol and walk away sipping.

The drink of choice in the French Quarter, however, is the Hurricane. That night, as we tried to make our way through the hundreds of screaming, dancing, laughing people, I asked Cynthia Rogers, a native of Oklahoma and mother of two, what was in the 'hurricane' that she had just bought off of a roadside stand (yes, that's exactly right). "I think a lot of rum and some kind of mix that makes it red," she laughed, twirling the beads she had just caught falling off the balcony overhead.

Now, we have all heard about them and been scandalised by them and seen the girls on TV but let me tell you that in the French Quarter, beads are currency. They are gold. And no matter who you are, you want some. There are particular spots along Bourbon Street where the music hits a crescendo and so does the screaming. The Bourbon Street Blues Company and the Cat's Meow are two such hot spots. Picture a line of people-- drink in hand-- standing in the dimly-lit balconies with strings of precious beads. They are engaged in a negotiation with the crowd on the streets. There are no comprehensible words only hysterical screams and gesturing.

People screaming for the beads are not just young college co-eds. They are of all ages, genders, shapes and sizes -- crying themselves hoarse, and even shyly lifting shirts over sizeable beer guts. On Bourbon Street, you have to earn your beads (and your bragging rights) to wear them like war injuries. Or, you can just wait for one of the innumerable parades that pass by on most days of the year and hope to catch the 'charity' beads that the parade Grand Marshall will randomly throw out at the throngs along the streets.

Everything goes on this street, and nothing is taboo or sinful, and therefore, all of what surrounded me had an innocence that I have rarely felt elsewhere. Chris, an Indonesian who was also staying at our hotel, walked with his head lowered. Santiago and I made him look at a window display that made his ears turn red. "Did you have a good time?" I asked him later. He grinned with discomfort.

Both nights that we were in town, a parade passed through the French Quarter. One was for St. Paddy (they celebrated early). Everybody was Irish that night--black, white or Japanese -- with green feather boas around their necks and their faces painted with four-leaf clovers. Lee, an overgrown college ball player, pleaded with the brass bands to play him one more song. In a stupor, he whined: "I will pay you. I will beg on my knees. Please!" The Storyville Stompers brass band finally relented to his pleas and played an extra number. Lee was beside himself with joy and almost in tears at his incredible good fortune. The music was so electrifying that even my advisor, an otherwise stoic man, swayed a little on his feet. The revelry continued well into the night as the parade of dancers, high school brass bands, clowns on stilts, and huge floats moved inches at a time, leaving in their wake an indiscriminate trail of kisses, plastic flowers, beads, and a stench of beer overflowing in the gutters.

During the keynote address at the conference I was attending, the renowned regional scientist and wonderfully witty public speaker Mark Henry of Clemson University took the podium and rended the silence with a guttural cry: "Stella!" He apologised for this bit of eccentricity, saying: "I just had to do that". We all understood. The city's aura called for it.

Suggestions of mysticism pervade New Orleans, with its ghost tours, rabbit's foot key chains and wide varieties of voodoo paraphernalia. Jackson Square, the hot bed of all artistic and eccentric pursuits, looks and feels more like a chawk in Old Delhi than anywhere in America. Anne Rice, the elusive author of The Vampire Chronicles and the MayFair Witches, lives in the Garden District. And after this trip, I understand clearly why Tom Robbins sets part of his masterful, magical Jitterbug Perfume in the "Big Easy". Mystical and surreal, this city is a continuing conversation between the godly and the worldly worlds.

Having travelled extensively in northern and eastern parts of the United States for the last five years, I was scarcely prepared for the sensory overload of New Orleans. I had expected seediness, poverty, not to mention bloodbaths on street corners. Instead I found a city charming in its unsanitary ways, with happy people of all ages walking down the street with layers of colourful beads around their necks. If you are just visiting a place for three or four days, naturally you learn nothing about its everyday reality. But if a good time is what you are looking to have, then you hit pay dirt in "N'awlins".

As is customary in the Deep South, I greeted a passer-by with a "And how are you doing today?" to which he promptly replied: "If I was any better, I'd have to take something for it". Welcome to the Big Easy!
Laissez les bon temps rouler!




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