Backpacking USA #6 – New Orleans: Losing my mind in America’s playground
After 14 hours on the road, I tore my eyes open from restless sleep and stared out at the dawn which had filled my window. I noticed that my Greyhound bus rolled along major roads which seemed to rise up from lakes, bayous and sparse gulfs. Years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, much of the outskirts still lay in a state of disrepair. The landscape was desolate, and ashamedly – from a position of never having experienced catastrophe – I thought the landscape looked beautiful.
Welcome to the South! I arrived from Nashville at 6am and realised I had no place to stay. Whilst draining a coffee in an early morning café, I booked myself into a hotel using Hotwire.com. I crossed my fingers for somewhere sweet, and a second letter an e-mail confirmation came through announcing The Sheraton as my abode for the next couple nights.
Moving at warp speed and mad for sleep, I already had my key card in hand and was lain spread eagle on the hotel bed. This was the first time in four weeks that I was going to sleep ALONE or shower in comfort, without tiptoeing around a stranger’s clump of hair in the plug hole. I could sit on the loo for however long I wished without the looming sensation that someone was going to knock and ask “are you done yet?” No snores or unknown farts propelled into the middle of the night. No needless conversation asking where ya from, where ya going, whatchya doing? For an entire morning and into the afternoon I reveled in a solitude that I forgot I needed. For a solo traveller, I hadn’t spent nearly as much time with myself as I anticipated. There had always been someone who wanted to do something, somewhere. So after a soak in the bath, a nap and a few minutes of TV I decided that after three days without eating a hot meal I was finally going to wine and dine myself.
With an empty stomach and a heavy camera, I snapped balconies and doorways adorned in lace and colourful beads – a stylisation I thought only existed in films. Then just as I was turning to find a restaurant, who do I bump into but my two Swedish companions from Nashville. “Hey. We were gonna call you. We’re going on a pub crawl. We’re gonna try to drink in every bar along Bourbon Street. You coming?”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hesitate. I probably mumbled something about needing to eat, but that got quickly dismissed and the 12-hour onslaught began. If you know anything about Bourbon street, you’ll know that this is where the chaos happens. Imagine every novelty drink, theme bar, sexy hostess, frat party, hen-do or spring breaker you have ever met and squeeze them all into one god-forsaken place. It’s where rock stars go to die and I loved it.
For those culturally inclined, New Orleans has a tumultuous history. Colonisation. Slavery. Witchcraft. Jazz. And yes, in that order. It is also one of the few places in North America where it is legal to drink on the streets. Which means there are big brass bands playing a fusion of Hip-Hop and Funk in the street whilst children and seniors can be found dancing and jiving till the day breaks. And why? There’s no special occasion, it’s just the summer and here in Louisiana living is reason enough to throw a party.
I don’t remember getting back to my room, falling asleep, or waking up the next morning but my Swedes had now departed for another part of the country and all I could think about was food! There are plenty of places to score in meal, and if I were a food blogger I probably would have gone into details about what I ate, how it made me feel and some faff about invoking wonderful childhood memories. Food is fuel. It did the job – but according to the locals this is where it’s at:
Try a Po’ Boy (poor boy) at Parkway Bakery & Tavern: This sub of many faces can be found in petrol stations and sit-down restaurants stuffed with catfish, steak or traditional fried prawns. It’s messy but it’s a Nola rite of passage so don’t write it off.
Grab a café et beignet (“Ben-nyeigh“) at the Cafe du Monde: There are many places to try this French delicacy but the café on Decatur St is the most widely known. This dough, which is rolled out flat, fried in cottonseed oil and smothered in powdered sugar makes the tourists go ga-ga, which is probably why Cafe du Monde is open 24/7.
(and don’t worry, you don’t have to eat all the icing sugar)
Stop and smell the Gumbo: “Gumbo, essentially a stew, is the history of Louisiana in a bowl.” The recipe and ingredients can be highly contested over, but the truth is that a real gumbo is whatever your heart wants to put in it. All gumbo is good gumbo, so find a back alley or a side-street restaurant, simmer down and don’t leave Nola until the spices are dancing on the sides of your tongue.
I left The Sheraton and found cheaper accommodation at India House hostel. Somehow I had a floor to myself. Was this isolation going to be a repeating theme? I spent my second night in The Spotted Cat Music Club, booty shaking with a fellow traveller who was doing the same trip I was but by motorcycle. It was a completely different pace to my previous nights with the Swedes. I had been so used to large groups, raucous laughter and watching people drink themselves into oblivion that I forgot the beauty of quiet conversation over flickering candlelight and subtle music floating through humid southern evenings.
But blissful evenings like those don’t last long in Nola. When motorcycle guy left the mania returned and I was fronting a new group even crazier than the wild cats I was with before. My last night in New Orleans was as debaucherous as the first. I felt as if I had reached the pinnacle of my being. I was lindy-hopping, had a public dance-off with a Jazz-trumpeter and managed to con nice people into dancing on the tables of a bar at 8 o’clock in the morning. I felt like a lioness, a pack leader, the pied piper.
But you can always count on money to snap you back to reality. By this point I had burned through £1500 of the £2000 in my account and I still had another month left. New Orleans changed my life (the people I met at India House Hostel I still love and cherish to this very day). So embrace the insanity, let that Louisiana air mess up your clothes and ruffle your hair. You’re in the south, so anything goes.
Next stop Miami.
Cue Will Smith…