Days in Cajun Country
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!