Lovely Louisiana – Louisiana

Lovely Louisiana

Louisiana, USA

We’re driving into Louisiana after a good 8000 miles of road and rail, travelling anti-clockwise from New York, across Canada, and down through Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. We’re two months into a three month trip that will see us go full circle, and we’re tired.

The last thing we saw in Texas was a fox, hanging by its back legs on a fencepost, as dead as it gets. Now we’re entering the Deep South, we’re hoping that we’re not going to share that same fate. The only things I know about Louisiana, I learned from the ‘Southern Comfort’ film, and some vague anecdotes about people getting mugged in New Orleans.

We were there six months before Hurricane Katrina would strike, but even then the scale and fury of the American weather had shocked our little English minds. Records were being broken for snowfall in New England, and New York had been getting another hammering. On tv, we’d seen the ruin left behind by mudslides in Washington and California. Up north, the country was deep under snow, down south the warmer climate had turned it to heavy rain, breaking records in Arizona. When we crossed the border into Louisiana, further heavy rains and stormy weather were literally on the horizon.

We start for Shreveport, but divert towards Alexandria instead. We know nothing about either of these places, just that they’re fairly big, so we don’t care too much where we end up. By Natchitoches, the eyelids are heavy and I can’t drive anymore. We hole up in a Best Western and spread out the map and draw markers for all the places we have interesting leaflets on. A few of them are in New Orleans, which confirms our general direction of travel for now.

The next morning, we’re up and out for ten. The cleaner is a little skinny guy in a cap. He checks out Steph real good as she follows me to the car. The roads are lined with fields, then wet fields, then swamp. There are numerous rundown properties, some of which are burnt out wrecks.

Most people we see today are black. I won’t lie and say that didn’t concern me a little bit. It’s not like I expect today to be the day that the blacks rise up and get their own back on us whiteys for all that slavery business, and drag Steph out of the car to gang rape her whilst I’m hung from a tree. And it’s not just because they’re black – they could be Russian, they could be French rednecks. It’s not them, it’s more to do with us, the fact that we’re totally immersed in another culture and we’re alone. That’s fear talking, I know. I don’t know if the locals will be friendly or not, and if they’re not we’re in trouble.

This said, in a few weeks we’ll get to Georgia and we’ll again be the only white people in the town. In Homerville, Georgia, we get followed back to our motel by a car full of black dudes, and we end up bailing from the motel and fleeing through 40 miles of swampland. And that happened to us because we were tourists, and because we were white. Those of a politically correct inclination could argue about this for hours, and draw all sorts of judgements about our preconceived and racist ideas, but when you stop at a gas station and every coloured person on the forecourt stops what they are doing to stare at you, what would you think? What about when you go to pay, and a young coloured woman bores holes into the side of your head with her eyes, and stands there cracking her knuckles, what then?

Alexandria, I don’t remember much about. We go to a Kinko’s and reply to a couple of emails. We have a coffee and a juice in Applebees, and the guy lets us have them for free, because we’re English.

The GPS takes us on a road that suddenly ends at the bank of the False River. It’s a ferry crossing. We wait for it to come back across and then drive on board, parking up on the open deck. It pulls away, spins around really fast, and belts across the river. We get a real sense that we’re entering the sticks, and there’s no turning back now.

The Myrtle Plantation, apparently, is one of America’s most haunted buildings. We were disappointed to find little more than a run down guest-house next to the highway. A run down guest-house with no smoking, no tv or phone in the room. The restaurant was closed on a Monday, so we wouldn’t even get any food. And the place was about as haunted as a WalMart.

We keep driving, and head for Baton Rouge. We take the back roads and soak up the Louisiana atmosphere. We could almost taste the bayou. The effect didn’t last through Baton Rouge, probably because of the overbearing stink. Steph, who had been coughing and burning up with some sort of bug all day (we later hear that America is in the grip of a flu pandemic), had a stab at identifying the smell and concluded it was rotting cabbage.

The town itself is just another McDonalds lined, well-lit boulevard. We look for hotels on the GPS and get ready to hole up for the evening. Easier said than done, as the first hotel is not there. Lori, the female voice on the unit, has taken to lying to us now and then. For all the beauty of the GPS, it does tend to mess with us at the most inopportune moments.

We manage to get everything we want from a hotel at the Holiday Inn, including Spike TV so we can watch the latest episode of the Ultimate Fighter program. We check in and go up to the room. It’s my turn to make the coffees. When I pull the jug out to fill up a cup, the machine pisses coffee all over the hot plate. We order room service dinners and settle down. That night I have trouble getting to sleep again. Steph is coughing all night.

We had asked for an eight-thirty wake up call and as a result we were checked out and on the road by ten.

We cross the Mississippi River on an enormous bridge, way up above the water, and head down into Port Allen. After a brief stop at a post office to send a box of tourist junk back home, we set off down the Great River Road, but stop almost immediately at a Waffle House for some breakfast. I have a waffle covered with honey, and some milk. Steph has toast and milk. She had to dig deep to face any kind of food this morning, and when it arrives there is a hair on it.

There goes the tip. When I go to pay, the till operator keeps me waiting ages whilst she cocks about doing some receipts admin. She doesn’t even say something like “Be with you in a minute!”. When she finally looks up, she just holds out her hand for the money.

By this time, I have come up with an ingenious plan to pay the bill with all our loose change, and count out the entire amount in pennies, five and ten cent coins, and maybe the odd quarter. Her face drops with disgust and I continue counting and offer her a breezy smile.

So, we drive down the Great River Road towards Oak Alley Plantation. The GRR is another wonderful sounding name, but again a disappointment. Rundown houses and neighbourhoods, some fields, some town-sized industrial plants belching out plumes of filthy smoke.

See a sign for the Nottoway plantation and cut across the carriageway with a sharp U-turn to go back and see it. We were thinking about staying a night here, too. We go down the drive and park up. This place is nice. We buy a couple of tour tickets and walk the grounds. Inside, the building is huge, dripping with Southern opulence.

After the splendour of Nottoway, we decide we just have to see Oak Alley as well. When we get there, we find the main house isn’t as nice as the first place, but the grounds are exceptional. The Oak Alley is named after the avenue of giant oaks that were planted about 350 years ago. The house was built a hundred years later. The owner must have thought God himself had planted those trees, such an odd sight they would have been, out in the middle of nowhere. Now, you go through the house, step onto the first floor balcony, and you see right down the length of the avenue, giant trees reaching over in an arching canopy, and see the levy holding back the Mississippi River a half mile distant. If you’ve watched ‘Interview With a Vampire’, Brad Pitt rides a horse through this very scenery.

We leave for the city of St. Morgan, deciding not to sleep here after all, but we’re both tired by Thibodaux and stop at the first decent looking hotel, a Howard Johnson. It’s a bit tatty close up, and the redneck neighbours are a bit noisy , but it’ll do. We literally walk across the car park to the Envie restaurant for some dinner. Inside, a long wall has been painted with an enormous mural of a plantation. It’s brilliant. If we never get the money together to buy a real plantation, we’ll have to track down the painter instead.

We’re woken up at 6 a.m. by thunder – it’s like somebody dragging heavy furniture around upstairs. Outside, it’s pissing down. The sky is an ominous grey. We’re supposed to be going out on the bayou today, but I’m not going boating in an alligator infested swamp in a storm.

TV weather says there has been 10 FEET of snow in California since last Friday. There is also a major storm warning for Texas. TV news shows more mudslides in California. One woman says that maybe the ground is now so saturated that it will at least stop some of the brush fires later in the year. The Santa Clara River has eaten its way right up to the runway of the airport. They show a shot of someone’s swimming pool, sheared off from the property and resting at the foot of a hill in a mound of rubble. They show a shot of a car on the freeway, skidding clear across the reservation onto the opposite carriageway.

Then they start talking about American Idol, and flick their hair.

Drive to New Orleans. It’s a much nicer drive, following the wide Mississippi River, which looks sluggish and swollen. It’s raining so ferociously that it feels as though we’re in the river.

We end up in the suburbs, and it’s really nice. Lots of green, lots of shady spots, cooler now the heavy rains have cleared the air. This is exactly how I expected it to be, and I really like it.

The French Quarter is simply beautiful. The architecture and ambience is unique, an obvious French influence with a little spiciness thrown in. We book into a hotel on Conti Street, and the car is taken away to be parked somewhere. All around, space is at a premium. The streets are narrow and driving is a nightmare because everything is in a one way system.

On foot, we find Conti Street is junctioned with Bourbon Street, which seems to be quite famous. We walk the length to the strains of jazz, Cajun and rock music blasting from all the pubs and shops, a riotous mix of sound. Most of the shops sell the same sort of shit, much of which has Bourbon Street stamped or printed on it. What we first think of as tat, however, we soon come to love. Row upon row of feathered masks, endless designs of Mardi Gras beads, t-shirts and voodoo dolls, tourist crap that’s unique to New Orleans. Outside, even though we have missed Mardi Gras by a month, it’s still party time. A complete mix of people walk the streets, mostly smiling, just happy to be here. Drinks flow freely, there’s an air of excitement about the place.

There are strip joints and sex shops everywhere, including a Hustler bar and club. Only $5 entry! I start working on Steph, saying how we should have a drink in there later, just to see what it’s like. Signs advertise ‘Topless!’ and one even says ‘Bottomless!’.

This place is what Haight Ashbury, San Francisco should have been.

Later, about 9 p.m., we go out and find a place around one of the back streets for a bite to eat. There are less people around, and there’s a little tinge of danger in the air, the possibility that we could get mugged. We didn’t really worry about it though, and perhaps we should’ve, but just being in New Orleans seemed to be really relaxing, and everybody had a real air of just not giving a fuck about anything.

I have a chicken Jambalaya, a Louisiana specialty. It’s a spicy mix of rice, chicken, sausage, and all manner of other stuff. It’s like the meal has been cooked and thrown in a cement mixer to finish it off. Steph managed to have a proper vegetarian meal, rather than the ridiculous fare offered by the rest of continental USA — some lettuce with a bit of fruit on top, or vegetables cooked in bacon fat and so on – and that was another plus point for New Orleans.

Then we go to Hustler.

Naked women! Well, almost. Ladies with thongs would be more accurate. There are a couple of fit women in there, a few that would look okay after a few pints, and a couple of stinkers.

We grab a beer each and sit down at a table. As it’s our first time, we don’t know where to look. It’s tastefully lit, by which I mean you don’t have to struggle to see, although being in Hustler with your girlfriend means you end up looking at the floor more often than not. Still, Steph got into the vibe, and we relaxed, and it was actually more of an enjoyable experience than I thought it would be.

For a start, the girls are friendly. They look like they enjoy the work, and they come over as intelligent people doing a cool job rather than crack-slags desperate for cash. Well, most of them do.

After a while, we’d sunk a couple more beers, reasonably priced I guess since the floorshow was effectively free, and went and sat by the main stage. The people around the circular stage were a mix of leery blokes, quiet loners and businessmen with their girlfriends. Overall, the atmosphere was a lot classier than you’d expect. We watched a few girls dance, and I watched how people paid them. There’s an etiquette, a set system of behaviour.

You hold out a bill and the girls don’t just take it from you. They always do some sort of move, usually based on the way you offer the money. Put a dollar between your teeth, say, and they will get real close, put a breast on either side, and back away with the dollar, giving your face a soft rub as they go. Sometimes, you’re supposed to put the money in their thong strap, sometimes they do something terribly acrobatic, and sometimes they come and crawl over you, always embarrassing if you happen to have a boner at the time.

Tomorrow, I tell Steph, we’ll go to the nudie bar.

We want to stay in New Orleans at least another day, but our hotel has no rooms available. We have a leaflet for the Monteleone, so we get the car back and I park around the corner (in their designated area) and wander inside. It’s a palace. I stand in line at reception, leaflet in hand, and a lobby guy comes over. He takes the leaflet out of my hand and folds it in half.

“We don’t vant to see zat,” he says.

He indicates the special offer sticker. He looks around at the other guests. I’m here in my hoody top and jeans, everyone else is in suits. He smiles, and leaves. The receptionist tells me that the offer is now over, all the rooms for this deal have been sold out. The lobby guy comes back over, waves his hand in a way that only people of French descent can manage, and says it will be OK.

We check in and head straight back out on foot. Have a huge Cobb Salad in TGI Fridays, then catch a cab to the Garden District for a 3 p.m. walking tour. We pass through the main city, and it’s a place of skyscrapers and glass, and then we’re out the other side, dropped off outside the Pontchartrain Hotel.

Our guide is called Elliot. He’s going bald, but has a long ponytail. He’s dressed in black. He doesn’t talk us through the tour, he shouts, in a heavy and aggressive Southern accent. It’s fantastic. I could listen to this guy shout all day. I later find I can do a passable impression of Elliot, and start shouting at random moments for the rest of the trip.

The tour starts at the hotel and winds round a few blocks with frequent stops for loud commentary. About 30 minutes in, the heavens open up and we get a soaking. It doesn’t stop, and we walk through it for the next 90 minutes, dressed in t-shirts and jeans. Half of the group of 20 people have bailed by the time the tour is over.

We walk the sort of wide, luxurious and wonderfully green and leafy streets you’d expect, say, Anne Rice to call home. As indeed she does. Or rather did – we see two houses she lived in whilst writing the Vampire chronicles, but she has left the town and moved onto new things. Like most properties around here, they are enormous gothic masterpieces, surrounded by lots of wrought iron. We see Trent Reznor’s house too, but he has also left, for California.

The Garden District is beautiful. We get an utter drenching, accompanied by lots of thunder and lightning, and it’s absolutely perfect.

‘Big Daddy’s’ advertises topless and bottomless dancers. They aren’t. Also, the girls aren’t as nice looking as those in Hustler, and the vibe is a whole lot dirtier. The girls actually feel up the blokes, trying to entice them off for a private dance. We leave, and pop into another place further down Bourbon St. It’s not as well lit, so you can’t see much. I’m pretty sure this bothers me more than it does Steph. Bless her for running with this idea. In the end, we go back to Hustlers.

There are some different girls on, one or two fit ones, and a couple from last night actually recognise us. We go to the smaller back stage, sink a few beers and smoke a lot. There’s a guy sitting by us, young and nervous, holding up a dollar. One of the girls puts her head at the edge of the stage, and does a gentle headstand, arching over her back towards him. We’ve seen this move a few times. She will end up with her legs over the guy’s shoulders, her bits real close to the guy’s face, and he will place the folded dollar bill into her thong before she unfurls and backs off. That’s the idea, anyway. So, over she goes, gently arcing over. Then, right at the end, the momentum is too much, and she ends up slamming her pussy into his face so hard his head almost falls off.

She manages to back up, there are awkward smiles all round, and she has another go. And, with me and Steph watching open mouthed, she goes too fast and does the exact same thing again! It was all I could do not to laugh out loud.

At one point, we’re the only two people sitting at this stage. The girl stops dancing and sits on the edge of the stage to have a chat. Like most of the girls here, she is openly nice, friendly, and possesses a healthy sense of humour. This is one cool job, most of the clients are respectful, and it’s great money.

I’ve always found it pleasant to have a conversation with a well educated, humorous and likeable female. Especially if their breasts are dangling in my face.

Up reasonably early at 10. We get ready and check out, not really sure where to go next.

We drive towards the riverfront. Traffic is heavy and slow. We eventually find a parking space and wander around this part of the French Quarter. I get four really nice framed sketches for $10 from the indoor market.

We have brunch in a bar/restaurant and then spend a very pleasant two hours on a steamboat tour of the Mississippi. In the queue for the Natchez, a guy stands right on the top and plays an organ, the loud tune bursting from the steam pipes and ringing around this part of New Orleans. I can’t describe the sheer idiot joy of standing in line, just watching.

Later, we pick up the car and drive down for another look at the garden District, listening to a Cajun CD we picked up from one of the shops in Bourbon Street. We get a bit bored as it’s getting dark, and set the course for Houma.

Heading south, we enter the ‘Wetlands’ area of Louisiana. From here on in, you have your Cajuns and your rednecks, the swamp dwellers eeking out a living separate from anything else happening in the rest of North America, not bothered about the rest of the world at all. Down here, the Mississippi Delta spreads out all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and if you want to get from A to B, you’ll need a boat.

We find a Holiday Inn and check in. The recent late nights catch up with us and we don’t do a great deal.

Next morning, we check out and discover ‘Munsen’s World Famous Swamp Tours’ is just five miles away. There are only two checkboxes to tick off to make our Louisiana experience just about perfect. The first was a trip on the bayou. We drove to Munsen’s and there was a tour starting in an hour. The guy behind the counter says there’s a store five miles down the road, so we go there and get coffee, toast and cigarettes.

Get back for half-one, and there’s a family of five ready to join the tour. It’s run by the guy we met behind the counter. He’s small, has the most awful haircut, but turns out to be a nice guy and a great guide.

Within two minutes of setting off we see a little diddy alligator. A big heron lands close by, watching. He follows the boat for most of the tour, by now having learned that the guide will soon throw scraps of bread and chicken from the boat.

As do the raccoons. And the bald eagles, crows and vultures. The deer avoid us, but we see glimpses before they go crashing off into the swamp. We see owls, squirrels, and even a huge, 10 foot alligator, right next to the boat. It goes under and as Steph is leaning over to look into the water I grab her, shout “Raargh!” and she almost jumps into the swamp with fright. Everybody laughs.

We go deeper into the bayou, but never deep enough to feel totally out of touch. We never see proper ‘Southern Comfort’ swamp, just flashes of it, but we were there for two hours and it was an enjoyable experience.

Back at the shop, we get to hold a baby alligator they keep there to show the tourists in case none show on the tour itself.

We leave, and drive back up through New Orleans in order to tick off our last checkbox – the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, the world’s longest at 24 miles. There’s a point in the middle where all land is gone, save for the two thin ribbons of grey asphalt, and everywhere we look there’s just the lake. No more New Orleans. Pretty soon after, it’s no more Louisiana as well, as we cross into Alabama and look forward to another dozen or so states before the trip is over.

In three months, we drive through almost thirty states. Louisiana had the most impact, affected us more than any other. That’s why you haven’t just read about Arizona or California.