Yes, we are the family that camps (next to) big cities when we visit them. We’ve driven our Land Yacht (a 1995 Suburban) and pop-up camper through L.A., D.C. and now New Orleans. It adds some excitement to our adventures. Navigating while Marcus weaves in and out of freeway traffic makes me thankful I believe in life after death.
Maybe someday I will write about why we camp all over, besides the fact it was the only way our family of 6 could afford to travel and see so many wonderful places together. On this trip we actually camped about 25 minutes from downtown New Orleans, in St. Bernard State Park. A lovely little place, with showers, laundry, raccoons, and frogs that croaked a symphony every evening in the lagoon beside our camper.
New Orleans, pronounced New “Orlins” by the natives (our tour guide told us only tourists say “New OrlEEns” or NOLA”), was over the top. The first afternoon we visited, we hit the French Quarter, because we thought that was what everyone should do. It was HOT AND MUGGY x 100. I felt disenchanted from the heat, but also from the dilapidated state of the buildings we witnessed on our drive to the city, and the bright, painted facades covering ancient, rotting buildings. You hear about the spiritual brokenness of this area, and it seemed like it was mirrored by its physical surroundings.
However, we went on a 3-hour air-conditioned bus tour the 2nd day. It opened my eyes to the rest of New Orleans, and what an amazing city it really is.
Before the tour, we headed down Magazine Street, which was full of fun little shops. Just off of Magazine Street were the Lovely Homes in the Garden District – homes you see in Southern Living. The homes have basements, but not like ours. Their basements are areas above ground that lift the homes to a higher elevation. All the homes are built up from the street, which is a good thing, since during Hurricane Katrina 6 feet of water flowed through the streets of this stately neighborhood. After the flood, several owners wanted to sell their 2-3 million (they didn’t look that big!) homes. Not a lot of takers, as you could imagine.
We also drove by the beautiful campuses of Loyola and Tulane universities in the Uptown district. Other properties that caused us to gasp were frequently private Catholic girls’ schools. There is still a heavy Catholic influence in the area, as evidenced by the quantity of large churches, cemeteries and private schools.
As we were driving, I spotted a little coffee shop. Of course we had to sample the local brew. Crazy thing is, Nebraska, the friend we took camping, remembered the shop as the one her dad took her to when he used to live there! The coffee was excellent, and the barista pointed us in the direction of her dad’s old address. Across the street from the coffee shop was a large brick building. Ashley checked it out, and it was an old “Infant Asylum”, or orphanage. It had the original 1800’s furniture in it, historic pictures on the wall of the orphanage days, and a courtyard with a pool. It is now being used as a half-way house.
After we explored a bit more, we found our tour bus. Eugene, our tour guide, has lived in New Orleans his whole life, and had an Opinion. He got straight to the point about voodoo, explaining it was mind control, and no one was gonna control his mind. So that was that. He also said gambling was outlawed in Louisiana, but the industry just changed the name to “gaming”, which solved that problem. He showed us stone pigs someone had imported for their porch, and explained how they dress them up for every holiday. He also told us the water level of each area of town we visited.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, we drove through houses that had been built by the Make it Right Foundation (Eugene called it the Brad Pitt Foundation). They are brightly painted houses that all have their own unique design. They all have escape hatches in the roofs. One even breaks away and floats if the water rises. If the original residents can prove they owned the land before the flood, they can get a house with a no-interest loan for $120,000. The houses we saw were well-maintained and cheery. Much of the neighborhood was still in sorry shape, but we saw hope in action. Eugene said that the economy was in bad shape before the flood. The government helped people relocate after the flood, and many were able to find opportunities elsewhere. So in that way, the flood did help some people.
Eugene also drove us right next to the levy that broke and flooded this area. He said a barge was anchored in the canal, and was supposed to be moved before the hurricane hit. It wasn’t moved, and broke through the levy into the neighborhood. The water followed, flooding the area to 26 feet. When you saw the helicopters dropping sandbags in place, it was the block-and-a-half breach the barge made. What? It took 2 months to pump the water into Lake Pontratrain.
And the cemetery? Get outta here. These crypts can cost you $40,000-$60,000 big ones. But it’s full, you say? They can fit 350 bodies into one crypt. And here is how it’s done in New Orleans: 1. You get buried in a balsa-wood box, and they set you on a shelf in the crypt. 2. After a year and a day, the bone crusher opens the crypt with a skeleton key, gets your remains, burns the clothes, and breaks the bones into small fragments. The fragments are put into a burlap bag, and put into the “dead space” in the bottom of the crypt. 3. After a few generations, your family may not care about owning the crypt any longer, and may want to cash in on it. You sell it. They take down the door with the engraved family members’ names on it, and put up a new door with the new family’s names. 4. I assume they leave all the burlap bags from the previous owners in the tomb. Someone must keep track of who is in there.
I know. This sounds nuts, but when I tried to see if it was true, I couldn’t find anything to contradict it. So there you go.
And there’s more. We saw a small portion of City Park, which is bigger than Central Park. Live Oak trees are everywhere, complete with Spanish moss. During the flood, 9 feet of water covered the park. The Live Oaks suffered from the brackish (mixed fresh and salt) water, and they thought they’d lost these centuries-old trees. But they revived. Whew. While at the park, some of us toured the sculpture garden. Amazing! When we left, we saw a family having a picnic. Not only did they bring their smoker, but they also had a huge kettle for boiling seafood. They did it right.
So, even though my neighbors warned me about New Orleans (don’t stay after dark!), and the first afternoon seemed hot and oppressive, I left the city feeling like we’d only seen the tip of the iceberg (I didn’t even get to the Warehouse District where you find the arts; the Business District, where skyscrapers are only 50 stories tall due to the marshy ground; the trolleys…). There was a lot of brokenness in New Orleans, but also a lot of hope. So much history and beauty. You should put this city on your bucket list. The end.
The outdoor dining at Cafe du Monde. We had heard this was a MUST-SEE, so we went. The chicory coffee was good. The steaming beignets were tasty. But the whole finding a seat/a waitress finding us to take our order/finding enough cash to pay for us/the bathroom line was a little nutty. But we got to cross it off our list. And wade through powdered sugar.
These guys were fantastic! When they started playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”, some elderly ladies started dancing. A waiter from a bar passed out napkins for the ladies to wave while they danced. Why all this waving? We witnessed it during a wedding procession the next evening. I found some info if you’re curious here.
These “half buildings”? There were several houses and apartments that looked like they had been chopped in half. These were slave quarters, according to Eugene.
The lots for homes were skinny and very deep. So were the houses.
Check out the nuns’ head gear. Worth the trip right there.
The courtyard behind the coffee shop Nebraska’s dad used to take her to when she was a youngun’.