Visiting Jazz Town
January 1, 1970
by Alex Mango
The trip to the south of USA was not planned in advance and was more of a spur-of-the-moment decision, however, as at usually happens, this kind of decisions can lead to the most memorable adventures. I had purchased the tickets two days prior to the departure and was able to secure a nice small apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, thanks to the existence of Airbnb. The location was perfect and it is totally worth paying a little extra to stay in this part of town. Four nights cost me slightly under $1000 for a two-bedroom apartment just a couple of blocks away from most of the bars on Bourbon St and next door to a Voodoo museum.
Unfortunately, the start of this sudden trip to the food capital of the USA was spoiled by United Airlines who delayed the flight five times in a few hours and refused to hold the connecting flight for ten more minutes so that I could make it to New Orleans on that day (USA airlines were never known for their exceptional service). As a result – subway ride back home only to come back the next morning hoping to get on the plane and reach Louisiana. Luckily, there was no trouble this time and a few hours later a warm southern air was already filling my lungs as I stepped out of the Louis Armstrong airport. The airport was rather small and is named after perhaps the most famous musician that has ever played in this parts of the country, the jazz legend Louis Armstrong. The ride from the airport to the French Quarter took approximately 25 minutes and was not very scenic, although, it was interesting to see the highways and overpasses built over the marshes with long piles going deep under water and swampland. I would suggest taking Uber from the airport to the city as I found the taxi ride too pricey. To my surprise the air was not humid as I expected. It was not particularly hot either, very enjoyable 27°C (80°F) for an early October seemed perfect.
I had planned a few activities for my trip that included visits to one or two original plantations from the XIX century, a boat ride through the swamps and a visit to the World War II museum that was supposed to be one of the best museums in the country and was widely recommended online by other tourists. However, since of the days was lost, thanks to United Airlines, I had to reconsider the plan and decided to cut the swamp boat ride out. It was quite expensive and did not promise more than a very loud couple of hours on a weird looking boat across limitless marshes of Louisiana with occasional spotting of alligators. I might have made a mistake, but I don’t think I will have a chance to check this fact any time soon.
My first day was spent exploring the French Quarter and its surroundings. The architecture was very distinctive and looked more like a theatrical set or movie decorations rather than an actual town. Two and three-story buildings with long open balconies were built very close to each other and through narrow passages you could see cozy gardens hiding between them with small cafes and art galleries where people could relax in a shade. One of the first things I noticed in the French Quarter were windows, in contrast to a regular “American” window these were tall and opened sideways similar to those in Europe, and France in particular. Restaurants and shops kept many of them wide open on the first-floor inviting people inside with smells of Creole food and freshly made pralines. There is plenty of options to choose from when it comes to food in New Orleans. Local food is a diverse and experimental. You can find luxury restaurants serving Creole dishes as well as street cooks preparing crawfish right on the street. Perhaps, the most interesting and tasty meal was alligator. You can get it fried in small bites or in a form of a sausage, although the taste and consistency is very similar to that of a pork meat. Almost every café or restaurant can provide you a taste of jambalaya which is a mix of rice, meats, veggies and sausages.
Most of the restaurants and cafes are scattered around French Quarter with Royal and Bourbon streets running from one end of the quarter to another. Bourbon streets deserves to be mentioned separately. Probably, the most famous street in the American South it is a sizzling walking artery full of all kinds of different people who were all connected by one desire, to get drunk. Starting in the early afternoon bars and restaurants opened their doors to tourists and locals; and soon the whole street bursts into a one giant party. It was the first time in the US that I saw alcohol being consumed absolutely openly in extensive quantities in public.
Warld War II Museum
If you get to New Orleans please spend some time in the World War II museum. New Orleans has one of the best museums about the war with an enormous collection of artifacts, several buildings and a 4D movie theater. The journey starts on a train where everyone is given a dog tag of a real soldier and you can follow his story throughout the museum, see the battles he fought and even collect war items on different screens as you progress through the years and battle locations. The 45-minute movie was narrated by Tom Hanks and it tells a story about the war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the nuclear bombings of Japan. It is full of explicit images, loud battles on the sea and in the air. During one of the air raids, a cabin of an old American bomber comes from the ceiling and the chairs shake violently until your plane is shot down. It is an incredible experience to witness for all ages and levels of interest in this topic. The main two building of the museum are dedicated to the Pacific and European campaigns with detailed explanation of each major battle, videos and photos of the war and comments from veterans.
Oak Alley Plantation
One day I spent at Oak Alley plantation which is considered to be one of the most iconic in the region and conveniently open to the public. The trip cost me $62 which included an hour bus ride and a ticket fee to enter the grounds and also a tour of the house. Oak Alley and a couple of neighboring estates had been used as stages for several movies and TV series, and it is very clear why. Long rows of 300-year-old oaks like ancient guards were keeping watch of the land. Their branches were covered in Spanish moss that was falling down, reaching short white fences and narrow paths surrounding the estates’ lands. The tour of the house was mostly about the first owners of the house, who built it in the middle of the XIX century, right before the Civil War. This land was French at that time and the owners were also French Creole. Today it is a museum under the patronage of the Oak Alley Foundation that keeps it open to the public and is responsible for maintenance of the house and surrounding lands. The sugar plantations around however now belong to the private company that is still using them to grow sugar cane and then sell it.
During my last day in Louisiana I wanted to see more of New Orleans, although sudden heat made it more challenging. After a few days in New Orleans, the city formed an impression of two divided worlds. First, the touristic part, where people were drinking, partying all day and night, where music was played on the streets and countless art galleries were offering their products to people from across the world. And the second, real New Orleans, still recovering from Katrina with folks living in poverty and fear over the next disaster. Surely, these contrasting realities do not make up the whole city, but it is unclear how and why these parts would mix together. All of this created a slightly artificial feeling about the city, kind of like the one you get after you visit a typical touristic city like Cancun, where tourists do not wish to imagine the reality beyond the hotel zone.