It all started with Gumbo, those bowls of southern soul. They sparked an interest in a place which otherwise might have gone unconsidered. But the more I researched the home of Gumbo the more I realised that this place had everything I’d been searching for and everything I was looking to experience. A city often in the path of Mother nature, well-known for tragedy and hardship, yet beaming with life and energy. New Orleans became the oracle of this trip, the place we had to see to understand.
We arrived in New Orleans on about two hours sleep, the result of a regrettable decision to have a ‘few’ beers before our 2am flight from New York. However, standing outside our Hostel, India House, I was immediately impressed. Old bikes stood chained to quaint street lamps which stood proudly either side of the Hostel entrance. A few stone steps led up to a charming porch lined with white stone pillars were ‘Tandy’ the hostel cat lay basking in the morning sun. The building itself was mustard yellow, an unusual choice I thought, but one which undoubtedly worked. Inside the hostel the green walls were adorned with graffiti, artwork and inspiring messages left by previous visitors. The paint was peeling from the walls which seemed to add to the rooms antique character. Old wooden furniture was spread sporadically across the common room and old bottles of liquor stood pompously on shelves which lined the walls.
We dumped our rucksacks, freshened up and headed straight out. They best way to get around in New Orleans is via the brilliant StreetCar system. Not only are the red and green trams attractive machines, but they run regularly and are dirt cheap. We purchased a day rider for $3 and sat back as the tram crawled towards the French Quarter. As the sign for Bourbon Street appeared to our left we hopped of the StreetCar and headed towards what looks merely like a side street. On the contrary, Bourbon street is the main vein from which the French Quarter expands. There is an instant feeling that you are somewhere unlike anywhere else you’ve ever visited. Even at midday the street flows to the beat of live music. It’s a hub of in your face bars, large restaurants, quirky souvenir shops and not at all conspicuous strip clubs. It’s simply a place to have a good time and it isn’t pretending to be anything else. We found a courtyard set back from the street were a man in sunglasses sat playing piano on a small stage. In here we ordered a welcome refreshment and sat down to a New Orleans’ staple, the Po Boy. Spicy Shrimps on crusty bread served with a head banging Hurricane cocktail. Our server enlightened us a little further on her beloved home town. Her cocktails were tame compared to most, she explained, the ironically named ‘Hurricane’ cocktail was invented at ‘Pat O’Brian’s’ an Irish establishment further down the street and by the sounds of it everyone has their own slightly different version. She pointed us towards Frenchman street as a place to experience the real New Orleans and watch authentic local Jazz. We made a note, said our goodbyes and headed back to the hostel to rest up for the night ahead.
The brilliance of Hostel life is epitomized at India House. By the time we awoke in the evening the courtyard outside was getting busy with fellow backpackers preparing for the night ahead. The grill in the courtyard had fired up and a chef was rustling up a rustic Cajun pasta dish. It smelled far to good to turn down. After drinks with fellow backpackers, a group of English girls and two guys from New Zealand, we headed out as a big group towards Bourbon street. At night Bourbon steps it up a level. Bars aglow with fluorescent signs which hang above the entrances and music erupts from every doorway. The beauty of Bourbon is that you can drink on the street, we bought ourselves a Hurricane and ambled through the crowds. Virtually no one is without a cocktail of some kind. It becomes a bit of a challenge to weave around the street, avoiding staff trying to drag you in to their bar or pour a rather overpriced shot down your throat. scantily clad girls give the eyes to entice you in to strip clubs but with only a lingering gaze we managed to trundle on up the street. We headed to Tropical Isle, a long thin bar famous for its ‘Hand Grenade’ cocktails served in a tall bright green cup. They would not disclose their secret recipe or even what was in it, but we drank more than our fill and I woke up in a sweaty haze in the hostel.
After a lifesaving breakfast of Cajun Omelette and very strong coffee I headed out with Ste to explore the rest of the French quarter. Once you venture from the hub of Bourbon Street its tributaries prove to be the real delight of the French Quarter. The brilliance of the architecture is immediately obvious. Every building is a different colour from the next which allows the uniqueness of each to stand out. The buildings are festooned with elaborate ironwork over which colourful flowers are draped. Despite being known as the French Quarter the architecture is actually built according to Spanish colonial flavours. After two fires in the late 1700’s most of the traditional French architecture was destroyed leaving the colony’s new Spanish leaders to rebuild it according to their tastes.
We entered Jackson square were your eyes are immediately drawn to St. Louis Cathedral, the impressive white building not dissimilar in appearance to Cinderella’s castle. As we walked and snapped away we both headed unintentionally in different directions. I headed in to the Cathedral. There’s something brilliant about the silence you experience in churches that allows you to appreciate the moment. The architecture inside did not disappoint. mesmerizing stain glass windows, hypnotic floor tiles and stunning ceilings. I decided to light a candle by the altar for my grandparents. It may be frowned upon that I didn’t have enough change to cover the $3 it was asking for each candle. I hope that the 50 cents I came up with was sufficient, my conscious is clear.
Outside in the square a local jazz band played a small concert. Their energy was amazing, like they were playing to a crowd of thousands. I got the sense that they were simply enjoying what they were doing and the crowd were simply a pleasant addition. Artists sat painting portraits of inquisitive tourists and fortune tellers lured passers-by with their tarot cards spread sporadically across a table. It was a circus under the sun.
I wandered in to Jackson Square’s pristine gardens which sat quietly in front of the Cathedral. In the midday sun the colours of the garden looked to be in high-definition, green palms were set amongst neat emerald lawns with not a blade of grass out-of-place. I spotted Ste sat on a bench in the middle of gardens talking intently with another man. Approaching slowly I sat a little further down the long bench to allow them to continue their conversation uninterrupted. I sat quietly and listened. This man’s name was Sam and he was from New York. He is someone you might avoid given the chance, but Ste has a natural ability to be at ease with characters others might deem unsavoury. Sam had moved to New Orleans in search of a better life. Sam was homeless, working as a balloon artist on the streets of New Orleans but like many had hit upon hard times. His clothes were ragged, he had clearly been beaten up and he sat nursing a painful sore on his foot. He realised I was with Ste and introduced me in to their conversation but I was happy to sit back and listen. As they spoke a persistent heckle was coming from another homeless man not twenty yards away. He was drunk, and clearly didn’t like Sam being in this park. He was threatening, and at the mention of a man named Leon coming to ‘deal with him’ Sam became uneasy. Ste offered to buy Sam a beer in exchange for a few photos which Sam gratefully accepted. He picked up his worldly possessions, crammed in to a small blue bag, and limped off ahead to show us the way. I took Ste’s camera and hung back to take pictures of this special interaction. He led us to a statue of Joan of arc that he insisted Ste take pictures of. He was proud to be able to show us a bit of the city he now called home. Sam is a genuinely nice man who unfortunately never found his place in society but even now he’s searching for it. He was hugely appreciative of the time we had spent with him, I imagine he is used to being shunned by the majority of people. Our experience with Sam is the living embodiment of not judging a book by its cover, and my lasting memory of him will be his pride at being able to tell us a little about his adopted city and his positivity for the future.
After bidding goodbye to Sam we headed towards Yo Mama’s, a hidden gem for great Gumbo, so we’d been told. It’s a small, easily missed building amongst a row of other restaurants. Inside it was dark, and the air was filled with the potent smell of Cajun spice. The bar was long and lined with Tequila, 89 types to be exact. We decided to swerve that for now and ordered two big bowls of Gumbo. They came in a moment, steaming brown bowls of hearty, soupy stew. It was everything Id imagined, juicy prawns and succulent chunks of meat in a smoky, Cajun broth. It’s a simple enough dish but it encapsulates the flavours of the area and so becomes New Orleans in a bowl.
Later on that evening when the sun dipped below the Mississippi and the fluorescent lights of Bourbon street flashed to life, we headed once again in to the wild environment of the night. This time we made a dash for Frenchman Street and to a small bar with a big reputation. ‘The Spotted Cat’ is nothing to look at, but like all great bars the magic is created by its atmosphere and clientèle. A bluegrass bang sat on the stage by a huge bay window looking out on to the street. Four men, creating a sound which made the whole bar swing, they certainly weren’t musical God’s but tonight, here, in this bar, in this town, they might well have been the Rolling Stones.
New Orleans is a treat for the senses. The smells, although not always pleasant, are a stark reminder of were you are and what this place endures. The sights remind you of the diverse nature of New Orleans, from the raw brashness of Bourbon Street, the colonial architectural flavours of its narrow alleyways to the charming beauty of life in Jackson Square. The taste buds are overcome with Cajun spices, fresh seafood and creole traditions that you cannot recreate. But for me the biggest treat New Orleans offers is the effect it has upon your soul. In a city overrun with vagabonds, were the drug dealers of the night are unnecessarily polite and the homeless offer you all they have, their time. Its a place were strangers are friends and everyday is a festival celebrating everything New Orleans. It’s known as the big easy and now I know why the locals never leave.
Big Thanks to Ste Lane for donating his pictures of Sam