My first impressions:
- The city of public drunkenness.
- The place where winos go to die.
Admittedly, these first impressions were based upon Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. It is legal here to drink alcohol openly on the street. As this is a novelty to most people [the English are one of the exceptions to this; we’re all used to seeing people drinking on the streets or gathering in parks or war memorials] they seem to go crazy for it. Bars provide “beer to go”, beer in plastic cups for walking about. I’ve arrived just as Jazz Fest 2008 finishes. This is typical of my travels and an indication of my lack of research so far. Cinco di Mayo is today and Miami would have been a great place to be and I also left New York on the day the Tribeca film festival began.
I joined the fray and crawled round a few bars on Bourbon Street. The thing that struck me was that the place seems to be full of happy drunks, unless I was just lucky. I didn’t see even a hint of trouble. I did see numerous live music acts who were all pretty good. I tried some local dishes too. The gumbo is amazing! All in all I had a good time and I put my first impressions down to me going from concentrating on driving to the vibrant sights and sounds of Bourbon Street.
It seemed a little strange to have the juxtaposition of hedonistic partying and the poverty that surrounds it: the impact of Hurricane Katrina is still being felt.
I’m not suggesting that the city should remain in mourning until everyone is back on their feet and back in their homes. Everybody has the right to party!
Hurricane Katrina had been an abstract concept to me. It isn’t anymore. Tents are erected in underpasses and government issued trailers, still inhabited by people who cannot return to their homes or have no homes to return to, are frequent sights.
I took a city tour which included the French Quarter, the Garden District, a cemetery and various Katrina affected areas. The tour guide really knew his stuff. He should do, he’s been doing tours for 29 years. He’s proud of his city and he’s very positive about how the city is getting back to where it was before Katrina.
Although I had walked through the French Quarter a little bit, the tour was obviously more extensive and the information provided by the guide was excellent. Far too much for me to remember and far too much for me to write here, but the history and architecture is very interesting.
The cemetery followed. It was not the Lafeyette cemetery, famously used in Easy Rider (one of my favourite films), although we did pass by there later. However, it was very ornate. I think it was #3 (New Orleans has a lot of cemeteries). The above land burials are due to the water level in the soil being to high to bury. Bodies were originally buried, but after a period of time, the bodies would often rise back up out of the earth. The Spanish, who took over from the French, introduced the above ground burial method and it is still followed today.
A plot in the cemetery will belong to a family and a tomb will be erected. These range from simple designs to extremely intricate and, in some cases, a little ostentatious. Then someone from the family dies. They get embalmed and placed in a coffin inside the tomb. The tomb gets incredibly warm and the body will decompose away to dust. The cemetery caretakers wait one year and one day before opening the tomb, placing the remains in a container and pushing them to the back of the tomb where the coffin shelf ends and the remains fall into another area. The reason the caretakers wait one year and one day is that a year is deemed long enough to allow the family to mourn and the extra day is so that the tomb is not opened on the anniversary of the funeral. This cycle goes on and on. So names are added to the tomb and the remains build up at the back. Some tombs have upwards of 30 names. The tombs also vary in condition. It is the duty of the family to maintain and in some cases, where families have moved or a family line has ended, the tombs have become run down. It is here we saw he first signs of the water levels encountered. Some of the tombs have a tide mark about 4 feet high.
The Garden District was nice. Some huge houses line the streets. Again we started to see houses with tide marks. These were ranging from a few feet to upwards of 6 feet.
The Katrina section of the tour was tastefully done. I was reliably informed that although the tour covered Katrina, it didn’t make a zoo out of it and that was true. We passed many houses, some of which had tide marks on the roofs. We saw the spray painted signs on doors and walls that rescue services left to state who or what was picked up. The first wave of rescues were for people only, so the signs also stated whether pets were left behind. Eventually, they were collected, if still alive.
A woman sat near to me on the bus said to her partner that the water levels didn’t look too bad. She overlooked the fact that this was standing water containing all sorts of debris and that it stood for over 6 weeks in some areas. The tour guide had to live in a trailer on a park with over 500 other trailers for a year before being able to return home. Once people did return home, the clean up operation was also hazardous. The stagnant water brought with it mosquitoes, snakes, spiders, alligators and various other creatures that could be living in and around their homes. The red tape in order for each person to claim their $150,000 per home sounds like a nightmare. Much of the red tape involved making deductions from the $150,000 for things like not having flood insurance. The average pay out became $65,000. This is why many homes remain empty.
The sites of the devastation, including the levee that broke, all brought home to me the enormity of the disaster.
It’s a beautiful city and everybody has their Katrina story, but the outlook seems to me to be a positive one.