After leaving New York, I visited Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. I have homeboys in those cities and looked forward to some R&R. My base on the trip was Houston. I had planned on visiting the Johnson Space Center in Houston, it being the 50th anniversary of mankind’s visit to the moon. But I was sidetracked by a few Naija owambes. On one instance, we drove four hours to Dallas to attend a wedding. Truth be told, it was nice to eat some Naija food after weeks of oyinbo food. But photography-wise none of those three cities were particularly interesting to me.
But NOLA? That’s a different proposition entirely!
What’s is great about New Orleans you ask? You mean what is great about a place nicknamed the “Big Easy” and “NOLA”? About cuisine that is a melting pot of French, African, Spanish and American culture? Vibrant live music, carnivals and costumed parades? Touristy cemeteries and slave plantations? You had to ask that question?
“If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom.” — Chris Rose
“In New Orleans, we celebrate everything. It’s probably the only place you’ll see people dancing in a funeral home.” — Trombone Shorty
New Orleans was the highlight of my trip to the US. I had a homeboy who worked in the city. We both thought it was a good idea for me to visit since I had never been to the Deep South.
I ended up going by bus. I had botched my outbound flight. Somehow, I forgot to book the ticket. To do so on the day of travel was going to set me back some $350. If I hit Ross with $350, I’d dress up my village. So I decided to go by bus, the fare being a benign $40. Seven hours the journey would take. I could live with that. I’d been on the road for about three weeks and got used to keeping myself company. I consoled myself that I would see more of the country. I would fly back to Houston.
It was a great mistake, going by bus. I’ll explain.
See, the eminent state of Louisiana is bordered on the east by the state of Mississippi. Think Mississippi, think ridiculously humongous river. And then the state is bordered in the south by the Gulf of Mexico, ergo the Atlantic Ocean pretending not to be the Atlantic Ocean. In other words, the state has lots of water; massive deltas, swamps and marshland. Huge ridiculous things.
It also turns out that the state has three of the world’s longest bridges over water. Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest at 24 miles – 38km. It is closely followed by the Manchac Swamp Bridge at 22.8miles – 36.7km. Third is the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge at 18.2mile – 29.2km.
Only when was I well on my way did I come across the information that we would go through one of these mammy water bridges to get to New Orleans. That the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge was the shortest of the those three bridges was no consolation. It’s 29km long!
Look, I’m no Aquaman. I am unnerved by long bridges over water. I am that driver that hugs the divider on Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. I never drive close to the water. I fear that one of my wheels may come off or someone would rear-end me and I would be, er, swimming with the fishes. Yet, the Third Mainland Bridge is a mere 11.8km. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is close to three times that length! Over foreboding waters, vexed cottonmouths and hungry gators!
Why would anyone build such a ridiculously long bridge? It’s not as if New Orleanians would curl up and die if no one came visiting. They have jazz, jambalayas, gumbos and Huge Ass Beers. They don’t need anyone else to have a great time. We must learn to respect people’s right to isolation.
The bus was a double decker. Ignorant of what lay ahead, I had selected a seat on the upper deck, in the front of the bus. The ride over the Atchafalaya Basin bridge was pure torment. The consequence of my high perch in the bus was vertigo and the feeling that the bus was tottering and would fall into the water. My prickliness towards the driver at the bus station in Houston would come back to haunt me as the geezer only drove a few centimeters from the edge of the bridge. I could have sworn the bloke was suicidal.
Check this. There is an 8-mile stretch on the Pontchartrain Causeway where you completely lose sight of land in all directions. Drivers have been known to freeze up during this stretch, suddenly feeling trapped and frightened. I gather it is a common enough occurrence that police patrols are stationed on the bridge to escort those frightened drivers back off the bridge.
I did manage to make it to New Orleans alive. My homeboy was waiting for me downtown. We drove to my hotel and checked in. My survival at the hands of the Atchafalaya bridge was a victory that demanded an epicurean celebration. We drove to Cajun Seafood on Claiborne Avenue. I stilled my jangled nerves with gumbo, crab claws and crawfish.
I cannot come and kill myself.
Now, let me tell you about a food incidence that irked me greatly.
See, prior to going to New Orleans, I had read that a must-do for first timers in the city was to eat beignets at Café Du Monde. So I thought to myself that this beignet must be quite the treat. I therefore made it an expedient matter to locate this Cafe Du Monde and introduce myself to this beignet .
I found Cafe Du Monde. Opposite Jackson Square. It was full of tourists. I eagerly waited to be seated. It was recommended that one orders beignets with cafe au lait. But as I don’t drink coffee, I ordered mine with orange juice. I waited with bated breathe.
When the beignets were brought, they turned out to be…Puff-Puff!
Three pieces of Puff-Puff covered with powdered sugar.
Three Puff-Puffs for $7! In Lagos, ten Puff-Puffs is N100! That’s just about a quarter – 25 cents!
I am never accepting the recommendation of white folks on gastronomic matters.
The beignet affair aside, the food in New Orleans are simply wonderful; gumbo, jambalaya, po-boy, alligator meat, fried catfish, crabs, crawfish. My advise to you; don’t ever come to New Orleans if you are on a diet!
My hotel was just off the popular Canal Street, a stroll from the quaint French Quarters and the carnal Bourbon Street. Only in New Orleans will you find the charming right next to the iniquitous.
Cue Bourbon Street. It is probably the most popular street in the whole of the Deep South. But whatever was historical about Bourbon Street is now, well, history. You don’t go to Bourbon Street to learn the street wasn’t named after bourbon. You go to Bourbon Street to hand over your brains to bourbon, whiskey, rum, vodka, Huge Ass Beers or any other O-be-joyful.
But you will also find creativity abounding in and around Bourbon Street. There are numerous spots with bands playing and little known musicians serenading guests at bars and restaurants. I hear the street is quite a thing during Mardi Gras.
There is of course so much to New Orleans than Bourbon Street. There is the Civil War history (not Avengers!) There are the cemeteries and the plantations.
Let’s talk about about cemeteries.
I found it odd that one of the popular attractions of a city would be its cemeteries. But New Orleans has always had an interesting relationship with its dearly departed.
You see, burying the dead in a city below sea level was always going to be a big challenge. Dig a few feet in New Orleans and you will strike water. Early settlers found to their chagrin that coffins floated on streets during heavy rainstorms, unearthed by flood waters. They tried burying the dead with huge stones on the coffin to keep it down against flood. But that also proved useless. Coffins and limbs still bobbed around the city during floods.
The solution decided was to keep the graves above ground, in like manner of the Spanish custom of using vaults. Graves are not dug. The dead are simply put in coffins in tombs that are above ground.
Many of the tombs look like miniature houses, some with iron fences. These rows of tombs give the cemeteries the appearance of a city with streets. This is why New Orleans cemeteries are usually referred to as Cities of the Dead. They are historic as some of the cities well-known personalities are buried there. And well, they look archaeological too.
By far the most popular cemetery in New Orleans is the St Louis Cemetery No 1, close to the French Quarters. I took a guided tour of the cemetery. Before the start of the tour, the guide introduced us to the concept attachment.
See, people come to cemeteries and leave mementos at tombs of family members. We were admonished never to pick up any object we found interesting at tombs and within the cemetery. Lest we were visited by the otherworldly owner of the memento. We were told stories of people who had to traveled back to New Orleans to return objects they had taken from from the cemeteries. They supposedly had visitations and were haunted.
“Give back me compass, ye mortal! Lest I be wandering lost in the afterlife. Lest ye replace I in on the River Styx.
Joke aside, New Orleans is the voodoo and superstition capital of America.
The next day, I hit the plush Garden District area. I took the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world – the St. Charles Streetcar – to get there. That old timer has been rattling along since 1835 and is not about to toot its final horn soon. It was all so surreal, taking a streetcar that has been in operation since 1835 to a neighbourhood that is just as old.
That District Garden is some mighty fine neighbourhood. Quaint and ornate mansions along oak-lined streets. You could smell new and old money in the neighbourhood. It is the site of many movies and TV programmes.
On the third day, it was time to for some slave lessons and plantation visits.
There are many plantations in New Orleans. There is the Felicity Plantation where “12 Years A Slave” was shot, the Laura Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, the San Francisco Plantation, Oak Alley Plantation and many others. I chose a guided tour of the Oak Alley Plantation.
The Oak Alley Plantation is about 92 km from the New Orleans downtown. It took about 1hr:10m to get there. Again driving through swamps and on bridges.
Why NOLA, why?
Oak Alley was a sugarcane plantation. 1200 acres. Plantation economy depended on slavery. Slaves were brought to Louisiana from Africa and sold to planters (owners of plantations) until 1808, when importation was banned. After that, planters bought slaves from other planters, or from slave traders bringing slaves from the east coast.
The plantation had its customary “Big House” which was where the owner of the plantation and his family lived. In front of the “Big House” stood a row of majestic Virginia Live Oaks. 300 years old beauties. Dig this: the average age for a Live Oak is 600 years. That makes those oaks only middle aged! There were 28 trees, to match the 28 columns on the “Big House”. The property has been designated a US National Historic Landmark for its architecture and landscaping.
No matter the number of times I see slave or race-related movies, or visit sites of racism and human denigration, I can’t hold back the emotions. The pain, fear and anxiety of the slaves become mine and real. As the tour guide solemnly narrated the history of the plantation and the lives of the slaves, I became grateful for the timeline in history I happen to inhabit.
Hey, let me tell you a funny story.
When I was an undergraduate, on one of those days when the lads and I we were broke, hungry and sharing a stick of cigarette, a roommate had lamented about his penurious situation and the culpability of his ancestors for his famished state of affair. He maintained that he could have been Michael Jackson or any notable African American. We enquired as to why this was so and he proceeded to tell us an intriguing story.
His great great great granddad had been captured on the shores of Nigeria by slave traders. The poor bugger was beaten and thrown into a ship bound for America. After many weeks on the Atlantic, surviving typhus, measles and smallpox, he eventually arrived America. While at the port and being paraded to be sold, the man managed to slip his bonds and dived into the water. He began to frantically swim towards the open sea. He was shot at and even pelted with canon fire. But the chap kept swimming. He evaded great whites, hammer-heads, orcas and water spirits. He was repeatedly stung by box jellyfish yet he kept swimming. He even evaded other slave ships. He swam non-stop. He swam breaststroke. He swam butterfly stroke. He swam furiously. He swam until he arrived back at his village after 120 days. He was treated to a hero’s welcome and a feast declared in his honour. He was made a chief and married five wives. He lived ever happily after.
As far as my roommate was concerned, the man should have been eaten by a shark. Of what use was it that the man came back to Africa he vented.
“How could the bugger run away from America! To come back to this god-forsaken country and condemn me to be Nigerian! He made it to America, for Christ sake! The America! The Land of The Free. Screw his chains! I could have been Michael Jackson. I could have been Usher. But now I’m a broke Nigerian with uncertain future! Because of an idiotic ancestor! Abeg, pass me the ciga…”
Just so you know, it was only cigarette we were smoking not marijuana.
The roommate talked about slavery glibly. But it is humour that many African American will not appreciate. Slavery and it consequent discrimination and segregation doesn’t get to us Africans as it does to our brothers in North America. We were never imports with bar codes. They were. They are constantly reminded of the colour of their skin and their inferior position. Which I must remind you all is a fallout of evolutionary biology beliefs. But don’t get me started on that again!
After such an emotional trip, my spirits needed some uplifting. It was upliftment I deemed only a jambalaya could provide.
On my tour bus were two fine African American sisters. Friends and colleagues. They worked in the academia. I’d struck up conversation with them on our way to the plantations. But they were going to the Whitney Plantation. The bus dropped them off at Whitney Plantation while I proceeded to Oak Alley. We picked them up on our way back, So, I invited them to lunch.
They recommended we eat at Dooky Chase restaurant for a proper Creole cuisine. I had never heard of Dooky Chase. Which was to my shame because ex-Presidents W. Bush Jr and Obama had. President Obama ate gumbo at the restaurant in 2008 and George W Bush Jr had Crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau when he visited New Orleans post Katrina. Among the eminent people who had also dined at Dooky Chase was Thurgood Marshall, the first African American judge of the United States Supreme Court and Dr Martin Luther King.
The restaurant was run by Leah Chase, an icon of the civil rights movement and Creole chef extraordinaire. Her restaurant served as the meeting place for civil rights activists and entertainers. She would feed free both whites and blacks off the frontline of marches for equality. At the time, the restaurant was the only upscale black restaurant in a city with many Jim Crow laws. The restaurant was named after her husband, Edgar ‘Dooky’ Chase Jr., a jazz trumpeter and band leader. Mr. Chase died in 2016 at the age of 88. Leah Chase would later die in June 2019 at the age of 96. I visited the restaurant in July 2019. I never got to meet her. Rotten luck.
So, it was to this illustrious restaurant we were going for lunch. The prospect of dining in the same room as Nat King Cole made the food more appetizing.
But alas! There was no room at the inn! When we got there, there was a queue as long as the Nile. We didn’t have a reservation. The ladies cooed and cajoled but there just wasn’t space for us. Rotten luck raised to power ten.
So, we decided to try our luck at another popular New Orleans soul food restaurant; Willie Mae’s Scotch House. The Food Network and Travel Channel had named it best for “America’s Best Fried Chicken” In 2007. I’m no chicken fan, but if them sisters wanted fried chicken, then fried chicken it was.
Luckily, there was room at the inn. Out of respect for my guests, I pretended to enjoy the fried chicken. I regaled my guests with my jaunt through Europe. Turned out that they had also been to a concentration camp outside Berlin – the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I told them about my encounter with racism in Poland. They seemed surprised that I was surprised at racist encounters in the world.
“Dude, we are black. It goes with the colour of our skin, even in America,” one of the sisters said.
I disagreed and said perhaps black folks in America needed to do more than wanting to be rappers, basketballers and celebrities. I said I didn’t think African Americans were doing enough to rise above their challenges.
From there, the conversation went downhill very fast.
“How could you understand what black people face in America? We don’t try hard enough? Really? Why would you expect a ‘yes’ when all you’ve ever been told is a ‘no?’ You don’t know our struggles. Your parents weren’t imports. Ours were. You didn’t have to deal with slavery and don’t have to live with racism.”
“You are just so typical of most Nigerians. Arrogant and disdainful of African Americans. You think we are lazy, you don’t want to associate with us. You call us names – akata. Oh, yea, we know you do that…”
Boy, did I screw up or what! I touched a raw nerve. In retrospect, perhaps I spoke ignorantly. I didn’t mean to disrespect or disparage the challenges African Americans face in the US. But I should have been more thoughtful. Even if it is to have an enjoyable lunch. Lesson learnt.
They wanted to pay for their meal, but I insisted on paying. They humoured me and thanked me but I could tell they were still miffed.
All in all, I absolutely loved New Orleans. I’m coming back and spending more time. This time, I’ll come back with the missus. NOLA is too good to enjoy alone.
And yes, I flew back to Houston. No way was I going to subject my feeble heart to the torture of that bridge again.
I leave you with a few more pictures of NOLA.