I’ve finally been to the Big Easy! That might not seem like such a big deal, considering New Orleans is roughly twelve hours away by car, but for me, it was nothing short of amazing. You see, I’ve made plans to visit the Crescent City twice, and both times my plans were thwarted – first by an evil hospital draining my bank account, and then by nothing more sinister than poor planning.
But last weekend, my journalism students who are on the staff of the school newspaper gave me an incredibly generous gift: out of the money they raised, they paid for my hotel and registration for the National College Media Convention. Needless to say, I was touched and grateful.
What an incredible city! From the tourist brochures, I was expecting a quaint Creole village. Not so! Giant skyscrapers jostled against sprawling convention centers; the Superdome was lit in psychedelic colors. Multiple lanes of traffic swarmed the highways during morning rush hour, and several layers of overpasses made driving a three-dimensional challenge. I felt like Chekov navigating the Enterprise through an asteroid field.
Our first morning there, I was able to check off one of my “must-do” experiences: Eating a beignet at Café du Monde. It was really crowded, so instead of trying to fight for a table, we got our orders and crossed the street to eat at the lovely Jackson Square. It was so much like the zocalos in Mexico: surrounded by ornate iron fences, Gothic gates lead into a perfectly landscaped park with ironwork benches shaded by young live oaks. St. Louis Cathedral looks down on the square, the sidewalk between them filled with musicians, face-painters and fortune-tellers.
After driving all night, I had already drunk my limit of coffee, so I didn’t get a chance to taste theirs. I got the hot chocolate instead, which was a big disappointment; it’s just the cheap powdered mix. The beignet, however, was good, but I swear it’s just funnel cake batter made into a square instead of drizzled into a knot.
Because I was there on “business,” I had to spend most of my time at the convention, listening to lectures about the theory and practice of journalism in a college environment. Regardless, I was able to squeeze in a few more “must-do” experiences. The next day, after taking my required three sessions, I struck out to find a Voodoo shop. New Orleans is the center of U.S. Voodoo, which can be described as a religion originating among the African diaspora (a nice way of saying the descendants of Africans who were brought here as slaves) combining elements of Catholicism and West African traditions. It is a distinct and fascinating part of our American melting-pot, and I had to have some contact with it, even if it could only be in a tourist shop.
Armed with a paper map, my phone’s internet connection, and an over-inflated sense of adventure, I rode the Riverfront streetcar to the end of the line. I eschewed the touristy French Market and planned my walking route through the French Quarter back to my hotel.
New Orleans, at least the Vieux Carre, is built for walking. Once again, I was strongly reminded of the old colonial cities of Mexico. The streets were stacked with balconied old buildings with Spanish-style ironwork housing cafés, art galleries, shops and pubs. The sidewalks were paved with crumbling bricks or slate, uneven and treacherous. Street musicians entertained block after block, and random jazz processions would occasionally take over a street.
As I walked, I saw that, like its Latin American counterparts, New Orleans has its ugly side as well: heaps of trash on curbs, homeless people begging for change, and random putrid odors breaking up the otherwise savory smells of Cajun cooking.
I found, besides two Voodoo shops, two Western magick (i.e., Wicca, Thelema, etc.) shops and a Boutique du Vampyre, all within the same four-square-block area. All shops carried some kind of Voodoo-related paraphernalia such as blessed candles, incense and oils; books on Voodoo; gris-gris or mojo bags; and at least one altar dedicated to a Voodoo Lwa or spirit. Here was where I was really disheartened by my lack of money, because there were so many things I wanted to buy at all the shops. I settled for some “job mojo” incense and a special (secret) candle for my sweetie back home before returning to my hotel on Canal Street.