Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Who'd Have Thought It?

This is the next post of our trip post Japan.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

The real reason for coming to Louisiana was for our friends' wedding in New Orleans.  Mark and Kerri had met here so they wanted to tie the knot here too.  Nice.

I hadn't been to NO for 20+ years and hadn't really been that impressed last time I came.  I thought it dirty and pretty sleazy and for the most part if you stay on Bourbon Street, that is exactly what it is like still.  However there is plenty to like about the place too and this time we found it.

What is it about guys with guns?
By chance our Kiwi friends Bruce and Linda were also here!  Small world, eh?  We'd been emailing about something random and Bruce had mentioned he'd be in NO some time in September between a golf trip, holiday and some meetings.  What date, Bruce?  Well this date.  Whoa, same as us.  Where are you staying?  At the Ritz.  Whoa, same as us!  

First thing was to avoid the water!  Brings it home to you how low lying NO really is.  On the way down the highway from White Castle, we drove over a seemingly endless causeway over a lake or swamp, I think a bit of both.  The road itself wasn't that much above the surface of the water so anything like a storm (don't mention the 'K' word around here) would simply wash everything away and of course that is actually what did happen…

This was where the canal walls broke and let the water in during Katrina.  Pretty low lying!
OK then
So don't drink the water then.  Fine.  The Ritz provided bottled water for everyone.  It must have cost them a fortune as we went through 20 a day… they were little bottles though.

So the architecture.  Yup, very French or rather vieux carre as they say here in NO!  If you keep on Bourbon Street, about the middle of the grid layout going the length of the old town, you'd find endless bars, restaurants and really weird gift shop type stuff.  OK Halloween was a month away here but I think it would be a place to avoid at that time as some of the people emerging at night time were really off the wall.

Typical vieux carre architecture

With Linda and Bruce we did a self guided tour, a bus tour and visit to the really good National WWII museum in the newer part of town.

Everybody had their opinions which way to walk.  You should have heard the yapping...
OK so I have to mention the 'K' word… Katrina. There I said it.  It swamped the city with some parts, the poorer ones of course, one in particular called District 9 still under renovation 10 years later.  It is happening but slowly.  At its height, population was 490,000 but after the storm it fell to 390,000 with many people never coming back.  It has crept back up to 430,000 now as people move in to pick up bargains.

An abandoned home in District 9.  They put red crosses on the doors to signify when a home is unoccupied
There's a district called Treme, just outside District 9 and just outside the downtown core even in the old days.  It was a residential district … for mistresses and Haitians who fled to NO after the sale of Louisiana to the USA in 1804.  Apparently if you were white and wealthy and fancied a mistress, you went to a certain hotel on several special occasions during the year where single black and mulatto girls went to congregate with their mothers.  If you fancied a particular girl, you made a deal with Mum for a specified period of time during which you had to take care of the girl in her own place (in Treme of course) and pay for everything including any children of the liaison.  Should this happen, the deal became permanent.  

An ex-brothel
So Treme is a curious mixture of nice houses and brothels for the girls once their contract terminated banded together to stay in the business, as it were, rather than move back in with Mum.

The guide books don't talk about this!  Isn't history fascinating?

It always pays to do a tour with a local guide.  They know their stuff and the interesting little stories and snippets that make it all worthwhile. Take the famed above ground cemeteries.  The land here is so low lying you simply cannot dig a hole in the ground so it has to be above ground.  Many are truly works of art, even the multi-unit dwellings which operated much as a condo would today.

A condo in the cemetery
The really interesting bit though is in the understanding how and why they don't run out of space as with cemeteries, well there's only much space and coffins take up a huge amount of space so there's only so many you can cram into one mausoleum, right?  Well, actually wrong.  You've forgotten about the temperature down here.  

I am assuming here that the knowledge we have now wasn't always the case so there was a certain amount of trial and error in the past.  Bodies are not buried or rather entombed in coffins, they are placed in shrouds for the entombment and the mausoleum sealed up.  The combination of hot and humid combined with the sealed mausoleum equates to a slow roast in an oven and it has been found that over the course of a year, the body decomposes completely down to ash.  This can then be brushed to the back of the mausoleum down a purposely built chute that fertilizes the ground below and readies the mausoleum for the next one.

A local law is therefore in place whereby once sealed you cannot unseal a mausoleum more than once in any one year … and that is only for a new entrant.  Very practical indeed.  This doesn't work where temperature conditions and humidity levels are different so don't try this at home!

The WWII museum was brilliant though although we did lose Bruce and Linda who didn't want to stop and read every caption, view every exhibit…

Who doesn't remember scribbling this on school walls with chalk?  Oh yes, young people.  Right.
My dad flew one of these P-51 Mustangs and said it was even better than his beloved Spitfire
The wedding was very nice though with the happy couple's triplets looking very cute.  Afterwards they had organized a walk around town (very local apparently, used in festivals and funerals too) which Mark later told me thought would be just down Canal Street which was outside the hotel, then turn left at the street beyond Bourbon and back.  Something like 20 minutes in all with a marching band and police outriders clearing the way.  However it lasted nearly an hour which was due to road works so the cops took us the long way around!  It was great though.

Stu, Mark, Shane and some old geezer
N'Awlins was a lot of fun!

The happy couple!

The White Castle

This is the next post of our trip post Japan.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

One of Viv's work friends had told her of a real plantation that you could stay at near New Orleans and as we really wanted to stay on one, not just visit, we thought why not.  It was in a place called White Castle and called the Nottaway Plantation.

The river is to the right of the White Castle.

Many people have seen the Django Unchained movie and I have to say that whilst history books talk about slave owners and plantations, I don't think that anyone could really imagine what it was really like without some sort of visualization.  I don't know how strictly accurate the movie was -- I am talking about the social bits, not the big shoot 'em up stuff!  But the visualization in that movie I think helped, it certainly piqued our interest anyway.

One thing I hadn't appreciated was how big and important the Mississippi River is.  It is huge.  Where Nottaway was it is about 1 mile wide and traveling as it does pretty much all the way up to the Great Lakes, it is clearly a hugely important artery in this huge country particularly so when there were no roads or other means of transport.  So that is why so many of these great plantations line the banks of the Mississippi.  No point building inland if you cannot transport your produce to market, so the river etc.

The Mississippi from the balcony at Nottaway.  The levee (aka 'dyke') is in front.  There is an island in the middle of the river that was created by rerouting the river 100 or so years ago after a huge flood that destroyed a lot of property hereabouts and killed a lot of people.

The estate itself like so many others dates from the 1800's when a ultra-rich guy built this 'folly' really and lived in it only until the Civil War which utterly destroyed the Southern farm economy, killing it stone dead.  Actually rather like the British Empire.  There was a great quote from someone I read years ago along the lines of "the Roman Empire at least had a couple of hundred years of decadence and gradual decline, ours lasted an afternoon". It was like this for the Southern US by the look of it.  The builder himself only had a couple of years to enjoy it before things went down hill (just like some others we visited).  Of course a matriarch lasted for years after but the house and land was split up through the years until an Australian industrial magnate in the last 20 years visited, stayed and fell in love with the place.  So he bought it and did it up, turning it into a boutique hotel.  In keeping with history, he promptly died too but as he'd put the property into a trust of some sort, it still continues as a business and as an attraction.

The White Ballroom at Nottaway.  Not in the least bit ostentatious.
It certainly is lovely.

Night time at Nottaway

As the Union captured New Orleans early in the conflict thereby blockading Southern trade entirely, they could send gun boats up and down the river at will.  Apparently every time they passed the White Castle they'd shoot their cannon.  They must have been terrible shots as they never hit the place (it is huge, so they must have been really bad shots) but only just recently they found a musket ball in one of the rafters when it fell out and got caught in the lawn mower's blades.  So at least one shot hit the place.

The country here is not beautiful.  It is flat and interspersed with swamp and rivers all over the place so could never really hold a large population or be a great agricultural centre.  The towns hereabout aren't exactly places that compare with say, Rome or Paris, but are interesting in their own way.

Rail crossing in a nearby town called Plaqueville. We couldn't figure which was the right and wrong side of the tracks. Both seemed the same.
The history though is quite interesting and as for many things doesn't conform exactly to the 20-second sound byte version you read these days.

Certainly the French were the first colonizing nation here, paddling down from Canada for goodness sake.  That must have taken ages.  But in 1763, they lost the 7-Years War to the British and one of the hidden clauses in the peace treaty was that all land east of the Mississippi was ceded to the British as far as Florida.  I never knew that.  It didn't last long though for less than 20 years later after the end of the Revolutionary War, the British gave it back again… but to Spain.

This didn't last long either for they couldn't really stand up against the French and particularly when Napoleon came along.  In 1803, Napoleon asked for it back and immediately flipped it to the new USA for $15 million.

Historians drone on about the greatest land deal in history, etc.  Rubbish.  Napoleon first of all needed the money to fight his European wars.  Secondly he realized that the revolution in Haiti (that was going along at this time and which the French would ultimately lose) could not be effectively combated from Europe as the Royal Navy were blockading France very effectively making it impossible to resupply.  Pushing things further out, he also realized that whenever the British got round to it, they could take their mainland US territories too.  So why not cash out when you had the chance? So he did.

And the other interesting thing?

The capital of the territory at the time was a now sleepy town called Natchez, which of course is on the river and which was a trailhead for a whole batch of things: cotton, livestock, agriculture, slaves … yes indeed slaves.  Rather like the silk road in Asia, Natchez was the end of the slave road to the east.  This was the site of the largest slave market hereabouts.  Today the market is marked in a very low key way at a crossroads leading out of town.

Big enough to be a plantation house for sure, this house called Rosalie is actually a town home in Natchez.

Natchez used to be therefore a massively wealthy market town and had great opera, museums and massive homes for the uber-wealthy.  It also had a Spanish governor who in the late 1700's laid out the city in the world's first grid pattern on the bluff overlooking the river.  Very pretty it is too.  Many of the grand houses these days are maintained by groups of ladies (of course) and charitable donations.  Good for them.  Otherwise these houses would be derelict.

Sunset in Natchez from the bluff overlooking the River

The reason for doing it this way as New Orleans would discover and implement, it reduced the fire hazard.  So really the French Quarter in New Orleans isn't French at all.  When they had control of the place, it was a messy, ramshackle sewer of a place.  It took a big fire and the Spanish governor to rebuild it in grid pattern.  So it rightly should be called the Spanish Quarter… except of course that all the residents were French.

Confused yet?

Louisiana's capital is Baton Rouge, another hour away.  Great name.  It is on the river of course and being some 80 or so miles north of New Orleans, is the northern most point of the Port of New Orleans.    the port is HUGE!

The Capitol building in Baton Rouge is apparently the tallest in the US

Lots of refineries and chemical plants down this way.  It is pretty ugly so the NIMBY stuff doesn't really apply here!  One night we got lost using our GPS as we were routed as the crow flies back to Nottaway rather than by roads (which we found out later) which meant a ferry across the river.  As it was too late for the ferry we therefore had to detour driving 30 miles south along the east bank before finding a bridge.  That 30 miles was exclusively through a hellish zone of steaming chemical plants lit by ethereal lighting… with no living person in sight.  Gives me shivers still!

I always wondered what a Po'Boy was.  In actuality it is a sub sandwich with something deep fried inside, like shrimp, crab or something else.  Here with potato salad and some gumbo.  No veggies in sight!
One of the neatest things we did was taking a swamp boat tour.  The guide, Randy, of course lived in a trailer near a bayou (I think a bayou is a small river), only a short way from the main swamp and various inter-connecting rivers.  The entire area is like this so no high rises here.

5 minutes along the bayou and you are in the middle of an area the size of England probably which is all swamp, rivers and what look like gungy land.  Ideal 'gator country!  We didn't see any unfortunately but what we did see were lots of criss-crossing pipelines for transshipping various petrochemicals.  All the lines are buried but the signs are everywhere: "Do not dig or drill here".

Really peaceful though.

Baton Rouge skyline