Two films ignited a spark in my heart to discover the streets of New Orleans and its surrounding swamps: one awakened the desire; the other made me yearn back – 30 years apart. In both, the slightly narrowness of the movie theater and the smell of old furniture and dust were part of the nostalgia.
It was during my studies as a journalism student that I Angel Heart went to see in the old Transvalia art film center in Pretoria. The environmental scenes of New Orleans, the dark storyline, food and mischief, of course left me terrified for days, but the cinematography stuck. I also wanted to slide on top of the water in one of those boats with the giant fans behind and imagine the “gators” chase us I wanted to throw esses and drown out the world with the deafening sounds of the fan as the trees, with their ankles in the water and the silver-grey moss hanging ghostly from their branches like giant old men’s beards, flashed past us.
To someone who grew up in Upington, such bogs, secret bends in the rivers and wooded environments with many rainstorms seemed half unreal.
The second movie, Where the Crawdads Sing, was filmed in and around New Orleans and Houma, even though the book the film is based on is set in North Carolina. This time I’m sitting in the Labia in Cape Town, a few months after masks and hand sanitizer were retired. The same smell as 30 years ago surrounds me; the same melancholy for something underground evil and dark that follows the young character. This time it is not food, but racism, classism and the evils of a patriarchal system. But the landscape is equally captivating.
However, there was no sign of that dark side of life during our visit: Exactly the opposite, because people are generous and everyone is welcome – or so it feels. The locals call the city NOLA (after New Orleans, Louisiana) or N’Awlins and when they pronounce the name, that unmistakable Southern twangon their tongues.
My visit to New Orleans and its water-soaked environs was one of the highlights of my trip. We missed the Mardi Gras, but experienced the city off-season and explored every little street; hours spent in cemeteries where some of the world’s greatest minds such as jazz legend Sidney Bechet, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice and historical figures such as the pirate Jean Lafitte (The Terror of the Gulf) and the voodoo practitioner and herbalist, Marie Laveau, are buried.
Every day we cross Jackson Square, formerly the Parade (Frans) of Main Square (Spanish) depending on which country was in control of that piece of land. It’s the heart of the old town or the French quarter, which was declared a national historic landmark in 1960. It’s the gateway to all the delights by the river or in the jazz clubs in small streets.
If you stand in front of sculptor Clark Mills’ equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson and close your eyes, you can imagine hearing the clatter of horses’ hooves and feeling the skirmishes around you.
The park is named after Andrew Jackson – hero of the Battle of New Orleans and seventh American president, after whom this former military parade ground is named. It was erected in 1856 and is a reworking of the Washington DC statue.
The park is believed to be the site where Louisiana was made an American territory in 1803, in terms of the Louisiana Purchase. Jackson Square was designed after the famous 17th century Place des Vosges in Paris, France, by the architect and landscape architect Louis H Pilié, I hear from one of the many guides who lead groups of tourists around and chat in a small shop near the park, where I buy real vanilla aged in Bourbon barrels in New Orleans, taste. It is believed to be one chef Reginald who makes the vanilla syrup and is named after the Mexican Melipone bee that pollinates the vanilla orchid, but the vanilla comes from Madagascar. The almost syrupy vanilla extract makes any coffee, milk or ice cream an absolute culinary sin!
We go back to Bourbon Street quite a few times for Bourbon and jazz or blues. Valiant Swart once told in an interview after he returned from NOLA for his 40 days in the Delta-television series, that the city – Louis Armstrong’s “city of a million dreams” – in addition to the jazz and voedoo and Mardi Gras and Gumbo and Cajun spices and dishes, is the city with “ungodly beautiful music”.
That music comes to collect you from the street late at night; lure you in to places like House of Blues, The Spotted Cat Music Club, Old Absinthe House and Prohibition. You sit for hours in the corners of these dark bars and lose yourself in the captivating music, which conjures older musicians’ gentle voices and nimble fingers from saxophones, trumpets and trombones.
And that brings me to those esses throwing on the marshes in fan boats, because the grieving trees as one guide called them keep haunting me. There are several companies that offer fan boat adventures, but we asked the tourism bureau for advice on the most affordable and reliable options. I don’t want to have to send a postcard home to say one of us got eaten by an alligator on the Mississippi River!
The Mississippi – the second largest river on the North American continent – meanders over 3,734 km from Lake Itasca in the north, to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
Most of the boats depart from Lafitte, about 45 minutes outside of New Orleans. We booked a small boat and together with our captain, Steve, there are six of us on board. Each boat’s passengers are ready when the driver comes to explain that guides, like most Louisiana boys, have a great love and respect for nature and started hunting and fishing from a young age and have even sent several alligators to the buck field. “All our guides are certified captains, registered with the US Coast Guard.”
We hear that the ride will initially be slower in the built-up river section, before we get to the wide open waters of the Mississippi River, all the way past the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. A few days before we stood at Lafitte’s grave in Louisiana.
As we leave the built-up riverbank behind, it’s time for the bright yellow headphones to shield us from the engine fan’s whine and the captain hits the pedal deep. We make deep grooves in the water and my eyes tear from the wind. The propeller boats, which have no propeller shaft that has to descend into the water, are ideal for shallow water with lots of plants and tree roots.
Just before the adrenaline wanted to paralyze us completely, we swerved into one of the small waterways. We are in the heart of the bayou – A French-Cajun declension that presumably means “small stream”. Not many animals survive in the sensitive ecosystems of the bayou not, but alligators, herons, water turtles and other birds are very happy here.
We glide over the water, watch how herons wait to pin down a small fish or frog with their sharp beaks, and how water turtles lie and bask in the sun. I ask our captain why he talks about Spanish moss – the old men’s beards that hang from the trees and lend that ghostliness.
The French apparently said that the mossy plants reminded them of the long, gray beards of the Spanish sailors and then began to call it Spanish beard, which later became Spanish moss.
We hear that the alligators are cold-blooded and hibernate in the winter and are therefore less visible. His words were hardly cold, when we went around a corner and saw some big men lying on the river bank. Steve makes the word “gaterrr” roll with extra twang off his tongue. The animals can grow up to 4.5 m long, weigh 250 kg and live up to 30 years.
Of course, the difference between alligators and crocodiles is the next question from our group. “Alligators have wider, U-shaped snouts that are much wider than crocodiles’ more pointed V-shaped beaks,” says our captain. He explains that one prefers fresh water, the other slightly brackish water, but I give myself over to the smell and sounds in the waterways which get narrower the deeper we go among the rough trees and almost completely block out the sunlight.
The water below us is pitch black and the light breeze stirs the Spanish moss in the swamp cypresses and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – just like back then in the cinema with Angel Heart.
The gratitude that I can have this experience sits peacefully in my lap.
Soon after this we slide at 90 km per hour on top of the water and all too soon our two hour ride is over and we push through the curio shop where people buy dried, shiny polished alligator heads and chase or scare each other with them.
On the way back to Louisiana, my husband searches for Pussycat’s “Mississippi” on his smartphone’s music app and we roll down the windows and sing along loudly:
I’ll remember you
Whenever I should go away
I’ll be longing for the day
That I will be in Greenville again
You’ll be on my mind
Every time I hear this song
Mississippi roll along
Until the end of time
Every time I hear this song
Mississippi roll along
Until the end of time…”
Go explore also:
- The Garden District Bookstore in the Garden District. This is the rich man’s neighborhood and the Creole, Plantation and French architecture is truly something special. You can imagine yourself walking around on a film set of a period drama. The bookstore is across from the historic Lafayette Cemetery.
- Café Du Monde by the river. The original coffee shop dates back to 1862 and is open 24 hours a day. The menu is simple: coffee with too much chicory, with or without milk and beignets – French style donuts sprinkled very liberally with caster sugar. The coffee is not waffles and the donuts will kick you into diabetes, but that’s tradition. Surrender to the sounds of street musicians caressing your ears from the sidewalk and the whistles of steamboats passing by on the Mississippi.
- A ride on one of the steamboats, like a real Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer of old, is a must. We experienced the Natchez with a live jazz band, the Dukes of Dixieland, which drowned out the roar of the giant engines that grind the water.
- Don’t miss the chance – and there are many – to slip into a small shop every now and then for another Nachos snack with Slap Ya Mama-Cajun spices or chili sauces on it, before you go exploring further. Also look for small street cafes where you can eat Gumbo. It’s the official dish in Louisiana and basically a soup or stew with meat or shellfish, and the Creole characteristic mixture of celery, red and yellow pepper and onions. It comes either with rice or with bread.
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