“What happened to old Orleans?” I’m assuming not standing around asking stupid questions like this. It’s sitting at a bar with a beer, a meatball poboy and watching one of the 13854 bands that you can find in this city. Ok, so this number is pulled out of thin air, but music is the lifeline of this city. The people have music in their veins, so much so that i wouldn’t be surprised if that number is way higher. And you feel it when you are here. Or rather you hear it. I had the privilege of staying in the French Quarter for a week and everytime i left the hostel i could hear something being played.
The French Quarter is the tourist hub of New Orleans. Its like Hollywood in Los Angeles or a royal wedding, people fleet to it for a passing memory of some sort of achievement. I may be biased, however here, I get it. I have been wanting to come to this city for so long that it was a no brainer when i came to the USA for the first time. Like everyone else, you come for the music, you come for the food, you come for the daiquiris the size of your head. But when you are here you are absorbed into a city with so much diverse culture and history. You feel the strength of a city that was almost wiped away.
Bourbon Street at night emphasises this tourist hub. At its busiest its like trying to get through a living game of operation, trying not to touch the sides of people who are only one drink away landing on the operation table. And that is what a lot of people are here for, walking up the street with drink in hand and finding the bars and clubs with 3 for 1 specials. A little further up is Frenchman street, that’s where the music is and surprisingly not as busy. Which is great when you are going from one bar watching a three piece jazz band, picking up a hotdog from a street vendor at one in the morning and walking into another bar with a covers band.
It really isn’t until the sun rises that you really get to see the true beauty. A menagerie of buildings and architecture from various influences including Spanish and of course French. You can’t not be transported back hundreds of years. Remove yourself away from Bourbon street and the bars and restaurants to even a couple of streets you will find yourself looking at amazing buildings with rich history.
Unfortunately a lot of the history hasn’t been good, for example the infamous LaLaurie house where horrific crimes were committed against African-American slaves in the 1830s. When word of the horrors reached the city, the people were horrified and outraged and drove the LaLauries out of New Orleans. Leaving a now potential haunted destination that is a stop over on the many ghost tours that you can join in the Quarter. Regale in stories of murders and ghosts that inhabit these building. Whether or not you want to believe in horror stories of vampires and Nicolas Cage its a great way to absorb the culture.
There is one other massive focus in New Orleans that is the extremely treasured by the people and that is it’s food. What is considered soul food, is eaten by all that reside here, young old rich poor. And like all comfort foods you find around the world they originate and were created from the poor and the slaves. Making do with the scraps that are thrown to them. From staples like red beans and rice, gumbo, jambalaya, you will feel at home. Pick up a poboy for a quick but filling bite and consume the best fried chicken you will ever eat. I knew I was going to experience something amazing but what I tasted blew all expectations and preconceptions of how flavours should roll over your tongue.
Like a lot of tourist spots and large cities around the world however, there is a harsh reality. Homelessness and beggars are a common sight. Crime and theft – though I fortunately didn’t experience it – does happen to unaware tourists. It is so easy to overlook the dirty parts of the city and look at what is beautiful and fun. It’s easy to forget that while you are there experiencing the sensual experiences, there are people who actually live there and are struggling to get by. People go “sight seeing” to see the neighbourhoods still affected by the hurricane while residents try and recover their lives even after 13 years. There is a trap, to glamorise cities and ignore the struggle because “hey, i’m on holiday”.
Regardless of how you see New Orleans, a fun party city, a vibrant explosion of culture or a city of struggle, strength and determination to overcome disaster, one thing remains true, the people are proud of their city. As confirmed by my taxi driver ” I am proud of my city”.