Camp Hope, Violet LA, March 2007.

In 2007, the seond year I traveled to New Orleans during spring break, the students and I stayed at Camp Hope,  a former elementary school that housed volunteers in St. Bernard Parish. It was in the town of Violet, about 20 miles from New Orleans. The drive back and forth seemed long when done late at night, but it was pleasant during the day time. That is, once you had numbed yourslf to the abandoned neighborhoods, refinery and chemical spills, and still evident destruction in the low-lying parish.

However, there was one place outside of Violet that made you forget. It was a sizeable piece of grazing land, which seemed to go on for miles from the levee back into the interior. It was green, the trees sported spring leaves, and the cows grazed under the warm spring sun. As I drove to Camp Hope one day, above this sign of nature’s resilience, there appeared an apparaition above the plain. It was was unnaturally colorful and loomed high above me; it was one of the first cruise ships to depart from post-Katrina New Orleans. Keep in mind, that thanks to the levee system, the Mississippi River was probably 10-15 above where the cows grazed and I drove. Add to that, 12 stories of cruise ship and you can understand why I felt compelled to pull over and watch this seemingly out-of-place spectacle. I stood by my rental car for a few minutes as it eventually made a hard right, following the river, and disappeared from sight. At that moment, I vowed that I would one day sail down the Mississippi from New Orleans.
Well, that momemt fnally arrived last week, as my wife and I found an attactive cruise itinerry that left from the docks on Julia Street. And it semed like a natural extension of the previous week with my students. In his introduction to Nine Lives, Dan Baum challenges us not to discredit New Orleans as the “worst-organized city in America,” but to think of it “as the best organized city in the Caribbean.” And New Orleans and its people have so many direct and indirect historical and cultural ties to the Caribbean. And I considered myself up to the challenge of examining, first-hand and in great scientific detail (or not), those bonds.

Jazz mass at St. Augustine's, Treme, New Orleans LA, March 2012

And, for thre first time in nearly 20 years, it meant my wife and I were both in New Orleans at the same time. Which was great, mind you; however, my wife saw first-hand the New Orleans mania that I have developed over the years. In spite of uncontrolled, Rain Man-like recitations of New Orleans trivia, some memorable things happened before our disembarkation. Chiefly, after a Sunday morning walk through the residential part of the French Quarter, we attended mass at St. Augustine’s in Treme, the oldest, African-American, Roman Catholic parish in the United States. The mass was built around a jazz band, a bluesy choir, a charismatic priest, and a joyful, welcoming congregation. And in the midst of Lent, it was a welcome reminder that religion is about praise and joy and not sack cloth and ashes. After and hour and a half, we had to skip out early to make sure we checked out of hotel in time.

Chalmette National Battlefield, Chalmette LA, March 2012

As a result, we were among the first on board, seated and having lunch just an hour after leaving mass. After a week of running around between work sites and trips from Slidell into New Orleans, it was relaxing to take in the City from 12 stories up. At 5:00 p.m. we set saiil and began the seven to eight h9ur trip down the river to th Gulf. I got to see the French Quarter, the Bywater, the Lower Ninth, and the Jackson Barracks, where during Katrina, military trucks and material was rendered useless by flooding. And from my high perch, I saw the length of the Chalmette Battlefield, where in 1815, Andrew Jackson defeated the most seasoned army in the world; hundreds of British and Scottish dead at a cost of but seven Americans from a ragtag, multicultural army of frontiersmen, pirates, native Americans, and free Creoles of color. And right next door, the site of Camp Premier, the FEMA camp where I stayed in March 2006 (named for the company who provided the tents and folding cots, likely owned by a well-connected campaign contributor). Beyond that: the refineries whose flooding rendered entire neighborhoods unlivable; that tract of grazing land, more beautiful than I remembered; the shrimping community of Violet;  and the modern, rebuilt school that once housed volunteers as Camp Hope.

Temple steps, Kohunlich archaeological site, Quintana Roo, Mexico, March 2012

The trip down memory lane devolved into hours of marsh and river bends. Over the flat expanse, the New Orleans skyline receded ever so slowly into the distance. I was on deck late that night as we cleared the river’s mouth, entering the oil and gas fields of the Louisiana Gulf.

There was a day at sea before we visited four ports on consecutive days. I like to think of cruises as scouting expeditions. It is a chance to visit places on a somewhat superficial level to determine whether you might want to return for a longer, less structured visit. And I am a cheap date; I’ll go just about anywhere once, and maybe twice. I had liked this itinerary on paper or, to be exact, computer monitor, and it didn’t disappoint. Belize and the Honduran island of Roatan, I’d definitely like to return to. Cozumel was a surprise. Great beaches and snorkeling, with a sense of it being a real place beyond the endless shopping opportunities. Costa Maya was a  gateway to some spectacular Mayan ruins, but as a place it is an apparition rising from the coastal, mangrove swamps. A fiction to lure guests off of passing ships. But one that is crucial to the local economy.

Napping black howler monkeys, Old Belize River, Belize, March 2012

It was a good week of seeing the sites and people watching and I didn’t obsess too much of how much things I saw were like or unlike New Orleans. The food was good and, with some care, not as fattening as what I would have consumed in New Orleans. The music was definitely worse. While there was some good music to be heard on land, I am amazed at how many different versions of “Sweet Caroline” one can hear on shipboard. And the greater cosmic question: if Bob Marley never existed, would the band by the pool just stand around, silent? That is, until they replay the calypso version of “Sweet Caroline.”

I also had the urge to buy the shipboard portraits of total strangers. My accountant and wife, who are the same person, pointed out that this was a very poor investment vehicle and, more importantly, it was just plain stupid. I guess collecting pictures of strangers posed with someone dressed like a lady pirate could be considered weird, but it’s the thought that counts.

Tendering back to the ship, off the coast of Belize, March 2012

Among some other things I noticed: on shore, in the Western Caribbean, time is relative, much like in New Orleans; we may think that the number of smokers has declined, but half of those remaining were on our cruise (the other half are in the bars of New Orleans); and why do people on cruise ships paw through merchandise on sales tables? Wouldn’t they ignore the same stuff if it were in the window of a shop, in say, Lafayette or Little Rock (examples picked totally at random)? And finally, why do so many people on cruises, especially Southern women of a certain age (not to get too specific here) spend most of their time looking as though someone has been force-feeding them pickled buzzard eggs? My suspicion, given that they can afford to go on a cruise, is that their lives don’t totally suck. And even if they did suck, wouldn’t walking around on a boat, with people throwing food at you, stopping in warm, exotic ports where friendly people live, cause you to force a smile or two? Just saying.

Snorkeling and beach excursion, Cozumel, March 2012

Well, we had fun. No pickled buzzard eggs for us. Yeah, we lost a little money in the casino. We pretty much ignored the on board entertainment, except for various versions of “Sweet Caroline.” We enjoyed kind of dressing up and having leisurely meals in the dining room, frequently discussing our daily adventures with nearby diners. And as we sailed northward through the deep water oil rigs, our exhaustion should have been accompanied by a certain sadness. But we had beautiful weather and another day in New Orleans awaiting us.

Leaving Cozumel, March 2012