Cruising from New Orleans Monday, Mar 26 2012 

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

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We’ve All Landed Sunday, Mar 11 2012 

Before I begin, a public service warning: these daily posts during spring break are often done on the run, usually in a McDonald’s. I generally don’t have the time to review them as might usually, and the chances that I’ll go back and catch things is limited. In advance, let me apologize for typos (especially this year since I am using a netbook) and missing words. It goes with the territory, but it I can, I ‘d rather snatch the time to post as often as time allows.

Shrimp boats on Bayou Bienvenue, March 2012.

Now: yesterday was a roller coaster of a day. I started at a motel overlooking Bayou Bienvenue in Chalmette, Louisiana. I had a leisurely breakfast at the cafe of the casino attached to the motel. In this case, a couple of dozen video poker machines constitutes a casino. After a quick visit to the docks and shrimp boats behind the motel, I headed into the City.

It was kind of a gray day as I crossed the Ninth Ward and headed down Elysian Fields to the Marigny neighborhood.  I strolled down sleepy Frenchmen Street (it would be an entirely different story 12 hours later). It was one of those aimless mornings that I look forward to, especially in front of hectic week with work and events planned. I walked a lot and found nice places to pause and people watch.

Line at Cafe du Monde, March 2012.

I strolled through the French Market. I passed the University of Kentucky basketball fans lined up a half block to get a seat at Cafe du Monde (I guess I’ve never had a cup of coffee that good). I visited Jackson Square and the Cathedral and headed north to Treme. I crossed Bourbon Street without glancing either way and ended up in the newly refurbished Armstrong Park.

For a music lover, it was like a trip home. Before Katrina it was reputed to be to dangerous to visit and after Katrina, it was closed for years. So I jumped at the

Louis Armstrong statue, Armstrong Park, March 2012.

chance to walk across Congo Square where Africn slaves were permitted, every Sunday, to relive their dance and musical traditions. A statue to Mardi Gras Indian chief of chiefs Allison “Tootie” Montana, the Mahalia Jackson Center for the performing arts, statues of Louis Armstrong, pioneering cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden, and azaleas and magnolia trees to boot.

I returned to Jackson Square where I was to meet some friends later. There I stumbled on the other end of the New Orleans musical timeline. I got to see the Roots of Music band, the brainchild of Rebirth Brass Band’s snare drummer, Derek Tabb. After Katrina, when the future of New Orleans’ musical traditions were in question,

Derek Tabb conducting the Roots of Music Marching Band, Jackson Square, 2012.

he conceived of a program to pull inner city middle schoolers off of the mean streets and into the band room. There they would have a few precious minutes away from the drug deals and drive by shootings, incentive to keep up with their studies (they receive tutoring before band lessons), and they would later populate a long list of competitive high school bands in New Orleans. It has been such a success that they are having to turn hundreds of kids away each year.

But this 150 were as good (or better) than many high school bands. They performed in front of an enthusiastic crowd to raise money for a trip to the Tournament of Roses Parade, to which they have been invited. Tabb directed them through several spirited numbers (including a very challenging Rebirth tune) before they passed the bucket. And with a few more days like this, and they should be on their way to Pasadena.

Mena's Palace, March 2012.

I met my former student and New Orleans trip group leader Kyle, and his roommates. They have paused in New Orleans before heading over to Texas to visit friends for spring break. I took them over to one of my mainstays, Mena’s Palace at Chartres and Iberville, for their Saturday special of fried chicken with red beans and rice. Eight bucks — add fifty cents for white meet. We walked back towards my car so I could head up to Slidell to meet up with arriving students.

The Peace Mission Center, in Slidell, LA, was about a forty minute drive from downtown, including a trip across Lake Pontchartrain. Two groups arrived in the afternoon, unpacked and showered off over 24 hours on the road. The third group did not arrive until after night fall, long after we had headed into the French Quarter. Groups fanned out across the Quarter, some to test new dinner fare, while other took in the Italian Marching Club parade to honor St. Joseph’s Day. Well nominally.

610 Stompers, St. Joseph's Parade, March 2012.

The lure of beads has long worn off for me, but it’s fun to see students at their first New Orleans parade . However, this year’s parade fielded a surprise: the 610 Stompers. They performed at the Macy’s Parade at Thanksgiving and the normally-gratingly, talkative parade hosts were speechless. Basically, they are a bunch of New Orleans schlubs who decided to learn some dance moves so that they could get into a Saints game to perform. They did this during the Saints’ Super Bowl season and the rest, as they say, is history. There motto is “Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Moves.” And they did their routines, danced with the crowd and my students. It was all in good, weird fun.

Brass band and crowds on Frenchmen Street, March 2012.

I ended the evening listening to some music on Frenchmen Street. And the place was humming like I’ve never seen it. I stayed for a couple of sets and listened at several doorways, but the day and the crowds finally took their toll and I headed back across the lake.

 

34th Annual Islenos Fiesta Sunday, Feb 5 2012 

Annual Islenos Fiesta, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, March 20, 2010.

Moving Day Monday, Mar 22 2010 

Saturday, March 20th, was that day that most of us moved out of the not-so-cozy confines of Madonna Manor. We packed our belongings, packed our respective vehicles, and went into the City once again. The last two vans ventured in for one last visit before hitting the road. I had the weekend to look forward to.

I went with Sasa and Trevor’s group to the St. Louis Cemeteries just outside of the Quarter. I was excited to find the tomb where jazz guitarist and raconteur Danny Barker and his blues singer wife “Blue Lu” Barker are buried. And at St. Louis #1, we visited the highly decorated burial place of Madame Laveau, the so-called “Voodoo Queen.” From there we entered familiar territory.

It was a beautiful morning in the French Quarter. I spotted a number of students running in and out of the French Market and the souvenir shops along Decatur Street. Musicians and magicians and performance artists lined the streets. And the lines wrapped around Cafe du Monde as those on spring break, tourists, and NCAA basketball fans sought their fix of cafe au lait and beignets.

Around noon the remaining groups hit the road and headed into St. Bernard Parish for the Islenos Festival. Los Islenos first came to St. Bernard Parish from the Canary Islands in 1778 at the behest of Spanish governor Bernardo de Galvez. They settled the frontier east of New Orleans and helped provide New Orleans with a buffer against the British. Many St. Bernard residents trace their ancestors to these Spanish-speaking pioneers and the festival was created to celebrate this history. On the grounds of the Islenos History Center, there were crafts, Spanish and Islenos food, music, and both St. Bernard residents and visiting Canary Islanders in period costume. I enjoyed wood carvers, boat builders, historical interpreters and some very very good food: alligator sausage and grilled bananas wrapped in bacon leap to mind. Fredy Omar con su banda provided the music and the crowd provided a surfeit of dancers.

As much as I enjoyed the festival, the call of a hotel room with a clean shower and proper bed linens called. I drove back into New Orleans and enjoyed such luxuries for the first time since I left home. I ventured out for a bite to eat and to sample the musical wares of Frenchmen Street. However fatigue and the overwhelming crowds made me brave a light rain to cross the French Quarter and hotel bed resplendent with proper sheets. And I enjoyed them.