Category Archives: Louisiana

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

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Cajun country

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Anywhere that gets the party going at 8.30am on a Saturday morning gets my vote. Breaux Bridges, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country, and everyone’s doing the two-step shuffle, drinking bloody mary’s, and eating crawfish and cornbread at – what by any reasonable person’s standards – would be the crack of dawn. This is good. Donna Angelle at the Zydeco Posse are doing their thing at Cafe des Amis. Shufflers and stompers are aged from eight to ninety. Along the main street everyone’s selling antiques. One shop’s run by a Beatle fan who plays in a rock band, and that’s going against the tide. I’ve checked into a cabin down on the Bayou – at the Bayou Cabins – run by the crowned King of Cracklin’. Newspapers covering the bathroom wall date back to 1955Fiddle and accordion music from Radio Mustang! thumps across the car park. The owners make crackling, boudin and hogshead cheese which I hoped was cheese but isn’t. There’ll be plenty more on the Cajun guide to life, and a short film, but not quite yet. I’ll be posting features and everything other than rough cuts from filming at the end of the American leg. Currently chasing my tail a little further down the road.

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Breaux Bridge New Year Cajun Feast!


 

Could there be a better New Years Eve party than the one Cafe des Amis is throwing in Breaux Bridges? Remember, the dancing and drinking and accordion playing starts at 8.30am here on a normal Saturday. If you don’t have plans, book a flight and a table for a right old feast and night of swampland revelry. Useful tip: Lisa, the friendly host at the Bayou Cabins swears that boudin / black pudding is the world’s no.1 hangover cure. Personally I didn’t have the courage to test that particularly theory. But check out the menu – this is tempting.

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New Orleans Sound

Rough footage (shot by Dave) taken from a lot of filming in Louisiana which I’ll eventually have time to edit. Yes, this goes with New Orleans Vision (see previous post) because the French Quarter is all sound and vision and (and beer and whisky) and sensory overload. Louis Armstrong was born here, learnt the cornet here at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he was sent for misbehaving (many times), and I wish I could come here again with George who used to dance with me to We’ve Got All the Time in the World when he was about six, and when we thought we had. Jazz is part of the air fizz, along with funk, country, zydeco and whatever. There’s a band every few paces on Royal Street during the day and, at night, live music booming from competing venues on every side, but it was Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers that stopped me in my tracks outside the Krazy Korner bar. Not literally, because he was onstage. He is the crowned King of Accordion, and fantastic. I also enjoyed the frottoir – rub-board – player. Is it ever quiet here? Is there ever a time when people aren’t dancing down the streets? Doubt it.

Dwayne Dopsie

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New Orleans vision

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New Orleans’ French Quarter is a heady, exotic sort of place that feels steamy, even in November on a day when it’s nippy. Best plan is to submit, get lost, drink beer, join in. Try to be at a certain point at a certain time and you’ll miss the best of what this unique neighbourhood has to offer which is spontaneity – someone in a bar breaking into song, a dancing bouncer, the light on a building, a passing oddball, a monstrous loping spiked stilt-walker bending down to pat a whining dog, a zydeco set.

It took me the first night to work that out. Arriving at 9pm to find you are the only sober people in 10 blocks, your hotel booking has been screwed up (by Orbitz) and the restaurant you’ve eventually chosen has just stopped serving didn’t help me feel the love. Bourbon Street is the loudest, the tackiest; live music BLASTS out of every door and, for all the multiple layers of culture, it’s got the feel of a stag or hen night destination – just missing the traffic cones. I couldn’t hear anything, found it overwhelming and confusing. However, I got up early and, aside from the late night-early morning revellers and locals walking dogs, had the place to myself – a chance to admire the backdrop – the architecture, the colours of the houses, their steps, shutters and their leafy and ornate balconies. You can imagine how life might have been here in the past, I thought to myself as a man in a leather skirt and bra walked past. I don’t think it’s changed much. The buildings are old, but so its tradition for eccentricity, energy, passions, noise.

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