I flew across from LA to New Orleans sitting at one end of three seats with a large bear-like man in a Hawaiian shirt that could neither be described as original or retro at the other end, who said, 'We can share', putting his multitude of snacks on the middle tray. Some of the interest of this flight into the deep south included flying over mountain ranges, what looked like salt lakes, chequerboard fields and long, long straight roads (even longer and straighter than those orange ones you see in central Australia), and of course the mysteriously winding Missisippi itself.
When I arrived in New Orleans, I thought, now that's more like it. Driving in to town, things seemed sombre, with some dilapidated and damaged buildings in evidence. But when I got to the French Quarter where I'm staying, it was dusk and the area was swinging into action for the evening. I went striding down to the restaurant area with a mounting sense of anticipation. The French Quarter is very pretty, almost European in feel, a bit like a vieux ville (sic), with old weatherboard 'shot-gun' houses, iron lace balconies and hanging plants, and flags (hmm). It's seemingly untouched by the hurricane, tho I was told later that most places in the area had roof damage. I went to a seafood restuarant and had a 'blackened' catfish. The blackening doesn't refer so much to the grilling process but to the delicious spices they season it with. After that, I wandered around, hanging out in the back of various pubs, watching tourists make a fool of themselves in karoake acts.
Was this dangerous? I don't really know and I am, ahem, a great one for wandering around cities by myself (a bad habit I picked up as a highly mobile public servant). The girl on reception at my guesthouse told me that she did it, but that you just shouldn't go up near the ramparts (the street bordering the French Quarter and cemetery 1 plus the Louis Armstrong Park). But since then, I've heard a host of tales about people being mugged, followed, approached for sex, etc. It's making me more nervous. It seems safe enough during the day, but even then, you don't want to make too much eye contact with people. There are stories of the (it seems) black poor from the 'housing projects', formerly said to be much of the source of violent crime, moving out after the hurricane and being replaced by looters and other sorts from interstate.
After a day of wandering around in the French Quarter, some of the carnivale feeling started to wear off for me. The place does seem depressed. New Orleans has a brooding, overcast atmosphere anyway. I'm told that tourist numbers are down, even for August, which is traditionally a down season as it's so muggy. A lot of people have left town permanently; a bit like Australia,it seems people have less loyalty to cities, they gravitate to where it's good to be. I'm told that 'goodhearted people' have stayed. The economy is shot, with both tourists and workers moving out. There are signs up everywhere, advertising for hired help and a lot of shops, including mainstream things like Virgin music are closed down, as they can't get enough employees. People complain that there are plenty of beggars and welfare recipients but no one wants to work (but that's a bit of an American theme, it seems -- more of that later).
Yesterday afternoon, I decided to catch a street car to the Garden District, New Orleans most upmarket area, for a bit of a poke around but also for the simple pleasure of catching a street car (all wooden with no windows) and feeling the afternoon breeze. (I always thought the street car of Tennessee Williams' play was an automobile.)
I was greeted by the streetcar driver with a weary derision, as I was by all the streetcar drivers (all of whom seem to be black). No, I don't know where I want to go -- just up to the Garden District somewhere.
But the street car doesn't go up to the Garden District anymore; instead, I have to change and catch a bus. Except I miss my stop. When I go up to the driver and ask where Charles St is, he says, 'Cheesus! I forgot. It's way back there.'
I have to do a transfer, which means sitting in the middle of nowhere on the tramline for ages. It's quite interesting, to be out of the French Quarter for a while. You realise that within it, you're in a kind of tourist goldfish bowl. There's another, more sombre world outside its ramparts, with commuters hurrying home from work. I'm reminded a bit of the world at the top of Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree, and how the facade would disappear and there' d be a welter of activity before 'the world moved on'. (Likewise, the transition to the night life within the French Quarter.)
Outside the French Quarter, the signs of hurricane devastation are also clearer. Office buildings look unused and grass is growing up around them. Whole roofs have caved in and no one has bothered -- had the money, the insurance -- to fix them yet. There are signs up -- 'We're coming back!', 'Oprah save us!'.
A big talking point today has been the screening of Spike Lees' four-part documentary at the Superdome here (if I'd known, I might have gone, tho it will be screened on HBO next week). Most people seem fairly critical of it, saying that he missed some of the worst things that happened here, such as the looting, the rapes and so forth in town, and that it's overly slanted in favour of his 'ideological spin' on the uprooting of the black poor. I'm not sure that the two themes are mutually incompatible; the implication seems to be that he's indulging in conspiracy theories but I'll wait till I see it. The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is of course coming up at the end of the month, with a visit from Bush planned with 35,000 media and others in tow.
<Breakfast -- beignes and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde>