New Orleans, L.A.
My first trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, had me head-spun, swamp-enamored, voodoo-entranced and quite possibly considering ending the cross-country road trip early and setting up shop. It was in all senses delightfully overwhelming and magical. A melting pot concoction of culture seeps from the city’s every crack, crevice and corner, and my anthropology loving mind was absorbing it all like a sponge.
New Orleans, a province of colonial Spain sandwiched between two periods of French rule, retains traces of around-the-world today as it exists as part of the U.S. under the 1803 Louisiana purchase. Toss in an incredible amount of African influence and the ever-entrancing voodoo religion, a touch of spicy cuisine and blaring brass bands, and the high-energy, semi-addictive personality types (like my own?) who have come to get a taste of this culture-soup and gotten their feet happily planted in the Louisiana swamp. Now, paint everything with the brightest, most vibrantly cheerful and charming colors and year-round Christmas lights and celebration beads: NOLA.
Our killer weekend in the Big Easy began with nothing other than piles of crawfish at the local NOLA brewery, beautiful art at the NOMA, and even better live music: an intimate show of Arkansas blues-duo Handmade Moments, at the Apple Barrel, a cozy venue that plays live music every night of the week.
City tip: The Apple Barrel bar is located in Marigny, a history-rich, authentic NOLA neighborhood. Live like a local and delve into the area’s delicious food and great music, or, start your night here and make your way down to the French Quarter, where the craziness is only a stroll’s away.
The city embraces an open container law, so our walk to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street was extra warm and enjoyable. Like in Nashville, live music typical of the city sounded from every bar. Some of our quieter moments that night were stumbling upon an open-air artist’s market on Decatur Street and Galerie Rue Royale, a sweet and small art gallery that was bustling even at 9 p.m. on a Friday night.
City tip: The French Market District teems with trinkets, treasures, traditions and tasty treats and makes for a great daytime activity. Don’t forget to get a beignet from Cafe Du Monde: the cafe is famous for the city’s traditional treat of a square of fried dough topped with confectionary sugar. Check out the nearby Mississippi River to imagine the historical trading, importing and exporting that took place in this port city in years prior.
After a night on Bourbon Street, our Saturday in the Big Easy called for a relaxing morning of yoga and wandering through Audubon Park. The low-key day prepped us for dinner at the famous Parkway Bakery and Tavern for what USA Today named “The Best Po’ Boy In Louisiana” in 2016. The Obama’s even made a trip there!
City tip: Po’ boys originated in New Orleans as free, hearty sandwiches for union workers on strike. It comes from the term, ‘poor boy’, a name that gives insight to the work ethic and conditions of NOLA natives in the 1920s and 30s. Order it dressed– topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayonnaise– to sound like a local!
We topped off the best shrimp po’ boy in the state with the best spontaneous performance of NOLA live music one can hope to find: the epic, up-and-coming Tank and the Bangas. An eclectic combination of jazz, soul, funk, folk and extremely high energy, this band is a name to remember. Check their upcoming tour dates to see if this band is performing during your Big Easy visit- you won’t want to miss it.
City tip: Get a better taste of the magic encompassing you in the Big Easy: check out the Historic Voodoo Museum near the French Quarter and gain a deeper understanding of the mysterious religion. The museum is a small, dimly-lit hallway that connects three rooms full of voodoo history, talismans and shrines. The voodoo religion has its roots in Africa and arrived to the U.S. during the time of slavery in the 1800s: a cloud of racism combined with the religion’s lack of scripture and inaccurate Hollywood portrayal all contributes to its mystery and conceptions of evil. In truth, it is benign and empowering like any religion.
There is only one way to end your weekend and Sunday in NOLA. The final adventure capping off your Big easy experience is to witness and partake in a second line parade. Second line parades descend from the city-famous jazz funerals, and usually take place on Sunday afternoons with joyful dancing, brass bands and outrageous uniforms. Today, many organizations perform second line parades, and while for varying reasons and in varying neighborhoods, at any given event you can find locals and tourists alike spilling their open-container drinks, dancing and walking the route.
We danced and paraded with the second line members for miles until our feet ached, our stomaches growled and our cheeks had tightened from laughter. It was time to wrap up our New Orleans adventure and we had one last experience to cross off our city bucket list.
In the spirit of Mardi Gras, we bought a King Cake: traditionally a Christian honor to the three kings and now, a NOLA Mardi Gras favorite. The King Cake comes with a small plastic baby, in which you hide somewhere in the cake. The story goes that the person who receives the slice with the plastic piece in it must throw the next party. We enjoyed our King Cake with some wine and friends on the Mississippi River as the sun went down: our weekend in magical NOLA had us contently partied out.
Beneath the captivating surface, locals helped me understand that NOLA was a city of extremes. For every vibrant house, there was a homeless person in the French Quarter asking for a sip of beer. For every victorious band, like Tank and the Bangas, there were the sounds of second line parades that once voiced their aching losses of loved ones. For every tourist that comes sweeping full force into the city to get a taste, there are natural disasters, like flooding and hurricanes, that the area is prone to enduring. For every person that gets sucked into the magic of the swamp, there are people who cannot get out and get un-stuck from the sinking land.
New Orleans was a bursting city, overflowing in every aspect. It wasn’t until our drive out of the swampland to our next destination of Austin, Texas, that I felt a moment of clarity about my heart-set move to San Diego. It was as if I regained consciousness after a trance that had claimed me finally broke– but for a colorful moment there, I had my feet and heart firmly planted in the swampland of NOLA, too.