Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

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“Home is where your phone recognises the wifi”

After the weekend of depravity and sin, it was mostly back to the working week for Ralf, which gave me some time to sort out my next move in the bigger scheme of things on this world tour. While I was flying by the seat of the pants for the majority of the trip, there were times when I really had to sit down and look at a map and figure out at least the general direction of where I would be heading next. My romp through mainland Europe was almost at an end, so I had to start thinking beyond trains and onto planes and international airports. However, there was sufficient time to just hang out with Ralf, and some of the other friends I had made in Berlin.

***

One afternoon, Ralf took me to a park near his house that had a lookout with a view over the north-eastern side of Berlin. He pointed out certain structures and gave me interesting, little historical facts about the area. Afterwards we took a walk through some of the greenery, stopped for ice cream, and I just enjoyed not being on such a tight schedule of trains and sightseeing and searching for Couchsurfing hosts.

A sculpture at the lookout in  Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf's place.

A sculpture at the lookout in Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf’s place.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

Berlin's TV Tower from a new angle.

Berlin’s TV Tower from a new angle.

Another afternoon I went on a trek down south in the city to visit Tempelhof Airport, not because I had a plane to catch, but because the airport had ceased operation in 2008 and been converted into a huge parklands area. Rivalling the Tiergarten in size, the park was full of people enjoying the afternoon sun – riding their bicycles, walking their dogs, playing sports and having picnics. I swear I saw a couple of shady looking guys hanging out in the trees, beckoning me over in what I can only assume was an attempt to sell me drugs, but they spoke in German so I just shook my head and kept on walking.

The transformed Tempelhof Airport.

The park surrounding the transformed Tempelhof airport – the old airport itself is much more flat. 

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

After that I met up with Micha for a drink. The last time I had seen Micha was on his birthday, during my last weekend in Berlin, and I had been slumped over the bar at Rauschgold, struggling to stay awake. He’d said to drop him a line if I was ever back in Berlin, though like Ralf, I don’t think he was expecting me to be back quite so soon. Yet we did catch up for a drink, and I told him more about my travels throughout Europe, and it was a strange but nice feeling to actually have familiar faces to catch up with in a familiar city. Micha had work to do though, so it was only a quick afternoon drink before he had to head off again. Though on my way back to the U-Bahn station, who should I run into but Donatella and Eva, on their way out to get some dinner. I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering that we were only a ten minute walk away from the apartment where I had been staying during my first time in Berlin, but randomly running into people you know on the street was definitely an experience that I had not had in a long time – the closest thing would have been bumping to Xavier at his work during Parisian Pride, and that wasn’t exactly a good thing. I had told Donatella I would be back in town, but I’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the city in Ralf’s neighbourhood, so hadn’t gotten around to catching up with her again. We stopped and chatted for a little bit before saying farewells and parting ways, knowing that it would most certainly be a much longer time before I was ever back in this crazy city. But I skipped off down the street with a little spring in my step and a grin on my face. I felt like a bit of a local, or at least like I had left my mark in the city, by the fact that there were even familiar faces I could bump into on the street.

***

When I’d arrived at Ralf’s for this second visit to Berlin, I’d collapsed on the couch and tried to sort out my personal belongings a little bit, without taking over his living room entirely. When I pulled out my iPhone I almost went to ask for the wifi password, but then I remembered that I had been here before, and the bars of signal had already appeared at the top of the screen.
“I have this friend”, Ralf said to me when he noticed, “who has this favourite saying: home is where your phone recognises the wifi.” He smiled as he helped me unpack my things and sort out my dirty laundry. “So welcome home, or at least, home for now.” It was nice to have a familiar place to crash, and it did feel a little like home away from home. But it wasn’t just Ralf’s apartment – it was Berlin itself.

I remember talking about it with my sister via Skype, who had just relocated to Hawaii a month or so beforehand.
“I know what you mean,” she said when I told her of the unexplainable connection I felt with the place. “I never thought I would ever want to live in another city, let alone another county! But the first time I came here I just loved it – I hated having to leave, and I knew I had to come back.” I had been to quite a number of cities on my travels so far, but there was something that had drawn me back here, and I knew exactly what my sister was talking about.
“I just really feel like I could live here, you know? Like if someone told me ‘Your trip ends here, you have to stay’, I would be completely okay with that.” Of course, there were still so many destinations in my future that I was so excited to see, so that wasn’t entirely true – I’d be pretty upset if I was unable to do all the other things I’d been planning. But in terms of actually spending time in a city, getting amongst it and actually living there – Berlin had already truly won my heart.

The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.