Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

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Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

New York Nights: reflections under the disco ball

I’d done my fair share of nightlife exploring when I was in New York City, although I think it’s safe to say I barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s just too big, and there’s too much going on, that I doubt you could see it all in a year, let alone a month. However, one thing I think that I can safely assert from my brief time there is that you really have to have a plan of attack, and know where the parties of the evening are and where you want to go. Despite having a huge amount of fun on my birthday – probably due to the company I was with than the places I went to – it’s hard to deny that the night was in a relatively high degree shambles due to a lack of planning. We just drank ourselves stupid and gallivanted around Hell’s Kitchen hoping for the best. But the following weekend I was celebrating Ralf’s birthday with him, and since he doesn’t drink, I too drank considerably less, and therefore my experiences of the nightlife were substantially different. Possibly due to the fact that I simply remember a lot more, but what’s a few shots between four hour memory blanks?

Being the Berliner that he is, Ralf was never in a rush to get to any of the parties on time. I had to negotiate a happy medium of not leaving too early, but not leaving so late that we were stuck in hour long queues around the block just to get inside. In the absence of alcohol I ended up drinking quite a bit of Red Bull to keep myself pumped up until it was finally time to get going. I’d done some event scouting through some of the promoters who I’d come across on my earlier nights out in New York, which is how Ralf and I eventually found ourselves at VIVA – supposedly the biggest Saturday night gay party in Manhattan. It was where Jesse and I considered going the previous week, but… well… that obviously didn’t happen. Anyway, VIVA was supposed to be incredible, multiple floors full of hot guys, strong drinks and good music. Ralf didn’t seem as keen on the idea of pop music, but I gave him a playful shove and told him to leave his Berlin attitude at the door. He agreed that as long he could dance, he would be happy.

And for what it’s worth, it was pretty great party. As the evening continued on the place became packed, and under the giant disco balls and flashing lights writhed a sea of sweaty, shirtless homosexuals. Ralf and I started out dancing together, but during one of my excursions to the bar I lost him, and since we were both foreigners neither of our phones worked particularly well. I kept my eye out for him, but eventually resigned to the fact that I had lost him in the sea of hot and sticky flesh, so I continued dancing on my own.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

***

At some point in the evening I took a break from the dancing, and retreated to the upstairs level, with an open balcony that looked down over the dance floor below. I perched over the edge of the railing and peered down below, trying to see if I could spot Ralf among the crowd. There were just too many people though, and my efforts were futile. After a while of standing there, a man beside me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey… I think I recognise your face. Did I see you here last week?”
I had barely paid any attention to the man standing there, so I turned to look at his face, which was completely unfamiliar.
“No… No, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Really? I could swear I saw you here last week?”
Internally I smirked at what was an obvious pick up line, but instead I just politely smiled. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I wasn’t here last week.”
He laughed, almost a little embarrassed. “Okay, I lied. I’ve never seen you either. Though I’m glad I’ve seen you now…” It was also at that point, I think, that he noticed my accent. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope. Sydney, Australia.”
“Ah, Australian. Nice.” He then turned to face the out towards the crowd. “So what do you think of the party? Having fun?”
I turned to look down at the dance floor, examining all the dancing bodes, still no sign of Ralf. “Yeah, it’s pretty a cool. Huge space.”
“Anything like this in Sydney?”
“Well…” I had to reflect back on Oxford Street, my nights at ARQ, and the countless nights I’d danced away there. “Sort of, but… not really. Not like this. This is different.”
He smiled to himself, then turned back to face me. “The go go dancers are about to start upstairs. Have you been up there?”
“There’s another level?” This place as bigger than I had realised. The man just chuckled at that.
“Would you like a drink?”

Dancing under disco balls.

Dancing under disco balls.

I’d given up on ever finding Ralf again this evening, so I decided to go with him and accept the offer. He was a bit older than me, and nothing that special to look at, but I was quite enjoying the banter we had going between us. On the way to the bar he said he had to make one more stop. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the DJ booth and sound control box while he was talking to a few people who looked like they were in control of whatever displays were going on out over the dance floor. It didn’t quite sink in at first, but in retrospect it should have been pretty obvious why this guy was asking probing questions about how much I liked the event – we was one of the major event coordinators and promoters. He gave me the grand tour of the whole venue, and we chatted to each other for a long time. He had a lot of questions, and myself and what I was doing, and he seemed to be impressed by whatever charisma I managed to exhibit.

“So, what brings you to New York, Robert?”
“I’m just travelling around. Backpacking. Only here for one more week.”
He seemed genuinely disappointed. “That’s a shame. You seem like a really cool guy. You know, if you were staying, I think there’d definitely be a place on my staff for you.”
I scoffed at that. “What, really? As a promoter? Why?”
“I think you’d be great. You seem interesting, but real. Not pretentious. We try to throw great parties, but the one thing we’re not is pretentious.” The conversation was partially lost in the music that throbbed in the air around us, but I found his assertions a little hard to swallow. All throughout my numerous nights out in New York, ‘pretentious’ was definitely a word that stuck out in my mind as a perfect adjective to describe what I’d seen, especially in the gay bars and parties. The way everyone in these clubs and parties seemed to carry themselves, the way they talked, the way they danced like they were God’s gift to gay men – there was just something about the nightlife I’d experienced that almost turned me off it completely. It was almost as though everyone was trying too hard to impress everyone else to even have any real fun. But perhaps that was just me overanalysing everything, because this guy seemed completely genuine when we assured me they were all about keeping it real.

Maybe it was because I grew up in a comparatively small city – not everyone in Sydney has moved from the suburbs in a dreamy pursuit of fame, fashion, riches and glory. At a previous night out with Jesse and Georgia, at an event that I guess had been organised by the guy I was now speaking to, I’d chatted with a guy who was attending.
“Yeah, I didn’t really nice Sydney. It was boring,” he told me when I mentioned where I was from.
“Oh, well… yeah I guess sometimes you just have to know where to go, right?” I maintained composure, but tried to come to the city’s defence. “Some places are better than other at certain times. I mean, I’ve had some average nights out here, just because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
“No,” he just replied, with a sour, bored look on his face. “It was just wasn’t very good.”
And that really annoyed me. Sure, Sydney is no New York, but it had been my home for the past 22 years and I’d had some amazing nights out on the town there, and had more fun than I could possibly quantify. And I certainly wasn’t going to let some perpetually pouting wannabe model who probably grew up in Nebraska tell me that my hometown was objectively boring based on his sole experiences. I think it was at that moment that I was well and truly over the attitude of arrogance that I was finding among so many people that I met in New York, particularly in these gay venues. There was so much inflated self-importance that you could have gathered the heads of everyone in the room and used them in place of helium balloons at a child’s birthday party.

But here, at VIVA, I found myself with a guy who seemed so genuine in his belief that there was nothing pretentious in the way they flaunted their parties, and that they were just there to have a good time, and not necessarily impress anyone. I guess it really is a subjective matter, and I won’t claim that all these parties or all these people are the same. This was just my experience. He was a nice enough guy all the same, and at the end of the night I even got a behind-the-scenes tour of the building before heading back to his place in Chelsea with him to crash. I slept there for most of the morning and afternoon, mostly because it was so unbelievably quiet compared to Melissa’s apartment in Midtown.

***

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The following evening I headed out again with Ralf, this time settling for some of the regular bars rather than any big parties that were going on for the Labor Day long weekend. The guy I’d met last night offered to get me on a list to whatever party he was throwing that night, but I politely declined, mostly knowing I wanted to spend more time with Ralf, but also because I don’t think I could take another event like that. I met Ralf, and he told me how he had ended up at some after party the previous evening. We ended up going to Industry, where I had been at some point on the night of my birthday. I have to admit that as impressive at the big parties and been, I much preferred dancing to trashy 90s pop – cue eye roll from Ralf – in a regular gay bar, there the resident drag queen started a conga line and interrupted the regular DJ program to host yet another twerking contest, a fad that was taking the world by storm at the time. But it got me thinking that maybe the party promoters weren’t pretentious. Maybe it was just me, and that simply wasn’t my scene. Maybe I was just a simple boy from a relatively modest city who likes a simple bar and the simple pleasures of dancing with a friend without feeling like I’m competing to be the hottest piece of meat on the dance floor. Maybe I’m just not ready for the likes of New York City. But if that’s what I was missing out on, then I guess I’m okay with that.