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.

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Good Morning Baltimore

So while I didn’t end up going back to New York via Philadelphia, I did jump at the opportunity to visit another city along the eastern coast of the United States. That was one thing that I loved about the US – in most places you can just jump on a train or drive a short distance and suddenly you’re in a whole new city, or even a brand new state. In Australia there aren’t a huge amount of cities or towns that are really worth visiting, for purposes of tourism at least, and the ones that are worthwhile going to are separated by miles and miles of desert and bushland or the vast, bleak expanses of suburbia. Thought I’ve heard of American and Canadian tourists visiting Australia because of that exact reason – to see the expanses nothingness – so I guess it’s only fair that I was fascinated by the exact opposite. Mike had gotten up early to head to university, but on this particular day I managed to pull myself out of bed at a reasonable hour, get ready and head down to Union Station, where my bus from New York had dropped me off and where my bus back to New York would eventually leave from. Today, however, was all about the spirit of the day trip. I was heading to a city that I had often heard about, in song (thanks to Hairspray) or otherwise, and where one of my favourite bands (All Time Low also created For Baltimore) hailed from, but somewhere I had never actually visited: Baltimore.

***

There is a service called the MARC train that connects Baltimore to a number of different places, one of them being Washington DC. The journey only takes approximately an hour, and the train is actually used by a lot of commuters who make the trip on a regular or even daily basis for work. As a result there is a high concentration of trains in the mornings and evenings, around peak hour when the regular commuters need to travel. I obviously wasn’t awake for the morning peak hour, so I planned to catch one of the less frequent late morning trains, and arrived in Baltimore when the sun was high in the sky. When I made it outside of the station, I found my bearings and headed towards the harbour, the focal point of the city of Baltimore. The surrounding city itself wasn’t anything too spectacular or different – just a regular American city with houses, apartments, churches and shops. But after about 20 minutes of walking – the further south I got and the closer I got to the harbour – the city seemed to swell up around me and the air of suburbia gave way to what felt like a city centre. Out of the high rises came a business and tourism centre, and after passing through a couple of streets that were like huge concrete hallways, I stumbled on a gorgeous view of the waters of Baltimore’s Inner Harbour.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

Inner Harbour - the USS Constellation and the World Trade Center Institute.

Inner Harbour – the USS Constellation and the World Trade Center Institute.

The first thing that comes into view when you step into the the sunshine at Inner Harbour is the USS Constellation, probably the most impressive looking of the handful of historical ships that are scattered around the harbour in Baltimore. I walked past it, but instead of going on board for a tour of the ship I kept walking towards the Baltimore World Trade Center. It was the tallest building around the harbour, and it also claims the title of the tallest regular pentagonal building in the world. At the top there is a viewing platform called ‘The Top of the World’, so I purchased a ticket and went on up.

The view from 'The Top of the World' in the Baltimore World Trade Center.

The view from ‘The Top of the World’ in the Baltimore World Trade Center.

From the top you could see out into the horizon and the harbour that stretches out into the wider bay, and all of the surrounding city. There was also a lot of exhibits and notices about the history of the city, so I spent a little bit of time wandering around and reading. I also learnt a little more about the initiative in the city, in the harbour just south of the World Trade Center, to create or ‘build’ a wetlands using a collection of environmentally friendly floating frames. The grass growing in the frames is expected to help gradually clean the the waters of the harbour, and the underside of the wetlands will eventually develop into a habitat for small marine creatures such as crabs, eels, fish, worms and barnacles. Even trash from the harbour, such as plastic bottles, will be embedded into the structure to help it retain buoyancy, and the whole thing seemed like a cool little project that was creating a thriving ecosystem that would even help keep the wider environment clean.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

I returned to the ground level to see the floating wetlands close up, and then continue my walking tour around the harbour. It was already well into the afternoon, so I stopped for some lunch. After deliberating for far too long about where I was going to eat I finally chose a place at random, but making sure that they offered some kind of seafood, as I had read that it was somewhat of a specialty here in Baltimore. Unfortunately, I’m not the biggest fan of seafood, particularly fish, but instead I opted for a Baltimore classic: crab cakes. They were the only other kind of seafood that was within my budget, but I have to admit they were absolutely delicious. Since I was eating solo, all throughout the meal my server would occasionally swing by and chat with me, and ended up asking where I was from and what I was doing in Baltimore. In the end, when he was fixing up my bill, he tried to offer me some tips or advice for anything to see while I was in town.
“There’s the aquarium just over on the other side there,” he said, pointing to a near edge of the harbour.
“Tell him to go to Fayette Street, man,” one of the other guys working there called out to him. “There’s nothing else worth doing here during the day.” He chuckled to himself, as did my server, but he looked a little too embarrassed to elaborate on what his co-worker had been talking about.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

I walked over to the aquarium and had a look around on the inside. It seemed pretty cool, but it was such a beautiful day that I didn’t really feel like going inside – I’d spent quite a lot of time in the museums back in DC – and watching a huge group of school children marching into the aquarium was definitely enough to put me off following them in. So I walked along the walkways between the harbours piers, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the breeze blowing in from the bay, and the gentle sounds of lapping water all around the harbour. After a few absent-minded turns I found myself heading back into the city, away from the harbour, and another random turn had found me on, lo and behold, Fayette Street. I could now see why the guys from the restaurant had sniggered a little at the recommendation – it appeared to be Baltimore’s answer to the Red Light District in Amsterdam, despite it being in the middle of the day. Yet there were no illuminated windows or coffeeshops like there are in the eccentric Dutch capital, just a few oddly located sex shops and a bunch of men trying to coax me down into their strip clubs where they claimed there were plenty of hot naked girls for me to see. It was my turn to chuckle to myself as I walked on past the clubs, ignoring their catcalls, though I was actually quite amused at one of the remarks made by one of the men as I walked past his club without a single hesitation in my step: “What is that in your ear, anyway? A goddam pencil?” It was a reference to my earring, a fake stretcher fashioned into a large blue spike. I probably laughed out loud, but I didn’t stop or look back.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

I spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the centre of Baltimore, browsing through shops and exploring the nooks and crannies of the area. The theme of the city seemed to largely revolve around water, with the seafood and the boats and the fountains that you could walk under when they were built into the designs of some of the mall complexes. It was pretty interesting, though from what I had heard, and now seen, the city is definitely a location that thrives more during the evening that the daylight hours. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to find a place to stay in Baltimore, even for just a night, so as the sun began to sink towards the horizon I made my way to one of the MARC stations – luckily at this time there was one going back to DC from the station much closer to Inner Harbour – and boarded the train back to Washington to spend another night relaxing with Mike. My visit to Baltimore wasn’t wild or exciting, but it was still a pleasant excursion for the day, and it checked off another city and another state in my list of places that I had visited on my journey.