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.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.