Close your eyes. Feel the warmth of the summer sun and the sweatdrops inexorably forming and running down your back. Now open your eyes. Above you, a giant banana spider (link) comfortably hanging out in her web, surrounded by mosses hanging from every tree. Green everywhere. To your right and left, swamps and their sinister beauty, hiding snakes and many disgusting insects. You’re very happy you carefully protected every single inch of your skin with mosquito repellent spray, because you still get eaten alive. Tonight, the promise of nocturnal delights, probably ending up in some self-made venue in a friendly stranger’s backyard, listening to a happy ensemble of brass, wind, and stringed instruments chatting with drums, and talking to a surfer who got bitten by a shark back in Key West under starry skies made of lights. Look for magnificent oak trees, add some cajun seasoning and finish with beignets. Now, welcome to Louisiana.
We entered this wonderland in Lafayette. It was all very gradual. We started small with staying home, catching up on some writing and meeting scheduling, sharing a couple pizzas loaded with local green tabasco with our new hostel mate (hi Aurore!), while watching what has now become one of my favorite shows : Naked and Afraid (link). And then it just kept on getting better.
We went from exploring Vermilionville living history museum, where we learned about Cajun History and cotton thread fabrication (XVIIIth century style), to roaming into wild deserted swamps, the natural home of many alligators (and whatnot). Luckily we were guided by Phill and (thank God) protected by his mosquito repellent, that he gave us, as well as fresh water, just cause we were passing by his yard. No, Southern hospitality is definitely not a legend.
In case we were still sceptical, after talking to these girls for 5 minutes at a gig the next night, we got invited to a house party. And it was freaking awesome! (hi Kori and Dominique!) Because in Lafayette, they don’t just let you come to a party, they actually host you, even though they have no idea who you are and what you’re doing there. They feed you with homemade food that they cooked for everybody, make sure that you taste everything, offer you beer, entertain you and finally offer you a ride home. And it’s not that one person that just happens to be very nice and welcoming, no. It’s EVERYBODY there.
A morning spent drinking beer & coffee and learning cajun 2-steps at Fred’s Lounge (hi T-Rob!), and a first Po’Boy n’ snowball experience later (hi John!), we were very late and on our way, ready for New Orleans (Nola for the cool kids).
But New Orleans wasn’t ready for us. After 4 hours of being stuck in traffic, not getting anywhere near our hostel or downtown, we decided that it was better to come back after the massive flooding that had taken over the city. That, by the way, ruined almost every car parked at the hostel we had reserved downtown, where our car should have been parked had we stuck to the initial plan. Yup, Lucky Coin. So we came back the next day, and fell in love.
On top of the very unique atmosphere of the city and of its different neighborhoods (famous for their haunted ghost tours and Mardi Gras necklaces hanging from trees), Nola is a place where everything feels magical. Like for instance starting talking to a random cycling-taxi-guy and ending up being invited to his gig later in the week, and meeting back that same night to eat french beignets back at 2 am (hi Josh!). Or attending an unexpected history theatrical improvisation from a museum guide impersonating the kings and explorers who set Louisiana’s fate. Or being invited to show up at a bar set up in someone’s backyard, with the following instructions: go to the X shop between A and Y (yes, it’s secret), go behind the dumpsters on the right side of X, go through the hole in the fence; or meeting there a professional clarinet player who also rescues baby raccoons and birds in his spare time (hi Matthew!). The rest is history.
And let’s not forget about visiting Oak Alley, a historical plantation taking its name from the glorious alley of oaks in front of the house, also one of the only plantations today employing an expert to explain and talk about slavery, including explanations and models of the bungalows they were living in, and how the plantation was ruled. It was very interesting and horrifying at the same time, but still a good history lesson.
Anyways, we had been tempted to extend our stay in many cities, but Nola is the first where we actually did. Twice. And it was worth it.
Let’s get historical
As most North American colonies, Louisiana’s territory has been through many hands. First French, as it was colonized from 1682 and named after Louis XIV. At the time, Louisiana was going from Quebec to its current location, including the Great Lakes up north. In short, Louis XIV sold it to an exploitation company (Versailles was expensive indeed), which introduced black slaves, and then sold it to another company. The colony makes some progress but is not much profitable, or of any interest to anybody. The population remains low until a couple hundred Acadians show up in the middle of the XVIIIth century, pushed out of Nova Scotia by the British. They will become the future cajuns. As the French lose the Seven Year’s War ten years later, the French King gladly offers the land to the Spanish. He’ll also transfer a part of it to the British a year later along with French territories in Canada.
Anyway, so the Spanish own the land now, and they’re not very happy about the proud French nationalists occupying the colony at the time. They’ll repress them, and set their mark in stone, per say, building the houses we can now find in the French Quarter, in New Orleans’ current historical center. The Spanish will sell Louisiana back to France (in secret this time) in 1800, but the land will be sold again 3 years later by Napoleon Bonaparte to the young United States of America.
Louisiana will then coexist as a cultural melting pot of French, Spanish, Creole, Afro-Caribbean and Anglo Saxon communities, giving Louisiana the unique culture it retains to this day. The government did try to assimilate the population though, and erase its so specific culture, through banning the French Creole language at school for instance. As a farming land (especially for sugarcane and cotton), Louisiana has been a slavery-based economy since its creation, gridded with plantations. Following the end of Civil War and the ending of slavery, racial tensions were not erased and led to form Louisiana’s modern civil rights movement between the 60’s and 80’s.
Louisiana still suffers from a stagnant economy and from rampant poverty (it is still today one of the poorest States in the USA). To be fair, hurricanes and floods repeatedly hitting the region don’t help (Katrina, 2005). Yet, it ranks high in national happiness scales, due to their famous joie de vivre, fueled by excentric Mardi Gras, delicious cajun cuisine and music playing in every bar.
- Louisiana is big on voodoo, a result of its African and Caribbean heritage
- Unlike what most believe, Baton Rouge is the State’s capital, not New Orleans
- Louisiana is the birthplace of the great Louis Armstrong, but mostly Britney’s
- Tabasco too was born in Louisiana
> Crashing a student house-party: check
> Seeing alligators: check
> Escaping a massive flooding: check
> Staying in a former brothel held by an Indian family, now a hostel: check
> Touching the hole left by a shark in someone’s arm bone: check
> Sweating more than drinking in a day: check
> Crying from snakes phobia and saving someone from snakes phobia: double-check
What we liked
> The highways suspended above the swamps
> Green Tabasco
> People’s warmth and hospitality
> The gorgeous oak trees
> That one magical bar
> Everybody we met there <3
What we didn't like
> The snakes and spiders in the swamps
> Mosquitos armies