"Sensing New Orleans" New Orleans by supercarys

New Orleans Travel Guide: 4,198 reviews and 7,269 photos

This is a piece of writing I did for a uni paper

New Orleans is a city of mixed cultures. As you walk down the streets you can't help but think you are in an entirely different country. It has obvious French, African and American influences but it doesn't feel like any of them. It feels as though you are in another time and place altogether. Every part of it assaults the senses with a battery of sights, smells, tastes…

Hearing

The cable car trolleys trundle along the middle of the streets, clanking and grinding their way into town as you approach the heart of New Orleans. Modern buildings rise and cry out to the rest of America to see them but they are hidden by the call of History around the corner. You have arrived in the French Quarter. The streets are cobbled and the buildings seem to sing of a time when they were clean and majestic, yet when you look closely you can see that all but the most significant buildings are in various states of dilapidation. They are all singing the same song but each has its own tune. Many have sad histories of torture and death. As a local tells you of the terrible acts that took place he speaks with a reverence that tells you he has seen the ghosts that haunt this place. The old buildings gaze down at you with sorrow, as though they are ashamed to have been a part of it. The darkness around you only seems to make it more real.

An old black man notices you and walks straight up to you, speaking in an accent you can barely understand as he pulls a bead necklace out of a plastic shopping bag and places it over your head. You mutter "Thank you" in bewilderment as he walks off, the large green beads hanging down to your knees. They clack against your legs and weigh down on your neck. They have something to do with voodoo – one of the most widely practiced religions in New Orleans, the signs of which as you have just seen, are everywhere.

The Mississippi River beckons as a paddle steamer blasts out German folk songs at the top of its voice, forcing you to cover your ears as you get closer. The main railway line blocks your way as a long train slowly shunts its way along the tracks. There are no barriers between the people and the railway tracks, only common sense keeps them back as the train murmurs that it is coming through. A slight wind caused by the train softly waves people across as the train finally ends and continues off into the distance. You join a line of people waiting for a short river cruise and stand under a lonely fan as it intermittently squeals in protest as it whirls around at top speed. Once the boat leaves the dock the music pipes stop and you remove your fingers from your ears as a babble of noise comes back to you. A jazz band plays a lively tune in the main deck where you relax as the crew tells you about the history of the river in a muffled and somewhat metallic voice over the public address system.

Back on shore you sit back and watch the people go by as you hear the sounds of a saxophone playing jazz.

You buy a hot dog from a street vendor. As you sit to eat it you watch the locals interact. One young man wearing clothes that would have been fashionable in the 1980s comes along on rollerblades and starts showing off. Another man in his mid 30s is telling jokes for money. The people passing by treat each other in a relaxed and jovial manner as though they know each other by sight but not by name. They even treat you in the same way, talking to you as though you have always been sitting on the step eating a hot dog as they pass by every day.

You are drawn in by the way they talk, the way they have included you without a touch of indifference that you are a tourist and will tomorrow be gone.It is just their way. You realise that this inclusion is limited to the French Quarter as the scope of your travels increases to other parts of the city.

Sight

The closer you get to the centre of town the less greenery there is. Lush plants rise out of nowhere in sporadic bursts of colour. The architecture changes subtly until you reach your destination in the centre of New Orleans when suddenly everything is different. The buildings are older, ancient houses that have lived through generations of people and survived. Some have been reconstructed and shine boldly, holding their heads high for all to see while others shrug their shoulders and slump down even farther, looking out indifferently as the people go by. Some buildings show plaques detailing their history, medals of honour from a time long ago, worn out of habit.
Every building seems to have its own eccentricities that the original owners have passed on. One house has a fence wrought to look like a corn field, another house looks like a castle, yet another is crumbling, almost shedding its skin as the bricks reject the concrete that was plastered over them.

You join a group for a guided tour of the city. Cracks in the pavement spew weeds through mouths wide enough to swallow an unsuspecting pedestrian whole. Peeling wooden signs announce the names of shops along the street as the doors crackle and blister their paint to match. The shops are as varied and diverse as the people who live here. They sell voodoo accessories, antique books, collectibles. As your group walk around the city, the locals watch you with a sort of amused tolerance as though they already know the secrets the city is hiding. The history and mysteries of the town seem to be bred into the inhabitants. They are well aware of what New Orleans has to offer and know it is something that everyone must seek out for themselves.

Taste

You stop at a restaurant to try the traditional New Orleans dish, gumbo. Like the rest of New Orleans, it is a strange mixture of historical tradition and something you can’t quite put your finger on. Rising from the different cultures in the city, gumbo consists of seafood, spring onions, broth and rice. It is a strange combination that takes some getting used to as the different flavours vie for attention as they dance around your mouth. It seems to make you understand the city more as you experience the unity of the ingredients.

Alligator meat is another food available in New Orleans and you are unable to resist the temptation of eating such a formidable animal. You do not overlook the irony of the fact that it has been completely subdued to the form of a sausage to make it more appealing. It has been seasoned with traditional Creole spices, rich and heady, that rise with clouds of steam from the middle of the meat to surround your head as you cut the first piece, making it difficult to taste the alligator. It is also ironic that the spices have more bite than the alligator does and leave your mouth begging for mercy and your eyes watering sympathetically as you swallow each bite. The alligator stew is also guilty of not having a distinctive flavour. Weighed down by tomato and onion, the stew tastes like nothing more than bolognese. You leave the restaurant somewhat disillusioned and think that a steak would have been a better indication of taste. You wanted to roll the alligator around your mouth and really taste it. But you are triumphant none the less. You have eaten what most people fear.

Back in the streets again you stop in a café for iced coffee and French beignets – a type of doughnut. The world renowned café is reputed to have superior coffee and is a famous landmark of New Orleans. As the cool coffee hits your lips it settles on your tongue and leaves an impression of sweetness and strength as is slides softly down your throat. The beignets complement the coffee but make you add more sugar because they are so sweet. The icing sugar puffs up your nose as you take another bite. The two fit together as a symbol of New Orleans. They seem so out of place that it makes them fit in better with all the other quirks and eccentricities that make up the city.

At night you are drawn to a major tourist attraction in the form of a local pub that serves another New Orleans delicacy, the 'Hurricane'. It comes in a huge paper cup the size of that in which milkshakes are usually served, filled to the brim. The smell of the alcohol coming off it punches you in the nose as you lean in for your first sip. It is a fruity cocktail that leers at you while you drink; reminding you how much is left before you will be finished. You realise you will be sick if you drink it all and covertly place it aside whilst your friends rhapsodise in slurs about how much they like it and don't you like yours? You guide them back to the motel once they have finished and they giggle all the way.

Touch

The humid air clings to you and makes you think that the very time goes slower here. Your breathing becomes heavier as the air becomes thicker and moves like a flow of lava through your lungs, only to gather more moisture as it waits to be expelled in a slow paced flow erupting from your mouth and nose. The heat of the day tears through the water in the air and makes it seem even hotter. You try to move as little as possible to avoid becoming more uncomfortable. A weak breeze reaches you as you pass the Mississippi, cooling the perspiration clinging to every part of your body. You withdraw to the air conditioned sanctuary of a shop to lower your body temperature as much you can before braving the sweltering streets again. Your feet stick to the pavement which clings tightly to you as you walk along.

As you wander the city you see buildings that are older than the United States of America itself. You reach out to touch one of the bricks in a soft caress. It is large and pitted with age. You can feel grains of sand stirring under your fingers, trickling to the ground below. It is uneven and slightly rounded; the soft, cool cheek of an old man with whiskers who sits on the ground and watches nations rise and fall while he remains unchanged. You feel him breathing slowly under your touch, feel the life left in him as he experiences everything that comes his way.

Smell

You walk down Bourbon Street, one of the more famous places of New Orleans. You don't know what you were expecting but you are deeply unimpressed. The sharp stench of urine and stale vomit reaches you immediately and you realise that thousands of people have contributed to it over the years. The smell makes you want to leave. It speaks of people controlled by alcohol in a part of the city that borders on poverty. It makes you wonder what is so attractive about this street that makes people want to visit it.

The humidity in the air has a distinct smell of the streets in it. Grains of concrete dust and dirt from the river merge with the smells of cooking and the horses that draw carriages for tourists to tour the city in. The smells clash together in a skirmish inside your nose, each one determined to be noticed first. The smell is the real experience of the city - it is a reminder of everything you have seen, all at once.

The Sixth Sense

There is a general feeling of closeness in this city, almost as though you pick up a sixth sense as you get closer to the heart of it. You don’t see dead people but you can feel them, you feel their history, their very breath on your neck as a breeze plays along your face. You feel their laughter and sorrow oozing out of every crack in the pavement, every brick in every building. Their stories are whispered softly as you pass. They stir up emotions that you would never normally feel looking at a building. You can't hear them with open ears nor see them with open eyes, but they are there guiding you through the streets and pressing on your mind. They stay with you forever. Every step you take in New Orleans makes the city live for you.

Even after a few short days you realise that everything in New Orleans has its own pace. Every building has a story. Every person is individual. There are no bustling crowds, no traffic jams. Not until you leave this city.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:French Quarter
  • Cons:Bourbon Street
  • In a nutshell:A mix of so many different cultures and histories. You'll want to return.
  • Last visit to New Orleans: Dec 2002
  • Intro Updated Oct 2, 2006
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  • aussirose's Profile Photo
    Apr 15, 2006 at 10:13 PM

    Heya. Well that horse & carriage trip sounds good. Good tip on the doggie treat shop too :o) So what are you studying at Uni? Cheers, Ann :o)

supercarys

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