Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Haunted New Orleans

Having done the Cemetery Tour in 2006, we opted to take a ghost tour on this trip. The Man did a lot of research before we left Alberta and he picked the company Haunted History Tours because of the number of positive comments he had read about the company. While I sat and sipped my cappuccino, he made the online booking.

We arrived at Rev. Zombies Voodoo Shop on Peter St. at 8 pm. The night was warm with an almost cloying feel to it and the feel of the impending fog just rolling in. A small crowd was gathering outside as we walked up and someone happily slapped a Haunted History Tour sticker on our shirt. We had opted for the New Orleans Ghost Tour. It was a walking tour of the French Quarter and its ghosts.

We had a quick peak around the voodoo shop as we waited for the tour to begin. In the backroom someone was getting a reading while we peered at masks and images that were a bit disturbing but interesting.

Back outside people tittered and looked nervous. Were we going to be running into ghosts? Would someone jump out of a darkened alley and yell boo? No one knew what to expect and a strange current was running through the crowd. Some of them fortified their nerves with a drink while they waited – alcohol in anything but a glass container is allowed on the streets of the French Quarter.

Suddenly our tour guide was among us and directing us to follow him! With tentative glances at one another we launched into our stride and the crowd of about 30 people trooped after him. We gathered under a balcony while our guide stood on the street and introduced himself. Unfortunately I forget his name but he left quite an impression. He told us he was a licensed tour guide and that he had done quite a bit of reading about ghosts and vampires in New Orleans. He admitted his skepticism on a few accounts – actually throwing some out of the window – but he impressed on us his absolute belief in others.

He also asked us not to put our feet up on the old buildings and scuff them up. It was a very nice way to ask us to respect the Vieux Carre. The bricks of the buildings are very soft and can be easily gouged with a finger. We heard this on another tour we took and immediately a man tried to see what damage he could do. We were disgusted – but more on that later.

Our guide had us captivated from the first story of the bachelor spikes right to the last one of the Capuchin Monk named Pere Dagobert. When he told us the story of the LaLaurie Mansion the whole crowd held its breath. Considered the most haunted building in New Orleans it is now owned by Nicholas Cage.

Our guide was nothing but fantastic. He put on such a performance for us that not only was it spooky but it was incredibly entertaining. I highly recommend this company for any ghost tours anyone wants to take in New Orleans. On our next visit we will be taking the ghost tour of the Garden District. I can hardly wait!

My only complaint was the smoking. Most of you have read my rants on smoking and cancer. Having already done my journey with cancer and come out the other side – I am totally against smoking.

Our guide smoked. He didn’t smoke while he talked to us but he did smoke while we were walking from one haunted site to the next (which is an odd thing to say because reports say that every building in the French Quarter is haunted). I felt that because he smoked the crowd then felt that they could smoke as well. When one girl lit up right beside me and blew the smoke in my direction – I almost gagged right then and there. And it made me cranky. The total lack of respect for nonsmokers amazed me. We had to move to the back of the crowd to get out of the smoke and then we missed a lot of what was being said.

I recently wrote to Haunted History Tours and voiced my complaint. My one and only complaint. I was surprised when I received an email back immediately from the owner Sidney Smith. He told me he would be talking to his guides about this. I was very pleased with that. His words “we take everything to heart” said it all!

By the time the tour ended the fog was rolling in once again. Holding hands we walked through the cobbled streets of the French Quarter looking for our own ghosts. Once in a while I could feel the goose bumps suddenly appear on my skin and we would glance at each other and smile and move on.

Haunted History Tours – an experience that is well worth taking. You never know – your hotel room might be on their tour!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ahhh! New Orleans!

New Orleans.

Just those words – what do they make you think of?

Is it Bourbon Street and women flashing their breasts and beads? Is it Mardi Gras and Carnival? Is it Katrina? Or is it crime and a high murder rate? A ‘chocolate city’ as its mayor Ray Nagin called it perhaps?

Well sure it’s all those things but they are such a small part of it just like in any city in the world. Everyone has their crime and everyone has their parties. Don’t point a finger at New Orleans and call it a city full of sin because it isn’t. It’s just a city. A city perched on the edge of being washed away. A city that is considered a ‘bowl’ because of the levees that keep the waters out (mostly – let’s not talk about Katrina just yet). It is a city that made the list of ‘things you should see before they are gone’ because there’s a chance that one day the water will take over and that will be it for New Orleans.

Anyway – I digress.

New Orleans. Many have tried to put words to what this city is – what attracts people – what keeps them there. I have no illusions that I’ll be able to best Tennyson or anyone else. But I’m going to try to say what I love about it.

It has an ambience and mystery all of its own. Its myriad architectures strewn about the city are so diverse they take your breath away. There’s the river – The Mighty Mississippi that flows constantly through the city and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Then there are the swamps and the canals and the bayous - the alligator sausage and the Cajun cooking. The cypress trees covered in Spanish moss and let’s not forget the people. The people who have endured and fought the hurricanes and floods and come back and survived. The people who love New Orleans with every breath they take.

How I long to be one of them. How I long to live there.

But more on that later.

Let’s talk about the French Quarter. A place that is so unique in its visage as well as in its history. Built on the highest point as instructed by the Indians, the French Quarter has endured hurricanes and floods. Burned to the ground a couple of times but rebuilt over and again by people who refused to walk away – who couldn’t walk away because they loved it so much. A place where the buildings are famous for more than just their beautiful lacy iron balconies and galleries. The place where every building is haunted - so we are told. How could you not love it? How could you not be drawn to it like a magnet?

When we visited New Orleans in 2006 – a little more than a year after Katrina ripped through the city – we tried to pack as much into 4 days that we could. We walked Bourbon Street and marveled at the bars and the antics of the people on the street and up on the balconies. Not being big drinkers we didn’t perch on a stool and swill back a Hurricane and stagger out into the street to embarrass ourselves. However we did goggle at what was to be found in the Voodoo shops and in the sex shops as well. Some things are just a must see…. and Bourbon Street is a must-see – once.

For us it was the art galleries and antique shops that drew our admiration and attention. We walked as many streets as we could gazing into windows and fingering displays. In 2006 the people of New Orleans were grateful for business – happy to have tourists back in their city supporting them – bringing in revenue. Because of the wonderful people who live in this city we promised we would return.

Many things stood out in my memory of that trip in 2006. When we drove in from Florida we drove through the devastation that remained from Katrina. To me it looked like someone had taken a huge hammer and bashed away at the city. We recognized buildings for what they once were and were never more to be. Huge piles of broken buildings sat in the middle of streets and buildings sat askew on top of cars. All this we could see from the interstate as we made our way into the city. It was the eastern part that took the worst hit from the hurricane and we had noted with despair the destruction as we drove along. I don’t have pictures of what we saw because we refused to be rubberneckers on someone else’s misery. We refused to take the ‘Katrina Tour’ that was being offered but we were happy to hand over donations for the cause.

There were many scenes that made me cry as I thought of what these people had been through. Yet their efforts to rebuild and renew their beloved city brought smiles to our faces and enveloped us. We took a tour of Oak Alley Plantation where they filmed Interview with a Vampire. The huge oak trees and the reflections of days gone by made my romantic soul ache. My only complaint was that our guides were reciting a script and didn’t have a single answer for any questions.

We also took a Cemetery Tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1 that is found on the edge of the French Quarter. We marveled at the aboveground tombs with their white crypts – so different from our graveyards. It was a walking tour that took us through the French Quarter and into the cemetery. We spent some time at the famous gravesite of Marie Laveau the famous Voodoo queen. Here was evidence of a different religion.

From the cemetery we went to the VooDoo Spiritual Temple where we were ushered into the presence of Priestess Miriam. This woman made me nervous. Out of the four of us in the tour she seemed to stare at me and I thought she could see inside my brain. I had a hard time understanding her dialect and found myself nodding and smiling – then wondering if it was safe for me to be doing so at that part of her dialogue. The Temple was full of masks and idols stuffed with money and – well – just a lot of junk as far as I could see. I understood that people came for spells and wishes and left money and gifts for services rendered. But I found myself wondering who ever dusted the place. That and I couldn’t stop myself from looking for the snake.

There were many pictures of the Priestess with a snake wrapped around her head and I was beside myself that I would suddenly come upon it and end up shrieking as I dashed for the street. It was an unnerving experience that The Man and I talked about for a long time. Shortly after we got back to Alberta we saw Priestess Miriam on TV dancing with the snake and performing a ritual. I almost swooned right then and there!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Birdhouses in City Park

Because everyone commented on the birdhouses in my last post - I thought I would post pics of all eight that we found.

These birdhouses were in a garden maze that we came across during our visit to City Park.

The long dangling things hanging from the one house depict the stilts that some of the houses are built on to keep them above the flood waters. (these obviously were useless when the levees broke but normally they do their job quite well)

The birdhouses are a permanent display in the park and they depict the different kind of houses found in parts of New Orleans.

You can see names on the posts of the different areas that comprise New Orleans such as Gentilly and Lower 9th.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Celebration in the Oaks

One of the first things we did was to take a tour of the Celebration in the Oaks – a month long holiday show featuring millions of twinkling lights throughout the Botanical Garden and Amusement Park. The evening was beautiful – as we found most nights to be in New Orleans. We paid our $6 entrance fee each and entered City Park where millions of lights twinkled in the famous Oak trees and throughout the flower beds. Performances were going on with school children singing Christmas Carols and actors doing skits. What struck us the most was the story behind Papa Noel. It was recreated in lights and we watched in amazement as Papa Noel’s skiff was drawn by alligators through the bayous so he could deliver his presents. Each culture is so different – building stories out of what they have.

When we came across the laser light show done to the song

“I want a hippopotamus for Christmas” – we both cracked up and I had to wait through 3 showings while The Man tried to film it on our camera for my brother. That song played over and over in my head the rest of the evening and on into the next day! Even now that I’ve written it – well – there it goes again!

They had a wonderful model train display going that included streetcars rattling around the buildings depicting downtown New Orleans and other areas. It was ringed round with wide-eyed children pointing out the little people in the train and streetcars. We soon became part of the crowd with mouths agape and fingers pointing – children again ourselves! Model railroads do that don’t they?

From there we came across a garden filled with birdhouses that depicted different houses throughout New Orleans. My voice could be heard calling to The Man as I came across another one – ‘Over here! Take a picture of this one!’ or

‘Here’s another hon!’

It was a wonderful twinkly experience! Children and adults laughing with delight and the promise of Christmas in the days yet to come.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Alone But Together

I’ve been struggling with writing this next part of our journey because it just brings back sad memories for me.

Here we were in New Orleans – a city that had called to us insistently for two years. We had talked and dreamed about spending a month here – exploring – playing – enjoying. We had planned and poured over information about what to do while we were here and we had vowed we would see as much as possible.

However – at first that didn’t happen.

I love to travel with our little trailer. Not only does it provide a home away from home for me but it also gives me time to spend with The Man. It’s time that I don’t get often and that I long for daily.

These five weeks of holiday were all accumulated overtime for The Man. That meant I spent time alone while he worked – often arriving home after I was in bed. The nights he came home earlier he was often too exhausted to chat and sometimes dragging a handful of words out of him was all I could do.

Our move to a more secluded part of the campground gave us many opportunities to investigate parts of our life that had been left untouched for far too long. It put a huge spotlight on our grief and the fact that we had been avoiding it.

I spent the first night walking the campground in the fog. I followed the shoreline to its furthest point from everyone where I broke down and sobbed. I railed against life and the pain it brings. I railed against whatever entity took my precious Dolly away from me. Why was life like this? Was I always going to have a life of pain and anguish?

When I returned to the trailer, The Man searched my face and tried to find out why I had gone out alone without him but I couldn’t talk about it. In the morning the dam broke and we spent the next two days sequestered in our solitude and talking. With New Orleans at our feet we preferred to stay inside and investigate what was eating away the foundation of our happiness. And it was our grief – a grief that we had not shared completely and that needed to be talked about and dealt with.

Now I consider The Man to be a real man. He is one of two men that I have loved in my life who has never raised a hand to me – never beaten me. He is quiet and sometimes painfully shy and he cries in front of me. Sure he doesn’t do some of the things I ask for but I bet I have many faults too.

And here we were – crying and clinging to each other. Talking about our loss of Dolly and Deeb and how much it hurt us. How he heard her crying in his sleep and how he couldn’t find her or help her. How I couldn’t think of anything else except my loneliness and my loss. Did I judge him for her loss? No. Did I think he could have done more than he did? No. My blame lay elsewhere and always will. But he didn’t know that until I told him. Would we ever be the same again? No never. We had lost our children and the hurt that came with that were two huge holes in our lives.

Still – we had each other. And after two days we emerged. Drained but solid in our relationship and love for each other and for the two we had lost.

New Orleans lay at our feet – waiting. And we were ready to explore it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

We Settle In

We arrived in New Orleans at 11pm in thick fog. It swirled and danced around the streetlights as we drove along nearly empty expressways. I heaved a huge sigh when I recognized the downtown buildings – familiar sights to us after our 4-day visit in 2006. We had promised ourselves that we would return for a much longer visit - and here we were!

As our GPS guided us into unfamiliar territory I asked The Man if we were going in the right direction. He explained that Pontchartrain Landing was in an industrial area situated on a canal from what he could see on google maps. It was hard to see anything in the swirling fog but I didn’t care. I love fog and mist and I wanted to get out and dance in it.

When we arrived, the office was dark but the Christmas lights blinked and glowed huge red and green blobs in the fog. The office was built on top of shipping containers and The Man climbed the steep stairs up to the door and checked the phone numbers listed and pulled out his cellphone and started dialing. Knowing him as I do I was amazed! Normally he would have brought the numbers to me and asked me to make the call as he hates talking on the phone. While I sat in disbelief, a truck pulled up and a man jumped out – a smile wreathing his face.

“Sorry about getting in here so late.”

“You must be our Canadian friends. You’re only a couple of days late. Did you have trouble on the drive down?”

I listened to the conversation as the two men shook hands – both of them smiling broadly. I got out of the vehicle and walked around and introduced myself to the campground manager.

“Hi – I’m Aims.”

Nate stuck out his hand and said, “Welcome Miss Aims.”

I just about swooned right then and there. SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY! There is nothing like it!

We piled back into our vehicles and he directed us to a grouping of trailers and helped The Man back all 13 feet of our trailer in amongst them before leaving us to get settled. We tried to quietly get everything set up so that we wouldn’t disturb our neighbours before we too joined them in sleep.

It is amazing to wake in a new place and discover what the darkness hid. I always am up far earlier than The Man. If I do not rouse him he will sleep until 1pm. It drives me crazy. I always think of how much daylight is being slept away and how much can be done in those hours that he is sleeping. However – this 5 week holiday was all overtime. He had worked many long hours to get all this time off and he still had 5 weeks of holiday due him. We’ll be taking those weeks some time this year – I hope.

Once he was up and had gone to check out the campground washroom, we worked on setting up the trailer for a month’s stay. The Man had worked on installing a solar panel on the front of the trailer so that it would keep our battery topped up while we weren’t driving. He had also rigged up a phone system so that I could call my brother over the internet and he had ordered a US sim card for his cellphone so that cellphone rates would be much cheaper. While he did ‘The Man’ jobs – I washed the trailer. It was caked with salt and dirt from the long drive through winter conditions. The sun was warm and I worked in my shorts – a far cry from the cold winds of Memphis!

We walked over to the office and officially signed in. They gave us maps to the nearest grocery stores and pamphlets on what to do in New Orleans. Then that evening we drove to the French Quarter and just walked around and looked in any of the stores that were open. The fog swirled in as the night came on and I was again in my own little heaven. The fog gives everything a softer and mysterious look. Some nights it was so thick you could hardly see 10 feet in front of your nose. I remembered watching Gone With The Wind and thinking that the scene at the end - where Scarlett is running back to Rhett through the fog – had to be fake.

I didn't think they got fog like that in the deep South. I thought it was more like the fog they got in England. I was wrong. And I was delighted to be wrong! I wanted to run through the fog and call for Rhett myself!

We strolled through the nearly empty streets of the French Quarter holding hands. A few store owners told us that the weeks before Christmas were the slowest times in New Orleans. Wait until after Christmas!

In the morning, while The Man slept, I walked over to the office. Five women stood behind the desk and smiled at me as I hid behind my sunglasses. These women were campground workers and were learning the ropes at this particular campground. For those of you who don’t know what this is –

Rvers can work in campgrounds for their site rentals and for extra money as well. It is great for people living in their Rvs for long periods of time. I faced these women and put a huge smile on my face.

“Um. Do you think we could be moved?” I asked.

“Oh! Is there a problem?”

“Well……We have that little 13’ trailer.”

“Oh yes! It is so cute! We all were talking about it earlier,” they chorused.

“Yes. It is cute isn’t it? However – it makes a lot of noise – if you know what I mean. And um….I was wondering if we could move to a secluded spot so we could – you know – make a lot of noise without everyone listening in.”

I stood there and watched as all five women worked through what I had said and came to the same realization at once.

“Of course we’ll move you!”

I walked back to our trailer with a big smile on my face and told The Man we were moving and relayed the conversation. It was hard for him to hitch up the trailer again when his face was so bright red. Hey! I’m not dead yet and I don’t care who knows it!