Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Adding Some Spice to Our Life - on Avery Island

With one week still to go in our New Orleans holiday, I was beginning to panic. I still wanted to see and experience as much as possible in this incredible city. With that in mind we made our way to Avery Island on New Year’s Day.

Avery Island is west of New Orleans and is home to the famous Tabasco Sauce that can be found all around the world. Avery Island is a saltdome and the salt mined on the island is also used in the making of the famous hot sauce. Being lovers of anything spicy, we felt this trip was a must-do.

We arrived in the afternoon and hurried over to the plant for our ‘tour’. Being a holiday the plant wasn’t working but we were given 4 small bottles of Tabasco sauce and ushered into a small amphitheater to watch a short film on the origins of Tabasco Sauce. It was an interesting film and I learned about the peppers and Avery Island as well from that film. From there we walked down a corridor that had one wall of windows that overlooked the manufacturing area. And that was it. In 10 minutes our ‘tour’ was over and we were free to browse the Tabasco Country Store.

We’ve taken many tours over our years of traveling and this had to be the most disappointing one we have ever had. Maybe there’s not much to making Tabasco sauce except for the long brewing period where nothing much happens – but we were very disappointed. Workday or not it would have been the same and I can almost recommend skipping this part and going directly to their country store. That was where all the good stuff is.

The old country store was stuffed from floor to rafters with everything Tabasco. From shirts to ties and every type of clothing you can imagine – to golf balls and toys and finally to food. Every single thing has the famous McIlhenny Tabasco label on it and some of it is quite appealing.

It’s the Tabasco flavored ice-cream that’s a real treat though and we tasted that and the pickles and sauces they had flavored. We spent a good hour shopping in their store and left weighed down with a couple of bags of goodies that we couldn’t go without.

Even though the Tabasco plant is what Avery Island is mostly about – it’s the bird sanctuary and surrounding acres of natural habitat and wildlife refuge that stood out for us. Ned McIlhenny started Bird City to save Egrets from extinction in the 1800’s when their beautiful white plumage was used for women’s hats.

The sun was just beginning to make its descent when we started our drive around this beautiful section of the island. We were astounded by the bayous that surrounded the island and by the traffic signs we could see nestled out in the waterways in the grasses. We wondered how anyone could find their way around these watery pathways in their boats without getting lost.

It took us over an hour to make the drive around the island. We stopped at the giant Buddha that sat overlooking a lake and swatted at the mosquitos as they found my bare legs and sandaled feet. Of course it wasn’t the time of the year for the Egrets but we still walked down to the nesting platforms and had a look around just before the light gave up for the night.

I have made no bones about the fact that I am terrified of snakes. Bless The Man for walking ahead of me and stomping the ground – without asking – to scare away the snakes. Does that man know me or what?

As we drove the 140 miles back to New Orleans, I was amazed by the oil refineries that lined the coast. You hear about them but you never imagine just how many platforms there are out in the Gulf of Mexico pumping their oil into the United States. Their lights glittered against the dark sky as billows of steam and smoke drifted across the water. I tried to imagine what this coast looked like before it was overtaken by progress and I couldn’t.

We still have many Tabasco products left to enjoy. When we finish them I guess we’ll have to make a return trip to Avery Island – just for the fun of it. If I’m lucky – the Egrets will be nesting and the snakes will have gone south instead.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

New Year's Eve - New Orleans Style

We had many choices of things to do for New Years Eve in New Orleans. What we eventually chose was easiest and required little effort on our part. All we had to do was show up and enjoy.

Instead of spending the evening cruising on the Mississippi on the Steamboat Natchez or dancing the night away in some bar – we chose to do the countdown in Jackson Square with Mayor Ray Nagin and the thousands of other people gathered there.

We had received numerous suggestions about New Orleans and New Year’s Eve and the one that we heard the most was DON’T spend it on Bourbon Street. We didn’t even question that one.

What stood out in my mind was the tragic account of Amy Silberman who was killed from a falling bullet on New Year’s Eve near the Jax Brewery on Decatur Street. We were warned time and again that revelers like to fire their guns into the air at midnight and of course what goes up must certainly come down – somewhere.

The Man and I talked about this and agreed that we would take our chances outdoors in Jackson Square with all the others. We’ve never had a problem anywhere we’ve been in our travels and we’ve inadvertently been to some places we shouldn’t have stepped foot.

So New Year’s Eve found us standing by this lamppost that I’ve posted a pic of many times.

We arrived around 10pm and the streets were almost empty except for the huge stage that stood in front of the square. A DJ was spinning up on the stage while men worked with microphones and cords and did the obligatory – test – test. Beside us a man and a woman fought over a bottle of something cheap while we leaned against the railing and watched both events.

The influx of people came like a wave. Suddenly the street was a mass of bodies and the DJ’s smile beamed out over the crowd like a benevolent father as it became supersized on the massive screens that faced us.

New Orleans had been inundated with Sugar Bowl fans and even our sleepy quiet RV Park was now a mass of mostly Alabama Crimson Tide fans with a few Utah Utes thrown in. This was a new thing for The Man and I. We are basketball fans and follow the New Orleans Hornets. College football is not something we’ve ever taken notice of until they swarmed the city of New Orleans.

With the Sugar Bowl still 2 days away, the fans were still doing that (mostly) good-natured jibe thing that they do. On New Year’s Eve we were all equal under the stars as we stood in Jackson Square and listened to the music as it battered us and we shouted in each other’s ears. Some people danced in the streets and nearly everyone had a drink in their hands as we waited for the huge Fleur de lis atop Jax Brewery to drop.

Eventually a local Jazz band came out and thrilled the crowd for one set before leaving the stage to the DJ once again. Beside us the man had disappeared in search of his own bottle of alcohol and the woman was now fighting with the crowd. Some screaming about who voted for whom was going on and we turned our shoulders to it and to the wind that had picked up off the Mississippi. The Man stood behind me with his huge arms around me and kept me warm and safe.

A man now took the place of the band and begged everyone Not To Kill – Not To Shoot Guns - Guns Kill. It was the first time I’ve ever heard something like this and it amazed me.

Just before midnight – Mayor Ray Nagin and his family and members of his team appeared on the stage – champagne flutes in their hands. He gave a little speech in which he remarked about New Orleans being the most resilient city in America and we cheered! Then – with the timing a little off – we began the countdown to a new year and watched as the Fleur de Lis lowered on top of the brewery. Once it was down the sound of fireworks filled the night air and we turned as one and watched them as they exploded over the Mississippi. It was quite the experience.

Too soon it was all over and we made our way back towards the parking garage. We marveled at the empty benches where normally you could find the homeless fighting over a certain spot on any given night except tonight. Tonight they had been moved off for the big event.

We had to fight our way across a mass of bodies when we reached Bourbon Street. I was extremely grateful to have my hand clasped tightly in The Man’s and to be following in his wake as he cleared a path for me across the sea of humanity. It was unbelievable and we burst out the other side with huge grins on our faces like two survivors in a flood – laughing and catching our breath.

We didn’t hear of anyone being killed that night which added to the magic of the evening. 2009 was now upon us.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another Walking Tour in the French Quarter

Our next adventure was to take a walking tour with ‘Friends of the Cabildo’.

It was another beautiful day in New Orleans when we arrived at the meeting point for our tour. We were assigned to a large group and got mixed up when we couldn’t hear the instructions from our guide. We didn’t know if we were coming or going and hurriedly fell in behind everyone when it looked like we were going to be left behind. Two days had passed since my run-in with gluten and I was feeling rather battered and tired but I was determined to enjoy my day.

As we followed our guide around I soon discovered that I couldn’t hear a word she was saying. I was dismayed that our guide was so soft-spoken and that her voice did not carry any distance at all. No wonder we had almost been left behind – we had never heard her instructions.

The Cabildo is located in Jackson Square and is now a museum. Originally it was the seat of government in New Orleans and it has a rich history associated with it.

The walking tour through the French Quarter took us to three historic houses that were bedecked with Creole Christmas decorations. The tour was to end with refreshments and the telling of the Creole Christmas Story.

The first house we visited was the Beauregard-Keyes House across from the Ursuline Convent. This historic house is famous for many reasons. Built by a wealthy auctioneer, it is named for two of its former occupants – Confederate General Beauregard and author Frances Parkinson Keyes.

The tour was taken over by a guide at the Beauregard-Keyes house with a large voice. I was so grateful! I hate missing information when I’m taking a tour. We learned the history of the house including the period when the Giancona family owned the house and were gunned down by the mafia. During this tour another group from ‘Friends of the Cabildo’ came into the house and waited in the front parlor. I heard their guide talking and immediately turned to The Man and told him we were switching groups. The new guide could be heard!

Returning to the parlor we listened again to the history of the house and joined in with the new group. We followed the tour into the gardens and the back buildings where Frances Keyes lived and wrote more than 50 novels. It wasn’t until we had returned to Alberta and I was ensconced in my many books of the Cabildo and Haunted New Orleans that I learned how haunted the Beauregard-Keyes house was. Our guide did not include that little tidbit in our tour. I learned that Frances Keyes lived in the buildings at the back not only because she was crippled with arthritis but because the main house was so haunted! How exciting!

Back on the street and standing beside the brick-walled garden of the Beauregard-Keyes house, our guide told us about the bricks that were found in almost of the French Quarter buildings. Because of their composition they could be easily damaged with a finger and she asked us not to touch any of them. A large man standing next to us turned and dug his finger into the brick wall. I stood there with my mouth open just wanting to whack him one. Grrrrrrrrrrr! (I just wrote a long paragraph of my rant about this – and then deleted it. Some things are just better left unsaid)

Our next stop took us to a lovely little house where the refreshments were being served and the Creole Christmas story being told. The guides were dressed in long gowns and my heart longed to be standing in Tara and calling for Rhett Butler! Afterwards I stayed clear of the refreshments being served and gratefully accepted a small cup of tea before wandering into the little garden behind the residence. It was so beautiful I wanted to cry with my longing to live in this incredible place.

When we returned to the meeting place we were allowed to take a tour of the first house we missed because of switching tour guides. We wandered around by ourselves and marveled at the architecture of the Pontalba buildings. The apartment we were viewing was part of the two buildings that Baroness Micaela Pontalba had built on either side of Jackson Square. Her ‘AP’ monogram can be seen in the beautiful scrolling wrought iron balconies.

At the end of our tour we arrived back in the museum store and spent some time browsing through the offerings on display. We came away with many books and some jewelry that I just had to have! All proceeds went to the ‘Friends of the Cabildo’ which we were happy to support.

Another great tour!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Midnight Mass(acre)

Christmas Eve was far from over when the bus pulled back into Jackson Square.

During the drive back our guide told us his story about his experiences during Katrina. He pointed out sections of New Orleans that had been under water and we gazed around recognizing places we had been driving past daily – totally unaware. He told us about the broken glass that lay on the ground and of Walmart dropping water and food and opening their stores for the needy. He talked about people dying on the bus he finally escaped on and how they had to leave them at the side of the road and never knew what happened to them. As he spoke – I turned my head and wiped away tears.

These stories need to be told. The world needs to hear how the people of New Orleans were forgotten and left to die by their own government. How their own president turned his head away and pretended he didn’t see them dying in their own country as they begged him to help. We need to remember – the stories need to be told.

As we pulled into Jackson Square I knew I was in trouble. The Man was looking at me in that odd way he has that signifies I am giving off all the indications of having ingested gluten.

“I think there was gluten in the turkey or potatoes I ate,” I said as I bent over in pain.

Together we figured the turkey had to be one of those self-basted ones – they contain gluten. Why? I have no idea. Why inject gluten into a turkey that is safe for people to eat? Or – it could have also been stuffed with bread dressing and was contaminated. Either way it was my fault for believing (and wanting to) the women when they said it was safe to eat.

My one complaint about New Orleans – especially the French Quarter – is the lack of bathrooms. To be able to use a bathroom in the French Quarter you have to be a customer of the bar or restaurant. Your need has to be accompanied by a drink or a meal and on Christmas Eve – that isn’t going to happen.

With most of the restaurants and bars closed we went in search of a bathroom. Christmas Eve is the only time I saw Bourbon Street not packed with people. As we walked down the empty street we passed a few bars that held a smattering of patrons drinking in Christmas. Some bars in New Orleans are famous for never closing, yet they all have that same sign – bathrooms for customers only. The famous balconies were empty except for a couple of girls who tried to get The Man’s attention by throwing beads at him but I missed it all inside my own little world of pain.

When we reached Canal Street we had already walked blocks and my face was covered with sweat and not from the exercise. The streets were haunting in themselves – so gaily decorated with ivy and ribbons – yet almost empty. Blocks away stood Harrah’s and we suddenly realized the casino would be open and had plenty of bathrooms that were free! The Man took my hand and coaxed me on with that wonderful smile of his and that love he surrounds me with. He knows how much I suffer when my body is attacked.

A half hour later we were back on the street and heading for St. Louis Cathedral to attend Midnight Mass. As we approached the cathedral I realized that once again I was in trouble. When we got inside the cathedral we went in search of another bathroom but there weren’t any. You step inside the front doors and you are almost immediately inside the church. A police officer stood in front of the steps that led to the balconies saying that they were closed and we couldn’t see a sign anywhere that suggested they even had a bathroom inside this huge edifice!

The second surprise was the fact that the church was packed with standing room only left. The Man and I stood against the back wall close to the door in case I had to leave. My body was once again gripped with pain and could only think I was in the perfect place to be praying that I could make it through the sermon.

The Man and I are not Catholic but we have been to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve before with friends. It has always been a lovely experience. This could not be said for this one. The Archbishop preached the sermon and it was so political that it made our heads reel. The sermon had nothing to do with Christmas. With people stepping on my feet and pushing me back into the wall I had finally had enough when Communion began. We stepped out into the fog and hurried back to Harrah’s once again.

Christmas Eve at Harrah’s must be some kind of tradition for the young crowd. Once Mass was over the casino filled with young people on the prowl. The girls were dressed in skintight miniskirts and heels the size of mountains. They congregated in the bathrooms, sitting on the couches or on the counters – doing their nails or hair and just chatting while the boys hung around outside as they casually surveyed the offerings. It was a meat market.

One girl took pity on me as she looked at my knee-length skirt and flat shoes. “Can’t you wear heels honey?” she asked me. I laughed and shook my head and claimed my bad back. “Oh! Poor you!” she said and patted my arm as I passed.

It took until 4am before I felt it was safe for me to leave the bathrooms behind and make the walk to the car and the 20-minute drive back to our trailer. Once home I collapsed into bed and I spent most of Christmas day sleeping off the effects on the front couch. I awoke at midnight as The Man was making the bed up once again. I have no idea how he spent Christmas – but my celiac attack had ruined it for both of us. I was done in then for another couple of days before I had the strength to venture about once again.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Christmas Eve in New Orleans

So what happened next?

The Man had reserved seats for us to take the ‘Bonfire Tour’ on Christmas Eve. This was a bus tour that took us to Destrehan Plantation during the day and then on to see the lighting of the bonfires to guide in Papa Noel. This was to be followed by the midnight mass at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square (not part of the tour).

Because we were going to mass I decided to wear my skirt and flats instead of the casual dress the tour recommended. There was no time for us to return to our trailer and change between the bus tour and mass. No problem. In fact I felt rather ‘dressed up’.

The bus tour took us first to Destrehan Plantation where we were given a guided tour and a Cajun turkey dinner. Before dinner we went to two demonstrations on the plantation. The first showed us how they had used the Spanish moss from the trees and how they dried it before use. We learned how they used the moss for stuffing in their mattresses and in a concoction that went between the building logs to keep out the elements.

After that demonstration we went into the cookhouse and learned how they had cooked their meals and then transported them to the main house to another kitchen before it was served.

We then all proceeded to a big barn where we had a turkey dinner complete with stuffing and dessert. This was the beginning of the end for me.

I’m a celiac. This means that my body cannot process gluten and if I ingest it I get very ill. Gluten damages my intestines and I can’t assimilate my food. It sounds all very confusing for people who can eat anything – but for me it is a major obstacle in my life. I can get sick easily and remain ill for days. The effects of gluten in my system are debilitating. I will be ill for a couple of days and then my body needs about 4 months to heal. It’s almost like falling dominoes. One event triggers another that triggers another in my body – and I’m done.

The day before we left for our New Orleans holiday we went to a Sarah Brightman concert. The Man had managed to gets us tickets 14 rows from the stage. I was incredibly excited. Before the concert we went out for dinner. Partway through the meal I started to feel ill and when we got to the event I was asking the man to drop me at the door so I could find a bathroom. I spent most of that concert running back and forth to the bathroom and it was a grueling hour and half drive home afterwards. The next day we were packing the trailer and I was almost useless.

I was still dragging three weeks later when we took this tour but I had my brave face on. You have to right? I had even packed a celiac sandwich and it was in my purse. But – I asked the women who were serving if there was anything I could eat in the lovely Cajun turkey dinner they were offering. They pointed me to the turkey and the potatoes and I had a small dry salad as I watched The Man tuck into my dessert.

After the meal we took a tour of the main house. A plantation house is so romantic. I walked around in another world – my long dress sweeping the floor as I fanned my face out on the veranda and handsome swains threw flowers at my feet. I trilled with laughter as I drank my mint julep and watched as the men performed daring feats on their horses as they pranced in the courtyard. Ah yes. I was the belle of the plantation.

What I didn’t notice was The Man wandering around taking pictures of the plantation from different angles and our tour guide touching him on the shoulder repeatedly and following him around.

Now this doesn’t come as any surprise to me as I have had many comments on the good choice I have made in my man – from other men. As for The Man – he good-naturedly puts up with it and gets that ever-suffering look on his face which cracks both of us up.

After the tour of the plantation we were rushed through the gift shop and into the buses once more. I managed to grab a small three-legged teacup with saucer covered with fleur de lis before we were whisked away.

Night had fallen by this time and the whole bus tour (10 buses) was escorted with flashing lights on top of the police vehicles into the small town and up to the levee. The Cajuns believe that Papa Noel (the Cajun Santa Claus) has to be shown where they live and they light his path with bonfires to guide him through the fog and dark. Huge structures are built on top of the levees and set alight then judged on their burning abilities. Some are in shapes but most of the ones we saw were pyramids built of logs and about 15 feet high.

We climbed the levees and strolled around the bonfires that stretched off into the night in both directions. Out on the Mississippi River some of the ships were covered with Christmas lights and swinging at anchor on Christmas Eve. It was very beautiful and smoky. The night was warm and sultry and I felt an incredible peace within me. I felt at home.

When our time was up we boarded the bus again and drove back into New Orleans. Our guide told us harrowing tales of his sojourn in New Orleans during Katrina and after the levees broke. He pointed out places we had not noticed that were standing empty – like the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the Superdome. He had been in the building that had been hit by the roof of the Superdome when it blew off and he had stayed there for a week before swimming to the Convention Center and getting on a bus with the others and getting out of the devastation. My heart ached for what these people had been through.

Still - it was a wonderful tour given by Gray Line Tours.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What I Think

In reference to my previous post where I wrote – During the third quarter a large (black) man was making his way past the people sitting right below us. He wore a Barack Obama t-shirt and ballcap. I got his attention and said “great shirt!” The Man gave him a thumbs up as well. My new acquaintance sitting next to me watched the entire transaction and then leaned away from me and turned in his seat so all I could see of him was his back. From then on he only talked to his friend and made sure there was plenty of space between us.

I have no idea if that man turned his back on me because of racism or political beliefs or a combination of both.

What I do know is that in my 50 some years on this planet I have yet to discover a race, a colour, a belief, a gender, a sexual preference, or even an age that is better than the other.

What always stands out in my mind are the words ‘created equal’.

If someone can prove to me that one of the above is superior to the other than I’ll be happy to agree.

As it stands – you’re the same as me. No better – no worse.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Go Team Go!

Before we left for New Orleans, one of the things The Man did was purchase basketball tickets for 2 games to see the New Orleans Hornets.

The Man and I are big basketball fans and because we love New Orleans we also love their basketball team. We watch every game we can get up here in Canada. I won’t go into the lengths The Man has gone to in his attempts to view these games. I will say it is one of the best reasons to get him away from work. If there’s a game on he’s home early and on time to see the tipoff.

As you well know I just don’t do crowds well. They scare me. I don’t know why but it’s something that happened to my brain with my meltdown. That and claustrophobia. I wasn’t afraid of small spaces before I got sick – but now! Eeek!

But back to the basketball games.

The New Orleans Hornets play in the New Orleans Arena. It is a beautiful building located next to the Superdome. During Katrina’s aftermath it became the medical building for those in need inside the Superdome.

For our first game we trusted our handy GPS to take us to a parking lot across the street from the Superdome. Unsure of getting a parking spot and where we had to go, we arrived with a good 45 minutes to spare. After we parked we followed a few people up the ramps to the Superdome and walked around the building – staring into the dark building and thinking back to the images we had seen on TV. The hairs on my neck stood up every time we were near that building. So much trauma and heartbreak and death had happened inside and around it.

Thinking we would spend some time in a mall right beside the Superdome we strolled over and attempted to go inside. The doors were all locked. We later learned that this mall had been under water after the levees broke and the building that towered over the mall was hit by the section of roof that came off during Katrina. Feeling a little foolish we strolled back past the Superdome and over to the New Orleans Arena (everything was connected by walkways).

On the street below a band was entertaining the crowd and people were drinking and eating. The whole street was blocked off for the game. A small basketball game was going on between young kids while others shot hoops. We never expected anything like this and it made me forget my nervousness.

When the doors opened we followed the crowd in and The Man took everything they were handing out. Walking around the huge arena we finally found our seats up in the nosebleeds. We didn’t care - except for the steps that make you feel like you are going to fall backwards as you climb higher and higher…..I hate those.

The game was fantastic! Even though we weren’t sitting courtside – we could see everything clearly and it all felt really close. The crowds didn’t bother me at all. In fact I got right into waving my Hornets towel they had given us and cheering with the others. I know my happy face made The Man happy too. He gave up worrying about me and got into the game as well.

We had tickets to another game and at that one I asked The Man if we might be able to see the other two games that were being played while we were there. He got online and got tickets to both of those. I still say the basketball games were just about the best time I had during the holidays. They were nothing but fun!

The one thing that sticks out in my mind is a little event that occurred at the first game. We had the two end seats and next to us were two (white) guys. In my excitement I chatted with the gentleman next to me and asked him if he was local. I told him we were from Canada and this was our first game. He told me it was his too as his friend had talked him into joining him.

As the game progressed we both cheered and laughed – poking each other in the ribs and yelling ‘Hit It’ when a member of the team was trying to make a shot. During the third quarter a large (black) man was making his way past the people sitting right below us. He wore a Barack Obama t-shirt and ballcap. I got his attention and said “great shirt!” The Man gave him a thumbs up as well. My new acquaintance sitting next to me watched the entire transaction and then leaned away from me and turned in his seat so all I could see of him was his back. From then on he only talked to his friend and made sure there was plenty of space between us.

I looked at The Man and rolled my eyes and shook my head. He put his arm around me and hugged me hard – knowing I was appalled at what had just happened. For a brief moment I was saddened by it all and then I shrugged it off and laughed.

Each to his own.

When the games were over we had to walk past the Superdome again to get to our car. It was always shrouded in fog and I clutched The Man's hand and shivered as I felt the ghosts surround us.