Friday, June 01, 2007

More news from the Swamp

So, it wasn't all bad, I just had to vent my frustrations in my last post. I enjoyed seeing the area around New Orleans. Unlike a lot of people (Bill Bryson, for one. I'm reading "The Lost Continent" right now and boy, does he have utter contempt for small-town America, which is to say MOST of America!) I actually enjoy the suburbs and the small communities that outlie the major towns. These are where the real people live.

The volunteer camp was in Violet, LA, about 15 or 20 miles outside of New Orleans proper. It was a suburb. There were strip malls (most of which were either partially or completely shut down because of storm damage or defunct businesses), and the houses were one-story, mostly brick-faced, ranch-style houses on fairly large lots. The neighborhoods were mostly deserted, with maybe one or two houses per block either lived in or being renovated. Most of the houses I saw driving around to the worksites were abandoned. Imagine the last suburb you saw, if about 2/3 of the houses were abandoned, or seemingly so. Boarded up, many with the spray-painted markers from the Katrina search crews still on them, many with piles of rubble, abandoned possessions, or other random junk surrounding them. It was surreal; something from a Stephen King novel about the Post-Apocalypse.

My favorite part of the trip was getting past civilization and out into the wilds. The school where the camp was situated was ringed by what seemed to me like jungle - dense undergrowth and tall trees in a green wall pressing against the chain-link fence that surrounded the property. When I needed some time to myself, I'd go out to where the playground used to be when there were kids there, and just listen to the jungle. The crickets, the birds, the frogs. The air was sultry and warm, and I feel like I fell in love with the jungle then. I'd rather have been out in it than in the French Quarter.

Later, after our workweek was over, my friend and I rented a car for a day and drove out on the I-10 to the plantations on River Road. Then we drove past real swamp - cypresses and pines surrounded by green and mossy water, seemingly stretching for miles upon miles. It was prehistoric; primordial. You expected to see dinosaurs tromping out of the trees or emerging from the water with weeds in their jaws. I loved that, too.

The French Quarter was much the same. We drank, we partied, but not as hard as we did last summer. We had beignets and coffee, while sitting on the banks of the Mississippi. I walked a lot. I sat on the benches near the river and watched a storm come in, green and purple and grey. We shopped for tourist trinkets, ate at Alphonso's, Croissant d'Or, and Acme Oyster House, heard some great music, even did our laundry at Checkpoint Charlie's, the only bar I've seen that has washing machines. And they worked! Drunk guys talked to us. We got rained on, but I didn't mind. We avoided Bourbon Street almost completely, and didn't manage to get to some of the places I wanted to revisit, like the revolving bar at the Hotel Monteleone, or Frankie & Johnny's, home of orgasmic fried food and peanut butter pie. We did get up to the Garden District this time, had our requisite mint juleps on the patio at the Columns, and then wandered on Magazine Street looking at the overpriced trinkets. All the typical New Orleans stuff. And, as always, I enjoyed all of it.

The hardest part for me was being around people nonstop for 10 days. As a classic introvert, I find people draining, even when I'm enjoying them. After that trip, I didn't want to talk to anyone else for a week.

There's more to explore, of course.
I feel like I know the town better now, both the bad and good parts of it. The ghetto, the tourist traps, uptown, downtown, the financial and business district, and the places where actual people live and work. I fantasize about going back by myself someday, maybe even renting a car and being able to explore even further afield. But for now, I'm happy puttering around domestically, happy not flying anywhere for awhile, nor undertaking spur-of-the-moment trips filled with uncertainty. It's nice to be home.

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