Friday, May 21, 2010

New Orleans - Cemetaries and swamps

I was told the cemeteries were full of muggers, especially after dark, so I decided to go first thing in the morning on the assumption that muggers probably liked to sleep in after a long night's work. (Lonely Planet guide, you are full of crap, the neighbourhood was fine.) The current site of St Louis #1 was not its original location, and it shows - the monuments are crowded very close together, it feels a bit like the backlot of an abandoned tombstone manufacturing warehouse. But the graves themselves are beautiful. The upkeep of individual tombs is the responsibility of the family who owns it, and when families die out or move away no one is left to look after them. This means they are in various stages of repair- pristine whitewashed and stuccoed tombs are right beside crumbling piles of brick (the local brick is very soft, and if it isn't covered by cement or stucco will just fall apart in a few decades. I eavesdropped on a tour guide). Most people buried there died in the ninteenth century, though a few are recent additions to family tombs - the latest one I saw was 2003.
The star of the cemetery is of course Marie Laveau, the most infamous of New Orleans' voodoo queens. Her tomb is easy to spot; offerings of coins, alcohol, food, jewelry and so on are piled up against the entrance, and it is covered in XXX markings - this is how you ask her spirit to intercede on your behalf. Surprisingly hers is not the only tomb like this - I found two others with similar x's and offerings - one had mostly shells and jewelry, the other had combs and coins and photographs. Both were extremely old and any inscriptions on them had faded completely. I have no idea who is in them and it is driving me nuts.

The cemetery was a short walk from the French Quarter, so I headed back there and decided to hook up with one of the swamp tours. This takes you about an hour out of the city to a huge bayou/cypress swamp, part of which is a nature preserve. This means there are a ton of alligators.

We went out on a small flatbottomed boat for an hour and a half - our tour guide carried a bag of marshmallows with him, which he claimed were for the gators. I thought he was kidding, but no. It turns out alligators love marshmallows - they had learned to recognize the boats as a source of food, and would come swimming up when we approached. This bothered me - was I helping to perpetuate an ecologically damaging tourist trap? Were we endangering the gators by teaching them to view humans as a food source? On the other hand, tourism is one of the only things that keeps protected areas protected. This is not much of an excuse as excuses go. Unfortunately I was already in the boat at this point, so I consoled myself with the knowledge that if anyone got attacked it would probably be the local guides, and retribution would not be visited on the gators. That aside it was pretty awesome. During Katrina the water level in the swamp rose fifteen feet and burst its banks, plowing a hole through the treeline and sweeping any houseboats or houses that hadn't been properly raised (ie on cinderblocks instead of driven piles) downriver - we saw one, four miles from its original site. Most of the others were never found. The area cleared by the hurricane is now a marshy, grassy shallow water habitat, a perfect nursery for wading birds, turtles and baby gators. Circle of life, yo. Also saw feral piglets, which are a nuisance animal and therefore fair game for anyone with a gun. The locals both love and hate them - on the one hand, fresh bacon...on the other, it's like having really smart raccoons that weigh several hundred pounds.

Went for supper at Coop's Place, which despite looking and feeling like a dive bar has an amazing kitchen. I haven't even bothered trying to save money on food here - I think eating ramen in New Orleans is a criminal offense. That said it was still pretty cheap - delicious gumbo, followed by jambalaya, red beans and rice, fried chicken and pepper shrimp. I have never been that full of food before.

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