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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Middlerun Does America, Days 24-25


I woke up rested and ready to explore New Orleans. The hostel I stayed at is really close to the Canal St. streetcar line that goes to the French Quarter which made things pretty easy. I got on a streetcar and went down to Decatur Street. The girl behind the desk at the hostel had given me a map and suggested some places to check out so I looked around in shops and peeked into interesting-looking bars and restaurants. I checked out stalls at Jackson Square and another place that had some markets on.

I stopped for lunch at a cafe with live music, and ordered a beer and a muffuletta, which was pretty good, but a little too salty. After that I checked out Bourbon Street, which true to its reputation was seedy but seemed like fun. There were plenty of people there drinking and having a good time even on a Sunday afternoon.

That night I hung out with some people at the hostel and drank from the 12-pack of Budweiser I'd bought. Eventually we all got a couple of taxis and went out to Frenchman Street, which is Bourbon Street's quieter, gentler counterpart. We went to a couple of bars there with good music. I met a girl there who had lived in Armidale, where I used to live.

Then we got another taxi to Bourbon Street and went to a few more bars. The night gets a bit hazy from here. I ended up getting separated from my group and had to get back to the hostel on my own. I thought the streetcars ran all night so I waited for about half an hour, on my own at about 1 am, the whole time feeling like I was about to get mugged. Eventually I realised they weren't running and got a taxi.


On Monday I did a swamp tour. This was pretty cool. The company that runs the tours sent a bus to the hostel to pick up me and a couple of other people from the hostel. The bus then picked other people up from several million hotels around the French Quarter. "I didn't realise this was also a tour of the city," I joked to the other hostel people. Eventually we set off for the swamp, while the driver talked about the damage done to the city by Hurricane Katrina.

We arrived at a wooden building in the middle of nowhere, where the swamp tours departed from. I got a rubber wristband which served as a ticket, and the tour guide led my group to one of several boats tied up at a jetty. For the next hour and a half the guide took us around the swamp talking about its ecosystem, pointing out various animals including a bunch of alligators, and making lots of jokes, mostly about yankees. He'd brought a bag of marshmallows to throw to the alligators. It turns out alligators are big into marshmallows, so they got nice and close to the boat.

One of the interesting things the guide told us was about the effects of Katrina on the swamp. When the storm (as people there call it) hit, huge amounts of water entered the swamp. The river ended up overflowing, spilling over the river banks into a different area which created a new part of the swamp. This new area ended up being a great place for wildlife to thrive. It also happened to contain a house which was washed away by the flooding.

We visited another part of the swamp, where the water was covered in some kind of duckweed. As the guide explained, this was introduced to the area, which you'd think would be a bad thing, but it turned out to be a benefit to the ecosystem by protecting underwater organisms from the sun.

At the end of the tour the guide showed us a baby alligator which he was looking after. We all got to have a turn holding it.

After the swamp tour I got off the bus in the French Quarter to look around a bit more. After seeing some more shops and sights, I had lunch at a nice looking bar. They had an item on the menu called "Taste of New Orleans", with samples of traditional N'awlins dishes like gumbo, jumbalaya, and red beans and rice. This was nice, though overpriced and not very substantial.

Craving some music, I went to a bar on Bourbon Street. The music was cool but it was a bit of a ghost town - there were literally more people on stage than in the audience. I ordered a Budweiser, which seemed expensive at $5.50, until they started pouring three of them. I said I only wanted one but they told me it was three-for-one. Well, I thought, no sense in wasting all these beers.

The day slid into evening as I soaked up the music and drinks. I decanted my last beer into a plastic "go-cup" (a particularly cool part of New Orleans culture, where people are allowed to take alcohol out onto the street, and often do), and went to find a more lively bar. The night was still young and I'd just slammed three beers, so I reluctantly switched to light beer for the next couple of drinks while I listened to a sort of indie jazz group.

After that I went into a place that seemed cool and had a pretty good jazz band playing. It wasn't until I got a beer and looked around a bit more that I realised I'd been there just the night before with the people from the hostel. The previous night they were playing shitty dance music and it was full of douchebags, and now there was a jazz band and it was full of chilled out cool people. I barely recognised it. At one point a girl came over to me trying to sell me jell-o shots, which I'd seen people doing the night before. I told here I wasn't interested, which didn't seem to compute in her tiny brain. I literally had to use physical force to stop her from shoving two little plastic test tubes of jell-o shots into my mouth.

After a couple more bars with more cool music I ended up at a duelling piano bar, a bit like the one in Austin. I hung out there for a bit, but it was getting a bit late and I had to be up early in the morning to get the train to Memphis, so I got the streetcar back to the hostel and hit the hay.


Middlerun Does America, Day 23: New Orleans

Note: As I write this, it's been more than a month since I got back from my trip, so I've probably forgotten a few details.

The entirety of Saturday was taken up by the bus trip from Austin to New Orleans. The first bus left Austin at quarter to eight in the morning, arriving in Houston three hours later. When we got there I assumed my checked bag would be automatically transferred to the next bus, so I just got off and hung around in the terminal a bit, waiting for the New Orleans bus. Then I noticed something on my ticket that said I needed to transfer the bag myself. So I spent fifteen minutes trying to figure out what had happened to the bag, finally being told that in fact it would be transferred for me. I got on the bus, not entirely confident that my bag was on board.

Unlike my first couple of Greyhound trips, this one was crowded and noisy and generally awful. The ten hour trip from Houston to New Orleans were about as bad as the plane trip from Sydney to San Francisco. For most of the trip there was a huge fat guy sitting next to me with his legs intruding on my legroom, who watched a football game on his phone without headphones so everyone on the bus could hear it. I can't even imagine how someone can be so inconsiderate as to subject a busload of people to that. To make matters worse, the air conditioning was on full blast most of the way, the temperature hovering somewhere around absolute zero. When the driver finally turned it off everyone on the bus breathed a sigh of relief.

The final indignity of the bus ride was stopping at the Greyhound terminal in Baton Rouge for dinner. I was pretty hungry at that point and happy for the chance to eat, until I set my eyes on the retch-inducing offerings of the "restaurant" at the terminal. Reluctantly I bought something claiming to be a ham and cheese sandwich, though the meanings of these words has obviously changed somewhat in the hundreds of years that this "food" had been sitting in its plastic wrapper at room temperature.

The bus rolled into New Orleans at about 9 pm, driving past boarded up houses and large communities of homeless people living under elevated highways. I got off the bus and waited for my bag to be unloaded from the bus. As more and more bags were unloaded I got nervous, worried I would never see my bag again. Finally they went around to the other side, opened the other doors to the cargo hold, and there it was.

I grabbed my bag, left the terminal and got a taxi. We went to the hostel, called India House. A bunch of the people I met in Austin had stayed at India House and said it was pretty cool, and they weren't wrong. But by the time I checked in I was exhausted and not at all in the mood for socialising. At 10 pm on a Saturday night in New Orleans, I went straight to bed.