Tuesday, April 23, 2013 Home

Memorable Travel Moments: My First Trip to New Orleans (1991)

In the spring of 1991 I had the opportunity to go to New Orleans to attend a conference.

I didn’t know anyone else who was going, so I was delighted to discover that a friend from Germany would be visiting the US at the same time and wanted to see New Orleans. We teamed up for a pre-conference visit and there couldn’t have been a better introduction to the city.

Because we were pretty broke, we stayed far from the tourist areas around the French Quarter. (I don’t know exactly where we stayed, but I’m pretty sure that the hotel and the neighborhood around it were submerged as a result of Katrina.) Although the hotel was on a local bus line that went directly into the city, hotel staff advised us not to take the bus as it went through bad (but not dangerous) neighborhoods and would be filled with undesirable people. Instead we were advised to take a tourist shuttle that served the hotel and a number of nearby RV parks.

Our shuttle ride helped me understand why my so many RVers seemed to hate cities – the RV parks were located far from the city center in poor neighborhoods. All of the parks on the shuttle route were surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. It was pretty bleak. 

After spending nearly two hours on the shuttle, we decided we’d take our chances with the bus. In comparison, the bus practically whisked us into the city. We never took the shuttle again. The bus went through a lot of poor neighborhoods, but it never felt unsafe (even after dark) and it gave us a better sense of how most people in this city really live. Despite the obvious poverty, the people in these neighborhoods were clearly working hard. And, while clearly were surprised to find us on their bus, everyone was kind and gracious. They were good people and traveling with them each day was so much better (and quicker) than the tourist shuttle! 

Of course, we were on the bus because we wanted to get to tourist sites like the French Quarter and the Garden District.
 I don’t recall much about the French Quarter, but I loved the Garden District. The large, elegant mansions were beautiful, however, the little shot-gun houses that stole my heart. I loved their simple shape and fanciful trimmings. Furthermore, in a place where rapid decay comes with the climate, each shot-gun house was cloaked in mystery: was this an empty run-down shack or a dilapidated exterior that concealed an extravagant collection of art and antique furniture. I might not know exactly what is inside a Garden District mansion, but it probably contained at least some of the trappings of a comfortable upper class life.

As much as I loved the city, we didn’t spend all of our time there. One escape took us into Honey Island Swamp via boat.  
This was an otherworldly landscape of water and trees, every branch dripping with vegetation. It was made even more memorable by the abundance of alligators and the fact that they were NOT snapping at the marshmallows our guide occasional tossed to them. He claimed they not only stop eating when it is cold, but actually can’t even open their jaws! How fascinating.

I returned to New Orleans with my husband a few years later and decided that it was my favorite city in the US.

I haven’t been back since Katrina and I don’t know that I’ll ever go back now. I know the devastation wrought by Katrina is invisible to the casual tourist. Still, I can’t forget the neighborhoods I saw and the people I met on my bus rides all those years ago. So much has been lost. Despite their poverty, those people were part of the rich stew that was New Orleans. I can’t believe that this loss doesn’t hang in the air to be inhaled with every breath . . . or maybe I fear that it doesn’t and that New Orleans has become something new.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?



More Memorable Travel Moments 

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