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Dooky Chase’s restaurant, open since 1941, is famous for multiple reasons including a civil rights meeting place and the source of authentic Creole cuisine.

It was not until my fourth day in New Orleans did I finally set foot for the very first time in the French Quarter, and walk down Bourbon Street, and drink too much, and eat beignets. But first we went to Treme.

Inside Dooky Chase’s. The walls are covered in work by African American artists.

A room off to the side of the main dining room. The painting is of Leah Chase.

I liked the yoni in the bathroom.

Painting of Obama with Leah Chase

Today we skipped breakfast and hit Dooky Chase’s for an early lunch so we could stuff ourselves at the buffet. Part of the interest for me was that we were going into the Treme community, that I know from watching the show by the same name. This is a working-class neighborhood with predominantly black homeowners and shop owners. Dooky Chase’s closed its doors for two years after Hurricane Katrina because this entire neighborhood was flooded. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita came through in 2005, so it has been over a decade, and on the major streets where we were, there was very little evidence of the flooding to untrained eyes.

People who came with us to eat at this iconic restaurant were all here to pay respect to the history and impact of the place. Each person was either quietly humble, or gushing in appreciation, and the staff returned the gratitude with their own for the customers’ support. Me, having never heard of the place prior to my trip, I just kept my mouth shut and watched and listened. Inside the front door are paintings of Obama with Leah Chase, the celebrated head chef and longtime owner of the place. There are photographs of the two most recent popes. In 1941, Ms. Leah was the one to turn her husband’s sandwich shop into a sit-down restaurant and then make it a haven for black organizers and a venue for black artists. In their turn, patrons included Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers. At 97 years old, she is still an active part of the business and I hoped to see her but did not.

Louis Armstrong’s first coronet.

One of Fats Domino’s pianos, rescued and mostly restored after being destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

Women in jazz exhibit.

One of the astonishingly magnificent costumes worn during Mardi Gras by a distinct contingent of participants.

These costumes are made of feathers, beads, sequins, and rhinestones and can take more than a year to create.

Detail on one of the masks.

Detail of a face

Ranger Matt and Julie. Ranger James is behind Julie.

Next we went to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, which is in the old New Orleans Coin Mint building so we toured the Mint Museum as well. Both museums were rather small, and we were able see all of the displays in a short time. We were there for the 2:00 pm live jazz performance by the  Down on Their Luck Orchestra. The group had a guest performer, Julia, who played bass cello. It was not what we were expecting, and turned out to be an educational performance: designed to introduce visitors to New Orleans jazz and a bit of the history of jazz in the United States. The two main musicians were Ranger Matt, who did all the talking and played piano, and Ranger James who was mostly on drums but also played saxophone and sang a convincing Louis Armstrong impersonation. In between each song they asked for audience questions and I finally couldn’t hold mine back any longer. As a federal employee, I recognized that identifying themselves as rangers meant they were also federal employees. I had seen them pass through a hallway earlier wearing National Park Service jackets, and both of them, on stage, were clearly in uniform. In my mind I was saying, what on earth is going on?!! I asked, “How common are ranger musicians?”

Ranger Matt explained that, of the 20,000 employees of the NPS, exactly 4 of them were hired to be musicians and all 4 of those are in New Orleans. In other words: ranger musicians are rare. U.S. Park Rangers are entrusted with protecting and preserving natural and cultural resources, and the the NPS decided that New Orleans jazz is one of those resources.

Beignets with almost enough powdered sugar.

Out on the street we stopped for a few moments to listen to the fabulous music of a large percussion band on the sidewalk right there across the street from the Jazz Museum, on the edge of the French Quarter. Next we walked over to an open market where local entrepreneurs sold their wares, and then got in line at Cafe du Monde, another famous stop, and had coffee and beignets. These are fried square pastries covered in powdered sugar – like doughnuts. It had been a windy day and while we sat there we witnessed multiple fierce gusts of wind stirring up sugar tornadoes. Everyone in the outside seating patio was covered in powdered sugar in no time.

Then we plunged into New Orleans’ most famous district.

Ironwork for which the French Quarter is famous.

A street in the French Quarter.

Bourbon Street, looking toward the center of New Orleans.

Lights on Bourbon Street.

The French Quarter dates to when New Orleans was founded by a French colonist. The distinctive architectural styles retain the influence of construction during the late 1700s. Today the age of the buildings is evident, and the most eye-catching design is the prevalence of cast-iron railings and decorative work around balconies of nearly all of the structures.

We walked the entire length of Bourbon Street, famous today for unlimited drinking by people who can purchase alcohol right on the sidewalk and can carry their drinks with them when typical American cities have “open container” laws preventing that. Patrick and I walked through in early evening while the sun was still up, and cars were still moving along Bourbon Street (auto traffic is prevented at night). So we didn’t see the craziness. We did hear live bands on  every single block, however, which is another thing the area is known for. We criss-crossed the district, peeked into windows, and admired the sights until we ended up at Jackson Square. It is a lovely little park between the St. Louis Cathedral and the Mississippi River. I had only one thing on my mind there, however, and that was to express myself to Andrew Jackson.

I am not a fan of Andrew Jackson.

We headed back into the district and found Pat O’Brien’s. We ordered their specialty drink and settled back to listen to the piano duo take turns playing songs requested by patrons. We had several drinks and finally headed out into the nighttime with a neon-lighted street where revelers were just beginning to get warmed up for their night on the town.

Dueling pianos at Pat O’Brien’s

Shadow of Jesus

Swamp ahead!

We showed up for the 9:00 am Cajun Pride Swamp Tours in Frenier, Louisiana. It was hot and sticky that day, as a swamp should be.  As with everything else in my New Orleans vacation, I had no expectations and was prepared to enjoy anything we did or saw. We climbed onto a boat filled with tourists and were soon moving through human-cut waterways through the swamp in a nature reserve on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

This was my actual view through the boat railings. I cropped the rest of the photos.

We began seeing wildlife right away. There were many alligators, and most of them rather small. Our captain told us that alligators grow 8 to 9 inches a year in the wild, and can live to be 60 years old. We saw two kinds of turtles, and three remarkable birds: the Great Egret, the Great Blue Heron, and an Osprey. We also saw a lot of raccoons, who beg from the side of the waterways for treats from the boats, but we were most excited about the alligators.

The shores of our waterway were thick with forest.

Cypress were the most interesting trees, and I saw Spanish Moss for the first time.

Great Egret

Abandoned trapper cabin fixed up for tourists. Our captain said it was his home – ha! See the alligators?

Raccoons hoping for treats thrown by the captain.

Whenever you spot an alligator in the wild, chances are good that you are looking at a female. First of all, when there is a dominant male in an area, he will kill any nearby males, to minimize competition for mates. But the greater determining factor is birthrate. If the temperature at birth is 87 degrees or cooler, the entire clutch will hatch female. If the temperature is 88 or 89, there is an equal chance of either sex. And if the temperature is 90 degrees or above when the eggs are laid, they will all be male. It works out that there is a 15:1 ratio of females to males.

There’s a big one.

Turtles on the log.

Our tour boat filled with tourists.

Our boat pilot was a local Creole man and proud of his heritage. He said that his father spoke the French-based Creole language, but he did not. To show us how different the language is from the French language, he played some music for us. French tourists on the boat shook their heads and laughed. They couldn’t make sense of any of it.

He explained to us that the unique Cajun foods were simply a matter of collecting what was available from the land. Obviously the main courses are catfish, shrimp, crawdad, and Nutria (also called a swamp rat) because those are the available meat sources. He said that the spices and garnishes also originate in what could be harvested from the swamp.

We learned that the different kinds of trees we saw are the Palmetto Palm, Red Maple, Tupelo gum tree with long narrow leaves, and of course the famous Cypress tree. I learned that the knobs of wood emerging from the water around the base of the Cypress are its roots! They are called the knees, and apparently you can cut them off entirely without hurting the tree itself. Though Cypress trees are protected, the knees are knot. (heh heh)

There is an interesting legend about the site of this particular swamp tour. A woman named Julia Brown took up witchcraft, which made everyone afraid of her, and she was ostracized. In retaliation Brown warned that when she died she was taking the town and everyone with her. During her funeral in 1915, the wind picked up and a storm moved in. It was a hurricane. Wiped the town off the map and only 22 of the hundreds of residents survived. For this reason, many people believe that the swamp is haunted by the ghosts of the dead townsfolk.

The captain then introduced us to a 2-year-old female alligator that we all got to hold if we wanted to. If you know me, you know I held her.

My new friend.

Farther west, away from New Orleans, was a plantation Patrick said he has always wanted to see called Oak Alley.

We found it and explored the grounds. This was a former sugar cane plantation that had over 100 slaves at its peak production. Some of the slave quarters have been restored, and the home itself is in beautiful shape. It is named for magnificent oak trees that line an alley in front and in back of the house.

Oak Alley Plantation house

Sun lights up the house.

“Please do not ring bell.” I was tempted!! This bell called the slaves to work in the morning and sent them to their quarters each night.

Slave quarters

The Oaks at the front of the house.

The famous Oak Alley. There are 28 oaks in the front alley. This home and its oaks have been featured in many films, shows, and videos.

WWII tent and interpreter were on the grounds.

WWII tent set up as it would have been during the Civil War.

The ticket to enter mainly covers a guided tour of the house, but there is so much more to see, including a blacksmith’s shop, a movie on sugar cane processing and history in the area, a Civil War tent, and of course the Slave Quarters which were set up with educational signs and also had a site interpreter provide a talk on slaves in the time of the sugar cane production. There were a series of information signs that told the history of all the different owners of the plantation and the many uses to which the land was put. We explored it all and saved the house tour for last.

I admit it was awkward for me as a tourist to participate in the tour guided by a black woman. That pervasive White Person’s Guilt struck me, and I wondered what it was like for her, day after day, describing the nearly incomprehensible conditions of the slaves of the plantation, like when their futures were tossed about by the owners of the home as part of an inheritance negotiation. Someone asked our very sweet and smiling tour guide what she liked about being a guide, and she actually said she liked seeing the reactions from people when she talked about the differences between a white person’s life and a black person’s life in a typical day in this plantation’s history. So interesting.

Master bedroom

Another bedroom

The Lavender Room

By this time we were STARVING. We had passed a roadside restaurant on the way through Vacherie, and went back to it, knowing nothing about the place. B&C Seafood Riverside Market & Cajun Restaurant is now my favourite place to eat in Louisiana.

Patrick knew what he was doing at a place like that, and while I ordered something like a sampler, he began listing to the waitress what he needed: a pound of shrimp, three pounds of crawdads, boudin, and a bloody mary. “To wash the shrimp down,” he said. My meal was fried catfish, fried oysters, and smoked rabbit gumbo with hush puppies. Oh man, I can’t even tell you how amazing that food was. We ate every last bite, crawdad juice going everywhere. I tipped up my bowl to get the last drop of rabbit gumbo. Luckily the bathroom had showers to scrub down after the crawdads. Kidding.

We were a distance out of town and decided to just go for a scenic drive as our next plan for the day. Instead of heading east back to New Orleans, we went north, then east, then dropped south to New Orleans so we could drive over Lake Pontchartrain.

Sun setting on Lake Pontchartrain.

Lake Pontchartrain is 630 square miles and the bridge crossing it is almost 24 miles (38 km) long.

Statue of a weeping angel in the Chapman Hyman Tomb. Standing before the statue, I could feel the grief in my own body.

I am one of the lucky few who got out again, after being shut up in a cemetery for the night.

But let me start at the beginning. I’m in New Orleans for a quick trip with a friend. The trip was my idea. He loves the city and I’ve never seen it, so I wanted to be introduced through the eyes of someone who loves it, you know? Anyway, we arrived at night and on our first day out we both wanted to see cemeteries.

We went to Metairie Cemetery first. Built on the site of an old racetrack, some of the curved shape of the track can still be seen today. The cemetery is simply gorgeous, with white shining marble everywhere, manicured lawns and mature trees. Patrick wanted to see the weeping angel first, so we drove to it and parked the car. You can see my photo of her above. The expressiveness of the statue is heartbreaking, and the inscription “Sister” at the base brought tears to my eyes.

Then we walked. And walked. The place is enormous! We didn’t really intend to walk around for two hours, but that is what happened.

The city was founded in 1718 and people have been dying there ever since. As you know, half of the city of New Orleans is below sea level and protected with dikes and flood walls and massive water pump systems. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that you don’t want to bury your dead in the ground. So tombs are built on top of the ground. As we walked between them, the ground was often marshy beneath our feet and there were standing pools of water in low spots, reminding us that it is no myth: the city of New Orleans is level with the water table.

One of the tree-lined avenues at Metairie Cemetery.

At this cemetery, tombs are not crowded.

Many of the tombs are elaborate.

The pyramid caught our eye.

Spofford tomb

detail from the pyramid

A tree shades a tomb

Parts of the cemetery were more congested, but still lovely.

This panoramic view shows the arrangement of tombs along the avenues. Click for a larger version so you can see the detail.

I was not able to show clearly this picturesque narrow row of tombs because I was trying to crop out a bunch of bright orange construction cones.

Another row in the apparently more modern section.

One of the many “Woodmen of the World” grave markers.

Interesting aside: we noticed many Woodmen of the World markers on graves, with marble markers in the shape of logs. There were at least six styles of log markers that we noticed, and I became curious. Founded in 1890, Woodmen of the World is a fraternal benefit society. From 1890 to 1900, WOW’s life insurance policies had a proviso that provided for the grave markers, free of charge for members.  From 1900 to the mid- 1920’s, members purchased a $100 rider to cover the cost of the monument. Since then there have been no discounts for grave markers.

As I was leaving, I turned back to look one last time, and saw this amazing sky casting an eerie light on the darkened scene below. I regret that my simple phone camera couldn’t duplicate how beautiful it truly was.

Next we went into the Garden District to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. This one is famous because author Anne Rice used to live near it and based the tombs of the Mayfair Witches and the vampire Lestat on the tombs she found here. And consistent with that history, this cemetery was more what I anticipated in a New Orleans cemetery: not crumbling apart, but certainly a very old and storied place in the center of busy neighborhood streets.

As we approached the front gate, there was a crowd encircling a tour guide, and other people milling about in every direction. We slipped as quickly as we could through the tourists and between a row of tombs to begin our cemetery explorations in peace. We actively avoided all people while we were in there…which was likely the reason we did not hear the warning to get out.

An avenue in Layfayette Cemetery No. 1

This is what I had in mind when I pictured a New Orleans cemetery.

The Layfayette Cemetery No 1 is much smaller than the Metarie cemetery and the tombs are less elaborate.

After an hour in this much smaller cemetery, Patrick and I had become separated and I found myself near the front gate. I could hear the chatter of people on the sidewalk outside the cemetery. I heard a man’s voice say, “Does that lady know she’s locked in?” I glanced up. “Hey, do you know you’re locked in?” he said to me. I responded with a half smile. He reached over and grabbed the bars of the gate and shook them – presumably to show me that he knew what he was talking about. “I am not even kidding,” he said. Uh-oh.

I began walking up and down the paths until I found Patrick. “Hey, there may be a problem.” “Oh yeah? With what?” When I told him, he remembered that the cemetery was supposed to close at 3pm.  It was a few minutes past.

We went back to the gate and laughed with the people on the outside, and eyed the cast iron gate for footholds. I handed my phone through and one of them got a picture of me. Then suddenly, two tour guides showed up.

The person with the key had locked the gates and left, but these two were still sitting in their parked car nearby and no one had noticed them till they came to the rescue. “We have someone trapped in here once a week,” one of the women told us. “Step here, then your left foot goes here…”

And Viola! We climbed right out.

Me, trapped in a cemetery.

This image is from mikestravelguide.com where he wrote about free things to do in New Orleans.

After that we went to the waterfront and walked along the river. I didn’t get any more decent photos, so I don’t have much more to show you. We took a lovely dinner cruise on a paddlewheeler Creole Queen down the Mississippi River and back again. It was warm and lovely and I was on a ship in the country’s longest river. Our view of the city in the sunset from the water was a pretty nice final scene for the day.

New Orleans from the Mississippi River.

One of my many guises

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