Last week I left Tallahassee, FL on a $9 Megabus to New Orleans, the city that put the ‘NOLA’ in ‘NOLA to Bogotá’. This makes my fourth visit to the Crescent City, and this time it was colder than it was in Holland, a few degrees below freezing. But despite frigid fingers and toes and revisiting many of the same old sights, New Orleans remains the great love of the Western Hemisphere of my life.
Three days is never enough for New Orleans. Over the last four years, I’ve only just started to get a feel for the depth of the city and its many literally and figuratively colorful neighborhoods. This time I traipsed around Tremé and of course the French Quarter, and between my brave forays out into the Gulf Coast equivalent of a blizzard, I hung around my hostel huddled with other frozen travelers playing Cards Against Humanity. Every trip to NOLA brings me something different, depending on whether I’m going to explore the gastronomy or wage war on my liver or just to observe an intensely multicultural city in action. Here are just a few of the reasons I fell in love with New Orleans for the fourth time this week as I started my journey toward Mexico.
The India House Hostel
I arrived on NOLA’s east side late in the evening and immediately caught a city bus back to Canal Street, where I rode the streetcar up to the India House Hostel in Mid-City. Every time I take this route, it has all the nostalgia and excitement of coming home, without any of the having to explain why you still don’t have a job or why you smell like that.
In the name of not only budget backpacking but more importantly meeting locals, I almost always Couchsurf whenever I can, especially on extended trips like this one. But New Orleans is the big exception: the India House Backpackers Hostel was ranked #3 hostel in the USA by Hostel World a few years ago, and generally ranks as the best one in New Orleans each year. It was also the first hostel I ever stayed in in the US, so it holds a special place in my heart.
There’s something about the physical layout of the building itself and the interior and exterior decor that seem to compel hostellers to socialize. You can’t walk from one place to another without walking through a common room or dining room where people are sitting around playing a drinking game or watching a movie or discussing philosophy, and the bright New Orleans colors coax you into joining.
While I was there they were looking for help around the hostel, and between my love of New Orleans and the India House, I thought about it, but in the end I decided it was too early to take a break in my journey yet. *le sigh*
It’s a language lover’s paradise.
New Orleans is a linguistic medley that can’t truly be compared to any other American city. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco boast enormous foreign-born populations that bring their languages with them, often staking out metropolitan neighborhoods where Italian or Cantonese is the de facto language, but New Orleans has its own handful of distinct languages and dialects that are native to the area and find an important place in the larger linguistic mosaic that includes Spanish, imported largely from Central America and the Caribbean, and Standard American English.
The Yat dialect is the variety of English most famously associated with New Orleans. Its name derives from a contraction of the common phrase “Where y’at?” heard in the streets of the city. Many of its features — notably the non-rhotic post-vocalic r — are reminiscent of northeastern American dialects, a bit Brooklynesque, with influences from traditional Deep South and Louisiana accents and some shades of French.
The Louisiana English or Cajun English accent is the more widespread general dialect of Southern Louisiana, a variant of but distinctly different from Southern American English. It has all the twang and drawl you’d hear in Georgia or Mississippi, but every third or fourth word carries the punch of some vowel sound you’d have never expected in some word or another, and now and then a French-influenced nasal vowel replaces a fully-pronounced English <n>.
Aside from dialects of English, Louisiana Creole French can be found in New Orleans, but more so in Acadiana, the region immediately to the west of the city, where it lives alongside Cajun French. I’ll go into my exploration of this regional language in Acadiana in a post later this week.
Till now I’ve spent time in NOLA’s Mid-City, French Quarter, Central City, and a bit of Uptown. On this trip I added Tremé to my New Orleans neighborhood repertoire. Tremé has somehow gotten a rap for being dangerous or sketchy, something the locals just shake their heads at in exasperation, because the neighborhood is much more hipsters and soul food than violence or crime.
According to Wikitravel, it’s one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the United States, and today it is inhabited by “native New Orleanians, transplants, working professionals, artists, musicians, community leaders, entrepreneurs and activists”. There’s a vivaciousness to the neighborhood’s colorful old houses and quirky cafés. Gems include Louis Armstrong Park and Willie Mae’s Chicken, both high on the list of typical NOLA tourist attractions, which people somehow seem to forget when warning you to avoid the place.
I spent my time in Tremé battling aggressive geese in Louis Armstrong Park and catching up on blogging and social media stuff in Cafe Treme (the website inexplicably says “temporarily closed”, but I was just there on January 8 and it was definitely open).
Some of the most quintessentially New Orleans old houses with their wrought iron fences and stucco façades are found in Tremé. You’ll see poverty and hurricane-toppled ruins next to gorgeous houses and prospering local businesses throughout the neighborhood.
Overall, I think the neighborhood became one of my favorites, maybe after the French Quarter. History is unmissable here if you half know what you’re looking for, and laced through it are artsy cafés and restaurants, giving you a place to sit down and instagram all the selfies you took in front of the local monuments.
Graffiti and murals are everywhere in this city and have a lot to say about New Orleans’ history, especially recent history. The Tremé neighborhood has some of the most potent social commentary in the form of public art I’ve found yet in the city.
Most American cities have a photo-worthy graffiti culture, but most of the street art you’ll find in New Orleans is so distinctly New Orleanian that it seems as much a part of the cityscape and local culture as po’ boys and day drinking.
It’s a partyboy heaven.
I grew up in a part of the US where last call is 2:00 a.m. (at the latest) and you can’t buy alcohol before 2:00 p.m. on Sundays, so New Orleans was a bit of a shock for me my first time there. The French Quarter and seedy Bourbon Street are always crawling with late-night booze enthusiasts, either hopping from sketchy strip joint to smelly back alley pub or bobbing along to the live jazz and zydeco music singing out of the open doors of most of the bigger bars on the corners. Hand Grenades, which look suspiciously like liquid cryptonite, are obligatory tubes of super sweet liver-threatening concentrations of alcohol, and open containers are as ubiquitous as shoes.
To save money, I bring a flask with me and fill it with whatever cheap crap I can find. Liquor in New Orleans seems to be cheaper than other places, maybe because it’s such a culture of buying drinks on the street that there’s not that much money to be made in selling people the raw materials. The disastrous hand grenades are about $10, but it’s got the alcohol content of about 4-5 beers.
The point: Bourbon Street should be on your bucket list.
Food in New Orleans is, in one word, unique. Travelers love to romanticize cities like New York and London, where you can get food from “anywhere in the world”, but true New Orleans Creole cooking is only to be found in New Orleans. The last time I was there, I had Jambalaya in a run-down restaurant with rickety benches instead of chairs somewhere off of Frenchmen Street. It was the kind of food that makes you realize that you haven’t tasted all the tastes yet, and makes you wake up and really actively process and enjoy what you’re eating beyond just chewing and swallowing. It made me decide to splurge on a restaurant or two every time I come to New Orleans, because between Creole and soul food, it’s worth it.
This time I went to the famous Willie Mae’s Chicken, and I described it to one stranger on the streetcar as “life-changing”. Okay, that was uttered in a moment of post-poultry ecstasy, so perhaps a bit exaggerated, but I’ve never had chicken, fried or otherwise, like it. This tasted sort of like the home fried chicken I had growing up in Florida, but the difference (or at least one of them) was some kind of seasoning in the batter, I think maybe cumin. It was hot and spicy, but not oppressively so, and served next to good old fashioned mashed potatoes and gravy with some peas. Mix that with friendly service and old New Orleans charm, and it’s a recipe for $12 well spent.
Live music is unavoidable in the Crescent City. In Mid-City, where the India House is, Chickie Wah Wah is one of the famous venues, playing live jazz most nights of the week.
The French Quarter is decorated by solo and group street performers on most corners of Royal Street, and Frenchmen is full of cozy little jazz and blues bars with live performers at all times of the day. The video above is a very typical mid-afternoon street band I came across on Royal Street on a Wednesday in front of a Rouse’s grocery store. This was the kind of thing that used to shock me into a ridiculous tourist grin the first time I went to New Orleans. By now the shock is gone, but the Cheshire Cat face is still there.
Everything is so fucking colorful
Partly owing to the abovementioned street art, New Orleans is in general an almost Caribbean-looking colorful city. The houses are all in bright hues and the parks are decorated with purples and oranges and yellows not to be found in nature, but they certainly fit NOLA’s jazzy aesthetic.
It’s so distinctly New Orleans.
New Orleans is one of the few cities in the world I’ve been to that I could truly call ‘unique’ in the literal sense of the word, and definitely the only one in the US. The blend of cultures and aesthetics on any given street or in any given building is so unmistakably New Orleans that anyone who’s ever been to the city could never be shown an image of it and not know it for NOLA.
You start at the foundations, the Southern charm and friendliness and warm Gulf climate (most of the time), and then build it up with the Yat accent, the Creole linguistic and cultural influence, the city’s own unique cuisine, the streetcars going up and down Canal and St. Charles, the colorful buildings, and the omnipresent live jazz, and there’s no city that for a second looks or feels like Nawlins.
Since my first time to New Orleans I’ve tried to make it there about once a year. This time was a year and a half since my last visit, but I feel like the city forgave me, with the exception of the aggressive January weather I wasn’t prepared for. As I move further west through Louisiana, I’m already looking back east down Interstate 10 with a longing sigh.
This week I’m in Acadiana, the Cajun French-speaking region of Louisiana. From tiny Morgan City to its heart in Lafayette and some of the surrounding areas, I’m indulging in Cajun food and eavesdroping on Cajun French conversations, and I’ll be chatting with some locals to get a feel for how important the language and the culture are today. I should have a post on Globalect within the week on the sweet sounds and smells and tastes of Acadiana, just before I head further west into Texas and edge closer to Mexico.