NOLA: Day 3


Our vacation in New Orleans was constantly threatened by a big storm Alberto that was gathering strength in the vicinity and was expected to lash out in the general area. We kept the weather channel on and checked weather update on our phones a lot before we booked tours or made plans. After getting caught in torrential downpour on the first day, we carried our umbrellas everywhere. Saturday morning was supposed to be rain free so we had booked a tour to see the bayous and meet some alligators. We showered, got dressed early and headed down to the lobby where our transportation company was supposed to pick us up and take us to the waterways. There, we were going to board a boat called Swamp Thing, explore the bayous and see alligators. Very touristy, I know. After collecting tourists from different hotels, our van left the city and deposited us by the water in a very rustic setting with a small ticket counter, a tiny gift shop, relatively clean  restrooms and a captive alligator next to the gift shop, sun bathing.

 

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After waiting for about 20 minutes, the captain of our boat, a native of the area, welcomed us all and started navigating the boat into serene waterways. He kept up a constant chatter telling us the history of the land that we saw around us, but I really wished he would stop talking. The day was so beautiful, the green around us was so lush, the water was so still that it reflected the azure sky and the breeze caressed my whole being. I just wanted quiet so I could absorb this stillness within my soul.

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But he kept talking. I leaned back on Sean and tuned him out. We passed a small burial ground by the water – unkempt, forgotten, home to those long gone. As I write this blog, many weeks after our trip, that tiny little forgotten cemetery evokes a special feeling. It found a special place in my heart.

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As we went deeper into the bayou, we met our first alligator. The captain turned off the boat, grabbed a bag of marshmallows and went to the side, dangling the marshmallow from his hand to attract the alligator’s attention. He also spoke French to him. It was obvious that the alligators in that area knew the drill. S/he came right to the boat, grabbed the marshmallow, chomped it down and asked for more. Since that was our first one, everyone in the boat took million pictures of him/her. During our time on the boat, we saw several. The captain spoke to all of them in French, fed them all marshmallows. Some travelers  did not like the fact that he was feeding unhealthy snacks to the creatures. He pooh poohed their concerns and said alligators did not have any sense of taste. They are attracted by the white color of the marshmallow. While we were engrossed in finding alligators in the water, and squealing like children when we spotted one, the captain held up little Elvis, a baby alligator, about year and a half old. The women in the boat screamed. He offered to pass the baby around. Men held him, women refused. When it was my turn, I held him of course. After that, a few women dared to hold him as well and I believe Elvis was held by all and of course, photographed.

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It was close to lunch time when we were dropped off in front of our hotel, but instead of rushing in to take a nap, we made an executive decision to take the historic street car to go to the garden district to see the antebellum style houses. We bought day passes for street cars, rode them all the way till the end and rode back to where we started. It brought tram cars of Kolkata to mind. There were many tourists on the trolley as well as residents of the city. I wonder how irritating they found us, tourists, taking up space in their public transport just for joy rides.

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Once we got off at St. Charles street, it was way past lunch time. We could hear our stomachs growl but from previous experience, I knew getting food won’t be easy. Surprisingly enough, we did not have to reject too many restaurants before we found Daisy Dukes – a restaurant that served breakfast all day. Sean was happy. I was relieved. The biscuits were amazing.

Guess what we did after? Yes, that is correct. We hurried back, got in bed and promptly fell asleep. Promises to keep and all that.

Since we bought day passes for the street cars and since I was doing a lot of walking on my bum foot, we took the trolley to Esplanade, at the end of French Quarter  to give Frenchmen’s  street another chance. I had to really twist Sean’s arm to go there again. He had given up on the street. It was a completely different experience from previous day though. The street was vibrant, alive and filled with music. It had completely transformed itself at night. And although the restaurants did not have any food for Sean, we listened and moved to jazz music. After spending the entire evening there, we walked back to our hotel. I was completely done with checking out restaurant menus, knowing we will find nothing for Sean since the simple red beans and rice were cooked with sausage. We stopped at a small cafe – Cafe Beignet for a chicken salad sandwich for me, omelette for Sean and a plate of beignets.

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The next day was our last day in Big Easy. We still had to see World War II museum and Lafayette cemetary. We had to buy mementos for the kids. We still had to take our afternoon nap. Last one in New Orleans.

A friend commented on my last blog that she felt a sense of ennui in these blogs. The ecstasy of Rome (my blogs on Rome) was missing. That comment stayed with me. And as I reread the blogs on New Orleans, I did realize both Sean and I have learnt to slow down. In our previous travels, we wanted to do something every minute of our vacation. This vacation was different though. A lot of the focus was on resting, taking a break, sleeping, recharging. We both are beaten down by constant activity. We both needed the escape and the quiet solidarity.

 

 

 

NOLA: Day 2


We had booked a trip on a paddle boat ride for a ride along the mighty Mississippi on Creole Queen. The most interesting part of the ride was a historian narrating the history of New Orleans. The mystery of Spanish haciendas in the French quarter was revealed, the several change of hands of New Orleans was told, the battle of New Orleans to beat the British under the command of Andrew Jackson was dramatically narrated. We made one stop at the museum at Chalmette plantation, the battle field where the battle of New Orleans was fought. A park ranger talked in depth about the volunteers who convened under one flag to cause considerable damage to the British and managed to drive them away. On our way back, the talk was about Katrina. Every member on board listened with horror as the historian narrated grimly almost hourly advent of the storm that took lives of thousands. As we listened, the sky opened up, almost in grief.

By the time we docked, the rain had diminished to mere sprinkles, so we opened our umbrellas, which we smartly carried, and made our way to Frenchmen’s street. We had been told that street was a great alternative to raucous Bourbon street in French quarter and worthy of a venture. The music was better, food was good. We were disappointed. Everything was sleepy, and closed. We checked out the menu of several restaurants, found nothing that Sean, a vegetarian who does not eat vegetables, could eat. Finally, we ended up in Mona’ s cafe, a Lebanese restaurant. I devoured a delicious Lula kabob and Sean had a vegetable platter that contained the best baba ganoush.

After lunch, we strolled slowly back towards our hotel, stopping to see the majestic St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square.

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Once we were back, we promptly went to bed and fell asleep. Afternoon naps, everyday – a very important part of our vacation. Neither of us realized how sleep deprived we were.

In the evening, we went out late. We decided to stroll the French quarter again since every street gave us ample opportunity to catch snatches of music and watch people. As will be the norm each day, we rejected at least 12 restaurants since there was nothing for Sean and ate at a Mexican place. Sean had veg fajitas, I had shrimp po boy. We both had simply fabulous modoros (fried plantains). Our sweet server did not know how to change channels on their TV, so she handed the remote to Sean. He found NBA basketball game and we watched a game between Rockets and Golden State warriors. After wrapping up day 2 with more people watching as French quarter became increasingly inebriated we headed back to the hotel, watched NBA in bed and called it a night.

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I will end this blog with this observation. The mass of humanity in Bourbon street reminded me of the throng on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Pujo. The people on Bourbon street were immersed in the heady feeling of alcohol, jazz, beads and night clubs. The throng in Kolkata during Durga Pujo are focused on lights, pandals, extravagance, street food. But the energy in both places, I found, were similar. There was a feeling of letting loose, shedding inhibitions.

We saw quite a large number of homeless people on the streets of the city. Some were just listless while some socialized with other homeless men and women. A majority of them, especially women, had dogs with them. The dogs, interestingly enough, seemed to be in great health and exuded friendly demeanor. Sean and I conjectured whether the dogs served as body guards for many who were forced to sleep on the streets. There were dark corners too where hapless men just lay silently, most likely under the influence of some substance. One homeless man was downright honest. He asked folks for money saying, “Can you give me some money so that I can get drunk tonight?” We looked at him quizzically. He said, “What? I am not gonna lie. If I get any money, I am going to buy booze.”

We were in New Orleans. How could we not see the bayous and alligators? We had booked a swamp tour for the next day. We were going to be picked up by our transportation company to take us to the waterways, where we could either go on a loud, very fast speed boat or a slow moving, covered boat. We opted for the slow one to experience a leisurely boat ride. We gave up thrill in favor of serenity. More on that in the next blog.

 

 

Before stepping off the mainland.


I forgot to pack my notebook as I packed some grubby clothes hurriedly in a newly purchased tote bag to take to Cliff Island off the coast of Maine for seven days. My extremely outdoorsy husband had purchased two kayaks because the kids ‘needed’ it you see and was planning on bringing them. The children declared they absolutely needed their bikes to ride around the three and a half mile long island with their cousins. There was a tennis court on that tiny island, so how could we not bring tennis rackets and balls? There is also a baseball field, we could not simply leave behind baseball glove and bat, could we? I sighed as I looked at the accumulating junk and dictated folks to take bare minimum in clothes so we could each carry a bag pack and keep both hands free so we COULD CARRY JUNK! The island does not have a grocery store for provisions so we needed to plan and buy seven days worth of groceries, and then figure out a way to carry them!! I forgot to pack my notebook though, in the hustle bustle of planning. I planned to write down my stream of consciousness as I sat in front of the ocean. In the absence of tangible medium, I wrote and painted in my mind’s canvas. Before life gets steadily busy, I hope to put down those thoughts on these blogs.

Like many others on this planet with children, our lives are hectic and rigidly scheduled. As August came closer, all four of us counted down days to break free from work travels, deadlines, swim meets, baseball practices to reclaim our time together, doing what we love to do – reading, walking, talking, listening to music, swimming, playing. We planned a retreat from real life with Sean’s siblings and their families in a tiny little island off the coast of Portland. We rented a house for a week starting Saturday, right on the water. However, my family headed north early, on a Thursday morning at 5 am to jump start the vacation. The plan was to meet our one day old niece in Boston and then drive up north, find a place to stay for two nights, Thursday and Friday, and then get on the ferry from Portland to head to the island on Saturday.

We started our long journey before the sun rose. Sean had secured two kayaks on top of our minivan and two bikes behind the car on bike racks. I had a niggling fear that one of those would go free, go flying and hit fellow motorists. That did not happen thankfully. We arrived in Mass General Hospital with all our JUNK intact but went round and round the busy city of Boston to find parking for our heavily loaded car. We held and kissed our baby niece, full of joy at the miracle of life and hit the road again after bidding the proud and tired parents goodbye. We wanted to visit some of the beaches of New Hampshire or maybe Maine, get a couple of days of sandy beach fun before we met others at the ferry and headed over to Cliff Island. First stop was Hampton beach. We tried to get a hotel for two nights but nothing was available. It was coming up on dinner time and the day was slowly losing its luster. We decided to move on, drive up and find accommodation somewhere farther up north. We were not worried. Next stop was Ogunquit, Maine. The beach was gorgeous, the town seemed inviting. Four of us started to feel hopeful about finding lodging and eventually some dinner, but ‘no vacancy’ signs greeted us as we passed cute hotels, motels and bed and breakfast. A resort right on the beach showed vacancy sign. We parked and jogged to the reception desk. The children, cooped up in the car for 10 hours, ran to the beach to touch the water.

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The resort offered one night’s accommodation for almost $400. Friday night was full. Crestfallen parents called the kids back to the car to continue the journey, but the lovely restaurants and the handmade ice cream stores were too tempting to pass by. We stopped for dinner at Hamburger Harry’s. The kids got busy ordering while the parents desperately searched for lodging on their smart phones. The children, with their bellies full of sumptuous burger, kept reassuring us they could sleep in the van if needed. I glared at them instead of appreciating their effort to be accommodating 🙂 ! I recognized their effort later, when I relaxed finally in a comfortable bed. After several attempts, we found accommodation for two nights in a hotel in South Portland, only to find out later that the Boston Marathon bombers stayed in the same hotel before their heinous deed (the knowledge would not have made any impact on our decision of staying there at that point anyway). We drove up to our hotel, after ice cream of course, and crashed.

We woke up Friday morning ready for a beach day. We wanted to have the total boardwalk experience with all the glitz since we knew we will be in isolation in an island far away from the madding crowd. We found Old Orchard beach that fit the bill, complete with an amusement park, boardwalk fries, tattooed skin and crashing waves. The kids ran towards the amusement park before they said hello to the ocean.

As Sean and I stood in line to buy a few tickets for a some rides, a man walked up and gave us two passes for unlimited rides, FOR FREE, just like that. He had to leave the beach and had no use for those passes, he gave them to us. Before we could collect our wits to thank him profusely for his generosity, he left! The children rode every single ride till Ryan threw up and decided enough was enough and sometimes too much. After a mediocre lunch in a taqueria, which had an interesting name with a frog in it, we finally headed to the beach. My thin Indian skin can not tolerate the coldness of the Atlantic Ocean in Maine, so I slept on the sandy beach while my family rollicked in the waves. Completely satiated with our day of sand filled and sun filled activities, we headed to our hotel to get ready for our big preparation day on Saturday. The day we had to figure out a way to transfer our kayaks, Sasha and Hexel (yes, they are even named), our two bikes (no names), luggage, books, towels and seven days worth of provision across the ferry from Portland to Cliff Island. But before we did that, Ryan got lost. I will leave you here with a cliff hanger like mystery writers do, so you will wait with baited breath about the fate of my son, till I write the next installment. I am evil like that. 🙂