Voodoo, Swamps and Cajun Cooking

or, A Weekend in New Orleans


I had a five day weekend for Memorial Day. So I drove to New Orleans. No special reason. No one to visit, no event to attend. I just had time off and felt like going somewhere. So I went. By myself, since my mother wussed out on me. Not like I've never gone anywhere by myself before. Just got in the car and drove. Five hundred some-odd miles, and I didn't get lost until I actually tried to exit the freeway in New Orleans itself. (At which point I spent about an hour wandering around in circles getting more and more annoyed with the way the city seems to assume that people will actually know the names of the streets they're driving down and so will only want to see the names of each tiny cross street and alleyway that they pass.)

The Marquette House

Here's where I stayed. The Marquette House, on Carondelet -- a street car ride away from the French Quarter. A pretty good hostel, with unisex "dorms" (more like little bungalows) with eight bunked beds and a shower and bathroom to each. I shared mine with four French-speaking girls who spent most of their time out partying, which made it like having the place to myself in many respects. And the hostel's office had internet access for cheaper than the two internet cafes I looked into in the French Quarter.

The French Quarter

Ah, the French Quarter. It's a tacky gaudy tourist trap. It's overflowing with bars, the odd strip joint or "adult" store, and tons of drunks staggering through the streets.

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Note the two places in the foreground of the second picture, across the street from each other, selling daiquiris and pizza by the slice. Also see how traffic down Bourbon (as opposed to down the cross streets) is pretty much blocked off in favor of pedestrian traffic.

It's also the oldest part of the city, the Vieux Carre, with architecture showing the influences of the original French and Spanish settlers. Observe:

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The above are all buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (The last picture shows one of the many, many, *many* horse or mule-drawn carriages that wander the Quarter.)

ParisSt1.jpg (22257 bytes)ParisSt2.jpg (61922 bytes)These are some buildings in Paris. (Mostly apartments, I think.)

Madrid2.JPG (29947 bytes)This is a shot of a building across the street from the Museo del Prado in Madrid. (Right now I'm regretting not having taken a few more shots of "regular" buildings while I was in both Paris and Madrid, for the sake of comparison now -- but the resemblances in architecture are there.)

CastIron.JPG (50473 bytes)And again for the sake of comparison, here is a building from where the French Quarter met the later "American" settlement. Greek Revival and cast iron instead of wrought iron being the principal differences, or so I was informed...

The Cemetery / Voodoo Tour

I started out Friday morning (my first full day in the city) by going to the Royal Blend Coffee House to get a bit of breakfast and meet up with the departing walking tour I had signed up for online. Spirit Tours allows one to purchase tickets in advance with either a pre-selected date and time or an open ticket for just whichever one we happen to show up at. I wanted to hit both the daytime Cemetery/Voodoo tour and the nighttime Ghost/Vampire tour, so I bought two open-ended tickets -- and gave myself plenty of time to find my way to the coffee house, besides.

Good thing, too. Took me a heck of a time getting past a confusing traffic circle (the third time I hit it, I managed to exit the circle going in the direction away from the hostel rather than back where I'd come from again) and then another heck of a time finding a parking spot. Once I found a lot on the edge of the French Quarter offering all-day parking for $7, I jumped on it and started hiking. Hit the coffee house in time for breakfast while I waited. Kiwi strawberry tea and something large and undefined that they claimed was a scone -- pretty good with strawberry jam and honey.

RoyCafBr.JPG (88335 bytes)The patio was infested with impertinent little birds -- chickadees or sparrows or whatever they were. When one of them hopped right up on my table I decided it was time to haul out my camera. The second time I left a bit of my pastry on the table as bait, the bird snatching it was slow enough to be caught on camera.

RoyCafe2.JPG (80330 bytes)And here's what the patio and coffee house as a whole looked like.

The first stop on the tour was at one end of the block of houses that, unbeknownst to the American settlers who moved in after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 but knownst to the Creole residents of the city at that time, had been built atop the former site of the oldest cemetery in the city. In the first few decades of the settlement, between starvation and the periodic epidemics of yellow fever and malaria, they filled up cemeteries *fast*. Before the Creole settlers resigned themselves to aboveground tombs, they attempted to make cemeteries on the natural levees, which were raised enough to be somewhat above the water table and therefore hopefully would solve the initial problem of caskets floating out of the graves. But whenever the Mississippi flooded people would find coffins in their yards -- at least until they put fences around the cemeteries to keep floating coffins from escaping. Finally it was decided that high ground would be put to better use by the living, so the ground was deconsecrated bit by bit and the dead moved to a new burial place. It was recently discovered that at least ten bodies had been missed in the move (because workers laying pipes found one, and a bit of excavation in the area turned up the others), and no telling how many more might still be down there... (Similarly, another former cemetery is now the site of the Superdome, and though families were given three years to move their dearly departed to other resting grounds about thirty bodies were never tracked down... The local claim is that the curse of the uneasily resting dead is why the New Orleans Saints have never made it to the Superbowl.)

Then we walked to St. Louis #1, the oldest cemetery in the city still in current use.

Pyramid.JPG (21795 bytes)Here's a look at a few old, crumbling family tombs, plus a pyramidal tomb that was chosen by a family seeking uniqueness. (And it is -- there's no other tomb like it in the city.)

SunkTomb.JPG (92937 bytes)These tombs have sunk into the mucky ground over the centuries and are nearly buried now. Nearby "empty" plots mark the sites of completely sunken tombs that the grass has grown over. Multiple family members share each tomb -- after a year and a day slowly baking in the heat of the sealed chamber, the tomb is reopened and the bones stowed in a compartment in the base along with those of predeceased relatives, leaving room for the next coffin. (Old coffins used to be burned, but nowadays they're just thrown out. The tour guide told us that the sight of coffins sticking out of a dumpster is therefore nothing to worry about.) Sometimes after a family dies out the tomb may be sold to another family (the joke being that the two families will therefore get to know each other *very* well as the years pass), but if a tomb sinks completely into the ground the church will not let another one be built atop it.

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The above are pictures from one of the society tombs. This one was for the Italians in New Orleans. The little door shown at the bottom of the second picture allows entry to deal with the coffins that are slid in through the small doors (with the ring-shaped handles) that surround the tomb. The architect built it in Italy, disassembled it for shipping, and came to New Orleans with it to supervise its construction and carve his name on the front (in effect, signing his artwork). Within a few weeks he was dead of yellow fever and the first person to make use of his construction. The guide told us of an Italian superstition that carving a family's name on a tomb before someone is already dead to be buried in it is the worst kind of luck -- though she didn't specify whether this belief dated from the death of the aforementioned architect, or even whether this was an idea limited to New Orleanians of Italian descent. Then she went on to mention that after the makers of Easy Rider shot some fairly offensive scenes (sans permission of the church) in this very cemetery -- including a scene which made use of the above tomb -- the church now denies all permission to film any kind of a movie here. (Lafayette Cemetery was the one used in Dracula 2000 and some other movies.)

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This tomb was for the members of the artillery from the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, of which the city is so proud that it named a brewery for the victorious general, Andrew Jackson. (The rest of the country elected him president and put him on the $20 bill.) Note the cannon-barrel-and-anchor-chain fence surrounding the building. The winged hourglass at the very top of the front side symbolizes the fleeting nature of time, and the upside torches on each drawer indicate the snuffing out of life.

GravLids.JPG (82405 bytes)Here in the "heretic section" of the cemetery, the Protestant families hadn't been quite ready to embrace the whole tomb thing and had settled for slapping stone lids over the family graves. The coffins slam against the stones when the floodwaters rise, but at least they stay in the ground. (The lady on the right in the straw hat is the tour guide.)

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The above is the second-most-visited tomb or grave in the United States. (The guide didn't say, but I'm assuming Elvis' Presley's grave is the first.) The text on the plaque reads: MARIE LAVEAU: This Greek Revival tomb is reputed burial place of this notorious "voodoo queen". A mystic cult, voodooism, of African origin, was brought to this city from Santo Domingo and flourished in 19th century. Marie Laveau was the most widely known of many practicioners of the cult." The triple Xs marked all over the front and sides represent people who circle the tomb three times (or perhaps spin in place three times -- reports vary), mark three Xs on the tomb, make their request, and leave an offering. Note the roses, candle, and book of matches set up in front of the tomb -- and the pennies left there as offerings. (Including three pennies carefully set into one of the slight recesses on the front of the tomb.) The tour guide informed us that actually Marie Laveau's daughter (also called Marie) made a point of publicly stating that her mother had been buried in an undisclosed location, for fear that other voodoo practicioners would raid her grave and take her bones for the power they would be believed to hold. This tomb instead holds the children and long-time lover of "the widow Paris," and the assumption made is that her spirit will be keeping close watch on her family and so messages left here will reach her just as well as if they'd been left at her own grave.

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After leaving the cemetery, we were led to Armstrong Park, formerly known as Congo Square. In the early days of the settlement, on Sunday afternoons the slaves would be given a bit of free time, during which they would often congregrate in this square -- frequently joined by members of various nearby Native American tribes. The interactions taking place here led to the particular form of voodoo that is native to the New Orleans area (as distinguished from the Haitian practices or Brazilian candomble, both of which are also traditions created by the mingling of Native American and African beliefs with Catholicism). And the music played here led to the development of jazz -- hence the current name of Armstrong Park, with its Louis Armstrong memorial. (Thus endeth the tour.)

Random Wanderings in the Evening Hours

CopFish.JPG (11948 bytes)I saw a number of these large fish scattered across the quarter. This one was in front of a bank, dressed as a cop and swallowing a person in striped trousers (presumably indicating a criminal). I have no idea what significance these small statues may hold.

Natchez.JPG (22412 bytes)I found my way to the riverside. Here was a paddleboat taking on tourists for a little cruise, the Natchez.

Alexander.JPG (20010 bytes)I also got into a conversation with a fellow busking in the riverside park. His name was Alexander. Here he was playing me a little goodbye song as I headed on back north into the Quarter...



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