Southern Comfort

Rose Forest is a UC Berkeley junior who has not yet declared a major. Respond to her or submit your own travelogue at [email protected]

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I'm sure Southern people as a whole are very nice, but they scare me. I always think of country folk with missing teeth, slow drawls and shotguns (yes, I know that's a terrible generalization). So I had mixed emotions about visiting New Orleans on my family vacation. After my archaeology professor, a native Louisianan, last semester related some crazy stories about Mardi Gras (most tending to involve trading beads for, um, nakedness) and after another local told me that they have drive-thru Daiquiri bars down there (that can't be legal!), I knew that New Orleans was going to be a place unlike any other.

The first thing that struck me after finally staggering off the plane (well, the first thing besides the blast of hot, humid air and the fascinating variety of bugs that quickly landed on me) was a saying I saw on a nearby gas station sign - "The value of a life is not its duration but its donation." I like it. Pithy and profound sayings to ponder while you pump gas.

After my parents, my 9-year-old sister and I got settled in the hotel in the French Quarter of the city and went to eat at a tasty vegetarian restaurant, the supposedly wild part of New Orleans was seeming pretty normal. The views of the nearby Mississippi River even reminded me of my family's native Iowa, a decidedly normal place. Ha! Little did we know. As we strolled the French Quarter's streets, we encountered shops with interesting delicacies, such as crawfish pie and alligator jerky. I had thought gators were endangered, but was told that they were removed from that list 10 or so years ago. Still, we did sample one local delicacy - beignets, little deep-fried dough and powdered sugar balls. They were yummy but probably as adventurous as I'll get.

I was immediately reminded, during our long walk along the French Quarter's narrow, winding streets, of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. This is not so strange, really, since New Orleans is only 80 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and once was frequented by real pirates, including local hero Jean Lafitte. The Disney touch made it seem more familiar. There are so many old, historic buildings here that it is hard to see them all, and the merchandise in the abundant shops ranges from ritzy to naughty to cutesy. My family steered away from the infamous Bourbon Street, with its prostitutes and wild night life, since my younger sister was along. The whole French Quarter was very lively, though, filled with tourists, locals and lots of jazz music. I hadn't realized it, but jazz had been invented in New Orleans by the slaves. Another interesting thing I learned was that the locals here don't have a Southern accent, which seemed odd. I guess it just shows that New Orleans is probably pretty different from the rest of the South.

The next day, our first full day in the city, we walked around the Garden District. We were hampered by weather so blisteringly hot and humid that moving took much effort. This neighborhood, where vampire author Anne Rice owns three enormous homes, has many spectacular old mansions interspersed with run-down, creepy looking old houses. We also toured a graveyard, of all things. These "cities of the dead" are not your typical burial grounds. Many of them have tombs almost 200 years old, and many Confederate soldiers were buried there. It's weird seeing museums, graves and statues focusing on the losing side of the Civil War. People have to be buried above ground here. Otherwise, the marshy ground has the tendency to make the caskets float to the surface. That's kind of a creepy thought. Anyway, the ornate mausoleums, some the size of small houses (okay, very small houses) all different in appearance, would be a great settling for a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode.

Visitors to New Orleans should make sure not to miss out on the local Creole cooking, even if they are picky and vegetarian like me. The third night of our trip, my family bravely tried a small eatery called The Gumbo Shop. Guess what I ordered? Gumbo, veggie style. Although the spices required many glasses of water to keep my tongue from falling off, the thick soup of beans and vegetables was worth the suffering.

Earlier in the day, after persuading my unenthusiastic mother and sister, we had gone on a tour of the swamp. After being picked up for the tour almost half an hour late from our hotel (locals move at an almost infuriatingly slow pace for me, but I guess vacationers wanting to relax might enjoy it), we were taken to a bayou, which begins only 15 minutes from downtown. The guide for our two-hour boat tour, who spoke with a Brooklyn accent that we were told was common down here, was full of folklore and wildlife information during our trip. The swamp is a whole different world from the big city. To everyone's delight, we saw 12 baby alligators (surprisingly cute) and one monstrous, full-grown one during the tour. They were lured to the boat by marshmallows, which they seem to eat. The guide also demonstrated their jumping ability by dangling meat in the air and having the big alligator leap up and snap its jaws shut around it. After that display, my mom wouldn't let me dangle my arm out of the boat because she thought that the gators would eat it, but this was silly - gators are much less aggressive than their relative, the crocodile, we learned. Though perhaps less thrilling, we also saw egrets, cranes and other birds, as well as two jumping fish. They are hilarious to watch. Although we only saw one on display in a cage, there were also millions of rats which were three feet long in the swamp. It would be scary to meet one of those on a dark night. People could finish off their swamp tour by eating fried alligator at the restaurant next door, but, predictably, we skipped that treat.


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