Louisiana – Days 1-5: From Mardi Gras and Drag Shows, to State History and Beautiful Sunsets

Brittany Swanson   February 16, 2016   Comments Off on Louisiana – Days 1-5: From Mardi Gras and Drag Shows, to State History and Beautiful Sunsets

My first evening in Louisiana I met my host in New Orleans and she took me to see the Crewe de Vieux Mardi Gras parade. It was, how shall I say, an adult parade: parental discretion advised. Despite this, there were plenty of children there. I’m pretty sure most of it went right over their heads. To put it bluntly, dicks and tits were everywhere.

New Orleans has such an amazing energy. It was fun to be there for the start of the Mardi Gras season. My host couldn’t believe I’d never had Absinthe, so she took me to the Old Absinthe House to try it. Fun fact: I hate black licorice; Absinthe tastes like black licorice. Needless to say, I did not like Absinthe, but hey, at least I tried it.

My host and I wandered and found the parade at one point on the route and watched it until the end. Then she was like, you know, I think they’re going slow enough that we can probably find another spot further on and catch the beginning, so that’s exactly what we did. We wound through the streets of the French Quarter until we found a spot along the route and ended up with a front row view of the whole parade. It was incredible!

Crewe de Vieux Mardi Gras Parade 2016, New Orleans, LA.

Crewe de Vieux Mardi Gras Parade 2016, New Orleans, LA.

There was a lady next to me who seemed to be hogging all the attention (read: getting all the free stuff) from the parade marchers, but eventually I managed to get a free plastic lobster thing. I also got spanked at least three times, which my host thought was funny. Like I said, I thought the lady next to me was hogging all the attention so when she stuck her butt out to get spanked, I did too. I didn’t expect it to hurt quite as much as it did. Those paddle things really pack a punch…

After the parade my host and I were both starving so we went to the Corner Oyster House where we both had breakfast for dinner. I was impressed with how much food I ate. Once again I found myself eating and liking grits more than I expected. Though, I admit I prefer the cheesy ones I had in Memphis.

We then met up with one of my host’s friends and a friend of her friend’s who was in town for the weekend. The four of us went back to the Old Absinthe House and then went to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar a piano bar and lounge and the oldest continuously operating establishment in New Orleans. We stood for a while before snagging a table by the back door. From this spot we had the unique vantage point of watching this lady literally be picked up and carried out of the bar by two bouncers because she was so wasted. It was pretty awesome/funny/sad. That is why I never get that drunk. Embarrassing.

My host was awesome. She had a great energy and was an excellent conversationalist. Her friend, Emily, was cool too, chill, but still fun. Emily’s friend, Ian, on the other hand, was exhausting. I’ll cut him some slack and say that maybe he was super excited to see Emily for the first time in a while, and perhaps was a bit intoxicated, but whoa. This dude DOMINATED the conversation and not just in a wow-this-guy-kinda-talks-a-lot kind of way, but in a wow-is-he-ever-going-to-take-a-breath-and-let-someone-else-get-a-word-in kind of way. My host did a pretty good job of edging her way in, but even when she paved the way for Emily or I to add something he somehow managed to cut us off and talk over us. It was super annoying. Eventually I just started zoning out. I’d pay attention when my host talked and then zone out the second Ian started again. It wasn’t all bad, we did have some funny moments including this quote: “Boxer briefs: A well tailored suit for your dick.” I have no idea how we came up with that, but it’s hilarious nonetheless.

I didn't add the powdered sugar yet...beignets at Morning Call in City Park, New Orleans, LA.

I didn’t add the powdered sugar yet…beignets at Morning Call in City Park, New Orleans, LA.

When my host asked if I was ready to head home I immediately jumped at the chance to get away from Ian and give my brain a break from the incessant chatter. The following morning she took me to Morning Call Coffee Stand in City Park to get beignets. Beignets are a French breakfast pastry made of fried dough and served with powdered sugar on top. They’re a New Orleans specialty and they’re delicious, even if you can feel the diabetes coming on as you eat them…

After breakfast I set off to explore New Orleans on my own while my host went to meet up with her family. My host had told me about this antique shop that had saved a Woolsworth counter where New Orleans sit-in protests happened during the Civil Rights Era. Obviously that sounds amazing and I wanted to see it so that was my first stop. Unfortunately, they weren’t open when I went. 🙁 Instead I turned and walked the other way to catch the trolley. My host lives in Uptown, and she recommended I wander down Magazine Street and checkout all the cool shops and stuff there before heading elsewhere. I made it like maybe nine blocks from her house before I decided I was wearing too many layers for how warm the day was shaping up to be. So I turned around, went back to her house, shed a layer, and walked back to where I’d been.

My host had also recommended I stop at CC’s Coffee House and try their King Cake latte. I’m glad I heeded her advice because CC’s Coffee House happens to sell Lake Champlain Chocolate (which I haven’t been able to find since I left Vermont)! Best. Surprise. EVER! Even better, the latte was excellent and whet my appetite for the real King Cake, which I’ll get to in a minute. I took my latte and wandered through Lafayette Cemetery, which has all the tombs above ground.

Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans, LA.

Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans, LA.

I then took the trolley toward the rich part of New Orleans. Wow. It’s been a while since I put myself so close to such extravagance. It was kind of appalling. I was so worked up about the size of these houses and their contrast to the pervasive homelessness in this country that I spent a good part of the trolley ride writing a short story to vent my feelings by creating a dystopian future world in which the rich are discreetly disposed of and the homeless get to live in their houses. Hopefully, I’ll finish it and make it cohesive at some point.

I rode the trolley all the way to the end of the line and then I got back on and went in the opposite direction back toward the French Quarter. On my drive into Louisiana I’d stopped at the Visitor Center off the highway and had picked up a self-guided walking tour map of the French Quarter. When I got to the French Quarter I decided to start with that. It was awesome. Usually I’m not a fan of walking tours because they always seem to take much longer than I want and often the information seems over-the-top and uninteresting. This one was great because I got to choose my own pace and completely skip whatever didn’t interest me.

I walked by the St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square and around all the artists who set up around there. I wandered by the haunted houses and read about why they were haunted. I walked by some clever boys tap dancing using crushed soda cans attached to the bottoms of their shoes. I even wandered down Bourbon Street to see what it was like during the day.

I’d say Bourbon street is much worse during the day. Sure there are less people, but it still smelled like urine and stale beer. The mostly deserted street illuminated by the sunlight mingling with the neon lights of the bar signs and the overlapping and competing music pouring out from nearly every establishment seemed tired and uninviting, like a half-hearted prostitute sitting on the corner smoking a cigarette with smeared mascara shouting Sex?! at every other passerby. No. Thank you.

After Bourbon Street I stopped by a Starbucks to use the restroom but they had a passcode lock on the bathroom door that wasn’t working so I decided to just call it a day and head back to my host’s house instead. I got to the trolley only to find I couldn’t find my trolley pass. I’d paid $3 for a day pass so I could ride the trolley however many times I wanted to in a twenty-four hour period. I dug through all my pockets and was just wondering if maybe it wasn’t too far to just walk back to my host’s house when a guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “hey, did you say you lost your card?” “Yeah,” I replied, wondering how he heard me since I thought I only said it under my breath to myself. “Here.” he says handing me his pass, “we’re done for the day and don’t need it anymore, but there’s still time left on it, so have this one.” Sometimes the kindness of strangers really amazes me. It was nothing big or significant, but it totally and completely made my day.

That night my host took me to “church.” “Church” is a Drag Show at a bar called Golden Lantern. According to my host: “it’s a place locals go, but that not many tourists know about.” One of her friends was one of the performers and there was free cake and other food at the end because it was someone’s birthday. “Church” for the win! Oh, and the guy whose birthday it was? They pulled him up on stage and helped him strip down to his underwear… That’s one hell of a way to spend your birthday, I’d say. They also invited up two guys and one girl who, in the spirit of the holiday, also showed off their birthday suits for the crowd. It was pretty funny.

Birthday Boy being undressed on stage by one of the Queens..."Church" at Golden Lantern, new Orleans, LA.

Birthday Boy being undressed on stage by one of the Queens…”Church” at Golden Lantern, New Orleans, LA.

After “church” we went to the grocery store to get a King Cake. My host couldn’t believe I’d never had one, let alone heard of it before. I asked her to explain it to me and this is what I gathered from her explanation: Catholics celebrate Three King’s Day, or Epiphany, on January 6th. January 6th is the day the wise men are said to have found Baby Jesus. The time between King’s Day and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is known as Carnival. Carnival is a time for festivals and parades. “A time to eat, drink, and be merry before the rigorous fasting and sacrifice of Lent begins,” according to the mardigrasneworleans.com website. So, from what I understand, from King’s Day until Mardi Gras everyone parties and lives life to the fullest, because on Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras) Lent starts, which is a time to sacrifice and fast to honor Jesus’s sacrifice. This, for reasons I do not understand, has resulted in the seasonal food: King Cake. King Cake is a pastry that is only available during Carnival. The best I can describe King Cake is kind of like a combination between a croissant – mainly because of the many layers, and a cinnamon roll – for the flavor. It’s a cake sized pastry with a hole in the middle, and the whole thing is covered in colorful sugar sprinkles in Mardi Gras colors: yellow, green, and purple. The strange/unique thing about King Cake is that the pastry is baked with a tiny plastic baby in it. No, I’m not kidding.

King Cake - CAUTION: Non-Edible baby figure inside this cake.

King Cake – CAUTION: Non-Edible baby figure inside this cake.

That’s why it’s called King Cake…because you have to find the baby (Jesus). Obviously, I was terribly excited about this whole ordeal and hoped I’d be the lucky one. I asked my host what happened when you found the baby. She disappointed me slightly when rather than saying the finder would be lucky for a year or something, she told me that when she was a kid, it was just a cool, “you found the baby, yay!” kind of thing, but that as an adult finding the baby means you have to buy the next King Cake. What?! Lame. No year of luck, just an excuse to buy another cake? I mean, that’s cool, I guess, but almost unlucky, I’d say..

I didn’t find the baby, but my host did let me keep it. I also learned, in talking to my host about Mardi Gras, that apparently in New Orleans Mardi Gras is like spring break. Kids get the whole week off! How cool is that?! I mean, I feel like it’d be way cooler for those in college or something, but still.  A whole week of parades and beads and King Cake? Yes, please!

There is literally a plastic baby in the King Cake...

There is literally a plastic baby in the King Cake…

Oh, we also made King Cake the theme of the day. Remember earlier in the day I had the King Cake latte? Well, my host also had King Cake flavored soda and King Cake flavored vodka which, of course, I had to try. I wasn’t a fan of the vodka, probably because I just don’t really like vodka, but the soda was pretty good. Both tasted surprisingly like the actual King Cake. Artificial flavors for the win!

I'll take one of every King Cake flavored thing you have...

I’ll take one of every King Cake flavored thing you have…

The next day I headed toward Baton Rouge. I was going to stop in Abita Springs, but, again, the level of behindedness (yes, I know that’s not a word), that I was on the blog was starting to get to me so I decided to just drive through and head straight for a library in Baton Rouge. After a relatively productive afternoon, I met my host who wanted to take me to her favorite bar where they have good burgers.

Now, I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over five years, give or take the few times I’ve had chicken or fish with a host on this road trip because a. it’s free, and b. I don’t want to be rude. Despite these “cheats,” I maintain that I’m a vegetarian because when given the option I still opt for and prefer vegetarian food. So, when my host sad this place had good burgers, for some reason I just assumed that meant they had veggie burgers too…

Yeah, it was a dive bar called Phil Brady’s and the draw of the burgers was that they were $1 on Mondays. There was no vegetarian option. Normally, I’d eat a late lunch or something so this wouldn’t have been such an issue, but since I’d been hanging out at the library for the better part of the afternoon and libraries don’t like when you eat or drink in them, I hadn’t eaten since that morning. I was SO HUNGRY! I stopped eating beef about five or six years before I stopped eating all kinds of meat. Thus, at this point, I hadn’t had beef in over ten years… But I was SO HUNGRY. French fries just weren’t going to cut it… So, I said what the hell, and ordered my first burger in over a decade. I made it a cheeseburger with the works: lettuce, pickles, onions, and ketchup in case that helped mask the beefy flavor. I was surprised. It wasn’t terrible. It also didn’t freak me out as much as I thought it would. I was THAT hungry. As an added bonus, I didn’t even get sick later. So huzzah for surviving my first encounter with beef as an adult!

We played a couple rounds of pool, before my host got some bad news and didn’t want to stay any longer so we ended up heading back to her place. Before we left one of her friends invited me to go salamander hunting in a couple days… Salamander hunting. I didn’t even know that was a thing. Welcome to Louisiana.

The following morning I did a much needed load of laundry. It was my first load with a Couchsurfing host instead of a friend or family member, so that was new. It was raining, so I took a nap until 1 p.m. rather than brave the weather. After my nap I ventured out to Louisiana’s Old State Capitol which is now a free museum. I learned some interesting facts. For instance, did you know that the NAACP was founded in Shreveport, LA and that there was a bus boycott in Baton Rouge which lasted eight days in 1953 years before Montgomery, AL made their famous bus boycott in 1955-56? The Old State Capitol also had a great photography exhibit showing the different cultural backgrounds, traditions, and histories of the people of Louisiana which I found fascinating. In addition, there was an awesome exhibit about Huey Long a governor of Louisiana who totally revolutionized the state.

Louisiana's Old State Capitol, Baton Rouge, LA.

Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, Baton Rouge, LA.

Next I checked out the LSU Museum of Art, which had an exhibit of art from Haiti. It was interesting, but not a terribly big exhibit. Luckily, I got in for free with my reciprocal museum pass. Later I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to pay some bills and then my host and I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before I went to bed.

On my way to Shreveport the next day I stopped in Natchitoches, a cute small touristy-looking town. I walked along the river and through Beau Jardin which is a beautifully landscaped part of the riverfront people can rent out for weddings and such. I’d totally get married somewhere like that if I ever decide to get married. It was absolutely beautiful. I came to an old house that turned out to be a Creole Roque house that had been preserved and relocated. That was cool. I also learned that the Cane River had been dammed at both ends and is now technically just a lake. When I made it to Shreveport I wanted some more time outside so I went to the Red River National Wildlife Refuge and just wandered around for a couple hours. As I was leaving the sunset blew my mind.

Sunset at the Red River National Wildlife Refuge, Shreveport, LA.

Sunset at the Red River National Wildlife Refuge, Shreveport, LA.

My host in Shreveport was awesome, he and a friend were making dinner when I arrived and we all hung out and chatted as if we’d known each other for years. It was lovely. That’s my favorite part about the road trip and Couchsurfing – finding new friends in new places and instantly feeling right at and wondering how I hadn’t known them before. It’s amazing!