Bike rides and walks through New Orleans.
I’m not sure what draws me to a particular place. It’s often instinct or a curiosity for something unknown—a break from the rudimentary. But what keeps me there is a sense of complexity and mystery that I know not how to explain.
I chose to ignore my iPhone and follow the streets. I walked not knowing which street was next, eventually stumbling onto the famous Royal street and other landmarks. The houses looked older, though well-maintained in the French Quarter area. They were smaller than the ones on Esplanade Avenue where I was staying. They had cute little windows, balconies, low porches, and green vines falling over and intertwining with the columns. They reminded me of the old colonial style of the Spaniards. The colors varied from light purples to yellows to dark greens and reds. Mostly warm colors. Along with cars and bikes, horse carriages passed by with tour guides a top reverberating historical secrets. Their southern accents filled the small corners.
I walked in on a circle of people watching a band play an assortment of instruments including the bass, violin and guitar. A southern banjo, bluesy sound emerged, mixing with the heat. It was a swell time to fan yourself in the cruel but inviting summer. I looked for the shade below a balcony. I listened to the metal strings and the craggy voices, staying a little longer until the music faded. A girl donated a 6 pack to the band. It was a good show.
Down in the Garden District, I bumped into a cemetery. This one contained white marble tombstones mostly well-preserved. The trees stood tall above the white ruins. Patches of grass were peeking out from the crevices of the tombstones. Little lizards dashed from the corner every so often, hiding under leaves from the sun. It was incredibly hot with barely any place for shade. You could get lost here in the maze of tombstones, and possibly time travel to the 1800s. There was a calm sense of being among the ruins. You know you do not belong here. It’s sacred, but there’s something that draws you in. Here I felt the sun, the wind and life in the middle of death.
On my bike I admired the pastel homes. The oak trees were still abundant, lining up two sides of the street. They looked down at me like old statues of past, monumental and green. The trees were an extension of the beautiful mansions reaching out from long ago. The heat beckoned me to imagine what it must have like when the area was developing between 1832 and 1900. Now it was 2015 and I was biking through pot-holed streets, shaky at times specially with the company of cars.
Hotel Monteleone, the place where Truman Capote claimed he was born. I came for the carousel bar, which spun around in the middle of a room. Tonight a band was playing at the far side on a low stage; it was soft jazz tunes that couldn’t wake up grandma. Still, the drinks were good. I sat there and ordered drink after drink with a friend. First Miel Blanco, Perfect Storm, and some more… as the bar went around, time got older. The full rotation took about half an hour; it was turning rather slow to keep patrons from falling on their faces. I noticed my reflection in one of the mirrors at the top of the carousel. With every slow slip my facial features became sharpened and darker. The mirrors were outlined with fat bulbs, and between each one there was a carved face.
On the early hours of Friday I walked down the platform heading through the middle of the swamp (Jean Lafitte National Historical Park). On each side large palmettos and cypress trees reigned, and I looking from below. Insects, birds, and other tiny creatures contributed to the chorus. I continued waking within the humid trap of this ecosystem until my head almost hit a web with a giant spider on the center. I missed it by a few inches. My height saved me from committing a grave mistake against the banana spider. It was the spider with the dia le los muertos face, black and white. Spider webs hung from tree to tree, sometimes covering large spaces. The pronothotary birds were here. I’m was told most people don’t see these bird too often but I’ve seen it twice in one year. The moist heat was becoming one with my skin. I could easily turn into a frog and jump into the dark swampy water. Later the rain came, taking breaks every so often.
I took a Voodoo waking tour. I rarely ever take tours but this one explained the origins of this old religion and its connection to slavery which lasted from the early 1700 to 1864, when it was officially abolished in New Orleans. The first Voodoo circle was created in the town square, today Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, of Tremé where slaves gathered on Sundays to dance. Tremé was the main neighborhood of free people of color. Back then it was separated by a wall from the French Quarter where all the Europeans lived. According to the tour guide, slaves didn’t work on Sundays, and that’s when they got together to exchange ideas, gossip, and share advice on how to survive. There was a mix of slaves from French and Spanish colonies, some coming from the Caribbean; they brought along rich traditions and customs from their ancestors, and what emerged was a new set of beliefs and spiritual practices. Slaves cleverly hid their rituals from Europeans and pretended to worship the same Christian saints, only for them they had other names and different spiritual powers. The gatherings also represented a way for slaves to escape the hardships of everyday life even if for a little, and find a creative output that could lead them to personal happiness.
In popular culture Voodoo is portrayed as dark magic. Learning about its rich history and modern usage, Voodoo appears to be rooted in a naturalistic, magical world. On the day of the tour it was beautiful walking around and learning about Voodoo from a modern-day practitioner, and how they don’t conduct sacrifices or evil spells but they do talk to the spirits and make offerings. One important figure that came up was Marie Laveau, a free person of color who worked as a hairdresser for the community of Europeans. She became an insider, aware of the latest gossip and business schemes. Later as a Voodoo priestess she was able to use those connections to her advantage and for the benefits of the black community, by eventually helping slaves escape. Madam Laveau also made potions and gris gris bags a staple of Voodoo.
The group walked alongside Madam Laveau’s house in the French Quarter as the tour guide continue to explain her history. Almost close to being done, he held up a gris gris bag from his pocket to show us how one could make one. A few minutes later it began drizzling. We all looked up to the sky, turning darker. By the time the tour ended, the rain was picking up with full force. I went inside Felix’s Restaurant for lunch. When I was done, I walked to the door, exiting slowly, since the rain was coming down strong. I wanted to run, as others were doing. The wind was colder and the sun had all but faded. I heard the thunderous sky behind me as I made my way up the street.
I don’t remember much from the night, but I remember the singer from Meschiya Lake (performing in 3muses), her old, soulful, raspy voice that was like a calling to stay in New Orleans and revel in the wildness. After the show on Frenchman Street, me and a friend went outside. I didn’t want to go home yet. People were pouring out of bars and restaurants. I heard trumpets, drums and people cheering. I saw what was beginning to turn into a group of people dancing. We joined and followed the musicians as they walked. I was curious to see where it would end. I was dancing, dancing in the streets. The lively bombastic, trumpet was my rebel call to take part in this stampede, and I didn’t care who objected to the moment.
I made a mishmash of the lyrics I heard that night from Meschiya Lake.
After midnight searching for me
Kiss me and you’ll find out
I done cut my good man’s throat
I want to reap what I sow
Send me to the electric chair
When I arrived on St. Claude Avenue there wasn’t anyone in either direction. The long avenue was empty except for some scarcely laid out stores, colorful, odd and dirty, but most of them closed. It dawn on me that it was Sunday, and nothing would be open. I was ready to hang my head after the long walk. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was still going strong. I walked down store after store, telling myself I would come back when they were open. I headed further down the avenue and made a turn somewhere, which led me to a red church with an ominous clock, further down was a big yellow drawing near an abandoned building that said READ, followed by a railroad just steps away. An impending noise came hurling down the tracks. The train. I walked back. I noticed more street art and random writings. There was a sign on a poll, which said,” Nobody tells the truth.” On another street or perhaps the same, reigning over me were these heads on spikes in a yard behind a fence. Finally I saw somewhere to rest my weary self. I sat down in booty’s street food then went to Siberia to hear a group from the Balkans with a big drums, violins and crowds dancing.