Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Cruising the Caribbean

Day 1, Port of Call: New Orleans

It's my favorite time of the year again--vacation time! (Seriously, I live for vacations...)

This time we took to the waters, specifically cruising the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Caribbean (as the cruise line euphemistically called it--the map actually calls it "Central America.") But first, we started in one of my all-time favorite ports--the city of New Orleans!

My parents, Mark and I were the first to arrive in the Crescent City. We left at 0 dark thirty, zipping through the dark, foggy morning to arrive at the airport. Our flight attendant was hilarious, joking and goofing around the entire time. At one point, she opened the overhead bin, where my mom's purse fell out. The straps caught around the flight attendant's head like a headband, with the purse resting on her head. The flight attendant did the only thing you can do when a whole plane is watching--she turned toward us, flung out her arms, and yelled, "Ta da!" It was hilarious!

We arrived in NOLA to a small Dixieland band playing live music at the baggage carousels. 

"This is why I love New Orleans," I whispered to my mom, and she nodded.

We dropped our bags off at the hotel, then wandered down the street for lunch. There was a saxophone player across the street, filling the air with sweet music, and a girl talking to someone on her cell phone next to me. She held her phone out for a moment, so that the person on the other end could hear the sax.

"That's just New Orleans," the girl said into her phone. "That's how it sounds on every corner!" And she wasn't wrong!

We had the most amazing lunch at a local pub--po'boy sandwiches, beef short ribs, and a crab BLT. We all shared, and we all gushed about the amazing flavors. (Mark also giggled about a t-shirt in the souvenir shop across the street--it was airbrushed as a woman's chest wearing only Mardi Gras beads. He giggled harder each time someone stopped to take a selfie with the shirt, and I reminded him the French Quarter is really for adults.)

After lunch, my Dad returned to the hotel to take a nap. We tried to grab a seat at the hotel's famous carousel bar, but no one was moving. Which was fine--I couldn't wait to show off New Orleans to my family, so Mark, my mom and I skipped out of there to see the city.

We walked up Royal street, stopping about every five seconds to listen to the street musicians. Each group was more talented than the one before, and they each played different styles of music. There was a group that looked like fancy old-time buskers--they wore vintage clothes and hats, had beards, and played instruments like a washboard and banjos. They also had great voices, and I would've watched them all day if my mom hadn't moved me along. 

A block later, we came across a juggler. We watched him juggle everything from clubs and pins to axes and swords. He was okay, but used a lot of profanities for a "family" show. ("Welcome to New Orleans," I told Mark.) He climbed on top of a platform, and then on top of a rolling tube on that, and juggled giant knives as he swayed back and forth. It was pretty cool.

There was a woman with a violin on the next block, then a guy who looked like a giant chicken. He wore some ceremonial suit made of yellow and orange feathers, and I think he was dancing some sort of Native American dance, but really, he just looked like a big chicken.

Eventually, we made our way up to Jackson Square, home of the famous cathedral and about a million artists and palm readers. There were more musicians, competing for real estate and audiences, playing loudly, and doing everything they could to earn a buck. 

The artists stood proudly in front of their work, mostly paintings adorning the fence around the park, trying to lure in patrons. The work was amazing--scenes of the city, some dark and dreary, some colorful and vibrant. There were messages of hope, and of hopelessness, and more than a few still featured the carnage that Hurricane Katrina brought ten years earlier. 

It was a visual assault, overstimulating my senses on every front--the music, the dancing musicians, the tourists crowding every space and taking a million selfies, the painters reaching for my attention, the horses whinnying in front of their carriages, and the cars honking as they barely moved through the intersection. I inhaled and breathed it all in--it was busy, but it's what I love about the city--its vibrancy, and that feeling of aliveness, and struggle, and simple joy being captured wherever and whenever it can be.

I pointed out the famous Cafe Du Monde across the street, and my mom clapped with excitement. Then I also pointed out the long line for beignets and her enthusiasm dampened a bit. 

"Don't worry," I reassured here. "We'll come back."

We ducked into a pralines store, where Mark promptly picked out a giant praline and a stick of alligator jerky. I bought him both, and then winced as he tore into the alligator. 

"Tastes great!" he declared, finishing the whole stick in about three bites.

We walked back toward the French Quarter, this time down to Bourbon Street. I reminded Mark this was really a place for grown-ups, and that people drink a whole lot here. He rubbed his hands with delight, which wasn't really the response I was looking for.

We walked along the sidewalk, dodging drunks, and stopping at each bar to peek in at the bands from the doorway. I was more than a little bummed that I was sick--my heart was ready to dance the night away to some kickin' Cajun music, but my head just wanted to take a nap.

Bourbon Street was super crowded, way more than Royal Street, and after about five minutes, my mom had enough. She doesn't always appreciate the crazy people watching like Mark and I do.

We took the first side street back to Royal Street, and strolled back toward the hotel. We passed a busy cafe with giant signs advertising beignets. My mom gasped, stopped, and looked at me imploringly. 

"It's not Cafe Du Monde," I warned her. "They won't be as good!"

But she didn't care. She was deterred by the long line at Cafe Du Monde, but mom still wanted beignets, even fake ones. And so we stopped.

I wandered into the courtyard after ordering the beignets, and was not at all surprised to see Mark petting a cat. The cat whisperer is always in action, even on vacation.

Our beignets arrived--big, dense pillows of fried dough covered in powdered sugar.

"Be careful," I warned Mark. "They're really hot. Blow on them first."

This was a trick I'd used on my friend Michelle, who listened to me, and ended up blowing powdered sugar EVERYWHERE. (Seriously, the room was tick with sugar dust when we left!)

But Mark doesn't listen to me like Michelle does. He thought about it, then said, "No way! I'll get sugar all over myself!" My mom glared at me, and I laughed so hard, I blew the powdered sugar all over MYSELF. Mark and my mom busted up, and my mom told me, "Dios castiga," (God got you). We were laughing so hard everyone was staring at us and giggling a little, too.

Tim called while I was brushing myself off, and said he'd just arrived at the hotel. So off we went, to meet the rest of our travelling companions.

We greeted Tim, Kim, niece Hannah and nephew Nic in the lobby. They were so excited to be there, and ready to hit the town. They dropped off their bags, we picked up my dad, and we were off again.

By the time we got outside again, it was dark. And boy, could you tell it was a Saturday night in New Orleans! We passed a couple oyster bars that had lines wrapped around the block!! Didn't bother anyone though, they just stood in place, hurricanes or other drinks in hand. We ambled back toward Bourbon Street, which made my mom nervous. She didn't like it in the daytime, and now it was kicking up even more. She and my dad turned back, deciding to eat somewhere a little quieter. 

We forged ahead, stopping for hurricanes. We walked along, watching the street performers--little kids tap dancing with beer bottle caps on their feet, religious zealots trying to save souls, women in skimpy clothing trying to lure young men into establishments of questionable reputations. I even saw the giant chicken guy again. There weren't any street musicians here--this was bar band territory, and loud, raucous music spilled out of every venue we passed. It was, quite literally, music to my ears.

We passed a guy who shoved some giant signs into our hands, and encouraged us to take photos. I cracked up when I read the signs.

The kids were starving, so eventually, we found a place with open tables and ordered dinner. Hannah ate corn dog beignets, and Mark got the biggest chicken wings I've ever seen. (They might have been turkey wings!) Nic ordered a double cheeseburger with  grilled cheese sandwich stuffed IN BETWEEN! Gotta love that teenage boy metabolism, because he destroyed that burger/sandwich combo.

"Good job!" I told him at the end, but he just rubbed his belly and said sadly, "That burger defeated me, Auntie Heather." I pointed to his empty plate and assured him it had not--he'd definitely defeated that burger!

We headed back out onto Bourbon Street, stopping at Pat O'Brien's, so Tim could look around and get himself a hurricane. I waited on the street with the kids. Mark, buoyed by multiple root beers and an appreciative audience (his cousins, not me), engaged in his own street performance, pretending to repeatedly bang his head against a pole. One woman walked by and looked shocked, thinking he'd really smacked his head on the pole. She looked at me accusingly.

"He's a 15-year-old, just being dumb," I told her, and she walked on, not fully believing me.

Mark's next victim was a really drunk girl in her mid-20s. She saw him "banging" his head, grabbed his arm and stopped him.

"No!" she said. "Don't do that! You'll damage your brain and end up like..." She stopped, scanning the street to find a really drunk person to point out. There were none, so she turned back, trying to focus on him, not realizing SHE was an example of the really drunk person she was looking for. She slurred, "Trust me, it's bad for your brain," then raced off, leaving the kids and I in hysterical laughter.

"What happened?" Tim asked, walking out of Pat O'Brien's. We couldn't stop laughing long enough to tell him.

Kim spied a voodoo shop across the street and got excited. "Let's o buy some voodoo dolls!" she cried, and I immediately stopped laughing. 

"No way," I said. "You don't mess with the voodoo stuff here. They take it REALLY seriously in New Orleans--it's no joke!"

I'd wandered into a cemetery once on my first trip to NOLA, stumbling across the grave of Marie Laveau, the queen of voodoo. It was decorated all around with black candles, chicken bones and other weird stuff, and even though it was broad daylight, it gave me the shivers and creeped me the hell out. I don't mess with the voodoo stuff.

But my family wanted to see. They entered the shop, laughing and loud, as we usually are. But they stopped laughing the minute they entered, because there was a giant security guy with stripes tattooed across his massive arms, standing in the doorway (It looked like he was wearing a striped prison shirt.). The shop keeper glared at us from behind the cash register, and my family immediately recognized this was a real, working voodoo shop, and not a tacky souvenir store. This was where voodoo practitioners bought their supplies, and it was no joke. 

We made a quick round through the store. I followed Mark closely, slapping his hands down so he didn't knock over the skulls or burning black candles. He protested, insisting he wasn't touching anything, but I don't need any bad juju so I stayed on him until we were safely out of the store.

Our mood was not nearly so light when we spilled back onto the street. But Mark immediately lifted it by finding the nearest pole and pretending to walk into it. 

A lone guy was walking just ahead of us and saw the whole thing. As he passed us, he asked, "You okay, bro?" And the way he said it--like he was inquiring more about Mark's mental health than his physical health--we lost it again. That became our new motto, and we asked it anytime someone did something questionable or stupid. 

We kept on walking, ending up in Jackson Square again. Tim, Kim and the kids loved the cathedral, and I thought this shadow of Christ splayed on the church was pretty cool. (It was even cooler than the actual statue with the light pointing at it.) 

We crossed over to Cafe Du Monde, and when we saw there was no line, we cheered and ordered bags of beignets.

We stood outside the cafe on the sidewalk, chowing down on our hot beignets. I stood next to some buskers--one guy playing a sax, one playing an out-of-tune guitar, and a tiny young woman playing a giant stand-up bass. She was also singing, and had the most incredible voice. I couldn't believe it--I just stood there, mesmerized, listening to her voice bounce off the surrounding walls. She sang like an angel, stopping only to beat that bass. I closed my eyes and just listened--it was truly a magical moment. 

For about the 40th time that day, I reached into my pocket and fished out some dollar bills, dropping them into the bucket. The biggest souvenir I bought in New Orleans was live music, and I was grateful for it.

Finally, around 10 p.m., exhaustion finally caught us. We'd all been up since 4 am PST, and we needed to sleep. We had a boat to catch the next day, so we trudged back to the hotel with a bag of beignets for my mom, tired, full and extremely happy.

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