Sunday, November 23, 2014

Louisiana Hospitality

One of the goals of this trip, and in fact, the eastern-most destination planned on our route, was a visit to the city of New Orleans. We approached with trepidation, not just because Lilypad doesn’t do well in the narrow streets of historic cities, but because “NOLA” has a reputation for unsafe neighborhoods and downtown streets. So we were back and forth about even going there for quite a while, but in the end we really wanted to see it. Braving one of the steepest bridges of the trip to make our descent into the city, we landed at a small gated campground on the public bus line.
Our bus, stuck in parade traffic
The next morning we hopped on the bus. The forty minute ride into downtown took about two hours, but we do think the journey is in fact the destination, and this bus ride was very interesting. First we got stopped by a parade and sat for forty minutes as marching bands, horse drawn carriages, cute twirling kids in matching outfits, and a contingent of “Buffalo Soldiers” went by. Evidently parades are so much a part of the lifestyle here that most of the people on the bus didn’t watch it and no one had any idea what it was about. We watched part of it and talked with the woman sitting next to us, who told us what it was like to be in the water and then in the Super dome during Katrina. Then we transferred to a street car, which broke down enroute and we waited a long time for the next one. We found it interesting that when we were on the bus, our white faces were a noticeable minority, but the group in the broken-down street car was almost entirely white tourists.

French Quarter: note "not haunted" apartment for rent
We walked the length of Bourbon Street which we found way too full of inebriated people of all ages, and we were astounded by the number of smokers. We wanted music, but downtown music in New Orleans doesn’t seem to happen without alcohol and tobacco, or before dark, and we had been warned off the public transportation at night. So in our two days in the city, we walked several streets of the French Quarter, shopped the independent venders at the French Market, ate shrimp and grits, took a bus tour, and visited a sculpture park and two very interesting cemeteries. We also spent a few hours in the small but powerful exhibit about Hurricane Katrina in the Presbytere, adjacent to the cathedral on Jackson Square. The personal stories in the exhibit, as well as from our friend on the bus, were very moving. Our campground hostess picked us up downtown both days at 5pm, so we did not experience that famous New Orleans night life. But we did see a bit of the city.

We headed west, up the levee river road of the Mississippi River, marveling at the huge refineries alternating with sugar cane fields and rice fields. We learned a lot about rice culture at the 100-year-old Konriko Rice mill in New Iberia. In Louisiana , the rice fields also produce another lucrative crop: crawfish, thus making both crops sustainable and organic. Also near New Iberia we took the factory tour at the Tabasco plantation, an iconic Louisiana product produced by the same family for over 140 years. 

Pennye fixes the concertina
Our next stop was Scott, just outside of Lafayette, where the fun really began, all because Janna’s concertina had a few sticky keys.  We made our way to the Martin Accordion factory in the area where Junior Martin, founder of the shop and his daughter Pennye Huval were there to welcome us. Pennye quickly pulled the concertina apart and put things right for a charge of only $10.Then she invited us to return the next day to hear them present Cajun music culture to a Road Scholar group. So we happily trundled off to the beautiful municipal campground in nearby Lafayette with its adjacent nature center and trails. When we returned the next afternoon, we were not disappointed.  Three generations of Martins: Pennye, Papa and grandson Joel Martin gave a two-hour talk and musical performance explaining the roots of Cajun music, and illustrating the differences between Cajun, Zydeco, and other regional music styles.
Oh NO, Janna wants a new instrument
We loved the music, Joel singing and playing the accordion, Papa on the steel guitar, and Pennye on  acoustic and bass guitars and triangle. Then we followed her brother on a tour of the accordion factory where the family produces beautiful high-quality Cajun accordions (also known as melodians and not to be confused with piano accordions.)  After that the family insisted we stay overnight in the factory driveway, and Pennye took us out to dinner at a local restaurant where a Cajun band was performing.  The next morning we got to jam a bit with Pennye on the accordion, Papa on the the guitar, Liz on her fiddle, and Janna (believe it or not) on the concertina. What fun.

Still seeking all things Cajun we visited the Cajun Music Hall of Fame in nearby Eunice and saw Junior Martin’s picture on the wall and felt privileged to have had a close encounter with this significant person in Cajun music history. Then, in search of a local eatery where Liz could hear some fiddle, we found D.I.’s Cajun Restaurant. This “field of dreams” place is way out on a crawfish and rice farm, in the middle of nowhere, but everyone knew where to come. The owner generously allowed us to park overnight and gifted us some bread pudding for dessert and a box of fresh-cooked beignets for breakfast. The band was great and Liz got to watch the fiddler all evening and engage him in fiddler conversations during the breaks. The accordionist was sporting a Martin accordion and told us that Junior was his great uncle.

We left Louisiana via this All American Road
If there is any way to sum up our Louisiana experience it is in the hospitality shown us by just about everyone we met. Not since Nova Scotia have we felt so welcome and embraced. Hey wait, there’s a reason for that! Followers of our travels will remember we were very much taken with the story of the early pacifist Acadian settlers of Nova Scotia who negotiated with Native Americans to share the land for five generations, and then were evicted because of the their refusal to take up arms for the British, who by then had acquired the land in wars against the French. A significant number of those folks found their way to French speaking Acadiana, where their descendants, now known as Cajuns, are still graciously and generously sharing their culture with all who come along.

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