Thursday, June 16, 2016

Food for thought. Plus the other sort.


Today I learned things, and ate rather a lot. So, a good day, then. I started by going to the Acadian Cultural Centre to watch a film about the history of Acadia, and make some connections with my cruise past Nova Scotia a couple of years ago. There, it was just the name of an area, which I equated with a national park or something similar; but today I learned all about the shocking history of les Acadiens (Brits beware: you’re not the goodies).

Not far from there is Vermilionville, a historic village of relocated and reproduced buildings from 1765 to the 1890s, furnished authentically, beautifully landscaped, and populated by artisans in period costume. Luckily, there was a summer camp programme running, so I was able to eavesdrop on their little lectures, which is where I learned about, for example, sleep tight (make sure the ropes that support your mattress are taut) and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (baby got bathed last in the family tub, by which time the water was brown – though they did employ the nicety of lining the tub with a sheet, to sieve out the worst between bathers).

The afternoon was taken up with a CajunFood Tour, with the enthusiastic Marie in her bus strung with Tabasco bottle lights and her rallying cry of “Allons manger!” We made six stops around Lafayette – not a progressive dinner (though we did end with dessert), it was no place for vegetarians. There were crab and corn bisque, a shrimp po’boy, pork crackling (meat and fat as well as skin), boudin which though it looks just like one is emphatically not a sausage, and a mysterious saucy nibble that we were challenged to identify. Well, it looked like chicken, it tasted just like chicken, and when it was all eaten the bones looked like chicken – but apparently it was farmed alligator, so that’s another first.

As she drove us around the town, Marie chattered away, and in fact (a former history teacher) made a better job of recounting Acadian history than the arty movie had that morning – but also random snippets like the biggest branch of the live-oak tree outside the cathedral weighs the same as 14 African elephants; the Old Tyme Grocery produces 2000 po’boys every Friday in Lent; an alligator in the little University swamp has escaped twice in the last couple of months to roam the campus. It was fun, and interesting, and tasty, and the company was good, too: “Zach,” asked Julia of the sole young man on the bus, “I have a daughter. Are you married?”


And the day wasn’t over: that evening it was back to the Blue Moon Saloon for my first zydeco music. Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys were playing and Terry’s girlfriend, sitting next to me, said, “You’re going to love it. It’s happy music!” And it was, lively and jiggy and impossible not to tap along to. The small but adoring - and very friendly - crowd didn’t leave it at that: there were all sorts of dancing, as individual as the dancers, and some of them were really good, the girls swept along and around by fluidly strutting young men. It was a pleasure to watch them, on a warm night on the back porch of the Saloon with a dog wandering through and a cat asleep at the entrance.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Loving Lafayette

It was all about the twanging today: accents, nerves, music, frogs. The Southern accent is real and charming, and never more so than when delivered by a courtly gentleman with a white goatee and twirled moustache who would be politely scornful of my reference to Colonel Sanders, though it’s irresistible.

Coerte set up the Atchafalaya Experience which is now run by his son Kim, but he came along today as we spent over three hours alternately skimming and pootling around part of the immense Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the US. Tannin-stained waters reflected cypress trees hung with Spanish moss, purple hyacinth flowers were blooming, ospreys whistling back at Kim from twiggy nests at the top of trees, colonies of wood storks lurched into flight as we approached, flamingo-pink roseate spoonbills crossed against a blue sky. Of course all this beauty was incidental to our hunt for alligators, which were elusive thanks to the high water level flooding their muddy banks – but I did see the snaggly swirl as a big mother (you could supply the hyphenated bit if you want – it would be accurate) disappeared under the water, her babies scattering. It was a good trip – fun, informative and entertaining, and I recommend it.

It was so hot and sunny that I got sunburnt, and the little kids back in town were making good use of the fountain at Sans Souci Park. The streets there were quiet at 5pm and I thought it was early for things to have shut up – but of course it was just the doors that were closed, to keep in the air-conditioning. Lafayette is a pretty place, small enough for people to say hello to a passing stranger, big enough to supply any tourist’s need, whether for character buildings, impressive cathedral, well-presented museums, tempting shops, good food, music.

Having jangled my nerves by driving myself around on the wrong side of the road, it was a relief to tuck into some tasty crab cakes at Randol’s and watch a bunch of oldies show off their fancy footwork dancing to the Cajun band that was playing. Some of them are apparently so keen that they come every night to twirl and trot. They were bolder than the younger crowd at the Blue Moon Saloon back in town, who stood around tapping their toes at the Cajun jam session in progress – evenly divided between guitars and violins, and led by the man with the squeezebox – but were a bit too shy to do more. Shame – I’d’ve liked to see some action from the girl in the strappy dress and red cowboy boots.

And finally, there was twanging from the frogs in the little swamp beside the hotel, an invisible chorus in the hot and steamy night.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Trained to expect the worst

Anyone who’s travelled with Amtrak knows that the schedule, while not quite a work of fiction, is more of a suggestion than a real timetable. So it was that I sat for over an hour in the railway station at Houston waiting for the Sunset service that runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans. It was, as old hands like me pretty much expected, delayed by having to cede precedence to freight trains (whose companies actually own the tracks, unlike Amtrak which just has access); an even older hand than me was just glad it wasn’t three hours late, like the last time she travelled.
Never mind. My first trip was only Houston to Lafayette, a journey of about 5 hours, leaving at around lunchtime. At first it’s a bit disappointing that there’s no wifi, but it doesn’t take long to get into the vibe: mining the depths of your music collection, gazing at the scenery, eavesdropping and people-watching – like the two old black men yarning away, one of them explaining in friendly tones that the other has “misconstrued” what he said; the lady sitting down in the lounge car and praying for a solid three minutes before starting on her lunch, the National Park service guys with their travelling exhibition of coyote, otter and beaver pelts, turtle shells and alligator skulls (Norbert was particularly chatty).

Time passed, as did the scenery: lots of trees, some farmland, much rice (who knew?), a huge and horrible refinery, rivers and swamps all muddy brown from recent rains and harbouring ‘gators – not that I saw any, though one man did. We stopped and waited, for freight trains, for the new crew to turn up at Beaumont, for more time to pass. The train hooted, classically and frequently. And eventually, and only an hour late, we got to Lafayette, a pretty little town of around 200,000 souls all told, which I will explore over the next couple of days. So do come back, y’all.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hello Houston

According to my Ethiopian taxi driver, who claimed to know where NZ is though he provided no proof, Houston is the fourth-largest city in the US and about to overtake Chicago as #3. It wears its size lightly, by which I mean it’s deceptively small, by which I mean it certainly doesn’t feel that big.
It’s flat, there’s a cluster of admittedly impressive skyscrapers in the centre, but most of it presumably is spread-out suburbs. It certainly took a while to get into the centre from George Bush Intercontinental (where the arrival procedures are typically unwelcoming and tedious but mercifully a bit quicker than the hell of LAX). I’d read that getting around on foot isn’t a Houston thing – no doubt the oppressive (33 today) heat has something to do with that - and yes, the streets seemed quiet; but those who were out there seemed pleasant and friendly, from the polite panhandlers soliciting change to the cheerful young men wishing me good day to the chatty girl in tight Lycra rolling up her yoga mat at Discovery Green.
Dana, my server at the otherwise unremarkable Guadalajara restaurant (I followed a group of locals in there but as a recommendation technique it wasn’t a huge success) was particularly nice. She put me onto Saint Arnold Amber beer, made just down the road, which was excellent, and then sent me afterwards to both Discovery Green and Phoenicia.
Phoenicia, in Auckland terms, is Farro on steroids: a deli-cum-grocery story that sells all the food. It’s amazing, and beautifully presented, and fascinating, and full of temptations. Green almonds in the artistic fruit and veg section, that’s a first for me. Also, upstairs, cigars and magic teas in a glass cupboard. They were resistible, but not the cakes and pastries, which could have come from any French patisserie. They also stock NZ wine (I checked, of course).

Discovery Green was full of children playing, big fish in the pond, bowling-green perfect lawns, a stage, neat plantings, trees, birds and dog walkers – really nice, surrounded by tall glass buildings, and it felt safe for wandering. A friendly mounted policeman helped with that – always good to see – but mainly it was the general laid-back feeling of the place. No crowds, no hurry, no big-city vibe. That’s the considered verdict, based on a whole twenty-four hours’ experience: how wrong could it be?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Gator-aid

'Croc horror.' It wasn't a bad effort by the NZ Herald, and a nice little nod to the Sun. It's nothing compared to the much-celebrated front-page, all-caps glories of the NT News, of course - but then, up in the Northern Territory, they get so much more practice. 'Crocky Horror Picture Show' on a story about stupid selfies with crocodiles; 'G'day, Bait!' above a photo of a croc lunging towards a fisherman; the epic 'Croc Fights Shark'; the curious 'Fish Eats Croc'; the classic 'A Croc Walks Into a Bar'; the tempting 'Win Your Own Croc'; the obvious 'Great Australian Bite'; the inevitable 'What a Croc'. (None of these can of course compete with the paper's famous winners 'Why I Stuck a Cracker Up My Clacker', 'A Pack of Dogs Ate My Car', the haunting 'Frog Struck Down by Lightning' and the unavoidably wordy 'Best Man Left Bleeding After Being Hit in Head by Flying Dildo.')

Today's story was about a New Zealand woman who's been taken by a crocodile in the Daintree, in northern Queensland. Her last words were "A croc's got me!" which at least gives her family a resonant quote to use when telling the story - as they will, over and over, for generations. Bit harsh? Maybe, but not only is she a total stranger to me, also she was stupid - she'd lived there for years, she knew the dangers, and still she and her friend chose to go swimming in the sea at night. Darwin Award winner right there.

Inconsistently, however, I'm hoping to get a story soon that will hinge on some Aussies who were too cowardly about being eaten by a prehistoric reptile - I've heard of some on an alligator-spotting tour of a Louisiana bayou who, when the boat broke down, after sarcastically playing 'Row, row, row your boat' and the 'Titanic' theme on their phones, to the boatie's irritation, then came over all panicky about being got by a gator, and insisted on being transferred to another boat. Wusses! Perfect Aussie-baiting fodder coming up...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Laced apart

Things have been a little quiet here, blog-wise, but only because there's some good stuff coming up pretty soon, so don't go away. It all take a bit of organising - especially when there are quite a lot of loose ends to tie up from other travels. So that's had me revisiting Scotland, Gettysburg, Washington DC, Canada, England and our very own Deep South (that's a clue, son). 
I have no complaints, tasting again in memory whisky-smoked lobster and rose lemonade, clopping along on docile Robbie past Gettysburg's zigzag split-rail fences and innumerable battlefield monuments and statues (actually, 1400, near enough), puzzling out the excitement caused by nothing happening when the Washington Nationals played the Miami Marlins... It's all good stuff, with the added, literally, interest of looking up the background stuff that I always mean to research beforehand, and never do. 
But, work aside, the idea behind this blog is that everywhere you've gone becomes a part of you, and you'll be reminded of it randomly forever after (see above, right). So the main reason for this post is that I was thinking - again, but coincidentally - about Ecuador. Because the weather's turned cold, finally, and I found myself for the first time for ages tying shoelaces.
The first time I went to Quito, in 2012, I was diverted by seeing, in the main square beside the San Francisco church and monastery, an old lady selling shoelaces, all tied onto a pole that she carried around with her. I'd got used to seeing vendors of all sorts of, to me, quaint things - cellphones to rent for a call, loaves of bread on a tray balanced on someone's head - but to make a living from selling shoelaces seemed to me the most precarious of all; even more than shining shoes.
And then, when I was back there again last year, blow me down, there she was still! Possibly not still, one old lady looks much like another when you're flooded with new impressions and not paying detailed attention - but, anyway, there was someone similar presumably earning money by selling something as cheap and inconsequential as shoelaces. Except - and here is exactly the sort of small thing that delights me about travelling and finding out about other places and people - when I mentioned this to my guide, he was as astonished as I was. But what amazed him was learning that in my culture, people don't change their shoelaces every couple of weeks. When I said that I stick to the same pair for the life of the shoes, he was silent in disbelief. So there you go. Of course, this would be the perfect place for a photo of the old lady with her colourful bundle - but I didn't get one, so you'll just have to make do with the man and his tray of bread.

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