Monday 18 July 2016

Keep travelling

We're living in dispiriting times. Watching the news, reading the paper, they're a real downer these days. What I find makes it worse is the idea behind this blog, Only Connect (thanks, EM) so that when people get mown down on the Promenade des Anglais, or a bomb explodes outside the Blue Mosque, or policemen get shot in Louisiana, I don't just read the words and see the pictures on the screen, I can smell the air and feel the sun on my skin. I know that those people running along the road in panic, or lying bleeding on the ground, or suddenly dead, are people just like me, tourists visiting somewhere they liked the look of, to have a good time and discover new things; or are people who simply live there, doing their jobs, going home at the end of the day to their families, their cats, their homes. Or not.

It's a good thing, I think, to see them as actual people, to be able to identify with them and feel their fear and outrage; not just more faceless victims.We really do need to think that way, hard and tiring though it can be in the face of such a relentless onslaught of horrors everywhere around the world. Sympathy and empathy: those are important but rarely mentioned benefits of travel. That's why we shouldn't cop out and stay at home. Go wherever you fancy. Don't cross Turkey off your list. Doing that would not only mean you're depriving yourself of seeing a beautiful, friendly, interesting country unlike any other; but it also means all those people who depend on tourism for their living - like my Insight Vacations Tour Director, Barcin, who keeps posting hopeful photos of lovely places on Instagram - are victimised too. None of us can let terrorism win.*
*Or even random acts of violence, such as the cinema shooting that I've just been reminded happened a year ago in Lafayette, which I've been describing as a friendly, safe-feeling place in my stories about it. Which it is, of course.

Thursday 14 July 2016

14 Juillet: Laissez les bon temps rouler!*

C'est aujourd'hui le quatorze juillet et je viens d'être en Louisiane où ils parlent français. That's not just the odd word, like grand or beaucoup flung into an otherwise English sentence, though that happens all the time; or titles for places like Salle de Danse and Presbytère; or even joke French like Geaux Cajuns! or Buy Leauxcal.
No, there are actual Americans who've lived there all their lives, who speak French naturally and as their first language; which is kind of chastening for those of us who take a bit of comfort from what we thought was the fact that being monoglot in an English-speaking country is the default position. Well, it probably is, actually - but when you come across these effortlessly bilingual people, as you certainly will in Louisiana, it's hard not to be envious.
Of course, here in particular it's celebrated as a point of difference, since the locals like to vaunt their separation from the rest of the US both historically - "We're 80 years older," I was told several times - and culturally. Both the Cajuns (descended from the French settlers evicted by the British from Acadia, now Nova Scotia) and the Creoles (locally-born of settler stock originating from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, including native Americans and both slaves and free people of colour, all intermingled) spoke and still use French. Sadly, since its use was forbidden (and punished) in schools after the Constitution of 1921, it's declined as a first language and now it's only the elderly who speak it fluently. Like Wallace here, at Johnson's Boucanière, who greeted us all in French as we arrived on our Cajun Food Tour to try their very tasty Sausage and Tasso with Sauce Piquante.
But they're trying to revive it. I hope they succeed. Bonne chance!

* Yes, this is not correct French - but it's Louisiana French, and they use this sentence all the time, so ne t'en fais pas.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

All praise to the mealworm!

When you visit Lafayette, it's non-negotiable that you go to Vermilionville. It's one of those historical villages that isn't real, but has been built out of genuine old buildings that have been relocated, and others that have been reconstructed. You find them everywhere - we've got them all over the place here in New Zealand - and they're usually worth a leisurely stroll around.
Lafayette's is done with customary thoroughness, the story boards throughout telling you the basics, and the costumed artisans inside filling in with the quirky details. Plus, the grounds are pretty, full of mature trees, gardens and neat lawns, beside the Bayou Vermilion. In June, it was sweltering outside, but inside is cool, not because the original inhabitants succeeded at ventilating their homes - though they tried - but because they cheat with air conditioning, to preserve the furnishings. So I spent most of my time poking around inside the buildings looking at portraits made with human hair, quilts that held secret instructions for escaping slaves, the bath-sieve system (line it with a bed sheet that you can take out to shake off the bits as the entire family takes their turn with the same water) and listening to the impassioned - if hard to understand - speech of a Creole fiddler in the school house where some pre-Bart child has had to write 100 times "I must not speak French".
To be honest, though, the most important bit of information I came away with wasn't historical at all, but a recent, and accidental, discovery. In the building given over to the Bayou Vermilion District's environmental display, I met a ranger who showed me a most astonishing thing: it was an open glass tank, like an aquarium, the inside filled to the top with bits of broken polystyrene. The bottom few inches were taken up with a yellowy, grainy substance. Not very interesting? I tell you, this is SPECTACULAR! (Though, sadly, not so spectacular that I thought to take a photo of it. My bad.)

What was happening here, was that a few handfuls of mealworms, those wriggling invertebrates used for fish food and other lowly functions, were busy living full and productive lives eating nothing but polystyrene and converting it to an organic soil conditioner.  Just think: all that unrecyclable polystyrene clogging up landfills all over the world, floating in rivers and the sea, blowing along city streets, that's been impossible up till now to dispose of in an environmentally-sound manner - IT CAN BE EATEN BY MEALWORMS.

I think that’s a huge discovery. Everyone should know about it. Pass it on.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Far from Baton Rouge

It's only a two-hour drive from Lafayette to Baton Rouge: no distance at all, really. I didn't get to the state capital on my recent visit to Louisiana. The nearest I came to it was Lafayette, where I spent three very enjoyable days mooching about discovering the food, the history and the music. The last one meant I was wandering on foot through the warm summer nights, invariably getting lost in the town's quiet winding streets, but never feeling ill at ease. On the contrary: people I came across greeted me in a friendly manner, young and old, black and white.

And then, when I finally found the Blue Moon Saloon, tucked away down a side street, and went through to the back porch to sit along the wall with other random strangers to listen to Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys (with their star scrub-board player), I was treated to an impromptu dance display from two former strangers that, for me, in my personal experience, sums up the vibe of the South. Nothing like Baton Rouge at all.


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