Friday, 1 January 2010

Day 957 - New Orleans

I decided to be clever and take route 90 around New Iberia, oh dear, a big mistake. It wasn’t a whole bunch of fun, a narrow fast dual carriageway without a shoulder and so narrow across the bridges I had to breath in while I crossed them. Added to that the sides of the road were strewn with bits of sugar cane and needed to be avoided. I got off and onto the much smaller 182, but there was even more sugar cane with lorries full of the stuff passing me, some so full the wind force was blowing it out of the top, I was in danger of being hit by a 2 pound bag of sugar. Ok, so that is exaggerated a little, there was still a little work to be done on it before it found its way into a bag. The road ran alongside route 90 which was now a freeway, the land all around me was either flooded swamp or lived on, there was little else. I spotted a track heading alongside a wood, though it looked a used track so it seemed advisable to try and get some permission before I used it myself. I called at a house, they didn’t own the land but rather insisted that I camp on their ‘yard’ as they called it, but more like about 2 acres of fine grass and the best surface I have camped on since….ooooh….I can’t remember when. I had managed to knock on the right door again and received another truck load of southern hospitality. Wayne and Juanita live there and their daughter Mona and son-in-law Shahar where there for the holiday, all the way down from the San Francisco Bay area, though they had taken just 3 days compared with my 3 months. A pot of coffee was soon brewing, two loaves of pumpkin bread were cut, a shower was taken, chilli was cooked up and the conversation flowed, I was made very welcome indeed. Mona used the phrase “I am so glad that you called in at our house”. Now I normally try and camp without having to ask for permission, so when I do ask I really want to cause as little inconvenience as possible. Disturbing the family for the whole of the evening doesn’t really fit in with my genuine intentions, but when I here phrases such as that, I know for sure that I am indeed truly welcome, I have no more need to be concerned. I still find it odd though, people go out of their way to make sure I have everything I could possibly need, then they say “I am so glad that you called in at our house”, but it does enforce my view that most people in this world are good people.

I had a long run into New Orleans, so I was up early, but didn’t leave before I had been given a coffee and instructed on the best way to get to and across the Mississippi river as bikes are not allowed on any of the crossings. They also kindly tried to give me more food but I was still fully loaded, though did manage to squeeze in a couple of pieces of pumpkin bread, you have to try the local fare, and this was home cooked after all. I passed through Thibodaux and missed my turning on route 1. As I headed back I was stopped at some traffic lights and decided to ask directions, I really didn’t want to lose any more time. A pickup truck pulled up alongside being driven by a strapping young lad. I tapped on the window, he looked at me as if to say “What!”, “Can you open the window please” I shouted miming the action at the same time. The window was opened half an inch. I put my mouth to the gap and shouted my question above the noise and he gave me clear and accurate directions, then drove off with his dog sat on his lap, the same position it had been in the whole time. Clearly an old fart on a bike was a major threat to his wellbeing, though driving around with a dog on his lap is a perfectly safe thing to do! I had to get back on to route 90, but Shahar and Wayne’s directions helped me cross the large Harvey Canal and get me to the ferry across the river, a vehicle ferry costing just $1 for a car and really only used by tourists and cyclists. Once on the other side I made my way through the Downtown area to Uptown, made very easy to find by following the Streetcar (old tram), where I easily found the home of Bill and Erin, my New Orleans hosts found through the Warm Showers website. They are both keen cyclists and I was surprised to find that Bill has his own mail order business selling bike parts to touring enthusiasts, so imagine my delight when I discovered that he was one of the few dealers in the USA to stock my tyres, Schwalbe Marathon XRs. So imagine my dismay when I discovered that he didn’t have any more of my size in stock as they don’t make them any more! His biggest selling product is the British made Brooks saddle. Bill was really impressed with mine, probably one of the oldest, tattiest and misshaped Brooks he had ever seen, though to me it is so comfortable and I dread the thought of having to replace it.

In the morning my first stop was Bill’s office for a little tour around, then the rest of the day was spent dodging the rain, walking under the covered shop fronts, popping in a few, stopping for coffee etc, it wasn’t nice out there. I went into a camera shop to pass the time, being the only customer they latched on to me and tried to sell me a lens attachment I didn’t want for $899, “But a discount of $200 brings it down to a incredible bargain price of $699”. It was ultra wide angle, something I would love but this had the worst vignetting I have ever seen, it was a pile of junk, but they really didn’t want me to go empty handed, or more precisely with a full wallet, so two of them worked on me, the price dropped to $300, then one eventually said to the other “I don’t think he is going to buy it, he is not a buyer”, “Got it in one, that is what I keep telling you” I replied and with that they both walked off and grabbed some poor unsuspecting passer-by on the street. I met Shahar for coffee. His parents live in the city and he had kindly brought me maps to cover the rest of my journey to New York. I’ll tell you, I don’t deserve to be treated this well. It as really interesting to hear some of the recent but tragic history of New Orleans from Bill and Erin. In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina was on a direct path for New Orleans, there was a mandatory evacuation of the entire city, so armed with 3 days supply of clothes, they headed off to stay with family in Alabama. Whilst they were there they heard that the levees had been breached and the city had been flooded, nobody was allowed back into the city and the National Guard enforced road blocks. It was another 6 weeks before they were able to get back to their home. 80% of the city had been flooded, but as it is below sea level it was unlike a ’normal’ flood because it didn’t recede, the water remained there for weeks. They had no idea what had happened to their home, but Erin’s work moved to temporary accommodation in Lafayette and Bill had to do what he could from an office somebody had let him use. The hotels were full for miles around, shelters were set up but they managed to acquire a mobile home to stay in, which they also had to evacuate when Hurricane Rita came through. When they eventually returned home they were one of the lucky 20%, there was no flood damage at all though the roof had some wind damage and it is safe to say the food in the fridge was passed it’s ’best before’ date. The city was far from back to normal, most districts were still without electricity, the supermarkets and grocery stores remained closed for months, the restaurants were packed but could only serve food on paper plates, all of the traffic lights were out of action and it was to be months before any sense of normality returned and 2 years before the street car returned to service. Even now there is still plenty of damage and an enormous amount of work to be done and Katrina is still a subject I hear talked about pretty much everywhere I go around here.

Bill and Erin very kindly took me on a tour of the city, all the bits that I would not have visited if I was sightseeing on my own. I could have only seen it with their local knowledge, they call it ’The Disaster Tour’. Just up the road from them was the first thing to look at, a gated entrance to a park, the water mark still clearly visible on the white paint. We carried on up to one of the levees. Nearby was a post with a height gauge, showing clearly that we were standing below sea level. Just a few metres away was a large canal complete with it’s new water pumps that get used even if they just have a bit of heavy rain as being below sea level it isn’t going to drain on it’s own. From the bridge we could see where the levee had been breached, many of the houses have gone, plots standing empty, other have been rebuilt, yet more are boarded up. This used to be a desirable and expensive place to live, the prices unsurprisingly have plummeted, others have moved in to the area now that it within their price range. We visited an area of another levee breach, this one being in a poorer community, it was totally devastated near to the breach, now all you can see is the concrete bases of houses, though work has just started on rebuilding in the area. A little further from the breach repaired home stand side-by-side with houses that are pretty much as they were immediately after Katrina. The sides are marked with large X’s, with information in each sector such as date checked and searched, number of dead people found, number of dead animals found etc. I was shocked by the state the place is still in. Back home disasters such as this drop from the news and we forget about it and with the passage of time was assume all is back to normal, but over 4 years on there is still an enormous amount of work to do. Many people have never returned, the city’s population is well down on pre Katrina. I found it morbid, yet thoroughly fascinating. I questioned why I was really wanting to see this, but it is really no different to seeing the likes of Hiroshima, it is just more recent history, that’s all. We stopped of at a café that Bill and Erin use with their cycling club, then we went our separate ways. I walked the short distance to the thoroughly absorbing French Quarter, probably the most famous part of New Orleans. I hadn’t really picked a good day. The previous day’s rain had long gone to be replaced with lovely warm sunshine, I walked around in shirt sleeves. It was New Years Eve, the place was already filling with people out starting early on their binge, but to make matters worse the Cincinatti Bearcats are playing the Florida Gators in a college American Football match tomorrow, another 80,000 people have arrived and they don’t seem to be the quiet types that are heading to the nearest library to sit down with a good book! As the day wore on it got busier and nosier, hardly surprising.

So tomorrow I am on the move again and as yet I haven’t planned a place for my next stop. I rather fancy a 10-14 day stretch without a stop, so I will ride for a week or so before I decide where my next break will be. I will be surprised if I can get through without another large slice of Southern Hospitality though.

Have a joyful and prosperous New Year and a very big thank you to all those many people who have shown me such kindness through 2009, you have made it a wonderful year for me.

8 comments:

aoiffe said...

Your photos are a rich look into the world as you encounter it and yet the the photo at the start of this blog entry seems to need special comment - it is just awesome.

Maria said...

John - thank you for being a part of our life. It is all the richer for knowing that there are genuine, unbiased, accepting people like yourself that can teach us so much about humanity. May 2010 continue to see you enjoy your travels and continue to give to others ;)
Cheers
Michael and Maria

Dick said...

Great tales, fantastic people. Happy New Year, Dick M

Erin said...

Hey John,

It was great to have you stop by our home. I enjoyed hearing about your travels. Now I want to go on a bike tour as well as finish my fixie! Love your photos too, very nice!

Erin Laine

Emily said...

Happy New Year to you from all of us on the farm. I am glad to hear that you are doing well and "being looked-after" as you put it. :)
Safe travels for you---
Emily

caff said...

I agree with Aoiffe that photo is stunning. It is so good I keep looking at it and cannot make up my mind whether it is a real person or whether you've taken a photo of a picture. Please enlighten me! :-)

Mona Farooq said...

John, thank you again for choosing to stay with us. It truly was a blessing and we all feel so fortunate and honored to have had you for your (much too brief) sojourn with us. It was a wonderful experience for us. We only wish that we had more time with you! Your tales and accounts of your journey and your life were most enthralling. You truly are an incredible person. We wish you all the best in the remainder of your travels and in this new year. Take care, dear friend...

JCH said...

These photos really make you stop and look -- excellent work, even without the $699 lens you passed up!
Happy 2010 ...
~Julie