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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Bus Tour Through New Orleans

We got up early (again) Wednesday morning. We didn't have quite as long a drive, but would be getting into some morning rush hour traffic. We left right when I had hoped. We were going into downtown New Orleans for a bus tour at Adventures in New Orleans Bus Tours. We got there in plenty of time, even had enough time to search for the elusive parking spots. That did take quite a while.

We got checked in and soon were on our bus. It was comfortable, with enough leg room to keep from feeling squished. We were greeted by our driver and guide, a feisty older woman with bright blond hair that flashed at us as she drove.

We started down the road and she started telling us facts and tidbits with each turn of the wheels. The bus meandered quickly and efficiently through the narrow streets of The Big Easy. Her accent again made it a little difficult for me to catch everything, but she was funny, knowledgeable, and opinionated.

She told us how true people of New Orleans didn't do well giving directions. "We don't know north from south," she explained. "You will come to corners of streets where a street named South Elm will intersect with a street named South Walnut," she laughed in a boisterous laugh. "If you need to ask for directions," she went on in a thick southern drawl, "your best bet is to ask one person, walk down to the first turn and then ask another person. Keep doing that until you find where you want to go."

She told us stories of each building of significance along the way. She laughed about odd laws in Louisiana. How "gambling" is illegal, but "gaming" is not as we went passed Harrah's casino. The fact that they have places that will sell you a daiquiri through a drive thru window. You read that right, not virgin daiquiris either. On Grand Isle we saw a couple of drive thru daiquiri establishments. They were all closed for the season, so we weren't able to investigate, so I had been very curious how that worked. Did Louisiana not have open container laws? This would now be explained to me. She laughed in her now familiar way, "we do have open container laws, so how do you think they get around that?" I listened intently as I was baffled. "They use a lid and a straw. The straw is already in the cup, with part of the straw paper still on it. As long as that piece of straw paper is still on the straw, it is considered a closed container." She laughed again and went on, "now, believe me," she said, "once those straw papers are off, you can't get them back on, I've tried." The bus laughed with her.

I didn't try taking photos out the tinted windows. There were two stops though, where we were allowed to leave the bus and look around. The first was at St. Louis Cemetery. Before we got there, our guide taught us about how burial was done in southern Louisiana. "We can't bury our dead like you do up north. They tried, and the coffins kept coming back up to the surface and bobbing along. That wasn't something people enjoyed seeing or dealing with," she explained. "So, we put our dead in vaults. They are first put in a holding area for a year," she peaked back at us in her mirror looking for reaction. "Back in the day, people might be accidentally buried alive. They looked dead, but then as the family was getting ready for the funeral, they'd open the casket and find scratch marks on the inside. That was when the tradition of holding a body before placement in the vaults became practiced. The law is still on the books today, and is still done."

She went on, "Now, the vaults are owned by families. The family has their loved one's casket put into the vault after the waiting period. Here in New Orleans, we get pretty hot summers. These vaults are made of concrete. The insides of the vaults get very hot.  A body in a wooden casket goes through what we call 'natural cremation.' The casket and the body eventually disintegrate. Then when the next family member dies, they are put into the vault, they disintegrate, and so on. You can be in the same vault with your great great grand daddy."

That was creepy enough for me, then it got creepier. "Now, when all of your family has died off, if no one has ever paid for the vault in perpetuity, the grave yard can sell your vault and new people can be added. You could end up in eternity with a complete stranger." She looked back at us again studying us for response. I know she was gratified with my response. I must have looked in horror. "It's not weird to us, it's just how it's done." With that she let us off the bus to look at the history within the gates. 

Some of the vaults are meticulously kept up, and some left to dirt and decay, much like cemeteries I know. Some are grandly adorned with angle statues, others with simple crosses. 

New Orleans was, and probably still is a very Catholic town. There was also a statue of Mother Teresa with flowers that had been left by admirers. 

The next stop on the bus tour was City Park. We were told that episodes of NCIS- New Orleans were filmed there. I didn't see Scott Bakula though, whats up with that? 

We didn't have much time to explore City Park. Bathroom breaks were necessary and a snack of a freshly cooked beignet. 

Then it was back on the bus for the rest of the tour. The driver took us by some houses that had waterlines from the flooding during Katrina. We were not taken into areas still damaged, all these years later, to gawk at the misfortunes of others. I don't know if this was a matter of respect or a way to hide how many are still waiting for help. Judging by the way the driver spoke of Katrina, I believe it was out of respect. She held nothing back when expressing her feelings of how it was dealt with. She reminded us that it wasn't the storm itself that caused the damage. I remember that,  I watched Shepard Smith in the middle of downtown relieved and happy that the worst didn't happen. The city has let out a sigh of relief. Then the levies started to fail. It was the disintegration of the levy system that destroyed so much and killed so many, not the storm. She showed us the repairs made and doubted they would help much in the next storm. 

Down the last road on our way back we went down the parade route for Mardi Gras. The trees were heavy with colorful, shiny beads dancing in the breeze. The driver told us that the city stopped trying to remove the beads. "By the time they'd get them all down, it would be time for Mardi Gras again. They are leaving them for the tourists, hoping they take them all." 

Oak Alley Plantation House

After wandering the grounds and walking through the slave cabins of Oak Alley, we got in line to tour the house. It wasn't a short line. We probably waited 30 minutes to get in. The grandkids did great with it though. They found places to play while we held our spots in line. Lorelei snoozed away in her mommy's arms, cuddled in with her wrap. I honestly think I became more frustrated with the wait than they did.

When finally we entered the house we were greeted by a woman in period dress. She took us in to a room and started to tell us the stories of the two most prominent families that lived in the house. A house made possible by the hard work and slavery of other human beings. She made no excuses for slavery. She told us the facts and did not try to sugar coat any part of how the slaves were treated. She seemed proud to, as she put it, "finally tell the story," of those that suffered. 

The beauty of the house was obscured, to me at least, by the pictures in my mind. A slave boy working a huge fan. A slave woman serving tea to those who looked at her as an object with no depth. It was hard for me to let go and separate the house from the slave shacks. I wondered what it took for one person to believe they had the right to own another. It was foreign  to me. How do you look a man or woman in the eyes and believe you are allowed to buy and sell them? Split up their families on your whim. Sell their children like a piece of furniture. Then go into an extravagant house to let one of their other children cool you with a giant fan. 

A fan used to cool the family during dinner, operated by a young slave.
The house was beautiful. It had many things to make the families that owned it happy and comfortable. Gorgeous dinnerware, large silverware. We were told that large dinnerware was a status symbol. Since silverware was truly made of silver, the larger your forks and spoons were, the more wealthy you must be. Apparently, status was more important than actually eating when guests were over.

Along with the large silverware and gold rimmed dinner plates sat cloth napkins draped over something. Underneath, was explained, were fly catchers. Windows didn't have screens, so an apparatus with sugar water was on the table. It was made in a way that a fly could get in, but not get out. The napkin, well, would you want to eat with a jarful of dead flies staring at you? 

The rest of the house was full of beautiful furniture and craftsmanship. Yet, I found myself feeling suffocated and wanted the tour to end. Our guide, was doing a very good job telling the stories. Yet I was in another place. Thinking of people playing games in the parlor, or giggling with their young children, all the while planning to rip someone else's child away to be sold. Teaching their young children that it was perfectly normal and acceptable to buy and sell people. To let people be beaten and whipped to make their own lives easier. To enrich themselves on the backs of other's hard work. 

I couldn't breathe. 

On the second floor was a set of large double doors leading to a balcony. Our tour guide built up the opening of the doors in anticipation of the view. Once opened, I felt the fresh air hit my face. I started to feel better. I took a large breath and looked out the doors. 

There, the trees took over. The oak trees that gave the plantation its name. They estimate the trees at 300 years old. They have no record of who planted the trees. The way they are planted seem to suggest perhaps a Spanish arborist. They honestly don't know though. It doesn't matter. The trees were beautiful. Tunneling fresh air from the river. Each tortured turn of a limb a memory in the past. They were there before the house. They were possibly there before slavery began on the land. They have seen the best and worst of the people who have passed through. They know where the people came from, and where they ended up. The trees know the beauty and the ugliness that happened around them. They grew tall through strength, and with each twisted limb they honor those forgotten. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Oak Alley Plantation

When the idea of going to the gulf started turning into a plan, I started researching things we could do besides sitting on the beach. Not that sitting on the beach was a bad thing. I just thought as long as we were near New Orleans we should take advantage.

As I researched, I found a lot of plantation tours. I wasn't sure how the grandkids would do with one of those. Would they get bored? Would they whine or cry during a tour? I decided to send out a general text asking what everyone thought about a plantation tour. Everyone, including parents seemed to think it was a good idea.

Next was finding one that wasn't ridiculously expensive. Once I found the power pass site, that became easier. There were two that we could see with that pass. After looking at websites, and asking for input, I decided to go to Oak Alley Plantation. Its site described a tour that, besides the manor house and grounds, there was also the history of the lives of the slaves that made the plantation what it was.

I was struck by the extremes in the difference in life between slave and owner. I mean, I knew, I knew that the difference was horrifying. The clash between the harsh reality of the slave, and the ridiculous, pampered extravagance of the plantation house was stomach turning. On display were shackles used on children. On children. I have never lived in a delusion believing that children were not treated horribly as slaves. Still, seeing an actual set of shackles, that were used on precious children, was heartbreaking. I looked at my grandchildren, and looked back at the shackles. I tried to imagine the feelings of parents and grandparents seeing their beloved children wearing these evil contraptions. There is no imagining such things. No way to ever know how these parents felt. I had to hug my granddaughter.

The houses for the slaves were very simple and very meager. The "house slaves" ranked a little better. Their clothes were in better repair and made of better fabric. Not because the plantation owner felt they deserved something a little better. No, it was because having slaves, that neighbors would see in the house, dressed in nicer clothes, was a status symbol. It meant that the plantation was doing well, and the owners were very rich. If they dressed their slaves nicely, they obviously were superior to everyone. 

The house slaves were also provided with a few more sticks of furniture. Perhaps a small, simple table as well as a chair and bed. The field slaves had even less. The look of their clothes did not matter to the status of the owner. Their comfort was not a priority. 

When not working in the field, some slaves were allowed to raise chickens, and gardens. The produce and eggs could be sold back to the plantation owner. This was about the only way a slave could earn a little money of their own. Most slaves were not allowed this opportunity. The ones that were, at least had a small sliver of hope to one day buy their freedom. 

The life and work on the Oak Alley Plantation was filled with blistering and dangerous work. It was a sugar plantation, as was common in the area surrounding New Orleans. The work in the field was only part of the misery of the hard work of a sugar plantation. The sugar also had to be boiled, in large cauldrons in the heat of the summer. Heat exhaustion must have been rampant. You can imagine the fires that must have been needed to boil sugar in a cauldron that big. With fires like that, clothes were likely caught on fire causing life threatening burns. Today the cauldrons are filled with water lilies.

The cauldrons were also used for laundry. Trying to wash clothing in these must have been back breaking work on the best days. In the heat of the summer, truly grueling. Typically, different cauldrons were used for laundry than sugar boiling. The photo below, next to the house and fence gives you a better idea of how incredibly large these cauldrons were. 

The thing that angered me the most was a sign that showed examples of how one race of people dehumanized and belittled another by putting a monetary value them. It had copies of ledgers of the price people were bought and sold for. People. As if they were cattle. People. Treated as lesser beings based solely on the amount of melamine in their skin. People. Who's histories and futures were stolen from them because someone saw them as property. People. Kidnapped and ripped from their African homelands and families. People. 

People whose lives were important. People who loved, laughed and danced. People who's children were ripped away and sold off while they cried out. People who's identities were lost to history, but whose legacy runs deep in the south. A legacy that built the south. A legacy, without which the south would never have become what it did. The south owes much more than an apology to the people it enslaved. It owes a deep debt, one that cannot be repaid with mere money. It is a debt that should never be forgotten. We need to always remember the people that were affected by the greed and hate of the old south. A greed and hate that enabled slave owners to think of an entire group of people as "the other." The "other" was not as smart, not as clever, not as bright. The "other" didn't deserve basic human rights. The "other" was not human. The "other" needed to be controlled by their superior. Sound at all familiar? 

The slaves of Oak Alley were not completely lost to history. Their names adorn one wall of one of the slave shacks. 200+ names. Their personal stories may be lost, but their spirit lives on in the trees and the land of Oak Alley. You can feel them there. Making sure their story is told. Making sure we never forget what one group of people can do to another. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Tuesday morning we got up early and were in the car just after sunrise. We were headed into New Orleans for a swamp tour at Cajun Pride Swamp Tours, in La Place north of New Orleans. I had looked at different swamp tours and several didn't take kids under five. That just wouldn't do for us. As I was scouring the Internet looking for appropriate swamp tours, this was the one thing I really wanted to do, I stumbled across the New Orleans Power Pass.

The Power Pass lets you pay one price for ten different activities available in and around the New Orleans area. Two different swamp tours were listed, as well as the aquarium, zoo, two plantation tours, a bus tour of the city and others. I could buy for one, two, three or five days. I decided on a two day pass. Luckily, the day I went to purchase them they were 10% off for a two day pass. They aren't inexpensive, but do save you money in the long run. We could have saved even more, but the grandkids could only take so much in one day. Plus, at some places you can go to the members' check in instead of standing in line.

Our swamp tour started at 9:30. I had misread the times and thought it started at 10:00. I had given us an extra half hour travel time for getting lost, and was hoping that would get us there in time. It did, thank goodness. I think I would have been the most upset if we had missed that.

The tour was on a large pontoon type boat. The guide was very Cajun and I had a hard time understanding everything he said. That didn't matter to me all that much. I was there to see, not so much listen.  I was worried that since it was such a chilly morning that we wouldn't see many gators. At first it looked like we would only see the tops of heads as the water was warmer than the air above. Since we were in their home, and not a zoo situation, if they didn't want to be seen, they weren't going to be seen.

As we floated slowly through the swamp other critters made their presence known. There were birds everywhere. All of different sizes and colors. The swamp itself was beautiful, even if we didn't get to see a gator in full. 

This is an Osprey, pretty cool huh?

I have no idea what was up with him,
but he held that position for several minutes

We even saw a raccoon. OK, so, we can see those in Iowa. Ours are a lot fatter, too. And the fact that they were out and about in the daytime was a bit creepy, but they knew they'd get fed marshmallows, they aren't stupid.

The air started to warm a bit in the mid morning sun, and suddenly alligators appeared, as if from nowhere, on logs throughout the swamp. (Hopefully, they didn't know where those raccoons are fed marshmallows, or lunch may have been raccoon tartare.) I was excited to see a full alligator head to tail. They blended in with the swamp so well, even when on a log, they were still hard to see. 

The grandkids were fascinated with the leathery lumpy critters of the swamp. Noah and Paxton helped each other find gator after gator. Kahlen spent almost the entire two hours hanging over the edge of the boat looking for the next surprise. Lorelei just loved being outside and not in her carseat. 

At the end of the tour, the guide came around with a baby alligator, that he had been raising, for us all to hold. I was surprised that Kahlen and Paxton had no intention of holding that baby. Noah, on the other hand, was all about it. Lorelei even got in on the action a bit. While she was sitting on Willie's lap, he held him. 

As the tour ended and the boat docked, the kids were ready to run around a bit. There was a giant turtle to look at, which somehow I missed, and a few things to climb on. And of course a gift shop to check out. It was also about time for lunch. We left the gators behind and went on our way. 
This is NOT a real gator, I promise.