Millions of dead fish

When we were on our tour of the US last year, one of our favourite states was Louisiana. We found the swamps beautiful and enchanting beyond belief and adored New Orleans (oh, the grilled oysters…). We wanted to take a tour of the swamps and decided that we didn’t want one of the “see an alligator, take a picture, go home”-tours, so we splashed out on a private tour with the Atchafalayan Basinkeeper himself. It was an unforgettable experience – and we didn’t even see an alligator. We saw lots of other things and Dean, the basinkeeper, knew every animal, bird, fish and insect in the basin. Knowing that this fantastic place will disappear within a very short time frame if something is not done, we joined the organisation, that supports the basin. Which of course means we get a newsletter now and then. Not often – since Dean is busy doing things, not just writing about them. Hm. In the latest newsletter he wrote this:

Hurricane Gustav hit the Atchafalaya Basin very hard. Cypress forests are hurricane resistant and hurricanes are actually good for the health of cypress swamps because high winds knocks down “trash trees.” The Atchafalaya’s fish and hardwood forests are not as lucky. Millions of fish died after the hurricane and it will take years for the Atchafalaya Basin’s fish populations to recover.

We bought and read this book about the swamps, what they mean to the eco-system of North- and South America, who lives there and why they are disappearing. It is very well written and researched and I warmly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in environmental issues. Here’s a quote from the book, where the author is talking to a Cajun shrimper (Tidwell, the author, knew nothing about environmental issues when he was first sent to the bayous by Washington Post to write a piece about the dying Cajun culture):

“All dis land around us, as far as you can see, is droppin’ straight down into de water, turnin’ to ocean. Someday, Baton Rouge, one hundred miles nort’ of here, is gonna be beachfront property.”

Oh, and speaking of books. James Lee Burke‘s detective Robicheaux  operates in Louisiana. This one takes place in the aftermath of Katrina. Both the description of the devastation after the hurricane and the plot are fantastic.

I was actually so fascinated by the swamps that I’m still thinking about retiring in a house on stilts, surviving on a diet of cajun-style cooked shrimp, jambalaya and oysters. As long as there’s Internet…

Egrets, ibises, wood storks, great blue herons, little blue herons, spoonbills and anhingas are feasting on the fish, which have sought refuge here. Photo by basinkeeper Dean Wilson. Above photo also by Dean.

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The Gift Economy?

No matter how hard I try, I never seem to be quite up to speed with what’s going on out there in the world. Today I read about a phenomenon, which I’ve occasionally been arguing for (to a degree), but didn’t even know had a name… Well, it does have a name: The Gift Economy (Wikipedia article disputed, but still quite informative). First book on subject written more than 20 years ago :-(

The source of all this new information is a blog I’ve been following for quite a while. It’s called

This Blog Sits at the

Intersection of Anthropology and Economics

which is an unusually accurate title for a blog.

What he uses as an example is a rapper called Lil’ Wayne from New Orleans. Apparently he tipped Coldplay off No. 1 in the American charts. And I’ve never heard of him… Anyway, the interesting bit is that Lil’ Wayne makes practically everything he ever makes freely available on the Internet – in every shape or form you can imagine. So, when his album was recently released, could you then expect it to sell? Well, I would. But I know a lot of people who wouldn’t!

Gift Economy is based on the thought that “What Comes Around Gets Around”. Where I’m certain that variations on this idea can work very well for most artistic products, I’m not so sure about other stuff. As the above blogger muses, will somebody give him the aluminium siding that he so wants? And if somebody did, wouldn’t that somebody go bankrupt very soon? Or would other people start giving him back stuff (he wants and needs)  out of sheer gratitude? I know people who would and people who wouldn’t. Don’t know which kind there are most of out there!

But oh, can I just love the idea of it for a little while!

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New Orleans revisited

When we left New Orleans in September we vowed to come back towards the end of our trip. At that time it was difficult to say whether we were crazy about the place because we’d just arrived in the South and everything was new and exotic, or if the city really was as special as we thought at the time. And after 22 states – yes, it really is that special!

We decided to try out some very touristy things, because our trusted guide book recommended it and because Dane really wanted to. So on our first day, we went on a two hour river cruise on the Steamboat Natchez. A very lovely experience that didn’t feel like a rip-off at all. The Mississippi really is mighty and sailing on her was something special. And on a steamboat. Even if that steamboat was only built in 1978. You should have heard the steampipe organ. It is WAY beyond description!

Next on the touristy agenda was a ride with a mule buggy. We were rather lucky with the driver – he was of Irish descent, but his accent was pure New Orleans – through and through. Dane claimed not to have understood one word he said. And he said a lot! And let Dane drive the mule. He (Dane, that is) was so proud and never realized that the mule knew it’s way through the French Quarter better than most. And also knew to stop at the lights! The driver told one dirty Irish joke after another – among lots of both interesting and juicy (but not necessarily true) anecdotes about New Orleans.

After that we were ready for some food and chose the much recommended Acme Oyster House. Even if it had a queue outside, we were inside in a few minutes. The food was very good – particularly the chargrilled oysters. Mmmmm. But the service. It was super quick – we’d hardly sat down before the waitress was all over us to make up our minds NOW. And the oysters were on the table in a couple of minutes. But – unfortunately – so were our main courses. Which of course meant that the main courses got cold before we could get around to them. And the noise level! Quite stressfull dining experience – in spite of the lovely food at very fair prices.

The black cab driver who took us home was a man who knew how to multi-task. He was on his cell having a very serious discussion with his wife about their finances. And he was discussing with the dispatch about his next ride. And explaining stuff to us. The radio was on too. All this besides driving… But he got us home safely and quickly.

The next day we decided to venture into town (campground is 6 miles west of downtown) by way of public transportation. That’s another first on this trip. So we went across the street to the bus stop. Very soon an elderly black man came, lugging a huge carry-all. He spoke in the dialect I’ve read that the slaves spoke. He said: “Y’all gotta ax the driver”. He was mighty friendly though. Well on board the bus we were approached by a number of more or less strange characters, both blacks and whites. But they were all extremely kind and helpful. We changed from the bus over to the newly reinstated St. Charles streetcar. That was a wonderful experience. The streetcar has only been back in action (after Katrina) for a few weeks. When we were in New Orleans last time, it wasn’t running.

We got off in the Garden District because we wanted to revisit the wonderful flag-shop we visited the last time we were there. Last time Dane got a wind spinner depicting a helicopter, but unfortunately – and the cause of much crying – he forgot it hanging from a tree in Savannah. This time we got two… And a long chat with Brad & Dellwen, the two ageing chaps who run the shop together. They certainly were characters too. Dellwen showed me what Brad had brought back with him after having left him to hike in Alaska for several weeks: A big gold ring, studded with diamonds. So sweet!

We jumped back on the streetcar and continued to the French Quarter again. We’d decided to have a proper meal for once, so had checked out the Zagat guide to restaurants. We’d chosen one and also been in there earlier to book a table. When we came back to claim it, the snotty hostess told us we couldn’t get in, because David was wearing shorts. They could have told us that the first time round, we thought! We trodded on, wondering what to do, because Dane was getting tired. On the way David had the good fortune of being shat on by a pigeon. At the time he didn’t appreciate it at all and was swearing a good deal… But just around the corner was a restaurant with a beautiful courtyard where people were dining. That was exactly what David had been longing for. Sitting outside among palm trees and having a lovely meal. They didn’t mind the shorts or the six-year-old, so we got a table in a corner by a little fountain. In Zagat we read (under the table) that this was one of New Orleans’ top restaurants, Bayona. What amazing luck! David now blessed the pigeon rather than cursed it. We had lovely food and a really, really nice evening. It was expensive for New Orleans, but not at all compared to Copenhagen or London. Just this one example: I had a glass of a wonderful late harvest with my coffee, a wine I’ve tasted before. Reason I remember it, is that it shares it’s name with my brother. It cost 5$ for a glass.

Needless to say, we were approached by more very special characters while waiting for a taxi outside. One guy wanted to make the DJ across the street play Puff the Magic Dragon for Dane, but of course needed a few bucks first, another guy told us not to trust the first guy. And then a biiiig SUV drove up and six black youngsters, all in white, got out, the biggest one of them with a huge snake around his neck… and true to form, our Pakistani taxidriver believed in The Jewish Conspiracy and talked all the way about politics in Pakistan, Iraq and US. Only took a break to marvel over the fact that we actually knew who Benazir Bhutto is…

New Orleans, we will be back!

More pictures and bigger versions here.

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Some city!

Our camp offered a free shuttle bus to downtown New Orleans at 9 o’clock. The driver also took it upon himself to tell us more or less everything about every little house or ditch we passed on the half hour drive. You get the impression that these guys are paid on a words-pr-minute basis. Were they paid on basis on how much their audiences in fact understood of their ramblings, I think they might consider slowing down. Our neighbours in the bus, an elderly American couple, gave up very quickly!

It was quite glorious weather, sunny and hot, but also a little bit windy. Cool, the natives called it. I’d say that’s because they’ve never been to Denmark… The minute you set foot in New Orleans, you realize that everything you’ve heard about how different it is from anywhere else, is quite true. Every phrase I can think of to describe it has been heard a million times before, but still, how about melting pot

We started, as we’ve been told one should, with café au lait and Beignets at Café du Monde. For a food item that is clearly mass produced in that kitchen (they serve nothing else), they tasted surprisingly good. But they are not good for you!!!

Then we spent the next many hours trawling up and down the French Quarter, mainly Royal Street. David had a haircut at a chic little hairdresser, while Dane and I had a drink at a little café, where the waitress had a little bone through her nose. And no, she didn’t look anything like a maneating pygmy. More like a punk from London. The French Quarter is very pittoresque, but doesn’t look anything like the France I know. See here for yourselves:

After having eaten a dozen very good oysters (8$!!!) and Jambalaya, we headed to another part of town, Magazine Street. Nobody apparently ever bothers with the Street or Avenue part of the street names. It’s something like if we said H.C. Ørsted, everytime we mean H.C. Ørstedsvej. Or Oxford, when we mean Oxford Street. It’s that abb(reviation) thing again.

Magazine is very, very long, like so many streets in this country. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to 5-digit house numbers! Almost all the way it is lined with detached or semi-detached houses in colonial style. Some of them so small that they look like doll houses. Either the new houses are built to look as replicas of the houses before them, or they just don’t build new houses. This house here is the only example of modern architecture we saw except for the highrises. It’s a pharmacy!

Every other house was in the style of these:

At one point we came to the fire station. A couple of firemen were sitting about in front of the impressive truck. Dane and I went over to ask politely if we could take a picture of them. And being New Orleanians, they instantly invited Dane to sit there with them. And inside the truck to see everything. And even to sound the horn once! It’s my fault the picture isn’t better – I must have been almost as awe-struck as Dane was!

There were several remarkable shops on the part of the street that we negotiated before nightfall. A lingerie shop with such a special atmosphere and a comfy sofa for the accompanying spouse with glossy magazines for men… And a combined barbershop, hairdresser, haberdashery and bar for men. Unfortunately David had just had a haircut a few hours earlier and he didn’t really need a shave… And there was the wonderful and mysterious shop that sold only flags and wind mobiles. The ancient owner told us that before Katrina, he’d hardly been able to make a living, and nobody really knew what the New Orleans flag looked like – or cared.

But after – everybody wanted the flags for their balconies. And they wanted wind mobiles for joy – something it must have been very hard for a lot of people to find in the months after the storm. It’s been two years since Katrina – and she’s visible everywhere. Some places in the form of posters about rebuilding the city and being proud of her, other places you can just see the waterline. And to the east – mile after mile of devastation. And everywhere people are still talking about it. I would, too.

While the last light faded, we watched some youngsters play basketball and football and then went to have a nice dinner. The taxidriver who was supposed to take us home, knew less about the city than we did. And his English was, eh, rudimentary. But with the help of a GPS and David’s pointing and directing we made it home to camp.

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What a wonderful place!

After having done our washing in a laundromat (yet another first), we drove to a new campsite in Baton Rouge where I have more family! They had long known to expect the crazy Europeans and when we announced our arrival, they were quick to invite us to dinner. And not only dinner, no, homemade Gumbo! Mmmm, that was good! And I must say – what nice family I have over here! Keep’m comin’!

The sweet and hospitable Bryan family (and us) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The next morning we got up and away early for our much anticipated tour of the swamp. We decided to splash out here and charter a boat rather than sharing a ride with other tourists. That turned out to be a very good idea. Searched around on the web for a while and fell completely for this guy here, who’s love for the Atchafalaya basin is unrivaled. On the way there, we didn’t get lost once and made it on schedule (more on getting lost later…). We let our RV stand on a deserted parking lot and took off in Dean’s little boat. Wauw, it was fast!

The swamp, the atmosphere, the sounds defy description. But it was breathtakingly beautiful and magic. Dean was a great guide – telling us about the history of the basin, the terribly many environmental issues that are facing the basin and wetlands generally and about the plants and animals that are invading the swamp and the ones who are extinct or threathened to be extinct. He knew the name of every bird, fish and insect we saw on the way. And – contrary to popular belief – there were no mosquitoes or horse flies or other despicable creatures – only insects we saw in the 2 1/2 hours we were on the water were – dragonflies. In all shapes and forms. We didn’t see any alligators – Dean was sure he saw one at one point, but it went under when we came near it in the boat. He did show us the tracks on the river bank, though! However, I found the ancient cypresses much more fascinating than any alligator could ever be!

 

 

More pictures here

After this fantastic experience, we drove on down towards New Orleans. Pronounced New ‘Orleans much to David’s dismay. And we got so, SO lost. The GPS wouldn’t accept the address given by the campsite, but we figured we could just follow their directions which seemed pretty straightforward. Well, guess what, they were’nt, or else (which is not totally unlikely…) we just got them all wrong. Downside was that we drove around New Orleans for hours. Upside was that we got to see with our own eyes, exactly what havoc Hurricane Kathrina really caused down here. In some of the poorer neighbourhoods we drove through, more than half the houses were left, empty. We probably wouldn’t have seen any of that, if we hadn’t got lost. Besides, we made people laugh. The people sitting in front of their little rickety houses knew that we were lost and grinned at us – but in a real friendly way!

Tomorrow we’ll spend the entire day in The Big Easy.

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