[New photos put up on the photo page.]
Sorry I didn’t get to update this last night. As luck would have it, my computer decided to freak out and give up on me last night. After talking for at least an hour with a very friendly and extremely patient guy from ITS at UNC, I at least have it now so that I can get online and do basic stuff. I really hope this will last the whole trip so that I can still check e-mails and most importantly update this blog. Anyway, since today was mostly a driving day, I’ll put in what I was going to write last night. I scribbled part of it into my notebook last night, but stopped mid-sentence after four pages because I was so frustrated about my computer.
Before I start the new post, I wanted to add a little tidbit that I meant to put on the last post. It’s small, but very important: the Gulf area of Mississippi is the Waffle House capital of the world. Not kidding. While we were driving down U.S. 90 there was literally one every mile. Literally. I don’t know how they all stay in business.
Just a warning, this will be even longer than the last one since I’m having to make up for two days! Enjoy, and I hope you’ll hear from me tomorrow!
“McCain? Obama? Either way we’re serving lasagna!”
~A sign outside a little corner restaurant outside of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
After a hectic day of traveling and changed plans two days ago, we decided to take it easy in the Big Easy (heh-heh). After hanging around for a bit in the morning, we headed down to the street and walked towards the government buildings and the Superdome. The city hall is fairly unusual and not in a good way. Most big cities have some old or cool building to serve as the main focus of their city (i.e. Philadelphia), but New Orleans has an ugly, rectangular, gray building with massive red letters at the top spelling out “CITY HALL.” Needless to say, I was fairly disappointed. All the areas around there are city and government buildings, so there were lots of suits wandering around on their lunch hour. We walked up to the Superdome, which is absolutely massive (thus the name). As we were walking back, I noticed a park across the street from our hotel that had a fence surrounding it, keeping people out. Inside there were signs saying something like “Park closed due to demolition and construction.” I don’t get why they’re closing this park. It’s a beautiful little area in the middle of all these massive buildings — an oasis for workers on their lunch break that adds some green to the otherwise gray part of the city. But I guess the people in their big, grey, rectangular building had better ideas….
At the end of our walk, it was about time for our bus tour of the city to start. It was a three hour tour (not the Gilligan type) that took us all around the city. Think of it as the Cliff Notes version of the city. A bus picked us up from the hotel and transferred us to another bus that had about 10 people on it. And off we went….
The tour started off simply enough, taking us around the main downtown area and through the French Quarter. It was hard to follow him sometimes because he would talk so fast and point out things as we’re flying down the street, but I felt like I got a decent feel for the city. He even let us walk into this old Catholic Church that was built right around or before the birth of the city. It was beautiful inside with massive stained glass windows running down the one large room. The pews were made of iron, which was different but added an antique feel to the room.
We continued around the city, and the tour seemed to shift a little bit. I started hearing more things like this coming out of the speaker:
“Here is a house that was destroyed during Katrina and hasn’t been rebuilt.”
“This used to be such a beautiful area (talking about the Garden District), but all the money left after the Civil War and since then these houses have fallen to ruin because no one can afford them.”
“This building was gutted after Katrina and will be demolished soon.”
“That big grassy area used to have a housing project on it that was just recently torn down.”
It started to seem like a large part of this tour was dedicated to talking about Katrina. We saw other things: the St. Louis Cemetery, where they have above ground in little houses because the water table is so high; City Park, which is a beautiful and massive park outside of the main part of the city with a few lagoons and lakes in the middle; and part of the Mississippi riverfront. This was all well and good. But it seemed like between all of those sights, the tour guide was talking about Katrina and what it had done to all these houses and buildings. He even started complaining about the fact that he lost his tour guide job for a few years after the storm because there were no tourists.
But it didn’t stop there. The last half of our trip was spent in the Lower Ninth Ward — the hardest hit area during and after Katrina. It was awful. Most of the lots were empty, many of them had completely unlivable and destroyed houses and some had houses with trailers in front of them where families were living while they rebuilt their house. One house we could see had been moved a block from where its foundations were. It was awful. Then at one point we pulled up to what the driver called the “Wizard of Oz house” because it was lifted up and spun around to a weird angle by the flood waters. Then he told us we could go out and look at the house and see how bad it was and could see the fridge laying on its side. This was too much for me, I barely looked into the house before going back to the bus.
This is someone’s house that was destroyed. These people lost their home and probably most of their possessions and here we are stepping off our nice air-conditioned bus with our cameras and going “Oh, how horrible!” and then just climb back on. Now I think it was good to see the damage that Katrina did and it’s good for people to realize how damaging this storm was. It’s a shock to the system. I’m glad I saw it.
The problem that I have is that it seems like some people are starting to use the disaster to turn a profit, essentially making business out of tragedy. The brochure for our tour even advertised on the front that it went to “Katrina disaster areas.” I’m willing to bet that before Katrina, the tour didn’t go anywhere near the Lower Ninth Ward. Maybe I’m just a major cynic, but something didn’t sit right with me about all that.
Earlier in the morning, I had read a letter to the editor in the USA Today from a guy who lived in New Orleans before Katrina but moved out after. He had come back to visit and said that the city was still so backward and blamed everything on Katrina. I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe that this was a city that was coming together to reform the area and rebuild: a united front after a terrible disaster. After listening to the tour guide for three hours I wasn’t so sure….
Anyway, as much as I’ve ranted, the tour was pretty good and gave me a decent feel for the city. After we got back to the hotel, we took a shuttle into the French Quarter to walk around and get some dinner. We walked for a little while down Decatur Street on the riverfront and looked at the little souvenir shops. Then we headed away from the river three blocks to the famous and infamous Bourbon Street. Because I have no other point of reference, I have to believe that the small streets, old buildings and open air bars at least slightly resemble a city in Europe. I could be totally wrong. Even at seven in the evening the street was already crazy. There are hundreds of open air bars with music blasting out into the street and workers out in front with signs trying to get customers. I can only imagine what happens there later and on the weekends, much less Mardi Gras. One cool thing about the area though: no open container laws. You could get your drink to go and walk down the street! I think I’ll have to make a trip back there once I turn 21….
As we walked down, we ran into a big crowd of people and realized they were shooting a movie on the street. We didn’t recognize anyone and couldn’t even tell what the movie was, but they were shooting a Mardi Gras scene. There were people up on a decorated balcony with a bunch of beads and some extras were in the street with costumes and beads. Unfortunately we couldn’t weasel our way into the shot. They were pretty adamant about getting people through there and out of the way. After we walked around a little more we went to a seafood place to eat down by the waterfront. Then we walked around this little park right on the Mississippi River and watched the Natchez riverboat pull into the dock while we waited for our shuttle to come pick us up. Over behind me I could hear a guy playing trumpet in the park and the music geek in me got excited.
We headed back to the hotel and crashed after a long day.
This morning we got back on the road and headed to San Antonio, Texas, which was about 8 hours away. It was a decent drive, but there was a surprisingly large amount of traffic along the way. We ended up making a bit of a detour (i.e. wrong turn) in Houston, so we got the scenic route around the city. Unfortunately, that also meant many extra minutes spent sitting in traffic. Interstate 10 led us the whole way to San Antonio. After Houston, the area was very scarcely populated with a lot of ranches along either side of the road. I keep waiting to see that thing on the side of the road that makes me realize that I’m not in North Carolina anymore. In Texas things were in large part the same, except there were big trees along the side of the road. Little things are the biggest and most interesting differences between the states, like the road signs being painted in the road and how there is a little access road that runs beside the highway where all the exits go to, instead of an off and on ramp.
We bobbed along the little hills in south Texas until we saw the skyline of San Antonio hovering to our left. We drove by the dreaded Alamodome (where UNC choked away the end of their season last year…) and saw the actual Alamo deeper into the city. We got a hotel right downtown, on the Riverwalk and a short walk from the Alamo. The Riverwalk is this awesome sunken area where there are shops and restaurants all along the bank of the San Antonio River. We went down there to get a pizza for dinner before retiring to the hotel room.
If you thought the last one was long, this one just blew it out of the water. I guess that’s what happens when you have to make up for two days. I promise I won’t let it happen again, assuming my computer holds up (fingers crossed).