It is 1997 and the blackest night you can imagine except for the full moon peeking out from behind the clouds every now and again. We are marching with an enormous drum band along a torchlit road. Our 2-year-old imp is along for the fun in his stroller. This is a “jump up”, Curaçao style. Jump ups are a preliminary to the official Carnaval parades. We march after sundown because it is too hot during the day, and the drummers all have day jobs. Our friend, Jean runs (!) by. We recognize him by his day-glo sneakers but for the rest, in the distance, he is one with the night. The moon slips into view and someone yells, “Hesaw the maan!” , which I take to be garbled Dutch for “Look at the moon!” Everybody raises their right hand to the sky. The cry is taken up by others. I hear it correctly this time, pure Papiamentu, “Hisa bo man!”, “Raise your hand!”, or in the words of the old gospel tune, “Can I Get a Witness?” I got carried away by the crowd and raised my hand too.
2013: We arrived in New Orleans in the late July afternoon. FOTI, always on the ball, phoned ahead for a hotel, because Saturday night is always a party in the Big Easy and we were not going to sleep in the Tahoe. We hopped out of the jeep on Baronne and let the valet sort out the parking, we wanted to get truckin’ (as they say) on down to Bourbon Street.
If the humid air in Memphis felt like a benediction, in New Orleans it was a cloying miasma of exhaust fumes, incense, fish, some kind of sweet flower blooming in the trees, horse manure, sewage, sweat, la cuisine Creole and the unique, watery scent that is the Mississippi. Like the perfume, Tabu, you either love it or you hate it. FOTI remarked, “It smells like Otrabanda.” Otrobanda, literally “other side”. Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao is divided into two halves by the port. One side, all officialdom, is Punda, the other, “Otrobanda” is more interesting. New Orleans smelled like home.
Bourbon Street was found in short order. Joe College is ace at reading maps and is our official navigator. We call him “the Sulu”. GPS has nothing on the Sulu.
Having been to the seamier parts of Amsterdam on numerous occasions in the past, I once considered myself unflappable when it came to the sex industry. However, walking down Bourbon Street in broad daylight, accompanied by my teenage sons I found myself blushing and becoming distinctly uncomfortable. This was probably because Charlie Brown was blushing and visibly uncomfortable. Along with all the signs for “live love acts”, and women who were obviously working the crowd, there were a lot of drunk guys, possibly stray bachelor party celebrants, bobbing and weaving down the street, carrying enormous neon colored cocktails in danger of sloshing my new sandals. I tipped FOTI the hairy eyeball and we detoured to the river.
A docked riverboat was playing “Wonderful World” on its steam whistles in notes so incredibly off-key that it was painful to hear. From a doorway, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”offered an alternative to the whistles and we found ourselves ducking into a tourist trap restaurant on the riverfront. A peek at reviews on the internet the next day showed that the place rated “adequate”, but we were hungry and at the time it tasted just fine. The beer was great. Nola Blonde is, to my mind, not dissimilar to one of my favorite Dutch beers “Wiekse Witte”.
With a (now understood to be “adequate”) meal inside us, we were ready to do some more exploring. Heavenly shades of night were falling on beautiful Lafayette Park, which is located just in front of St. Louis cathedral. All around families, lovers and fellow tourists were out for an aprés dinner stroll or the chance to sit for a spell as the evening air splashed cooler down around us.
The doors of St. Louis were closed and I saw no postings regarding that loophole so beloved by my relatives in the ‘Burg; Saturday night mass. Apparently if you make it to church on a Saturday night, God excuses you for Sunday morning and you can sleep in. I guess that particular papal bull didn’t reach New Orleans. Gathered close to the cathedral’s voluminous hemline was a veritable psychic fair: tarot card readers, palmists, mediums, shamans, rune-ists and practitioners of every ilk. Charlie Brown wondered aloud what Marie Laveau would have made of it all.
We walked back toward the heart of the French Quarter and buoyed on a fine heady aroma of New Orleans coffee, drifted into the invitingly decorated Patisserie Antoine. I have heard it said that New Orleans is the only place in North America where Europeans can get the kind of coffee we’re used to. Now I know this to be a fact. The mini pecan pies weren’t bad either.
On the other side of the street we spotted a gallery selling local art. I am now the proud owner of two New Orleans themed lithos!
From the art gallery, we proceded on a mission to find K-Paul’s, bivouak of the world reknowned chef, Paul Prudhomme. We were hoping to book a table for Sunday brunch, but the restaurant doesn’t open on Sundays. Maybe he attends mass at St. Louis.
Working our way slowly back toward Bourbon Street, we stumbled into Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Emporium. The magnet effect pulled Charlie Brown in again and we followed. Ever the tourist and budding small-talker, I inquired of the Goth Chick behind the counter if the shop sold tarot cards. Ibu Cis collects tarot decks and I thought it would be fun to bring one back for her.
Well, no sooner were the words out of my mouth that I heard how stupid I sounded. I felt like Harry Angel in the 1987 film “Angel Heart”. Angel, played by the seedy but then still delicious Mickey Rourke, is a private-eye hot on the trail of a missing singer. He finds himself in New Orleans at the voodoo shop of one Epiphany Proudfoot and asks, “Got any John the Conqurer root?”. “Got any tarot cards?” just about matches that one in the stupid voodoo question stakes.
Goth Chick sniffed and pointed an armoured forefinger to the cabinet behind me which held a large selection of tarot decks, none of which were interesting enough to bring home to Cis. In the cabinet next to that were various herbs, ointments, elixirs and charm bags. Yes, there was even some John the Conqurer root. No, I did not buy any. Nor did I take photos because I was not about to risk a bad mojo for the sake of a pic.
By this time it was good and dark outside. The neon lights had come up over Bourbon Street and there was a homegrown brass and percussion band putting out some fine noise to punctuate the evening.
Along the balconies of various clubs and establishments people were throwing candies and carnaval beads to the crowd dancing below. This erupted into a game of monkey in the middle with the people on the balconies throwing the candy and beads back and forth to one another with the crowd being the monkey. My basketball playing sons, who stand at least a head above most of the crowd found this game to their liking. Joe College, who has never forgiven us for moving from the islands and considers himself a Creole, joined right in, dancing a bit and jumping. Charlie Brown was a bit unsure, and kept looking back at us over his shoulder to see what to do. “Dude,” I yelled over the music, “hisa bo man!”
* All photography used by permission of VWG Rutgers
** Angel Heart movie poster found at Google