A Report From The Reluctant Tourist (With Stops In New Orleans And Key West Among Others)

It’s over.  Ten days on the road have come to an end.  The trip began with a flight to New Orleans where four nights were spent in a hotel on Royal Street, a block from Bourbon Street, which in my mind might be the most overrated stretch of pavement in the world.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think it was something more than a collection of drunks stumbling from corner to corner, loud and aggressive panhandlers and an odious stench that seemed to be an amalgam of vomit, piss and the liquid residue from dumpsters flushed into the street.

Worse were the barkers that held signs announcing the availability of “Big Ass Beers” or pointed proudly toward mostly sad looking big ass girls in bikinis and tattoos who would take off the former and give you a closer look at the latter if you would just come inside for a peek and a drink.

There were of course the charming little black kids from central casting who tap danced on manhole covers for your attention and money, along with assorted buskers of questionable talent.  Nearly everyone and everything on Bourbon Street seemed unnecessarily, and to my ears, annoyingly LOUD.

With those negative observations out of the way, it is only fair to mention the positives along with the admission that I would certainly return to New Orleans.  The food, particularly the seafood was outstanding at Deanie’s and the Acme Oyster House and thanks to a tip from friends as well as locals, we found our way to Verti Marte, a little corner market with a deli that featured Po Boys and Muffulettas that were worth the walk.  On a side street that connected Royal Street to Bourbon Street, and just across from the Acme Oyster House was Amendment 21, a nice little bar with live jazz and a clientele that was not likely to be found staggering down Bourbon Street.

During a midday stroll down Royal Street, I made what I believed to be a musical discovery for the ages.  Next to a corner intersection, a black couple attracted a gathering crowd with their music.  He played the tuba and drums somewhat simultaneously and she played a clarinet between vocals of jazz and blues standards, only she was doing much more than simply playing the music.  Her voice was as clear and beautiful to my ears as I have ever heard, and when she played the clarinet she transported herself and the audience to a place where few have ever been.

During a break,  I gladly dropped some money into a bucket that was on the ground in front of her, and we began a conversation that began with my inquiry as to where she had learned to play the clarinet like that.  She explained that she was trained in classical music at a conservatory in Connecticut, but upon enrolling at a local university met a guy who played in the school’s jazz ensemble and introduced her to his music.  It was the same guy who later became her husband and was now sitting behind her and enjoying the break.

Before they resumed playing, I purchased a CD and told her that their music was what I’d hoped to hear when I came to New Orleans.  Now I admit that I don’t know a thing about music, other than what sounds good to me, and that it took me an entire semester in a music class for prospective teachers to find and be able to return to Middle C on the classroom’s piano

As I walked away that day, I was certain that I had discovered a major talent, and believed that, until we got home from the trip and I did some Googling.  When I was done, I felt like Columbus would have felt had he realized the Indians he discovered were actually Asians who had crossed the Bering Strait Land Bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska, and populated North America at least 12 thousand years before he stumbled upon them.  Knowing what I now know about  my musical discovery in New Orleans and how it has made me feel pretty ignorant, so it is probably best that Chris never really learned the truth.

Doreen and Lawrence Ketchens were discovered long before I found them.  According to the homepage on their website, they have produced 23 CDs, three DVDs, performed for four U.S. Presidents and toured the world at the behest of the State Department for the purpose of sharing New Orleans-style jazz and blues around the globe.  It is most certain that aboriginal tribesmen on the other side of the planet discovered Doreen and Lawrence Ketchens before I did.  Look ’em up (www.doreensjazzneworleans.com) and listen, you won’t be disappointed.

We pledged to be tourists on this trip, so following a little research of things that interested us, we toured New Orleans Cemetery Number One with “Nawlins Nate,” a most interesting guide and spent part of a day in the swamp with Cajun Encounters where we joined others on a 16 foot boat and viewed the very interesting flora and fauna of the swamp, including plenty of alligators along with wild boar whose ancestors landed in Florida with De Soto in 1539.  It was fun, entertaining and educational, but I have to wonder if feeding marshmallows and pieces of hotdogs on a stick to alligators is truly an “Ecotour.”

Our last stop before leaving New Orleans was the famous French Market, an open air flea market that was home to some decent looking food joints and booth after booth dominated by the same offshore produced stuff you will find available at just about any respectable swap meet.  One of the few exceptions was the booth being worked by Buena Batiste-Webber, an attractive young creole woman with a knack for writing meaningful books for children illustrated by her sister.  We bought two titles for classroom use by our daughter who is a first grade teacher.  They are worth a look (beatriceann@thechickenandtheegg.com) for anyone interested in children’s books.

After picking up our rental car we headed east on Interstate 10 and when it was time to find something to eat we found The Shed BBQ and Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, Mississippi where the atmosphere was as redneck funky as the smoked brisket was delicious.  After passing through Alabama, we stopped for the night in Tallahassee, Florida, our fourth state of the day.

To be honest, I was not prepared for the natural beauty of the areas we passed through or the pride and hospitality found at each state’s border rest stops.  The buildings at those rest stops looked like the visitor’s centers at a state or national park.  In Mississippi we were offered a choice of free lemonade or coffee while a volunteer in a nearby room displayed and played Elvis Presley records.

Aside from my getting hopelessly lost after finding and buying (but not yet opening) a bottle of vodka, Tallahassee was pretty uneventful, and but a brief stop on our way to Tampa.  There we enjoyed a quick visit with Cousin Mike who is a great guy and prepared an outstanding shrimp and pasta dish that I thought went quite well with the bottles of wine he furnished.  My poor planning resulted in too brief of a stay and the following morning found us driving through the everglades on our way to Key West, and yes, those were roadkill alligators and armadillos on the side of the road.

As tourist destinations go, and we were certainly tourists, Key West had all of the attractions to keep us deep in tourist mode with no shortage of commercial tours available.  One of the busiest, and one I quite enjoyed was the Hemingway House where our tour guide was knowledgeable and well rehearsed in sharing the lore of Papa Hemingway, his wives, loves and six-toed cats.  A herd of over 50 still remain on the premises and are well cared for including regular veterinary services for periodic examinations – and a small cemetery for those who did not pass.

After a few nights in Key West, it was on to the Fort Lauderdale area where we stayed in a hotel on the broadwalk of Hollywood Beach with a room that viewed the Atlantic through swaying coconut palms, and offered its own Tiki bar with live to semi-live entertainment.

A night there was followed by the trip home with a three hour layover in Austin, Texas that turned to five hours after the plane we were to transfer to was struck by lightning and needed to be mechanically cleared before we could board.  The storms that flooded much of Texas and Oklahoma were still raging and it was necessary to fly far north in order to get ahead of the storm before turning southwest toward San Diego.

Lightning was constant for the first hour of the flight and the related turbulence was such that the flight attendants declined payment for the cocktails they served.

All in all, it was a good trip and New Orleans and Key West are destinations worthy of a return visit.


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