Saturday, May 14, 2005

Our US Trip: Part 7 - Las Vegas to New Orleans - An Epiphany

Thursday 9th December

In contrast to the previous night, this night's sleep was very poor. I struggled to get up at 7:45 with a sore throat which I explained away as the air-conditioning. The other possibility – that I was coming down with a cold – was too painful to think about. Wake up, clean up, pack up, and then downstairs to dodge the cowboys and slot machines and pay our bill. As we exited to the extremely cold and dreary day, I thought that it must also be a cab-driver's convention at Vegas as well, the number of taxis that were lined up to take us to the airport. The cabbie was your typical strong, silent type, and despite the fact that he drove in the exactly opposite direction before hitting a freeway to the airport, I didn't disturb his solitude.

Check-in was painless and quick. Here was the first place where I noticed people taking off their shoes and belts for the run through the metal detector. Some of the cowboys had belt buckles the size of dinner plates, so it was no wonder. Ali and I didn't remove anything, and weren't asked to, we didn't beep, so everything was jake.

Breakfast was Cinnabon – $15 for a bun and an orange juice! The alternative was (of course) Starbucks, so of course we settled for the sugar. While sitting in the cafe eating, I noticed this bloke from outside the shop come into the shop at least three times and re-fill his paper mug from the soda machine. One of the employees was getting a little tired of it, and she had a word to him. He obviously had some (ummm) developmental problems the poor man, and I'm not sure he understood her.

After breakfast we headed to the departure lounge. Poker machines and cow-persons everywhere. Undoubtedly the NFR was winding up, and people were heading home. Ali just had to try the slots at the airport, and one machine swallowed $2 worth of nickels in the space of two minutes.

Our flight to New Orleans via Fort Worth Dallas left on time. There were more Texans than Australians on this flight I can tell you, and there were a lot more fat, noisy people than thin, quiet ones also. Hmmmm do I dare to draw a parallel here? No I think I'll leave it. We arrived at Dallas around midday, and entered the busiest airport we'd been in yet. A lot of Texans with big hats. A lot of people from the Armed Services, the "Ambassador Club" was where they were all going – unfortunately I'd left my army ID at home.

We eventually squeezed into a two-person booth in a Mexican restaurant called "Chilitos". And here we had the best American food since the Thai food on the first night. A great Nachos shared, Margaritta for the Chicky and a couple of Dos Equis para mí. I didn't know anything about this beer but it was quite OK. My poor Spanish at this stage led me to believe that Dos Equis might actually mean "Two Horses" — OK, the big "X's" on the label should really have given it away to me — and I thought of my beloved Two Dogs beer at home which I missed very much. [Yes I know they aren't dogs, they're Tasmanian Tigers.]

About three hours later and a takeoff delay and we boarded our flight to New Orleans. It was quite full. I had the middle seat, and was next to this big black fellow. He fell asleep during the flight, and had this really attractive bottom-lip droop when he slept. No really, it was just beautiful. We talked a little during the flight. Apparently he'd flown straight in from Bangkok, 27 hours of air-planes and -ports, and was going home to New Orleans. Later that night, despite his obvious exhaustion, we spotted him on Bourbon Street. I guess that's one way to regain energy.

The flight into Louis Armstrong airport was a little scary landing over the lake. I experienced the same tension that I see in other people when I am on a flight landing at Sydney and the trip in is over Botany Bay. I think it's called payback.

A long, long wait for the bags and people where crushing in around that baggage carousel as if getting closer would get their bags quicker. Our friend Kevin had mentioned the Louisiana time that everyone runs on, and I didn't expect the bags in a hurry. After pickup into a cab. The driver made some quick enquiries in a very thick indeterminate accent and then ignored us till he took our money. In fact he spent most of the time on the phone to a friend. Not that we could understand what he was saying — it wasn't English, and it wasn't Spanish, and it wasn't French, so I don't know what it was.

Into the French Quarter, our hotel was the Alexa on Royal St, near the corner of Canal St. Despite having a tidy (and tiny) reception, the passageways to the rooms were labyrinth-like, and it appeared that the Hotel was a number of adjacent buildings tacked together. Where the floors didn't meet up there were stairs, and it was obvious that you had enterd a different building. After meandering for a while, and including one time going through the same intersection in a different direction, we ended up in our narrow, double-height room. You could easily have fitted another room in the space between the top of my head and the ceiling. Ali went in to the bathroom to shower before we went out, and while she was in there I heard a Jazz band startup somewhere in the street downstairs. New Orleans we have arrived!

So out we went, along Royal, up Canal, turn right into Bourbon Street. The band that I had heard was here. Traditional Jazz. Some nice trombone-playing too. Along we went, pushing through the Thursday night crowds. Crowds!! People everywhere. On the street - no car could ever get through here - on the pavement, in the bars and the dodgy sex shops, on the balconies above our heads. People with beads, people mostly drunk, music everywhere, not the Jazz I was expecting but more 80's & 90's rock and pop covers. It was a complete madhouse. We walked along Bourbon till we reached St Peters. Ali wanted to go down and see Preservation Hall, I reluctantly agreed, I mean it was on our ToDo list, might as well tick it off straight away.

Preservation HallPreservation Hall. Wow. I will never forget walking into this place. Some officious and previously (like 30 years previously) attractive woman demanded $15 each off us before we could enter. No problems of course. The first thing I noticed was the plump and fluffy cat curled up on the lounge chair in the corridor outside the Hall. Cute. And we went in.

The Hall was quite small mostly dark wood with a brick and concrete wall on the side. It was only half full, and there in front of us was 6 blokes, Trombone, Kit, Bass, Clarinet, Piano, and the Trumpet/Vocal man. These blokes were not just old, but old old. Three black, three white. When we got in they were standing playing "Tiger Rag" which was coming to it's raucous end. The piano had it's front board off so it was louder. No electronics, no microphones. And then the Vocalist, Gregg Stafford, gave the intro to the next song in this teeny, tiny, Armstrong-like croaky voice. "When You're Smiling."

They started as usual, with a tutti run-through the verse. All sitting down in their hard-backed chairs. Then the vocalist stands up and starts singing/speaking in this almost whisper of a voice that somehow managed to carry over the band and implant itself indelibly in my brain. I was absolutely spellbound. My mouth gaped open, tears welled in eyes. This was the most beautiful music I had heard in my life. I realised that up until that point in my life, I had not, not even come close to understanding traditional Jazz. And he didn't sing at us, he sung to us, highlighting his phrases by looking at individual members of the audience, smiling, singing and looking, holding his free hand out and palm up. It was an incredible, engaging performance.

Each bloke did his turn at the solo, standing up if possible, and at the tutti at the end, all the frontline stood up to do the last run-through. Then onto their last number of the set, which was "Careless Love". They were to break for a while, at least 90 minutes. So we went looking for some dinner.

Pere Antoine RestaurantWe found Pere Antoine Restaurant on Royal Street. It was getting close to closing time, there were only four other patrons, but the menu and the price looked OK, so we gave it a go. I had the Snapper Gaige with Crawfish — to me they looked like tiny little prawns — and Ali had Shrimp Creole. The little waiter was quite friendly with an unusual accent. He apologised to us for asking if we were English — I guess he must be aware of the average Australian's reaction to being called a Pom — and launched into us about Australia's War-in-Iraq policies. This was a little bit uncomfortable, because I agreed with the bloke, but you sort of feel honour bound to defend the government you hate because of outside attack. I guess governments have always known this and use it against us, right? As it was in this case, we were both dumbfounded by the suddeness of his tirade, and could only stare back at him. To make it up to us he came around later and advised not only where to go and what to see, but also which way to get there. "Don't walk along this street. If you go to here go directly down Decatur and then up Frenchmans, etc, etc". He knew the phone numbers of the clubs off by heart and wrote them down on a little napkin for us. His "Preservation Hall is just for the tourists" didn't sit well with me, particularly after the experience we'd just had, but OK, we were tourists. But the food and service were excellent otherwise, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to others. Two great meals in the same day, but only three good ones in seven days!

After settling up we went back to Preservation Hall for the next set. It was as entertaining as the partial set we'd seen earlier. On the wall behind the band was a sign which listed the prices for requests. Standards $5, Saints $10. The Jazz equivalent of a brass band's "Colonel Bogey". Someone obviously coughed up the $10, so they played The Saints. At the end of the performance as everyone filed out, Alison gave Greggy a $5 or $10 tip over the cover charge. "Thank you, Darling," in that croaky, southern accent.

We went back up to Bourbon Street, the crowds had multiplied, and we toyed with the idea of going into one of the bars, but it was just too much of a crush. The beads, everyone had beads, and the effect they had on people as they were thrown down from the balconies was as if someone was throwing down some form of currency. Ali was able to score some which she put on — at this stage we didn't understand the significance of them. But we scored our beads and marvelled at the crowds and walked back along Bourbon towards Canal and our Hotel. The brief walk along Canal was very scary, with young drunk black blokes hassling us in the street. And the Hustlers. Their gambit was the old, "If you give me $5, I'll tell you where you got them shoes." Kevin had warned us about this one, so we were wise, brother; I got these shoes on Canal St near the corner of Royal!"

We made a quick toilet stop in our Hotel, and then we went down to Decatur to try to find The House of Blues. We did. The line up to get in wasn't too long, but I soon realised that if we did line up, we would be both the oldest and the whitest people in the line. So we bypassed this and went further up Decatur. We found Ryan's Irish Pub, of course, so Alison (Ryan) felt quite at home, particularly with a Baileys. I had a pint of Bass, so also felt quite comfortable, if not at home. After a couple of these, we decided to call it a night.

Just past the Hotel in Royal Street there was an all-night convenience store, so we stopped in there for some supplies. The store was very-very dodgy, I think even the bloke behind the counter was spaced out. We did not feel safe at all — this would not be the last time we would feel this way in New Orleans — I picked up a six-pack of Heineken to keep me company and Ali picked up a chick drink. It was 1:30am — back to the Hotel for bed and sleep.

New Orleans had blown me away on the first night, and I was wondering if it could be topped. Bourbon Street was not what I imagined it to be; yes the drunken raucousness and crowds, but I'd sort of imagined more Jazz, rather than the overloud pop music that was billowing out the doors of the bars. When our friend Kevin had insisted we go to Preservation Hall I had thought, yeh OK, but we'll do it just to say we've done it. Not that I doubted Kev, he's never steered us wrong yet, but when you travel, you want to make it your own trip, rather than someone elses.

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