Well if there’s one thing I can tick off on my travel list, it’s that I’ve now visited ‘The South’ proper, albeit a little briefly perhaps.
I have sailed the Mississippi River (well, crossed it in a ferry), listened to jazz music in the heart of New Orleans, sampled jambalaya and muffaletta, sipped both a Hurricane and some rum, and gotten a little too close for comfort to more than one an alligator. Yes, the Deep South has risen in me!
So let us resume our travels, shall we?
Oh, but first I offer you this note – blink and you’ll miss the whole state of Mississippi. You have been warned.
If you look at a map of our travels as we head west, you will notice that we pass through the thinnest possible parts of both Alabama and Mississippi, which is why our time in both states has amounted to two days apiece. That, and the fact that our planned accommodations and activities in Biloxi went a little bit amiss, when we arrived to discover that the town was hosting a ‘Grill on the Green’ event, right where we were supposed to be overnight parking.
Biloxi, Mississippi is an interesting place that deserves its own little tale to be told, so here it is.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coast of the USA, Biloxi was one of the communities that were practically wiped out by the storm. Not only did it have to suffer the hurricane itself pounding through the town and creating a 28-foot storm surge which then washed over it; Biloxi actually took a double blow getting caught in the middle when the bay that sits behind the town, rose up and flooded inland from the opposite direction of the shoreline.
There are some fascinating and sobering videos that you can see online which show the extent of the damage to the city, including one of a person wandering through the aftermath pointing out that features such as Highway 90 (which we drove along) had been ripped away and ceased to exist, concrete house plinths which ended up empty after the entirety of the house had disappeared and the total collapse into rubble of a large bridge over one of the rivers. Having visited Biloxi recently and now watched the videos after; my shock comes from the fact that so much of the town has been restored in 12 years. From the extent of the damage I am surprised at what has actually been achieved.
We arrived in Biloxi with the intent to spend the night in a public car park on the main casino strip, so we would be able to take two days to wander the streets and absorb the flavour of the town. However, as I previously mentioned, our parking spot had been commandeered by a food festival event; as well as the streets being in chaos because of an early St Patrick’s Day Parade with floats and loud music and police everywhere. There really just wasn’t enough room for 65 feet of Belle and the Beast to be thrown into the mix.
Let’s just hold our hands up and admit we didn’t really do our homework on this one.
Still, it slightly worked out in the end; it just ended up with us camping four miles outside of town at Keesler Air Force Base instead.
We did go back into the town, after first stopping at Shaggy’s restaurant for some rather delicious shrimp tacos and excellent gumbo. It was here we met the barman Terry who told us about the town’s hurricane devastation, including the information that when I enquired what all of the slightly eerie and out of place derelict green patches where along Highway 90, he told me they used to be the sites of multimillion dollar mansions that had been flattened by the storm and nothing had ever been rebuilt on the land. While this is all serious stuff, I feel I should lighten the mood slightly by telling you that Terry is a slight Robert Downey Jr look-alike and that if you are ever passing through Biloxi, you really should stop in and tell me what you think. It’s all in the eyes and the jawline, I tell you.
Biloxi is also worth the stop if nothing else than for the some of the towns architecture.
There are some beautiful older style homes and official buildings to view, but you will notice a distinct clash between the wealth that can be found on the beachfront near the casinos and the obviously poorer areas in the inner sanctum of the town, nearer the railroad tracks. Biloxi gives me the impression of two completely opposite sides of a coin –not only for the difference in monetary standards, but the flipside between the prosperous, functional parts of town and those still suffering from 12 year old damage.
To finally top off our visit, we took a turn around the tiny, but pretty, Lighthouse Park, a boardwalk stroll which we endured in a rather biting wind!
The next day we find ourselves across the border in Louisiana, to spend a week on the outskirts of New Orleans.
Now, I’m going to say a few things upfront and get it out of the way, so bear with me.
First, and I’m sorry to say this, New Orleans is an ugly city to drive into. For a start, the roads in this area (and in most of LA as we later discovered) are hideous. The road maintenance crews in this state should be taken out back and shot for their shoddy workmanship. I have never been so bounced, jostled, rattled or jarred in my life. I’m sure I now require chiropractic work, for which I will happily bill the State for.
The second thing about the outskirts of the city is that it is pretty darn industrial which is always going to affect the beauty of a place. Finally, a large part of this area has poverty written all over it. I’m talking about the sort where people have tin roofs on their houses, boarded up windows, wire fences crushed and rusting away, a plethora of ‘stuff’ sitting out in gardens…you get the picture. Now I have no idea if the city has always been this way, as cities can be, or if this is a result of people losing things in the hurricane years ago and having nothing left and no way of starting over.
I also want to say that this is the first area I have ever been into (I think probably anywhere in the world) and realised that segregation is an actual thing and does exist (I’m not talking about enforced segregation here, just to clear that up, but maybe one of circumstance or natural gathering). The neighbourhoods around New Orleans that we drove through are areas housing primarily black populations of people. It may sound very naïve I know, but I have never lived in or passed through an area where I didn’t see a mix of races mingling together. Driving through the streets on our way towards the military base where we were to stay for the week, I saw nothing but a sea of black faces, and for some reason it particular struck me when I saw a group of kids playing together, all of them black, no other race involved. And for me, this in itself was a both a shock and a learning experience.
I don’t know what it says about me or my observations on life so far, but of course I have never considered the fact that I live in an area surrounded primarily by white faces like mine. Actually, thinking about it I live in a population of a mix of races really. But driving through these neighbourhoods, this suddenly stood out to me – here there is singular race of people all living together in a community, who don’t look like me.
It made me suddenly wonder, what would it feel like all of the time, to be fully surrounded by people of a different race, living in a community where I stood out as different? How might someone of a different race feel if they lived surrounded by people who didn’t look like them?
And I suppose the right thing to say here is that it wouldn’t matter. And on a deep human level, it really wouldn’t make a difference. We are all human, no matter what face we wear, on a basic level, we are all the same.
Of course I know that on a more complicated social level, there are many differences between races and culture, but from a simple standpoint, we should all feel comfortable with each other. And that’s one of the things I really like about my home, I can walk through town and see people who are European or Indian or Asian, all different races, and I enjoy that mix, the diversity that I see and experience.
But I also want to say, I can see how it does matter. Or I should say it could matter. I feel comfortable living in a mixed society, but personally if I moved overseas and was suddenly the only white person around; I do think I would struggle with that. I would feel out of place. I think there would be a cultural divide that would make me stand out, that would make me unable to fit in, make me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.
Deep down I guess there is something programmed into people (or me at least) that makes you identify with people who look like you and act like you. I guess that is hard-wired somehow. People from all over the world do look different, that’s a fact of life. We have all come from different lineages and over time have developed distinct physical features and cultural mannerisms; and there is nothing wrong or unusual about that, in fact, it’s fascinating.
But I think in the world today we walk a fine line between being told that we should not notice these things and point them out, because we are all the same as humans, a global population. I personally think that actually it is nice to revel in the differences of people, and not to be afraid to look at someone and acknowledge they are different from you in some way. I don’t think we should be ashamed or scared to want to find out about or talk about other people’s race, culture or beliefs. We should be interested in one other! I think it’s OK to acknowledge that we are different from each other, without that being seen as somehow taking away from each other.
Anyway, I don’t really know what that tangent was supposed to achieve, except maybe to note that I am thinking about deeper things on my travels sometimes, and not just being a tourist.
Right, back to our journey…
The base we call home for a week has three distinct things I like about it – firstly, the birds. We are parked across from a small stream where egrets regularly visit, which gives me an excuse to take photos like this…
Second, in the morning and the evening there are bugle calls you can hear across the base, when they carry out morning and evening colours (raising and lowering of the flag).
Third and final, there are planes. Not just any planes mind you – fighter jets! And from where we are parked, the jets fire up with a blasting roar and scream into the sky at frightening speeds, performing manoeuvres over the base and beyond. It’s like being able to watch Top Gun from the comfort of my doorstep.
Our first order of the week is wildlife. I discover the (free) NPS Jean Lafitte National Historic Park is a scant 30 minutes down the road and, in an attempt learn about the local environment, we pop over for a walk. I am extremely excited about this prospect and come armed with my camera and GoPro, ready for action; Loops on the other hand has to stock himself up with Claritin and tissues. Oh, the joys of hay fever in spring.
Now, I have no idea what to expect from the Barataria Preserve, the area we’ve chosen to wander in; but driving through the local community to get to the park, I don’t set my hopes too high. I can’t envisage a pristine wilderness sitting on the outskirts of a town. However, I am proved wrong in a spectacular fashion.
We arrive to find a small information centre (closed – for lunch I presume) and a boardwalk with a couple people resting on the benches nearby. It’s all very low key, quiet and unassuming. It’s hard to get a feel for what awaits.
Off we wander. Our stroll is along a boardwalk, resting just about half a meter above the swamp water and plant life. I don’t quite know how to explain the plants, because while on one hand I could explain that we are, in a technical fashion, in a warm wetland area the same as say, the Everglades; but that doesn’t mean they look the same at all, because quite simply they don’t. We are not wandering through a mangrove forest, it doesn’t feel smothering in that fashion, but there are trees dotted about in the swamp and really odd looking stumps peeking above the water line.
Now, here comes the really neat bit about this place. We walk through this swampy area for maybe five minutes or so and then, gradually, the environment around us begins to change. The trees thin and the sky becomes visible, the smaller shrub type vegetation becomes more obvious and dominant, there are now little watercress type plants floating on the surface of the water and every now and then we stumble across vividly coloured giant blue irises. It seems our swamp is gently turning into a marsh.
Low and behold, a few minutes later we are walking past grasses and sedges in the water and more wildlife is starting to appear – tadpoles in the water, birds flittering across the pathway; and as the vegetation in the water grows even thicker and more prominent, we being to spot snakes lying on top of the greenery and…even the odd small alligator head poking through the surface!
This is now an officially amazing walk; it’s just all so unexpected and a wonderful surprise.
As we continue along the board walk, the marsh follows to our left, giving us a continuous game of spotting as many alligators as we can. At one point we come across a juvenile sitting up on the back, he’s still fairly small, maybe two or three feet, but it just blows my mind that we are standing just a stone’s throw away from this type of wildlife. I always expect this sort of thing to only be accessible by boat deep in the heart of the Everglades, but no, right here in the preserve, the gator is sitting just a few feet from me as I walk past!
It’s nearing the end of our 2 mile walk, the full marsh overlook that our journey has been building towards isn’t far off, and we are seeing other couples and small families heading back our way. We get a heads up from one of them that there is a good sized gator lying next to the path not far ahead, which we slightly shrug off; we’re gator experts now having already seen about 20 so far in our hour’s walk, including some on the banks.
I’m lollygagging behind Loops, taking pictures of plants, when he ushers me in front of him. As he’s holding my video camera I assume he just wants to take some footage of me walking along the boardwalk, so I oblige. It’s as I take a few steps in front of him that he says quietly “Look to your left”, and that’s when I pretty much have a heart attack and stop breathing.
Sitting right next to the walkway, and I mean RIGHT NEXT TO IT (so close, in fact, he could have casually swung a leg onto it) lies an alligator, who is not far off my size; if I chose to lay down next to him in comparison, which funnily enough I opt not to do.
And if you don’t believe me, you can watch the video (pop over to our YouTube channel).
I did manage to inch my way past Mr Alligator, speaking to him much as you would an unpredictable mad-man, in low comforting tones to assure him I really wasn’t worth eating; to be able to take in the sparkling deep blue river and marshland beyond, before heading back the way we came and returning to the safety of Belle in the evening.
All’s well that ends well.
Oh, and just to note, the visitor centre – it wasn’t closed for lunch. It is actually only open on certain days, as I learned by rattling the doors (in my mounting panic and upset, just to 100% confirm its closed-ness) only to have a very burly Park Ranger with a slightly annoyed face unlock the door and enquire what the hell I was doing rattling his door (he didn’t say that at all, but he did look a bit like he could smack me upside the head for disturbing him). I politely explained, trying my best not to sound like a pitiful and rather ‘special’ human being, that I was hoping to get a stamp for my passport book, and waved my scrap of paper sadly in front of me (I had stupidly forgotten my book, so now looked really pathetic with my scrap). With a heavy sigh, he good naturedly took my paper from me and went over to the stamping station inside and pressed out my precious stamps. I thanked him profusely, of course, and apologised at least four times, so I reckon we were good in the end.
Anyway, my message to you is this – if you are visiting the New Orleans and want to experience something above and beyond jazz and jambalaya in the city, take my advice and head over to the Barataria Preserve, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. You won’t regret it.
Oh, but check the visitor centre hours first, if you want a stamp…