Monthly Archives: November 2018

From the Big Peach to the Big D, via the Big Easy: Part III

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A side street in the French Quarter – New Orleans

We left New Orleans at 6.30 a.m for the over five-hour trip westwards along the I-10.  I passed the time listening to music, reading, dozing and counting  the number of drivers texting single-handed on their cellphones whilst driving (I counted 23). In some states it’s only illegal if you’re under 18, in others it’s quite legal.  How very confusing for people crossing state lines.

Our breakfast/comfort stop was at a Love’s Travel Stop – a bog-standard service station on the Interstate, not unlike the motorway service stations in England.  Mooching round their huge store which sold everything from tacky souvenirs to motor oil and somewhat greasy chicken nugget-type foodstuffs (I didn’t look too closely) I was not a little surprised to see a good selection of  fresh fruit for sale. So with a handbag bulging with my five-a- day, we continued on our way and  before too long we rolled up at the NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

I was slightly taken aback.  On my last visit in 1999 there was strict airport-style security and we had to leave bags and cameras in lockers before being admitted.  Now all you need do is buy a ticket and line up for a while to be shown onto a Disney-like motor-tram.  In the queue I met a group of lovely but crazy guys. They hail from all over the States and Canada and know each other through their online gamer group. Their annual meet-up is at a different venue each year. The 2018 meet-up happened to be in Houston and so once the convention was over, they headed on over to the Space Centre.  Despite their weird  and very geeky appearance they were really friendly and informative. Somehow Walter, the bald one with the beard (centre) and I began a conversation about the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) which took place in the Texas/Mexican war.  I went to visit the battle site in 1999 and Walter knew a heap of stuff  that he was going to send me but I’ve mislaid his email address so will never know what it was.

Back at the Space Centre we visited Mission Control from where all the Apollo flights including the moon landings were controlled. It’s also the place where the International Space Station flights are monitored today.

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Mission Control looking a little empty

Since my last visit NASA have been restoring the control room ready for the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing (next year). Fifty years! That made me feel very old as I remember the excitement of staying up all night to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon’s surface.  Sadly the space race has lost its momentum and with it, the excitement I felt in my teens.

After a tour of the rest of the space centre, we set off again for our hotel at nearby Clear Lake, a lovely spot where I imbibed much Prosecco and enjoyed an early night.

Friday, 12th October – San Antonio

Another early start with breakfast watching the sun rise over Clear Lake.20181012_072153

The journey west, from Houston to San Antonio took over three hours with a stop for coffee -Texas is a vast state. I used my time well, boning up on the story of the Alamo.  I was trying not to get too excited having been told over and over that it was tiny and had been swallowed up by the modern-day city.  Almost as soon as we set off,  the theme tune to the John Wayne film about The Alamo – The Green Leaves of Summer – began going around and around in my head.

I was also looking forward to seeing our hotel, The Menger- it’s been a hotel since 1859, just 23 years after the fall of the Alamo and is right next door. When we arrived in San Antonio I dutifully visited Riverwalk, a city park and network of prettily landscaped walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River. It’s lined by bars, shops, restaurants, and public artwork.  When people told me The Alamo was inconsequential and that the go-to place to see in San Antonio was the Riverwalk, I said I’d go.

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Riverwalk

I did. It was okay (when you’re talking about shops and bars lining waterways there’s nowhere more incredible than Venice) – so I was a little underwhelmed and it was over hyped.  It’s a nice place to grab lunch but I didn’t have time. With my curiosity about Riverwalk satisfied, I rushed off to a place I have wanted to see since childhood – the Alamo.

In December 1835, in the early stages of Texas’ war for independence from Mexico, a group of Texan volunteers overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo (a former Franciscan mission) and captured the fort, seizing control of San Antonio.

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The Alamo

On February 23, 1836, a huge Mexican force (allegedly 7,000 soldiers)  led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began a siege of the fort. The Alamo’s defenders, commanded by James Bowie (famous for the Bowie knife) and William Travis, included the famous frontiersman and member of the House of Representatives, David (Davy) Crockett.  In total they numbered about 200 but they managed to courageously hold out for 13 days before being overpowered by the Mexican troops.

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For Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became an enduring symbol of their resistance to oppression and their struggle for independence.  Their subsequent rallying cry ‘Remember the Alamo’ rang out at the Battle of San Jacinto which they won in April of 1836, bringing to an end the war and giving Texans their independence.  Of course this is an abridged version of events but the facts are that the Alamo was occupied by a very small number of courageous men, women and children. By that day’s end most of the women and children were escorted to safety. All the men died.

Back at the hotel, we decided to eat at The Menger, in the Colonial Room.  It was indeed a beautiful hotel and the food had a great reputation too.  We weren’t disappointed.

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The Menger Hotel

Over several glasses of a rich, smooth, Merlot, our head waiter told us about the ghosts that inhabited the hotel. (I will admit that after checking in, while looking for my room, I did fancy I saw a set of twin girls standing together at the end of my floor’s very long corridor staring right at me.  Stephen King has a lot to answer for!)

The waiter showed us a photograph of the magnificent Victorian Lobby (next to the Colonial Room).  This is the original 1859 lobby of the Menger and has two beautiful  galleries with gilded wrought-iron balustrades. In his photo the ethereal figure of a young girl, wearing old fashion costume was leaning over the top balustrade and staring down to the ground floor – the photo was taken last year.

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Victorian Lobby – Menger Hotel

When the photograph was checked by an expert it hadn’t been tampered with in any way.  Unfortunately the ghostly girl clearly didn’t want to appear in my photograph.

After the creepy tales we had a dish of the magnificent mango ice cream (a legend at the hotel for over 100 years) and then decided to take a breath of air to visit the Alamo by night. 20181012_212827

It was very atmospheric.  As I stood there I could almost hear the shouts of the soldiers, the noise of the cannon firing and the smell of  gunpowder.

Walking back through the now deserted lobby of the Menger that night, I asked one of my friends to escort me back to my room. I was too freaked out to walk down that corridor alone.

Saturday, 13th October – Dallas

I was sad to leave San Antonio and the weather clearly came out in sympathy; it rained for almost the entire 5 hour drive.  Clearly now accustomed to the long journeys, as we headed north I hardly saw the countryside flying past my window.  I did notice Waco, Texas, forever notorious for a siege in 1993, as we passed through. A weird sect called the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh were, allegedly, holed up on their ranch with an arsenal of weapons. The FBI eventually mounted an attack on the place and the resulting inferno killed 76 people.  It’s one of those places that always brings up dreadful connotations of death and destruction.  Like Dallas.

We arrived in Dealey Plaza around midday, by now the rain was falling in sheets and our destination, the Texas School Book Depository fairly steamed with wet clothing.  The building, the place from where Lee Harvey Oswald (allegedly) shot and killed President John F. Kennedy, is now a museum.  It brought back in vivid detail that day – Friday, 22nd November 1963. I was a child watching television when a grave voice announced the assassination of the President of the United States in Dallas, Texas.  I was heartbroken. To me President Kennedy was a superstar and the USA a land of wonders. Although I’m an old cynic now and know a lot of things I didn’t then, I still love this country for its vastness, its landscapes, its diverse cultures and its incredibly friendly people. (I refuse to mention the T word here.)

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The Texas Schoolbook Depository

The museum is impressive. Through a series of videos, posters and exhibits, it faithfully recreates that day.  I stood by replica boxes, which Oswald had erected as a screen to hide behind with his shotgun, and saw the President’s motorcade route spread before me, as he did – it was unnerving.

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Oswald’s hide on 6th Floor

Like the Lorraine Motel, it is a location that is imprinted on the memory bringing back with vivid horror the dreadful events associated with it.  On the road just where the motorcade was hit are two crosses, to show where the first bullet struck the President and then the fatal bullet – a bit further along.  I got talking to a very nice Marine.  He told me the shot would have been an easy one for Oswald as I had thought it too far to be accurate.  ‘Maam,’ he told me, ‘we’re trained to shoot to kill targets over three times as far away as that cross on the road.  I’m not proud to say it but Oswald was a Marine before he defected to the Soviets’.

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Lee Harvey Oswald’s view from the Texas School Book Depository. The man standing in the road is taking a photograph of the X’ on the tarmac where the fatal shot was delivered.

From the museum I braved the rain and walked just outside the building to the infamous ‘grassy knoll’.  It is just a patch of grass – very soggy when I was there – that some believe the fatal shot was fired from.  There are memorials and markers by the pergola on the knoll.  This place can never be associated with anything other than the events of 22nd November, 1963.

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Taken from the grassy knoll. X marks the position of President Kennedy’s open-topped car when he received the fatal shot.

I didn’t expect to be so affected.  I have been to Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC and stood by President Kennedy’s grave but somehow, standing on the grassy knoll in the pouring rain brought back the feelings of utter hopelessness I felt as a child.  The dream of Camelot was over, it was the beginning of adulthood.

We left Dallas for our final destination- the Forth Worth Stockyards.  To be honest, I was still feeling in a sombre mood and wasn’t much interested in seeing a faux cattle roundup before the evening rodeo.  Nevertheless you couldn’t help but be affected by the enthusiasm of the crowds, clearly this is a Saturday night outing for many families who enjoy horsemanship and all things cowboy.

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I had the opportunity of going to the rodeo but passed on that – somehow watching cattle frantically trying to rid themselves of the humans stuck on their backs, just doesn’t appeal.

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Our flight back to Atlanta from Dallas-Fort Worth was uneventful and thankfully tailwinds whisked us speedily back to London courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.  The resulting jet-lag was brutal and so it took over a week for me to begin my blog.  The joy of blogging is to relive in detail the absolute pleasure this trip brought me. I had begun the tour trying to limit expectations in case of disappointment.  I needn’t have worried.

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November 14, 2018 · 09:30

From the Big Peach to the Big D, via the Big Easy: Part II

Saturday, 6th October

The 200 plus mile drive from Nashville to Memphis was an absolute delight. How so? Well, with responsibility for driving and navigation in someone else’s hands, I slipped on my headphones and enjoyed a Simon and Garfunkel songfest all along the I-40.

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Fluffy white cotton fields

Passing fields of lazy, waving corn and white fluffy cotton, I sang along that I was ‘Homeward Bound’ and “…gone to look for America”. I was back in my twenties, not a care in the world.

Just as the journey was becoming a bit tedious I had a lovely surprise.  Our ‘lunch’ stop was at the ‘Casey Jones Home and Museum.’  Now when I was a child one of my favourite t.v. shows was ‘Casey Jones’. This series was set in the late 19th century, featuring the adventures of a well-known railroad engineer and the crew of the Cannonball Express steam locomotive. The t.v. show didn’t mention the true story – one that turned him into a folk hero.

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Casey Jones’ home

Jones was indeed an engineer working for the Illinois Central railroad with a reputation for keeping strictly to the timetable.  On April 30, 1900, he volunteered to work a double shift to cover for a fellow engineer who was ill. He had just completed a run from Canton, Mississippi, preparing to return on board Engine No. 1 heading south.  The train was originally running more than an hour and a half late and Jones, determined to arrive on time, ran the steam locomotive at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour in an effort to make up the time.

As he took a turn into Vaughan, Mississippi, he was warned that there was another train parked on the tracks ahead. As quickly as he could, Jones grabbed the brake with one hand and pulled the whistle with the other in an attempt to warn those around the train. He instructed his fireman to jump to safety, all the while still trying to slow the train. The collision was brutal. All passengers on the train survived, with the exception of Casey Jones, who was struck in the throat while still holding one hand on the brake and one on the whistle.

Our journey continued on to Memphis but instead of singing along with Simon and Garfunkel, the Casey Jones theme was running around in circles in my head.  By early afternoon we had arrived in Memphis and our first stop instantly brought me up short.  We arrived at the Lorraine Motel, a place I’d seen so often, it felt like I’d been there before but, of course, I hadn’t. For this was the place where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by James Earl Ray in April 1964. Dr King was in Memphis to support a strike by garbage collectors and had given a speech before returning to his motel to change for dinner.

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The wreath marks the spot where Dr King fell

The Lorraine was one of the few motels in Memphis known as friendly to African-Americans.  As he emerged from Room 306 a bullet hit him in the cheek shattering his jaw, several vertebrae and severing his spinal cord. Ironically just hours before he had delivered his famous ‘Mountain Top’ speech in which he spoke about his own mortality: “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Just across from the motel I noticed a middle-aged African-American woman clearly protesting about something. I went to talk to her. Jacqueline Smith has lived on the pavement outside the motel since she was evicted from her room there to make way for the National Civil Right’s Museum, 30 years ago. She believes the museum dishonours Dr King’s legacy. “I have no problem whatsoever with a National Civil Rights Museum, but I truly believe that the Lorraine Motel is capable of being so much more than an empty space.”

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Jacqueline Smith outside the Lorraine Motel

She’s a smart, funny woman, as keen to talk about British television sitcoms as she is to discuss why she has slept rough for 30 years but I get her back on track. “The Lorraine demonstrates the best and worst of what Memphis can offer. It could so easily be a testament to the spirit and teachings of Dr. King… offering support for the homeless and disadvantaged, health care and help for the old and infirm, job training and development to increase self-worth while reducing unemployment.”  As I leave her she presses a flyer into my hands, “Read that dear and think of me when you next watch Hyacinth Bucket – just love that woman.”

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And so from the sublime to the ridiculous – we are whisked away to Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first record.

I could do no other than to have a go myself.  Since no-one came rushing out after me waving a recording contract, I can only assume they don’t know a great voice when they hear one.

Checked into our Memphis Hotel and had a deliciously refreshing shower just in time to join friends for a ten minute walk down to Beale Street, “the home of the Blues”.  We found a great place – the Rum Boogie cafe – to eat, drink and boogie to live music but I loved that I kept being asked for ID to prove I was old enough to drink. They take it very seriously here and if you’re under 21 you won’t be admitted to the street after 11pm. After my third Voodoo Love Child cocktail I decided that Beale Street was the real deal.

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Beale Street

When we emerged late into the steamy night air, the street was packed with performers, protesters, police and tourists.  On Saturday nights, after 10pm it’s cordoned off and there’s a $10 cover charge to get in.  This charge pays for the extra policing implemented to deal with the serious crime problem that seems, mostly to have melted away.20181006_220459

There was just time to do some souvenir shopping before we left Beale Street, I found some tasteful toilet seats I could imagine my friends being delighted with but sadly they were too large for my luggage.

 

Sunday, 7th October – Memphis

First off, I should admit that I haven’t really liked Elvis since I was in his fan club at 6 years of age.  But time’s passed and he’s good enough for the nostalgia value to merit a visit to Graceland.  So I did.  Yet I’m struggling to find a way to describe how I feel about the interior design of the mansion.  Maybe back in the 70’s it was considered elegant but I doubt it. Green shag pile carpet on the walls of the ‘jungle room’, a yellow room with three televisions and a billiard room with pleated walls.  All I can do is show my photographs and let them speak for  themselves.

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Graceland – the very yellow room

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The Billiard Room

In the garden, near the surprisingly small kidney shaped swimming pool is a meditation garden and the place where Elvis and his parents are buried. There is a Disney-like warehouse-sized building away from the house which is the museum, housing Elvis’ outfits, cars, a cinema showing his movies and the inevitable gift shops, cafes and restaurants.  Outside also are his two private aircraft.  It was all a bit of a vulgar display of excess especially in view of my talk with Jacqueline Smith about the poverty and want in the city.

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The Peabody Ducks

Our hotel in Memphis was almost next door to the famous Peabody.  This is a lovely old hotel which is known not just for its elegant old-style grandeur but for its famous march of the Peabody ducks.  Twice a day, five North American Mallards, escorted by a gentleman in a red coat and carrying a black cane (the Duckmaster), march down a red carpet to swim in the fountain in the centre of the hotel. They are watched by a large crowd of paying onlookers.  Why? Tradition. It’s been going on since 1930. I’m pleased to say the hotel never have duck on the menu.

Monday, 8th October – Memphis-New Orleans

The Amtrak train was two hours late. Annoyingly we’d had a very early start only to discover something was wrong with the Panoramic car but it did mean we could have breakfast so we went back to Main Street to The Arcade, the oldest restaurant in Memphis.  The diner was short staffed as there’d been an accident on the freeway and only one cook had made it in, so it took a while. Over my coffee and eggs over-easy, I admired the photographs plastered liberally around the walls showing the music legends that had also enjoyed their breakfasts there.20181008_085030

It was worth the wait.  Travelling on an Amtrak train had been a long-held ambition.  The sound of the train’s horn is so very particular that wherever I am when I hear it, travelling across the vast expanse of this heterogeneous country is brought immediately to mind.

It took most of the day  to get to New Orleans but the experience was memorable.  The views from the train were fantastic with the vast sweep of the deep south passing in front of me as I sat in comfort eating my Hebrew National hot dog.  Well, getting that was an experience in itself.  The restaurant car was two carriages along and as the train jerked and swayed it was necessary to grab onto the seat backs as I passed through, apologising for pulling hair or crushing feet en route. Eventually I found my rhythm and it became easier until I found myself between carriages trying to estimate a good time to jump between one and the other.  (Yes, of course they were joined together but the sway was so marked you had to ensure you chose your moment!) Coming back from the restaurant car carrying a cardboard tray laden with coffee and food was an even greater challenge.  (Did I mention that I limp quite a bit at the moment as I’m waiting for a new knee?  Well you’d be surprised how hard it is to synchronise a limp with the motion of the carriage.)

Arriving on the outskirts of the Big Easy was slightly unnerving as we passed over murky green swampland alive with alligators. 20181008_170342I wasn’t too keen on the site of rotted wooden pilings which had clearly supported previous roads or rail tracks.

Soon either side of us was water – the huge Lake Pontchartrain to our left and and Lake Maurepas on the right.

But all was well as we soon pulled into New Orleans station. I was surprised by a huge welcoming committee until I realised there was a big football match on.  The Superdome, home of the New Orleans Saints is right next to the station – it took some time to get away to our hotel which was nice and central, right next to the French Quarter.

It had started to rain, the first bad weather of the trip and it was a bit of a shock.  Dodging puddles and roadworks, we made our way into the heart of the French Quarter at night, sure of our destination but not really knowing how to get there.

We made it eventually and were rewarded with a wonderful meal at Arnaud’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the city.  Opened in 1918 by a French wine salesman named Arnaud Cazenave it is today owned by only the second family of proprietors the restaurant has known.  While we ate, a small band played exuberant Dixieland jazz creating just the atmosphere I had hoped I would find in New Orleans.

Tuesday, 9th October – New Orleans

Sadly, by day I wasn’t so impressed.  Not having visited the city before Hurricane Katrina ripped out its heart, I have no idea what it was like then.  But today it seems rather tacky – as if it has somehow lost its mojo.  20181009_134144I went on a walking tour – the rain didn’t help to be fair – and admired the architecture, listened to the history but felt something was definitely missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

What I did enjoy was my visit to the Voodoo Museum.  I expected the place to be very touristy; there are many voodoo shops in New Orleans all offering readings and selling dolls, talismans and charms.  The museum was tiny and as I do-si-do’d around the other visitors in the museum shop, the atmosphere settled around me.

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Madame Cinnamon Black – High Priestess

Greeting me at the ticket desk was Madame Cinnamon Black – who informed me she was a high priestess – now there’s a woman who could tell some tales.  She gave me some paper and I discovered this was for writing a wish which you then place in an old tree stump having  wrapped the paper around an offering of money. As I made my way past relics,  paintings and sculptures I read some of the history of voodoo in the city. I realised this is a religion that is taken very seriously but the place could do with a good dust and I wasn’t sorry to get out into the fresh air.

20181009_134302The rain had stopped so I went shopping for creole seasoning and gumbo mix.  Back in my hotel room I watched the Weather Channel, Hurricane Michael was swerving to the east of us. Tomorrow would be a better day.

Wednesday, 10th October – Oak Valley Plantation / Louisiana swamp

About an hour’s drive from New Orleans is Oak Valley Plantation at Vacherie on the west bank of the Mississippi.  On the drive there we saw the levees were very full.  With the hurricane about to make landfall in Florida there was some flooding en route to the plantation.

When we arrived we toured the house, it wasn’t huge but you got an idea about the people who lived there, the slave owners, a family called Roman.

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Oak Valley Plantation – I’m smiling but regretting the mint julep

The house was originally called Bon Séjour  (I doubt the slaves had a good stay) and the plantation was established for the growing of sugarcane.  The most noted slave  listed in the inventory of 1848, after Jacques Roman died was “Antoine, 38, Creole Negro gardener/expert grafter of pecan trees”. He succeeded in producing a variety of pecan that could be cracked with your bare hands. His value was listed as $1,000.

After the house tour I thought it a good idea to try a mint julep; it always sounded like such a delicate, ladylike drink.  If I’d known  that the main constituent was whiskey, after my experience at Jack Daniel’s distillery I wouldn’t have bothered.  It was ten o’clock in the morning and I have only myself to blame for the feeling of nausea that followed me around Oak Valley, beautiful though the grounds were. We listened to a talk about the slaves, brought to life by an excellent docent. Yet I was struck by the difference in emphasis given on my last tour of a plantation (near Charleston, South Carolina) about twenty years ago, where the slaves were merely mentioned in passing.

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Slave cabins

Sugarcane was a labour-intensive crop,  more so than tobacco or cotton. Numbers of the enslaved community at Oak Alley fluctuated between roughly 110 and 120 men, women, and children. For field slaves, life on a sugar plantation was hard, often violent and short. There were no pesticides back then and the crop needed constant attention with weeding and irrigating.  When harvested, the exhausted slaves often worked up to 18 hours at a time wielding machetes and operating dangerous machinery to turn the sweet cane juice into sugar and molasses. The lives of the house slaves were no easier, they were always on duty and at Oak Alley, women performed the majority of  the heavy maintenance work such as mending roads and levees.

From Oak Valley we threaded our way back to New Orleans, passing other plantations on the way.  Before we reached the city, we made a detour to the swamp. Here the flooding was very obvious.

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Toilets underwater and none of us fancied a paddle

When we arrived we discovered the public toilets were underwater which made for quite an uncomfortable trip in a swamp boat. However, the upside was that we saw plenty of wildlife: deer, raccoons and alligators.

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Alligator attempting camouflage

 

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Curious raccoons

Our Captain Brandon kept us amused with stories of his life on the swamp and he was very accommodating, helping me to get some wonderful close up video of an alligator.

20181010_214143Returning to New Orleans for our last night we ate at a popular restaurant, Brennan’s. I wasn’t impressed, the banana daiquiri tasted like floor cleaner and the service was annoying.  (Our glasses of water were regularly removed and exchanged for fresh ones – seriously?)

Tomorrow we would be leaving Louisiana and moving on – to Texas.

 

 

 

 

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