To visit New Orleans while pregnant and with a toddler at times seemed to miss the whole point. I could neither leave the hotel past 8:30pm (when, from the sounds outside our window, things actually got started) nor could I hop from bar to bar drinking Hurricanes or "huge ass beers" even if I could get out at night. More than any other city I've visited (and remember, I'm from Las Vegas) this city seems dedicated to the sole pursuit of getting bombed out of one's skull. Oh yes, people talk about the wonderful music and Cajun food, the beignets, the muffulatas, the pralines. But I know the truth - if you are a tourist in New Orleans and you can't join the party, you might as well be a eunuch in a whorehouse.
In the French Quarter in particular the street is lined with bar after bar blasting fantastic live music or horrible Brittney Spears remixes - and music choice doesn't seem to matter because neither kind of establishment wants for customers. Every place we passed by (we can't go in, remember: toddler) advertises "Cocktails and Beer to Go," even the restaurants that look like you might need a tie and a reservation to get in. No one wants to miss the opportunity to sell cheep beer or mixed drinks to the throngs of college students and tourists who are looking for god at the bottom of a plastic cup. And I'd like to be one of them - at least for a little while. It looks like fun to spend the afternoon strolling down brick-lined streets with no agenda but to find the next Hurricane. It's the kind of escapism I could enjoy for a day or two until my liver screamed out in protest and my throbbing head told me to STOP! PLEASE STOP!
But there were definite advantages to experiencing what I view as "Bizarro New Orleans" this past weekend. We stayed at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, situated at the corner of Bourbon and Orleans Street, and our room was a lovely suite on the corner of those two illustrious streets which, if you've been there, you know is the epicenter of party town. So after a long day of travel as we were anticipating the sweet sleep to come, we were affronted on all sides with music that hasn't been popular since Regan was president. And someone had told them to crank it up to 11. Below that was the sound of wild revelers, broken bottles, and lost inebriates. How River and Thom slept that first night, I'll never know, but I got by with one ear plug and my head against the pillow.
But back to the advantages of Bizarro Nola - when I woke up the next morning at an unthinkable 6:30am, I made myself a cup of tea and took advantage of the beautiful deck we had overlooking the street (which I'm sure is typically engaged by people drinking something much stronger than tea) and watched what goes on The Morning After. On the next patio over were a couple of ladies - and I use the term loosely - finishing some beer and cigarettes before heading in for the night. Down below, the street cleaning crews were busy at work hosing down the wreckage of the streets, emptying the overflowing trash cans, and attempting to scrub the party stink off the sidewalks (though never entirely successfully). The bars across the street were quiet, though not empty, and I gave thanks for the hangover I would not have later that day.
River woke up shortly after and this moment of calm was about my last for the weekend. The next two and a half days were spent in a flurry of activity, roaming the city and seeing sites that had nothing to do with Mardi Gras or deadly blood alcohol levels. I occasionally experienced a sting of jealousy watching those giant "To Go" cups wander down the street, but mostly I was thankful to get to experience a part of the city I might have otherwise ignored.
River and I started our first day off riding the streetcar to the New Orleans Zoo. We took a long walk through the Audubon park, enjoying the stretches of green and the waves of sticky heat. River fell in love with the zoo and could have watched the elephants for hours if there weren't so many other things to see. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Gators and flamingos and monkeys, whoopee! We fed the turtles and took the zoo train and wandered well past River's nap time.
Thom played hooky from his conference that afternoon and we snacked on fried pickles and Cajun eggrolls at Jackson Square. Afterward we walked along the river's edge and into the French Market. River ate a fresh peach and mommy tried to keep herself from attacking the flea market booths. Since I couldn't drink, I was determined to sample as much of the local culinary delights as I could, so we spent the evening wandering the French Quarter in search of a restaurant that could accommodate a toddler and a vegetarian. We found a gem in Cafe Amelie, and though River only took two bites of dinner and tried to swim in the fountain it was a lovely evening.
Once again the revelers were out that night, but this time I was supplied with TWO earplugs and I slept like a dream. We had a fantastic breakfast at The Coffee Pot, complete with surly waitress. Since it was Monday and most of the sights we wanted to see were closed, the three of us took a morning carriage ride through the French Quarter. River was enamored of the mules, but less so by our friendly driver Joe's description of the history of Nawlin's. Thom and I were unsurprised to discover we'd been unknowingly walking past sites of historical import the entire trip. My favorite was the shop of Marie Laveau who, Joe tells us, was the creole con-lady who invented voodoo. After the ride we wandered over to Cafe du Monde for some heavenly biegnets and coffee and Thom headed off to do some work.
River and I had a great afternoon in the hotel swimming pool, eating panini and gelato at La Davina Gelateria, and walking in a sprinkling rain to dinner. Thom met us at El Gato Negro across from the French Market - a fantastic Mexican restaurant serving fresh guacamole and homemade tortillas.
That night I looked out our balcony to see a giant hand grenade mascot advertising the bar's signature drink. Later, I dreamt of spilling decadent cocktails on my large pregnant belly.
Our last morning in New Orleans was spent wandering the boardwalk and playing with the fishes at the Aquarium. This was absolutely fantastic! We watched sharks and rays and turtles through giant windows. River played in the Amazon Rainforest and pet a baby shark. By the time we left it was hot, my legs were seizing from all the walking, and I was worried about getting to our flight on time. Still, the stars were with us and River and I caught a streetcar back to the hotel just as we walked up to the stop, and we left the city with smiles on our faces.
I can't remember the last time I was a tourist in a city. Amsterdam and Bielefeld in 2003? Every vacation since then has been spent with family for the holidays or on a beach relaxing. And I loved it. I'm glad I didn't spend the trip in a drunken stupor - there was so much I would have missed! I loved looking at maps and charting our course everyday (even if it rarely ended up being the course we actually took). I loved sharing a new place with River and Thom and walking around proudly with a giant TOURIST sign stamped on my forehead. I loved having no obligations to anyone, the absolute freedom to do anything or nothing. And I love Bizarro New Orleans. It's a beautiful, rich city, and I know we've only scratched the surface of it. I hope I can go back someday (and maybe spend a little time seeing how the other half lives).
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