My visit to New Orleans was very unstructured from the offset. It was completely unlike my trip to Budapest. Budapest was a project, something I was passionate about, and traveled to purely to satisfy that passion. It was something I planned months advance, and by the time I arrived in Hungary I was so high off of half a year’s reading of its history and culture that I had accumulated enough things to do that it was easy to order them into itineraries for each day. It was all about seeing those things I’d read about for real.
However, my trip to New Orleans was different. It had always been a longstanding dream of mine to go there, but I didn’t think I’d get to go so soon. The city was still a myth to me, an idea to be toyed with by novelists and poets and movie directors and songwriters. A place that could only be interpreted by art. It never really occurred to me that I could go there, even though I’ve lived on and off in Houston, TX for the past few years. It would have seemed a strange, fanciful idea- a “one day I’ll make it” kinda thing.
So New Orleans was never a project or a plan. I didn’t read up on it and make a bucket list. New Orleans was an opportunity, one that just kind of emerged out of the blue during the process of planning my upcoming visit to my friends in Houston. I’m going to America anyway- why not go earlier? Why not see the Gulf Coast and make the myth a reality? That’s what traveling in the USA really is, going from state to state and peeling off the layers of myth to see the far more interesting truths waiting for us underneath.
I had 5 days and only a couple things booked, both of them on the same day. So I learned a lot about solo travel and how to take city breaks in particular. 5 days is good because it allows me to move at my own pace, take my time, and discover opportunities while I’m there through word of mouth. However, it also meant that I was more responsible for creating my own fun. Sitting in a hotel room too long feels like a waste, and you don’t have to worry about that with a two day visit. That’s where an itinerary is needed, so you can fit everything in.
As I’ve stated in the previous entries of this series, I set out on my first day with no clear goal in mind except to see Faulkner House Books and the Café du Monde. But I took the long way to these stops, zigzagging through the French Quarter and enjoying the ambience. I stopped at Aunt Sally’s to engorge myself on free samples of freshly-made pralines and watch them being made in-house. I went to the city’s famous Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and paid a dollar to pet the stingrays. I found a beautiful little walled courtyard where I stopped to take some photos. I browsed antique shops, I tried on a straw boater at the Key West Hat Company, and I fell strangely in love with an abandoned brick building with smashed-in windows. I ate alligator for the first time and loved it. When I got back to Jackson Square I wondered what else I ought to do. Museums. The Cabildo was closed, unfortunately, but The Presbytère wasn’t. The former focuses on Louisiana history & culture, whereas the latter is devoted to Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. I was eager to see some authentic Mardi Gras costumes and they truly are the stuff of nightmares. I can’t imagine being a kid and going to one of the parades. I’d never sleep again. After staring into the hollow eyes of a mannequin with a pointed cone for a nose, oversized lips, and garments unsettlingly reminiscent of striped pajamas, I checked my phone. It was only 3pm! There were still so many precious hours left. Things were going slow, but not as slow as I’d have liked. I became afraid of running out of things to do.
After leaving the museum I marched northwest on my aching feet and left the Quarter for the first time. My destination? A little spot called Congo Square. A city park was just what I needed. Somewhere quiet, away from the inundation of stimuli that came with crowded tourist hotspots, where I could take some photos and enjoy the scenery. The square is located inside Louis Armstrong Park- which is no coincidence. Congo Square served as a place for slaves and free African Americans to gather in the 19th century for meetings and open markets. They also used the space for traditional African dancing and drum-playing, leading in no small part to the early development of Jazz. After taking pictures of the flowers, the live oaks, and the statues, I wandered over to another massive abandoned building with broken windows. They’re all over New Orleans, and there’s just something about the crude, industrial design, 19th century vibes, and overall dilapidation that fascinates me. I walked around the lake and my feet began to complain some more. It was time at last, I decided, to head back and recharge before heading out again in the evening. I’d done a lot on my first day- and my next was set to be a big one.