Tag Archives: Louisiana

The Crescent City Diaries #14 – Bayou Redux

For my last day in New Orleans I booked myself a second swamp tour. I debated making an excursion to one of Louisiana’s many historic plantation homes, but ultimately decided I’d rather bask in the state’s natural beauty one last time. Oak Alley would have made for a great photo-op, but there’s a real sense of rapture I feel when I’m in the bayou. It’s an utterly unique biome, distinguished by an aesthetic that is nakedly brutal. It’s an environment that’s violent and unforgiving, and yet its cruelty is affixed with so much emergent beauty. It’s not comfy or easy real estate; it’s swelteringly hot, it floods, it endures hurricanes and cyclones every year, it’s crawling with innumerable blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects, and the sheer variety of other jungle horrors make its overflowing alligator population about as bothersome as a line of indecisive pensioners in front of you at the post office. Sure, the alligators are there in abundance- but no one takes them too seriously. If you fall victim to one, it’s more or less your own fault, so there’s no safety-talk regarding a potential encounter.

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Nothing underscored this mindset better than my tour guide- a bearded Cajun who had lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana his entire life. My guide delighted in the company of alligators, and said that he took any opportunity he could get to wrestle and play with them. This hobby sometimes left him with serious injuries, and he pulled down his t-shirt to show us his most recent scar. An alligator had bitten him in the neck, which had to be fixed up with 72 stitches. This experience didn’t put him off in the slightest, however.

“We Cajuns do stupid shit out here,” he said, showing us some other scars on his forearms.

The only thing we had to watch out for, he told us, were snakes. Just like my previous swamp tour, we were instructed not to reach up into the trees because snakes are known to leap from the branches like they’re reenacting The Last Crusade.

“I’ll do anything with a gator- I’ll swim with them, I’ll have me some fun with them. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere near a snake. If a snake gets in here y’all are gonna call me Fat Jesus- because I’ll be running over the water.”

The bayou is home to all kinds of snakes- snakes that swim, snakes that climb trees, snakes with lethal dosages of venom, and snakes that constrict. I shared the man’s fear; whenever I come to the USA, snakes are the only thing I really worry about encountering. I think it’s the stealthy nature of them, and the idea of a lightning-quick bite being enough to send me to the ground, unceremoniously foaming out the mouth as my unfulfilled dreams flash before my closing eyes. Sorry- it’s hard to resist indulging in such narcissistic morbid curiosities- especially when imagining the local papers of my small English hometown sharing headlines of badger culls and flower shows with “LOCAL BOY GOES MISSING IN SWAMP. COTTONMOUTH BELIEVED TO BE AT FAULT”. Man, what a story! I’m half-tempted to plunge myself into the murky waters just to make it happen. But like all dark fantasies, it passes and you find yourself physically recoiling, as if the imagined threat had actually been there in front of you. I’ve actually had recurring nightmares about snakes before I ever stepped foot in the bayou. What’s weird is that in every dream I have, the snakes get decapitated by a meat cleaver. Either I’m doing it in self-defense, or I’m hopelessly begging someone else not to do it, or I’m doing it to an innocent snake while in a trancelike state, unable to control my actions. There’s always the same mixture of pleasure and disgust when it happens, and I wake up with a shudder.

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Anyway that’s enough of that. What was great about this swamp tour was that it was completely different from my other one. The first one was near a private lake, more inland, surrounded by dense tropical woodlands, and we were on a larger boat that carried a good thirty people. The first tour was much more family-friendly as well. My second tour, by contrast, was on a high-speed airboat carrying only five people, as well as a guide with a much more liberal vocabulary. The setting too was different. I was south of NOLA this time, not east. I felt closer to the shore. The environment was that of sprawling wetlands, miles upon miles of low-lying swamplands whose freshwater canals drift seamlessly into the ocean. You could see for miles in all directions, and the boat was super-fast, which was very refreshing given the temperature.

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“Where are we?” I asked when I arrived at the dock.

“We are in the town of Jean Lafitte,” the man at the desk replied. “You know, like the pirate.”

I stared at him blankly.

It took us a while to reach the bayou itself. Once we got there, the guide took us at a slow speed through a natural tunnel in the trees. The trees were so tightly packed that I wondered if we could even fit into this canal. It was like going into a cave. And once inside the bayou, we were completely shadowed by a thick canopy about an arm’s reach above us. This was the part of the tour in which we had to be wary of snakes. Spiders too. The guide pointed out the gargantuan webs that went from tree to tree, and I spotted several spiders that looked big enough to down a small bird.

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We saw some alligators hanging about on land and decided to dock next to them.

“I don’t know about y’all I’mma have me some fun,” the guide said. He tied the boat to a cypress knee and hopped out. Two alligators approached him and he beckoned them closer. After feeding one a few marshmallows, he literally grabbed it by the tail and pushed it away. “Go on, git!” he said. It was the other gator’s turn. The other one approached, and after feeding it, the guide patted it on the snout affectionately.

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Then we were off again. We left the bayou and found ourselves in more wetlands. The guide called out for an alligator he named “Hops” and within a few minutes the creature approached the airboat. Tempting him with a marshmallow on a stick, the guide was able to get the alligator to climb on the boat. The woman in front of me recoiled. When the gator went for the marshmallow, he ended up biting off half the plastic stick as well, before cheekily diving back into the water.

“SHIT-ASS!” the guide hollered at it. “You broke my dang stick! Enjoy shitting that one out later. Heh heh.”

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Further on in the tour we got to ask a few questions. I asked the guy if he had ever been hand-fishing.

“Aw hell no!” he exclaimed. “No way. That there is what we call really redneck. You might get that in northern Louisiana, but not down here. You’d get your arm chewed off by a snapping turtle. Yessir. That’s some redneck shit.”

I was interested in the idea of there being different classes of “redneck” or “hillbilly” within the South. I’m already aware of the difference between the Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns of the south-Louisiana swamps and the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “twangy-voiced” population of the northern half of the state.

The guide explained to the rest of the boat that hand-fishing, or “noodling” was the practice of getting a catfish to try to swallow your arm and pulling it out of the water. I’d read about it years ago, and had written a short story about it at university. I could have sworn it was a Louisiana thing. Perhaps it’s a northern Louisiana thing.

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The guide then revealed that he looked after baby alligators that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild. After raising them for a few years, he released them back into the swamps. He retrieved one from a cooler or something, and we each got to take it in turns holding the little guy.

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It was an amazing day. I had gotten to see at least a dozen gators, and as we sped back towards the dock, I felt pleased with my decision to go on another swamp tour. As I said at the beginning, it was either this or a plantation home. I’ve seen some awesome plantation homes in Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re great and all that, but there’s something really special about the bayou as a place. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to see it again. It’s a voyage to an alien world. And unlike the moon, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or Antarctica, this strange land is teeming with exotic life. I think my decision to go back- and the “magical feeling” I get when I’m there- is down to how far removed from my background it is. It’s almost certainly the most wild place I have ever been to. It’s the kind of faraway place that hitherto only really existed in nature documentaries, observed from the comfort of my couch with a bowl of Neapolitan to hand. To be in such a wild place is breathtaking and surreal. If I think about it, upward of 99% of my life has been spent in the comfort of metropolitan areas. Even in the small town I grew up in, my bedroom views showed asphalt, brick, and concrete in all directions. I was raised in the bosom of central heating, imported goods, and soft cushions. Getting the chance to see an environment untouched by the infrastructure of human civilization was a real treat- and something I’ll endeavor to try again as often as I can.

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The Crescent City Diaries #8 – Cruising into El Wapo’s Man-Cave

El Wapo is an old, 13-feet-long Louisiana alligator with a fondness for eating other alligators. It’s precisely this habit- and his talent for crushing skulls- that’s cost him approximately 3000 teeth during his lifetime. When he smiled at me, I noticed half his teeth were missing. Don’t worry though- he’s managing just fine with those he has left. I got to meet him on August 4th, the second day of my trip to the Big Easy.

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I was ecstatic to get the chance to see some real Louisiana swamps during my stay. I also felt like this was a chance for me to see Louisiana- the state- since neither it nor New Orleans are reflective of the other. The culture of this brilliant, slowly-sinking city, this bluesy, French-inflected, occultic Atlantis is far too distinctive to expand beyond its leveed borders. I wanted to see Lafayette- the municipal heart of Cajun culture, as well as Baton Rouge- the rowdy college town, home of the Tigers- in order to experience what I figured was the real Louisiana (the same way I wouldn’t expect a visit to NYC to teach me anything about life in Syracuse or Ithaca). My mouth watered at the idea of seeing even smaller cities like Grand Isle and Natchitoches. But an American road trip is difficult without a car, especially when you’ve got a wedding to attend at the end of it. So all that would have to be put on hold, for the purposes of maintaining both my financial security and my sanity. What wasn’t denied to me however was the very thing I coveted most about the Pelican State- the majesty of its famous wetlands.

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There are a number of swamp tours that will pick you up from your hotel in New Orleans, especially if you are staying in the French Quarter. Most are about 2 hours long, and when you factor in travel time, the entire experience usually amounts to about 4 hours, which allows you to spend the rest of the day doing other stuff. The tour that popped up the most in my research was the Honey Island Swamp Tour, which operates out of a bayou east of New Orleans, in a town called Slidell. During the ride there in the air-conditioned shuttle bus, the driver told us stories and trivia about the things we passed by. Charity Hospital is a landmark one doesn’t soon forget. After we exited the Quarter, crossing Canal St and entering Downtown, we fell under the shadow of a gargantuan abandoned hospital. The driver told us that Charity had been devastated during Katrina, and with the power gone, the sweltering patients tried to escape to the roof of the building in the hope of helicopter rescue. She said that there were reports of gunfire aimed at some of the helicopters, which I thought was particularly bizarre. The only word to describe the place is haunting; it looks like something from The Walking Dead. It’s strange that after all these years Charity still hasn’t been rebuilt, but then that could be said of many of the city’s post-Katrina ruins.

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We drove east, past the famous St Louis graveyards and into Tremé. The driver said that when she was a girl, her father always said that an axe had to be kept in the attic. She said she only understood why when Katrina hit, and many of the district’s residents had to axe through the attic and escape onto the roof so that they didn’t drown. We left Tremé and passed through New Orleans East, which supposedly suffered the worst of the hurricane’s assault. Many of the residents simply didn’t return after evacuating, and those that did didn’t stay long. Today the town is a shell of its former self; we drove past miles of swampland which the driver told us used to be rows of houses. Nature has reclaimed a lot of the eastern part of the city, and those few who remained found themselves without many of the amenities once available to them. Businesses moved elsewhere and construction projects were abandoned. A lot of the children living in New Orleans East today have to get the bus to other towns for school. We passed an abandoned amusement park that never opened, the roller coaster tracks towering over the swamp like a ruinous Mayan temple.

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“They were gonna build a Disneyworld or something out here,” the driver told us, but gave up on the project. However, a lot of Hollywood movies use the abandoned amusement park- including Jurassic World, who shot scenes there for the sequence with the pterosaurs in the domed aviary. I thought that was pretty cool.

Eventually we reached the town of Slidell, which, we were told, had boomed in the wake of Katrina. What was once a small country town was now a thriving urban metropolis, with many of the residents of New Orleans East having relocated there. As we drove through the streets we got to see a real Daiquiri Drive-Thru (a Louisiana staple) as well as a dozen personalized Pelican statues outside of businesses that donated to local charities. We left the town along the quiet backroads, passing several country shacks proudly displaying the Confederate flag on their lawns and in their windows- as though daring someone to take issue with it, it seemed- and entered the bayou.

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By the time the tour started it had stopped raining. I wondered if a swamp tour would be like whale watching, where you’d be lucky if your hard-earneds got you half an inch of dorsal fin. I guess I assumed that all animals are naturally cautious of loud motorized vehicles, and have better things to do with their Saturday afternoons than perform tricks for boats of screaming primates armed with selfie-sticks, but I was wrong. We were barely ten minutes into the tour when the gators started emerging from their bald cypress grottoes like haughty divas along a catwalk. In total we saw 14 gators that day, although two of them were the capsized victims of cannibalism. The tour guide attracted the gators with marshmallows, and it was incredible to see the wild creatures up close. Like the residents of the Big Easy, these animals aren’t shy whatsoever. If anything they came across as desperate, attention-seeking whores. So I encourage anyone who ever finds themselves in Louisiana to book a swamp tour, because you very reliably get your money’s worth.

The tour guide was hilarious as well. When the little girl from Mississippi asked him if the gators ate humans, he responded “Only little girls that don’t clean their bedroom.”

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Once we reached the deepest, darkest part of the bayou, the guide announced that we had entered El Wapo’s Man-Cave. El Wapo is the undisputed king of this particular bayou- nothing happens without his consent, and not a creature draws breath unless he allows it. The tour guide lovingly petted him on the snout, before we bid the Caesar farewell. A young female alligator came along, attracted by the scent of the marshmallows we had humbly offered as tribute to the king, and the guide said “Yeah…he’s probably gonna eat her later…”

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We also saw some raccoons, a bunch of wild rice, and a blue heron- which the guide informed us was the “most vicious predator” in the whole swamp. Before the tour ended we passed by several Cajun houseboats and fishing shacks- people whose houses were inaccessible by any means other than water. They had to get a boat to a dock just to get their mail. It was fascinating. Their entire livelihoods were reliant on the swamp and the creatures they shared it with. A few of these “swamp-folks” waved at us from their front porches. Closer to where the tour started we saw some richer houses on the banks of the swamp, whose trimmed lawns were outfitted with covered swimming pools to keep out the gators that wandered freely over their land from time to time.

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“And here,” the guide said, as we approached the dock of such a property, “we have the most foul and contemptable beast in the entire swamp…the Bama fan.”

We saw then that the deck chairs were painted with the logo of the Crimson Tide. The guide muttered something about them destroying the ecosystem and we all had a good laugh.