“Ya’ll gonna pass a good time donna buy ya” says the woman at the ticket counter. “Great! We are looking forward to it!” I reply as the ability to translate my dad’s ancestral tongue floods my memory. We were in New Orleans, excited to celebrate the new year and fully confident we would witness our Longhorn’s win the Sugar Bowl game.
Upon arrival the previous evening, as we navigated to our hotel near the French Quarter, our eyes didn’t know where to settle first. The misty rain had softened the city’s edges and exaggerated the twinkle of the gas lanterns. The music pulsed around us as the curious crowd, doused in shiny beads, celebrated the eve of new year’s eve.
We have been to this old city a multitude of times because we love it. Some of our favorite places are the Audubon Zoo, City Park, Preservation Hall, Royal Street, Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and the French Market in the Quarter. On this visit we were determined to check the National WWII Museum off of our New Orlean’s ‘to-do’ list.
In a city better known for it’s jazz and jambalaya, the museum seems out of place. However, we learn it is housed here because the Higgins boats were built in New Orleans during WWII. These amphibious landing crafts were designed based on boats used in Louisiana swamps and marshes by Andrew Higgins, whom President Eisenhower referred to as “the man who won the war for us”.
The museum is housed in multiple buildings and we spend more than four hours here, but we could have stayed longer. If you are a WWII buff, plan on spending the whole day….maybe even two days. This museum does an excellent job of covering a complete history of WWII. Both the European and Pacific exhibits are well done and the museum explains the role each US military branch played in the war. The museum alone warrants a visit to New Orleans.
After our museum visit, we caught the St. Charles streetcar uptown to the garden district. We exited at Washington and walked towards Prytania Street. Soon we spotted the fern encrusted walls surrounding Lafayette Cemetery No.1. As we walked among the decaying, moldering crypts we discussed the grueling history of this city. My boys don’t really understand public health concepts of high infant mortality rates and yellow fever epidemics, but the cemetery helped them to understand the consequences of these events. We viewed the tomb of the Sercy family, which lost three children in two days to yellow fever, and the tomb for Destitute Orphan Boys, which has little toys cars lined up outside of it. After our tour, we are all grateful for modern disease control knowledge and sanitation interventions.
The air is hushed and sleepy as we continued our walking tour of the Garden District. This neighborhood is of a different era and we take our time to admire the elegant old homes. Don’t make the same mistake I make of trying to read the walking tour information off your phone as you traipse the broken, uneven sidewalks frequently deformed by tree roots pushing through. Yes, I should know better.
We spend the next two days in New Orleans just reveling in the joy of being with each other, experiencing New Orleans through the eyes of our children and yes-winning the 2019 Sugar Bowl.
On our way out of the city, we stop at Oak Alley Plantation. We spend most of our time on the grounds, the trees are stunning and the very well-done slave quarter exhibit sparked lots of questions from the kids. I appreciate that Oak Alley did not shy away from this painful part of their history and the exhibit is truthful and somber. The tour of the big house is informative but a little slow for the kids.
In Baton Rouge we stop to visit the “Pirate of the Pacific”. The destroyer ship, the USS Kidd, silently floats on the Mississippi river. It took us less than two hours to tour the ship and a small museum .
The last leg of our journey takes us to Lafayette. I wanted the kids to learn there is so much more to their Cajun heritage than just king cake on Fat Tuesday.
Lafayette, located in the southwest part of the state, is referred to as the heart of Cajun Country. The Attakapas tribe originally inhabited this area, joined by a few French, Spanish and African inhabitants. In the late 1700’s Acadians, forcefully removed from Canada by the British, made their way here in large numbers and settled. The resulting cultural composite of all these neighbors is quite unique.
We visit Vermilionville to learn more about the Native American, Acadian and Creole cultures. Located on the banks of a small bayou, this place is worth a stop. We hear lots of people versed in the fluidity of dual languages (“But you have time now, ca va?”) as the artisans demonstrate historical skills and crafts. My boys enjoyed talking with Chief John Mayeux of the Avogel Tribe, hearing D’Jalma Garnier play the Creole fiddle, and working the hand drawn ferry across the bayou. My husband was drawn to the woodworking and blacksmith shops. I enjoyed learning about the Creole style of architecture (ideal for warm, humid conditions), developed a greater appreciation for modern, indoor kitchens and learned all about how to weave cotton.
The later part of the day is spent down on the bayou (“donna buy ya”) with Cajun Country Swamp Tours. Our guide is a legacy of these wetlands. He forges a different path from the loud, boisterous guide in the boat a head of us. “That boy up thar-he a cooyon” our guide says with a laugh. My family looks at me to translate. “The other guide is an idiot….but expressed with love”-hard to describe but they get the point.
We silently move through wetlands surrounded by tall cypress trees draped in moss. We witness a multitude of large and small aquatic, land and air creatures, while we learn about this unique ecosystem.
The next day we bid our host state goodbye, “Au revoir Louisiana”, and arrive back in Texas ready to sleep in our own beds. This trip will continue to slowly be assimilated into our beings, and will shape our future in ways we can not yet foresee-for this is why we travel.
Excerpt from the epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie by Longfellow which famously captures the tragic story of a couple separated by the forced Acadian removal.
“Still stands the forest primeval; but far away from its shadow,
Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping.
Under the humble walls of the little catholic churchyard,
In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed;
Daily the tides of life go ebbing and flowing beside them,
Thousands of throbbing hearts, where theirs are at rest and forever,
Thousands of aching brains, where theirs no longer are busy,
Thousands of toiling hands, where theirs have ceased from their labors,
Thousands of weary feet, where theirs have completed their journey!”