Friday, 22 November 2013

Louisiana: Swamps 'n Strippers

The quaint town of Natchitoches.
After reaching Shreveport, just inside Louisiana, we branched south on Interstate 49, and rode it through gentle forest until we reached the town of Natchitoches at dusk. The town was quaint and attractive, it had a certain southern charm, of older, more European buildings. The Christmas lights were already hanging over the main street and the shops were perfect for middle aged women – they sold expensive jams and kitsch kitchen utensils. We had a walk along the river and a piss in the park, and our legs were stretched enough to get back in the car as night straddled the road. We continued south, past Alexandria, Bunkie and Opelousas; before stopping in Lafayette for the night. We went to a restaurant which Mark had seen online, and served typical Cajun food. The menu was heavily swamp influenced, full of alligator, crayfish and other water creatures, but the food was delicious. I had alligator to start with which was pretty good, but opted for a steak for the main, with southern sides. There was a Cajun band playing, singing in a French I couldn't recognise let alone understand, but the tunes were good and it was a nice welcome to the south – the people seemed more polite too.  We checked into a motel and crashed out after another long day.

We found a Christmas fair shut for the day - you can have a photo with an alligator and then eat it!
The next morning we were discussing the plan for the day over breakfast, when the motel manager mentioned we could take a swamp trip, so after coffee and pastries headed there. We soon found the place – a big shack on stilts – and arranged ourselves a tour on an airboat, with Captain Buggsy. It was just the three of us on the trip, which was great, and our guide seemed like an old dude. We glided at speed over the water and lilies, and soon branched off down a creek that sometimes looked no more than a severely waterlogged field, but in fact the water and silt was probably a few feet deep, but it had dense vegetation floating on top. Big birds pushed off on long legs and flapped away as we sped closer, herons and things like that, and ducks splattered to take off as our noisy craft ventured deeper into the swamp. At times we stopped the engine, and sat there in silence. Everything was still, and the water reflected the trees erupting from the damp and the fresh morning sky.  "Ain't it priiatay", said Captain Buggsy repeatedly, in his soft southern drawl. It was. He wanted to show us some alligators, and we wanted to see some; so we raced off across the swamp once more, and alongside the Interstate, which runs for miles and miles across the Louisiana wetlands on enormous concrete stilts, which is quite an impressive feat of engineering. We motored up another creek and we could see the nose and eye of an alligator, perhaps five or six feet long, but she soon disappeared, so instead we floated to the waters edge where the lilies were gathered, and nestled amongst the flowers and plants were a collection of infant alligators. The biggest were just under two foot long, and all sat lazily and carefree in the water, not too bothered by our obvious presence. We got some photos and enjoyment, before bombing back across the water towards the centre. It had been a nice morning out in nature. 

Just like Fenland: nice place for your caravan – in the swamp.
Fisherman harvesting the swamp.
The bow of our hovercraft.
Stunning swamp.
Quite other worldly.
 
More swamps.
This area had been logged a long time ago. It's now protected.
Fresh morning skies.
Baby alligators are kinda cute.
We got back on the road and headed towards New Orleans, but stopped in Baton Rouge for lunch, at a chicken place called Pluckers, which was decent enough. The roads doubled in size once we hit New Orleans, as did the traffic, and I coasted through the city, past the skyline and famous Superdome, not knowing where I was going. We rode over an enormous and impressive bridge – there'd been a few good bridges on the trip so far – before asking the sat nav directions to a hotel. We went to a Best Western - these were becoming our preferred choice for being slightly nicer with slightly bigger beds, as we were taking it in turns to share two in a bed, it's not easy finding a room to accommodate three individuals. The hotel was right in the city centre, we were up on the 8th floor and it was the nicest we'd stayed in so far. After checking in, we headed straight out, and walked through a clean and vibrant town, and as always were fairly unsure of where we were going. We walked for 20 minutes before reaching Bourbon Street - the famous street of bars and entertainment. It was a Tuesday, and 5pm, so not that busy; but the first bar we came across was called Fritzels, and so of course had to stop for a drink. The owner looked like he had a few dark secrets, too. We moved on to the next bar along, which was playing music – jazz of course – and the charismatic frontman worked the middle aged crowd into a near fever. Everywhere we'd been had been middled aged, all the bars, all the entertainment. Vegas, Roswell, Fort Worth, Dallas, New Orleans. We were usually some of the youngest out, and we're no longer that young. Where do America's young people go? Anyway, we continued working our way through the bars, all hosting live and fantastic music, all with middle aged people dancing, mostly a form of adapted line dancing, just stopping for a drink in each. We were soon getting tipsy however, but we agreed it was a much more fun city than Vegas already. 

Driving towards Baton Rouge.
New Orleans felt more European.
Looking towards Bourbon Street.
Inside Fritzel's bar.
Bourbon Street at dusk.
Blowing some jazz.
The man had some lungs.
Old people dancing.
Matt and Mark getting drunk.
We continued down the street in the same vein, until the music bars ran out and all seemed to be replaced with strip bars. We had no idea New Orleans and Bourbon Street had a prominent strip club scene, but it appeared so. Egged on by alcohol and each others masculinity, we ventured inside one. Alright, we didn't need that much encouragement with the offer of two-for-one beers and tits on show, so continued our drinking here. In the first one, an attractive girl danced on the stage for one song before slinking off again, while a bored and boring, gormless mum of three sat in her underwear and tried chatting to us. We weren't interested, and neither was she, but I chatted with her lightly to keep the awkwardness from becoming overbearing. We finished our beers and left, before venturing in the next one. This pattern pretty much repeated itself for an hour or so, until we were pretty drunk and getting bored of tits and tattoos. We decided to leave, and head off in search of culture once more. We took a cab to Frenchmen Street, which I was told was where the locals go, and where you can find a more genuine New Orleans, or Nawlins, experience. We arrived in one large bar with some great live and energetic jazz, and got ourselves a position at the bar. We chatted to one lone woman about our age, who turned out to be the manager on her night off, and she recommended a local drink – some kind of whiskey cocktail. It was pretty strong, and I was already quite drunk, but managed to drink it before deciding to get up and join the crowd on the dance floor. As soon as we reached the floor to feel the rhythm, the band played their final bar of the night and thanked the crowd. I laughed. We then left to find some food, there didn't seem to be many choices but found one place with a small menu. We had some unsatisfying drunk food, I had a pitta pizza, and scoffed it at the bar. We got chatting to two American girls from Massachusetts, a bit younger than us, but also on a road trip driving across country. These were the first people we'd met doing a similar thing to us. They were fun and we got on well. One had a very strong Boston accent and swore a lot; she was confident to the borders of aggression, but I was drunk enough to argue for entertainments sake, and beat her in arm wrestles she was convinced she would win. Matt lost to her; I don't know if he let her or not. They were bored of jazz and wanted to go to the strip clubs on Bourbon Street, and although I genuinely would've preferred to explore the late night music venues up in this old and local part of town, my drunk self said 'fuck it' and the five of us walked back to the more touristy area, and into one of the titty bars. Our Boston friends were really enjoying it, popping dollar bills under the working girls elastic, and continuing to get drunk. We spent another hour or so here, getting really wasted by now, before boredom and exhaustion set in, and we set off for home. We'd been drinking solidly for about 11 hours and barely eaten, and bed was calling. We were both staying in the Best Western, so walked back together. The more lairy of the two kept stopping to talk to people, late night street people, and was slowing us down, so I kept getting sent back to pick her up and hoist her forwards, to keep our march going. We got to the hotel, and it turned out we were in a different Best Western, so we needed to take a taxi from there to ours, which was only a short ride away, and then we drunkenly collapsed into bed.

One of the Boston girls ended up lying on stage, under a stripper.
Obviously no cameras were allowed in the club.
Drunken street people.
The following morning wasn't entirely pretty, but it wasn't that ugly either. After a gradual awakening, we got showered and dressed and went out in search of food. We sat in the sun by the Mississippi River, and had calamari, jambalaya and a chicken caesar salad. All of them were excellent. We had a little wander around town, drifted through some souvenir shops, and walked up to Jackson Square in the French Quarter, just in front of St Louis Cathedral. We sat on a bench and let the sun burn off our hangovers further. In front of the cathedral were a gathering of musicians blaring out brass tunes, as well as a collection of fortune tellers and mystics. We walked past one tarot guy, who looked a magnificent slob and was staring vacantly into space with his mouth ajar. His name was 'Angelic Jeffy' and Mark decided he would get his fortune read. None of us go in for that mystic shit and Mark was clearly taking the piss, without it bordering on offensive, and I sat and listened and tried not to giggle. He was clearly a chancer, I mean, they all are, but Angelic Jeffy struggled to be convincing. Somehow though part of me was sucked in, and I thought I'd get my fortune read, so chose a scraggy gypsy woman with teeth like a vandalised graveyard. She was actually pretty good, she managed to be convincing, and got quite a few things pretty damn accurate, but that's the skill in the trick they pull I guess. It's all horseshit, but it was a fun experience. 

A boat on the Mississippi.
A cool old couple who'd just got married.
Street artists.
Jackson Square and St Louis Cathedral.
Mark and Angelic Jeffy.
This man communicates with angels. They chose him.
A jazz band in the square.
Found street scene.
Afternoon sun.
We wandered back to the hotel and collected the car via a valet service, before heading out of the city before sundown. We headed north through the swamp we'd been in the morning before. The highway raced over treetops, many of them dead, and their silhouettes looked striking as the sun burnt in ambers and rubies as it set behind them and on our time in Louisiana.

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