I'm in New Orleans. I'm feeling love and hate at the same time for this city. It's posh and ramshackle, sweet and sewage scented, sunny then blustery. It's always noisy - the sweet sounds of jazz are always around the corner.
I love the southern style food and the music. I love the sunny mild weather. Most people are friendly and customer service is top notch. Jazz plays in most bars - it's wonderful stumbling upon a live show. And the food is amazing. Amazing. Very little vegetables though. So far I've had an oyster po'boy, red bean and sausage soup, alligator, gumbo and bread pudding. Cheap and tasty.
But it's seedy, especially in the city. Bourbon Street has many strip clubs, female workers beckon customers in and burly guards holler to passes by, telling them they need to come in. Drinking is allowed in the street - only in cups with lids though. Intoxicated people walk the streets - some talk to themselves, others beg, and a few leer at women walking by. I'm scared to walk around at night.
There's an upmarket shopping mall with high end stores Tiffany, Anthropologie and Saks 5th Avenue - a stark contrast to the shops selling lairy tshirt and mardi gras costumes, gator souvenirs, pipes and sex toy vendors.
The buses and street cars are cheap, as are taxis, but public transport is a little unreliable.
It's gator country too.
There is a mix of very very rich (lush leafy streets lined with mansions) and very poor (people wandering the street, taking shelter in median strips and beggars under bridges and along roads). Some people get dressed up to go out - ladies in crisp blazers and box hats (I even saw one woman on the street car with her hair in rollers). And young people loiter on street corners, playing loud rap music, drinking and acting quite intimidating.
It's like a different era.
My view of New Orleans changed when I went on a three hour guided tour. Honestly, I could have spent all day riding the bus listening to our tour guide tell us about the city. It was so worth the money. I booked my tour through New Orleans Adventure Tours (book and depart from 414 Canal Street). The staff at the outlet are friendly, and the host was a charm.
We went beyond Bourbon Street, which on first impression, might define one's New Orleans experience.
Our bus crawled along the perimeter of the French Quarter up Decatur Street where artists sell their art around the outside of Jackson Square and then past French market - a jumble sale of clothes, food, bric-a-brac, jewellery and souvenirs.
Mules pull tour carriages. They endure the New Orleans climate better than horses.
St Louis Catherdral across from Jackson Square is beautiful.
Then we were driven across to The Esplanade - it's lined with amazing houses - standing tall and colourfully proud. Our guide was extremely knowledgable and took pride in her city. She told us that in the 1800s, people could buy as much land as they liked - blocks were of different sizes depending on how much people could afford. When there was spare land leftover, it became a common park, cared for the residents in the street. She pointed out the houses of community leaders and famous people (Sandra Bullock's house is in the Garden District). Bad Pitt and Angelina Jolie also have a house here; as does Nicolas Cage.
We stopped at St Louis #3 cemetery where she explained the complex burial procedure, still keeping to tradition to this day. Families are buried in tombs above ground. The tomb is opened for the newly deceased's ashes to be placed inside. However the deaths must occur more than a year and a day apart or the family needs to rent a smaller space to put the body until a year and a day has passed. It was quite a complex, expensive process. The cemetery is lavish, with marble tombstones lining the grassy 'streets' - our tour guide said they were streets as they have names.
Next stop was City Park where we had some food (I had a hot chocolate and two beignets (a donut type pastry famous here) dusted so thickly in icing sugar my lap was white after I ate them.
We were given the opportunity to wander through the sculpture park - which was beautiful on this sunny day. My photos turned out so bright. City Park spans for acres - it's filled with lagoons that all meet (you can hire canoes), a train running through it, a playground and a children's theme park called Storyland - its entrance had giant nursery rhyme character statues welcoming visitors. I so wanted to go to Storyland! I loved the quirky sculptures there.
Finally we saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Nine years on and the city is still recovering. Nine years on and locals believe the city will never be the same as it was before August 2005. Our tour guide showed us levees and safety points and the work that has been done to hopefully prevent the damage happening again. It occurred to me that the weather determines so much of whether businesses want to start up in New Orleans, and how hard it must be for people who might not have been financially stable before the hurricane to rebuild. I also thought about the great fear that this could happen again - Mother Nature is so uncertain.
Today when we drove through the streets, we saw big scale construction as will as families pitching together to build houses.
It was hard not to cry as we toured this area. People had nowhere to go. Grassy blocks indicated there was a house once there - shells and river debris still remain from the hurricane. Houses that did survive were looted. Over 1830 people died. Many died in their attics. The tour guide told a story of her friend's 18 year old son who waited on the roof for three days until emergency rescue came to get him by boat.
In the foreground is a slab of a house destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. While New Orleans is being rebuilt, it's a slow process.
The water line on this house showed how high the floods reached afrer Hurricane Katrina. Flood insurance used to be around $400, now it's $18000 in New Orleans.
Houses have been built up to 17 feet off the ground since Hurricane Katrina.
Flood gates to protect the city of New Orleans. If I remember rightly, the food gates were built after Katrina.
This statue is a meeting point in times of a natural emergency. Residents are then taken by bus or train out of New Orleans. There is no taking masses of people to city landmarks such as the SuperDome - it's not safe to get out of town. There are statues like this all over the city.
When I arrived yesterday and wandered down Bourbon Street, my first impression of New Orleans was that it's a little daunting, scary and not what I expected. But I'm so glad I did this tour and it showed me there's more than the seedy side. People are struggling. But there's so much happiness and culture to be seen. And there's new growth. Not only on the ferns and moss growing on the oak trees, but a thriving construction industry and lots of great retail and food outlets. As we drove through the Garden District today, our tour guide played us Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. And you know, it is. It isn't so bad here.
I'm excited about tomorrow - though I'm always aware of my surroundings. I've got a cooking class in the afternoon and in the morning I will check out the french Quarter Festival. People say hello to you in the street - there's a warm sense of hospitality here, so I won't feel too alone.