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Cajun dog day – the scars of New Orleans

New Orleans is drowning. You can taste it in the spicy, saturated air, feel it in the marshy ground. The home of absurd eccentricities, jazz and Mardi Gras is facing reclamation by the Mississippi, dragged down into the Gulf of Mexico by a confluence of factors, some inevitable, some preventable. The Venice of the Deep South may become a modern Atlantis – commemorated only by glorious sunken ruins and an olfactory memory triggered by the aroma of Cajun spices.

We decide to trek out to the swamps on our penultimate day in Louisiana. Here, water already dominates and land submits. Moisture cloys the air that enshrouds these sultry wetlands. At only 10.30am it’s over 90˚, nearing record highs for this time of year. The humidity condenses against me, preventing the beads of sweat on my skin from evaporating. Instead they gather in pools under my nose, trickling down my back uncomfortably. Stickiness seeps into my lungs, compressing my airways, triggering my asthma. I gasp and splutter, reaching into my bag for my inhaler. I inhale deeply, choking as I await soothing relief. Finally my lungs begin to open like bellows, adjusting sluggishly to the oppressive climate.

Vapour lifts the musky scent of peat from the earth and it swirls with the persistent residue cocktail of daiquiri and whisky that lingers on my tongue from the night before. It hits me hard, first in the nose, and then in the stomach. I resist the urge to retch.

David tells me sweating it out is the only sure-fire way to cure a hangover.

‘The jazz don’t sound so sleazy when you’re feeling queasy in the Big Easy.’

I am not adept to such an environment, having spent 25 years in the crisp dampness of Northern England, where the rugged green landscape clashes with grey relics of the industrial revolution.

Conversely, rural Louisiana flurries with that exotic verdure alluded to rainforests on National Geographic. Cypress trees dip their trailing vine leaves into murky olive water like Mermaid hair. Monet-green foliage blankets the floor under a canopy ceiling of entwined branches that acts as a greenhouse, trapping in the torrid heat. The symphony of millions of insects and birds undulates the trees with the resounding snort of the pelicans, the scraping call of blue herons; a chorus of snowy egrets, bullfrogs and katydids. The noise is as relentless and hypnotic as the street-jazz on Burgundy.

Our group leaves the refuge of the air-conditioned coach behind to tread the path beaten through tangled weeds. Our feet sink into the squelchy ground, each step demanding Herculean effort. I pull my shoe from the saturated earth with a loud sucking noise. Muddy water pours into the impressions left by our footprints. My palate is overcome by the taste of salt and earthiness from decaying vegetation, an amalgamation of algae, bacteria and fungi. The dank smell of stagnant morasses and fish stings my nostrils and churns my alcohol-afflicted stomach.

We reach a flight of rickety wooden steps leading to a dilapidated structure, typical in the quality of its construction of many older buildings in these parts. It is a testament to its engineering that it remains standing to this day; the journey out of the French Quarter had provided an unsettling montage of what nature’s fury was capable of here. The trail of destruction had grown increasingly alarming the further East one travelled, where in August 2005 the 17th Street Canal levee had split open spilling out torrents of water almost biblically, destroying everything in its path.

Perhaps the most poignant chronicle of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, and there was no shortage to choose from, was an abandoned amusement park. The silhouette of forlorn roller coasters, rigging savagely ripped out as the hurricane tore up the state, upturned dodgem cars and absconded log flumes, battered and derailed, stood solitarily against the skyline. It was an eerily surreal sight. These were the broken fragments of a place built for fun and adventure. Its demise epitomised so tragically the dissolution left by the merciless Katrina. The amusement park was quickly forgotten by many other travellers who sat fidgeting on the bus as it sped through the countryside. But it would stay with me long after we had left America and had resumed the banality of the everyday.

Life continues to diminish in the poor East of the State. We passed other windowless, beaten buildings down the Interstate 10 on our way out to the swamps. Our driver provided fascinating commentary throughout the journey. He had a fantastic deep laugh and easy humour. He was a local whose home had been destroyed by Katrina and his entire family still lived in the skeleton of their ruin house, fleshed out by wood and metal salvaged from the floods.

The buildings grew fewer as the world blurred into water-logged wilderness, until at last we arrived at our destination. The bayous, as the natives call them.

As soon as we had arrived in the swamps, my skin began to prickle. I noticed black specks peppering my clammy skin. All the bugs in Louisiana appeared to have converged to banquet. I swatted a few away, before realising I was fighting a losing battle. As if they sensed my ill-adaptation to the sub-tropical climate, the bugs persisted with their gorging unperturbed by my futile efforts of defence.

The heat intensifies. Cobwebs disconcertingly decorate the rachitic steps. The ample, floral shorts-clad rear end of the middle-aged Floridian tourist battling with the not-so-steep steps in front of me – ‘gosh, I didn’t realise there’d be stairs!’ ripples beneath glassy heat waves. Light-headed, I grab the wooden rail dizzily

David touches my arm, “nearly there baby. I’m feeling that whisky now. It’s way too hot for me!” David struggles more with the heat than I do. His shirt clings to him as through he’d forgotten to undress before taking a shower. If he was female he’d certainly be turning a few male heads.

Historic building in New OrleansWe reach the wooden platform to be greeted with a further onslaught of insects – frightening mosquito and gnat-like beasts with minatory proboscises, monstrous hornets, and strange cricket creatures emitting a humming drone. We hurry inside to escape the heat and insects. ‘Inside’ however is merely a thin screen canopy with a few drapes hanging from rough beams, and a fish-slicing ceiling fan that rotates at erratic velocities, threatening to spin itself right off the beam from which it hangs, decapitating an unfortunate tourist as it goes. We are relieved when our group is summoned by a Louisianan Alligator Dundee character.

“Right y’all, start fillin’ up at the far side,” he instructs. His speech is glazed with that thick Southern accent that swings harmoniously from word to word.

We form a queue and I unintentionally end up first in line. I step aboard our vessel – an oversized speedboat large enough to accommodate 12 curvy Americans and ourselves – and queasily plonk myself down at the far end. David sits down next to me, his eyes on the water which is the colour and consistency of split-pea soup.

“How much do you wanna bet now that he’s gonna take us out into the swamp and feed us to the gators?” David whispers.

“Or his family?” I laugh weakly, praying the resolve tablet I took on the coach kicks in soon. The boat wobbles as an elderly Kentucky couple ungracefully clamber aboard causing the boat to rock violently, sending a mini tsunami rippling back to the old jetty.

“Hey, would you grab me a beer?”

I am distracted, clutching the seat and battling a wave of boozy queasiness, not wanting to think about beer. It takes me a minute to realise that the request was directed at me.

“I – I’m sorry?” Alligator Dundee gestures with his bronzed hand to an ice box near my feet.

“Hand me a beer, would ya?”

“Oh – OK,” I reply, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand. I reach for the ice box and unclip the lid. I reach inside and get the shock of my life. Rather the can of Pale Ale that I was expecting, inside the plastic box is a tiny baby alligator grinning up at me. I reel back, cursing, to see our guide laughing so hard he nearly loses his footing. He would later explained that the baby was about to be released into the wild after medical treatment. David and the rest of the group start laughing too and soon I join in, though mainly out of hysteria, as our Guide cracks open another beer that he had had all along. “Welcome to the Bayou,” he cackles “hold tight, it’s gonna get rough!”

He gears up the engine, and we pull away with a roar from the dubious safety of the rotting jetty and enter the aqueous, green abyss. As we leave the heavy mugginess of land behind, a strange thing starts to happen. Maybe due to the cooler air generated by the speed of the boat, the open space, or the resolve finally taking effect, my hang over begins to lift and for I start to enjoy myself. It is impossible to resist the unexpected ethereal charm of the swamps. Imagine the Daintree Rainforest emerging from Lake Tahoe. The ancient Cypress and willow trees rise serenely out of the dark water, so still it serves as a perfect mirror. Ripples cast from our boat shatter the green reflection into broken impressionistic waves.

We glide seamlessly as our Guide, who introduces himself as ‘Ronnie’ perches precariously on the side of the boat, leaning back against the safety rail casually. He provides a hilarious insight to the bayou and Louisianan life. Within ten minutes of drifting through the drapes of the gnarled trees we meet our first fully-grown alligator.

Having encountered a crocodile on a previous trip to South East Asia, I had imagined an alligator to look like a smaller crocodile. The similarities are there – two periscope laurel-green eyes with slit pupils, barely perceptible at a first glance in the murky water, followed by that dark heavily armoured body with the small protruding spikes so gnarly that it reaffirms to me that these creatures swam with the dinosaurs. However, the differences between both are cognizable – the shorter, rounder jaw of the alligator, its blackish-grey skin as opposed to the croc’s olive-green scales and of course it is smaller, despite the fact I am far closer to the gator than I got to any croc. And right now, I am far closer than I want to be to that dagger-toothed grin.

“Well, it’s Ugly Betty!” Ronnie cries out suddenly as if he’d just spotted a long-lost friend. “Hey, girl, how’s it goin’? Ain’t seen y’all in a while!” He cuts the engine and scrambles across the boat with his arms open as if to scoop up the gator like the family Spaniel.

“We call her ‘Ugly Betty’ ‘cos she got a broken jaw,” he explains to the group, rummaging in a bag for something. “We think it happened when she was a hatchlin’ and she got rejected from the pod. She’s been hangin’ out with us ever since.” He pulls out a packet of hotdogs and skewers one on a long stick. I glance down as the gator glides gracefully passed me and I notice that her lower jaw juts off at a 45 degree angle below her top jaw like a pair of broken scissors.

“C’mere girl,” Ronnie calls balancing one foot on the safety rail and stretching over the side. We crane our necks with voyeuristic curiosity to see the gator in action. Ronnie proffers the stick with the sausage out to the gator who obligingly swims towards it, unabashed by a boat full of gawping tourists. Ronnie raises the stick higher, as if they are performing a well-rehearsed routine for Crufts.

“You gonna have to work for it, girl!” As if she understands, Betty rises gracefully out of the water, almost to an upright position, so streamlined and strong she barely makes a splash as she cuts the water. Those uneven jaws snap with the infamous ton of pressure that they are able to exert. In a flurry of teeth, she sinks smoothly back into the brackish waters, sausage mission accomplished.

I gape at the ease with which Ronnie plays with these creatures, as easily as if they were kittens. Like so much of the wildlife in the swamp, the alligator is an animal that is trying to survive in a changing world, as urban life ebbs further into the swamp. Whilst screwing a marshmallow, Ronnie tells us that around 6000 alligators are killed every year for meat and fashion. Conversely, alligators were responsible for only 12 human fatalities in the States between 2001 and 2007.

Ronnie revs up the engine again and we take off, bouncing across the water like a jet ski. More gators laze on the banks of the swamp in the cool shade of the trees, or slip silently into the water, eyes always poking just above the surface.

The far East of New Orleans lies 7 feet below sea level, and is sinking further. “We’re goin’ down about two inches every year!” Ronnie tells us cheerfully. “We’re on a fault line here in East Nawleans.” These wetlands created by the Mississippi Delta form a geographically unique landscape that act as natural levees. Unfortunately, this protection is diminishing due to land erosion, destruction from development and the failed artificial Federal Levees that were unable to shield the city from Katrina. Ronnie tells us that the swamps prevented Hurricane Katrina from causing worse devastation by acting as a buffer for higher inland areas.

He remains light-hearted despite his obvious contempt from the destruction of his homeland – he points out where a 500-year old tree was burned down by an intoxicated student – pausing occasionally to swig his beer. His humour is dry and typically Southern.

“See, this one time I was out fishin’ on this very swamp. I hadn’t cauwght a daymn bite all day, and I’d run outta bait. All I’d got with me was a bottle o’ whisky. Then, I saw this big ol’ snake go by with a frog in its mouth. I grabbed that ol’ snake an’ I poured the whisky in its mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head and he dropped that frog. I stuck the frog on the line and caught me the biggest goddamn catfish I’d ever seen! An’ then I heard a knockin’ on the side of the boat. I looked down and there was that snake, with two frogs in his mouth! I guess he likes whisky too!” He hoots with laughter and cracks open another can.

We approach a narrower strip of water. Ronnie cuts the engine again. The vegetation is so thick here that only dapples of light break through. “If y’all look over there -” Ronnie gestures to a distant bank. “There’s a mama wild boar and piglets. See?” Sure enough, tucked deep in the ferns and tree roots a black, furry pig with three tiny ginger blobs are snouting the ground. She ignores the gawking people in the boat and nurtures her litter unperturbed. We sail quietly passed, leaving the animals in peace.

I am surprised to notice the occasional odd building amidst the trees as we coast. Even with the historical portrayal of a swamp as a fearful ‘no man’s land’, a growing population, an ever-changing landscape and increasing demand for resources is bringing the age-old conflict between civilisation and nature into this previously uninhabitable territory, posing an uncertain future for the wildlife that depends on isolation from human activity for survival.

Later, when we arrive back at the old jetty, I set foot on not-so-dry land without the nausea and throbbing temple which I arrived but with fresh eyes, a soothed head and a new perspective. We clamber back onto the coach and head back onto the dirt track that eventually merges into the Interstate 10. The brackish waters and gators once again give way to shanty houses and corrugated iron buildings. As the scenery blurs passed, I wonder what New Orleans will look like in the future, as it continues to sink under the sway of detrimental storms.

There is a genuine sense of life in New Orleans, both in the spicy jazz heart of the city and the strange serenity of the teeming wetlands. Maybe it’s that steamy air, or the voodoo culture that according to legend allows practitioners to manipulate the line of mortality. Or perhaps the joie de vivre in New Orleans is a natural by-product of the eternal threat of natural destruction, which has reshaped the urban and rural landscapes forever and constantly pushes the city closer to permanent dissolution.

There is an ensuing conflict between human existence and the water that is forever trying to repossess the land, as it did in 2005 when Katrina metamorphosed the majority of Louisiana into a swamp. I try to picture the French Quarter, jazz and streetcars I see now submerged forever beneath the Mississippi. Maybe civilisation will ultimately prevail and find a way of surviving whatever nature throws at it, but at what cost?

Potentially further expansion to ensure human survival could sacrifice the natural defence that wetlands provide, damaging the flourishing ecological balance of swamp life.

As Ronnie said “Save the swamps, save N’Orleans.”

I’m grateful we have experienced this strange and remarkable place as it stands today, and that we experienced it the local way – with drink, laughter and a regretful hangover. With so much uncertainty, I liked to think whatever happens in the future will not extinguish the defiant spirit of life that defines this truly unique part of the world.

I turn away from David and lean my tired face on the window. Before my eyes close, I see that abandoned fun fair, solitary against the skyline, as the red sun sinks down into the blue horizon.

The new post-Katrina New Orleans skyline

Much more by this author on her very excellent blog.

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