Monday, May 30, 2011

postcard from louisiana

Am I just lucky, or do remarkable things happen every day to everybody in New Orleans?

The threat of flooding from the Mississippi had continued as I carried on down towards its mouth. On the coach into town we're driving along bridges over marshland. Except today the locks have been opened and the area is being flooded to divert water from the city. It seems we're passing at exactly the right moment: we witness the sight of colossal amounts of water gushing into the area, overwhelming trees as it goes. The guy next to me said he's been traveling this route for 40 years, and never seen anything like it.

The best description of New Orleans I'm told is that I shouldn't think of it as the south of the USA, but as the north of the Caribbean. This seems accurate. And I say so with all the authority of somebody who has never been to the Caribbean.

My first night out in the city I am taken to a bar that feels more like an off-license, with patio furniture set up in the back garden, fairy lights decorating the fences, and musicians playing classical music in the corner. After that it's off to a private members bar/pool club where we relax drinking whiskey sours in the pool until 1am.

Hours before leaving the city I'm heading back to my hostel, along a street I'd already walked on several occasions. This time however, one of the parks is filled with a stage, the stage is filled with a reggae band, and 3000 people are partying along for free. I change plans, and join in. I ask the guy next to me why this is all happening, and his response describes New Orleans better in three words than I could in 300: "It's Wednesday, brother!"

Monday, May 23, 2011

postcard from tennessee

Two objectives whilst in the Deep South: eat some BBQ, and see some live blues. I'm told these are the two most important things to sample whilst in the region.

Every now and then whilst traveling, you get lucky. I arrive for my 24 hour visit to Memphis and am told that today is the final day of the World BBQ Championship. 250 teams are competing. I get the feeling that today is one of those days.

It's a remarkable set-up. Teams have gone to great personal expense to build big stalls, and variously provide music, alcohol, elaborate stall designs, matching uniforms, games and gimmicks to provide the perfect BBQ atmosphere.

Team names pun around the subject of pigs. Two personal favourites: Notorious P.I.G. and The People's Republic of Swina.

All the while, judges go around sampling each stall, and marking their BBQ on the minutest criteria. I eat (for free) at about 14 stalls throughout the day, and struggle to discern anything other than superficial difference between them.

As the sun goes down, everybody gathers at the main stage, and 40-something awards are handed out ("and the ninth place in Ribs category goes to..."). A couple of winners cry on stage. The involved crowd cheer at any mention of local pride, local sports teams, or overcoming the floods (the venue was moved from it's usual spot on the banks of the Mississippi*). The biggest cheer comes when - apropos of nothing - a winner calls for the crowd to support their troops.

It's all very surreal, but a strangely moving experience. It's an taste of what gives people a sense of social harmony out here, in the same way that soccer and royal weddings do back home. Everybody leaves exhausted, elated, and very drunk.

We then head back into town and catch some live blues. That's pretty damn good too.

*superb analysis of the media's reaction to the Memphis flood can be read here

Friday, May 20, 2011

postcard from montana

I've edited together a little video of a one day hike I did in Glacier National Park, Montana. Do you see?

By way of previous updates, you can see 42 postcards from April here, postcards from the Middle East, Japan and South-East Asia by scrolling back through here, and my postcard from Coachella festival here - find out which two headliners played the gigs of their career, which one had people down the front falling asleep, and which act Paul McCartney skanked to...