My best friend and I have been obsessed with New Orleans for years because of the promise of a mixture of scrumptious food, incredible culture and a touch of the superstitious. Naturally, there was no way I could lah hay to NOLA without her. We planned for months before, making the trip one of the most anticipated lah hays I have ever gone on – and it was more than worth all the planning!
I hadn’t looked up the history of New Orleans in great detail before the trip and I’m glad I didn’t. But maybe even that would not have prepared me for the similarities between NOLA and the Caribbean. And it’s not something you can miss, some actually refer to NOLA as the “northernmost Caribbean city.”
And that it is!
Their food, music, architecture, friendliness- it’s so Caribbean. At some points we were pointing at specific buildings and streets, matching them to buildings and streets in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
There really is no other US city (that I’ve visited) like it. They’ve held on dearly to their traditions and unique nature and it has worked for them. It was first owned by the French, then the Spanish, then the French again, Germans came, enslaved Africans were kidnapped and brought across and many Haitians came across during their Revolution. Everyone added a little something and the result is New Orleans! If you’re familiar with the Caribbean region then that story should sound really familiar to you!
All of the great food we had: the crawfish boil at Three Legged Dog, alligator at Dat Dog, fried chicken at Willie Mae’s, Southern food at Dooky Chase, beignets at Cafe Du Monde , crawfish ettoufé at Elizabeth’s, jazz brunch at Muriel’s and soft shelled crab at Coop’s Place were all thanks to the different ethnic groups in NOLA. It was my second time having gumbo and I wasn’t a big fan of the seafood gumbo we had at Muriel’s. People quickly told us though that gumbo is something that everyone makes differently so we’d have to try it from a couple places to decide how we felt about it. Jambalaya though- I loved from the start!
We explored a lot and it was evident that even homelessness and other socio economic issues that are rife in the Caribbean, were prevalent outside of the main tourist area (the French Quarter). One of our Uber drivers even gave us the low down on which areas are cared for – tourist quarter -and which aren’t – inner city communities – (surprise, surprise).
One of the first things we did after landing in NOLA was a tour of the main tourist area – the French Quarter. It was the perfect first thing to do as it helped us to catch our bearings and gave us some great insight into the architecture, people and food which make NOLA such a great space. I’m no architecture aficionado but the tour gave us a good overview of the way natural disasters, countless fires and colonisation combined to give the French Quarter distinct architectural patterns. Following this up with a jazz show at Preservation Hall was possibly the best way to start our trip.
I think many people who come to New Orleans spend the majority of their time in the French Quarter, specifically on Bourbon Street and while I’m not into telling people how to travel, I can tell you that that’s a mistake. Our first night there on Bourbon Street was a dream; it was Memorial Day Weekend so the place was packed. Bourbon Street was like a Caribbean Carnival. Super sized, strong alcoholic drinks, beads being thrown haphazardly, clubs, bars, strip clubs, music galore and super excited people. It was one of my favourite memories from the trip. The thing about the French Quarter though, is that it doesn’t give you enough insight into NOLA; it’s essentially an amazing tourist trap.
You need to make time to get to Tremé, the oldest black neighbourhood in the USA. Unfortunately due to gentrification which mostly happened after Hurricane Katrina, the neighbourhood which was once 90% black is now less than 40% black. Nevertheless, there are key spaces and places you have to visit like :
Built by freed coloureds so blacks could have their own space to worship. It’s still operational and is a great option for mass if you’re in the area at the right time.
Once the only space where enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate. Every Sunday after Catholic mass which they were forced to attend, they would go to the park and practice their traditional religions. The mixture of Catholicism and their traditional religions became Voodoo which is not an ‘evil, devil religion’.
A space first sacred to the Houmas Indians who inhabited NOLA before it was stolen by the French and then became sacred to enslaved Africans who drummed, danced, sang and traded there every Sunday, eventually giving rise to golden products like Mardi Gras, jazz and rhythms and blues. Y’all black people bring forth so much goodness.
Before, during and after the Civil War black people were excluded from general social events. This led to the creation of black Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs which would assist by providing loans and education to the ex enslaved and hosting social gatherings. These clubs still exist today and almost every Sunday, the different clubs host second lines. People say you didn’t go to NOLA if you didn’t have a beignet or party on Bourbon Street. But as far as I’m concerned, you haven’t truly been to NOLA if you didn’t go to a Second Line Parade.
Second Lines were traditionally done for funerals. The same clubs I spoke about earlier would assist with the finances and planning for a burial and execute a jazz funeral. The family of the deceased, the casket and a brass band would lead the ‘final walk’ of the deceased through the streets. Well wishers and others would be behind them, in the second line, hence the name; it was a perfect send off!
Over the years, Second Lines graduated from being just for funerals and now occur almost weekly. The best way to describe a Second Line to someone who isn’t familiar would be ‘an Afro-centric parade meets Caribbean Carnival’ with live music and dancing. If you watched Girls Trip you would have seen one. We went to the second line hosted by the Money Wasters Club – young, old and in between were out in their Sunday best second lining. Truly one of the most unique experiences I’ve had while lah hay-ing. If you’re planning a #lahhaytoNOLA, check here for or upcoming Second Lines and definitely attend one! Also, check here for upcoming events you may miss when planning a lah hay to NOLA.
BTW most of what I learned about Tremé was during a tour of the area which I 100% recommend.
Another must do outside of the French Quarter is a Cemetery Tour. Fantastic insight into NOLA’s history, some creepy elements and humour are what made this tour with Our Sacred Stories a true highlight of the lah hay. During the tour we passed by the tomb of Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess which people still visit today to make offerings and ask for something. Y’all, someone left a bullet by her tomb – not hard to think about what they were asking for.
The final must do outside of the French Quarter is actually outside of New Orleans itself; a day trip to one of the plantations. There are many to pick from and also many tour companies to choose from. Plantation tours are a scene. You almost don’t want to return to a space where so much hurt, evil and damage took place, but I’m always interested in learning more about enslavement – especially outside of the Caribbean region. It was important to us though to visit a plantation which wasn’t going to be centred on the white plantation owners, the architecture of the Great House or any other frivolous things. Ideally we wanted a tour run by black people but we never found one.
We decided to go with a tour of the Oak Alley Plantation led by New Orleans Tour Centre. Now communication wise they were a bit of a hot mess but our tour representative was great – he was ridiculously hilarious and candid. The plantation is currently run by an NGO and while the tour began with a visit to the Great House we spent most of the time exploring a comprehensive, insightful, self guided tour of the ‘slave quarters’ where the enslaved Africans lived. I covered a lot of it on my Instagram so you can check it out in my highlights.
I’d definitely recommend a trip to Oak Alley! The plantation kept records of all enslaved people who stayed there during and after slavery. Due to this we were able to get some true insight into what their lives were like. One story that stood out to me was an enslaved man who was granted freedom but stayed on the plantation as his wife and children were still enslaved. He was eventually able to pay for his wife’s freedom but never able to pay for his children’s. He died on the plantation.
The exhibit also gave some good insight into Emancipation. Many assume that after Emancipation the enslaved left the plantations in droves and started new lives but this rarely happened. You needed to have money to leave and start anew. The enslaved on Oak Alley stayed on the plantation to work but were not paid cash; instead they were given ‘store credit’ for the plantation store. Just a new form of slavery if you ask me.
The plantation itself is beautiful but it’s hard to appreciate the beauty when you think about the number of lives which were destroyed and maimed to create the Great House and gardens surrounding it.
I think it’s so important to try to see, feel and enjoy all the different aspects of a space when lah hay’ing there – even the difficult and unsightly spaces once they’re safe. New Orleans has so much to offer different types of travellers. It’s without a doubt one of my favourite American states. It made me reflect on how much of a tourist trap Port of Spain, Trinidad could have been if we preserved and maintained buildings and streets and marketed our spaces to tourists. It gave me an even deeper appreciation for jazz music, African American culture and food and truly exceeded the expectations I had for a trip in the Big Easy.
The good times surely did roll!