The bayous of Louisiana run slow and silent and hide their secrets deep. There’s a myth that these narrow, murky tributaries are filled with nothing but alligators and stagnation. But, as I float down the Manchac Swamp on the mossy outskirts of New Orleans, I realise that there are more dangerous reptiles to be found 30 miles away, drinking Hurricane cocktails on Bourbon Street.
This is Cajun country: blue herons skim the surface of the bayou, Spanish moss drips from cypress trees like a thick wet coat; I see old trappers’ cabins adorned with deer skulls, and a pair of raccoons rolling in the mud. Local author Greg Guirard wrote: ‘the swamp sucks the poisons of civilisation out of you.’ The bayou is the ancestral home of the Choctaw and Houma Native American tribes, the final sanctuary of Acadian outcasts and a former shelter for runaway slaves; it’s filled with hoodoo and Voodoo, ghosts and graves, legends as unfathomable as its murky depths. The bayou is more than just marsh and mire; it’s the soul of the state.
It’s a good time to see it too. In late March, British Airways will launch the first ever direct flight from London to New Orleans, making it easier and more affordable than ever before to reach the city they call The Big Easy — on account of its relaxed way of life. New Orleans is about gumbo, good tunes and cocktails at breakfast. It’s the kind of place where you order a coffee and they reply: “With Kahlúa or Baileys?”
Tennessee Williams, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here, said: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” But there’s a further distinction too: “The great metropolises of America are defined by commerce,” says Sean Cummings, owner of Loa, one of the best cocktails bars in the city. “New Orleans is defined by food, music and joy.” True. It’s about having fun. But it’s also just the start. I plan to spend a few days exploring the city, before heading out to the Louisiana Outback, where crayfish swamps and Cajun dancehalls mix with old plantations and the languid snake of the Mississippi River. I want to see the real Louisiana, but before the swamp can cure me I have a date with the poisons of the civilised world.
The heart of the city is the French Quarter, a maze of pastel-coloured colonial-style houses with bright shutters and flowered, cast-iron galleries hanging over narrow cobbled streets. Food is everywhere. I walk down to the immaculate St Louis Cathedral, on the edge of the Mississippi, and am instantly bathed in the sweet scent of freshly baked beignets, crayfish etouffee and po’ boys stuffed with alligator sausage and dripping hot gravy. Circus acts, painters and brass bands perform around me; I have my fortune read by a half-cut Madame dozing in the sun (apparently my wife’s due a windfall and I’m due a change of house, so that doesn’t bode well). There’s a pulse here, a fizz of artistry on the streets.
It was here too, in Jackson Square, that slaves were auctioned to the highest bidder. But they brought something special with them. In New Orleans, slaves were given Sundays off — the only place in the New World this happened — and they’d gather in Congo Square, now Louis Armstrong Park, to keep their traditions alive, make music, dance and sing. Eventually those dark, sensual rhythms of Africa collided head-on with the bright brass of Europe and created something the likes of which had never been heard before. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and it’s never left. Sounds stream from every corner of the city. I watch a rapper on conga drums, a full-size steamboat perform ragtime with its whistle, and a bunch of teenage boys on trombones, trumpets and snare play like their lives, their entire beings, depend on every note. It’s the middle of the day, they’re on a dirty street corner using an old paint bucket for tips, but it’s hands-down one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. That’s what makes this city great.
And it gets better after dark. Bourbon Street is famous — the only public street in the country where it’s legal to be naked and one of the few where you can drink in public too. I bounce from bar to bar, through honky tonk, blues, hip hop, rock, jazz, pop and country, as scantily clad dancers try to wiggle me into their clubs, hordes of frat boys neck fishbowls of glowing green cocktails, and a preacher with a fake monkey on his back attempts to save my soul. “Cast away your sins,” he says, looking me dead in the eyes. “Turn the one-eyed demon off.”
Frenchmen Street is more manageable; still bouncing between bars, but marginally calmer with better music and a local crowd. The highlight, though, is Preservation Hall. Established in 1961 to keep traditional New Orleans jazz alive, it’s now one of the hottest, and most intimate, gigs in the city — a dusty living room-sized space with creaking floorboards, chipped walls and crooked pictures hanging on the walls. It’s like watching a concert in a squat. But then the music starts. The curled fat notes of the brass, seven old boys singing out, nodding their heads, flaring solos, stamping their feet. Say what you will of jazz, but there are no corduroys and knitted jumpers here; this is biting, jumping, clapping, soulful music; music from the heart, taken from the depths of the plantation to the gritty city streets. The great Louis Armstrong, who grew up here, said: “What we play is life. You blows who you is.” That’s New Orleans. There’s a spirit here that can soak right into your soul.
And there’s another kind of spirit here too. In a shed, down a dark alley on the outskirts of town, surrounded by graffiti skeletons and strange symbols — the kind of place where shadows loom over your shoulder and hairs bristle on the back of your neck — I’m invited to enter a working Hounfour, an authentic Voodoo temple. Inside, the congregation are barefoot, dressed in white, with white bandanas wrapped around their heads. There are altars on each wall, bearing offerings of rum, candy, money and wine. Candles are lit, then the lights are turned off and the singing begins. The Hounjenikon, the leader of the choir, calls out in Haitian French, his high earthy voice answered, in turn, by the congregation. He sings to the family, to bring us together; to Papa Legba, the gatekeeper of the spirit world, to open his doors; and to Papa Loko, the first Houngan (Voodoo priest), whom we honour tonight. The room sways and dances, I hear the sacred ason rattle (like snakes all around me), as the congregation chants into the red glow of the flames. It’s infectious; I can’t help but hum, clap and roll my body with the beat.
Afterwards, I sit down with Robie, a Haitian Vodou priest with thin black dreads and deep-set eyes. The Voodoo religion practised in New Orleans, he explains, is based on Vodou beliefs brought over from Haiti and Africa by slaves, that were then fused with the Roman Catholicism of the slave owners. In the same way that Catholics worship saints, practitioners of Voodoo honour ancestor spirits, or Loa, through ritual song, dance and drumming. Only in Voodoo, prayer has been swapped for ritual possession; the spirits are believed to physically enter the body of the initiated and speak directly to the congregation. Far from the devil worshipping of Hollywood, however, the purpose is healing, protection and ultimately, like all religions, serving the community. But for Robie, it’s about more than that. “Our religion involves slavery; it involves blood,” he says. “It was something the slave owner could never take from us. It was survival.”
Further out in the bayou, there are other stories of survival too. At its peak, in the 19th century, it’s estimated there were around 500 sugar cane and cotton plantations in this 120-mile stretch of southern Louisiana alone, every single one run on slaves. I leave the city the next day and follow the Mississippi west for 50 miles, past the shells of grand old homes — some virtual ruins, others preserved and used as film sets (12 Years a Slave was shot here) and one you can actually spend the night in, which I do. It’s as elegant and beautiful as it is harrowing and sad. Oak Alley Plantation — named after a spectacular row of 300-year-old Virginia live oaks, which arch over the entrance promenade like a royal parasol — was built in 1839, by the Roman family. The enormous French-Creole-style mansion is filled to the brim with Italian marble, fine china and every luxury the heart could imagine. But just a few hundred yards away, the slave quarters still stand: tiny cypress shacks, each home to two families of up to 10 people. I walk among them and find a register of their prices; $1,000 for a young male, $25 for a barren woman. I can imagine them here; working 14 hours a day in the fields, burning all summer, freezing all winter, no toilets or washing facilities, never enough food. Around 220 slaves worked and cared for this one family: wet nurses, blacksmiths, farmers, the eight-year-old boy who pulled the fan to keep the flies away. At dusk, I walk the grounds — the last embers of the sun bathing the fields in golden light, the long branches of the oaks, shadowed and bent, dragging their dark tips on the soil as if in prayer or submission — and sense their ghosts around me, dancing in the dark, singing, surviving; keeping a part of themselves separate, alive and free.
The next day, I head 100 miles further west, deep into the Atchafalaya Basin, the heart of Cajun country. The Acadians, as they were originally known, were an exiled people; originally from France, they settled in Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast, then kicked on again through America, until French-speaking Louisiana welcomed them home as countrymen. But not in the city. The French Creoles of New Orleans were the sons and daughters of aristocrats and wealthy merchants, they wanted nothing to do with these rough country folk. So they retreated again, deep into the bayous and marshlands, where, for the most part, they still live to
this day. It’s like finding a world within a world. They have their own language, a kind of antiquated French that’s changed little in centuries — go back two generations and English was a foreign tongue here — their own food (spicy gumbo stews, crayfish and jambalayas) and, of course, their own entertainment: hopping, foot-stomping country jigs accompanied by the sound of accordions and steel guitars.
I want to find out more, so the next morning I take a cruise into the swamp with Captain Nolan, a grizzly old waterman who grew up in a Cajun-speaking home. He tells me how men would forage for wild rice, onions and all manner of edible plants here in the swamp; that it would provide for all their needs. How they’d spend weeks alone in the bayou hunting otter and racoon for skins. He shows me how to collect Spanish moss from Cypress trees, drown it in the river and dry it black; how his grandmother would use it both as a scouring pad, and to stuff his pillows and mattresses when he was a boy.
There’s Voodoo even out here as well. We moor up beside a mass grave of broken wooden crosses that mark the spot where the town of Frenier was wiped from the face of the Earth more than 100 years ago. They were cursed, or so they believed, by Julia Brown, a Voodoo practitioner who lived in the swamp and promised to take her neighbours with her when she died. Sure enough, on the day of her funeral the skies darkened, the winds raged and a category three hurricane — the Great West Indies storm of 1915 — landed directly on the town, killing almost everyone in it.
That night, in the small town of Scot, I find another kind of magic. In Acadian culture, traditional healers are called traiteurs. These faith healers pass down secret prayers from generation to generation that are said to cure anything from sunstroke to sprained ankles. A few are said to still possess the gift and practise today. But it’s nothing like I expect. Becca Begnaud is a sassy, sweet-looking older woman with warm hugs, gentle eyes and a mouth like a trailer park — surely the only faith healer on the planet to say the words ‘holy shit’ every other sentence. I like her instantly.
As the treatment begins, I lie on a bed in the centre of the room, an amethyst crystal on my chest, her hands on my shoulders. She sprinkles rosewater on my body and then sings a prayer over me in French, drawing a cross with her fingers on the top of my skull. Then there’s silence; long comfortable delicious quiet; just her breath, her hands and my gurgling stomach. She tells me to imagine a river, a thick forest with sunlight dappling the leaves. And then, the strangest thing; for just a moment, it’s as if the river is real, the world disappears and I’m in a kind of peaceful, lucid dream. Afterwards, I open my eyes, but Becca’s already smiling: “See, I told you,” she says. “This shit is real.”
On my last morning, I take an airboat deep into the Atchafalaya Swamp, the largest river swamp in the country, roughly twice the size of Greater London. We slide around corners, flocks of snow-white egrets racing us through narrow tributaries; groves of wild daisies filling the water from shore to shore. We find 12ft alligators, like statues in the morning cold; including one that swims directly to our boat. Ancient lizard eyes lock on to mine; a creature from another time, another world that’s somehow slipped through.
It reminds me of the Acadians themselves. Tough people of the bayou, still trawling the waters, hunting and fishing, living off the land; a tribe slipping between the cracks of the modern world speaking a language nearly gone. “You’re here with the last of the real Cajuns,” local musician Drew Landry had said at Becca’s house the night before. The Atchafalaya was once filled with cypress giants; now all that remains is ghosted stumps, like tombstones in the marsh. But there’s Cajun pride here too. In the swamp, Guirard writes, ‘you begin to be yourself again’. I think back to the boys blowing horn on the corner, the cold wind of the plantation, the prayers of the Voodoo priest and somehow out here it all makes sense; the music, the myth, the magic of Louisiana all comes from the bayou. That’s its secret.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to New Orleans from £599 per person return. Several other airlines serve the city with one stop. Car hire is not recommended while in New Orleans: parking is scarce and expensive. Taxis are numerous and there’s an excellent network of historic streetcars that are cheap (unlimited rides with a Jazzy Pass cost $3/£2.40 a day) and part of the authentic New Orleans experience. Most swamp and plantation tours offer hotel pick-up and return, but if you plan on exploring deeper into the Louisiana Outback, then car hire is essential for that portion of the trip.
When to go
Summer can be uncomfortably hot, but offers some excellent hotel deals. October to January sees gradually cooling temperatures and fewer crowds. February to May is festival season, with Mardi Gras held on Shrove Tuesday.
How to do it
Bon Voyage has a five-night trip to New Orleans, including direct flights from Heathrow, three nights at the Pontchartrain Hotel, two nights at Oak Alley Plantation, a swamp tour, steamboat tour and three days’ car hire, from £1,495 per person.
Travel Planners has a five-night trip to New Orleans, including a one-stop flight from Heathrow, three nights at a hotel in the French Quarter, two nights at Oak Alley Plantation, a swamp tour and steamboat tour, from £899 per person.
Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)