Pilot Guide Presenter Justine Shapiro does any thing but take it easy in the city they call The Big Easy. The French colony of New Orleans was sold to the Americans for a mere $15 millionin 1803, when Napoleon was strapped for cash. Built below sea-level on reclaimed swamp land the city’s complex and multi-cultural history dates from its foundation on the crescent-shaped bend of the Mississippi River.
Justine takes a tour of the French Quarter with Lucille Lobe, who shows her the houses of the French Creole traders, complete with elegant European architecture and cottages for the slave-mistress who entertained the wealthy masters’ every need. They conclude their walking tour in Congo Square, where jazz music has flourished since the fusion of African and European beats gave birth to a whole new style.
From the French Quarter Justine takes a streetcar to the outlying Garden District, the rich, leafy neighbourhood developed by the Americans who found themselves unwelcome in the Creole French Quarter. She pays her respects in the Creole cemetery, where the climate of New Orleans necessitates unusual burial practice: as the city is built below sea-level the deceased must be buried above ground in strange sarcophagus constructions. The heat of the Louisiana sun cremates the corpse within a year, and the ashes are merely brushed aside to make way for the next family member. Among the tombs Justine locates the resting place of Marie Laveau, the nineteenth century voodoo queen of New Orleans.
At the Voodoo Museum Justine witnesses a voodoo wedding ceremony. She learns that although voodoo is widely viewed with scepticism and suspicion, the practitioners identify that part of them that needs healing and employ the charms of voodoo dolls to purge themselves of ill feeling.
Justine takes an aeroplane to the Jean Lafitte National Park. When the Cajun people were expelled from their Canadian homelands in the 1750s by the British they built their homes in the Bayou – huge expanse of marsh and lakes. Every Saturday at the Bayou Barn there’s a Cajun fait dow dow.
Fishing is a major sport popular in the wetlands and Justine joins an airboat trip through the marshes. Before returning to New Orleans she finds peace and solace paddling through theBearer Terrier Park, which is thankfully forbidden to airboats, allowing a host of wildlife to build their habitats undisturbed.
Drives along the Mississippi as far as Vacherie, Justine visits two wildly different plantations. The beautiful Oak Alley evokes an age of genteel southern living yet the tour makes no reference to the slavery which was an integral part of plantation life. Just a few miles away is the Laura Plantation, run by female family members for 84 years. Here Louisiana’s racist past is sensitively handled, as Laura the last president was outraged by her Grandmother’s brutal treatment of her home-bred slaves.
Back in the French Quarter it’s Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras. Justine has been invited to join one of the 27 floats of the Orpheus krewe. Lundi and Mardi Gras are the culmination of the Roman Catholic tradition to mark 47 days before Easter. Dressed as a jester Justine joins in, throwing strings of beads to the throng.
In a city delineated by a history of racial and economic segregation, Mardi Gras is celebrated in another part of town by Black New Orleansians. Painted as Indians in a mockery of racial stereotypes, the ‘tribes’ challenge their rivals in a fierce competition of song and dance. On Bourbon Street the next morning, the success of Mardi Gras is measured in the amount of garbage to be cleaned off the streets – this year, like Justine’s week in New Orleans, has been a roaring success by all accounts!
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