My husband and I decided to visit New Orleans as our 2018 winter vacation destination. I knew from the start that this vacation would be different. Most of our vacations have consisted of fine sand beaches, picturesque trails, and amazing wildlife. As a historic and cultural mecca, New Orleans would most certainly be none of the above.
We arrived in New Orleans mid-day on a Saturday, greeted by miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I had expected “quaint,” but instead we sat on an elevated bridge overlooking the Superdome and a dirty, sprawling city. I wondered if I really knew what I had signed up for. My initial impression of New Orleans was not what I had expected.
Over the course of several days, we visited the typical New Orleans landmarks – the French Quarter, the Garden District, famous eateries such as the Commander’s Palace and the Lafayette cemetery. We listened to fine jazz in the clubs lining Frenchman Street and wandered thoughtfully through mazes of art galleries on Royal. This was the New Orleans I had read about, heard about and wanted to experience.
Yet, New Orleans was still not what I expected. New Orleans was much darker and much edgier. Laced among the tourists and everyday Joes, people pass with vacant stares. Some drop in front of you and curl up next to a storefront to sleep. Street musicians line corners collecting money in well-placed buckets and hats. Conversations of poverty and sickness fill streetcars. Glassy eyes glance your way without a hint of emotion. Drug deals line nighttime streets and tent cities reside beneath downtown underpasses. Dinner at a finer restaurant is interrupted by a vagrant pounding on the outside window. He is hungry and has nothing to eat. In one art gallery, pictures from Hurricane Katrina tell a grim tale of a city laid waste by mass destruction.
Weeks later, I still do not know how to feel about New Orleans, a city of seeming contradictions. Of life and death. Of celebration and despair. Yet, among her contradictions, is a picture of life that is raw, real and tangible in a way I have not experienced anywhere else. New Orleans is a story in the making – of recovery and relapse in the best and worse ways life has to offer.
I don’t know how to feel about New Orleans and, perhaps, that is the point.