Monday, January 11, 2010

White Gators, Big Insects, and...the Dharma?

Serendipity is my friend when I am traveling, or perhaps at any time at all, but especially when traveling. It means that I end up in completely unplanned situations that inevitably become much more memorable than any of the museums or restaurants I go to. This serendipitous event began with something mentioned in my previous entry - seeing the Dharma Bums on our first night in the city at the club called d.b.a. The Dharma Bums are a Buddhist-themed pop group from Woodstock, NY. Our friend Evan played with them awhile back. They've been playing for years and two of the men have long salt and pepper hair and one of them has a wonderfully long beard and wears a jacket with a kind of kimono-feel to it. Comfortable in their skin and in their music would be one way to describe them. The story goes like this...C and I were at a restaurant called the Praline Connection on Frenchmen St., a creole restaurant. I had the crawfish etouffeé (that means "to smother" in french...and indeed, my crawfish was smothered with a gravy of goodness), C had the seafood platter. The food was fantastic. Another food coma ensued. Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. When we walked into the restaurant, the Dharma Bums were there finishing up their dinner. The lead singer, Phil, recognized C from Thursday night and he invited us to a party that they were playing that night. It was a Buddhist party! An organization called the Louisiana Himalayan Society had invited them to play the party at their community center in Mid-City. So we went of course, and not only did it get us out of the French Quarter, but it introduced us to New Orleans Buddhists which was a welcome change since we had not really talked to anyone very much since we'd been here.

They were all warm and beautiful people. A lot of young, college-aged folk, but also some older people. A nice mix. They had a fire pit (bonfire) in the back yard, a keg of Abita beer, homecooked food, a king cake (Mardi Gras cake), and good company. We had a lovely time. The only downside was that it was really friggin' cold and I started to feel the return of my cold! This damn cold just keeps flip-flopping between C and me. Ugh. But we had a wonderful time despite that.

I think I have skipped an entire day here. Friday...what the heck did we do on Friday? Right. Got a late start because C wasn't feeling well, but I took a nice stroll around the Lower Garden District and into part of the main Garden District. The houses are breathtaking. It's incredible to me that there was a period of time where building these stunning monstrosities was the thing to do if you were stinking rich. Maybe that's not so weird, but it's a whole neighborhood! Pretty amazing. I guess it's akin to areas of Florida like Marco Island where there are vast swaths of homes worth tens of millions of dollars. What else are people going to do with their money? Maybe I should leave that question alone. Anyway, here are a couple of the ones I liked best.

Ciprian met me at a cafe later that afternoon, then we caught the streetcar to the French Quarter and went to Cafe du Monde, which is a super old cafe on the Mississippi River. Well, it's separated from the river by train tracks, but it's awfully close. It's the original French Market café and is more than 100 years old (est. 1862). The reason for going there is not just the history, but the beignets! Yummy french doughnuts. They are little pillows of not-too-sweet dough buried in little mountains of powdered sugar. Delightful.

We went to hear Ingrid Lucia for one set at d.b.a. after that, and then went for dinner at a not-very-memorable place on Decatur. It was not as good as the previous night's fare, but it was decent. We tried to see a movie after that, but apparently New Orleanians are not big movie-goers because at the moment there is only one movie theater in New Orleans proper and it was showing two films: "It's Complicated" and "The Breakfast Club." Random? We decided to make it an early night.

Yesterday (Saturday) was more eventful. Although it ended with the serendipitous event that started this blog entry, it began modestly with C and me walking into the CBD (Central Business District) to where several of the major museums are. We got some breakfast at a coffee shop called PJ's and then headed to the Confederate Museum. Talk about interesting history. There were actual uniforms and weapons worn and used by Confederate soldiers. There were daguerrotype images of soldiers and their loved ones. Some of the soldiers were clearly frightened young humanized them for me more than anything else. The one thing missing at the museum was a solid representation of the whole reason for the war and the perspective of the black men and women who were clearly being affected. I mean it had a bit about black men fighting in the war, but that was about it. Anyway, it was very informative and we got our few dollars worth of history, but it just seemed very one-sided.

We walked next door to the Odgen Museum of Southern Art after that, a beautiful little museum displaying southern art through time, with a focus on contemporary art. The Bo Bartlett exhibit was definitely the highlight. Amazing lifesize scale paintings of ordinary yet epic scenes with an almost haunting aesthetic.

By that time it was getting late in the afternoon and we needed lunch. Unfortunately, the CBD does not have too many food offerings on Saturdays. So we headed to Canal Street and got tempted into an obnoxious restaurant with a name I don't recall and ordered overpriced po-boys. They were decent, but I know for a fact that we have yet to eat really good po-boys.

Anyway, we were in a hurry so we scarfed them down and walked across the street to the Audubon Insectarium where we were charmed and entertained by the wonderful critters they have inside. We saw some beautiful insects, and huge insects, some extremely tiny ones, and some that were colors I never imagined could exist in any animal but a butterfly or a bird.

I also touched a Madagascar hissing cockroach!! Very smooth. Ciprian was brave and managed to get through the entire place without any major freak outs, although, there was a moment when I was worried about him. They have a little movie that you can watch. It's called "Awards Night" and it's a cartoon where they give out awards to the insects with "the best" of various features like camouflage, and there are well, things that happen to the audience during the movie that make you squirm in your seat...literally. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might ever visit this wonderful place, so I will keep the details to myself.

My favorite part of the Insectarium was the Louisiana Swamp exhibit. They had two white baby alligators. Yes...white and babies! I was completely and utterly charmed by these little guys and really could have just hung out there for a good long time. But we had to leave because the place was closing. After that we eventually made it to the Praline Connection and to the story I mentioned first.

Today was a mellow day since now I am not feeling well. We slept in and got brunch at a hip breakfast place called Surrey's. It's on Magazine and Euterpe in the Lower Garden, just a few blocks from where we're staying. Best biscuits I've ever had.

We went to the French Quarter today and hit a couple of the smaller museums - the Presbytère which holds the Mardi Gras Museum and then the VooDoo Museum. Both were a lot of fun. The Mardi Gras museum was kind of amazing. Having never been to Mardi Gras, it's difficult for me to understand the vast industry and deep-set culture of Mardi Gras and the surrounding season. It is pervasive. As an example, at this time of year in most parts of the country retail establishments tear down their Xmas decor and sales items and start preparing for Valentine's Day. In New Orleans, no one seems to prep for V Day, but rather they begin to prep for Mardi Gras. The season just started and will last until the actual day of Mardi Gras, I believe.

Ciprian is urging me to get off the computer, so I'd better go.


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