“Be safe in that city,” an elderly man had warned me before getting off at Baton Rouge. His warning had triggered the anxiety monster in me. The sky appeared moonless and I tried to remember what Joyce, the owner of the hostel I stayed at in Houston, had told me: Never let it get the better of you. The bus slithered on like a nocturnal reptile on what seemed to be raised causeways over swamps. Before long, I was standing with my over-packed backpack outside the Greyhound Station debating if I should wait for a bus or call an Uber. The air lingered on the lip of freezing. I had decided on exploring the south to appease my heat-loving tropical self but apparently, cold winters have an unhealthy attachment to me. When I arrived in Corvallis last year, the city ended up in the throes of a rare snowstorm and now the Big Freeze was rattling America’s bones. Stunned by abnormally low temperatures, iguanas were dropping from trees as far south as Tallahassee. A massive opalescent clock hung like an overripe fruit against the damp sky. Ten minutes later as I was booking a cab, a bus screeched to a halt in front of me and I hopped on. It took me less than an hour to realize that I’d fall for this city, that I’d long to come back. With their slatted windows, ornate ironwork, and brightly painted exteriors, Clare’s neighbourhood was full of some of the most beautiful homes I’d ever seen. Before ringing the bell and being introduced to New Orleans’ famed shotgun houses, I stood quietly on her porch and ached for Calcutta.
The French Quarter has worked it’s magic on me. There is no escaping its pull. For hours I wandered through the streets, a heavy camera dangling around my neck, gaping at the architecture and savouring names of streets like Royal, Dumain, Decatur, Chartres and many more. I wished to go back in time; I wished to be a part of the conversations that must have taken place in those balconies with iron lacework. Standing under the wrought iron lace balcony of the Upper Pontalba Building, I imagine women in yards of taffeta and tulle clinking glasses of wine. Commissioned by Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness Pontalba, these apartments are the oldest continually occupied apartments in the USA. Outside the Cabildo, a gathering is swaying to a jazz band and I join them for a few minutes before slipping away to find my guide for a Walking Tour. Standing before a stunning building, she talks about the 19th century New Orleans where it was illegal for white men to marry women of colour. Such relationships– where a white man agrees to take care of the young woman and any children she may have with him– were called plaçage. Most of New Orlean’s femmes de couleur lived and owned property in the French Quarters and in the Treme. Near the Old Absinthe House– which like many other buildings in the French Quarter is rumoured to be haunted– she points to a building with a fern-filled balcony and Victorian lacework. With a flourish of her hands, she says, “And this is one such building built by a white man for his mistress” and with a dramatic pause adds, “His wife lived in a mansion in the Garden District.” It was late in the afternoon and people were crowding pubs and bars on Bourbon Street (named not after the liquor but after the House of Bourbon). The French Quarter is an all-day party with free-flowing alcohol. We gather in a courtyard and my guide talks at length about architecture in the French Quarter. After the walking tour is over, I wander into the streets again and stop at the Croissant d’Or, order a cafe au lait and an almond croissant and slip into a state of sweet ecstasy.
On the ferry back from Algiers Point, I meet Kumud, a yoga instructor from Virginia. This is the first solo trip for both of us. We talk about the fireworks and the fleur-de-lis drop on New Year’s as the ferry brings us back from the Elysian quiet of Algiers to the chaotic French Quarters. Kumud has a reservation at Carmo and as we stand outside Harrah’s Casino trying to get our coordinates right I tell her what my tour guide had said as we huddled around her in the “uptown” side of St. Louis Cathedral, in the enigmatically named Pirate’s Alley: “New Orleanians are terrible with directions because the Mississippi curves and flows east to west instead of north to south here. Remember: In New Orleans, it’s always Lakeside/Riverside/Downtown/Uptown.” We walk up Canal St. and down Decatur to Washington Artillery Park and plonk ourselves under a green neon sign erected for New Orleans’ tricentennial. The setting sun had added a patina the historic buildings on the French Quarters. Silhouetted against the satsuma coloured sky, the iron lacework of the balconies unleashed butterflies in my heart. I clicked madly for a while; then stopped suddenly as if aware that I could never shut the magnificence behind my lens. That’s the thing with travel: no matter how many photographs you take, no matter how much and how eloquently you write, it will never be comparable with the moment you witnessed with your senses. As the sun dipped beyond the horizon, the sky turned from fuchsia to lilac to purple to navy to the colour of a black heron. We wove through the merry crowd cheering a magician outside St. Louis Cathedral, past women dressed as members of the French aristocracy from the late 1700s, and parted ways. I pass a tour guide in a sweeping black cape leading a ghost tour. At the Black Penny, Rhett mixes up an Old Fashioned for me as New Orleans curls beneath quilts in an uncharacteristically freezing winter.
The lady who walks me to an ATM says, “Going to New Orleans and only exploring the French Quarters is like going to America and only visiting New York.” Her grandmother had grown up in this cultural melange before marriage took her across the Rockies to California. Her translucent skin echoes with light as she reminisces holidays spent playing in her grandmother’s ancestral mansion in Uptown. Her voice is shaky as she says she has returned to this city, that it always felt like home. Later I take the shamrock coloured St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District. Magnificent mansions in styles ranging from Greek Revival to Italianate and Queen Anne peer through rows of oak, magnolia, and sweet gum. Watching the wintry sunshine sprawl on manicured gardens with marble sculptures it is difficult to believe that the area was once a number of plantations before parcels of land were sold off to wealthy Americans who did not want to live in the French Quarter with the Creoles. If you have a sweet spot for architecture, New Orleans might give your heart a tough time being loyal to one neighbourhood. I join a Walking Tour that starts with the morbid history of burial practices in New Orleans in the Lafayette Cemetery before walking in the drizzle through the Garden District, ooohing and aaahing outside mansions owned by famous personalities.
Fog lends an elusive quality to landscapes. Even at 10 am, City Park is deserted. Swathes of fog swirl mysteriously among the trees. I spend an hour practising, without much progress, long exposure shots from an arched bridge. Ducks with iridescent feathers and proud, white swans swim in streams that twist and turn under weeping willows. When I came to the park the night before with Kumud to eat beignets at Morning Call, it was decked in Christmas lights that adorned the trees like jewels. The fog recedes as the sun climbs higher. I am shivering as I wander through the Marigny stopping to listen to various bands belting out jazz numbers. I meet Kumud at the French Market and we spend some time in the flea market section before walking to St. Roch Market for dinner. Near the Miltenberger Building, we pass my guide from the walking tour leading another group through the French Quarter and talking emphatically about Cajun and Creole cooking. “The latter makes use of tomatoes,” she says and with another flourish of her hand adds, “now you can’t say you don’t know!”