We’ve never been to a costume party in our lives. Of course, we’ve seen kids and some adults in costumes on Purim, but we were not prepared to see so many young people in a kaleidoscope of weird, spectacular and outrageous costumes partying on the streets of New Orleans on our latest adventure.
I could write about the different neighborhoods we drove through on our three day trip or the WWII museum where we saw Tom Hanks’ production “Beyond All Boundaries.” Or I could write about the devastation Katrina caused throughout New Orleans, but the most exciting and unique aspect of this city was the French Quarter.
The French Quarter is how the old city of New Orleans is known. Currently, it resembles the way Soho was in the early 1960s, a very busy, festive area—every day and night of the week.
Bourbon Street, a major attraction in the French Quarter, was like nothing we had ever seen before. The menagerie of people dressed up, parading around and having fun was a sight to see. The street rattled with unimaginable sounds of music coming from the restaurants, bars and clubs. Going up Royal Street, where we listened to street musicians playing and singing jazz, blues and even rock, was overwhelming. Like many tourists our age, we just walked straight and stared in wonderment. Our appetite could not be satisfied by all the sights we saw.
When we got back to the Roosevelt Hotel, we couldn’t stop talking and reflecting about what we had experienced in the French Quarter.
New Orleans was our first stop on the lower Mississippi; from there we sailed up the river on the American Queen riverboat for the next seven days. Our voyage took us through four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.
At every stop on the Mississippi, we witnessed a different culture. We heard all about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from a Mark Twain impersonator, who said he romanticized the river while he was growing up and we listened to the music of Louis Armstrong singing the blues as our boat paddled up the Mississippi.
We visited gorgeous southern plantations in St. Francisville, Louisiana. The grounds around the manor houses were kept impeccably; the oak trees formed pathways and designs as they reached into the clear blue sky. The facades of the houses were charming and whimsical, but the insides lacked the Tara-like charm we were expecting.
Our next stop was Natchez, a city on the Mississippi that was wealthy long ago and where many Jewish people had lived and worked. At one time, the B’nai Israel Orthodox Temple held 1,500 congregants. As of 2006, B’nai Israel remains barely active, with a small congregation of 15 Jewish people.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, was like a western town before the Civil War, and it is where Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, lived. He grew up there and gave his final speech after Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863.
Helena, Arkansas, is a poor, honky-tonk town where we heard a group playing the blues. The lyrics in gospel music are about happiness, while blues music conveys sad news. Both started in this part of the South, sung by the slaves as they worked the fields. Cotton and rice still grow along the Mississippi, but this is the poorest county in the United States.
Memphis, Tennessee, is where the Civil Rights Movement started, where Elvis Presley started his career at Sun Records and where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
We have read a lot about life along the Mississippi, but this trip made us understand about US history: the Louisiana Purchase, slavery, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the birth of the blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Our trip to the South was very eye-opening for us. One thing that I came to realize is that after the Civil War ended in 1865 all the southern cities along the Mississippi died a slow death. Only two great cities remain vibrant: New Orleans and Memphis. After being a rich, populated area where cotton was king, all the smaller cities that used to have large plantations were deserted. The soil that used to be so rich in nutrients lay barren, and the antebellum homes are either in great disrepair or were just burned down. After diesel power was introduced, the great steamboats slowly disappeared, and life on the Mississippi came almost to a halt.
I’m glad that Tauck (our tour company) has a riverboat like the American Queen, so we could glimpse the past up the Mississippi and relive the fabulous era before the Civil War.