Haunted or Not Haunted? That is the Question.

HauntedNot Haunted

If you want to rent an apartment in the French Quarter, or maybe anywhere in New Orleans, you need to know – is it haunted or not? If it’s haunted, that could be a selling point. Or if you’re like me, you won’t care one way or the other. I have never seen a ghost (not counting childhood fantasies of seeing and/or hearing ghosts in the cemetery across the street from my dad’s house – my imagination? Probably.). I think it would be fun to see a ghost. But I remain skeptical about their existence.

Our "peacock" room

Our “peacock” room

Regardless, we learned a lot about haunted New Orleans tonight, with a little bit of actual history sprinkled in to keep us in the land of documented evidence. Our tour guide was also our lovely hostess for this trip. Karen owns the B&B where we are staying – Dauphine House. It is a nicely restored two story home in the Marigny, just a couple of blocks down from the northern edge of the French Quarter – which is also considered “down” town because it is downstream in terms of the flow of the Mississippi River. This city’s navigation is not based on your typical cardinal directions. It is all about the river and the lake (Pontchartrain). And given that the layout of the city is far from Manhattan’s nice, neat north-south-east-west grid, it takes some getting used to. I am fortunate to have a good sense of direction and a fondness for memorizing maps. Yet it is the ability to get lost in the non-intuitive, crescent geography of New Orleans that is part of its charm.

Where we stayed in NOLA

Our home away from home

Getting from point A to point B on the city’s streets, depending on how far you want to go, can often be done on foot. AB and I love to walk, and this is a fantastic city for walkers. There are plenty of sidewalks and gorgeous homes to admire along the way. Just watch your step because many of those sidewalks are broken. But cycling has become increasingly popular here since my last visit in 2010. There are many places to rent bikes and all manner of local cyclists – bohemians, brass musicians, hipsters, and middle-aged ladies – getting around on bikes of various shapes, sizes, and aesthetics. Helmets do not seem to be terribly common, but then I suppose most of the streets are narrow and cars tend to move pretty slowly.

Leopard print bicycle

Hipster bike?

In general, safety regulations down here appear to be fairly lax. I appreciate that on some level. I often feel that so many of us here in these United States are becoming a bit too safety-obsessed. And sure, it takes all the fun and risk out of life, but more importantly it makes us lazy and less street-smart. We rely too much on external factors to keep us safe instead of relying on our own intelligence.

New Orleans is a place that seems to embrace risk – I mean living anyplace where hurricanes are an annual threat certainly qualifies as such – but New Orleans citizens take it to another level. For example, some of the French Quarter’s alleys, like Pirate’s Alley, have drainages running through them to capture water from nearby buildings. They are essentially gutters, but they are in the middle of the street. Someone could trip or twist their ankle. Would this be allowed in Times Square? I doubt it.

I tried taking a risk by visiting the Audubon Aquarium. I had read that one could pet a baby shark. I am terrified of sharks and thought this would be helpful. Sadly they no longer do it, but AB insisted on taking photos of me standing beneath the fake sharks in the entry way. I reluctantly agreed. Then we spent the bulk of our time there looking at other creatures such as their enormous white alligator, their awesome penguins, and their super-cute seahorses.

Leucistic alligator (not albino because he has blue eyes!)

Leucistic alligator (not albino because he has blue eyes!)

Sea horse!

Sea horse!

For lunch that afternoon we walked to the Warehouse District and got sandwiches at a place called Cochon Butcher. AB had pork belly with mint and cucumber (good god it was tasty) and I had the best darn smoked turkey sandwich of my life. It had avocado, fresh sprouts, basil aioli, and fontina cheese. Yum!

My deeeelicious smoked turkey sandwich

My smoked turkey sandwich

Today before our tour of haunted New Orleans, we went all the way “uptown” (i.e., up river) to Audubon Park to visit the zoo. I have been there before and it has a fun Louisiana Swamp exhibit (with TWO enormous white ‘gators) and an impressive array of non-human primates. They even have spider monkeys – prehensile tails and all. But my favorite animal of the day was probably the kori bustard. I have seen these large birds in Kenya from a distance, but never so close up. They are not terribly colorful, but they are beautiful and fierce nonetheless.

Kori Bustard

Kori Bustard

Our haunted New Orleans tour ended at 9:30pm across the street from Jackson Square, so we headed out for a late-night dinner at a West African restaurant on Royal Street called Bennachin. Fantastic plaintains and chicken, but rather unpredictable service – our sweet waitress seemed to be juggling too much and the kitchen was probably a little disorganized. The excellent food made the wait worthwhile. I am a sucker for good food even if the service stinks. And really, she was super sweet.

Looking across Decatur at Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral

Looking across Decatur at Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral

Restaurants in the French Quarter often have a bathroom that is behind the restaurant on the perimeter of a courtyard. You walk out the back door into this courtyard – usually it is open-air, but not always. Then you walk into the bathroom which is usually in an attached building. Many of these courtyards are old and dingy, but for some reason I love them. Maybe it is the history that is so clearly embedded in the grime. How many people have passed through this place over the decades? How many people died here? Are they haunting it still? Ah New Orleans, you are so frighteningly romantic.

The moon over the French Quarter

Ah, the moon over the French Quarter

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No Travel for Three Years?

Not quite. I simply have not done any blogging in awhile. But now I am about to embark on another trip to one of my favorite cities in the world – New Orleans. This is my 40th birthday gift to myself. My sweetheart (AB) and I are heading out to JFK tomorrow to get on our non-stop Jet Blue flight (thank goodness). If all goes well, we’ll be dining on jambalaya and fried chicken at Coop’s Place on Decatur by 7pm.

More soon!

Lucky Last Night in L.A.

It was my first time. I swear I only had one drink. And really, it was more a matter of chance than anything else, but it happened. I won bingo at Hamburger Mary’s in West Hollywood. According to my friend Nancy, I’ve been “WeHo’d.”

We were attending a bingo night benefit at the popular LGBT haunt. These “legendary bingo” nights happen at least twice a week all year long, benefiting charities of all stripes. The beneficiaries for this game were a couple of people who were preparing to ride in AIDS/LifeCycle, a 545 mile bike ride from San Francisco to L.A. to raise money and for the San Fran AIDS Foundation as well as the HIV/AIDS services of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. This was definitely worth my 20 bucks.

Hamburger Mary’s legendary bingo is not your grandmother’s bingo. I can attest to this having actually played bingo with my grandmother many years ago in Florida. No, the winning games here mostly contain raunchy sexual terms and innuendos. I won at “Frank and Beans” where the winning bingo card is in the shape of…well, frank and beans; and if you don’t get that, maybe you should stop reading now. The game is played like a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with audience responses to the calling of various bingo numbers. For example, the drag queen choosing the bingo square calls out, “it’s not malignant, it’s…” and the audience responds “b-9!” Get it? That’s one of the more tame examples and was easy to remember.

What did I get for my startlingly good luck? The prize was pretty fabulous. Some people got DVDs or gift certificates. I got bath products from a company called WEN. Yes! I love bath products. But winning bingo at Hamburger Mary’s is not all glitz and glory. The MC (Bingo Boy) forces every winner to run through the restaurant while the losers pelt her (or him) with their losing bingo cards. There have been times in my life when I might have been a bit too reserved to go with this and enjoy it. That time has passed. I had a wonderful time with all of my friends whom I saw during my brief visit, but playing bingo with my friend Nancy and a bunch of women I’d just met was easily one of the most joyful nights I spent in L.A. Thanks to Nancy for taking me along.

After about six and a half days of L.A. – San Luis Obispo/Morro Bay – L.A., I finally have an opinion, however imperfect and spotty, of the city. I like L.A. and I want to go back…certainly before another 23 years pass. On my last day, the weather was warming up, the sun was out, and I was able to really enjoy the climate. I love warm weather. Recall my post from a few weeks ago and my relatively frequent trips to equatorial Africa? I am not a cold weather person. Then again I like the seasons and I can handle cold weather, probably better than most people in NYC. Is that a contradiction? Maybe, but it’s not as if L.A. is sunny and 75 degrees year round. There is variation, just not as much as in New York. The city also has far more to offer than weather alone. L.A. has a sleek, clean subway that reaches several major areas of the city, a pretty cheap and reliable bus system, charming houses, compelling history, the Church of Scientology (come on, you know you love it), much more non-glitzy “culture” than most people give it credit for, a diverse population, fantastic food, mountains, ocean, dessert, and lush tropical flora dotting almost every street. Parts of the city remind me so much of other places I’ve been and lived, including NYC, that I feel quite comfortable there. The drawbacks, apart from earthquakes and water use issues, are not that different from most major cities. So I will say it again; I like L.A. and will visit again in the near future because I’d like to have a more intimate relationship with the sparkling belle of Southern California. This was just our first date.

(P.S. Why do I write L.A. with periods but NYC without them? Feel free to speculate.)

Getting Around In and Out of L.A.

I got up at 5:15 yesterday morning to catch the Rapid 733 bus from Mar Vista to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. The bus took about 55 minutes. My primary journey was on the Amtrak Surfliner up the California coast to San Luis Obispo, a 5 hour train ride, to meet up with my friend Jay for 24 hours. The goal? Enjoy the view.

On Monday, the day before my trip up the coast, I ventured into West Hollywood to lunch with my friend John at the Farmer’s Market, next to the Disney-like outdoor mall called “The Grove.” I had a shrimp taco at one of the permanent outdoor stands. The market, a rustic L.A. institution built during the first half of the 20th century, recalls New Orleans’ French Quarter in terms of the food offerings and the atmosphere, except that my shrimp taco, while good, was not quite as fabulous as a shrimp po-boy. I had taken the bus to get to my destination. I have found the L.A. bus system to be quite good, but I’ve really only taken the “Rapid” busses, i.e. the expresses, so I have a rather one-sided view. Still, they are clean, cheap – $1.50 for a Rapid – and the drivers are courteous. They are also rarely crowded, at least in comparison with NYC busses. It is possible to “do L.A.,” indeed to live here, without using a car. However, I can see why a car would be preferable. The bus is fairly convenient, but it can take awhile to get from point A to point B depending on where A and B are located. John rides a bike everywhere, avoiding main drags as much as possible. Out here, where cold rainy weather is far from the norm, that is a reasonable way to get around.

After lunch I walked to Hancock Park and finally got to visit the famous Rancho La Brea Tar Pits. While this does appeal to me as someone who studies fossils, it also appeals to the child in me. The tar pits are cool…plain and simple. The outdoor display of a mammoth family getting stuck in the tar, dramatizing how all of these creatures managed to become preserved over thousands of years, is corny, but I still loved it.

Next to the mammoth family is the Page Museum where the fossils (or at least the casts) are on display. The museum is small, and a bit old, having been built in the 1970s, but the exhibits are not too out-dated. I do think that the short film explaining the history of the tar pits is in desperate need of revision, but the fossils are the reason to go there and really they are sufficient, at least for me. The other exhibits are decent and some even charming. Who would want to do away with the animatronic saber-toothed cat attacking the giant sloth? It is such fun, if a little clunky. The fossils themselves are spectacular. I know of no other deposits where such phenomenal preservation has occurred. Granted, I am not, strictly speaking, a paleontologist, so there may be places of which I am unaware. Regardless, these bones are incredible. Complete skeletons exist, literally millions of bones representing thousands of individual mammals and birds. One display shows hundreds of foot bones from one eagle species. Another display shows hundreds of skulls from the extinct Dire Wolf. It allows us to see how much variation there was within one species. Where else can one see this in extinct animals other than trilobites? There is even a femur from a female human. I had not known prior to my visit that any human remains had been found in the tar pits. So I learned something new.

The fossils at Rancho La Brea span tens of thousands of years, from about 38,000 years ago until quite recently. However, the most famous creatures, the saber-toothed cats, the American lions, the mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths…they went extinct somewhere between 12,000 and 4,000 years ago depending on which species we are referring to. They were “Ice Age” North American megafauna, and they were indeed large. The lion was around the size of a modern Amur (“Siberian”) tiger, the largest of the extant great cats, and the Columbia mammoths could grow to about 13 feet tall. Obviously the “giant” sloths were massive. There is still no consensus as to why they all went extinct. Was it due to the arrival of weapon-wielding humans? Was it climate change? Was it some combination or something that we have not yet considered? We don’t know, but there are strong opinions on each side batted about in the academic literature.

It is incredible to imagine the Ice Age megafauna here in California, existing in such large numbers. Humans are everywhere now and as much as I value our existence, I feel the absence of those glorious animals as I journey back down the coast. There are no pronghorn antelopes frolicking in the grass (though one species of pronghorn does still exist in North America), no mammoths grazing, no lions lounging under a tree, waiting for dusk. Maybe it is because I have spent time in Africa, where modern relatives of those mammals still live in a landscape that is in many ways quite similar to this one. Or maybe I just like to think about what it would be like to encounter a saber-toothed cat. Something fantastic is missing here.

My route up and now back down the coast on The Amtrak Surfliner is popular with good reason, despite the absence of Ice Age megafauna, but I think we’ve established that my perception on this issue is a bit out of the mainstream. The train takes you along the Pacific coast, often right up to the water’s edge. On a clear day, which I am most fortunate to have, given the recent wet weather in SoCal, it is stunning. The only minor impediments to the eye are the oil tankers occasionally dotting the horizon. Beyond the tankers, and for a long stretch of the ride, are massive islands. I never knew there were islands off the Pacific coast. These remind me of the islands of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Increasingly, every place I go reminds me of someplace I’ve been and ultimately they all mesh together in my mind, which could explain my strange déjà vu on Monday evening. I was walking from the bus stop to a small market on Venice Blvd to pick up a few items in order to cook dinner for my gracious hosts, when I suddenly felt that I’d been there before, or somewhere like it. Though I could not place the source of the feeling, it seemed to be from a long time ago. I enjoyed the vague emotional recall. I wonder if someday, when I am old and senile I will subconsciously mix all of my travels together. Maybe I will condense them into one outrageous yarn, much to the delight of small children and strangers.

Currently I am heading back to L.A. for my last evening before returning home. My trip to visit Jay was short but worth every moment of amazing food, breath-taking vistas and good conversation. His family lives near San Luis Obispo in a small town called Morro Bay. We lunched at a little Mexican spot called Mi Casa, which has excellent chips and fresh salsa, then drove out to an area south of town where we left the car behind and gradually hiked out to the beach. We wandered along the trail far above the water, watching waves crash dramatically against rocks down below, taking in the sweet scent of wild sage along the way. Eventually we climbed down the step-like shale to a small patch of beach filled with smooth stones, mollusk shells, purple algae, and even the rare abalone. I made a small collection to bring home and marveled at the surfer who came in from the ocean wearing a helmet. Anyone who would brave those waves and sharp rocks must be intimately familiar with the tides and their underwater landscape.

We made our way back to town just before sunset and headed out to Morro Rock to watch the last few minutes of daylight recede. Morro Rock is a giant formation that is slowly crumbling. Small boulders litter the ground and rock climbing is strictly forbidden, though of course someone makes a go of it every now and then. I snapped far too many sunset photos and got excited every time the waves crashed against the rocks. It is remarkable that something as formless as water can exert such force. I doubt I would ever tire of watching it happen were I to live in a place like that.

For dinner we ventured back to San Luis Obispo. We ate at a restaurant called Big Sky Café where I enjoyed the onion soup with golden raisins. Think French onion soup without the cheese and bread, but with sweet soft raisins and a few croutons for added heartiness. It was exquisite. After a big meal and a hot cup of roobois tea, I slept well. I am sorry that I did not get a chance to thank Jay’s parents for their hospitality, but the entire excursion, train ride included, was a wonderful way to spend 24 hours. I did indeed enjoy the view.

The Wackness That is L.A.

Charming, beautiful, ageless strangers in their best cocktail wear at Bar Chloe in Santa Monica on New Year’s Eve, with too-expensive Stella Artois, warm bodies lightly touching as they move through the crowded club, silky fabrics, dim lights and dance rhythms pounding…it was a great way to spend the holiday. I met a group of wonderful ladies (including a jewelry designer whose elegant pieces you can order here), one lovely man, and flirted with everyone. I am visiting my friend Paige, though I know several other people scattered about L.A., and have now met many more. It is my favorite part of traveling, meeting people. I have realized over the years that I collect them. I connect, collect, re-connect, and I may suddenly show up one day asking to sleep on your couch. But I will also return the favor, cook you a tasty meal and even do the dishes. And couch-surfing is indeed what I am doing here…figuratively. On New Year’s Eve I slept soundly on an Ikea futon cushion on the floor of an apartment in Venice. The following night I dreamt Grimm’s-like visions of forests and wolves at Paige’s place. Tomorrow I’ll head up the coast to my friend Jay’s parents’ home, and my last night will be spent at my friend Nancy’s apartment. It is a whirlwind itinerary on paper, but day-to-day it has been low key.

I am taking it slow, savoring each moment. I have no major plans apart from visiting friends and seeing a few museums, eating a taco or two, and writing. New Year’s day was spent walking on Venice Beach, watching people. The tourists wore shorts, the locals heavy jackets, but everyone donned sunglasses and enjoyed the bright blue sky. Often, I was watching people and their dogs. The dog culture here appears to rival that of New York. Dogs are everywhere, and the only difference I have noted so far is that in New York they may be allowed into a greater proportion of retail establishments than here. For every dog person there was some other wacky individual making him or herself noticeable or at least at home. It’s hard to say whether the extreme individuality is a result of comfort or exhibitionism. There was a 60ish man dancing in shorts and no shirt next to the skateboard ramps in the heart of Venice in between roller bladers, some of whom appeared to be swing dancing; there were kids skateboarding, even girls, something I’ve rarely witnessed in my life; small children sledded down the low sand dunes; and an older woman wearing a heavy winter coat and cashmere beret sat in a lawn chair on the beach near the pier, reading a book with an empty chair beside her, perhaps waiting for someone. Eccentricity is an understatement here.

Yesterday morning, Paige and I took a walk to the Farmer’s Market on Grand View in Mar Vista where I ate a scrumptious savory crepe with fresh spinach, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, drank coffee served up by Homeboy Industries, and purchased fresh blueberries…in January! It seems so wrong to this Northern girl, but I’m not complaining. After our food shopping excursion we stopped at Soaptopia, a local soap maker on Venice Blvd. If I lived here I would be a regular. They offer soap-making classes, sell all-natural products and deliver nationwide. If you like yummy bath products, you must visit their website.

The rain hit around midday and indecisively sputtered on and off into this morning. It is a shame on one level, but in the grand scheme of things it does not make a difference to me. I visited with a friend for lunch in Santa Monica and then went to the Getty Villa where we briefly admired various Greek, Roman and Etruscan relics, making the most of the gray, chilly, dampness. The museum itself is small but the grounds are stunning, and worth the visit even in the rain.

I keep saying that I am in “L.A.” but in truth I have not really seen L.A. since I’ve been here…not in the proper sense. I have been in the greater metropolitan area. Today I will see more of the city when I visit with another friend in West Hollywood. More on that later.

I’m not sure what I think of the city yet, but one thing that I was sold on immediately is the plant life. The combination of the plants and the home architecture makes me think of South Africa, but without all of the high security fences. The plants are glorious. The cars I could do without.

The Places We Think We Hate…and Love

One of the many travel bloggers I follow recently posted a thoughtful piece on how much he hates Los Angeles. The point of the entry was not “why I hate L.A.” but rather “why DO I hate L.A.?” Why does anyone “hate” a place where they have never lived, or possibly never even been? I could apply this just as easily to why some people “hate” certain public figures like Oprah or Michael Moore. How can you really hate what you don’t know? To push it a bit in the other direction, how can you hate what you DO know? I like to think we can find something non-hate-worthy in everything.

I am not interested in delving into this topic in some broadly philosophical way. Rather I want to explore my own perceptions of the places I have been and the places I will go. I am going to Indiana for Christmas, to visit family and friends. Then I am going to L.A. for New Year’s to see more friends and enjoy a little bit of warmish weather (let’s hope this is not a repeat of my freezing New Orleans adventure last January). My associations with these two places are worlds apart. Having lived in NYC or at least the Tri-State area for 17 1/2 years, I no longer identify as a Hoosier. I never fit in all that well to begin with, and now when I go “home” I focus on the things I did love…people. True, there is some pride associated with being from a small town in the midwest, but most of that pride comes from shallow boasts such as being able to tolerate blizzards considerably better than New Yorkers. But I spent years going on and on about how much I hated Indiana, how much I hated my hometown of Plymouth and how much I hated small town politics. Being from the place, there may have been some basis for my bitterness, but really, what did I hate so much? I had a fairly cushy childhood. I was a good student, I sang in swing choir and acted in school plays, played drums in the band and was one of the “stars” of the speech team (not tooting my own horn here, I actually won quite often). I also had good friends and a supportive family. If I had to pinpoint the one thing that distinguished growing up in a small town from that of a big city, it would be simply this – I lacked anonymity. It was never true that I lacked opportunity, but I believed I did, and I wanted out.

With my friend Beth…and Miny the cat (as in eeny, meeny, miny, mo) in my backyard…circa…1987ish?

I managed to get out. Then at some point I realized I don’t hate Indiana anymore. True, I would never want to live there again, but I don’t hate it. Maybe I never did. Maybe I have softened over the years. Or maybe it is from having traveled to other places in the world, finally seeing what I thought I was missing. Most likely, that contributed to a new worldview, one which includes my hometown in a more loving, respectful way. Now I think about the vitriol I once spewed and I’m a little bit disgusted with myself. There was no cause to hate. There rarely is. What is striking is that as far I can recall, there has never been another place for which I felt such revulsion. This brings me to Los Angeles. Unlike my fellow blogger, I do not hate L.A. I kind of love it. But I’m not sure why. My family lived in Riverside, California when I was three, a city east of L.A. We were there for less than a year. And hey, I was three; I don’t exactly have meaningful memories of the place apart from some vague, playful memory of trying to ride my neighbor’s dog. Yet I was apparently quite distraught when we moved back to Indiana (“back” because I was in fact born there). From that point forward, I associated L.A. with something I’d lost and something I wanted very badly. It was a big city, it was on the coast, it was filled with mysterious strangers and endless opportunities…it was far far away from Plymouth, Indiana…and I dreamed of going back.

When I was 13, my dream partially came true. My parents and I went to L.A. for spring break and I eagerly absorbed every eclectic aspect of our experience. My mom’s cousin lived there. She was (and still is) an art dealer. She had fascinating artist friends. Her daughter took riding lessons at the same place where Loretta Swit rode (I know this because we saw her in the bathroom). We ate some of the best food I’d ever tasted and shopped at the Beverly Center. How much more glamorous and exciting could it get for a midwestern teenager? To add to L.A.’s allure, I was deeply in love with the “hair band” movement taking MTV and VH1 by storm in the mid-late ’80s. Yes, I was one of those kids. L.A. was the epicenter of that movement (I realize “movement” is a gross exaggeration, but I feel it necessary to add some kind of self-respect to those trashy musicians who I once so admired). L.A. was where I wanted to be. Alas, it was back to Plymouth after a week. Apart from Chicago, I would not see one of our country’s major cities again until I was 17 (I don’t count Washington, D.C.). That trip was to New York City for a national speech tournament. It took me approximately zero minutes to fall in love with NYC. It was a no-brainer. I was home. Two years later I moved here. My first apartment was in a residential hotel on the Upper West Side. I attended a musical theater conservatory, shopped at Fairway, hung out in Sheep Meadow late at night with my acting buddies and ate bagels every day. But I never lost any love for L.A. Yes, I went through one of those typical New Yorker/Woody Allen-esque phases where I scoffed at the idea of ever living in L.A. The shallowness, the absurd health trends and lack of any “real” culture…but that was just my new hometown snobbery talking. I was going along with it. The truth is, deep down, I never stopped feeling like I was missing out on something that only existed in Southern California.

During my last trip to SoCal – San Diego 2006

Before you start asking the obvious next question, no, I am not thinking of moving. I love the East Coast despite my annual whine about “why do I live someplace that gets cold during the winter?”…and I have no intention of leaving. But since this is a travel blog, I hope that I will be able to talk about many future visits to L.A. and other areas of the West Coast in the years to come. I don’t know if I am really missing out on anything there, but whatever I think I love must be worth exploring.