The tourist

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Jul 02, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Friday, May 18, 2007

My southward flow ended where many paths seem to end; in New Orleans and the muddy Mississippi delta, the great river reaching its terminus and dissipating into the gulf.

Dissipation is an important idea in this city. It is a city that, one way or the other, has the ability to destroy a person. as well as to revivify. Old and well-worn tales tell that in the early days of the settlement here the high water table meant that interred corpses would from time to time be washed out of their holdings and slither into the streets. Now all tombs are built above ground. The corruption and mortality and absurdity of this city...

I was shocked by the number of tourists soaking up the flavours of the restored French Quarter. I hadn't seen so many tourists, nor such a tourist industry anywhere else in the USofA. But here they were, seeking their own forms of dissipation. I was left with little choice but to also dissipate into the crowd.

So Phil the tourist, adrift in New Orleans. He walks the French Quarter, up and down. And despite the souvenir shops and tacky, hokey displays of decadence, the beauty of the area is clear to see. The city feels old in a way that no other city in the USofA feels old. Here is an escape from the single, thin layer of history that seems to bother the Americans so much. Here is the natural evolution of architectural style, through the influence of the French and then the Spanish, then America, both confederate and union. Here is escape from the pretense of neo-everything style. New Orleans doesn't need to pretend to be of another style. It is its own style, mimicked and evoked all over the country and world.

The tourist takes coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde, a crumbling old place, the terrace littered with spills of icing sugar from the over-sweet snacks served. Fine old Louis Armstrong covers are bawled and ad libbed to the delighted audience.

He stands on the banks of the muddy Mississippi and shudders at the idea of death by water. The French Quarter is just beyond its banks.

He sits down with a Tarot reader with hopes of another insight into a curious old belief. The first card, the centre card, is the world, and that seems fitting, but after that comes a jumble of cups and pentacles, the tower, the devil, the joker, the sun. The reader is poetic, but has drawn no great conclusion when she talks of journeying and change. Nor when she explains that the cards can be read infinite numbers of ways, that she hates the tower but that it can be associated with new beginnings. The tourist gives up trying to have a real conversation about tarot, forgets completely the configuration of his cards, and walks away with the world at his centre.

He walks from his lodging, a little out of the French Quarter and downtown, past gorgeous homes. Some have arcane symbols sprayed on them, the work of rescue teams. Most are beautiful, with porches supported by elegant pillars, small balconies of intricate wood or metal, and yards  full of fountains or statues or flags or cats. There are houses painted in all colours. Fluorescent, eye-hurting yellow. But always the cracks in the paint are fast to emerge, and vines creep up walls and into these cracks. There is decay, even amidst the bright colours, tropical gardens and sunshine.

And eventually he comes to Bourbon St, one of the most infamous streets in the world. Though the original French name has somewhat more grand connotations, the present-day meaning is a perfect fit. Bars sell straight onto the street, and at all hours there are revellers seeking dissipation in the depths of those long plastic cocktail glasses.

Most won't realise this, but you don't even need to be drunk to feel the effects of Bourbon st. The street itself is drunk, soaked with thousands of spilled liquors. The crowds wheel and spin and the odd motorcycle plows through. The street itself seems to lilt and lean against the fine old wooden walls around it. From terraces people cheers and gibber. On the streets there are tap dancers and musicians and people falling over and people shouting drink offers. Music blasts from every bar at every hour. It is madness and dissipation. The bars seem to twist and turn forever, humble old fronts concealing vast dungeons full of partygoers. There is garbage everywhere.

And when the tourist is done with these sights, he rents a scooter and buzzes out of the downtown area. Flying along narrow streets and over bridges above treacherous canals. There is another face to New Orleans, and it reveals itself most confrontingly in the old ninth ward.

The city is doomed, really. It must have seemed that way from the start, when the strategic importance of having a city at the mouth of the Mississippi was sufficiently worthwhile for its forlorn occupants to weather hurricanes and floods, yellow fever epidemics and the odd half-hearted invasion. It still seems so today, with huge resources being poured into the construction of levees and canals to keep the capricious waters at bay.

The ninth ward is or was a working class neighbourhood built behind such a levy, in a plain that sat several feet below sea level. When hurricane Katrina hit i wasn't the fury of the winds that levelled the entire precinct, but the inexorable, encroaching tide of waters, that spilled their confines and rushed the houses waiting below.

Now the tourist can zip through the abandoned streets, nodding to the few other tourists tiptoeing through the neighbourhood. There isn't much left here anymore. Many of the destroyed buildings have been bulldozed, so that the few that remains suddenly have entire blocks to themselves. But some houses remain, leaning at sickening angles, or collapsed beneath the weight of their own roof. Others have been swept up and deposited on top of cars or other houses. A couple have been rebuilt, but more remain as the waters left them, their insides dragged out and displayed indecently. A caravan lies twisted and crumpled on its side. Rusted windowless cars are buried under mounds of debris and wreckage. Stricken boats now sit on the sides of dry and eroded streets, where they were tossed by the receding tide.

The tourist is staying with volunteers, a few of the huge army of outsiders that have descended on the town intent not on dissipation but on reconstruction. Most of those he is staying with are moving on now though. There is a feeling of disappointment in the air. While these people labour and sweat over the forgotten neighbourhoods, the city itself, particularly those in power, are watching the French Quarter and counting the tourist dollars. There are no monuments or memorials or museums in that Quarter.

So it is left to the outsider, but not the tourists, to reconstruct lives, to disentangle the long threads of corruption and bureaucracy that encumber every process. And they must face the people of New Orleans, too, who are consumed by another kind of disconsolation. Living in a doomed city, a city of dissipation, what incentive can there be to rebuild when all eyes are on the French Quarter and when the hurricanes and the waters will inevitably come again?

The tourist zips back down town and returns his bike. He passes some streets of freshly painted and newly rebuilt houses, splendid in blues and reds and greens and purples. They are success stories, surrounded by ghettoes, surrounded by empty, obliterated space.

Back on foot he wanders the picturesque streets, that have apotheosed completely since the hurricane. His camera is always out. The city is doomed to die a hundred ways, its culture is rich with fatalism, in its witchcraft and voodoo and baroque Catholicism and hedonism. But it is fated also to be reborn and to rise again from the mud and rubble, thrusting through the grime and filth and corruption and apathy to become again and again the seductive, exotic queen that it is.

The tourist wishes to come back, to see how this city has changed, how it rises and falls and rises and falls. But he is glad to be away from it now. He has his own fate, the world is at the centre, and he would not dissipate completely, yet.
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