Previously: Day 1
Day 2: In which our clueless heroine meets a Swamp Prince, charms some alligators, and dances in the dark
“Stars, shining bright above you
Soft breezes seem to whisper, I love you…”
Ella Fitzgerald croons from my phone alarm, and weak New Orleans sunshine bleeds through the bedroom curtains. It won’t be weak for long. My grogginess fades quickly as Alex and I scramble from the bunk bed. He’s going to meet a team of bikers for a tour of the Creole quarter…and me?
I have a swamp boat to catch.
I make plans with Alex to meet later that evening, then slip into my Tiana gear for the day. It’s a bright West African romper I found on Etsy: Tiana the Frog Meets Louis the Alligator…with a hint of Dr. Facilier!
There’s no time for breakfast, so I toss a Kellogg bar in my bag and dash out into the humid morning. I’m skipping, an eager toddler in a 21-year-old’s body. After yesterday’s harrowing adventure, I spent the night becoming a New Orleans expert via Google Maps. A ten minute walk will take me to Canal Street, home to the city’s main streetcar. From there I’ll find Decatour street, the heart of New Orleans, where my bus to the Mississippi River awaits!
Buoyed by morale, I find myself singing as I pass the beautiful French-style houses, my warbling soprano mixing with the cicadas.
“In the southlands, there’s a city
Way down on the river
Where the woman are very pretty,
And all the men deliver…“
I sigh in relief when I reach a broad, busy road with rails running down the middle: Canal Street. If my memory serves me right, a streetcar should be appearing right…about…
I fumble to make the right fare, not stopping to take a picture (I snagged the one above later that evening). The driver looks me over with a slightly condescending smile. I smile back. Yep, I’m as green as the noobiest of noobs. But I’m too happy to care.
“Does this streetcar stop at Magazine Street?” I ask.
The driver suppresses an eyeroll. I’m guessing that was a silly question for a vehicle that only goes in two directions. Fair enough.
I find a seat.
I don’t dare read a book, for fear of missing my stop. So instead, I pound the last nail in my shameful tourist coffin. That’s right: it’s selfie stick time.
On a streetcar on a streetcar on a streetcar like Tiana, I chant happily, like the easily impressed three-year-old I am.
Glimmering high rises and European-style buildings rise around me as I get off at my stop. Today, a gray-white cloud cover lessens the heat. The air is balmy, smelling faintly of cigars. This is New Orleans at its most peaceful: in the early morning, when last night’s parties have barely faded, and the afternoon revels are yet to begin.
Again my GPS malfunctions. Apparently Samsung is no match for the mischievous magnetic poles of New Orleans…but Tiana’s confidence overrides my tourist confusion. I charge confidently down Decatour Street, with just enough time to snag a few pictures before my bus leaves.
Holy Moses, this city is gorgeous. I and a handful of other brave souls board a bus, pressing our faces to the window as the driver waxes on New Orleans’ complicated and haunted history. As we leave mainland New Orleans for the outlying swamp, the driver tells us to keep a look out for alligators on the road.
“See ’em all the time,” he says with bravado. “Now, folks, what you think imma do if we see a gator in the road?”
“Drive around it?” I guess hopefully.
“WRONG. Imma speed up and aim for it. Then we’ve killed ourselves a dangerous predator,” he finishes in complete seriousness, “and got ourselves a delicious dinner.”
He then launches into the history of Cajuns, some of the first people to settle the Louisiana swamps. Cajuns are exiled natives of Arcadia, Canada, who were forced from their homeland by the British. They became masters of trapping and swamp wildlife, eating whatever they could to survive.
“Gator tastes just like chicken,” the driver tells us. Then he adds, “Bit stringy though.”
We we arrive at the bayou, I grin with disbelief. The Princess and the Frog really is following me around today. Our swamp guide is a short, muscular man with no hair and an endearingly inappropriate sense of humor. His name?
“Welcome to the Lil’ Cajun,” Human Louis says cheerily as we board the small motorboat. “If we sink, ya’ll put on a lifejacket and hold onto your partners, hear?” When he sees that I’ve come alone, he smiles boyishly and says, “You can hold onto me.”
I nod with false seriousness. “That was the plan.”
As we tour the breathtaking bayou, I realize our guide is Louis the Alligator and Ray the Firefly mixed in one. Human Louis is 100% Cajun, and was raised in the bayou his entire life. While he isn’t an anthropomorphised alligator, I’d be lying if I called him anything short of an Alligator Whisperer.
No joke: this man can talk to them.
At first I think Louis is simply a wildlife expert: he can spot a turtle or alligator from several hundred yards away, just a blip in the water. He even lets me hold the head of an alligator he caught once:
As Louis peppers swamp facts with mildly vulgar jokes, he quips that the alligators work in a union:
“I keep ’em on payroll,” he chuckles. “But sometimes they goes on strike. Won’t come out unless everything’s perfect. Water too cold? Nothin’. Might not see many today.”
But then he stands at the bow of his boat, and makes a deep animalistic sound in the back of his throat. One minute, we’re floating in still, peaceful waters.
The next minute, our boat is surrounded by alligators.
Louis flirts with them for a while, then fondly tosses hot dogs and marshmallows. I’d later learn that feeding wild bayou alligators is not, well, entirely legal, but that law enforcement hesitates when it comes to Cajuns. After all, Cajuns have lived in the swamps longer than New Orleans has been New Orleans …and they know those animals better than anyone.
If the gators don’t tell on Louis the Alligator Whisperer, I won’t either.
In between gator visits, we cruise the bayou with smooth speed, a lovely cool wind in our faces. The swaying current feels hypnotic. I stand at the boat’s bow and smile dreamily, thinking of fairy tales and Huck Finn. I didn’t expect a swamp to be so…beautiful.
Louis blasts Cajun music from the boat speakers– Goin’ down the bayou, I think in Ray’s voice— during the last portion of the tour. We near the dock…but our adventures aren’t quite over yet.
“Would y’all like to hold a gator?” Louis asks with a secretive smile. We stare with apprehension, but then he rumbles through a boat compartment and emerges with something long, scaly…and kind of cute.
“This is Buddy,” Louis says proudly, passing the baby alligator around. “Only 5 years old. He’ll be bigger than me someday.”
It’s a disorienting thought.
We pet the tiny creature, who we assume to be tame. It tolerates us–then as Louis takes it away, I hear him murmur quietly, “Good job, Buddy– you didn’t bite nobody today.”
It’s with reluctance that I disembark from The Lil’ Cajun, and say farewell to Louis as we board our bus back to New Orleans. We have a new driver this time, and a female tour guide.
“You folks just had a tour with Louis, right?” she asks, beaming. “Didn’t you just fall in love with him?”
We laugh at the thought, but know what she means. It’s not every day you get to meet an Alligator Whisperer.
The guide adds knowingly, “We call him the Swamp Prince.”
When we arrive back in the French Quarter, I long to stay and take pictures…but my phone’s dying, and I’ve no other way to get around. I hop back on the streetcar, planning to get charged at the hostel and return later.
There’s still a 15 minute stretch of road between my stop and Site 61 Hostel, but the moment the streetcar drops me off…I hear a boom.
Rain gushes from the sky. I produce my emergency umbrella, but it’s like a leaf beneath a waterfall. The sidewalk dips with potholes; sometimes the water reaches my ankles. I groan in annoyance…and then laugh. I’ve got to reach my hostel somehow.
So I do what any sensible Tiana would do: I plunge on, enjoy the view, and sing at the top of my lungs:
“This old town can slow you down,
People taking the easy way
But I know exactly where I’m going,
Getting closer and closer every day, cause
I’m almost there!
“I’m almost there.
People down here think I’m crazy.
But I don’t care. Trials and tribulations–
I’ve had my share.
But there ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me now, ’cause I’m…
When I arrive at Site 61, I’m soaked as a drowned rat…but lighthearted with the irony of it all. Alex arrives a couple hours later, equally drenched. After showers and fresh clothes for the both of us, we agree on a place for dinner.
Like a certain Maldonian we know, Alex is eager to scour New Orleans for jazz, and my bus tour guide suggested a place called Mulate’s: famous for live music…and dancing! I change into the second of my frog-inspired outfits for the day:
When we arrive at Mulate’s, it appears we hit a slow night for dancing– the floor is bare except for a sweet couple that just got engaged. The music style is more Cajun then jazz, so we decide to try and find a jazz club on Bourbon Street later. We chatter about German literature (my meagre knowledge amounts to Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther), while chowing down on fresh sea and riverfood.
We’re not disappointed.
Alex picks out my first beer– I’ve only had wine and mixed drinks before.
I eye the brown liquid dubiously, but didn’t Naveen coax Tiana to try new things? If I can mince, you can dance, goes the line…so I sip at the curiously savory liquid.
Alex still ends up finishing it for me. I imagine it’s a German sin to let good beer go to waste!
After dinner we head back down Canal Street, and it’s time for one of the most infamous party districts in America: Bourbon Street.
People guffaw from balconies and toss beads to revelers below. Music pounds from every doorway…and most of it is live! We skirt around drunken partiers and avoid strip clubs, poking our heads in places promising good music…but we don’t find Alex’s beloved jazz until we arrive at our last stop for the night: a tiny, classy nightclub called Preservation Hall.
We sit and listen to the phenomenal music for a while, until I can’t stand being still any longer.
“Can you swing dance?” I ask Alex, though no one else is standing.
His eyes widen, and he stays put. “I am not much of dancer. My style is more, ah– freestyle.”
“Come on! I’ll teach you,” I yell above the music. If I can mince, you can dance.”It’s your last night in New Orleans! Give it a try.”
So he does.
He mirrors me, mastering a basic swing step, but right when we’ve got got it– the beat changes to something slow. We smile, stifling yawns. It’s been a long day for both of us.
“Done dancing?” I ask.
So back to Site 61 we go. Alex and I say say goodbye early the next morning, before he dashes off to catch a Grayhound bus to Nashville, then New York. “Have a good trip,” I say with a sleepy hug. “Thanks for being part of this story.”
Though I’m living Tiana’s life events out of order, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s adventures: fresh beignets, a new roommate…and a haunted cemetery!
Thanks for following along on my adventures. Don’t forget to subscribe, and read Day 3 here!