Honey Island Swamp. It’s a curious name. Part sweet syrup, part fetid bog. Part desert island discs, perhaps.
But whatever it was supposed to represent, I had a hard time picturing it in my mind from the colour and character of old New Orleans.
The wrought-iron balconies, rainbow paint and voodoo vibe of central New Orleans make it clear exactly where you are in this world: at the heart of one of America’s most iconic cities. But walk just a few blocks away and the cityscape looks far more familiar.
Concrete high rise. Gleaming glass. Piercingly cool air conditioning and the reminder that only foreigners use the sidewalk rather than the automobile.
Drive a short while further into Louisiana and it’s a completely different story.
Here, glaring green is the name of the game, from the fronds that hang from the trees to the clover-like aquatic vegetation that drifts along the surface of the swamp. Green moss clings to the bark-crusted branches and the bobbly backs of the gators that glide by.
Ah, yes. That’s right. The gators.
Much as the presence of sharks shocked me in the waters around Sydney and Darwin, so the close proximity to flesh-tearing teeth came as a surprise on a day trip from New Orleans.
Gators. Alligators. Big ones. Giant ones.
And, my. Like crocodiles, they can jump.
As the Louisianans and fellow passengers mocked my shock, I realised the innocence of growing up in Europe: the starling absence of animals ready to rip you to shreds.
Not that every swamp beast is a menace.
There were snuffling, gruffling black-skinned hogs. And furry racoons that impressed only me.
And, of course, this being New Orleans, there were stories of Katrina.
Striding through the soulful streets of the French Quarter, sugar-dusted beignet in hand, it took a flight of imagination to conjure up the threat of water.
On a flat-bottomed boat on Honey Island Swamp, hemmed in by green, the vulnerability became clear.
So, too, did other characteristics that have built up the flavour of the city.
Swamps make it impossible to grow and store ingredients for traditional French cooking: a key step in the development of Creole cuisine.
Difficult vegetation fuelled the drive for manual labour, which fuelled the original import of slaves from Africa and across the Caribbean.
And, of course, swamps lead to mosquitoes and the diseases that they bear: a fact that led to the death of over 8000 poor Irish immigrants contracted to dig the New Basin Canal when the wealthy calculated their lives to be worth less than a well-trained slave.
And how all these different cultures and snippets of history mixed together to produce the music, the meals, and the modern multicultural blend of the nearby city of New Orleans.
And, although while less profound, the reality of the swamp illustrated the great need and desire for that piercingly cool air conditioning after all.
And why locals prefer to drive instead of walk.
Disclosure: I visited New Orleans as part of the #MustLoveFestivals project in partnership with Expedia and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. As ever, as always, I keep the right to write what I like. Otherwise, you know the drill. What’s the point?
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