Throughout all my travels I’ve realised that I’ve always had company. Whether it’s the friends I’ve traveled with, or the family I’ve visited abroad, I’ve done part of my travels alone, but not entirely. So during this sabbatical, I figured a solo trip to New Orleans would be perfect to experience what traveling alone was really about.
New Orleans is one of those cities that pulls you in through its sheer vibrancy, picturesque streets and delicious foods. Spending five days there alone, however, revealed a very different side to this fascinating southern city that I didn’t bank on seeing.
First of all, did you know that Louisiana was ranked as the third most dangerous state in the US? No, I didn’t know that either when booking this trip and it’s also a nugget of information I still keep from my worried parents.
The locals are still reeling from Hurricane Katrina 13 years after New Orleans was pounded and ravaged. Some have rebuilt with what they have, some left and never returned. For all the joy and energy that still beats from the blues and jazz scene, there is an underlying sense of anxiousness that hasn’t completely receded.
Suraj, my taxi driver from the airport had his home destroyed by the floods and spent several months trying to get the financial help he needed to rebuild.
“I was honest about my income and earnings but I had a long wait for help.
“In a situation like this you’re desperate for help so why would you want to lie and risk not getting any financial aid? It was a difficult time but luckily I had family around where I could stay whilst we got back on our feet. Some people lost everything.”
I wanted to see the impact for myself but was advised not to wander into these wards alone. Hurricane Katrina has become such a prominent part of this city’s history that it’s very easy to find tour operators who drive you through the worst hit areas. Most bus tours include this alongside cemetery tours and local landmarks.
You might wonder why on earth would you go on a cemetery tour. What’s the hype? Well, cemeteries in New Orleans are actually above ground, with the deceased entombed in chambers, which not only solved the problem of the city being under sea level, but also created a hauntingly beautiful attraction.
Leaving the French Quarter, you definitely notice a stark difference in your surroundings and the atmosphere. The Lower Ninth Ward was one of the worst hit areas and one of the last to be pumped dry and have power restored. Because they’re separated by the industrial canal, homes there were in the direct path of waters that bursted through the flood walls.
It was a really sad sight to see and the thought of what people had to contend with still gives me chills.
Our guide pointed out what looked like spray paint on the front doors of homes. The famous X-codes were left by rescue teams, with each quadrant reflecting part of their findings.
The top quadrant relates to the date, whilst numbers at the bottom signify how many victims were found dead. The rescue team could be identified on the left and any hazards would be noted on the right.
It was eerie knowing what had been found in these individual homes. Some houses are still vacant up until now, with their former occupants either building a life elsewhere or no longer around at all.
Nothing Beats that Southern Hospitality
In spite of this dark time in New Orleans’ history, locals are welcoming and extend a hand of kindness where they can. Aside from being a strategically placed transhipment port, tourism is also a huge part of the city’s economy, but there’s something about that southern hospitality that stretched beyond the need to make a buck and was like no other I’ve encountered in the US.
Derek, who worked at the Best Western I stayed at, noted my hesitance when it came to the breakfast one morning and went out of his way to make me a hearty omelette complete with off the menu turkey sausages. He told me how he had been affected by the hurricane and also of his biggest loss.
“My wife fell sick with her liver and she got better for a few years. Everything was fine but then she got really sick again and didn’t make it through.”
He paused and told me how my mannerisms and features were very similar to hers. I didn’t want to intrude but asked if he had a photo of her. He handed his open wallet to me. I searched for a resemblance, but she was far more beautiful for sure.
Derek was one of many people I got to know during my five days there. Whether it was over casual coffees and beignets at Cafe Du Monde or bonding over a bar seated lunch, people were friendly and intrigued at what a lonesome female was doing in New Orleans. The idea of a three-month sabbatical sounded like a dream to most, with one lady handing me her number and going into Mum mode, urging me to get in touch with her in case of any emergencies – Paula, if you’re reading this, I made it back safely 🙂
Every single person told me about the infamous Bourbon Street, advising a visit, but then with a concerned expression adding, “maybe go during the day or early evening.”
I heeded their advice and wandered during sunset where it was somewhat calm and grabbed a drink. When I emerged, it was like walking out into a different world. In between bars blaring music, there were live performances outside, meetups and tourists spilling out from bars. It didn’t matter that it was a Tuesday night, street parties were in full swing – and I was here for it.
A Food-lover’s Heaven
You cannot go to New Orleans and avoid all the incredible food on offer. I had already made a list on the three hour flight and sure enough I ticked them all off.
Shrimp and grits were by far, my favourite meal. It was hearty, full of flavour and unlike anything you get here in London.
The South take their flavours seriously. I already knew Gumbo Shop was going to be the place I tucked into a bowl of steaming hot gumbo – I went for the seafood option – and whilst I can’t fault that soul-warming flavour, I don’t have the best relationship with okra. I generally avoid it because of the slimy texture, which is where gumbo gets its consistency. It was near impossible to find a jambalaya without the staple andouille sausage but New Orleans Creole Cookery serves a great vegetarian alternative.
I had my first brush with Popeyes in New Orleans as well as Willie’s Chicken Shack. Both great places for your fried chicken fix, and admittedly it’s where I fell for their biscuits too.
Beignets at Cafe Du Monde is a must, however, it does get crazy busy, so there’s also Cafe Beignet, which is another popular spot. If you end up in one of their many bars, you must try a ‘Hurricane’ – a tasty concoction of light and dark rum, fruit juice, lemon juice and grenadine.
Traveling New Orleans Alone
In spite of what you hear about sketchy areas around the city, I’m glad Nola was the first place I really explored alone. There were small comforts like not having a language barrier and staying in the heart of the French Quarter, which made it easy to navigate around.
It’s important to be mindful of your surroundings of course. Just for my own peace of mind, I ditched flashy jewellery, took smaller amounts of money out with me and at times, went without makeup altogether. I figured if I looked as plain as possible, I wouldn’t be approached. This worked perfectly – until I started speaking.
So, would I go back to Nola? Absolutely. The city is so much more than what you see on television and in travel magazines. I didn’t expect to strike up as many conversations as I did during my time there and it was eyeopening to see what locals had endured and are still facing. The city is rebuilding itself but it’s also still sinking. It’s estimated that in the next 100 years New Orleans may cease to exist altogether. Nola is forever a hub for jazz lovers and festival goers, but it’s also a humbling experience too. So if you don’t go for the flamboyant festivals and colourful Mardi Gras, then definitely do it for the people.