Tuesday in New Orleans

Up early, as usual. Off to find a highly recommended restaurant. I wanted Cajun! But it was never to be. We were sidetracked by a wonderful little patio place on Bourbon Street.

Bourbon Street, the street of legend, was a disappointment. Strip clubs. Music that spills onto more than the sidewalk.Bourbon Street music is SO loud you can hear it a block away. And you can hear music from six or seven clubs at the same time. It’s deafening and it’s miserable. We avoided it at all costs.

But on Tuesday morning we figured it was safe to walk Bourbon Street at 7. And it was. 

It was right on Bourbon Street that we found the patio restaurant. We dove into a crawfish omelette, frozen cafe au lait, and, of course, beignet. 

We spent much of the rest of the day playing tourist, riding the trolley cars from one end of the city to the other. 

The best ride is the one that goes down St. Charles, through the Garden District. Trees and power lines are draped with a rainbow of cheap beaded Mardi Gras necklaces since St. Charles is one of the parades routes.

St. Charles is a mixture of residential areas with a few small shopping centers and a sprinkling of restaurants. None of the restaurants I noticed were chains, which gave this part of the city an A+ rating from me. Actually, the French Quarter, downtown, and the Garden District were all filled with non-chain restaurants. This is one of the things that makes New Orleans a wonderful place to visit. 

Wonderful too because of names like Thank You God Cab Service. And wonderful because of the way the people talk. When asked how locals survive the heat/humidity combination, a woman explained, “We are tropical hothouse flowers, I’ll have you know.”

We ended the day dining on a balcony that almost, almost, gave a view of the river. Stuffed crab and jumbolaya on pasta. To die for. It was hot on that balcony but worth the sweat since it was our only balcony dining experience.

My sense, in these few days, is that New Orleans is making a comeback. First Katrina, and then last year the BP disaster. When I was here last year two short months after the BP rig blew up, the city was tense. Faces were grim.

Everywhere I went there were camera crews. The national crews had big name newscasters and full eight-to-ten man crews.  Scouts were dashing about setting appointments to talk with the mayor, the chief of disaster operations, etc. They  had caravans of big trucks and vans topped with satellite dishes to enable them to send the news “Live, from New Orleans.”

The small local crews operated closer to shoestring budgets. A crew of two or three, sometimes just one, and no satellite dishes. These newscasters didn’t lounge in a chair chatting with passersby, like me. They were out gathering all the news themselves. In contrast to the relaxed manner of the national bigwigs, these men were drawn, strained, and one was even crying as he gazed out over the Gulf.

The entire Gulf Coast was littered with newsmen last year. And yes, they were all men.

But New Orleans is coming back. This year the faces are full of smiles. The people are, overall, friendly. Greetings are warm and from the heart. Everyone is willing to tell us about a great restaurant, festival, or special event. Some are willing to do a traveller a special favor, like the bartender across from our hotel who shared the bar’s internet password so I could get online.

In some areas torn apart by Katrina, there are new homes, repaired homes, and newly planted tall trees. Fresh coats of paint and new gardens. CDs raising funds for victims are still for sale in bars and cafés.

New Orleans is a survivor. 

Monday in the Crescent City

Our first full day in the Big Easy!

We were up early and couldn’t wait to get down to Café du Monde. A brisk seven block walk and there we were,settled at table, almost drooling, awaiting our beignet and Café au lait. We savored every drop and bite, leaving with only a small amount of powered sugar decorating our clothes.

Then it was time to walk it off. We cover four or five miles in all, I think. Lots of sweet little neighborhoods with houses painted three to five colors each. Two story fancy houses next door to worn shotguns. Houses splashed with red or orange or purple. New Orlinians know how to use color!

Sidewalks were mainly the cement variety, but some had been bricked and others had tile that spilled off a porch and down the stairs to the street. Lots of holes, missing tiles and overgrown planter boxes made waking a bit of a challenge, and I know I missed some sights because my attention was so focused on where I was putting my feet.

Back to the hotel to relax a bit and cool off. Then, after the morning’s heat, we opted to switch our plans. No pricey bus tour. Instead, we’d do the riverboat tour with lunch. I was dreaming of cool breezes off the river. 

A woman played the calliope on the paddleboat as we waited to board. Thankfully, it went quiet and the music switched to recorded New Orleans jazz as we climbed aboard.

We scored a little table at the boat’s railing and settled in. The heat was stifling until we started to moved, and then that hoped-for river breeze cooled us down.

We left the Port of New Orleans, the world’s largest port, in mid-afternoon. The river is 214 feet deep there, its deepest point. The Natchez can hold around 1600 people, but it seemed we had less than a quarter of that. We took off down river and the tour announcements began.

We passed a Domino sugar processing plant and an oil refinery. When the paddleboat took us past the 9th Ward, all those Katrina memories came back. Soon, on the opposite side of the river, we passed Algiers which holds a Navy base. Navy? Boats galore? WHY didn’t those boats cross the river and rescue or evacuate the people of the 9th Ward? I was angered to my toes.

The levee along the Mississippi is 25 feet high. The water is so high right now that we could see only the top eight feet or so. Willow trees along the riverbank were nearly under water. The treetops stood out, branches floating on the river. Had the levee been breached during this flood,much of New Orleans would have been submerged as it’s just a few feet above sea level.

Ships and barges from around the world drifted by. Country flags I didn’t recognize. Towboats poised to tow, tugboats poised to push. A ship from Nassau glided by and we were told it carried 70,000 tons of grain.

We had our lunch on deck. Lunch was included (senior prices!). As the Natchez turned around to carry us back, I moaned, “No, no! All the way to the Gulf! ” But alas, it took us back to port.

A leisurely stroll back to the St. Peter House, a short rest in the air conditioned suite, then across the street to the 700 Club for a gin and tonic. Debbie had her tonic with vodka.

A perfect day.

On to New Orleans

Late afternoon. Across the Texas plains with an orange sun burning the western sky.  A few hours later we were in San Antonio with a two-hour layover. Off to the Riverwalk!

A nice twenty minutes stroll and we were on the river. We had a light supper of shrimp appetizers, gazed at the river, and wandered back. Time to settle in for the night.

I actually slept but awoke around four, in knots, so grabbed my pillows and cover and headed to the observation car where I snagged a pair of seats and was able to stretch out a bit. The floor was littered with large men who just didn’t fit into the seats. They had pillows wedged under their heads and were sleeping as well as the floor would allow. It was a good time to be small enough to fit into two cushioned seats.

I awoke at dawn and Debbie wandered in. A brilliant red sun hung over the swamps and cypress, their broad skirted roots under the water. I searched for alligators but found none. Soon a man’s voice down the way cut through the morning stillness, waking the last sleepers: “Someone, tell me we’re out of Texas. Please!”

But we we still west of Beaumont. Swamps rolled past. Egrets lounged on tree stumps. The blue sky began to cloud.

Breakfast on the train. Finally we were out of Texas and into Louisiana! Flat. Green. Treed. So different from the sparsely vegetated red clay of home. We settled in for the last stretch of the journey.

Skies became more gray and a little rain pattered the train. Amazingly, we arrived about an hour and a half early!  A cab whisked us to our hotel (St. Peter House, on the edge of the French Quarter) and we were so early our room wasn’t ready. 

They let us stash our bags and we moseyed on into the Quarter where we browsed the outdoor market and witnessed a wedding party being carried off in carriages. We even found a gallon of water to replenish our empty bottles. What we didn’t find was the restaurant our cabbie had recommended nor the food festival our innkeeper had told us about. We returned to our clean and ready room hungry and miserably hot. An air conditioned bus tour may be on tomorrow afternoon’s agenda.

Train Trip, Day One

The Benson train station is a three-sided tin shack about ten feet wide. Debbie and I stood there in the 2 am chill waiting for the Sunset Limited. It wasn’t the “City of New Orleans,” but that’s where it would take us. Suddenly, that lonely wail announcing a train. A light flooding the tracks. 

Two conductors helped us board, chatted for a few minutes, and showed us to a seat. Although I was exhausted, I couldn’t sleep. I dozed fitfully until about 5 am and gave up.

Train! Smooth. Quiet. Far roomier than a plane. And I didn’t even have to ask for a pillow. I was given two – and needed them both. They were pancake thin, so I had to wad both of them up under my head for it to feel pillow-like.

Dawn. The desert stretched out ahead and a red-orange sky lay over the horizon. It was gorgeous, but that beautiful color was there because the sky was so smoke-filled. It’s perhaps the only benefit to the Wallow Fire up around Greer and Springerville. It roars through the White Mountains while the Horseshoe 2 continues to devour the Chiricahuuas.

As we’d  driven to Benson at 1am we’d been treated to an unusually beautiful night sky. A three quarter moon had hung low over the Huachucas. It was a rich, deep golden orange. Beautiful. Beautiful because of the smoke from the fire in Sonora.

Morning. We crossed the Rio Bravo and then stopped in El Paso where we stopped long enough to disembark and walk around a bit. Just after noon we stopped briefly in Alpine. Strange name, it seemed to me, for a town in the low Texas desert. It was hot and it was humid. As I stepped off the train, the conductor warned us not to stray because the stop would be brief. The woman across the aisle got off for a quick smoke and told me that on one of her trips a man walked a block to get a pack of cigarettes, and the train had pulled out without him.

On to the east. Big Bend country. This low desert reminded me of Cochise County: desert broom, prickly pear, yucca. Way too much mesquite. This part of Texas clearly didn’t get the severe freeze we did last winter. Prickly pear abounded though they were parched and wrinkled, begging for seasonal rains. We paralleled a two lane blacktop for miles and miles without seeing one car.

Past Langtry, home of Judge Roy Bean, and then over the Pecos River. The bridge over the Pecos is the highest railroad bridge  in the US. It’s 353 feet from the bridge to the river. Half an hour later we reached the area where the Pecos River and Rio Bravo merge and form Lake Amistad which separate Texas from Coahuila.

Immediately after the lake, the vegetation changed. the grass was actually green and we saw Lob lolly pine and a variety of deciduous trees. Finally, we stopped in Del Rio. In addition to a major Air Force base, Del Rio is now home to many seniors who live there for its proximity to low cost Mexican medicine. There are three large border crossings in and around the city.

The stop in Del Rio was billed as a “smoke stop.” However, it was far more than that. I got off the train to walk and immediately encountered three border patrol agents, one of whom had a dog. He and the dog boarded each car, the dog sniffing all the luggage. It was a drug search stop. The passengers’ permission was neither asked nor granted.

The agents went away empty handed.

Gutpunched

It was like a fierce punch in the stomach. Only worse.
I hadn’t driven the road to Douglas in over three weeks, so I wasn’t expecting it. But today, I headed toward the College, and when I came out of the mountains, my eyes cut to the northeast, and there it was: the fire.
I know a fire has been raging in the Chiricahuas for about five weeks now. I see the pictures on the nightly news. Still, I was unprepared.
So it punched me, hard.
I screamed when I saw it. I screamed so much I had to pull over, and then I moaned. I moaned like a woman who had just found her child dead in the streets. I screamed and moaned until I had almost no voice left and my throat was raw.
Then I sat. Breathing, breathing. Eventually I could go on.
It’s a terrible thing to see a place you love dearly in the midst of disaster. My thought flew to people in the Midwest who have been watching their towns destroyed by tornadoes. In some way, I knew exactly how they felt.
No, the Chiricahuas aren’t my home. But I have been going to those mountains for nearly forty years. I have been in many of her canyons, wandered her streams, slept snugly in her valleys and hills. I’ve seen the trogon, the gray fox, and the coatimundi. I’ve picnicked, swum, hiked. I’ve taken students and visitors to see her beauty. I’ve lunched in the café in Portal and spent time in Paradise.
And now those places are burning up.
Firefighters have been there since shortly after the fire’s inception. It is human caused, though how it actually began is unknown. A cigarette tossed from a car window? A hot muffler on brittle, dry grass? Arson? Any of these could be the reason. Many locals, however, blame migrants for leaving a campfire when they fled the Border Patrol. This rumor remains, and it grows.
One resident is even quoted as saying, “To say that illegal aliens didn’t set the fire is like saying that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon.”
Set the fire. Not even started the fire. This man explained that in order to escape the Border Patrol, a group of migrants started the fire to distract their pursuers so they could run away. No matter there is no record of a chase, and no matter the Border Patrol didn’t report the fire.
All other recent fires  in Southern Arizona (seven major ones burning right now) have been started by US citizens. One was started by someone  out target shooting and another by US military training exercises. A third was started by a man who was welding.
At this point I am less concerned about how the fire started than I am how it will be put out. What matters is a place I love is being destroyed, more and more acres every day, every minute in fact. Over 80,000 acres have burned, and it’s only a few miles from the sweet community of Paradise. Residents have just been ordered evacuated.
Like the residents of Portal and Paradise, I could not bear it if these towns are destroyed.

Barefoot Beachwalk

I just returned from a walk on the beach, barefoot. I tossed on my one-dollar Thriftstore Beach Dress, slipped on my flip flops, and hit the sand. Pulled off the flip flops. Walked right at the shoreline so the incoming tide would wash over my feet. Delicious.

I decided to go barefoot partly because the sand feels so great. Also, I sink further into the sand when I’m barefoot, so I have to push a little harder when I walk, and I figure that will help tone my calves. And walking in the sand helps to slough off dead skin and calluses from my feet.

Power walking the beach is a lot harder when you’re barefoot because you really have to watch where you’re going. It’s no fun at all to land on a beached sea slug or jellyfish, and it’s also no fun to land on some kind of spikey shell. So I spent a lot of time gazing at the ground.

Because I was so focused on each step, I noticed much more beach flotsam than I usually do. First, of course, were all the shells. Shells and pieces of shell litter the beaches in Kino. There was also quite a bit of glass and I scored three pieces – green, clear, and blue.

The sound of the shells was beautiful. Tide was low, and the water slid gently onto the beach and back. With the water’s movement, small shells came and went, clinkking against other shells, tinkling like a fairy’s wind chime.

Of course there were a few slugs, and I was so glad I didn’t step on them! And dead fish, or to be more accurate, their spines and heads. Every dead fish that littered the beach had been picked clean by gulls and vultures. There is a mysterious beauty in the remains of a fish, so I stopped to photograph several, looking for the right angle, wishing the light were a little better.

One stretch of beach was littered with what seemed to be shredded plastic. It looked like plastic and it felt like plastic, but it looked as though it had been put through a paper shredder. Sometimes there were single strands, just a few inches long, but mostly there were large wads, the strands all wrapped up in one another with a little seaweed thrown in for color.

And the seaweed, of course. Some brown, some green, all fun to poke in just to see if there’s a hidden clam.

Then I hit the party area. Empty Coke bottles. Halves of limes squeezed dry. A few straws and plastic cups. From the looks of it, the party had been small, maybe an intimate rendezvous, two lovers with a bottle of rum and a few Cokes.

But there was one unusual thing. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was. And of course, when I did find out, I felt about as intelligent as a flat tire.

I found several of these: a wooden stick maybe eight inches long, and on one end of it was something the shape of a three-inch-long clam shell. The shelled part was fuzzy. Each one looked like it could be a tom tom of a drum set, but the things were too heavy and the stick was too short. I picked one up.

I wandered back from the beach to find two men heavily into their evening happy hour and kvetching session. The night’s topic was the pinche medical establishment (last night it was the pinche environmentalists). One was complaining about how those irrational dermatologists want us to protect ourselves from the sun. I wandered into the foray and plopped myself down on an empty chair.

“Either of you know what this is?”

“Don’t want to burst your bubble, Emilie, but it’s a snack. Actually, the remains of a snack. They sell them on the pier – mangoes on a stick.”

A “duh!” moment. Of course. The clamshell appearance was the mango pit. On a stick.

I sat a few moments more, until the conversation drifted back to the pinche medical establishment, then took my leave.

The mango-pit-on-a-stick is planted in my garden. Think it will transform itself into a mango tree?

The Sea

The sea. Calm, turquoise, sunlight bouncing off small waves that roll in. The sea. Angry, gray, waves beaching shells, small fish, plastic.

The sea at Bahía de Kino is a study in contrast, from day to night, tranquil to irate, glistening to gloomy. Each day seems to begin the same – soft dawn and a quiet sea. But then, anything can happen.

The occasional storm rolls in. Once a storm came across from the Baja. Dark terrifying clouds built, forming a monstrous wall, and moved steadily across the water. It was so terrorizing that locals fled.

In the fall of 2009, Hurricane Jimena hit San Carlos, less than one hundred miles to the south of Kino. Although the sea rose here, pouring over the seawalls, not a drop of water fell. In the aftermath, the beach was covered with a ten foot swath of shells, nearly a foot deep in some areas. As I walked the beach, I poked around to find shellfish that were still living and tossed them back into the water. From the other direction came a woman and her three young children. They were poking around and gathering the living shellfish.

The family was delighted that they were going to have a good dinner that night.  I, on the other hand, was enchanted, knowing I’d spend days doing the best shelling one can imagine.

Kino’s wind usually comes from the water. Humidity levels stay low, comfortable. Then overnight the humidity can rise so high that in the morning everything is damp, even wet. I rinse the salty dew from my car. But winds can come from the east, from the desert, dropping the humidity to single digits. Then temperatures soar until the wind shifts again, bringing the cooling ocean breezes.

Although dawn is generally clear and crisp, once I awoke to heavy fog. I couldn’t see a quarter mile down the beach, and even the streetlight-type lighting system here had its lights haloed in fog. I stood on the beach watching it change. Pieces of the pier surfaced; parts of houses came into view. The little island about a mile from shore, Isla Alcatraz, slowly emerged.

Every day in Bahía de Kino is the same: beautiful. Every day in Bahía de Kino is different. The sea controls it all, throwing beauty in my face, lulling me with sameness, shocking me with a singular moment.

Walking Kino

Bahía de Kino – Viejo. Took a long walk through Viejo today and only touched one small part of it. This town has fewer than 16,000 residents, and some of them live in Nuevo. Viejo is the original part, almost undeveloped to “first world” standards. And that is why I love it so.

The town is full of cement block buildings, a few old ramshackle stick-built ones, and an entire barrio of tarpaper shacks. Most of those shacks lie on undeveloped property, and if the shack owner installs water and lives there a certain amount of time, she or he can claim title to the land. Then the owner will often begin to build a real house.

Construction moves slowly, though. First, of course, there’s the problem of paying for construction. This is true everywhere but especially so in these incredibly poor neighborhoods. There’s another reason for slow construction: taxes. To my understanding, the property owner doesn’t have to pay taxes on a house or other building until it is completed. Completed, then, becomes a very vague term.

Many houses have a room with a missing wall. Or, it may have the walls but one room with no roof. Or there could be pillars towering above the structure indicating a second floor is coming. Of course, there may be no stairway to that one-day second floor, but the pillars tell the tax man to back off.

Because of lack of cash and tax laws, Kino Viejo is filled with unfinished houses. Many of the unfinished ones are fenced and have lovely gardens. And every one of them has a dog.

Dogs are ubiquitous in Mexico, but because I spend so much time here in Kino, this seems to be the dog capital of Mexico. Dogs in the gardens. Dogs wandering the street. Dogs sleeping under a car. Dogs roaming the beach. Dogs, dogs, dogs.

Most of the confined dogs will sit up and take notice when you walk by. Some will bark. But almost every one of those dozing on the streets take no notice of humans. Occasionally a dog will approach, but it’s rare.

Many Kino dogs are street dogs or beach dogs. They have no real home and depend on trash cans, beached fish, or the occasional softie gringo to help him out. Many are ill. They carry that lean and hungry look.

But walking the streets this morning was a delight. Everyone I passed tossed out a “buenos días” or an “hola” to me. Women in gardens looked up from their watering to wish me a good day. Men nodded and spoke, children laughed and waved.

I made a quick stop at the farmácia, stopped in the tattoo parlor to see if José was in town, and lingered over an iced coffee and chat with Edgar at the only gringo-oriented place in all of Viejo, La Hacienda, a motel and restaurant. On the way back I ran into Manny, one of the groundskeepers here. “Hola Emilie!” he shouted. “¿Cómo estás?” I gave him a hug though he was hot and sweaty. Kino Viejo is that kind of place.

New Toes and Geraldine

After a long day in Sierra Vista, I headed to the little place in the mall where I like to go for a pedicure. Amazingly, late on a Saturday afternoon, there was an empty chair, waiting just for me.

I chose my nail color and climbed into the massage chair, settling in with the rollers against my spine. A young Vietnamese man sat on the stool in front of me, giving me a shy smile. His name was Danh,  and his English was minimal, broken, and heavily accented. I handed him the green glittery polish I’d chosen.

I leaned against the chair, its rollers moving down and up my back, then squeezing and pulsing down and up my spine as my feet soaked in hot swirling water. Closed my eyes. Heaven.

Danh took my right foot out of the water and began diligently trimming my toenails. Then my left.

I opened my eyes and saw the big screen TV on the wall in front of me, sound off. It was tuned to Fox news, with the announcer’s words running across the bottom of the screen. I groaned inwardly.

Danh worked on my cuticles.

Images flashed across the TV screen. Hostages being released. Libyan rebels retaking towns. Tornadoes dashing across Georgia and Mississippi. Republican considering a presidential candidacy. Michele Bachman! Haley Barbour! Sarah Palin! I closed my eyes.

Danh filed my callused heels.

A few minutes later I opened my eyes again to see a photo of Geraldine Ferraro on the screen. I froze. The words sliding across the screen told me she’d died. Tears began to stream down my cheeks.

Danh exfoliated my legs with lavender scented sugar scrub.

1984. I was thirty-eight. Walter Mondale announced that his running mate would be Geraldine Ferraro. I watched it happen, live, on TV, weeping. “Finally!” I screamed into the desert surrounding my Tucson house. “Finally! Women are human beings! Anything can happen now!”

Danh massaged lotion into my legs and feet.

1986. I had moved to Kansas City. Geraldine Ferraro was coming to town, and I had a ticket to see and hear this woman who had smashed through a major glass ceiling.

I hopped into my pickup truck and headed to the hotel where she was speaking. I was caught in a traffic jam as I moved toward the nearby parking garage, and the sidewalks in front of the hotel were filled with protesters. Some spilled onto the street. Because it was a warm evening, I had my the driver’s side window down. One of the protesters, a woman dressed in black with her face painted stark white, stuck her head in the window and began screaming at me about Geraldine being a baby killer and a pawn of the devil for her pro-choice stance.

I told the woman to remove her head, but she only screamed louder. Slowly, I began to roll up my window. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“Try me,” I said, hoping she would, but she pulled her head out just before the window would have trapped it.

After parking, I went into the hotel, walked through the lobby and was about to enter the ballroom where Geraldine would speak. Walking down the hallway toward me was the Woman Herself. It was just to the two of us. She smiled warmly, thanking me for coming and reaching out to shake my hand.

“No,” I said. “Thank you. You have opened the way for us all.”

She gave me her wide grin and walked into the ballroom.

The massage chair shut off. I opened my eyes, punched the On button, and wiped my tears. Fox news was doing a story about what great pals Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin were, sharing stories and common political stands.

Danh applied the sealer coat to my newly glitzed toes.