no matter where you go, there you are

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

goin' down the bayou, takin' ya all the way

New Orleans was one of the few places neither Molly nor I had been. For my American travels, the southeast was always one of the places I'd never really been to except for Florida so when plotting details out, I made sure we both got to experience the South. We left in the morning from our hotel at the Harrah's in Mississippi, went to Dunkies in the casino and headed down to New Orleans. Because we were on the western edge of the state and the interstate runs down the middle, it wasn't any faster for us to take the interstate versus state highways; and as we learned at the beginning of the trip, state highways were preferable.

We entered New Orleans from the West on I-10 and even spending time on the sliver of highway that is made up of concrete columns over the bayou showed us we were somewhere we'd never been before. We checked into our hotel, chose a place to dine in the French Quarter, got a little lost getting there but soon parked and began our stroll down Bourbon St. Now, I'm not a party girl by any means so the appeal of Bourbon St. doesn't attract me in any way but I see why people love it so much. Sure it was Friday, but the bars were hopping and tons of people were strolling the streets with their beverages. It was crazy thinking this wasn't for an event, just a typical Friday night. The restaurant was nice and I ventured out of my comfort zone to try "local cuisine" of fried catfish, shrimp and oysters. The oysters were the most disgusting thing ever, but the rest wasn't bad. Molly had jambalaya which she really enjoyed.

We spent the rest of the night in watching the start of Harry Potter weekend and planning our adventures for the next day. Although I really wanted to see the bayou and go on a swamp tour, we didn't have enough time as it takes a half or full day commitment and prior reservations. Neither of us knew much about what N'Orleans had to offer so we took the pamphlets from the hotel up to our room and devised a plan. There are multiple plantations around the city open for tours and so we chose to visit Destrehan Plantation since it was on the inexpensive side and wasn't that long a drive from the city. It was really neat and Molly and I both really enjoyed the tour. We got to see the rooms, furniture, and even got a little seminar on tools used back in the 19th century. I found the mini lecture to be fascinating because certain tools were almost exactly the same as today in how they work but are a little more jazzed up.

The plantation was large and still maintained a lot of the original land. They had slave cabins, kitchen outbuildings, a really heavy marble bathtub, elaborate furniture and even the guides were dressed in period outfits. Loved it all. The huge oak trees littering the yard were also fascinating additions to the plantation. Really made us feel like we were nowhere near home in culture and history. It also gave me a bit of perspective because I knew of southern plantations with slaves etc but for some reason never thought it went as far as Lousiana. I just assumed Louisiana was separated and not a state or something...I really have no idea why I thought it but I did.
"front" view side from street, but it was really the backdoor
kitchen outbuilding
interior of kitchen
slave cabin

After the plantation we headed back into the city, and back again to the French Quarter because let's face it, we were tourists and that's where tourists go. We got beignets at Cafe Beignet and they were tasty as can be. We walked down the streets towards St. Louis' Cathedral and took a look inside. It was sort of strange how it was the only church we went to on our whole trip while I went to dozens in Europe. Just showed me how the appeals of America are quite different than that of Europe. Though I wasn't enthralled with the interior of St. Louis I really liked the exterior, especially when juxtaposed to the surrounding architecture and plant life. Fun fact: though called the French Quarter, the style of architecture that defines its appearance is actually Spanish. Fun Observation: Bourbon St. is dead, and a completely different entity during daylight hours. We overlooked the Mississipi, the largest river in the US which by this point we'd crossed 3 times so far, and watched a saxophonist play in the scorching heat. Which led us to return to our car and make the rest of our N'Orleans tour a driving/air conditioned one.
cafe beignet
bourbon st. during the day

We drove through the Garden District Area which is west of the French Quarter and contains a vast variety of homes. Large or small, gorgeous or ugly, expensive or cheap...the garden district had it all. And it had that old city charm that I love where no neighboring homes looked the same because it wasn't built as a development. Gorgeous. Finally, we drove through the Ninth Ward, still suffering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina which hit 5 years before. There's been some definite rebuilding of the area but you can still see the effects the hurricane had on this city.

For the evening, we got take-out from the hotel restaurant and watched Harry Potter. Molly had wanted to go on a ghost tour but I didn't really want to spend the money on something that wasn't taking us anywhere private. Just public places while telling old folklore. She understood, and thought it was pretty lame so we spent the night in. Our time had been well spent and we were ready for the long trek the Orlando the next day and by watching Harry Potter weekend we were preparing ourselves to spend the next few days with him.

Monday, July 11, 2011

the "eat fast food and sit in a car for 8 hours diet"

Food is an important part of any trip. While I was traveling Europe I took the cheap route of buying bread, cheese and other small items at mini-marts and rarely eating at actual restaurants in order to save money. Trekking cross country was a little different because Molly and I didn't want to live off of picnic food everyday, and certain items we'd need to keep cold would cost us money from purchasing ice at least once a day. Camping was a little different and we bought specific dry meals or something like hot dogs that would keep fairly well and were also easy to make. We tried Mac&Cheese but with no milk or butter, it was pretty terrible. Therefore, the majority of the time we were eating at one of two places: a local cuisine restaurant/cafe, or a fast food joint.

Local Eateries

Besides fast food, which I will talk about below because we ate a wide variety of it, Molly and I did our best to eat the local cuisine of whichever place we were traveling through or visiting. We ate fried green tomatoes and fried catfish (Yum!) at a great restaurant in Mississippi. I had fried oysters (Blech!) as part of a a seafood platter in New Orleans. And our most memorable of experiences was the cafe we had lunch in as we traversed across Nebraska. Driving from Omaha, NE to the Badlands National Park, the interstate heads north along the borders of Iowa and Nebraska before heading West on I-90 across South Dakota. Interstates are constantly high speed limits however you don't see much of the places your driving through and there are sooooooooo many trucks. After taking state highways through Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska during our super long "Little House on the Prairie Day" we decided to take them as much as possible in the future. Though slower at points when you drive through towns, the speed limits are that of the interstates for much of the time. It was a great decision and we really got to see much more of the Midwest than if we'd chosen the Interstate. 

The little towns you pass through along State Highway 275 are really really little. Some have only 3-5 streets off the main road and not every place has a gas station. In one of these teeny little towns we found a teeny cafe. We walk in and every single person in the restaurant turns and stares at us. We quietly mumble "2..." and the owner/sole waitress lets us know we can sit anywhere. Its carpeted and the tables are all different sizes; they look like ones set up for bingo night at a community center. It was a surreal experience. All the patrons knew each other and were wondering where other regulars were. It was so crazy. The perk of small places, especially in lower income areas, is that everything is really cheap but still really good. And it was. Although we we went to a few other smaller restaurants/cafes in other states, nothing was as teeny and crazy as that cafe in Nebraska.

Fast Food Heaven
Here in Massachusetts we have fast food joints but they're all the standard ones: McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Wendy's. We don't have Arby's, Popeyes, Braums, Sonic as we headed west, and explored so many new places, we explored all these new options for food. Sonic was the top choice with its wider menu range including mozzarella sticks and slushies and you don't have to get out of the car. Although we were already living in the car quite a bit, getting out for take-out fast food wasn't worth it. We ended up at Sonic whenever we could and some locations were in the middle of nowhere. Molly had Popeyes at one stop which was new to her and she enjoyed it. And after constantly protesting Arby's because, according to Molly, they "took over Dunkin Donuts" we ate their chicken and curly fries. Molly quickly regretted not going there sooner.

Sonic may have been a favorite of mine, but Braum's was the most spectacular of places. A small chain only located in the states of Missouri, Kansas Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, it's technically an "ice cream and dairy store" but really it is a whole lot more. The stores are the same size of a standard McDonalds or Burger King but instead of just the food counter and seats, there's a huge ice cream freezer and a corner of the store is a mini-grocery store. Not a mini-mart but a mini-grocery store, with produce and everything. A small selection of items of course, but pretty cool nonetheless. I got chicken fingers, fries and a good size ice cream for $4...that's just amazing. And it was really good. I kinda wish we'd stopped here earlier in the trip when we passed signs in Missouri and Kansas but the logo is an ice cream cone so I didn't know it had real food. We eventually ended up at one in Oklahoma.

What was nice about the fast food was that it was a) fast, and we weren't delayed terribly because of meals and b) cheap, which was always important on a budget. Yes it's not the healthiest food in the world but we were exercising quite a bit in the National Parks so I think it balanced out. We were also never eating large quantities of said meals. I actually ended up losing a little weight over the course of the 5 weeks and jokingly thanked the "eat fast food and sit in a car for 8 hours" diet when we returned home.