|We awake early at the New Orleans’ KOA. Luckily, we are dry inside the tent but after the heavy thunderstorms overnight, everything else is wet and covered in splashed up mud. We have both slept poorly due to the trains that went by near our campground every hour, with their warning calls rousing us out of the slumber we had just fallen into after being shocked awake again and again with the cracking of thunder, seemingly right overhead.
We debated our options. The day’s weather forecast called for additional rain and thunderstorms. Downtown New Orleans was certain to be quite damp and we had been hoping to spend most of the day enjoying a couple of walking tours. Hmmm…after discussion, we decide to pack up our sodden tent and head for our next destination – Lafayette – where we will spend two nights instead of the one we have planned. We book a KOA Kamping Kabin for the additional night and are own our way.
So far, Louisiana has proved the most difficult state to drive in. Either our maps are not as accurate as they should be OR the signs the state has erected are not as helpful. Also, drivers are reputed to be quite poor here and this becomes evident on the roads. Erratic moves, NO signalling and just plain bad driving makes us extra alert. We struggle to make our way safely to our first stop of the day, without additional detours.
Eventually we arrive at our intended destination - the LAURA plantation. We join a tour and for one hour enter the fascinating world of a Creole family who lived and worked on this large plantation for over 200 years. This site has 12 buildings on the National Register here, including most of the main plantation home, painted the bright, original Creole colours (which they were forced to paint white when they were compelled to join America). There are also four remaining slave cabins, surrounded by fields of sugarcane, vegetable and fruit gardens (all still farmed today).
These reminders of slavery are always sobering when experienced. We are shocked to find out that a good quality slave would have cost their ‘owners’ the equivalent of $100 000 US dollars today. We would not even be able to afford the cheapest female ‘lunatic’ slave for $10 000 although Lynda aptly decides the diagnosis probably just meant feisty. We learn that the French slave codes were more humane than the British as they did NOT allow for families to be broken up. It is unimaginable to think of even being property of someone else, let alone having your children sold and never seeing them again. How anyone ever thought this was OK is quite astounding to us. We also learn that in LA, West African folktales of Campair Lapin, known in English as the legendary “Br’er Rabbit” were recorded. There is just so much that we do not know about history.
One of the reasons we chose this particular plantation tour out of many, besides the fact that it comes highly recommended, is that this plantation was primarily operated, quite successfully, by the women, for multiple generations. Mostly out of circumstance absence of the men) but also out of choice, with a mother deciding that out of her three children, her daughter had the most shrewd business sense and willing her the role. We are quite impressed to learn about these ladies who evidently were quite intelligent, savvy and they enjoyed great longevity. Luckily, the last woman who lived and operated the plantation – LAURA – wrote her memoirs for her children and also, luckily, many of the original papers, including blueprints for the original home, were on file in France, where the family often traveled.
After this tour, we drive just a few minutes down the road to see another plantation – OAK ALLEY – so named because of its very impressive driveway, lined with century old live OAK trees. It surpasses the pictures in beauty and we snap a few shots. If only the person who originally planted these trees could travel forward in time to see how awestruck we are to see them in all their glory now. Thank goodness the hurricanes have not torn these majestic creatures from their homes.
We continue to take the scenic route to Lafayette. Labeled the Cajun Coastal Trail, the road follows a section of the 19th century Spanish Frontier trail and trading route. We enjoy the low, flat land of the bayous, moss-draped live oaks, sugarcane fields with their green shoots just coming up, the old plantation manors, historic Main Street USA towns and the country roads. This area also sustains a burgeoning oil industry.
Like everywhere, there is evidence of great poverty (homes that look like they should long ago have been abandoned and wretched looking trailers). Then, around the next curve is clearly a subdivision where homes cost in the hundreds of thousands. We wonder, ‘Do the children attend the same school?’
Eventually, after passing through towns of Gibson, Morgan City, Centreville, Franklin, Jeanerette and New Iberia…we arrive in Lafayette. This city is a colourful hub of Cajun culture and we find a radio station that we laughingly enjoy, with the DJs speaking a unique combination of ‘Frenglish’ and with music that certainly is unlike most we listen to elsewhere. Having visited the Acadian region of our country before, we are quite fascinated to arrive in the place where many Acadians ended up, after being forced to leave Nova Scotia centuries ago, simply because they would not give up their culture when the British took over. Good for them, we think. A Cajun is defined as a person of French Canadian descent born or living along the bayous, marshes, and prairies of southern Louisiana. The word Cajun began in 18th Century Acadie (now Nova Scotia) when the Acadians began to arrive. The French of noble ancestry would say, "les Acadiens”, which some referred to the Acadians as “le ’Cadiens”, dropping the “A”. Later came the Americans who supposedly could not get their tongues around either so the word ‘Cajun’ was born. The evolution of language is certainly interesting. Ici on parle francais.
We dry out our belongings at the KOA while setting up our newest home in the Kabin (double bed, bunk bed, chair and table for $55.00 a night). It comes with electricity and for us, a lovely view from our porch of a man-made lake with some friendly ducks.
The next morning, we are not happy to wake to the alarm. It was another so-so sleep (the Interstate is right next door to the KOA – they never mention these details in their write-ups) and it is certainly the highway that never sleeps with truck after truck hauling stuff back and forth this huge country. We wake up with caffeine and head off to the Visitor Centre for our booked ‘Atchafalaya Swamp Tour’.
We meet our tour leaders – Coerte (pronounced Kurt) and Kim, (an 82/58 year old father & son team who look and act years younger than their age). Talk about living up to the stereotype of crazy southerners – we are not only impressed with the Swamp Tour itself but are highly entertained by their stories. One of the first they share is that another tour operator, a convicted felon, once loosened their lug nuts and almost killed them. This is going to be fun!!?? Along with a pair from Minnesota , a family from northern Louisiana and a young couple from the area (the man in the marines, struggling after two terms in Iraq and one in Afghanistan), we board the two custom made Swamp Tour boats and are on our way to explore.
Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp is North America’s largest river swamp and ranks among the top ten wilderness areas in the US. One might wonder what the beauty of a swamp tour would be but it is breathtakingly so. The vistas are of a pristine cypress and mixed woods swamp. We see so many birds we almost don’t believe it (but our new friends from Minneapolis are birders so we learn a lot). Eagles and osprey, including babies in nests, owls, egrets, herons, tree ducks…the list goes on and on. We don’t end up seeing any large ‘gators but we do get to pick up and hold baby ones which was a pretty cool experience. We learn about a new animal we have never seen – a Nutria from South America (rodent). We learn about the fishing of crawfish which can earn up to $4000 per day in a good season.
We hear crazy story after crazy story from Coerte – how he shot the head off the lead duck in a flock and impressed the natives in Panama where he was working as a Geologist, how in the same country he was chased up a tree by wild pigs, how he picked up a poisonous snake on one of his tours and all the tourists almost jumped out of the boat INTO the swamp and how he found a little dog in the swamp, fallen off some boat presumably and named him Little Fart in French. In Grade 6, he and his friends put 200 crickets in one of his teacher’s houses (and he liked her) and how he got expelled in his senior year (surprisingly he made it this far) by driving a car into and around the school. He tells us local Cajun jokes about Thibodeax and Boudreau (similar to our Newfie jokes). This guy should certainly write a book. He is hilarious and quite a character. We suspect we are only witnessing about 10% of what he could really be like. We are starting to suspect that to live here you have to be a little ‘on the edge’.
Our town ends up being 4 hours long and we enjoy every minute of it. They take us to Kim’s duck blind – a boat covered in Spanish Moss (we, like the ducks, barely see it until they tell us it is there) that has been converted into a little cabin. The young lads on the tour seemingly want to say here overnight because it is so cool. We would love to come back another time and see it in the early morning or late evening. It has a special beauty that is quite magical and spiritual. It would be amazing to just sit in one spot and watch for hours on end. However, we would not want to be lost without a guide or a map as this place is HUGE and filled with endless little byways that go every which way. Not to mention the ‘gators and poisonous snakes.
Following the tour, we make our way to a local town – Breaux Bridge - to enjoy a delicious late lunch at the recommended Café des Amis. Crawfish etouffle with cornbread, gumbo, fried green tomatoes and fresh pasta and bread that melted in our mouth. Cajun food has proved pretty delicious and we are going to have to learn how to cook some of the recipes. We purchase some of the ‘Slap Your Mama’ (on her back to say thank you for the good food) seasoning so we can get started on this trip.
After lunch, we stroll around the town, visiting the antique shops filled with all sorts of curios. Before heading back to the KOA, we pick up food supplies at the Grocery Chain ‘Piggley Wiggley’ so that we can cook food at our next destination – the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.