Sunday, March 30, 2008

remembering New Orleans

(warning: very long read & photo overload)

i feel like going down the memory lane and reminisce my first taste of America. in a few weeks time, i will be traveling again to the land of milk and honey, so i thought before my old story gets completely spoiled, i better share with you what i’ve done in ‘The Big Easy’ while i was on my first business trip.

home of jazz music

i went to New Orleans, Louisiana late April of last year - during one of the biggest insurance conferences in the world. i was sent as a delegate for our company’s exhibition, along with other colleagues from the Marketing, Risk Management & Business Development Departments. i remember how we braced ourselves for the trip: the flight from Dubai was about 17 hours, plus connecting times, so by the time we landed in Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, we were totally exhausted!

i wasn’t particularly happy with our connecting experience in Washington D.C. we almost missed our flight to New Orleans because the queue was too long! it was our first port of entry so we had to struggle to get to the immigration desk, get our luggage from the conveyor belt, bring it to another security check, and then queue again to get to our boarding gate. i personally didn’t mind the security thing. but the time pressure – sheesh! my director and i scrammed to find our gate, and reached there 5 minutes before they closed. we made a mental note to make sure that the next time we travel to the U.S., we have to have at least 3 hours connecting time. it was too darn stressful!

by the time we arrived in New Orleans, it was already dark. we took a shuttle bus to drop us off to our hotel, which is the Crowne Plaza in Canal Street. i didn’t realize that the hotel we were staying at was located in a prime location – not only because it’s in the major road of New Orleans, but also because it’s in the corner of Bourbon Street. now, Bourbon Street was one of the most popular streets in the U.S. if you’ve heard about their famous mardi gras, then this is the street where all of the ‘fun’ takes place - the world-famous red light district that tourists and locals alike visit eagerly. ok, let me rephrase that – adult tourists and locals alike.

when i finally checked in and got to my hotel room, i was already famished. i quickly secured my important belongings in the safe, and then rushed out to find some food. thanks to the next door neighbor Mc Donalds, i was stocked up in no time. my next stop was at an electronics shop to buy a local sim card, and then afterwards hopped to a grocery store just across the road. i bought myself some chips, candies, and 2 liters of bottled water, which were surprisingly more expensive than sodas. i also decided to grab a few trinkets as souvenirs, as i thought i won’t be able to do some shopping in the next coming days as i would be extremely busy at the conference. besides, i knew there’ll be not much time for me to explore some shops there because by the time the conference finishes, the stores would then be closed for the day.

after buying my necessities, i went straight to the hotel to rest. i was a tad bit scared walking alone, despite seeing many people flocking towards the Bourbon Street (it was Saturday when we arrived). it was a culture shock for me to see drunk men walking past me with their beers in one hand and a smoke on another (ciggy or weed, i have no idea!). i only felt completely secure when i started seeing police patrolling the area (can’t blame me – New Orleans has the highest crime rate in the whole of America).

that same evening, i sms’d my high school bestfriend, Freya, who was based in Duluth, Georgia. she called me thereafter, and we had a chat for more than an hour. unfortunately, neither of us were free to meet up, so we made do with a lengthy conversation over the phone.

by midnight, i willed myself to sleep, with the telly switched on (ok, i am scared of staying alone in a hotel room, so please forgive me mother earth!). by 5:00 am, i was already awake so i watched MTV to pass the time. i was officially jet lagged.

when it was already bright enough to go outside, i met up with my colleague Kevin to see the conference venue, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which is situated right next to the Mississippi River. we were joined by Justin from TGP, our supplier for the booth materials and stands. i have to admit i was pretty bowled over by the enormity of the place – it was 1.1 million square feet exhibit space, and only for one level in one building! the ballrooms and the auditorium, plus meeting rooms in the second floor were excluded. in the middle of the ocular inspection, i could almost hear my feet complaining, even while wearing my Madrid Birkenstock pair.

by the time we finished, it was already time for lunch, so we went to this restaurant in Canal Street to try on some local cuisine. if you’re familiar with the song ‘Jambalaya’ of The Carpenters, then you’ll have an idea of what New Orleans cuisine is all about. my first local meal was a Po’boy, Louisiana’s traditional submarine sandwich. and what best partners a yummy sandwich on a hot day? a large strawberry daiquiri!

waiting for our daiquiris

when we were finished with our meal, we went our separate ways to prepare for the evening’s cocktail reception. my hotel was just a few blocks away so i decided to just walk since i see everyone doing the same. Nine West was almost in front of my hotel so i made a quick pit stop. after half an hour, i left the store with a new pair of pumps (remember the picture in this post?). i also passed by this shoe discount store where i managed to get 2 pairs of shoes - a black ballerina pair of flats & a cork-soled sandals, which totaled to $35. (first day pa lang, shopping na agad! hehe!)

the streetcar in Canal Street

in the evening, we attended the cocktail reception at the Hilton Riverside Hotel, and the theme was ‘James Bond’ night. when we entered the room, we felt like we were in a setting of the Casino Royale. there were some mock casino tables, and delegates were given chips to play. there was no betting involved – just plain fun all in the spirit of sticking to the theme, and it was a blast!

the following day was the official start of the show. the exhibition hall was packed with delegates teeming from all directions. it was well-attended, considering the fact that it was held in one of the 'provinces' of the U.S. we were actually quite pleased because the event took place in New Orleans. one of the conference's goals was to help boost New Orleans' tourism and find jobs for the Hurricane Katrina victims. anyway, the event went on like that for the next three days (read: B-U-S-Y!) i was just so happy i brought with me my ‘conference shoes’ – an inch & a half heeled mules with just about the right cushion. so even while i was standing up the whole time, my footsies barely had any discomfort.

the following days were mostly the same. but the unwinding part of each day started every 6:00 pm, where each global insurance company and broker would outdo one another by hosting various cocktail receptions and parties around town. we attended one at Mulate's, and at an exclusive quaint café in the French Quarter. but our most favorite was the Marsh’s reception done at New OrleansSteam Boat Natchez. it was there where we spent five hours mixing and mingling with the hosts and the guests. there was a dixie band that played inside the steamboat, and drinks were overflowing! they even had the drinks served in the traditional glasses they had, which gave the evening a more local touch. by 10:00 pm, a barge they had commissioned sailed down the Mississippi River for the fireworks. everyone inside the steamboat rushed to the East side to watch, i thought the boat would keel over! yikes!

at Mulate's

the Steamboat Natchez at the Mississippi River

the night before the last day of the conference, our group went our separate ways to shop a little. i went to Riverwalk with Martin to buy some items from GAP, and then headed to Wal-Mart for some other good old American merchandise. (that’s where i actually got our Scrabble Deluxe!) later in the evening, our group met up, and we treated ourselves to an evening at Bourbon Street to experience their kind of party. we went bar hopping – with me just ordering daiquiris most of the time. i was convinced to try rum and coke, but only once, and i didn’t bother to give the drink another shot.

in Bourbon Street, i noticed police cars stationed in every corner – with at least 4 policemen on guard. that made me feel safe despite being surrounded by a lot of intoxicated people on the road. in Bourbon Street, you can carry your drink wherever you wanna go – a long as your drink is in a plastic cup. as the bars were mostly open (as in you can see what’s happening inside from the outside – definitely not for conservative people!), loud music blasted from all directions. the bar that i appreciated seeing though was the jazz preservation bar in Bourbon Street, where they played authentic jazz music.

New Orleans, being known for the party life and ‘beads’ tradition during mardi gras, is also known for voodoo and fortune telling. funny enough, the night of my flight to New Orleans, we watched ‘The Skeleton Key’ on DVD starring Kate Hudson – and the setting was, where else, but in New Orleans, LA! imagine my fright! anyway, just for the experience, my colleagues and i went to try palm reading in the side walk and had each of our fortunes read. i’m not a believer of such thing, so i felt ripped off after paying $10 for a 5-minute session.

as a night capper, we went to the al-fresco Cafe du Monde and tasted their café au lait and French–style beignets, which they are best known for. this coffee shop located in the French Market at the French Quarter is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, and is always brimming with patrons. even after midnight, the place was still packed, making it difficult for us to find a table.

having our midnight snack, New Orleans style

the following day was easy for us all as it was the last day of the event, and the sessions were only till half of the day. i went to attend one of the sessions, which, by the way, was too technical for me. immediately afterwards, i did a little walk-about by myself and explored the French Quarter, the oldest and most famous neighborhood in New Orleans. thank heavens the place was minimally damaged by Hurricane Katrina, so most of the old buildings and establishments were still operational. on my way to the French Quarter, i made quick short pit stop at the Hard Rock Café where i bought some souvenirs for me and hubby. then, i went to the Jackson Square where the Saint Louis Cathedral was located.

souvenir shopping

at the Jackson Square

inside the church

after saying my prayers at the church, i worked my way towards St. Ann Street, where shops and galleries were lined up for tourists to visit. i kept walking towards the French Market where i heard bargains are regular. i also made a little visit to Aunt Sally's Original Creole Pralines Shop and grabbed some samples to bring home as pasalubong. at the French Market, i purchased a figurine of a jazz artist resting on a Bourbon Street sign, and a sketched artwork glued to a roof tile from an old building in Vieux Carre area (other name for French Quarter), dating back to 1700s.

French Quarter architecture at the background

checking out Aunt Sally's creole pralines

walking back towards Canal Street, i heard some music coming out from this small building, which turned out to be the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. i was cheerfully welcomed by the organizers, and was led to the row at the back, where an old, white haired pleasant couple, who i presumed were there for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, warmly smiled at me, as if to say ‘glad to have a younger generation come in this room to experience this beautiful music’. the old lady patted the chair next to her, and i obediently sat down to enjoy the music. in less than a minute, i was already enthused by the music. the band was playing Louis Armstrong classics, and they were really awesome (especially the lady drummer!). woohoo!

paying homage to Louis Armstrong

after the set, i politely said goodbye to the old couple, and then headed out to the food joint next to Café du Monde for a quick bite. i decided to sit outside and enjoy the weather. i forgot the name of the place, but if ever i go back to New Orleans again, i’ll make sure to come by again because they serve the best lemonade ever!

feeling recharged, i went to the levee and had a leisurely stroll by the Mississippi Riverbank. thereafter, i went to the indoor Audobon Aquarium of the Americas to see their aquatic animal collection. they have quite an impressive exhibit area where you could find sharks, penguins, sea otters, alligators, and sea horses. they even had a ‘petting zoo’ sort of thing, where you can touch a cownose ray, and feed some sting rays – which i expectedly didn’t do as i was too scared! (you should’ve seen how the kids were trying to coax me…how embarrassing!!)

aqua zoo visit

my last stop was at the Riverwalk’s spanish steps where i rested for a while before heading back to my hotel. by 5:00 pm, i joined my colleagues for a last minute shopping trip to The Canal Place, where i snagged a Coach Hobo Bag, with a matching key ring courtesy of hubby (thanks hon!).

we dropped off our stuff at our hotel, had dinner altogether in a lovely restaurant and then headed back to our hotel to retire. we were all dead beat to hit any of the bars! besides, we were alarmed by the news of a tornado heading towards our direction, so we thought it would be best to get to our respective rooms and monitor the weather through the local news.

when i got to my room, i switched on the TV and tuned in to the local news channel. and even as i flicked the remote to other channels, weather updates were being flashed on the screen, making me more nervous by the minute. i couldn’t sleep, and was feeling so worried. i phone hubby every night as i struggled sleeping alone in a room, but that evening, he could sense my anxiety.

by 12:00 noon the following day, i was ready to go home, but when we got to our boarding gate, our flight was announced delayed, which later on was declared cancelled. the winds were gusty, and it was raining cats and dogs they had to close runway and cancel all outbound flights. talk about unlucky! by then, i was already panicky. my other colleague who has a later flight in the afternoon called me sounding freaked out as the hotel lobby where we stayed at was flooded knee deep…and to think we were there 3 hours ago! ironic enough, she was the one who managed to fly out the same day as the run way was cleared by 4:00 pm.

United Air booked us in the Hilton Airport Hotel to stay overnight, and completely changed our itinerary. i dragged my stuff to my room which was facing the airport, and found myself slumped on the bed - wishing, hoping & praying at the same time that the weather would improve so we can go home the next day as scheduled. the hotel’s ambiance was gloomy in the evening, so me and my colleagues had a quiet dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and then called it a night.

as i was terrified of the weather, i barely had any sleep. i watched TV, checked emails and surfed the internet to entertain myself. i kept calling hubby who had to pacify me while i was thousands of miles away from him :(

the next day, the weather was much better so we finally flew out of New Orleans – each of us in one piece. wonderin’ where the tornado hit? it drastically went up North to Kansas City in Missouri .

i was delighted when i arrived back to sunny Dubai . i was sore and tired from the trip, but i was more than happy to be back. i missed my hubby, our home, and most especially the nice weather. it was a very memorable trip for me, and despite the scare, i did enjoy it immensely. i learned a lot of things, and i’m quite happy to have had the opportunity to be on that trip.

so, that wraps up my New Orleans story. sorry for this lengthy post – i went way beyond my planned RTP (reminiscing the past), but i hope you learned a thing or two about New Orleans, too.

cheers everyone, and have a wonderful week! :)

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