Look at any of my travel journals, and you’ll find endless lists; lists of things to do, attractions to see, sites to visit, foods to eat, restaurants to try, local wares to buy. But the most important part of my planning process, is understanding the culture and people of the land I’m setting out to visit. Reading books, watching movies, finding documentaries, doing some research online, all serve to help me understand the context for everything I’m about to experience.
- A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
- The World That Made New Orleans, by Ned Sublette
- Unfathomable City, by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
- Nine Lives, by Dan Baum
- Gumbo Tales, by Sara Roahen
The first book I picked up for the New Orleans portion of the trip was A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Set in the 1960s, the novel tells the story of a young man who lives with his mother, and how he finds himself forced to take a job to help pay the bills. I don’t really know how to describe it, it’s full of intellectual ramblings and colourful characters, but none really evoked my sympathy and despite it being a classic, I had to force myself to finish it. It does come highly recommended, so perhaps give it a chance and make up your own mind about it.
I then picked up The World that Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette, which was the most enjoyable history book I’ve ever read. Rather than give a start to finish account of New Orleans history on its own, he brings together events taking place around the world at the same time, creating a complete picture of New Orleans came to be. By considering the history of the slave trade, the food and music brought by slaves to the New World, and combining these elements with the politics and culture of the colonists and outcasts from European nations, a comprehensive picture can be drawn. A melding of cultures, flavours, sounds and smells seems to be awaiting all those who visit this unique city, and I cannot wait to see how the influences of Africa and France, along with a myriad of others have combined to create the Big Easy.
I love maps. There’s something about unfolding an atlas, and watching a world unfurl at your fingertips. Little streets whose names have origins that are often long forgotten, rivers snaking through cities interrupting the perfect flow of the planners, green squares providing a respite from the man made jungles, all coming together in a view not often accessible to the average person. With the rise of google maps, it’s getting more and more difficult to pick up city maps at hotel concierges, but as soon as I’ve landed in a new city, that’s the first thing I look for. I then put my phone away and rely on old school navigating, getting lost and bumping into poles, but creating the sort of adventure and stories that stay with me for years to come.
Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker compiled Unfathomable City, a book that satisfies this fascination of mine, by bringing together maps and essays about different facets of New Orleans. While I appreciate the convenience of ebooks, this is one book that needs to be held in your hands to be appreciated. It looks into topics that the average tourist doesn’t think about, but after reading the stories and perusing the maps, I realised that they are all crucial parts that make up the diverse whole. I learnt about things such as oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the propagation of the banana trade across the Caribbean, the significance of second line parades to the masses, amongst a host of others.
While the previous two books painted a picture of the city as a whole, Nine Lives by Dan Baum helped to break it down to a more personal level. By following the lives of average citizens, it immersed me into life in New Orleans more than any other. A non-fictional account of the days following Hurricane Katrina, it highlighted the daily challenges and fierce loyalty of the Nola communities to their doomed city.
Excellently written and intricately detailed, it evokes an extreme surge of empathy for the challenges faced by these subjects. He talks about a jazz king, bringing the pride and colour of mardi gras and second line parades to life, along with the trials involved in convincing young men to choose a less violent path. He talks about a bar owner creating a safe space for people to frequent, a police officer struggling to do the right thing, a politician searching for a better path. He brings up issues of race, class, geography, community, adversity, and resilience flawlessly, showing both the best and worst sides of humanity against the backdrop of a disaster. A lovely novel and I would highly recommend it.
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in local cultures, is to experience their cuisine. In a city like New Orleans, the specialties all stem from a mash-up of the cultures that created it. Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen does a marvellous job at decoding food that the city is famous for. From decadent gumbo to powdery beignets, stuffed po-boys to uniquely flavoured sno-balls, delicate crawfish to specialist coffees, the roots of the city are slowly uncovered, dish by delectable dish. An interesting account that will leave your mouth watering, and that has already helped me to compile my ‘food list’ for my visit!