Friday, February 12, 2010

LAISSEZ LES BONS TEMPS ROULER!: Reflections of a First-Time Visitor to New Orleans

Bourbon Street coming to life at dusk

The Mardi Gras parades starting one week early

The St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square

The “Good Times” and “New Orleans” are two concepts that seem to dovetail neatly with each other. This much, I saw first hand, in my first trip to “the Big Easy” early this month, less than 5 years after a double tragedy put the proud and fun-loving city to its knees. Hurricane Katrina, followed a month after by hurricane Rita exposed the soft under belly of America. More than 1,500 people perished, and thousands and thousands more lost all they had.

I really had no reason to be anywhere near the city where French, Spanish, English, Italian, Cuban, German, and American cultures are all rolled into one. The famous “French Quarter” was not always French all the way, for starters. The Calle Real, what is now known as Royal street, still bears the Spanish street sign. But Bourbon Street, though, spelled in French, really had to do with the Spanish Borbon dynasty of yore.

But I think that nowhere else is this happy mélange of cultures seen as in the food that the locals seem to be very proud of … fusion cuisine invented even before the term came to be known the world over! A seafood mecca, the city loves oysters, on the half shell, grilled or fried in a motley manner to become succulent gustatory delights. It was my first time to see and taste “po-boy” sandwiches filled with shrimps or other seafood, battered and deep fried, always with a touch of hot chili and spices that literally give a bite to whatever one bites into and sinks one’s teeth into. The “gumbo” – steaming hot and often spicy hot stew seemed to me the perfect accompaniment to oil-spattered deep fried sandwich fillings that would make the heart skip a beat in these TFA (trans-fatty acids) scare days and times.

But I was there for a few days … an unplanned trip that coincided with a conference on leadership organized by the National Catholic Educational Association. Since this has to do with precisely what I am trying to steer the school I work in to, I had to decide quickly early last month to go.

And I must say I have no regrets about spending a few days there. The first day, though, was a dampener. It was raining cats and dogs – the very same rain brought about by a developing storm that became the headache and the problem upper north, in the mid-Atlantic states, that dumped inches and inches of snow from Washington, DC, Virginia, to Maryland, to Pennsylvania, to New York.

Groggy and disoriented from a more than 24 hour trip from the tropics, I came to New Orlean’s sub-tropical climate that boasted of rains that I am most familiar with. The temperature ranged from a comfortable low to high 50s, but the downpour brought flooding that wet my feet as we wended our way to Mass with the Archbishop Gregory Aymond, a New Orleans native, recently transferred from Austin, Texas (in the same Cathedral where just two years ago, I attended and took part in a wedding Mass of a nephew).

I came at a time when feverish preparations are under way for the Mardi Gras celebrations, another well-known event associated with the “Big Easy.” Actually, I was told that it really started right after the Feast of the Epiphany. Although, I won’t be there next week when Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) actually takes place with all the pomposity and pageantry that only New Orleans can pull off, with the possible exception of Rio de Janeiro’s own Mardi Gras, I saw a preview of what was to come … small parades replete with costumes galore and goblets that overflowed with champagne and wine, carried by medieval attired characters that all had one message in common … Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll!

I am happy for New Orleans. As I watched with all the rest of America the Super Bowl games at Miami, Florida, with the New Orleans Saints slugging it out with the Indianapolis Colts, there was no doubt in my heart that I rooted for the underdogs – the Saints. But I knew deep in my heart, too, that I did not root for them because I did not like the Colts. I found out later that for a Filipino deeply rooted in Spanish influenced Catholic culture, there was simply a whole slew of reasons why I felt like rooting for the Saints.

They are a resilient people, to start with … like us Pinoys, who have seen more than our fair share of Katrinas and Ritas back home. We had a double whammy late last year – Ondoy and Pepeng – that literally inundated our best dreams and our mighty hopes to take our rightful place under the Asian sun of national respectability and honor.

New Orleans suffered a big blow from Katrina and Rita. Much of the city remains to be rehabilitated. Much of what they lost remains to be restored. But in the conference, I heard stories of magnanimity and far-ranging vision … like the story of Holy Cross School that was literally wiped out by the floods. They had to relocate, without sure resources forthcoming, without certain funds and unalloyed support from everyone. It was almost, then, a hopeless dream, an impossible undertaking. Today, less than five years after, the 95 million project that is the renewed Holy Cross School, is well on the way towards forging new heights, literally and figuratively. They have risen, not from the ashes like the Phoenix, but risen above the doldrums of hopelessness, indifference, and inertia.

As I listened to the stories of those who made it happen, my thoughts got back to home base, back in tropical Philippines, where dreams and hopes lie battered and bruised by a dysfunctional political system that breeds storms and stresses far worse than Katrina, Rita, Ondoy, and Pepeng – the curse of a corruption-ridden, patronage, and personage-based politics that is the bane and shame of a once-proud people, cultured in the fineries of religion and spirituality, who also know how to celebrate, with Sinulogs, Dinagyangs, Masskara, and all …

Who dat? Who dat say dey will beat dem saints? This was the mantra and chant that the whole city (and perhaps the whole state) would sing, shout, and proclaim in the run-up to the Super Bowl. Their dream since Katrina and Rita brought them to their knees paid off. It became a reality last Sunday in Miami, Florida. Their hopes fondled with care and a lot of hard work since 2006 were fulfilled. They won. And how!

Boy, was I glad to be part of the excitement! And was I glad to be part of the exhilaration after the victory! To savor it all, I tried the famous gumbo and the red beans and rice (spicy like most everything). I tasted the much-vaunted beignets at Café du Monde, over at Decatur St. – at the French market. The café au lait might not have been that good as claimed (for a self-styled coffee connoisseur that I claim myself to be!); the chicory flavor might actually have ruined the coffee for me who simply wants the taste of coffee plain and simple – and – unadulterated; the beignets might not have been nothing more than just donuts minus the hole, but they sure came with a generous dose of confectioner’s sugar, and served with a lot of panache and hometown pride. And that made all the difference!

Again, as I slowly savored the beignets and sipped my chicory flavored coffee, and as I watched the steady flow of crowds who all wanted to get generous helpings of beignets smothered with snowy and sugary delight, my thoughts raced back to home base faster than the white powder could raise my blood sugar levels, and I thought that what we needed, apart from believing in ourselves as a people for us to get out of the doldrums of underdevelopment, is to have simple, honest, and well-deserved sense of pride in what we have, what we can do, and what we are best at doing, as a people.

One of them happens to be similar to what people at the Big Easy seem to be experts at … partying for a good cause! They sure know how to party…. Yes! But they sure know too, how to work so as to deserve a party.

Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll!