Louisiana's bayou: Hoodoo, Voodoo, Ghosts and Graves

Consumer Travel Magazine Feature winner

Aaron Millar’s feature, 'Hoodoo, Voodoo, Ghosts and Graves' in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, really brings Louisiana’s Bayou to life. With its beautifully-observed writing - and photos, taken by Aaron - it stands out as an example of how a travel feature should be: colourful and engaging but packed with useful information. Loaded with tips and suggestions of what you can do, this feature really captures the imagination and makes you want to visit, too. 

You can read an extract of Aaron’s brilliant feature below, and find more of his work on his website here – or keep up with his latest adventures on Twitter and Facebook


Louisiana: Hoodoo & voodoo, ghosts & graves

The ancestral home of Native American tribes; a sanctuary for French-speaking outcasts; and a former shelter for runaway slaves — Louisiana’s famous bayou is its lifeblood, alive with history and legend.
The bayous of Louisiana run slow and silent and hide their secrets deep. There’s a myth that these narrow, murky tributaries are filled with nothing but alligators and stagnation. But, as I float down the Manchac Swamp on the mossy outskirts of New Orleans, I realise that there are more dangerous reptiles to be found 30 miles away, drinking Hurricane cocktails on Bourbon Street.


This is Cajun country: blue herons skim the surface of the bayou, Spanish moss drips from cypress trees like a thick wet coat; I see old trappers’ cabins adorned with deer skulls, and a pair of raccoons rolling in the mud. Local author Greg Guirard wrote: ‘the swamp sucks the poisons of civilisation out of you.’ The bayou is the ancestral home of the Choctaw and Houma Native American tribes, the final sanctuary of Acadian outcasts and a former shelter for runaway slaves; it’s filled with hoodoo and Voodoo, ghosts and graves, legends as unfathomable as its murky depths. The bayou is more than just marsh and mire; it’s the soul of the state.

It’s a good time to see it too. In late March, British Airways will launch the first ever direct flight from London to New Orleans, making it easier and more affordable than ever before to reach the city they call The Big Easy — on account of its relaxed way of life. New Orleans is about gumbo, good tunes and cocktails at breakfast. It’s the kind of place where you order a coffee and they reply: “With Kahlúa or Baileys?”
Tennessee Williams, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here, said: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” But there’s a further distinction too: “The great metropolises of America are defined by commerce,” says Sean Cummings, owner of Loa, one of the best cocktails bars in the city. “New Orleans is defined by food, music and joy.”

True. It’s about having fun. But it’s also just the start. I plan to spend a few days exploring the city, before heading out to the Louisiana Outback, where crayfish swamps and Cajun dancehalls mix with old plantations and the languid snake of the Mississippi River. I want to see the real Louisiana, but before the swamp can cure me I have a date with the poisons of the civilised world.

The heart of the city is the French Quarter, a maze of pastel-coloured colonial-style houses with bright shutters and flowered, cast-iron galleries hanging over narrow cobbled streets. Food is everywhere. I walk down to the immaculate St Louis Cathedral, on the edge of the Mississippi, and am instantly bathed in the sweet scent of freshly baked beignets, crayfish etouffee and po’ boys stuffed with alligator sausage and dripping hot gravy. Circus acts, painters and brass bands perform around me; I have my fortune read by a half-cut Madame dozing in the sun (apparently my wife’s due a windfall and I’m due a change of house, so that doesn’t bode well). There’s a pulse here, a fizz of artistry on the streets.

It was here too, in Jackson Square, that slaves were auctioned to the highest bidder. But they brought something special with them. In New Orleans, slaves were given Sundays off — the only place in the New World this happened — and they’d gather in Congo Square, now Louis Armstrong Park, to keep their traditions alive, make music, dance and sing. Eventually those dark, sensual rhythms of Africa collided head-on with the bright brass of Europe and created something the likes of which had never been heard before.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and it’s never left. Sounds stream from every corner of the city. I watch a rapper on conga drums, a full-size steamboat perform ragtime with its whistle, and a bunch of teenage boys on trombones, trumpets and snare play like their lives, their entire beings, depend on every note. It’s the middle of the day, they’re on a dirty street corner using an old paint bucket for tips, but it’s hands-down one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. That’s what makes this city great.


And it gets better after dark. Bourbon Street is famous — the only public street in the country where it’s legal to be naked and one of the few where you can drink in public too. I bounce from bar to bar, through honky tonk, blues, hip hop, rock, jazz, pop and country, as scantily clad dancers try to wiggle me into their clubs, hordes of frat boys neck fishbowls of glowing green cocktails, and a preacher with a fake monkey on his back attempts to save my soul. “Cast away your sins,” he says, looking me dead in the eyes. “Turn the one-eyed demon off.” Frenchmen Street is more manageable; still bouncing between bars, but marginally calmer with better music and a local crowd.


The highlight, though, is Preservation Hall. Established in 1961 to keep traditional New Orleans jazz alive, it’s now one of the hottest, and most intimate, gigs in the city — a dusty living room-sized space with creaking floorboards, chipped walls and crooked pictures hanging on the walls. It’s like watching a concert in a squat. But then the music starts. The curled fat notes of the brass, seven old boys singing out, nodding their heads, flaring solos, stamping their feet. Say what you will of jazz, but there are no corduroys and knitted jumpers here; this is biting, jumping, clapping, soulful music; music from the heart, taken from the depths of the plantation to the gritty city streets. The great Louis Armstrong, who grew up here, said: “What we play is life. You blows who you is.” That’s New Orleans. There’s a spirit here that can soak right into your soul.

Read the rest of the story here on the National Geographic Traveller website.Posted on: 09/09/2018

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