By Nicole Rupersburg
I’ve long been fascinated by the thought of New Orleans. Since my perception of the Big Easy came to be formed in my idealistic, adolescent mind, New Orleans has always held for me a certain kind of mystique—a decaying romanticism unlike that of any other city. “There is nothing in this world now that doesn’t hold some sort of…fascination.”
New Orleans—a city unlike any other. A city built upon swamps, rising up from the Gulf of Mexico and the muddy banks of the Mississippi. A city with its own culture, Cajun and Creole, born from the settlement of Haitians, Africans, and French colonialists. A city filled with antebellum architecture that clings to its storied past, from the double-gallery houses in the Garden District to the sprawling mansions that line St. Charles in Greek Revival, Victorian, and Italiante styles. This is a city with its own distinct culture and traditions—voodoo queens and cities of the dead, jazz and zydeco, dubloons and Carnival. The wealthy white plantation owners and their posterity hiding in their wealth on Prytania; the Caribbean and African slaves intermingling with the French-speaking quadroon servants and mistresses, the mingled blood furthering merging distinctly different cultures and creating new ones wholly unique to the Vieux Carré; two centuries later still divided as much by class as race.
This is New Orleans—a city trying desperately to maintain its history, so much so that it becomes mummified within it. The world changes, yet so much here stays the same.
It is said that New Orleans, particularly the French Quarter, is full of ghosts. “The most haunted city in America,” the touristy travel mags and websites advertising guided tours with local historians claim. And it is, but not by Marie Laveau or Confederate soldiers. It is haunted by itself—by its former wealth and glory, and its cruel past.
Any native New Orleansian is more than happy to speak about the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, they speak of it with a seeming excitement and pride. And it’s not the white citizens; the white citizens were quick to move back into their palatial mansions along St. Charles and continue soaking in their bourbon and their old-world wealth. Their homes were not affected by the flooding, and their stories are simply matter-of-fact. It is the black citizens—the cab drivers, the streetcar operators, the tour guides, the musicians, and the busboys in the century-old New Orleans “institution” restaurants full of French wine, bad food, and old money—who take pride in Katrina’s wrath. They will happily point out the devastated downtown Projects, under federal control since Katrina during which time most of what remained was torn down with the federal government refusing to rebuild. They will tell you how happily they live in their rotting homes, still in the process of reconstructing, in the forgotten backwaters of New Orleans parish where there are no longer any grocery stores or government-funded public services such as a police force or hospitals. This they will tell you with a laugh of pained irony, an irony that only a city steeped in centuries of racist divisions and convenient ignorance can produce. Katrina wasn’t a catastrophe; it was a reminder. New Orleans is a city haunted by its past, and not since the plantations were closed and the slaves were freed has that past been more obviously thrust in the faces of every naïve New Orleansian.
And while time may have stood still on Prytania, on the other side of Canal something quite different was happening. History was all but forgotten in the French Quarter, with its cast iron balconies and Spanish architecture of flat roofs and stucco (built during the Spanish rule of New Orleans, after fires destroyed the French colonial architecture). For decades now the Quarter has been known as New Orleans’ hotbed of tourist activity, with bustling Bourbon Street at the epicenter. The Quarter, built on dry land long before the levee system was designed and thus saved from the floods of Katrina, is still this same hotbed, though perhaps on a lesser scale. This neighborhood—the oldest in New Orleans and with the most diversified culture and history—has fallen victim to the bane of tourism. What was probably once a beautiful, languorous historic neighborhood is now full of garish neon, gaudy souvenir shops, and drunken tourists stumbling and screeching down the street, with frat boys chanting and half-naked women squealing and vomiting in corners, all of them feeling like they have achieved the “true” New Orleans experience. Every other establishment is a strip club, and the rest serve frozen drinks out of slushie machines in tall plastic hurricane glasses that continuously bob up and down the street. The Garden District and Uptown may be frozen in their stubborn refusal to relinquish their Southern gentile past, but the French Quarter is its own skeletal remains preserved in flashing neon, more like the seediest parts of Las Vegas than one of the oldest and culturally richest neighborhoods in America. The tourists consume it and the locals forget it; history is lost and the ghosts of New Orleans have no presence, save for the dollars made off tourists trying to catch themselves a glimpse of a genuine, bonafide, well-advertised N’awlins spirit.
This is what is left of New Orleans. This is the New Orleans that I found—a ravaged shell of itself, bastardized by decades of heavy tourism and full of living corpses desperately clinging to a past that is no longer relevant. New Orleans is a relic; a vulgar pawn shop full of antiques. The romance and mystique is gone, replaced by apathy and overindulgence. Hurricane Katrina wiped away the glossy facade and revealed the city for what it really is—a decaying remnant of itself, its very own Diaspora. There is a sadness there that cannot be explained by economic devastation and destruction—it is the sadness of time past and things lost.
The future of New Orleans lies not with the tourists who would just as soon trash it, nor with the wealthy who would just as soon let it rot. It lies with the people who still live there, despite having every reason in the world to leave; who still love there, despite having every reason in the world to hate; the people who will tell you all about the devastation Katrina wrought and the suffering they themselves endured with a bemused laugh and a sincere smile. They are the jazz and blues musicians who set up shop on Royal Street and play amazing music for indifferent tourists who might be generous enough to pitch a handful of change into a guitar case. They are the cab drivers and the tour operators who tell the stories that keep New Orleans alive. They are the people who were nearly forced out and who take great pride in the fact that they stayed. They are the people who will rebuild not just their homes, but their culture. Because the struggle is all they know. The struggle is all there is.
Once again, all great adventures must come to an end – and what another amazing adventure it was! After exploring the underwater beauty of Utila, witnessing the incredible cloud formations of Hurrican Dean, trekking through Central America on the public bus system, evading Dengue Fever, climbing the active Volcan Pacaya, and experiencing all of these things with some extraordinary people whom I met along the way has made this one unforgettable journey!
I spent my last week in Antigua wandering through the cobblestone streets taking photos while contemplating the Volcan Pacaya Challenge. I was reluctant to climb the Volcan after one of the reputable guides in Antigua informed me that “nobody had died this year, making it a safe climb.” His words lacked the reassurance I was looking for but I continued to meet others that had climbed the smoky beast without incidents. It was coming down to my last couple days in Antigua and I knew I had to make a decision quickly. I spent the last few nights in La Sala searching for answers but after several drinks and spicy hot salsa music, they simply did not come. The tequila unfortunately numbed out the possibility of any guidance I was seeking. Finally, it came down to my last day and as I was sitting on the rooftop terrace of Umma Gumma starring Pacaya down it hit me, the words, “you can’t get out of this life alive.” Not sure where they came from but the words felt significant. I repeated aloud “you can’t get out of this life alive” and I knew in that moment as I stared down the smoky beast (which didn’t look so beastly anymore) that the challenge was on!
I quickly found the guide whose words scared me earlier, booked a time, and several hours later we began the one and a half hour trek up Pacaya. During the beginning of the climb, I felt my anxiety rise but it diminished immediately after I repeated my calming mantra “you can’t get out of this life alive.” The guide looked at me funny and said “como” and I returned a polite “nada” with a confident smile. My mantra worked splendidly because I was no longer afraid to perish! I understood that it wasn’t Pacaya that I was initially afraid of – it was the “inevitable” idea of death itself. As I continued to climb, I felt stronger, confident, more aware and clear that I would no longer let the idea of something “inevitable,” which created my debilitating fear, get in the way of a profound experience again!
When we reached the top, or the upper base of Pacaya, I witnessed rivers of lava and gaseous emissions several feet away with a calm that I’ve not experienced in some time. Like the Anaconda from the Amazon jungle, I became at one and at peace with the smoky beast which had become my magnificent beauty!
I want to thank all of you for joining me on this amazing adventure! I also want to thank the many that made this possible and have supported me throughout the years. I want to give special thanks to my Mom, Dad, VSA arts of Michigan, and Nick at thedetroiter.com for allowing me to share my journey with you!
There will be a photo exhibition of the Aventura de Centro America during the month of December, 2007 at Johansson Charles Gallery at 1345 Division Street in Detroit’s Eastern Market. I look forward to seeing you all muy pronto!
I took the 9AM bus out of San Salvador to Guatemala City direct for 10 bucks. From there, I caught a public bus for $.65 to Antigua, an incredibly beautiful colonial town perched between three volcanoes. Within 30 minutes after arriving, I fell in love with Antigua. The colors, volcanic landscape, cobble stone calles, ruins, bars, restaurants, cafes and Mayan culture make Antigua one of the most beautiful towns I’ve experienced.
I spent my first couple hours walking through the calles of Antigua and stumbled upon Umma Gumma, a warm, friendly three story hostel with a roof-top terrace offering killer views of the volcanoes. I snagged one of the few private rooms with a private bath for 10 bucks per night. I knew that Umma Gumma would be the perfect home for the next week or so to explore and photograph this amazing town.
After settling in, I spent much of the day moving through the cobble stone streets capturing its beauty with my trusty Nikon. The more I see of this city the more I love it! I later discovered La Sala, an attractive candle lit bar run by Yvonne and Julio that transforms into a Salsa bar during the evening. I ordered an incredible tasting Quesadilla topped with fresh diced tomato and guacamole before testing out my salsa moves. Overall, great food, great conversation with people all over the world however I might need to take a salsa class or two, which are offered all over the city!
In the next day or two I plan on investigating climbing Volcan Pacaya, the only active volcano near Antigua. Pacaya would be the ultimate adventure because there have been incidents of climbers getting seriously hurt and even killed by unexpected eruptions, which is why it’s important to get the latest info from a reputable guide company here. If all looks good, I will take the Pacaya challenge and share it in the next chapter of the Aventura de Centro America!
Here are some beautiful fotos of Antigua and its people. I have also included one foto of me with a bonita senorita who actually works in a farmacia here. Her pants matched my T1 logo and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to plug Theatre 1 through thedetroiter.com!
Gracias Amigos for joining me in Antigua! Hasta lluego!
Spent the day traveling to San Salvador with mi amigo Luke from Copan Ruinas. We jumped a bus to Latrada, transferred to another at Santa Rosa, from there it was a straight shot to the border of El Salvador, all for 5 bucks. Not bad for 6 hours of travel. From there we literally walked across the border while being greeted by friendly Salvadoran guards and policia. No passport stamp required just a “welcome to El Salvador"! Next, we jumped on a bus, which took 3 hours to reach San Salvador for less than 2 bucks. 7 dollars overall! The last bus played Bob Seger, Billy Joel, Stevie Nicks and the likes of the 60s, 70s and 80s while cruising through the mountains of El Salvador.
The plan is to make a quick stop in El Salvador to visit a friend from the states and then head to Guatemala to explore Mayan culture.
I ended up having an interesting stay at Casa de Huespedes Santa Fe, the house that I lived in while in San Salvador. I was greeted by Celia, the friendly animated host and her son Marcello. I was also immediately greeted by three giant cockroaches in mi room and I mean giant! Celia quickly moved in and squashed them with her feet while only wearing socks. It appeared to be a frequent occurrence for her.
I spent my first day talking with locals and was impressed by how approachable people are here. For example, while attempting to exchange money at the bank, I learned the exchange from Honduran to Salvadoran currency was nearly half than what it was in Honduras, which meant significant cash loss but when Rodolfo, a guy that overheard my conversation with the teller offered to help me find a good rate. We jumped into his car and we went to a nearby bus terminal where the rate was somewhat closer to what it was in Honduras. After making the currency exchange, Rodolfo wanted to show me San Salvador’s mall, which seems to be as important to Salvadorans as it is to our teen culture in the US. We ended up visiting his casa where he presented t-shirts that he sells, which were not to my liking. After a nice chat, he dropped me at Celia’s casa where I chilled the rest of the evening.
I continued to miss mi amiga in San Salvador so I decided to visit the El Centro, the busy, noisy, smelly city center of San Salvador. I quickly learned that this wasn’t a good idea according to three policias that told me I was in danger carrying my camera out in the open. I didn’t think it would be a problem during the day around so many people however I listened to the advice and after taking some fotos I hopped a bus back to Celia’s safe haven.
Carrying cameras around San Salvador especially the El Centro is heavily discouraged since it makes tourists a major target. I was informed that in the middle of the day around some of the busiest areas and on public buses of San Salvador, muggings occur usually by gun point and the muggers are not afraid to shoot anyone who doesn’t comply with their demands. In addition to that danger, El Centro has some of the worst pollution from exhaust fumes that I’ve ever experienced anywhere. I actually found it difficult to breathe at times. People here were more stand-offish – few allowed me to photograph them, which was an unusual feeling for this part of the world. I felt people continually looking at me and my camera, which enhanced the paranoia I already had begun to feel from the earlier warnings.
The El Centro is interesting but it is important to not do it alone.
Well, it appeared that I wasn’t going to meet up with mi amiga so I planned on taking the morning bus to Guatemala!
The photo above is of Enrique, an armed guard or some call them vigilantes who patroled the neighborhood I stayed in. Vigilantes are everywhere in San Salvador to protect homes, banks and businesses. Despite the large gun and policia-military fatigues, Enrique and I became friends and the day I left for Guatemala, I reached out to shake his hand and he gave me a big hug instead.
Muchas Gracias mi Amigos!
Utila, Hurricane, Copan Ruinas
I decided to get two last morning dives in before leaving Utila for Copan Ruinas but when our dive boat reached shore, all boats were docked due to Hurrican Dean. Most on the island were confident that the last afternoon boat would get out however the wind and rain moved in faster than expected. I quickly checked back into Rubi´s Inn and picked up food and water from the local groceria just in case the storm knocked out the island electricity for days. When the storm hit, the winds proved strong blasting water over docks and shore however Dean was much weaker than expected here and little damage occurred.
The next day I jumped on the 6am boat to La Ceiba with mi amigos Ivan and Jose de Espana and Tirsa de Holland. We were all heading in the same direction so we decided to travel together. Hooking up with other travelers is ideal and common because it reduces travel expenses significantly. After a 7 hour taxi ride from La Ceiba, we reached Copan Ruinas, which is the connection point to Guatemala and El Salvador and where we would all go our separate ways. Copan Ruinas is also famous for its Mayan Ruins as well.
The next morning, mi amigos left muy temprana however I stayed to explore the ruins. During mi desayuno, I ran into Luke de St. Thomas, an amigo I met in Utila while diving. We decided to explore the ruins together, which offered incredible structures, pyramids, sculptures, tunnels and amazing views! Copan is an amazing place and a very beautiful town that is not to be missed when traveling through Honduras.
Tomorrow I am off to El Salvador to explore the land few travel to. They are also famous for the food pupusas, which mi amiga Lili introduced me to years ago! They’re great and my mouth is already watering!
Muchas gracias for checking in! Hasta lluego!!
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