Thursday, 13 April 2017

[ get me out of here ]

Until you've experienced something for yourself, it's really difficult to say how you'll react to it.

I'm not taking about getting a tattoo or breaking a bone, though those examples do get close to the feeling I'm talking about. These are initially physical pains however, and though there is obvious mental strain to go with them, the physical tends to be the forerunner.

Mental experience makes you see things in a different light, I've found. It reshapes your reality somewhat, colouring how you feel and act going forward. There can certainly be physical elements here, but I'm getting at the ones where the mental anguish hits you straight up and keeps pushing.

As someone who has had some hard core life experiences already - both physical and mental - it came as a pretty sharp knock to realise I'm not great with long haul travel, missed flights, and being stranded so far from home.

In fact, I think it knocked me right out of the park, to be honest.

I'm a decent flyer. Turbulence, unless it's really rough, doesn't worry me too much. My longest flight has been 6ish hours, I've had flight delays and cancellations, and I've sat in my share of airport lounges, bored to frustration, desperate for a cuppa and a shower. 

For quite a few years, I also worked in hospitality and as a shiftworker. Add being an insomniac to the mix, and sleep deprivation isn’t really a new thing to me.

Until now. Now, it all feels like some new version of an old nightmare, where the parameters have changed dramatically, and I don’t quite know how to deal with it. All my defences got torn down like paper, and I was left in tears and bewildered every few hours for 2 days.

It’s like a new form of torture for yourself. The CIA would be delighted.

If it all sounds a bit dramatic, maybe it is. Maybe, especially for those of you who have or still do travel a lot, it sounds a little bit prima donna.

However, I’d ask you to consider the first time you travelled alone. Was it 22 hours and 2 flights from home? Was it without any real knowledge of how absolutely awful airport food can become when that’s all you’ve eaten for 36 hours? Was it with that deepset anxiety that it may be yet another day before you get home, to your own bed, your own clothes, and your own food? Did you worry about running out of money and what you would do if you did?

These aren’t trick questions and I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone who travels without a care in the world, every trip, every time. What I’m trying to do is get you to understand.

I’ve been in pain and I’ve been afraid. I’ve stayed awake for 28 hours at a stretch and been so dizzy with lack of sleep, I started seeing things that couldn’t possibly be there, and not seeing things that were right next to me.

Call it fear of loss of control, a panic attack, or being thrown in the deep end. It was all of those. And I’d still take some of my worst days over this.

Asked exactly what the most distressing part of the whole disaster was, and I’d be hard-pressed to narrow it down to one element. The combination of events really made for a gut-wrenching sort of panic that I'd never known before.

In these situations airport security are either your best friends or your worst enemies, and it can be a complete roll of the dice as to which one. Baggage claim can be a nightmare or a daydream, also reliant on said dice.

Being stranded anywhere is never easy and being stranded at 2am, even in a city that never sleeps, is like your car breaking down on a deserted highway and your phone battery being dead.

For me, it was almost exactly like this. The airline put me on the next flight, but due to the decision allocated to air traffic control instead of weather, no one helps you with accommodation.

And my phone wasn't willing to connect to the internet unless I stood in just the right spot, without any planes going over, didn't make any selections too quickly, and the planets were aligning... which was about every 35 minutes.

I cried. A lot. Security got uncomfortable. Customer service became bewildered. Strangers became distressed for me. Complete public awkwardness does not even begin to describe it.


Again, if this is all starting to sound a tad dramatic, it really was. 

Because, to be fair, I've got myself out of some major scrapes. I've fought inner demons and corporeal bastards and, crying included, I've managed to weather so many experiences that not much takes me by surprise anymore.

But surprised I was, and it will only ever happen like this once. I finally got my chance to miss Sydney and boy, did I miss it so much when I was in LA.

In the end, this is more a cautionary tale and a reassuring nod to those who FREAK RIGHT OUT when something goes wrong on holidays. Knowing what I know now - including having the commencing flights go reasonably well - I'd still change the itinerary.

Firstly, any flight longer than 12 hours will include a stopover. Notwithstanding my previous condition, 12 hours in a flying metal canister with no way to escape is - in hindsight - ridiculous. It just is.

Also, the stopover will be an actual stopover, including a night in a hotel. It's hard to stay truly anxious when you're ensconced in a quiet room with clean sheets, room service, and endless cable.

With so many hotels, including those with 24-hour shuttle services and so close to the airport, it's strange to think this didn't occur to me earlier. But there you go.


The point is that fear is a slippery beast and you can't firmly grasp when or how it will sneak up on you. 

There's an old episode of Charmed where the villain, Barbas, uses the sisters' greatest fears against them. Losing a sister turned out to be Phoebe's greatest fear - something we can all relate to. 

But more than that, I think we fear being away from our family, being away from the things we love, having our options taken away from us, especially when we know they're so close.

I guess situations like this show you elements of yourself you may not have known. Something I didn't know about myself; I don't deal well with being away from my loved ones, away from my fortress, the sanctuary, I've spent years and years creating for myself. 

Fighting is something I will never stop doing, and I can do that fiercely or quietly. But take me away from the things I love - the things I need - and I go a little troppo. 

So I suppose the moral of the story is this; I can face anything at all, at any time, in any headspace, if I'm here and in my element. 

But take me physically out of my zone, and I'm going to need to drop my bundle like a hysterical three year old for a minute. Then we can get on with it. 

Life lesson learned. Not happily, but learned all the same. 



Friday, 7 April 2017

{ NOLA }

New Orleans is a city that embraces you like your most drunken friend at a party at midnight and tells you it loves you. It feeds you cocktails and weird food, it makes you sing old songs and dance in the flashing lights. Not because everyone else is, but because that's just what you do there.

I'd been about for less than half an hour when the city wrapped me up, crawled under my skin, and before I had time to take a breath, it was on like Revlon.

NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana, to the rest of you) is dodgy, dusty, and creepy as hell. The streets are kind of dirty and the people are LOUD - both visually and audibly. They eat things you'd get pest control or animal services to remove, and drinking at 10 in the morning is pretty standard practise. Even when it's not Mardi Gras.

I absolutely adore it there. The inexplicable, vortex-like pull of the place can be felt the moment you glimpse your first French Quarter residence, smell the fried shrimp, or spy your first flood of white azaleas blooming in the park.

There's no way to really pinpoint a single element that led me there at that time. I suspect years of stories and pictures and small tastes of Southern cooking wove such an intricate knot over the years, one I would be hard-pressed to undo, even if I wanted to.

That being said, let me shortly come to the reason I did go. The former above doesn't really sound deeply appealing does it? Most of us left the more serious partying days behind in our twenties for the more sedate, yet infinitely more satisfying (not to mention cost-effective), chillaxed fun of our thirties.

New Orleans is a town that doesn't care much for your age, except in the most cursory of ways. Don't get me wrong, the drinking age is strictly 21 and they aren't afraid to enforce it with prejudice. It's just that, after that point, it's very much a glorious mix of young and old, well-dressed and hippie, tourists and locals.

Except the locals could drink us under the table, especially as they know something we don't; that's where you'll end up at the end of the night anyway, so it doesn't really matter how long it takes or the route you took to get there.

The reason I went was because it's second only to Ireland on my bucket list. Both places have a magical hold on me that I can't deny. 

Even weeks away and back in my own neighbourhood, my own home, my own bed, I still smell the queer mix of muddy pavement and liquor mixed with seafood. Something briny and heavy, the smell that only the mighty Mississippi has. 

I never really travelled when I was younger; I did the opposite to most of my friends. While they travelled around and spent all their money on faraway places, I spent it on things at home, paid off all my debts and made a life here, where I could see it. I don't feel any less for it; in fact, for me, I think I appreciate it more. 

Long, drawn out holidays, over weeks or months, have never really appealed to me. I like to dip into a location, taste all it has to offer me, then take my experiences home. There's so many places I want to go that staying in one for such a long time seems odd.

Also. I get oversaturated in a pretty reasonable amount of time. I miss my things and my routine, and with no way for me to say goodbye to an experience and reflect on it, I start to feel trapped and homesick. I know not everyone is like that, but it works for me. 

New Orleans is a city of the lively dead. Those still breathing share it with them amicably and openly, and to an outsider it may seem almost downright sacrilegious, but that's what they do there. Death is a great celebration of life, but also seen as only one state of being.

While Sydney boasts a colourful array of buskers, from musicians and dancers to street performers and artists, NOLA is known for its motley collection of fortune tellers and soothsayers.

In Jackson Square, at the bottom of the French Quarter, you could spend all day getting your palms read, your cards told, or your tea and coffee interpreted, and still not make a sizeable dent in the fortune-telling community.

Whether you are a believer or not, the talent varies widely so you are best to lower your expectations and just enjoy things for what they are. That being said, some of the more reputable clairvoyants have their own stores or work out of already established premises with groups of others.

For me, even as a believer, I lowered my expectations in advance. The city is saturated with weird and wonderful vibes, and as a tourist there was no way to be sure what a reader would pick up. Though, as a side note, apparently there is more travel and my continued good fortune (and aptitude!) with money in my future.  Always good to hear...

I spent a decent amount of time chasing ghosts. One afternoon was whiled away in Muriel's, a haunted restaurant that tells the story of Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan.

He gambled his dream home away in a game of poker in the 1800's. Deeply shocked by the loss, he committed suicide on the 2nd floor on the day he was meant to leave. Staff of the now-restaurant set a place for him and a friend at the bottom of the stairs every night, with furniture occasionally found to be moved about and glasses hurled at walls.

The rest of the French Quarter and also the Garden District are full of ghosts and ghouls, but another notorious location is the LaLaurie Mansion. If you're a horror buff and have been watching American Horror Story, you'd know this place from series three, Coven. 

Anyway,  at 1140 Royal Street in the French Quarter sits the infamous LaLaurie Mansion. Delphine and her husband at the time, known as Big Lou, were quite the socialites and prominent members of society. They built the house and adjacent slave quarters in the 1830's. Behind these closed doors, they were horrific serial killers with a tendency towards the truly barbaric.

It is said that LaLaurie and her husband brutally murdered over 70 slaves, with Delphine said to be the more savage; chasing slaves around the house with whips, cutting off limbs and sewing mouths shut - these being the least of her atrocities.

Apparently the cook, also a slave, once set fire to the kitchen so badly that the fire department had to be called - much as the slaves hoped - and so finally someone from the outside world saw the heinous crimes within.

The fire department alerted the police, and slaves in various awful states were found in the house. The LaLaurie's are said to have barely escaped. Once word got around of what they had been up to, a mob of townspeople formed and stormed the premises, destroying everything they found.

Various stories claim different ends, though one of the two most common states that the wife and husband escaped by carriage to the North Shore of New Orleans, where they settled quietly and hid until the furor died down. The other states much the same, except they had to run all the way to France to escape persecution.

Either way, it looks like the diabolical two got away with it all. The mansion itself still stands, though is uninhabited and a dark atmosphere still surrounds the location. Certainly enough so that I took a lot pictures, but wasn't game to lay a hand on the brickwork.

New Orleans has entwined itself around my heart and mind like some particularly determined ivy. The ornate houses and the narrow streets. The endless booze, the food, and the not-quite-food. The river, the mighty Mississippi, constantly there in the background, flowing like the lifeblood of the city that it is.

There are a few things I didn't quite get around to, and places I meant to see but didn't quite find the time for; things and places I would definitely go back for. These are not the reasons I will return however, or not the only ones really.

I will return because, like the places of my childhood, the music of my formative years, and the loves of my life (the things, not the people, interestingly to note) - NOLA brings me joy and bewilderment in equal measure. It instills curiosity and wonder, a mundane peace and a quiet, perhaps deliciously sinister, mystery.

It is a place like no other, and I feel blessed that it welcomed me as much as I'd hoped it would.

I will be back for you, my glorious city, my strange town. I don't know when, but I will be back. Save me some beignets and a hurricane or three.