Arriving in New Orleans was like driving into a bubble. That first night, we didn’t even go into the heart of the place, but we knew it was vastly different from anywhere we’d been and special beyond words. I suppose I can compare it in the way I did with New York City and Nashville— how neither of these places are alike in any way, except for their contagious, atomic energy.
As we often do, we began searching on the app iOverlander for free, overnight parking places in the city. This app usually helps us, but not every place has locations that previous travellers have “checked-in” on. New Orleans had quite a few, most of them situated in the City Park. I guess you could kind of liken it to Central Park based on its enormity and the array of things that sit within it: botanical gardens, a Storyland world, mini-golf courses, roadways, a Catholic Boys’ school, etc.
We set up camp in an open carpark, situated between grass fields, shaded with low-hanging branches. It was close to the edge of the park, surrounded by well-lit areas, yet managed to stay quiet throughout the evening— about a 10 minute drive from the heart of the city. Perfect and a tad nicer than being parked alongside the road.
That first evening we were pretty tickled with the botanical gardens being nearby so we made our way through them—lush and tranquil. Being submerged in that much flora just makes you want to take deep, yogic breaths. Oxygen rich and dense.
The gardens contained lots of artwork, mainly progressive sculptures of humans. My favourite was of a woman, standing straight and strong, looking into the distance, breast-feeding her baby under one arm. Powerful stuff.
The next day was our main exploring day. We ventured along St. Charles street, where the infamous Mardi Gras operates each year. This boulevard is littered with cafes and bars ordained with 24-hour signs. A party place for sure— not certain if there’s anywhere back in Aus that serves alcohol around the clock, but I know they’d make a killing.
It was convenient for us when the time hit midday and we indulged in a guilt-free cocktail: the New Orleans Hurricane. Two different types of rum, orange juice and grenadine. That one rocked me a little bit to be honest, so we walked a great deal and took in the grand southern houses. Tall, quirky, with chairs rocking on every front porch.
As always, parking is a nightmare in the more populated cities. The two hours was up and we wanted to make our way to where the action was: Bourbon Street.
I didn’t know a lot about New Orleans but I had a lot of expectations. Music being played on the streets, strong southern accents ringing on every corner. Knowing where to find this was the issue, but luckily Abel knew where we needed to go. As we turned the corner, the live street music danced directly into the car and people swarmed around. For once, I felt like the ambulance fit right in. We did one of those slow drives down the street, both turning our heads, pointing our fingers at different shops, people, signs, everything. Nightmare parking again— $18 for 30 mins, 1 or 2 hours. We settled in for a few, there was lots to see.
There were heaps of daiquiri shops, with spinning mixtures of various flavours and everyone was drinking them out of enormous cups as they swayed in and out of bars. There were clubs functioning as if it was 2 am on a Sunday morning. The huge Saints game contributed to how busy it was that weekend, but we were told its not much different the rest of the time.
Slurping on our green apple daiquiris and taking in the scene, we came across an open courtyard with tourist market stalls and various tarot card readers, palm readers, psychics. This type of thing has always intrigued me and while I’ve wanted to have my future told, or something like that, many times, I’ve been scared of what they’ll tell me. I spoke to one woman wearing an emerald, fish net scarf tied around her hair, purple drapes and epic eyeliner— your typical Esmerelda. She was frank and honest with me, she told me that her skillset was very fine, purely based off the readings of the cards and how she learned to do that. All fortunes were “donation based”, yet they still manage to give you a ballpark range. She didn’t do a great job of selling herself to me, but let me know that each and every one of them working this spot had different skills and I was welcome to chat around to find my perfect match.
A few tables up was a set of sisters, beckoning us over. “I can see your interested darling, let me explain to you what I do.” Tarot cards, palm and crystal readings: one of the above or a combination. She knew I was nervous. “I think you would benefit best from a card reading,” she nodded at me. For the lot, it was an average of “$65”, I told her I’d give her $50. I got one sister and Abel had the other— his was supposed to be a palm reading, but halfway through she suggested the cards so his reading would have more accuracy (Scam, scam, scam. His was meant to be $35, but she finished and claimed it would be $65). We ended up paying $100 for the lot and left.
It wasn’t the best timing to spend such a hefty fee for a short, somewhat average, fortune telling. Abel was not impressed whatsoever with his reading— he said it was all basic and merely guessing. I felt a little different. Sure, there were moments where I kind of shrugged along with what she said and didn’t always agree, but for the most part, she said some very accurate things about me. I’m indecisive, drawn to water, I have a churning belly and get goosebumps often (apparently this is my paternal Grandfather who makes that happen— Thanks Grandad) among other stuff. I enjoyed it, mainly because it was something I always wanted to do, but otherwise, probably not worth the expensive donation.
We spent one more night in New Orleans and played mini-golf at the nearby course in the park. The following day was spent running errands, packing and organising for Cuba. Our flight left at 6 am on the Sunday morning so it meant an early night for us. There was a brief moment of terror when I finally decided I better check out the whole visa situation. Very silly and irresponsible of me to leave it to the last minute, and certainly on a weekend. Everywhere I googled, you applied online and it got sent to you in the mail… not an option for us. I had a panic/tantrum thing and thought, “Guess we ain’t going to Cuba!”, but after calling a woman who worked at a Cuban Travel Centre (about 5 minutes from where we were— convenient right?), she informed me that I could buy the visa at the airport prior to boarding the plane in Miami. I took a deep breath and hoped with all my might that she wasn’t fooling me.
The journey to Cuba was time-consuming and treacherous. Both flights were short and sweet— under two hours each. But, we had a 9 hour 50 minute layover in Miami. To be honest, it wasn’t all that bad, the day moved along fairly quick. I basically just read all day. The last two hours or so were the longest, as the plane continued to get delayed for 15 minutes about five or six times. Then we landed in Cuba, and had to wait a good half hour to park due to our delayed take off. We were exhausted and feeling pretty anxious that our taxi driver may have just up and left.
He gave a little laugh when he saw us— he’d been waiting a while.
We spent our first three nights in a hotel/apartment that I booked on airbnb in Old Havana. We had a private bed and bathroom and there was a little kitchen where they served a $5 per person breakfast each morning. The room was clean, but bare. It didn’t matter too much as we knew we’d be out exploring most of the time. We lucked out on the location of the place, only about a block back from The Capitol and right near plenty of restaurants and tourist strips with shops.
The first day we ventured out, around three or four different Cubans said hello to us, went out of their way to strike up a conversation. Asking where we were from, what our plans were, offering suggestions on things to do and places to eat. Everyone had told us that Cubans were friendly as anything and this certainly proved it. After that first day, however, I found most people stared and didn’t offer a warm smile. Western tourists are new to Cuba, so I suppose that’s fair enough.
We ate a restaurant recommended by our host, Los Nardos at least twice. The food was exceptional, enormous servings and plates cost about $5-$10 each. Apart from doing the Havana Bus tour to see all around the city, we basically roamed, frequented shops and filled time between meals and beverages— dining on jade-tiled patios, with overhanging grape vines and deep-bellied female Cuban singers.
I’ve never known a city to be so beautiful and dirty at once. Huge, amazing pieces of architecture (like The Capitol) flanked alongside crumbling buildings, apartments with bundles of laundry hanging from balconies; plastic bottles, bags and other rubbish crammed along every gutter of every street. Sidewalks with chunks of cement disheveled and protruding. Brightly coloured 60’s and 70’s-styled cars speeding around every corner, tall palms billowing in the city breeze. Beautiful. Dirty.
Horse and buggies are used for tourism AND practical use– it’s like being back in time.
After three nights in the city, we had the next six booked in a little old fishing town called, Cojimar, about 20 minutes outside of Havana The place where Ernest Hemingway got most of his inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea— there’s a bust of him sitting tall and proud, overlooking the harbour.
Upon checkout in our Old Havana airbnb, I noticed something fairly disturbing. I had packed jewellery with me, most of in an old Mimco pouch apart from my 21st birthday necklace, which I had in a separate box— so it wouldn’t get tangled. Rummaging through my suitcase, trying to organise, I noticed this weird white, square-shaped thing. What the dickens is this? Then I noticed the necklace box—open, empty. The white square thing was the backing that belonged inside the box. My heart sank and my hands frantically pulled every item from my bag. The necklace was nowhere and more importantly, I hadn’t opened that box once since being here. It had sat on the bottom of my suitcase, untouched, at least, by me.
Of course, I freak out and cried and had no idea what to do. The host wasn’t at the apartment, only one of her workers who didn’t utter a word of english. She knew we were about to leave and could see I was distressed, she phoned the host and let me have a word with her.
I felt awful accusing her or anyone of something like this, but I had to mention it.
“No one has a key to that room except for you,” she reassured me.
“Yes,” I told her, “but someone must… because someone changed the roll of toilet paper.”
“That was me… but I changed the paper and went straight back out. I did not go up the stairs to your room.”
There was not a lot else I could say or do. Besides, Abel and I had started thinking about the night we packed our things. I held the box in my hand, unsure what to do with the necklace. I didn’t want to leave it in the car incase it was broken into, especially not in the box— it’s kind of asking for it, I now realise. Plus, I knew I’d want to wear it. During this time, I was going through other jewellery, moving some from one pouch to the next. Abel and I both agreed that perhaps I had removed the necklace from the box and put it in my other jewellery pouch that I’d left in the ambulance and, silly me who didn’t realise, packed the box anyway.
The lingering question though… who opened the box from my suitcase? The springs on it were too tight for it to have accidentally opened while sorting through my things.
I messaged my host just asking to let me know if it turned up. She replied saying they’d cleaned the room and found nothing,”I think you must have lost it on the street.” Well I didn’t, but whatever for now.
Our taxi over to Cojimar
The airbnb we stayed at in Cojimar was beautiful. A renovated garage into a perfect little apartment suite. It was clean, private and our hosts Rossana and Felipe were just the sweetest people I’ve ever met. They went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and felt at home.
Rossana greeted us with a big kiss and fresh cups of espresso. We sat on their patio, enjoying the sun, the mango tree rustling in the breeze, and having a conversation in broken English about life in Australia and Cuba. It wasn’t that broken though, Rossana and Felipe continued to apologise for their “terrible English”, to which Abel and I would shake our heads furiously, telling them how good their language skills were, to stop apologising, we could barely offer any Spanish, for God’s sake! I haven’t studied the language since 2011 and before that, not since 2006— all at a minor level too, so my skills were limited. After conversing with French guests at our other airbnb— mainly broken English and some French on my part— I kept confusing myself and often saying “excusez-moi” on the streets. Fool.
We’d decided we wanted to stay in Cojimar for a more quiet and relaxing experience. The location was ideal, it was close to the city and the beach, an easy bus ride either way. Rossana drew maps and assisted us with directions to get anywhere we wanted to go. The town was walking distance, right by the water. Rossana and Felipe gave us a 10% discount card for a really high-quality, reasonably priced restaurant just two blocks down from the apartment. We ate there many times, the house mojitos were the best I’d drank the whole time in Cuba.
They also provided the same $5 per person breakfast service: eggs, bread, ham, cheese, fresh fruit, juice and coffee. Waking up each morning and walking out to their polished-stone patio, with the table set waiting for us, hot fresh food and coffee, was everything we needed and more. While I’m a creature of habit and eat the same breakfast every morning, we may have tired of this one a little bit. The service and quality made it worthwhile however. Not having to prepare and do dishes was precisely the kind of break we were after.
On two different days we took the bus to the beach— the kind where you can rent lounge chairs, umbrellas and get drinks service. We did this the first time, had a few cocktails and enjoyed the luxury beach outing. Then we got the bill and saw how much they overcharged for the drinks and service. On our next visit, we packed water and primitively lay with our towels on the sand (even though that’s how us Aussies prefer it).
The water here was aqua and crystal clear— postcard-like. Abel and I laughed with each other about the people who obviously don’t frequent the beach. I saw at least four different girls, laying or kneeling near the edge of the sea, posing for a photo, as a wave clapped down and catapulted them a few feet in the air. It was hilarious. Many of them barely walked out into the water, they kept their sunglasses on and didn’t wet their heads. For someone who needs to be submerged in the ocean for long periods of time, this was difficult to watch.
There was a sandbank a little ways out on our second visit, and as Abel and I swam to it, standing up to catch waves, I saw people on the shoreline staring and pointing at us. Then two dudes swam out, “Wait, you can stand out here?” You sure can. People amaze me. But I guess I’ve been lucky enough to grow up alongside the sea and never know any different— being too far inland kind of freaks me out.
We spent one day back in Old Havana. Abel and I both had to connect to the wifi, even though being disconnected for a little while was nice and ensured that we had more conversation and reading time. The internet situation is old school— you have to lineup at certain technological shops, buy a wifi card for 1-5 hours and then you can only use it in specific parks that have a tower for that particular service.
We used this day to go see Hemingway’s mansion outside of the city. The visit was quick, as you pretty much just walk around the house and peer inside. It was stunning— vast and open, lots of natural light, hanging plants, half-filled bottles of booze, tons of books— a real writer’s haven.
The cigar factory was the next thing to tick off on the list this day, but unfortunately the tour service had been relocated from where we thought it was, plus they had finished for the day. We bought four different random cigars and made our way back to Cojimar. We haven’t smoked one yet and I don’t really have much interest to, but hey, when in Cuba.
The weather overall was really pleasant, there was only one cloudy day until our third last evening. A storm hit not long before we fell asleep and the power went out. Rossana came knocking our door about 10 minutes later with a battery-powered LED lamp, bless her. In the morning, she told us how a tornado had hit another town just outside Havana. Nowhere nearby had power. A bus had tipped on its side. 175 people were injured. 3 dead. It was horrific and she explained how this is not common for Cuba. Had we heard the winds in the night? No… but we’re from Gerringong, so we didn’t notice anything radically different.
The power was out until our departure. It didn’t affect us all that much, most of our things were charged and we could handle some darkness. Felipe and Rossana kept apologising for that too, like they had any control over the weather. The nicest people in the world, honestly.
I think if we’d booked a tour and travelled across the country more, we wouldn’t have felt as ready to be back “home” (ambulance). Not that we didn’t enjoy our time at all, we loved it and desperately needed the solace, but by the end, we couldn’t help but think about our cosy little bed back in our home-on-wheels, ready to hit the road again.
Since arriving back, we’ve been cooking non-stop. We indulged in meals out and endless cocktails while away, mainly because we had no other option and they were so cheap— but I really love to cook and missed it a lot. We spent the first few nights back in New Orleans, but felt we’d seen everything we needed to.
From there, we camped in an open field in the middle of farmland in southern Louisiana. Free, and there were other campers there too. Abel had a look on his Alltrails app to see if there were any nice walks/hikes nearby. He found one called “jungle gardens” on Avery Island, about 45 minutes from where we were— gators and plants. As we pulled in to buy our entry tickets, we discovered this island is actually where Tabasco sauce was founded, invented and the main factory still operates today. Avery Island is a salt dome and one of the few hilly areas in an otherwise flat Louisiana. We did a 4-5 kilometre walk around the gardens, no gators to be seen, then we did a tour of the Tabasco factory, complimentary with lots of tastings. Shipments from this small little part of America go out to 185 countries each day. Literally, most of the world (bar North Korea and a few African and Middle-Eastern countries) buys and consumes Tabasco sauce. And we just happened upon the factory by accident. Little did we know that every single bottle says “Avery Island, LA” on it, but still.
Now, we’re still in Louisiana, but very close to the Texas border. We drove a secluded highway that snaked in and around swamps/bayous, and we saw an otter in the wild (!!!!!!!!!!!!). The cutest little darling, lobbing over reeds and swimming in the dirty, shallow water. By dirty, I don’t just mean brown— loads of plastic. Disgraceful.
We’re parked on a beach (yep, actually on the sand) and relaxing before we head to Houston to see Fleetwood Mac on Tuesday. Excited is more than an understatement.
’Til next time.
PS. The necklace was not back in the ambulance. It was stolen, somehow. I’ve had a back and forth with the host and she is just as confused as I am— she’s confronted her staff more than once, and says she trusts them like family as they’ve been working together for three years. She also got a bit upset with me and said how Cubans might not have much, but they earn their living through hard work. I had to be clear with her, I am not blaming this on Cuban people… there are thieves all over the world. And clearly there was one there, guest or worker, I have no idea. But I’m pretty devastated about it.