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Todayville Travel: Down on the Bayou- Cajun Hospitality

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The news from Louisiana is often hurricanes, burst levees and the dangerous streets of New Orleans.

What we’ve discovered down South has been unreserved hospitality. A few years ago on our first trip through the Bayou State the weather turned cold.  We became stranded in the town of Nathitoches, blind-sided by a gale of sleet.  Thrilled locals informed us they hadn’t seen snow in NAK-a-tish (that’s how it’s pronounced) for nine years.  As polite Canadians, we controlled our elation.

 

A snowstorm in Louisiana?!

As luck would have it we had arrived the day of the annual river-barge parade. We mingled with happy revelers on the banks of the Red River. As we strolled, the sound of a Cajun band spilled from an antebellum mansion fronting Front Street. The owner, a well-dressed southern gentleman, was watching the parade through his wrought-iron fence. Small talk ensued. Soon the wandering Canadians were invited into a stately pre-Civil War home to join a bon fête.

Cajun fiddler in Natchitoches

 

The party lasted into the wee hours. Filet gumbo, stomping feet, a crackling fire and genuine Louisiana friendliness kept us warm. After much cajoling I joined the band, rang the Cajun ti-fer… and did credit to all Canadians – in the beverage consumption department.

Antebellum (pre-Civil War) mansion in Natchitoches

On our return to Louisiana this time we bypassed Natchitoches, hugging the Gulf Coast, seeking the blue bayou of the South. Roadside billboards stuck in the swamp advertised free consultation to shrimpers still affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The ex-lawyer in me was intrigued. The guy seeking quiet solitude was – quietly disgusted.

A great blue heron rests on a cypress stump

Bald cypress in winter plumage

 

 

The bayous of Louisiana start where the Mississippi River begins to end: in the silted course of its enormous delta. Braided channels open and close. New rivers form. Shallow meandering creeks emerge in swamps overgrown with cypress and mangrove forests. These muddy backwaters are the birthplace for a vast array of aquatic life. Their predators – birds and reptiles – lurk quietly in the sultry stagnant shadows.

When we arrived at the Morgan City campground it was dark. We were hungry, tired, irritable – and without a reservation. Most horrible camping experiences begin with a late arrival. While attempting to set up in the dark I backed into the last open site, glancing off an oak tree and a concrete picnic table, fanning the fires of a simmering matrimonial dispute.

I walked, fuming, past a campsite’s roaring fire toward the office to register. A happy group of tenters were huddled near the flames, laughing and smoking.

“You were pretty lucky to get that spot on a busy weekend,” said the affable occupant of site B12. “Where y’all from?

I told him we were from Alberta and said we were hungry and hoping to find a Cajun restaurant nearby. He recommended a place in town down by the Riverwalk and wished us a pleasant evening.

My mood was greatly improved when we drove back through the gate a couple of hours later, stuffed to overflowing with crawfish and dirty rice.

“How was the Creole?”

The small group settled around B12’s fire was well into their cups and still going strong. My relaxed demeanor confirmed we had not been led gastronomically astray.

“Why don’t you and your wife come on over for a drink?” asked the friendly fellow who was responsible for my contented smile. I slipped into our RV and grabbed a couple of Pilsners I had lugged from home. I handed a cold one to Dean Landry and his wife Vicky.

“These all the way from Canada?” Dean asked.

“Yup. There is no finer Canadian beer.” (I had my fingers crossed behind my back.)

“How come he talk so funny?” asked Zach, Vicky’s precocious twelve-year-old.

“Sshh, you mind your manners,” said Miss Vicky.

Zach carried on, unabashed. “You got a different kind ‘a money up ther‘ in Canada?”

I reached into my pocket and handed Zach a blue, five-dollar bill. I proudly told him it was worth almost $4 American and that it was now his.

“This’s made out of plastic,” he screamed, running through the campground, announcing to the world that some geezer from Canada had just given him a foreign blue fiver.

“Why you come down to these parts?” Mr. Landry asked. His surname and that unique Louisiana cadence confirmed his Cajun ancestry.

(Cajuns are the descendants of Acadians, French Canadians expelled from Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. They brought a distinct culture and dialect to the swamps of the South. To the uninitiated, Cajun French is unintelligible. Their English is only marginally more comprehensible. For instance if a Cajun asks, “where you gonna powk de caw?” he is not rudely inquiring about your bedroom habits – he’s just asking where you intend to park the Buick.)

“We’re here to see the bayou,” I told Dean. “I want to get into the backwaters, see the swamp, the alligators. I noticed there are some operators in town offering boat tours. What do you think?”

Dean looked at the fire for a moment, drained the last of his Pil and said, “You an early riser?”

“Not particularly,” I replied truthfully.

“Dean, he an early bird,” chimed in Vicky. “He’s up with the roosters.”

“I live only a little more than fifty mile from here, up near Thibodau, in Lafourche Parish.” Unlike the other 49 States of the Union, which have Counties, Louisiana is divided into Parishes – further tribute to its French roots.

“Ain’t any big deal for me to scoot over first thing in the morning and hook up my boat. By the time y’all get up, my skiff’ll be waiting for you. I’ll show you the real bayou, not some tourist crap.”

We’d had a few brewskies by then – and I don’t put a lot of stock in late-night campfire bravado. So when I popped my head out of the camper the next morning my expectations for a bayou experience weren’t high.

“There you are,” shouted Dean, wiping down the lovely flat-bottomed craft that had appeared at his site. He’d driven 80 kilometers to his home, breakfasted with his daddy, hitched up the boat and returned – all while I was still sawing logs.

“And he’s been polishing that motor for near an hour now,” Vicky smiled.

My mother told me I’d never amount to anything if I didn’t get up early and get to it. But somehow serendipity follows my late-morning shadow, shaking me awake with fortunate encounters.

Vicky, Zach, my wife Florence and I jumped into the boat and Dean motored us into the bayou. The perspective from water was entirely different from the bits of swamp we could see while driving. Narrow muddy channels serpentined every which way and within minutes I was completely lost in a vast wet labyrinth.

We floated through vast groves of bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, their knees soaked in brackish water; past “fishing camps” – remote wooden cabins fronted by a small deck for fishing. (Many sported a Confederate flag. For the South, the Civil War is not yet over.)

For some Southerners that war ain’t over yet

The gators were out, sunning on logs or floating motionless, eyes protruding silently above the water. These malevolent-looking reptiles can grow to four meters and 400 kilograms – top of the food chain in these hidden warrens. In the bayou it’d be easy to dispose of things unwanted. I was glad Dean was a friendly chap.

Zach acted as lookout, chatting constantly, identifying all flora and fauna the bayou had to offer.

An abandoned orange hurricane pod, resembling a wayward UFO, floated uselessly in a backwater, testament to the unrelenting power of Mother Nature.

An abandoned hurricane pod resembles a wayward UFO

We moored for lunch at Gros’ Place, a remote camp accessible only by water. A huge kettle of fragrant jambalaya boiled above an open fire. A fresh-dressed deer carcass dangled from a hook in the kitchen.

This must be the place!

After a meal of fried catfish and white beans – and an afternoon of great camaraderie, Dean steered us out of the bayou, effortlessly retracing our path through the indiscernible twisting, turning channels. The sun, shining through a thick canopy of cypress and mangrove, hinted vaguely at our direction of travel.

Zach entertains the womenfolk in the bayou

At the dock we shook hands with Dean and Vicky, said good-bye and climbed into our RV, headed for New Orleans. As we pulled away Zach strolled up. I rolled down the window:

“That new? That got a diesel engine in it? My grandpa told me down on the farm that you got to fill a special compartment with somethin’ called urea to keep a diesel engine running. Urea same as pee, but you got to pay twenty dollar for five gallons.”

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a know-it-all kid. I thanked him for his advice and drove off.

“That kid is either a savant or a nut,” I said to Florence.

Less than a hundred kilometers down the road a yellow warning light flashed on the dash. I pulled over. The owner’s manual indicated there was a malfunction in something called the DEF. The problem required immediate attention. After twenty ignition starts the vehicle would be rendered inoperable. I stopped at an Auto Zone and explained my problem to the man behind the counter.

“You need to add DEF fluid. It’s over there behind the antifreeze. It’s really just urea,” he said in a thick Cajun drawl.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Just like pee, but costs twenty bucks.”

 

About the author:

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC.

THANKS to these great partners for making this series possible.

 

 

 

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We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

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Editor’s note:  We will travel again.  And when we do, it will be with renewed anticipation and appreciation. In the meantime, please enjoy Ireland – A Buddy Trip, by Gerry Feehan.

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Despite my bona fide Irish heritage, I never had any burning desire to visit the Emerald Isle. But some years ago when I asked my mom if there were any place she’d like to go, she leapt at the chance to see Ireland, “Your father and I were there in 1970 and I’ve always wanted to go back.” So my brother and I, together with our better halves, took mother Teresa on a grand tour. We stayed at the venerable Gresham Hotel in Dublin, drove the Ring of Kerry, peered over the Cliffs of Moher and visited the multi-purposed Feehan Pub and Funeral Parlour in Tipperary. We even kissed the Blarney Stone.

Feehan’s bar and funeral parlour

My mom was astonished by the change the Celtic Tiger had wrought since the ‘70s. It was 2003 and Ireland was roaring with economic prosperity. What had been drab villages lined with grey terrace houses had evolved into affluent towns filled with bright new homes painted all colours of the rainbow. It was an emotional trip. On what would have been my dad’s 80th birthday, the five of us stood on a hill overlooking Galway Bay at sunset and sang his favourite song:

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland — Then maybe at the closing of the day — You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh — And see the sun go down on Galway Bay

I get a tear in my eye e’en now as I recall that brilliant Irish evening. It sounds corny but I truly felt at home in Ireland. I felt a bond with the peaty earth and a genetic connection to the people, their demeanour, wit – and love for a pint.

I’d been itching for an excuse to return and, as Irish luck would have it, last year the opportunity arose. But just like the first time around, this latest sojourn to Ireland wasn’t my idea. It was my school buddy’s notion that a bunch of us – eight old friends – should celebrate our 60th year on the planet by gifting ourselves a trip to the golf links of Ireland. I’ve known this group for a while; five of us attended kindergarten together. Collectively my association with these fellas has spanned 352 years. I did the math.

So in late May we packed our clubs and boarded a jetliner bound for Eire. After a couple of nights wandering the streets of Dublin’s fair city, in a state of jet-lag-induced somnambulism, we boarded a private coach bound for the lovely port city of Kinsale. Distances on an Irish map can be deceiving. The 250 km traverse took us almost five hours. Fortunately we had a couple of guitars, some harmonies, plenty of bonhomie and the affable chatter of our driver, Mr. PaeBottle, to shorten the journey. And there’s no better way to pass an evening than marvelling at the serenity and bucolic beauty of an Irish country lane.

Ireland’s roads are ancient and narrow

In the morning we arose to a brilliant sunny day, a rarity in soggy Ireland, and chowed down a modest Irish breakfast of rashers, black pudding, white sausage, runny eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, soda bread, butter and preserves – all washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and black coffee (I waved away the creamer to avoid the fat).

“Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”

Sated, we departed for Old Head, our first test of links golf. I have stricken many a golf ball in my day but never have I enjoyed  (or endured) a more beautiful (yet painful) experience than my introduction to Irish golf.

The devilish 12th at Old Head

It is bittersweet to see a brand-new Titleist sail up over a gorse-laden glen, observe its apex framed by a heather-topped mountain, then watch its descent over a 200-foot cliff en route to a watery Atlantic grave. “Gimme a double,” was the oft-used phrase of our Irish experience – both on and off the course.

On the trip with my mom in 2003, the Irish cuisine was noticeably un-notable. Supper invariably consisted of boiled fish, boiled chicken… or some other bland boiled protein substance. And always there was the ubiquitous potato, served in two or three varieties at every sitting: mashed, fried, boiled, etc., stacked grimly on one’s plate. One evening, tired of the usual fare, my mother politely asked if she could have a vegetable side with her dinner. The waitress promptly delivered a baked potato. “I asked for a vegetable,” said my puzzled madre. “The potato is a vegetable ma’am,” deadpanned the waitress, then turned and delivered two plates of over-boiled haddock to an unimpressed American couple at the adjoining table.

This time round the food was amazing. The Irish have upped their cuisinal game dramatically, fusing traditional Gaelic fare with actual flavour. Even the potatoes were tasty (although they are now mainly imported from Cyprus; apparently the Irish countryside is too good for the lowly spud). And the Celtic Tiger is alive and well. The streets are full of fancy imported cars and well-heeled women. The shops are stock-full and pubs overflow with tourists. But Ireland is expensive. Menu prices are similar to Canada but the currency is Euros, so the tab is 60% higher when converted to lowly Canadian dollars.

Which is not to say the Irish look down upon us. Au contraire, they love Canadians. We get it. The Irish are a loquacious bunch, always quick with a quip but also appreciative of a little conversational give-and-take. We Canadians laugh – then give it back.

Tralee Golf Links

Our driver Morris PaeBottle was a patient and diplomatic man, his Tralee accent oddly tinged with a Norwegian-like lilt. On the drive from Killarney to Waterville Golf Club we nearly rear-ended a number of cars. After the third incident I asked Morris, “Why do the drivers wait until the last possible moment before signalling a turn?” Unperturbed he explained at length how the Irish had suffered through centuries of poverty, then said, “They’re afraid to wear out the bulb.”

Mr. PaeBottle overflowed with Gaelic pride but was not full of himself. I asked if he’d ever been married. “Yes, once, briefly,” Morris said sheepishly, “no one deserves to be happy all their life.”

When we arrived at Waterville the friendly starter hurried out to help Morris unload clubs from the coach’s boot. My bunkmate Martin began gushing to them about how pretty were the Irish lasses.

“That barmaid in the pub last night took my breath away,” Uncle Marty said. “Surely, that would be a blessing,” Morris said, under his breath.

This wasn’t just a golf trip. A few of the lads are musical, so it was fitting that we’d join in a late-night ceilidh (traditional music, singing and dance) at the Cornerstone Pub in Lahinch.  The boys acquitted themselves nicely and received a thunderous ovation – before being politely asked by the barman to exit the stage and let the truly talented locals reel off a jig or two.

It was a rare treat to join a group of long-time friends on a journey to the old country. It may happen again one day but unfortunately some of the vintage 1957 parts are wearing out. One pal, I’ll call him “TD”, struggles with his hearing.

Memento from Ballybunion

At Ballybunion golf links, which is as famous for its fiendish layout as for its long history, he had a particularly bad finishing hole. As we left the 18th green I noticed him exiting in the wrong direction.

“TD,” I shouted, “the clubhouse is this way.” He looked at me, held up some fingers, and said, “Seven.” As always, Morris was standing by at the finish. He looked at me, winked and said, “Those hearing aids are a real eye-opener.”

I proceeded briskly toward the 19th hole and, killing two birds with the proverbial one stone, said to my scorekeeping friend Sid, whom I’ve known for almost six decades and whose turn it was to buy, “Gimme a double.”

The 19th hole

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. We hope you enjoyed his Irish adventure.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for sponsoring this series.  Click on their ads and learn more about these long-term local businesses.

 

Angling and adventure greet our intrepid traveller on Padre Island

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Turn off the relentless news and escape – India part 4: The Spices of Kerala

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Since this is the only way to travel right now, kick back enjoy this rollicking good tale from Gerry Feehan. 

This is the last in a four-part series on India

After three chaotic days in Mumbai we boarded a plane for the relative calm of Kerala on India’s extreme southwestern tip. The “land of coconuts” is a tropical paradise dense with rain forest, wild elephants, monkeys, tea plantations – and spices. Kerala is home to a wonder of zesty flavours: pepper, cinnamon, licorice, chili, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, turmeric. For centuries the colonial powers fought, won and lost wars over the exotic spice trade.

And from these amazing seeds and roots comes India’s great contribution to world cuisine: curry. We ate curry dishes breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month and never tired of the infinite variety and flavour. In north India meals were largely vegetarian, with the occasional chicken or mutton recipe thrown in. In Kerala, seafood is king and coconut accents every dish.

High in the hills of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary we were enjoying a birding and spice plantation tour when I heard a loud voice boom through a bamboo thicket: “What da ya call that? How many acres ya got here? What’s the name of that spice?”

It was Joe Tourist (see Part 3 in this series). Our serene ornithological outing was ruined.

We’ve all met Joe Tourist. He’s actually quite an affable, well-meaning fellow. JT maintains a permanent grin even when fumbling through his pack or staring incomprehensibly at a map. He’s overbearing and yet teddy-bear likeable. He is demanding – but tips generously. His impatience is legendary. Mr. Tourist is not a “stop and smell the flowers” kind of guy.

When the guide explains something Joe Tourist repeats it, in case you weren’t listening. And when he isn’t listening (which is most of the time) he insists the story be repeated in precise detail. His wife chides him for his foibles – but loves him dearly.

I suppose we all have a bit of Joe Tourist in us.

Nilgiri Langur

After a spicy few days in Periyar we abandoned the temperate dry hills, the monkeys – and J.T. – for the hot muggy coast.

Kerala’s shoreline is chock-full of brackish waterways and canals, used for transportation, fishing and, during the annual monsoon, to irrigate the endless fields of rice. These beautiful languid backwaters have also given rise to a robust tourist industry: houseboating on a kettuvallum. We boarded our quaint floating lodge at Alleppey for a gentle overnight cruise.

 

kettuvallums ply the Kerala backwaters

The European colonists left a curious legacy in Kerala: many Keralans have a Christian given name. Thus our captain Matthew guided us down the canal while mate Mark manned the lines and, in the galley, Luke prepared roti and fresh prawns. The fourth member of the crew was named, naturally… Ganesh.

Kettuvallum crew

Keralans are a warm, gentle people. In the morning, as we disembarked and walked the rickety gangplank onto shore, the four disciples bid us a polite adieu. We had arrived at the luxurious Kumarakom Lake Resort where we would spend our final two nights in India.

Safely parked in a sea of hyacinths

When you ask an Indian a question, the answer is often a non-verbal head-bobble. This gesture can have a number of meanings: yes, maybe, maybe not. To us Westerners, this cryptic side-to-side head movement can be confusing, frustrating – and also enormously entertaining.

After checking in at the Kumarakom I noticed we were short towels. I returned to the lobby and asked the chap at reception if he could remedy the problem. “I shall try my level best, sir,” he said with an assuring head-bobble. “Room service will fulfill your request, anon.”

Curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Indians have borrowed many quaint British niceties; the bobble is theirs alone. And the towels did indeed appear – quite a bit anon.

After a hectic four weeks, it was odd lounging around a quiet resort, removed from the overwhelming crush of humanity. We were soon bored with lazing in the infinity pool. Florence and I exited the guarded gate for one last dose of India. People nodded shyly as we strolled the narrow lanes. A storefront business advertised Ayurveda – Kerala’s ancient form of therapeutic massage. On a whim we pulled out our last rupees. Within minutes I was laying flat on a wooden-slatted table slathered in aromatic oil. When the session was done the masseur handed me a glass of water.

I quaffed the whole jar and then asked, “Is this water safe… bottled?”

Cruisin’ on a Sunday afternoon

“Oh no sir, good water, not bottled,” he assured me, pointing to an earthenware vessel in the corner. I detected a slight head bobble.

It was Monday. We’d be home Wednesday. I prayed that any intestinal distress would be deferred for at least 48 hours.

Now that’s an infinity pool

The journey home was a two-day endurance test. To avoid a nation-wide general strike and highway blockade brought on by the demonetization of the rupee, we left for Cochin airport at 5 a.m. for our flight back to India’s capital. We then had a half-day layover in Delhi before a 14-hour flight to Toronto.

So long Kerala!

As we searched for the Calgary departure gate at Pearson International, a hubbub emerged from the Air Canada first-class lounge. A guy was bellowing to his wife, “Okay, okay, we’ve done India. Where’da ya want go next. I say we see Belize.” It was Joe Tourist.

We hurried by.

It was tough navigating the icy road home from Calgary. On arrival in Red Deer, unable to keep eyes open, we collapsed into bed at noon. Before passing out I turned to Florence and said, “Oh my god, we’re going to Belize next year. Do you think we might run into that Joe Tourist guy again?”

“You never know,” she said. ”It’s a small world.”

Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible.  Please support them.

 

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C. (www.exploreindia.ca) capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

 

 

Here’s are Parts 1-3 of Gerry’s series on India.

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

Join Gerry for a wild ride through the Slums of Mumbai Pt. 3 of a 4 part series

We hope you enjoyed The spices of Kerala.  Click here are more travel stories.

 

 

 

 

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