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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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Egypt: Sailing the Nile by Gerry Feehan

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Sure, there’s no travel now, but one day, when the world opens up, we will travel again. In the meantime, enjoy the first in a two-part series “Sailing the Nile”

The Nile River is a mind-boggling 6853 km long. It is the longest river in the world. Mind you we were only sailing about 200 km of it, from Luxor to Aswan, on an Egyptian dahabiya. But since we were relying on the prevailing north wind to carry us upstream—to the south—even that took nearly a week.

Dahabiyas are shallow-bottomed, barge-like vessels. These two-masted craft have been plying the waters of the Nile, in one form or another, for thousands of years. We were on the Malouka, a 45-meter long beauty, part of the four-boat Nour el Nil fleet. For the entire voyage, all four boats sailed together in a colourful flotilla. https://www.nourelnil.com/

Our captain was Humpty Dumpty (the crew had given each other very entertaining nicknames). Humpty was a musical fellow. When he wasn’t shouting orders he was humming quietly to himself. As my travels have repeatedly confirmed, music is the world’s great unifier. Thus, on our second evening aboard, I uncased my ever-present ukulele and began strumming a few tunes. Soon, the captain and a few other crewmembers wandered up from below deck, listening appreciatively, attentively—and patiently.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire.

Then it was their turn. In moments the entire crew had gathered on deck, instruments in hand. They began clapping as the captain sang out an Arabic folk song. The loud thumping of the cook’s doumbec filled the Nile valley with contagious percussion. The floorboards reverberated as every soul on board bounced wildly in unison. Our quiet jam session on a soft Egyptian night had quickly evolved into a raucous international jamboree. It was magical.

In the morning we were enjoying a reflective, leisurely breakfast when someone shouted, ‘There’s a woman floating in the river!’ The lady casually waved as she drifted by. It was Eleanor, one of Nour el Nil’s owners. Eleanor’s cabin was on the Malouka’s sister ship, the Meroe. We were invited to join Eleanor in the water. I had no idea that swimming in the Nile was safe—or part of the agenda.

Abandoning our eggs, we all scrambled from the table and donned bathing attire. The procedure was simple: walk a few hundred meters upstream, jump in and simply go with the flow. Drift down to the dahabiya, swim to shore and… repeat. This unexpected treat—and respite from the hot Egyptian sun—quickly became a daily ritual. Surprisingly, the Nile River is not overly wide. But it has a subtle incessant strength. A dip in this great watercourse reveals its unmistakable power. Each of us tried futilely to buck the current and swim upstream. None made any headway, all eventually succumbing to the Nile’s deep, relentless, perpetual force.

Ancient Egyptians relied on this coincidence of opposing wind and current to build the greatest civilization the world had ever known. It is what enabled the construction of the pyramids 4500 years ago. Vast blocks of granite and sandstone were quarried and, during the annual flood, floated downstream and unloaded. Then the barges were sailed back upstream and loaded anew. The Great Pyramid of Cheops near Cairo contains over two million blocks, each weighing in excess of a tonne, every stone stacked in place by hand. That’s a lot of barging—not to mention the heavy lifting.

There is no more luxurious—or relaxing way—to see Egypt and appreciate its spectacular ancient tombs and temples, than to embark on a quiet sail up the Nile on a dahabiya. Muslim rulers in the middle ages ostentatiously gilded these barges the colour of the sun. The name is thus derived from the Arabic word for gold.

Each day we moved a little further south. We’d dock, disembark and, after enduring a gauntlet of incessant, tenacious, persistent street hawkers, we’d be in the portal of one of ancient Egypt’s incredible monuments. All these sites are located just a short walk from shore, above the high-water mark of the historical Nile flood. First we visited Esna, then Al-Kab, then Edfu and Horemheb. Our final stop was Kom-Ombo and its Crocodile Museum, where 3000 year-old mummified reptiles stared at us, teeth bared, looking malevolently alive. The Pharaohs venerated these beasts, preserving them for their mutual journey to the afterlife.

Temple guard

Kom-Ombo

At each stop we were met on shore by Adele, a young Egyptologist, who guided us through the complex history of these wonders. He patiently explained the ancient hieroglyphs that adorned the sandstone walls—but only after our group gave him our complete attention. Any noisy transgressors received a stony stare until they were embarrassed into silence. Then in a quiet but commanding baritone the lesson would begin. And god forbid you were caught snapping a photo of a frieze from the middle kingdom during one of his talks. Another cold glare would ensue, together with the admonition, “Time for pictures later.”

Adele explaining a cartouche

On the hike to Al-Kab, I noticed Adele fidgeting with something in his hands. “Why the worry beads?” I asked. “Prayer beads,” he corrected. He didn’t look like the devout type. “I’m trying to quit smoking,” he explained sheepishly.

Inside the tomb, Adele was showing us how to read a 30-century-old cartouche carved into the stone, pointing out a few of the multitude of gods worshiped by the early Egyptians. Osiris, god of the dead, Horus, with his falcon head and Isis, Horus’s mother. We all stood, obediently quiet in the dim sweltering closeness of the crypt. Then with a flashlight he pointed out some additional markings in the rock: ‘John Edwards 1819.’ We looked closer and saw many other similar autographs. British soldiers had clumsily scratched graffiti into these magnificent ancient works 200 years ago.

Kilroy, it seems, has been just about everywhere.

Next time: Part 2: Sailing the Nile on a Dahabiya.

Exodus Travel skillfully handled every detail of our Egypt adventure: www.exodustravels.com/

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in 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.

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

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8 miles off the coast of Ireland Gerry Feehan’s “Buddy-Hike” discovers the Skellig Islands

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Skellig Islands, Ireland (part 3 of a 3 part series)

Click to read Part 1, Gerry’s buddy trip to Ireland

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

Click to read Part 2, Hiking in Ireland

Hiking in Ireland (part 2 of a 3 part series)

 

The remains of Skellig Michael’s 6th century monastery

Although the fine details of our trip to the Emerald Isle had been neatly settled months before leaving Canada, the folks at www.irelandwalkhikebike.com contacted me shortly before our departure to suggest a change in the itinerary. We could skip a day of hiking Ireland’s west coast and instead visit the Skellig Islands, a craggy set of rocks poking forlornly out of the Celtic Sea, eight rough miles off the Kerry coast. Initially I was reluctant to dedicate an entire day to seasickness. But there was something in the tone of the email that suggested this was an opportunity not to be missed. And so, foregoing my own health and thinking first of others—as I am wont to do—the boat trip for our group of six was booked.

We arrived in the sleepy seaside town of Cahersiveen on the fourth day of our weeklong Irish trekking adventure. Elaine, our hiking guide, drove us to the boat and cheerily waved goodbye. She doesn’t fare well at sea either and was happy to keep her feet dry for the day. When we arrived at the pier the sky was grey and the sea looked rough. There were a lot of anxious-looking people milling about the wharf. I wandered over to a fellow who was tying knots or scaling barnacles or some such other salty-dog task that identified him as a mariner. He was in fact the first mate. I inquired as to how the boat ride might be.

He turned to me, squinted, looked up at the sky and said, “It’s going to be terrible.”

“How terrible?” I asked.

“Miserable terrible” he said, with conviction.

“Can things get worse than miserable terrible,” I asked.

“Aye,” said he, “there’s awful terrible. That’s when, as you leave the pub, you hold your hand over your face so the wind don’t blow your teeth out.”

Reassured, I stepped around the back of the boat, practiced my vomiting stance, then returned to the gangplank, stepped aboard and prepared myself for a truly awful experience.

The 90-minute motor out was windy, choppy and exposed. The small boat rolled and rocked in the constant swell. But I’ve learned from vast seafaring experience that the best method to prevent seasickness is to stand up, hang on and concentrate unfailingly on the horizon. This I did for an hour and a half and landed with a full stomach—which is more than I can say for the pretty young Irish lass who, by the time the Skelligs came into sight, was tossing her breakfast of rashers and black pudding over the stern.

We weren’t sure what to expect of the Skelligs—other than the rough boat ride, a lot of nesting seabirds and a steep set of steps up a cliff to some ancient Gaelic ruins. As we neared the tight landing at Skellig Michael, birds were soaring and diving in a feeding frenzy. “What are they?” I asked the first mate.

“The big ones, those are gannets,” he answered, “And the little colourful fellars, them are puffins.”

My wife Florence looked up from her knitting. (Yes, she can knit onboard a dinghy in a gale.) “Puffins? Did you say puffins?” “Aye, Atlantic puffins ma’am, in breeding plumage.”

Florence was so excited she nearly dropped a stitch. She has yearned to see puffins for years. I thought we’d need to visit Greenland or Labrador or some other remote, inaccessible place to view these remarkable birds. And lo, here, on a last-minute Irish hiking side-trip, the cute little cliff dwellers appeared in unexpected, colourful brilliance—magnificent mating feathers on full display.

The small boat rocked into the landing. The first mate quickly tied off as the captain helped us hop-step onto the pier. Within seconds the boat was gone, back into the rough offshore sea, where she would wait, bobbing like a cork, for the two hours of our Skellig visit. We stumbled off the landing, regained our land legs and looked up. A narrow, exposed staircase, carved into the uneven rock face rose steeply upward, beyond the ken of craned necks.

Access to the islands is forbidden without a local guide. Our escort, Sinead explained that Skellig Michael was inhabited by Gaelic monks starting in the sixth century and then abandoned a few centuries later. It was these early voyagers who had carved the sheer staircase directly into the rock. At the precarious summit 180 meters up, they had built a few lonely stone structures. Here they lived a life of cold, isolated austerity, living off fish and bird’s eggs—scraping a meagre sustenance from the infertile rock.

The guide told us the steps were steep and uneven, with no handrails – and that those with even an ounce of acrophobia in their veins should not attempt the climb. Properly forewarned and with eyes cast downward to avert the consequences of a misstep, we began our ascent up the 880 steps to the monastery on the stony peak.

It’s 880 precarious stone steps to the summit

As we climbed nesting puffins, mere feet away, went about their business, oblivious to our presence. These birds evolved in an environment lacking predators. With its magnificent ruins and endemic unworried birds, Skellig Michael is a perfect mix between Machu Pichu and the Galapagos Islands.

Atlantic puffins in full breeding plumage

When we reached the top, the summit flattened into a small walled compound of beehive structures made entirely of stacked stone. And despite the absence of masonry, these lonely dwellings have withstood a thousand battering years of Irish rain and wind.

 

The Skellig Islands poke forlornly out of the Celtic Sea

The opening scene in the newest Star Wars movie was filmed at Skellig Michael. An unfortunate bi-product of this Hollywood notoriety will be a “Star Wars” chaser industry, where tourists converge on the island, not to observe the stark beauty of a 6th century monastery or the glorious plumage of horny puffins, but to see where Luke Skywalker eerily pronounced, “It is time for the Jedi to end.” Even without the boat ride, it makes one want to puke.

When we returned to the wharf, the weather had softened. The return boat trip was reasonably benign. Elaine awaited us when we docked, looking refreshed after a quiet stroll in the green fens above Cahersiveen. “Well, how was it?” she asked. The others gushed on about the stone stairs, the view, the ruins and the Darwinian fauna experience. I looked at her, holding my hand over my mouth in feigned illness, and said, “Wow”.

If you go: www.irelandwalkhikebike.com

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence now live in 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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