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Crossing the border from Mexico into the US six weeks ago felt like the end of… something. Leaving the Spanish-speaking Americas didn’t signal the climax of our trip; at the time, we still had more than 4,000km to ride. Even so, more than at any other border crossing, we sensed we were leaving behind a quite particular way of life.

Of course, Latin America isn’t just one huge homogenous, contiguous monoculture. Each country is distinct; indeed, some pairs of neighbouring nations – Panama and Colombia, for instance, or Costa Rica and Nicaragua – have virtually nothing in common with one another. But whatever their variations, the countries through which we cycled had all been unfamiliar to us, and we’d spent 18 months enjoying the endless thrill of discovery.

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By contrast, we’ve between us made upwards of 30 trips to the USA, visiting every state except Alaska and Hawaii. We understand well enough how the country works; and, indeed, how it doesn’t. We know the things we love and have made a kind of traveller’s peace with many of the things we don’t. We speak the language, or at least a version of it. For better and worse, the US no longer holds for us an elemental sense of surprise.

On a more prosaic note, we knew we wouldn’t be seeing the country at its best. Spring has been late in springing this year; the trees remain bare and the air retains a wintry chill. (Our arrival five days back in Louisville, Kentucky was greeted by flurries of snow, the temperature approaching an overnight low of -6°C.) For the first time since we ran into the end of the Peruvian rainy season nearly a year ago, we’ve had to rule out routes purely on account of the weather. And we’ve had to watch the clock, having left ourselves a long way to ride in the nine weeks we allowed to get from Laredo, Texas to New York City.

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And then there’s the elephant in the room. The US has been a spectral presence throughout our journey, and not always a positive one. Even when we were thousands of miles from here, it often felt curiously close at hand. It was there in the countries that have embraced its influence (Panama, Costa Rica, Chile, parts of Mexico); in those that have been damaged by its foreign policy (such as Nicaragua and Guatemala); and in those where the modern-day leaders passionately decry the might of Los Estados Unidos (Bolivia and Argentina, among others). We saw it on screens and streetcorners, heard it on radios and in restaurant conversations. We were often presumed to be Americans ourselves, and in some countries it was striking how much friendlier the locals instantly became when they learned we were actually English. America dominates the Americas in ways we hadn’t envisioned. After 18 months in the cultural shadow of the US, we were wary of our reaction to reaching it.

Aside from the exchange rate, which is brutal for a pair of travelling Europeans accustomed to Latin American economies, it’s been a pleasant surprise. Our knowledge of the US has helped us build for ourselves a more interesting route than we’d otherwise have taken at this touch-and-go time of year, when most cyclists outside the Southwest and Florida are constantly sprinting to escape one or another fast-closing weather system. Our path to New York has threaded us through areas we’ve only previously skirted, while also allowing us to revisit a few places we’ve treasured from previous trips. One such place is New Orleans.

 


 

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If the American South is another country, as is so often said, then we’re not sure where that leaves New Orleans. Louisiana, and southern Louisiana in particular, has always felt to us like a state apart from its neighbours, and the obvious historical explanations don’t seem reason enough for all its present-day differences. Within this anomalous region lies an even more anomalous city. A onetime powerhouse port, a former slave-trading hub and the birthplace of jazz, a town that comes closer than most to living up to its hackneyed description as a melting pot, a Caribbean city that geographical accident dropped on the United States – New Orleans is like nowhere else.

We were last here in 2001, when we stopped for a couple of days on a road trip (by car) from Miami to Austin, Texas. Our host, then as now, was our friend Harriet Swift, a journalist, historian and preservation consultant with the perfect combination for any urban guide: an insider’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the city married to an outsider’s enthusiasm for it. (Harriet was born and raised in nearby Alabama.) One indelible night we spent with her in 2001 encapsulated for us something of the city’s charisma.

In 1961, a New Orleans native named Ernie K-Doe topped the US charts with a trivial little R&B number called ‘Mother-in-Law‘. Although K-Doe released countless other singles (British readers may recall ‘Here Come the Girls’, later used in a TV commercial for Boots), ‘Mother-in-Law’ was a textbook one-hit wonder. However, despite dropping from the national spotlight as quickly as he’d found it, K-Doe remained a formidably famous, heroically unhinged presence in his home town, greeting customers at his chaotic Mother-in-Law Lounge by proclaiming that, ‘There ain’t but three songs that will stand the test of time: “Amazing Grace”, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Mother-in-Law”.’ When Harriet took us to the lounge back in 2001, we were the only customers, but that didn’t deter K-Doe – garish flared-collar suit, hedge-backwards wig, googly-eyed stare – from taking to the tiny stage in the small hours and performing for us an excruciating, mercifully short set that included a new song called ‘White Boy, Black Boy’, a plea for racial harmony, and, inevitably, ‘Mother-in-Law’. It remains one of the most vivid, extraordinary evenings either of us have ever endured.

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A little of New Orleans’ eccentricity disappeared when K-Doe died of liver failure just a few months later. (Perhaps a bar might not have been the best habitat in which to rehabilitate a chronic alcoholic.) A little more of that eccentricity, perhaps a lot more, was washed away four years later, in the worst natural disaster to hit a US city since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. During the week we spent there in March, we lost count of the number of times we heard Hurricane Katrina described as a year zero for the city. In 2015, a decade after the floods, everything in New Orleans is pinned as before or after Katrina, and everybody who was there at the time has a story to tell. (Harriet’s shotgun house on the eastern edge of the Bywater neighbourhood was relatively unscathed. Even so, Katrina forced her to leave town for three months.)

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We didn’t know the city well enough before Katrina to understand fully for ourselves the nature of the changes it caused. New Orleans was a complicated place when we were here in 2001, and is probably even more complex today. But the numbers, as detailed in this excellent survey of the city in 2014, tell at least part of the story. The population is nearly 100,000 lower than in 2005, and the population turnover has been greater still. Black and white seem to mix more easily and obviously here than in many other parts of the South, but, economically, the racial divide is still a gulf; some 40 per cent of African American households earn less than $20,432 a year. The education and welfare systems are still in flux; and the new housing balance of the city has changed the character of some of its central neighbourhoods.

On a less formal note, you don’t have to look far to see storefront evidence of the monochromatic, small-world gentrification that we’ve seen everywhere from Buenos Aires to Medellín to Austin (and, of course, in our own neighbourhood in east London). The city saw an unexpected influx of young residents after Katrina, and they brought with them changes we’ve come to see as inevitable in a culturally globalised world. The cinemas serve not popcorn but craft beer; a loaf of bakery bread costs more than a sandwich; you’re naked without an arm’s length of tattoos; and so on. Measured in such visions, the world is growing smaller, and cities within it, New Orleans among them, are becoming less distinctive.

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But, reassuringly, New Orleans is still New Orleans, not least because it still looks so much like New Orleans. You could – we did – walk its residential streets for hours without succumbing to boredom. From the classically Southern, double-gallery piles of the Garden District through the icons of the French Quarter and on to the Creole townhouses, cottages and shotgun houses of the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, it’s a picture. We can’t help but see these houses through Northern European eyes, which may lend the buildings – even modest, unremarkable ones like those shown above – more romance than they merit. But these are the only eyes we have. It’s a gorgeous place.

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And it still sounds like New Orleans, at least if you know where to open your ears. The French Quarter has the reputation but by no means all the music; you’re as likely to run into a covers band or a karaoke session here as anything more substantial. But the town is full of terrific musicians; and from west to east, it’s also full of bars and audiences (locals and tourists) willing to help them try and scratch out a living. (Among the former is the Mother-in-Law Lounge, recently reopened by trumpeter and Rebirth Brass Band stalwart Kermit Ruffins.) As one local songwriter noted in a recent interview, ‘New Orleans is such a chops town. The money’s in the performance.’ Stay home even for a night and, somewhere across town, you’re missing something.

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For all that it’s retained much of its character despite the havoc wrought by Katrina, it’s hard to know what the future holds for New Orleans. The Bush government’s notoriously slow reaction to the hurricane brought the city’s geographical and cultural isolation from mainstream America into sharp focus, and the distance remains. Tom Piazza, a local writer, was moved to put the city’s case in a book provocatively entitled ‘Why New Orleans Matters‘; tellingly, though, we’ve only seen it on shelves in New Orleans itself. But, troubles and all, it does matter, not least because the kind of non-conformism that has helped define its character seems rarer than ever today. We hope New Orleans saves what makes it special.

from Cincinnati, OH, USA