Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cooling Down

"It's sweltering down there. It's a swamp, you know. Hot. Really hot. And muggy too." They all tried to warn me, but I dismissed them as softy Alaskans. Don't they see the blood running through my veins? I'm Vietnamese; I'm genetically predisposed for jungle-like weather. I'll be fine in New Orleans. I'll adjust.

And I will, it just hasn't happened yet.

My days thus far have gone something like this. Despite being a night owl, I'm awoken at around 8:30a.m. by the heat, penetrating through my windows, converting my air-conditionless bedroom into a convection oven. By that time, my dog Milo has left my side to lie on the cool tiles in the bathroom. I wake up, the arches of my feet soar from walking around town the day before (I have no car here). I turn on the fan and air conditioning in the living room, check my email, check my phone, check anything to procrastinate from doing what I need to do, which probably requires me entering the abyss--the abyss of still, damp, heat, characteristic of New Orleans in June.

New Orleans is unlike most hot places I have been to. I knew before moving here that it was going to feel toasty to my Alaska-acclimated body, but California is also hot, where I grew up, and so is Vietnam, where I lived for a year as an adult. And so are South and Central America, where I've spent months at a time as a traveler. But New Orleans is unusually flat and in many parts below sea level. It rarely catches a breeze. And, with the massive Mississippi River on one side, and Lake Ponchartrain on another, the humidity feels like a blanket.

Because I relocated just recently, there is still an abundance of errands I need to do, and random items I need to pick up. So, I do one round of errands per day, walking for about three hours at a time. And then I get home, and take a cold shower, and do some more unpacking and organizing. I'm inexplicably tired. I allow myself a nap, thinking it will be half an hour or so. Instead, I pass out into a coma-like sleep for two or three hours at a time. I wake up again when it is dark. And take another cold shower.

It's not been any easier for Milo-dog. He is restless for exercise, but the heat is debilitating for him too. I take him out for his morning pee and poo walk. In Alaska, Milo could hike three times more than I could, up hills of 2,000 feet elevation gain. But here, in New Orleans, he tugs me back to the house shortly after conducting his personal business, about three blocks from our apartment. Immediately upon our return, he beelines it to the front room, and plops himself directly in front of the air conditioner.

Yesterday, at 9:30am it was a cool 85 degrees, much lower than
it was going to be in another two hours. I extend our morning walk all the way to Audobon Park, 15 minutes away. Upon arrival I turn back immediately, and his tongue is dragging on the floor, dripping. He pulls me to the other side of the street with the type of urgency usually reserved for bathroom breaks. But instead of conducting his personal business, he pulls me to a small bit of shade he has identified under a truck. He conducts a sit-in and moves again only after five minutes of rest. I'm worried about Milo, but also comforted by the fact that the severity of the climate change I'm experiencing is not a product of my imagination, as exemplified by poor Milo's behavior.

This is not the first time my body has had to adjust to extreme temperatures. In Alaska, I learned a lot about my body's cooling and heating system, having moved there from New York City. My dedication to keeping warm increased moreso when I started ice climbing. I wore clothing in layers, and mostly of microfiber material. I slowed down immediately when I detected a sweat coming on, because I knew I could immediately catch a chill. I adopted strategies. And again I must do so now.

So I take cold showers in the daytime, and then I take my nap. And then I wake up to the night. I say to myself, "Okay, it's dark now; that means it's got to be at least five, maybe even ten whole degrees cooler!" And it is. An arctic 80 degrees. Now I can really start my day.

I put in another couple hours at the house, and I take little Milo out, who is much more amiable in these temperatures. It is dark and it is warm, a novelty for us Alaskans who experience darkness only in the cold, unforgiving winter, and virtual 24 hours of daylight or dusk in the evenings during the summer. And it never really gets hot in Alaska. Recently I spoke to an Alaskan friend on the phone who tells me there is a heat wave in Anchorage. A record 72 degrees. Panic is abound up there.

But here in New Orleans, I find the warmth of the night to be mild compared to the day, and comforting. It envelops me and soothes me, not like the offensively scorching temperatures of the day which seem to sabotage any efforts I have of being a normal human being. In the daytime I watch people jogging, tourists sightseeing, construction workers working. How do they do it? What do they know that I don't know? They look so normal, laughing, talking, all under the unforgiving sun.

For now, I resolve to do my sightseeing of the town in the evenings.
So I sit in the streetcar, all the windows open, and look at the mansions on St. Charles street, glowing with grandeur. I feel a breeze as the train car moves through the city. I get off at the last stop, and walk to the French Market. Lured by the activity inside and the aroma of its wares, I make a stop a Cafe Du Monde and munch on three beignets for $2.18.

I saunter through the plaza, and watch a man play songs on a set
of drinking glasses filled with water. I have my fortune told. I chat with a horse carriage driver who tells me of the ghosts living in his house. I meander through the tiny streets near the Cabildo, charmed by all the preserved buildings, many of which have black gas lamps hanging from them. Finally, back at my apartment I end my evening with another cold shower.

I was born a night owl. At the age of eight, I used to read books until 2:00am. In college, my most productive hours were from 1:00am onwards. By necessity, things changed when I entered professional life. Ten o'clock at night became late and I forced myself to sleep by 1:00am, sometimes with the aid of sleeping pills or herbal remedies.

But unemployment and extreme daytime heat have revived my true nighttime nature. Luckily, New Orleans is amenable to my disposition; there is no shortage of sights and sounds to occupy the night owl here.

I know that eventually I will have to get a day job here. And I also know that somehow, my body will adjust to 95 degree heat, and that I will learn to be productive during conventional hours. And maybe I'll even be able to go a day without three cold showers.

But for now, I belong to the warm New Orleans night.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One Man's Junk

New Orleans is a town filled with grand mansions and doll houses, each with its own history and secrets. This I have learned in spades since having moved here about a week ago. I didn't have to look very far before I started exploring.

My story begins in my new home. I arrived in New Orleans on a Sunday and began looking for apartments immediately. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, right now New Orleans is a renter's market. But I heard rumors that New Orleans is a funny place, and that a city street can go from quaint to questionable in a residential block. The rumor proved true during my survey of the housing stock.

At some point I ended up in Uptown which is located ironically in the southern part of the city, on the bend of the Mississippi River. This section of the city includes the Tulane and Loyola University campuses. Pulling some addresses off of craigslist, I explored and found myself a one bedroom apartment on St. Charles Avenue. The houses on St. Charles are all magnificent, varying both in architectural style and levels of upkeep. Many of them look like something out of Gone With the Wind, plopped right in the middle of the city. A handful are in a state of post-Katrina disrepair, but retain a withered beauty. My apartment is in the latter group.

The building I live in has seen better days. The parquet flooring is warped. The exterior paint is peeling and/or faded. Garbage is randomly strewn in the foliage out front.

But I liked it almost immediately. No serious attempts at renovation of any kind are apparent, revealing interesting details of a time far past: random stain glass windows, tall ceilings with fans, crown molding, creaky (and somewhat questionable) French windows with antiquated lock systems, iron radiators with ornate embossings, tile work from another era. All these things and a view out my window of the antique street car on St. Charles, the French windows opening up to trees, and the light, and the LIGHT! (Have I mentioned that I moved here from Alaska?)

All these perks were enough for me to sign a lease and put down the cash, even though it was at the top end of my price range, and despite the fact I had not seen the neighbors. But I had faith; Having lived in various tenement buildings in New York City, I knew that my power drill and sander could make the world turn. And, though I was now single, I knew that my lovable but seemingly vicious dog could protect me from harm's way.

Like many New Orleans landlords, mine owns several such buildings in the city, many of which he purchased shortly after Katrina. Though this part of town did not flood, the hurricane itself compromised roofs, windows, and walls all over the city. I've since learned that these lesser maintained buildings are typically occupied by students, whose budgets force them to accept an amount of disrepair they will never tolerate again upon graduation. But despite the notorious and dubious reputation of New Orleans quasi-slumlords, I had good luck. Over the span of a few days, I met a batallion of repairmen who fixed the plumbing, the gas, the window, put in another air conditioning unit, installed wood laminate in the only carpeted room, and replaced two ceiling fans of questionable durability. And that's how I met Thomas.

Thomas is the maintenance man/manager for the landlord's numerous units all over town. He is a character, and even before getting to know him one can tell that he has lived a colorful life. Thomas pulls up with his old grey tank of a pickup truck, an antique from the fifties era. Thomas and I chat about Alaska and I tell him that I love Cajun music and that I came to New Orleans to live a different life. He tells me he moved to New Orleans from Arizona prompted by a tv program in which a Katrina survivor spoke of the unearthing of her home. He decided that with his background in carpentry and building management, New Orleans was the place for him.

I ask Thomas about the building, having done some internet research the night before and learned that it was built in the 1800's and that the exteriors were used in at least one major motion picture. Thomas corrects me and says that there are at least three more movies to his knowledge.

On a lark I ask him if there are any salvage yards selling lumber or fixtures from old houses. I tell him about my plans to build a bed frame and headboard from salvaged doors. A big grin spreads across his face. He explains that after Katrina, he and other repairmen were ordered to dispose of the doors, windows, and other sundry items which stood in the way of quick repair. But the pack-rat in him couldn't bear to dispose of the items, and he and other staff salvaged much of the condemned objects, in the off chance that they could be used again. He tells me that the basements of these buildings are full of old wooden blinds, doors and other items I might find useful. We agree to meet the next day.

Thomas takes me into the basement of yet another beautiful but neglected old building near mine, owned by another landlord he works for. There I see dozens of doors, with old brass knobs, and skeleton key holes. There are antique stoves from the 1950's, French window units in spades, pieces of wrought iron from ornate fences, topped with fleur de lis. There is shelving wood, of real hardwood, mirrors with antique frames. I am reeling at the sight of all this junk. This beautiful old junk.

He takes me to his storage unit and his own apartment, both of which resemble a warehouse of old furniture. He tells me that with the exception of the few items he brought with him to New Orleans in his truck, every single object I saw was left behind by tenants or abandoned years ago. He shows me a beautiful piano body that was almost destroyed with a sledgehammer so that it could be easily removed from one of the apartments. The piano was missing the keys and pads on the keys (probably ivory), but the body itself was made of burl wood and dates prior to 1865.

Like a kid in a candy store, from all this I pick out four wooden chairs for reupholstery, a perfectly sized coffee table with Queen Anne legs, a piece of hardwood to be sanded down and propped on the defunct radiators like a bench, some funky old wooden blinds with antique metal keyholes, a small Chinese vase, an old salmon box with a Native Alaskan design on it, a heavy metal roasting pot and lid from the 1960's, a glass decanter and a couple of pieces of marble tile. I set my sights on three doors, two of which I will sand and set atop of casters, and the last one I will mount on top of the frame as a headboard.

I am gleeful and Tom looks pleased that he has found someone with a penchant for old stuff. He seems surprised, but he can tell that I too have an old soul.

The next day I twist brass hooks in the blind and mount it next
to my door to hang my hats. The vase I have propped by one of the French windows, the coffee table sits nicely in front of my futon, with a piece of black marble tile for cups and things. I finish hanging my pictures, sit down and look at all my new things. My new old things. I wonder what the roasting pot has cooked before and in which building, I imagine who used the coffee table.

The city of New Orleans is swirling with stories, and more than just the history you'll find nicely organized in a guidebook. Everywhere is a tale, with more of a past than any of the cookie-cutter houses one can find in the streets of Orange County, California, where I grew up. And little relics of this city are found everywhere, as if they were left behind without much thought or by accident, like crumbs of a sandwich eaten the day before. And now these little crumbs outfit my apartment.

I end my day with my computer sitting on my new coffee table, watching the Pelican Brief in my quest to watch everything remotely about New Orleans. I laugh out loud when I realize that Julia Roberts and Sam Shepherd were in the apartment right across the hall from me when they pretended to get it on.

Since moving here I feel both lucky and scared. I know I have found good luck meeting Thomas and the others I've met in my first week here. Before I left Alaska lots of people told me that I was crazy to have left a "good" state job and to relocate to a city still combatting the effects of hurricane and flood, and now dealing with one of the largest oil spills in history. One person referred to it as a wasteland. But I can tell already that New Orleans is a beautiful city and that there is a community here that loves it, both old and new. What the naysayers forget is that one man's junk is a Small Time Explorer's treasure.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Comeback: The American Buffalo

Up there in my top five favorite wildlife animals is the mighty American Buffalo. My first encounter with them was not at a rescue center, or even a zoo, but rather, quite recently in the middle of the Alaskan Highway in Canada, on my route from Anchorage to New Orleans. After a few days and many hours of curves and steep grades through and around mountains meeting the road, there in the middle of the highway was an awe-inspiring buffalo. Afterwards, I felt as if I had seen a unicorn, and learned that evening that their presence is so ubiquitous locals lovingly refer to them Alaskan highway speed bumps. My second encounter was later on in the trip, on our way out of Saskatchewan, when we drove through Elk Island, home of one of the largest buffalo reserves in the world. About 40 buffalo flank either side of the highway as we pass by. They are huge.

Coincidentally, just days later, we had the good fortune to pass through Jamestown, North Dakota. That's right, the Jamestown, home of the largest buffalo statue in the world, and the National Buffalo Museum! I insist that my traveling companions and I (2 cats, a dog, and an ex-boyfriend) make an overnight stop. If this were merely some lousy city or state buffalo museum, then I'd have agreed without controversy that we buzz right by. But a national museum? A must-see for the newly-minted, self-styled buffalo afficionado such as myself.

The National Buffalo Museum was created in 1991 and is dedicated to educating its visitors on buffalo and prairie life in the United States. It is part of and adjacent to Frontier Village, a series of outbuildings depicting a frontier town. Next to the museum and village is the largest buffalo statue in the world. The museum also includes a pasture viewable from the highway housing a herd of thirty specimens, including a rare white buffalo. I got the opportunity to see the herd, the giant buffalo statue, and even learn a little about one of America's favorite beasts.

The North American Buffalo have been part of America's legacy since the founding of the country. Native only to North America, they provided food and shelter for thousands of years, and roamed the land long before the existence of nations and borders. They then faced near extinction by the 1870's due to commercial and sport hunting and waste. In some cases, tourists would shoot at stampeding herds from moving trains. Often, buffalo were hunted for their tongues only, with the remainder of the carcasses left to rot on the plains. At one point, up to 200,000 were hunted per year.

By the late 1800's it became clear that the population of buffalo was diminishing. Due to the efforts of one man in South Dakota and two in Montana in 1890's, the American buffalo were saved from extinction. These men bought and protected a herd in their respective states. The South Dakota herd grew from 5 to 1200 in about 15 years, and the Montana herd shared comparable success on a smaller scale. These conservation efforts have in large part succeeded in slowly but surely rejuvenating the buffalo population.

Other herds have thrived even without monumental efforts other than through the establishment of the hunting regulations. Take for instance, the buffalo of Catalina Island, in California. Members of this herd are descendants of 14 Hollywood starlets who were brought there in 1924 for the filming of a Western movie, The Vanishing American. At that time the island was owned by William Wrigley Jr. (of the chewing gum fame) who encouraged movie shoots. Upon completion of the film, the animals were left there. They thrived, and grew to a herd of 400 by the 1960's. The Wrigley family turned over most of the island to a conservancy. Since then some have been sent to South Dakota in order reduce ecological onslaught on the island, and a few have been brought from Wyoming to diversify the genetics of the breed. Ultimately, these acts were undertaken to ensure the herd's survival. The conservancy continues to exist today and the buffalo co-exist with humans peacefully in their sunny real estate amongst the mansions of wealthy Californians.

The genetically purest herd thrives in Yellowstone National Park. In 1902 there were 23 specimens roaming the park. Through hunting regulations and the original effort of the aforementioned Montana man, this herd has grown to over 4,000, even threatening their own habitat in the park.

Including commercial herds of genetically impure specimens, there exist by some estimates about 350,000 individuals. Though down from at least 60 million that roamed the frontier in the mid-19th century, it is a clearly a comeback. And, while conservation efforts eliminated jobs in the commercial and sport harvesting industry, these same efforts simultaneously resulted in the birth of buffalo farming.

Another noteworthy example of the revival of near extinct species can be found in my
new home of Louisiana. In 1967, the American alligator was listed as an endangered species, with a population in the low thousands. Efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to control hunting combined with the creation of commercial farms enabled the population to rebound, and since 1987 the American alligator is no longer considered endangered. They are now ubiquitous in the Louisiana bayou, and the market demand for their meat is served by the newly created industry of alligator farming.

So often, regulations in the name of conservation are met with a knee-jerk retort that jobs for human beings are being destroyed. What those critics fail to recognize is the fact that jobs and conservation can go hand in hand, as illustrated by the revival of the buffalo and the alligator.

Both beasts, despite their powerful physique, can co-exist with humans, except when our behavior prohibits such. And so it is also through our behavior and our efforts to control our behavior that we can co-exist again. In this world, alligator and buffalo can roam.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Road Trip

I have rented a 5x8 ft. U-haul trailer for 15 days, which I must drive through Canada and six states to get from Anchorage to New Orleans. Daily travel time is 8-10 hours, or 500-700 miles a day. With me are two cats, a dog, an ex-boyfriend, and what's left of my worldly possessions after a massive, extended garage sale. Fifteen days is the goal, but the extra luggage makes a shorter trip ideal.

Ready to leave Alaska after six unexpected years, in the spring I originally planned to move to Central or South America. But in an attempt to accommodate Josh, my boyfriend at the time, I proposed New Orleans and he accepted. And, as fate would have it, we broke up shortly before the date of departure. I opted to stick with the New Orleans plan regardless. At this point we are both a little out of sorts. He has quit his job and made plans to leave Alaska willingly, albeit prematurely, and I am moving to New Orleans and not Central or South America. Insistent on seeing me safely transplanted, he offers to drive down with me. I accept, and we attach a trailer to his two-door 1998 Grand Prix.

Pragmatics and companions preferences, both beast and human,
prevent us from camping. So it is a spendier, but swifter experience altogether. The three critters share the backseat while the humans take turns driving. We don't stay at our overnight
destination cities other than to walk around town, eat a late dinner, and make plans for the following day. Our sightseeing occurs as we go. We see buffalo, bears, Dall sheep, and moose on the highway. We stop for mountain lakes (my favorite) and allow ourselves the pleasure of gazing at the aqua-blue water.

To me the terrain through Canada is gentler than Alaska's--older, seemingly less rugged hills, and mountain lakes are more ubiquitous. The plains are, well, plain, but also beautiful with the
spectrum of colors reflected on flats of wheat. We treat ourselves occasionally with the odd tourist event here and there; a soak one evening at Liard Hot Springs in Canada, a trip to Graceland in Tennessee, a stop at a National Buffalo Museum in North Dakota, a meander in our route to see the arch in St. Louis.

We are slow but steady and keep a good pace. I feel like Jack Kerouac on the road, except plus two cats, a dog, a u-haul trailer, and an ex in tow; and minus the partying and random women.

Surprisingly, the ones faring the best are the cats, who spend most of the time sleeping curled up, either in one of their two kennels, or under my seat.

Milo-dog doesn't do too badly either, preferring to nap with his head on the console between the driver and front passenger seats.

The humans do alright as well, but long periods of peace are punctuated with sharp arguments inevitably resulting in tears, as to be expected for two people traveling together in a post mortem relationship.

And somehow we make it.

Of course my mind does the second-guessing, but my gut tells me leaving Alaska was right, and that everything will be alright. I am ready to make New Orleans my home.