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Priority Ticket to Hell

Don’t carry children in the basket

overcast -20 °C

We’ve been to hell – quite often. For example, the time we were locked in the bowels of an old car ferry chugging across the Black Sea to meet a visa entry deadline into Russia. One engine failed reducing speed to only just forward in favorable wind. Had I been able to speak Russian I would have offered to paddle. The women in charge of passengers – a graduate of the Stalin Academy -indicated that the failed motor drove the electrical system so dinner was red sauerkraut on black bread followed by banishment to our airless cabin down beside the struggling clanking whining prop shaft. It was 38*C (100F) and Flypaper pointed out this voyage was my idea. Another time in Azerbaijan, the place crude oil was first discovered by mankind resulting in an obscene ecological disaster, we stood by the roadside arguing with a policeman who looked at us like a hyena eyeing its next wounded meal. The location was one where natural gas seeped out of the ground and spontaneously ignited making me suspect this was hell, the real deal.

Following our flight from Auckland to Los Angeles – LAX to fellow travelers – we alighted in some trepidation as we’ve been here before. Sure enough, we herded through immigration like fat chickens in a poultry abattoir to have an interrogation, fingerprints and photo taken by a humourless boarder guard to looked himself like an illegal immigrant who escaped the dogs and beat the system. Having discovered we were not on Don Trumps list and passed the test we were allowed loose to find our luggage. Easier said than done as we don’t speak Spanish or African American Vernacular English. Finally, we found a carousel with other familiar temporary harassed aliens. Together we waited 1.25 hours for our ‘priority’ bags. In typical LAX fashion, all the ‘priority’ luggage was unloaded last leaving dozens of travelers, ourselves included, stressed about making our next flight connection. For good measure, someone had ripped the handles off my bag. (That should teach me not to have positive expectations.) Then the problems started. We were issued with bright orange ‘priority’ cards and told to walk East in the herd of panicking travelers doomed to a holiday on the escalators of hell. The orange cards insured we would be harassed by black women wrestlers shrieking in a strange language strategically placed to impede our hopeful progress. Eventually we arrived at a place that was accepting luggage. We offered our pitiful examples only to be told we should have deposited them 40 minutes previous on a pile the appeared destined for redistribution to the poor and needy. In frustration I told the luggage handler he could have them as we intended to sue the airport for a new wardrobe and marched off in search of an aircraft with Houston written on the door. 30 minutes later we were through security, personally searched by an ogre who was skeptical we didn’t even own guns and told to follow the weeping wailing masses that had already missed their flights. A further 10 minutes of jogging in 30-degree C heat found us at a bus stop where the sleepy uninterested attendant assured us this would take us somewhere that may promise an aircraft. Sure enough, after playing dodgems around various runways with enormous aircraft where signs wisely advised our driver to ‘give way to turning aircraft’, we found a shed that displayed the airport code for Houston – IAH. Logical isn’t it. We were amazed there was no queue. Flypaper panted out our hopes only to be told boarding was complete, but the aircraft was delayed so we could continue running in the hope they would open the door. They did – but told us our business class seats had been sold to others, but we could board if we accepted we would travel ‘coach’. We were then squeezed in beside a hysterical woman who bitched she had not been given an upgrade. I decided it wasn’t worth pointing out we had just been given a downgrade and 2 overweight passengers were already chomping into our lunch while we dined on pretzels and apple juice. (The aircraft delay was due to ground technicians pumping too much fuel and difficulties finding a tanker that could suck it out again. Go figure.)

We made it to Houston … and astonishingly, so did our luggage. Rather than push our luck further on public transport we took a cab to our hotel … just in time to learn a looney had slaughtered 26 people in church just up the road from us. (About 200 miles up the road but that seemed close enough.)
For our initial experience we visited a great US institution – Walmart. Our local branch was a shed covering about 10 acres with a 15 acre carpark in front. It had seen better days and so had most of the shoppers. Walmart is famous for attracting weird looking customers causing me to spend a few minutes gazing at my reflection in a shop window to discover if I would stand out. Flypaper assured me I wouldn’t. (I need to think about that) We purchased a GPS system for our rental car. The units fitted by the rental companies cost more than buying your own and I’m proficient with the Garman system given I have units for New Zealand and Australia, Europe, parts of Asia, major cities of the world and now the USA and Canada. The next task was a basic telephone with a local sim card. Again, we have about 7 phones that do little but talk and text. Following an agonizing time making this $50 decision we later discovered the Walmart assistant had sold us a card that was not compatible with the telephone. I felt a little kindlier toward people who choose to carry guns.

Having been in several Walmart’s I have formed the opinion they are not the sort of shop people with a brain should, or indeed do, frequent. The stock is strewn all over the shelves by people who open the packaging to check the product out – then take one still packaged. The shop fittings show signs of abuse. (I understand that and felt inclined to contribute) The employees do their best which typically leaves a lot to be desired. I now understand some people really are unemployable and it’s a mistake to inflict them on paying customers. For all that, Walmart does have one redeeming feature …they provide electric shopping carts for the aged and infirm. These are effectively an industrial grade mobility scooter with a big basket on the front. The basket has a sign ‘No children in basket’. Surprisingly, the only people we have seen using these carts are not the aged and infirm, but the grossly overweight. And astonishingly, quite a few have chubby children in the basket. These people are allowed to vote – and obviously did so recently.

Later that night after being unable to set up the new simple telephone I called their ‘helpline’ on my New Zealand phone at $1.75 per minute. That was a mistake. The US is a bilingual country and I only spoke British English – which is not one of the options. Its not so bad if I can study the body language and watch the lips moving or look in the direction of the pointed figure. This doesn’t work on a telephone. After running up more phone charges than the new one cost, we discovered the replaced ‘wrong sim card’ did not allow for international calls. This is important. Flypapers phone is a NZ roaming phone – an international call. The reason for the new phone was principally to call her whenever one or both of us are lost. (It’s critical to arrive back at the same hotel each evening because I need to know which clothes are suitable for my next public appearance.) The voice attempting to solve my phone issue agreed to sell me an ‘international extension’ for $10. Sounds like a reasonable deal … except they couldn’t accept an international credit card because I don’t have a US Zip Code. “Zip” I said, “I have all sorts of zips – jackets, trousers, luggage – but none of them are secret … or able to solve the problem. ‘It’ finally advised me to return tomorrow to my local Walmart. (This could be the last correspondence you read from me.)

Next day we took the minor roads East through Bayou Country and passed into Louisiana. We prefer back ‘country’ roads and interesting towns. Anyway, the Freeways are far too scary.
Lunchtime found us in a sleepy town that specialized in catching catfish, crawfish and shrimps. We chose “Edith’s Place” a small eatery named after the lovely proprietor’s wife. We did see Edith – her picture was painted on the wall. It was not flattering. We felt culturally inadequate and conspicuously white. Our host proffered a couple of menu’s and recommended the blackened catfish. We countered by saying we just wanted something small and a couple of coffees. The delightful man replied he didn’t do small but we were welcome to help ourselves to free coffee. He said, “Yower in real Cajun Country nower”. This would not do. We had the reputation of pale faced visitors with a properly registered car to uphold – so we chose a dish described as a ‘Poor Mans Lunch’ … and added, “to share”. Two plates please. He looked at us and said, “My, yower real po-wer an’t yo”. We slunk to a table and enjoyed superb coffee while waiting for ‘meat loaf, corn, weeds, rice and corn bread’. It was delicious – and huge. Us po-wer people left quite bit on the plate – together with the best tip he probably had all week. Oh, nearly forgot. We took advantage of the cleanest and most well provisioned toilets we can recall. On the wall was a sign, “Wash your hands. Say your prayers. Germs and Jesus is everywhere”. This made me recheck my fly.

Evening found us at our French Colonial hotel in the ‘French Quarter’ of New Orleans. New Orleans old town is indeed old. It shows. Situated on the banks of the huge Mississippi River it has had little upkeep since its heyday in the mid 1800’s. While I’ve not seen them all, its streets and footpaths are likely to be in the worst condition in the US of A. There are worse in Central Asia which leaves New O with the challenge of further years of neglect. The buildings emit an air of genuine dilapidation that no amount of new money could replicate. The words ‘shabby chic’ were coined to describe this old CBD. We are here during the quiet time. I imagine the busy season is best avoided – its bad enough right now to bring out the noisiest Jazz Bands and restaurants have the courage to be a bit ‘slap-dash’. Don’t be surprised if your order turns out to be something quite different and presentation is not exactly an art form. Peasant food is passed off as de rigueur. Be prepared for it all to taste the same – highly spiced.

The ‘Old Town’ should not be confused with the greater modern city which is typical of every other modern city – too much traffic, too few parking places, too many hotels and businesses fleecing unsuspecting tourist. The Old Town tended to be habituated by a younger set of dubious gender and an obvious desire toward poor moral behavior. The New Town is teaming with middle aged tourists and elderly woman who moved here on the strength of their late husbands’ life insurance. I was glad Flypaper put is in with the younger set – but disappointed that she disallowed any lowering of my moral standards.

Having eaten exclusively Cajun food for 3 days I consider I’m an expert. This knowledge was difficult to grasp. For one thing, I thought ‘Gumbo’ was short for gumboot – wet weather footwear in the rural community I grew up in. Here it means a spicy fish, crab, shrimp stew ruined with ‘Okra’. (You look it up. I’m afraid to learn the answer.) One thing you can say for sure about Cajun food – it gives one gas. Copious gas. Don’t however be concerned. The Jazz is perfect for disguising the source and one simply has to look searchingly around – to discover everyone else is doing the same. Initially I though the river was the source of the pervading aroma but I believe the correct origin has been identified. Once gassed up it’s possible for anyone with rhythm and a healthy sphincter to join in the music and feel very much part of the scene.
I was having language ‘issues’ in Texas – then we arrived in New Orleans. French Creole language spoken by the Louisiana Creole people and sometimes Cajuns and Anglo-residents of the state of Louisiana. The language consists of elements of French, Spanish, African, and Native American roots. It cannot be understood by anyone proficient in any of those mentioned languages. Whenever faced with a question I learned to say, “mi fanm-mwen” (mee+fan+m+mweh) – “This is my wife”. That way, we cut straight to the final decision.

Following a couple of 'Plantation Tours' at which there were no plantations - just a couple of very large old homes (never-the-less, interesting) the last evening in New Orleans was spent on the Natchez Riverboat cruising the Mississippi. Nothings too good for Flypaper and I even donned a clean shirt for the occasion. This seemed like a mistake when, after 2 glasses of Natchez Jazz Punch I ended up in the engine room. Given the chief engineer wouldn’t let me tune it for more speed the shirt remained good enough for the dinning room – where enough ‘gas’ was being produced to render steam an obsolete energy source. The effects of the Punch were still evident at the end of the evening when we found ourselves peddled home in a rickshaw bike. I considered the skinny young peddler an insolent brat who continued to defer to Flypaper during our pre-ride haggling and between them agreed on an outrageous price for a 3 block ride. I had the last laugh when he navigated to the wrong hotel and had to peddle twice the distance. This gave me ample time to make vocal observations regarding his style, speed and lack of suitable physic to be transporting 2 well fed guests both encumbered by heavy metallic joints. At the same time, I could advise the walking peasantry as to the obvious privileges affordable by a lifetime of hard work and saving.

A lot more of Southern America lies in wait for us.

Posted by Wheelspin 08:34 Archived in USA Tagged telephone new orleans houston texas luggage austin cajun creole louisiana walmart lax gumbo Comments (2)

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