The Deep South. The words conjure up an array of images, each promising a very different picture of America to that which we have experienced so far. We were entering Louisiana and Mississippi, each State a centre for the chequered history surrounding slavery, war and poverty, but also a heartland for the music, food and Southern way of life that charms travellers from around the globe.
There were many lessons to be learnt on our journey through the first States of the Deep South – not everything was as it seemed and we were surprised at every turn.
When it comes to State Parks, don’t make presumptions
The closer we get to the east, the harder it seems to be to find cheap or free blm campsites. I am sure they exist but not with the prevalence of Montana or California. The answer to our problem: State Parks.
State Parks are like the little brother of National Parks. Like all younger siblings there is an element of copying – they have the same focus on nature, conservation and education – but unlike their big brother, they keep a much more local focus. They also offer some of the most economical ways to camp around the U.S, offering big sites with shower and dump facilities in some of the most wonderful environments the State can offer.
Each state is different; Texas offered free fishing, Montana offered ultimate wilderness and Oregon offered exceptional beach access. We weren’t expecting Louisiana’s to be anything special – they are not a rich State – but we were wrong! Alongside the bayous full of alligators (don’t swim here folks!), they offered free laundry and waterparks and fire pits. That makes for a very happy family!
There is no such thing as slavery?!
Did you know that more slaves ended up in Brazil than in America? It was a new fact to me. It was one that Louisiana wanted to point out though – perhaps because they wanted to deflect from the awful struggle that has been so well documented of the plight of American slaves on the Louisiana plantations.
Visiting a plantation had been high on my agenda. I wanted to explain what had happened to the kids and also learn more about how America had learnt from her past and what she was doing to change her future. You can imagine my surprise when, on asking my Texan friend which plantation to visit, her response was to “skip the plantations” altogether.
It turns out the Louisiana story is crafted more around southern glamour Think big hoop skirts and mint juleps in beautifully manicured tea gardens. Slaves are not entirely forgotten – our Texan friends said they had seen a plaque at the plantation they visited that ‘thanked the Africans that came to help set up the plantation’. Hmmmm.
I found a National Geographic article about a different plantation – the Whitney – that focuses entirely on the slave experience. The write-up suggested all Americans should go and visit this ‘hard-hitting’ and ‘truthful‘ museum. It sounded more like what I was after and so we chose to go there instead. It was a much more realistic portrait. Very little of the tour is spent in the big house – most of it is split between the memorials for the slaves and the slaves quarters. The tour guide brought home the horrors of working in the field with water snakes, alligators and sharp cane. He showed us the sugar cane warehouses where cane was ground up and repeatedly boiled in increasingly smaller bowls, leading to perils such as spitting sugar that would weld to the skin or loss of limb in a grinder. Needless to say, the idea of someone’s job being to stand with an axe next to the grinder in case someone got a hand caught (it was better to chop a hand off than have a whole arm mangled) was the takeaway for the boys.
It was moving and saddening to hear about the Whitney slaves but it wasn’t anything new. Perhaps the greater lesson for me was the fact that Americans seem not quite ready to fully face up to their murky past and the role they played in shaping the racial divide across the Nation. Why hide the most moving exhibit of the 45 beheaded slaves from view? It should be seen because it really happened.
At the time of the National Geographic article (2016) the Whitney was the only museum dedicated to slavery in the U.S. The only one! I guess slavery so wholly goes against the ideals of ‘freedom, equality and justice‘, it’s just too big a pill to swallow. The one saving grace is that The Whitney tours have been so popular that the surrounding plantations have started to include ‘slavery tours’ as part of their larger offering to the public. It may not be the perfect way to approach the subject but at least it is included.
Not all museums are equal
Back in Idaho we made a hilarious trip to the Potato Museum and we use this as our benchmark for all museums. Was it as engaging as the Potato Exhibit? Did they have as much variety (ha ha) in their offering?
Well I can report that the International Petroleum Museum in Louisiana is high on the potatometer. It looked good – we could stay for free on the land if we took the 90 minute tour around the oil rig, which showcased submarines and drills and all sorts of boy’s toys. As our mumbling guide droned on about pipe diameters in a hot, sticky, airless cafeteria, answering every question with a “well I don’t know for sure about that...” , we wished we had chosen to pay for a State Park. How disappointing.
Then, to top it off, we stepped out of inner rooms on the oil rig and I trod in a cat poo. Excellent. “Ah, yeah” said our petrol man, “I hate that cat. They keep it to get rid of all the rats up here”. Double excellent.
Mardi Gras is not all boobs on Bourbon Street
I was so excited about New Orleans – it was one of the only dates we had set in our diary. We HAD to be there for Mardi Gras because that is something that has always been on my bucket list.
The closer we got the New Orleans, the more precarious our plan felt. People kept telling us how dangerous New Orleans was – particularly at Mardi gras. “make sure you lock up your Skoolie”, “be careful going out at night”, “don’t take out your valuables”, “don’t take the kids to Bourbon Street” and such like. Could it be that bad?
From the minute we arrived, staying at the wonderful Jude Travel Park which offered us a cheap transfer into the city, we found New Orleans to be a delight. Hands down, it’s the best city we have visited on our tour of the U.S. Don’t be put off people!
We arrived on the weekend before the big Mardi Gras events but there were still parades on everyday. We watched several from the Garden District which was a great family friendly alternative to Bourbon Street. The boys went wild for the freebies thrown out by the floats and Auntie Lou-Lou was declared Queen of the Freebies when she showcased her haul at the end of the day.
We didn’t avoid the infamous French Quarter completely – why would you? True, it can get a bit risque but as long as you don’t go too late then we found it to be OK. We stopped to watch music on corners and collect beads thrown from balconies above. The boys barely raised an eyebrow at the topless women selling nipple glitter – there was too much other stuff to look at. The worst of it was the number of amazing looking jazz bars that we just couldn’t go inside. When you live in a Skoolie and feel a bit nightlife-deprived, going to New Orleans with two under 21 tag-a-longs during Mardi Gras is just a tad frustrating!
There is more to the flying of the Confederate flag than meets the eye… or is there?
The information our favourite travelling family shared with us about the plantations was part of a bigger conversation about where to stop in the South. They had little advice because they hadn’t really found anywhere to recommend – southern hospitality? More like southern animosity…
“we couldn’t get used to the confederate flags in Mississippi and Alabama. You are white so you will be fine. We are brown so I’m more tuned in to white nationalist folks and their weird gatherings. They won’t mess with you.”
True to their word, the minute we crossed the border into Mississippi we started to see more and more Confederate flags. Why fly a flag for a battle that ended in 1865? Surely it couldn’t be allowed if it was just a racist statement. Or could it?
First a bit of history…
The Confederate flag is the flag of the southern army that fought in the Civil War, a conflict in which somewhere between 620,000 to 750,000 people lost their lives – more than the number of U.S. military deaths in all other wars combined. The Confederate army suffered the bulk of those deaths. They lost the battle and were denied what they felt was their right – to secede and to keep slavery. With the rules imposed on the south, coupled with battle losses, the southern states lost everything. Mississippi, for example, went from being one of the richest states to one of the poorest.
It may have been been in the 1860’s but the fight of the Confederates has been romanticised somewhat. The Guardian spoke to flag flyers who claim it has nothing to do with slavery and racism anymore, it is about historic pride and ongoing oppression of the South by the North.
Of course to most black people this is all it stands for. The war’s key issue was slavery and the Confederates wanted to keep it going. Over the years it has become the emblem of pro-white rallies – even the Ku Klux Klan flew it.
I can understand the need to remember the past but you also need to recognise how that past affects the future.
As we left New Orleans, we drove through a smaller Mardi Gras parade in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. Confederate flags flew in the crowd and on the floats. I read in the paper afterwards that a 12 year-old black girl had been beckoned over to one float – usually this means there is a gift to be thrown out – and the white man gave her a ‘mammy doll’ with a noose around it’s neck, telling her that this would be her when she grew up. The float organisers distanced themselves from it saying that it went against their policies and so forth but it’s hard to read this and then have sympathy for White Americans as the oppressed party.
Southern food comes sweet and salty
We were excited about the food in the south. Gumbo and boiled crayfish, red beans and rice… it all sounded yum.
Some of it was. If ever you are in New Orleans, make some time for beignets and coffee (ask for it strong – we are yet to get a good cup in the U.S). The fresh doughnuts are served warm and covered in icing sugar. They melt in the mouth. Watch your kids though – There must have been a bag of sugar emptied on each basket and Soren practically had his face in it!
If you are ever in Bay St Louis, not only should you avoid their Mardi gras parade, stay well clear of Cuz’s gumbo. Wikipedia describes a good gumbo as “consist(ing) primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and what Louisianians call the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables, namely celery, bell peppers, and onions. At Cuz’s you can remove the meat, shellfish and vegetables and replace them with salt, salt and more salt. Take your rumbling tummy to Rita Mae’s in Morgan City where the home-cooked shrimp lafayette was infused with spices and a love of the good in life.
Alabama didn’t make the cut
I feel it was something of a sham to put our Alabama sticker on our travel map because we didn’t even set foot in the state. We were on a tight schedule to get Louise to Orlando and so we literally drove straight across it and out the other side. Sorry Alabama. We hear you have a good warship museum in Mobile but frankly it was a little too expensive for us to justify stopping.
Good kids can go bad
I have mentioned homeschooling before, when we were just starting to knuckle down and focus on how best to teach the kids whilst on the road. We found our way. As we weaved our way down the Washington coast it all came together – literacy and maths, half an hour (ish) each a day plus whatever learning came along in the form of excursions, National Park workbooks etc.
As we moved through the year and we got to the real meat of the curriculum, we hit the learning wall. Although our youngest had no trouble, it became tougher and tougher for our 9-year-old to keep focused. Our short and snappy lessons were met with a blank and sleepy-looking face. If children are like sponges then he was one in which absorption was at full capacity – no more was getting in and a fair amount seemed to be leaking out in the form of tears because he “hated learning in the bus”, “couldn’t concentrate in America” and ultimately “wanted to be back at school in England”.
It’s hard to play the role of teacher when you are not one. It’s endlessly frustrating to see your child give up when you know they are capable. It’s hard not to end up shouting, which we have done because it’s become such a massive, head-bang against the wall, time-sucking, mood-hoover of a challenge for all of us. We try to be patient and to go at his speed but there has to be a balance – if we want him to go back into school then there are certain number of things he has to learn.
I’d love to tell you that we found the answer in the Louisiana lessons, and in some areas we have, but overall it’s a work in progress. Suffice to say homeschooling is not the breeze we had envisaged! Maybe at 9 going on 10, concentrating is just impossible and learning is evil. Maybe, and I think this is most likely, he thinks it will all be a waste of time as his Hogwarts letter will surely be arriving soon…