New Orleans

“They keep thinking of my good, in their terms”

I may kick myself later for the brutal honesty that follows. Frankly, like Rhett Butler, I don’t give a damn. My 30th birthday is coming up and though age shouldn’t dictate action, goals, or mindset I am a numbers person. I love obsessing over numbers and making them play off each other to get the answers you want. So, I’m trying to attempt a major goal I’ve had for quite some time before I’m 30.

The only thing I ask in return is for your absolute, brutal honesty as well.  I write to ease my active, anxious mind and thread the many wires onto a page in neat, little avenues of clarification. I’ve written for years for myself. I’ve written to bring some method to my madness, but all along I hoped to provide some entertainment and education through my stories. Now is that time.

I’ve written articles for two years now on how the lives of locals are affected by tourism in New Orleans, Belize, and elsewhere. Now, I am looking to channel these interviews into a book. Yes, people have told me it’s a bad idea. That it’s a waste of time.

I am ignoring them anyway.

What I can’t ignore is what I need from you my dear readers. What I need is feedback.


Here is a sneak peek at a chapter. (Note: a few thing will be different in the final version, i.e. places mentioned expanded upon, cultural themes explained, but the general direction is the same. )

Sign-up for my newsletter to learn about pre-ordering and the release or skip to the questions at the bottom if you want to miss the backstory:

“Sometimes, travel is the elemental: the desire to replace the old molecules with new ones, familiarity with its opposite.” - Michael Paterniti

As I climbed the temple steps in the suffocating darkness of predawn I felt excited like never before. I was awoken only 30 minutes before with polite knocking on my hostel door from a German girl I had met the day before in Mandalay, Myanmar (also known as Burma). I met her along with two other foreigners on the rambling bus ride from the airport and its surrounding dusty, rural expansiveness to the city center where every vehicle (registered or not) chaotically avoided mishap while zooming around ancient temples and colonial buildings.

A group of four strangers - myself, the German, a Chinese girl, and a Polish firefighter named Piotr - linked up and were strung together like boats docked in the middle of a channel. It’s on the road as a traveler that you have experiences out of concept for real life. Rarely on a random day between work, the gym, my hobbies, or going out do I meet people randomly and attach myself to them. As a solo traveler however, this happens quite frequently.

The German knocked as soon as they got off their overnight bus to Bagan. She looked as surprised as I did and asked, “Did I wake you?”

“Yes, but I’ll be ready in a minute or two.”

“Oh”, she said, looking past me at my hostel bed, completely made and tucked into the corners, “Are you sure? It doesn’t look like you were.”

I found this peculiarly funny because of her brute honesty. “Well, I don’t sleep in the sheets if I can help it.” It’s true. As much as I travel I am still a germaphobe. I spent my entire month in Asia on top of the cover sheet wrapped in a sarong. Once again, an experience vastly different from “real life”.

We all met in the stillness and uncertainty of the unseen Bagan wilderness around our hostel to await our taxi. Our driver approached from around the corner with his rickshaw wagon attached to a dusty and sleepy looking mule. As we clamored into the back I took mental snapshots of the absurdity and excitement of traveling in a way I’m unaccustomed to and how Burmese locals did (besides walk everywhere) halfway around the world.


Time + Geography = Character


We arrived at one of the thousands of temples in Bagan. I don’t even remember the name of it. As we climbed up the steep steps just barely able to see our hands in front of us I realized how fortunate of an experience it was in. Not many people can say that they watched the sun rise over the “land of a thousand forgotten temples”.

As I watched my step going back down the temple my foot barely had time to make the “crunch” of weight hitting the top layer of crusty dirt before an 11 year-old girl and her younger brother approached me. “You buy, you buy, you buy” they said holding up a string of postcards in plastic sleeves. “No. No thank you.” I said hurriedly, used to the ever present salesmanship of tourist swag from my travels and from living in New Orleans. “You buy?” the girl said again, almost pushing the postcard into my belly.

That is when it hit me. This girl was not unlike many, and not unlike myself. I represented opportunity. I was her way of bringing home money to her family. She was out here hustling in a section of town where all the customers are. Back home I was a marketing director for hospitality and tourism companies. Although not out on the pavement pushing cards, I too was seeking visitors to extract their money during their stay. Her country had just opened up their borders to others to come and spend money as visitors. She was hustling her culture. Exactly what I did.

This is when the real tension of the relationship between visitor and local hit me. I imagined myself as a passive passenger, traveling through Asia under the radar, and simply taking everything in. I didn’t want to insert myself into the surroundings or even necessarily “travel like a local”. I looked back at the whiter faces descending the temple steps and the Burmese children waiting below. There was a visual line of separation between worlds. On top of that, I was picked out of the crowd as someone to haggle with instead of someone out for a sightseeing stroll before breakfast.

Any feeling of “local” I had in the back of the rickshaw was weighted now with a feeling that if something wasn’t done, if people weren’t made aware, if people didn’t care, then this beautiful, tranquil city would soon look like its neighbor, Thailand. Not that there's anything wrong with Thailand, a country that has adapted rapidly to a more East-meets-West way of life with smiling, hospitable locals, neon lights, beautiful history, and loose moral tourism.

Those torn apart “local” feelings also simmered with the rare feeling of awareness. Who was I to say how this city progressed? I was emotional about the experience and the chance I was afforded and wanted others to share it, yes, but did others want the same? Did the girl and her brother want tranquil mornings and to continue to push paper souvenirs? Or, did they see themselves using the opportunity of tourism to build a life they envisioned that was different?  What I lacked was not a general awareness of myself, but of others’ perspectives.

“...what we all want to do, which is find a way to capture things before they dissolve, to not lose our lives to the relentless pace that keeps us from knowing who we are and what we want.” - Michael Paterniti

All of this is to say that after I returned from Asia my lens on tourism had changed. In New Orleans I watched a city struggle to find its story on a changing landscape. With the influx of money came “cleaner” streets, “nicer” homes, and “cultural praise”. What also attached itself were genuine concerns over gentrification, unethical work environments in hospitality, and cultural exploitation.

I love this city and consider it more of a home than anywhere I’ve been. As Kim, a New Orleanian local, proudly claimed, to live in New Orleans you have to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” There is always tension. The good with the bad. The floods with the festivals. The tourists with the tourism money.

So, I started thinking, what makes New Orleans a tourism mecca? Is it the way of life? Is it the ease with which visitors become guests? Is it the simplistic veneer the city has that makes it look easy to live here, while underneath the tumultuous undercurrent are as expressive and multifaceted as any other city in the world?

When people talk about tourism in New Orleans they are usually employed in the industry. They see virtue in increasing visitor numbers, hotel room numbers, and attractions. They aren’t wrong, but they occupy a majority (nay, all) of the spotlight. The numbers around how tourism economically helps the city are encouraged to make the news right beside the article describing how our pump stations fail and the SWBNO is going through executive house cleaning.

Recently, the party buses, painted midnight black so their neon lights are more visible, blaring bounce music while careening through the streets as revelers swig from Solo cups and wave out the windows or lean half their body off the side are under scrutiny. Personally, I have never enjoyed time on one, but that does not negate the fact that a modern expression of black culture is being questioned yet again. New Orleans is a bed of creativity which draws people into its web. The city however has a certain picture in mind of what that looks like.

When the city cannot think about how to monetize a culture’s exaltation they critique. When they see it as a hindrance to the antebellum and Jazz decades they depict in tourism marketing they revolt.

“They keep thinking of my good, in their terms” - Wallace Stegner

How can I help? By telling the stories of locals whose voices are dimly lit compared to the tourism marketing companies.

Who should care? You! If you visit New Orleans you should care. If you travel at all and care about culture in a destination you should care. If you live in New Orleans you should care what your neighbors are saying.

It is better to be a guest than to be a visitor. Tourism is hospitality and New Orleanians are some of the most gracious hosts. To cut through the tension of relationships developing in the tourism industry my book will describe different perspectives so we can become aware of the many sides of truth.

“Travel is mostly boredom - and if you’re not bored, you’re pretty sure everyone else is having more fun.” - Thomas Swick

The most important portion of this plea has now come. Thank you for bearing with me. Before I travel I have my own preferences of how to research a place, but I want to know what YOU want to read about a place.

Please read the following and feel free to leave a comment, text me, call me, write me a long letter. Again, who gives a damn what you say or how you say it but I want to hear from you.

Do you want to see a guidebook?

What is it about travel you like?

What do you not like?

Should I include my personal stories in the book?

Would you like inclusions of local colloquiums, history, etc?

Would you pre-order a book?


The thing with travel is that it’s not the place, the meal, or the souvenirs. It’s the story that goes with it.

Thank you for helping me tell others’ stories.

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#LocalLife: A Tale of Two Jazz Fests

The weather is starting to get liquid hot at noon. Already we see the sun’s rays as electrifying not just warming. It’s that time of year again. No, not Mardi Gras: Jazz Fest.

It may seem like a time-old tradition now, but local festival-goers have seen it evolve for over four decades. Many people say it’s dead, dying, or has completely sold its soul. However, for the lovers of Jazz Fest, that simply isn’t so...

 

Jazz Fest musician, Brice Miller

Brice Miller, Ph.D, Scholar, Lecturer, International Jazz Musician

“Jazzfest has been an annual event my entire life. My dad, Dwight Miller, a saxophonist, has been performing at the festival since 1971. He was featured on the festival's 1978 poster. I have been attending since around 1978, according to my mother.”

I began performing at the festival with my dad's band, Pinstripe Brass Band when I was in the 8th or 9th grade. I began performing as a bandleader in 1991, while attending St. Augustine High School, leading my own band, Junior Pinstripe Brass Band, now Mahogany Brass Band; we have performed every year since! I also perform with other bands, including Pinstripe Brass Band, Treme Brass Band and Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.

What’s the best concert you’ve seen there?

“This is tough because I've seen so many concerts. However, one that stands out was Al Jarreau. He was in the Congo Square Stage. In the middle of his performance, he stops the band, and goes on this extreme rant about race and racism, and how mean spirited White people are. The entire audience was in shock, gasping. I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ That performance changed my life as a performer. It showed me I have to use my voice on stage, and that platform to not only entertain, but to educate. That has become a hallmark of my performance.”

How do you incorporate that into your performance now?

“[When I play at Jazz Fest] it's my day to be both a spokesperson for the city and my culture, and also my day to be a celebrity. Media from around the world often interview me, some visit my house for more personal insight, and I've had some to follow me around the days leading up to the festival. Being able to utilize my talent to compete with the larger big name festival performers is empowering. Secondly, it's a family day. My entire family comes out, my parents, and all the band members families; it's a family day for us and we bring the kids on stage during the performance. It's funny because festival goers have commented that they've watched my youngest two kids grow up on the stage. My son's first appearance at Jazz Fest was when he was 1 years old, and he's been on stage every year since then! Now he's actually performing with the band, along with his younger sister.”

What are your essentials to bring?

“Firstly, dress comfortably! It's hot in New Orleans and there is absolutely no covering, no trees, no shade at the festival. Wear a big hat, loose fitting clothes, comfortable shoes, and bring lots of water. I had some friends from Birmingham come and I told one of the girlfriends to dress comfortably, [but] she passed out in the middle of my performance from heat exhaustion.”

Favorite area?

“My favorite area is the Norman Dixon, Sr. (my uncle) Jazz & Heritage Stage, which is the stage I perform on. Here, you'll find New Orleans brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians performing all day, which is that truly authentic cultural performance. After that stage, I'd say the Lagniappe Stage, which often has more experimental music, plus it's the coolest (temperature-wise) place at the festival and the only outdoor space with shade. Economy Hall is pretty cool too, lots of traditional jazz, lots of older people dancing, which is so cute.”

What is your after-Jazz Fest routine?

“After Jazz Fest, we have a tradition of heading to our house with friends, family, and even strangers and we eat crawfish, Barbeque and just relax while having a good time. Our house, which is in the historic Carrollton community has always been a party/gathering space. My wife and I have been hosting our pre/post Jazz Fest gathering since 2000. Actually, my band and their families come to the house the morning of our Jazz Fest performance; we eat and drink then head to the festival together.”

Where do you see Jazz Fest headed as a music festival?

“I personally feel it's becoming too commercial. People come to New Orleans for New Orleans music. I understand the big name acts draw people, but engaging the local artist with the big names would help build the profile for local musicians. Also, I don't feel any act should be allowed to perform with only a DJ. Last year, Mystical performed and used a live band; that performance was absolutely amazing!”

 

Jazz Fest original, Steve Hartnett, with his conquest map.

Jazz Fest original, Steve Hartnett, with his conquest map.

Steve Hartnett, social go-getter, old art seller/teacher, modified hippie

SItting down with Steve was like talking to the Buddha of Jazz Fest fans. Starting at the very first Jazz Fest at the Fairgrounds (1972) he was asked by the editor of the Figaro (an alternative newspaper in the 70s and 80s) to sell art from his gallery at the event in “huge red and white tents that looked like the circus.”

“I would invite all my friends and buy them the kid’s ticket for $3. No one at the gate looked at the tickets back then they just tore them and you walked through. As soon as they visited me I would say, ‘Hey, come here! Would you mind sitting here for a second so I can go see a band.’”

When I asked him how often he goes to Jazz Fest or what his plan of attack is Steve scoffs at the question. “I go every day, baby!” He starts his day with beignets, coffee and a prayer in the Gospel tent. Then, he looks at the line-up sheet which he has marked up to look almost like a football notebook. His best advice? If you don’t know who is playing go to Spotify, [Google, and Youtube, etc.] and listen to some of the bands you don’t know. “I want to go see someone called JohnnySwim. Well, it’s more than one guy.”

When pressed about what it was like in the early days of the festival the stories never stopped. Steve and his wife, Pam, would park their van in the infield and basically tailgate. Since they are vegetarians (living in New Orleans, geez) and didn’t drink they  packed sandwiches and bring a new backpack called a Camelbak for water.

It seems that Steve is doesn’t fuss over much, but he cringed when I asked if he stayed at one stage. “Do not be a camper. It defeats the camaraderie.” (Jazz Fest supposedly has a very, very low arrest record. Most likely due to the jovial spirit shared by all?) When Professor Longhair said ‘Gonna make it my standin’ place’ in his song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” he spoke Steve’s language; “God gave us the ability to stand in 2 square feet.”

Where to go afterwards? “Jazz Fest used to continue on The President”, a 1924-vintage cruise boat who saw all the great names. Seriously, they had the best. Now Steve and his wife go home to rest up for the next day.

Well, where should I go if I want to stay out? Everyone wants to know where to see a big name or secret show.

Know that the bands in Jazz Fest can’t play together outside the Fairgrounds that weekend so the beautiful culmination is a mix-match of talented artists going to see their record labels, local musicians of interests, and friends. The best plan is to pick a local band you want to see and watch the magic of Jazz Fest unfurl. If you’re a little too rigid for that order a ticket to Preservation Hall’s Midnight Preserves. It lasts all seven nights and features a headliner with the band every night. You never know who it will be, but again, you are guaranteed magic.

Finally...#Locallife

The travel industry is expansive and in this modern world more and more tourists are becoming "explorers". They are hungry to dive into the culture of a place: to eat what locals eat, to barter at a market, or drink a classic cocktail. 

Unfortunately, not everything is created equal in this scheme. The cycle of economics in tourism drives many decisions in a destination: the city derives income from the increase of tourism dollars, those dollars are spent on more marketing for the destination and also for infrastructure to support future endeavors, local people and jobs are created to support tourism, and then what is earned by individuals is kept in the destination as economic stimulus. This is also a very simplistic way of describing the immense industry that touches almost everything.

What new behaviors are exhibiting (using Airbnb over hotels, Uber and taxis to reach places further away from a traditional downtown, etc.) is the visitors' excitement to experience a place "like a local". What is a local's life like? Well, typically nothing glamorous. Even in a city of extremely good living like New Orleans the everyday is mundane. Locals need groceries, run errands, go to work, but they also go out to eat, go to festivals, and give the destination its uniqueness. 

There, in those words -- "locals make the destination unique" -- is the answer. Instead of continuously writing list of top restaurants or art fairs you should go to why not ask the actual people who will be around you (whether working or joining into the festivities) about what they do?

Give a destination a face. Give locals their voice to protect and rejoice about their city.

Find out about a destination's #LocalLife.