We love it when we get a bicycle escort out of town. Christian Blanco did just that as we headed out of Seabrook, TX, along the Gulf shore towards the refinery town of Port Arthur. There we stayed with Couchsurfing host Michael Reed, a relaxed photographer and university student eager to share his photos, home, and new music. “This is ours, guys,” Michael said softly after entering his house. “And we’re gonna eat all this food,” he later added in reference to Tupperware after Tupperware of home-cooked enchiladas, okra, and cabbage from Michael’s mother. Port Arthur, once a thriving town, has been hit by waves of abandonment: many white people left after school desegregation in the ’60s and Hurricane Rita further devastated the town in 2005. Port Arthur now feels forlorn and polluted by the million-dollar refineries surrounding the city, yet Michael Reed is an optimistic born-and-bred local looking to capture the beauty and history of the city through his photography.
One day and a short ferry ride later, we arrived in the small town of Cameron, Louisiana, at a Baptist church. It just so happened that we arrived in time for a dinner of rice n’ gravy and collard greens, followed by a Bible study. That night some of the church members shared more stories of the devastation from Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike three years later. Of the 500 buildings in the community before Rita, only 24 were rebuilt afterward, and many people refused to return due to higher flood insurance costs and expensive raised-elevation building requirements. All that remains on many properties in Cameron are concrete slabs where houses once resided, and new, expensive weekend hunting and fishing “camps” for high-powered Louisiana businesspeople. We learned that the First Baptist Church of Cameron had received help from Mennonite Disaster Service; the Bible study leader named “Bean” was very grateful for the help of MDS volunteers rebuilding his house. During the study, we were impressed that people unabashedly confronted each other about different understandings of spiritual realities, such as salvation and the afterlife. As Mennonites, we often tiptoe around these issues.
As we continued east into the bayou, the Cajun culture became more apparent through taste and sound. Local foods included boudin (a sausage stuffed with rice and pork dressing), jambalaya, catfish, and crawfish. The Louisiana bayou wildlife is beautiful; roseate spoonbills and white egrets flew alongside us while turtles and alligators sunned themselves in the roadside ditch. We stayed with a Californian-gone-Cajun woman named Juanita who laughed at us when we called her crawfish pesto “gourmet.” Juanita lived off the land by raising chickens for eggs, fermenting her own hot sauces, and catching pounds of fish and crawfish bound for her overflowing freezer. Her example of living locally encouraged us to think differently about our own food choices, both throughout the rest of the trip and later on in life. Harvesting wild greens and catching delicious critters is pretty cool! One evening Juanita took us to a Geno Delafose concert for some zydeco jams, and we enjoyed the atmosphere of dancing and French Cajun-speaking natives while eating bowl after bowl of shrimp stew. As Juanita assured us, it didn’t matter if we knew the steps to zydeco as long as we had a good time.
In New Iberia, we were greeted by the Warmshowers host Ronda Amos. Ronda owned an abundance of musical instruments, and Michael was able to test his trumpet chops for the first time since his Lavender Jazz days at Goshen College. One popular tune that we played several times was a jazz version of “The Christmas Song.” With Christmas music in our heads, and colder weather nipping at our noses, we left New Iberia feeling like Christmas was coming soon and that we were headed for familial hearths “roasting chestnuts on an open fire.” Examples such as this show two aspects of the trip: our skewed seasonal clock that comes with a peripatetic lifestyle and how we associate songs with various cities. “Christmas Song” = New Iberia in the same way that “Corre Corre Corazón” = Pinchincha, Ecuador.
On our way to Houma, we stopped at the Tabasco Sauce factory at Avery Island. Started in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny, the factory bottles every container of hot sauce before selling them in more than 165 countries around the world. The hot sauce is fermented for three years in oak barrels covered by a thick layer salt, which is extracted from a mine on the island that is as deep as Everest is tall. That night we stayed with Hichem Bouguerra, Byron Miller’s John Deere co-worker and friend. Michael especially enjoyed talking Arabic with Hichem and his wife who are both from Tunisia. Abe returned to his childhood by jumping on the trampoline, building with Legos, and playing Mario Kart with the Bouguerras’ son, Youssef.
We followed the trail of Mardi Gras beads strewn along the road’s shoulder heading into New Orleans. Before we knew it, we were crossing the mighty Mississippi River into one of the most eclectic cities in the US. We were awestruck by the beautiful old houses, stately oaks, and quirky local demographic. We went past Tulane University, the Garden District, the central business district, the French Quarter, and then arrived at our Warmshowers host in the Bywater neighborhood near old wharves and levees. The next day was a full-out exploration of the city. We loved the bike lanes and went downtown to listen to jazz on the street corners. That night we ended with the NOLA Social Ride at night with some 50 other cyclists cruising around on snazzy frames decked out with boom boxes and LED lights. It was like a culture of pedal-powered Harley riders. One guy, Mike, stayed with us in Bywater and promotes animal adoption as he bikes with his dog in a cargo-hold, rickshaw outfit. We also got to experience a jazz concert at Preservation Hall; a small set of musicians (coronet, clarinet, bass, drums, and piano) played traditional New Orleans style jazz in a cozy room in the French Quarter as we grooved along.
Biking in the States these past few weeks has felt a bit “cush” and easy. Smooth roads and an abundance of asphalt mean that we can cover more ground along the flat and sometimes gusty terrain of the Gulf Coast. Hosts seem to shower us with food, and dumpsters supplement any other hunger needs. Connectivity to family through a cell phone and unlimited access to the Internet on the iPhone make us feel spoiled. We fill our bottles with clean water at gas stations. We can bike until 7PM or later with the later sunset. We speak our English mother tongue, lending to efficient, comfortable social negotiation. Though we feel like we are close to our destination of Goshen, Indiana, people still shake their heads like we are crazy when we tell them where we are going.