Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Mandaura the Explorer (with esteemed comrade Hugo) – Part II

on November 11, 2013

The South East

From Houston, we landed in New Orleans – ‘The Big Easy’ as they call it, where it’s legal (in fact, encouraged) to purchase take-away alcoholic beverages and roam the streets with them! In New Orleans we tried out Airbnb, a website where you can rent out a room in a house (kind of like couchsurfers, but you pay), and met our friendly host Lawrence at his conveniently located house within walking distance of the trendy Frenchmen Street and the famous French Quarter.

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Our first night was spent checking out Frenchmen St, where we found a little bluegrass band playing in the doorway of a closed café, on the next corner saw a jazz band complete with sousaphone and then had dinner accompanied by more jazz. We ended the night at a little dive where Lawrence used to work, offering 24 hour karaoke!

After a few more beers, Laura agreed to sing with me only if they had ‘our’ song (Party All The Time, by Eddie Murphy and Rick James). We were in luck and it was apparently the first time this amazing tune had ever been sung on the Cajun’s stage! Hugo followed up with a rousing rendition of Get What You Need by the Stones, and Lawrence serenaded us with George Michaels’s Careless Whispers before we headed home.

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We kicked off our Monday morning with a typical New Orleans brekky- beignets (a French pastry that is pretty much a glorified doughnut without a hole under a mountain of icing sugar) and coffee, at the famous Café Du Monde, which has been serving this local specialty (and nothing else) since 1862! We roamed the French quarter which has plenty of cute shops that I was strong enough not to buy anything at (very difficult) and also saw the oldest catholic cathedral in the US overlooking the perfectly manicured Jackson Square.

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On the banks of the Mississippi we found out what a gamble it was taking a paddle steamer back in the day, with a >50% chance of a crazy accident occurring which would most likely sink the boat! Also learned this fun fact: did you know that by the time it gets to New Orleans, the Mississippi carries silt and run off from 30 US states as well as 2 Canadian provinces? How crazy is that! File that one away for the next trivia night peeps…

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Once our travellers brains were tired from this learning overload, we hit up a street corner dive called Johnny’s for some real deal shrimp po’boys (basically a baguette sandwich filled with battered shrimp, mayo and salad) and some gumbo (a thick stew often with seafood in it), both typical of New Orleans. On our walk home we were offered cocktails (to go, of course!) by a friendly bar girl on Bourbon St, and we indulged in a Hurricane to accompany our several block walk back. This blend of rum, fruit juice and grenadine was apparently invented in New Orleans in the 40s by the owner of O’Brien’s pub to get rid of rum (which was not so popular at the time), and distributors made him sell the rum before he could get in more whiskey!

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Our dinner was at a more fancy restaurant where I tried yet two more New Orleans specialties on this short Louisiana foodventure- the jambalaya (a rice dish kind of like paella) and some crawfish étouffé (which is Louisiana for crayfish smothered in a spiced sauce). We checked out the renowned Bourbon St, which was a disappointing hive of neon trashiness and cover bands, but we did indulge in some cocktails in novelty take-home glasses! After, we retreated to Frenchmen St for an awesome jazz jam to wind up our night.

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My Louisiana foodventure was completed with a southern soul-food breakfast of grits, cheese, eggs and sausage with a side of biscuits and gravy- neither very attractive to look at, but both pretty delicious! Our next stop was Jackson, Mississippi, for which we were repeatedly asked ‘Why?!’ by locals and interstaters alike… And when we arrived we began to understand. Not the most beautiful city- on our approach we weren’t sure if we were still in the industrial outskirts or the city itself. But no, it was the actual city…

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We visited the prettiest building in town, the State Capitol, for a rundown of Mississippi’s history- slavery, plantations, the making of laws, values of the population back in the day.

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We then went to the Smith Robertson Museum which was Mississippi’s first school for Negro children, opened in 1894, and now home to a cultural centre housing exhibits on different aspects of African American life and culture.  There was an unfinished exhibit on the journey from Africa which looks like it will be really good. Currently you can see the plans for the layout of slave ships and how many people they could fit on each, stacked away on ‘bunks’ barely more than half a metre high for the long journey. They also had a life size model of what the inside of the ship would be like. Very provoking.

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After Smith Robertson, we planned to go get some more soul food and head out of town to a state park on the way to Memphis, but Bernadette had other plans… She broke down just around the corner from the museum! Laura managed to start her again but she died again at the next intersection. Hugo and I got out to push her to the kerb, and a local guy came by to help, telling us luckily there was a mechanic around the corner. Hugo walked over and came back with Bud, the owner of Stokes Repair Shop, a tall lanky man with a thick accent we struggled to understand! Bud had a quick look and then got some of the guys from the garage to come and push Bernadette round to his shop- quite the operation! We had to stop a bit of traffic to cross over, but made it!

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While Laura and I sat out of the hot sun on some dusty chairs in front of a huge fan in the garage, Bud’s investigations determined we had a problem with either the ‘core’ or the ‘scrivnut’ (at least that’s what it sounded like he said…) But all we knew for sure was ‘She got no fire!’ which Bud kept repeating animatedly, so we assumed an issue with the ignition. We had to wait til morning til he could see if he could get the parts to test her out, so looked like we were spending a night in Jackson!

Bud got his lady to come and pick us up and drive us to a hotel. On the way we asked her if there were any parts of town we should avoid, to which she replied, ‘You’re in it!’ We got a room next to a cheap and dirty restaurant called Shoney’s and since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast headed over there for dinner.

So at this restaurant, you could get the all-you-can-eat dinner buffet for $9.99. But because it was steak night, we were informed you could buy any steak and get the buffet as well for free. We asked the waitress, ‘But what about this steak that’s $6.99? Is the buffet still included?’ to which she replied ‘Yes, the buffet is free with any steak.’ We were a little baffled by this and clarified at least two more times (the waitress must have thought we were a little bit mentally challenged) but we finally accepted that it was cheaper to get a bacon-wrapped steak AND the all-you-can-eat buffet. So we ordered 3 of those. How could you not?!

The buffet was ridiculous, including all the southern favourites like fried chicken, mash and gravy, battered deep-fried okra, and even had a salad bar and a dessert bar. Needless to say we all overindulged. And went back again for the breakfast buffet in the morning! In our defence, there were actually no other food outlets nearby, but still… No more Shoney’s for the rest of the trip!

We basically had to wait for Bud to call after that, so checked out of our cheap hotel and walked into ‘town’ to find a McDonalds (aka, the universal centre for free wifi, cheap coffee and toilets). This involved walking along a dirt road in what felt like rural America, at which point I asked Laura if she was sure we were going the right way. She assured me we were and sure enough, we emerged back onto a paved road with cars and the golden arches in sight. Jackson is like no other state capital I’ve ever been to, that’s for sure! Around midday Bud called with the good news that Bernadette was fixed. We cabbed over to the garage and after a bit more of a chat, lots of thanks and some long goodbyes, we hit the road to Memphis, Tennessee.

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We made it to Memphis just after the 4.30 tour at Sun Studios had taken off, and jumped onto the tail end. Sun Studios is famous for launching the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and BB King to name but a few. It is still a working studio too. We got to listen to some original studio recordings (including Elvis’s first demo which cost him just $4 to make back in the day!), look at a whole bunch of old music paraphernalia and stand on the spot where Elvis stood to record his first single for Sun. Very cool!

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That evening we tested out some Memphis-style BBQ (even though Texas is the most famous, several other states have their own spin on barbequed meaty delights). They use a dry rub on their ribs which is different to Texas, but it was pretty damn delicious too! After dinner, we checked out an old, haunted burlesque club-cum-bar in town called Ernstine and Hazel’s. Downstairs it was open mike night, so pretty full of people and quite warm and lively. Upstairs though it was totally empty and creepy. We went up to have a poke around and use the old bathroom (complete with ancient claw-toed bathtub) and took some pictures to see if any showed up some ghosts (which they didn’t).

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While we were up there, a ghost tour came by so we eavesdropped on several stories, the most disturbing about how apparently a prostitute had her throat slit in the bathroom (that very one I had just been in!) and there have been numerous reports of people getting locked in there, seeing blood stains appearing in the bathtub, and hearing knocking coming from the inside of the door!! Ahhhh! So glad I hadn’t heard that before I went in- I was creeped out enough as it was!

And to top all this off, one of the locals told us that the owner of the bar had shot himself in there just a week earlier. We looked it up and there was a news story on it, just saying he had been found dead on site. Even though we didn’t see any evidence of the supernatural, I can totally believe that place is as haunted as they come!

After all that excitement, we went to check out the famous Beale St. We saw some ‘duelling pianos’ – two pianists at two grand pianos on stage playing requests from the crowd, and saw some awesome bands play at BB King’s Blues Club and the Beale St Taphouse.

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We ended up camping in a proper camping ground for the night after asking our new local friends at Ernstine and Hazel’s if there was anywhere safe and out of the way we could urban camp… We received the answer: ‘Well there’s plenty of places you could pull up that the police won’t bother you, but no-where that’s really safe…’ Luckily we were able to camp right outside Graceland so we would be raring to go for our 9am tour next morning.

The home of the King is as extravagant and outrageous as you’d expect it to be, and was totally worth the visit. He had 3 TVs installed in his basement side by side (because he heard President Johnson watched all 3 news channels at the same time and thought it was a good idea) and covered the walls of his pool room in drapes of colourful fabric.

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He even had a ‘jungle room’ put in inspired by his love for Hawaii. This room’s walls, floor and roof are covered in green shagpile carpet, and it is decked out with carved wooden furniture and an indoor waterfall (naturally…)!

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Elvis enjoyed racquetball too so had his own court built, which has now been converted into a homage to the ’68 comeback special and a fantastic display of jumpsuits. We saw his trophy room, of course brimming with awards spanning his extensive career in both music and film.

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And you can also visit the graves of Elvis and both of his parents. Here is a random fact that I didn’t know before visiting Graceland- Elvis had a twin brother! Sadly he was stillborn (he is buried in their hometown Tupelo in Mississippi), but can you imagine two Elvis’s?! Wow.

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The other exhibits we went to showed off Elvis’s car collection (I want his purple Cadillac so bad!)…

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…and also his pimped out private jets. The Lisa Marie had 24ct gold sinks, a kingsize bed on board and sitting room with a bar installed! Luxury. It was a really enjoyable morning- I probably could have spent a day there, as there were more exhibits we didn’t get to, but such is the nature of our whirlwind trip!

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We had a Memphis chopped pork sandwich for lunch (AMAZING) before checking out the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed- now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. It was very interesting to find out more about the event and the investigation and conspiracy theories that followed too. From there, we hit the road to Nashville.

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We were lucky to be put up by my friend LeighAnn, her hubby Mike and baby Ezra in Nashville. LeighAnn and I realised it had been 8 years since we’d seen each other! We met back in my first year of uni when we lived together at Deakin and LeighAnn was studying a semester abroad from her uni in Ohio. It was so good to catch up but was sadly very brief! That evening there was a festival on in town, and we went to a free ‘backyard party’ at a local record store where some Canadian country artists were playing. They were also giving away free beer and free gourmet grilled cheeses from a local food truck, so it was pretty much the epitome of amazing events for a backpacker whose finances are dwindling!

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Later we went into town to check out Broadway, the main street for all the honky tonk bars. We went to Robert’s Western World which was the best music of the night, checked out a trailer-park themed bar (complete with AstroTurf and college 80s party going on), and found a grizzly in a neighbouring bar…

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On our way out of Nashville, we hit up Third Man Records, Jack White’s recording studio which was pretty cool to see, and also went to the Johnny Cash Museum. Johnny lived a very full life- like Elvis, very much a family man- and I learned he was very passionate about prison reform. He performed a lot in prisons and also advocated for better penitentiary systems- he had a lot of great ideas around this.

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Our next stop was Atlanta, Georgia, where we had tickets to the Midtown Music Festival. We were hoping to arrive by 6 to see Phoenix but got stuck in a traffic jam on the way in which had us crawling for almost an hour! We eventually arrived at our fancy sounding hotel ‘Savannah Suites’ which was in a not-so-fancy part of town, requiring 24-hour security and ID recorded and checked for every person each time they entered the property!

From there we walked up to Piedmont Park, about 20 minutes from the hotel, and managed to catch the end of Cake’s set. We then got to see Journey play which was pretty awesome. We were kinda confused to see such a young, energetic lead singer up there (he sure didn’t look like he’d been singing since the 70s…), but we learned from Google the band had discovered the Filipino singer via YouTube in a Journey cover band and since they were after a lead singer and liked his style, they asked him to join! Gee technology is amazing!

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The next day it was sadly pouring with rain so we delayed our departure for the festival so we would definitely last til the end to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers play. We sacrificed Weezer (who Laura and I had recently ‘seen’ for free anyway… by picnicking out the back of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl when they last played in Melbourne!) and planned our arrival for the Arctic Monkeys at 4.30. After packing our vodka in Ziploc bags for smuggling (like the classy citizens we are), in we headed in all our rain gear.

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Laura and I wore thongs but when we saw the state of the ground decided we would be better off to suck it up and go barefoot, or risk losing our shoes forever in the piles of mud! The festival was great despite the weather and how dirty we were by the end! The Chillies were definitely my highlight.

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From Atlanta, our musical escapades were complete for a while and we headed back to the wilderness at Poinsett State Park in South Carolina. We had a campfire and made smores (which consist of a toasted marshmallow and chocolate between 2 graham crackers which goes all melty and delicious in the middle for those who have not had the pleasure…).

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We got out for a hike the next day which was very welcome given our sedentary lifestyle (and all the smores the night before!). We took a trail north which had a few interesting things to see according to the ranger. We started on a wide sandy track, but after a couple of enormous spider-webs in the face (and corresponding spitting-out-web while hitting ourselves all over and dancing a crazy jig to make sure there were no spiders on us) it became apparent these trails were not often walked… This led to us each brandishing a large stick and waving it around in front of our faces the whole way as we forged ahead- would have been quite the sight to see!

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We saw some monster spiders, a lot of little frogs, a stash of old moonshine barrels rusting down by the creek, and the interestingly named ‘Screaming Shed’ – a creepy abandoned old house in the woods. There was a memorial to a man who died in 1969 who presumably used to live there before it fell into disrepair.

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We ate lunch on an old railway bridge over a small waterway inhabited by hundreds of fuzzy caterpillars. Beyond the bridge, the railway-line-turned-trail looked even less well-worn than that along which we had come, so we decided to head back, sticks in hand! We hiked back into the park and around the lake which was pretty before returning to camp exhausted.

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Laura made us a delicious tinfoil meal of chicken and veggies in the campfire that night, and I did choc-caramel bananas in the fire for dessert (we won’t mention more smores for second dessert…)

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Being in the woods for a couple of nights was a very nice end to a run of cities and busy days, which prepared us for our next leg of American history touring up the east coast…

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