Featured NOLA 2019

8 Hugs

This trip was so beautiful
— Maria Camasmie

I type this from Los Angeles, having arrived and settled back down at home, officially marking the end of our Backpacking Maymester. Between going to school and going to Louisiana, I haven’t been staying at home since early January. It’s the longest that I’ve ever been “on the road.” I would have thought that coming back to my own bedroom after all of this time sleeping elsewhere would be a purely joyful sensation. But now, as I sit in that very bedroom, I find that there’s a lot of sadness mixed up in there that I hadn’t been able to predict. 

I’m going to miss being on the road. I’m going to miss being with other people from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. I’m going to miss reading on quiet beaches or in lively French Quarter coffee shops; I’m going to miss it all. 

But nevertheless, as I sit here somewhat contented, I am now able to reflect on the trip, and see what specific lessons it has taught me. I am certain that the Cameryn that came back from Louisiana is not exactly the same to the one who went; she went through unexpected character development and came back a little better. I’m sitting here, in my room, finally home, and I’m backtracking through the course, through each book, each location; and I’m finding that there’s so much I’ve learned.

miss you guys already :(
— Tara Baudry

The books we read on this course all took me a bit deeper into the culture that they described and delved into. And I took something from each book—a lesson, big or small, and the appreciation that I have for the memories from this trip will help these lessons to remain engrained in my mind.

But beyond the books were many other lessons that I learned. Like how to prepare dinner for thirteen people, or who Joan of Arc was, and how her legacy continues today. I learned how to use and navigate the streetcar. I learned how to do the Footloose dance from Tara. How to properly hold a baby alligator. How to understand and answer Maria’s riddles. How to talk in an Essex accent. How to get used to the same twelve people being around you for the better part of a day, for twenty six days straight. This last one wasn’t hard at all, perhaps even the easiest lesson to learn. 


Oh, and hugs. One of my favorite things that I learned on this trip is that one must get at least eight hugs every day. This lesson came from Tara. By the end of the trip, it had become a practice that I lived by. I’d made twelve friends by this point, and we were with each other every day, so it wasn’t hard to accomplish. This was one of my favorite life lessons that I took back home, because it reminds me of the people I went on this trip with. Reading and seeing the city and learning its history were such incredibly valuable experiences, ones that I will remember and cherish for all of my life, but they would not have been the same had I done it all alone. Surrounded by people who offered countless different perspectives based off of their own backgrounds and beliefs enriched the experience immeasurably. Their connections with the readings enabled further connections of my own, and their interests in certain aspects inspired me to dig deeper as well. When the books were heavy or personally emotional, we were all there for each other. Through the reading, we all became closer, and after twenty six days together, we all departed as good friends. 

And I’ll miss getting eight hugs from the gang everyday, now that I’m at my home and they’re all at theirs. But I’ll keep it up. And everyday when I’m keeping track of the amount of hugs I’ve had, I’ll be reminded of where I learned this valuable lesson. This trip has been extraordinary, and I am so grateful for all of the things it taught me. 

Swamp Witches™

Swamp Witches™

The Child of Light: Emerged Ablaze from Darkness

The Big Easy has reached its tether, leaving many of us exhausted by the “search” for a truer self, a worthy purpose. I admit: it is difficult to reflect on the entirety of the trip. I feel the urge to translate my tension with severity, but I must remember to adapt to the sudden new journey to which I returned. It is important that I nurture my sensible wounds immediately, because there are only so many moments in life when we recognize, and with a great relief, how beautiful intimacy could be when immersed in unfamiliar chaos.

When the sudden moments of reflection became excessive, I found myself tending to the wounds afflicted in times of vulnerability. I learned to do this when I was in Grand Isle because Chopin’s The Awakening reflected its tranquil energy. The novel’s impression will always remind of my comfort in therapeutic moments of reflection. I was impressed with myself, because I learned to identify affections agreeable to my nature in times of uncertainty.

New Orleans was a city with a mystifying mutable energy. Reading Rice’s Interview with the Vampire taught me how to mindfully submit to the mutability that disrupted my severe perception of life. Though the novel explores the comfort in terror, I learned that the first thing to exercise is a mode of adaptability. I walked down Bourbon Street a couple times; once, alone, and other times with fellow backpackers. Each experience terrified me. It inspired me to write my first gothic short story which was an extension of Rice’s novel. I embraced Bourbon Street’s chaos. This was a huge step for me, as I had always feared exploring unfamiliar places without the nearness of a companion. During these lonesome excursions, I learned that it is also chaotic to be utterly honest with my wants, always keeping in mind that unexplored comfort in terrors may help me emerge optimistically anew.

Since we spent a couple of days in New Orleans, Percy’s The Moviegoer was the next novel on the list. My impression of the novel changes. I do believe that Binx’s mundane external journey made it difficult to stay fascinated by the deeper meaning of the novel. But that was just the lesson it was meant to convey. There were days when ennui hit me without notice. Meanwhile, I was impatient with Binx because he seemed to lack the courage in latching onto a purpose. It took me some time to realize that I had been set on latching onto a purpose so desperately because I feared that I would return to unexcitable days without having successfully redefined my sense of intimacy. I reflected on the moments when the presence of tenderness eased me into an excitable pace of vulnerability. Had I been aware that I was already immersed in a warmth of comfort, I would have approached this experience in a less aggressive manner.

In youth, I was not a stranger to violence, to anger, to fear; all things that arise from toxic masculinity. I became my own on this trip, disposed of toxic beliefs that tampered with my individuality as a queer Latino, and embraced the essence of friendships and experiences that helped me nurture the unfamiliar emotions I used to harbor in my darker days. I proudly share that I have found my voice in literature after having tended to the parts of my neglected selves. I will spend my gap year embodying that voice, because it is time I devoted my entirety to queer Latinos who wish to redefine their sense of intimacy.

Simple Sounds Make Complex Melodies

New Orleans wouldn’t be what it is today without its music. Its culture. Its madness. From country to folk to, of course, jazz, one of the best things about roaming the city streets is the prevalence of music at every corner and the opportunities we had to explore its history and sound.

Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter was one of my favorite books to read while in New Orleans. The story follows, or rather skips forwards, backwards, and sideways through the life of Buddy Bolden, local legend and supposed father of jazz. Truly very little is known about him other than the memories of his spellbinding horn playing and chaotic presence, but after reading his story I could feel glimmers of Bolden’s legacy everywhere I went. Though it is a tale without a happy ending, since Buddy ultimately loses his mind to the music, it captures the essence of the city perfectly. Much like the style the book is written in, New Orleans a crazy conglomeration of people, cultures, histories, and styles. There is no telling what you’ll experience on a given day, but you let the sound and the spirits guide you. In words spoken to us during our visits with Sherriff Bud Torres (who is also a country singer) and A Lesson Before Dying writer Earnest J. Gaines, New Orleans is like gumbo – you mix it all together to make something great.

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed, passed it seemed along the way as if travelling in a car, passed before he even approached it and saw it properly. There was no control except the mood of his power … and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes—then you should never have heard him at all. He was never recorded.
— Coming Through Slaughter

Like Buddy Bolden’s music, it is hard to capture the feeling or describe the sound of our experience – words are elusive and insufficient. The translation of stray chords and collection of noise will hopefully come together to present a sense of the city’s harmony and dissonance in the composition that follows.

 One of our first stops in New Orleans was a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. It was sweet learning about the work that goes into the elaborate Mardi Gras costumes of distinguished krewes, and seeing the ensembles that both preserve and inspire culture in every stitch. The more interesting part was discovering the tradition of a New Orleans jazz funeral – it reminded me of the Happy Cemetery back home in Romania, the idea that instead of grief in death there could be celebration of a life well-lived. I imagined the people parading the streets, a community come together. Just prior to our visit we stopped by Congo Square, a place where in the face of great despair, pain, and restraint, the enslaved people of New Orleans would meet on their Sundays off to trade, socialize, dance, and play music. It is a triumph of humanity that great things are born from great depressions – just as Buddy’s music was a mixture of both torment and grace. It stirs the senses and the soul to walk the very streets on which he brought such joy and terror to his community.

He tore apart the plot - see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as a springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number.
— Coming Through Slaughter

Preservation Hall gave us a taste of real New Orleans jazz, where we had the pleasure of listening to local masters create a concoction of beautiful sound. The concert was 45 minutes, but flew by in what felt like 15 – the trance of energy was just that good. Nothing compared to the joy and passion of the slender old man on the trombone, and when he sang the whole room lit up.

Right after, we dropped by Pat O’Brien’s, a local pub featuring two pianos pitted against each-other as they pump out tunes requested by the audience. We sat there and sang along for the better part of an hour, cheering, laughing, and sharing stories. It was far from the last of our musical escapades -- we ran into the infamous Baby Dolls on a stroll through the French Quarter, listened to the mesmerizing sounds of the African Kora in Jackson Square, and were constantly delighted by the changing acts on St. Peter and Royal Street. The sound of New Orleans is ever-changing, but always captivating and unforgettable.

A highlight was walking in the MoneyWasters Second Line parade. The experience was immersive. I think we were expecting to watch a parade to pass us by, but soon after arriving on the scene we realized this was not the case. It was everyone’s parade. The whole town it seemed was out and about, marching, dancing, and having a good time. There were people on horseback, dazzling krewes on floats, and dancers claiming their space on porches and balconies all around us. We joined the commotion and followed the parade for quite a few blocks, mingling and bopping along the way. It was wild, but talking to the locals, it isn’t even what they would consider a real parade! This stuff happens almost every Sunday, and the term “parade” is reserved for only the most distinguished and official musical marches throughout New Orleans. I can’t even image the dynamic stamina of a gathering that much bigger, but I am happy to have been a part of one small slice. After all of this, it was a sweet surprise to be were greeted by a jazz parade at the airport just prior to our departure. I could almost picture Buddy leading the line as the small but lively band made its way amongst the travelers.

To round out our palette, we had the pleasure of stopping by Randol’s for some zydeco dancing and joining two different folk / bluegrass sessions in Lafayette, one at Marie Tante’s and the other at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow. Below is just a sampling of some of the music we got to experience during our time in Louisiana, as well as an eclectic playlist of songs collected throughout – from boom boxes, cafés, nights out, and memories shared, the magic of music is everywhere in Louisiana.

A Few Last Words

Twenty-six days, thirteen people, four cities, one giant adventure. I am lost for words; I don’t know if it is possible to describe how incredible this trip was.


Travelling to Grand Isle, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette wasn’t just about going to different sightseeing places and taking pictures. It was about picking up bits of history from the different landmarks, talking to strangers with drastically different upbringings, listening to Cajun musicians improvise on their mandolins, and running around for the best beignets in town. I appreciate the way we unpacked the culture of each city bit by bit, as if unwrapping the layers of a gift box. During the first week, for instance, we skimmed the historical background of New Orleans; now, I see that no matter how different the place is from my hometown, the same themes emerge out of every story in any place: community, love, and empathy. Every city is different but similar at the same time.

Maymester Blog 5 Bookstore.jpg

I appreciate how liberating this experience was. Strolling on your own in the busy streets of a foreign city can be terrifying, but I found it refreshing. Just like the meandering tourists, I felt I finally had space to explore my own messy web of thoughts on paper. No wonder why so many authors wrote their novels here; the streets take you in so many directions that you feel like fresh ideas are everywhere, left and right. It’s a little overwhelming at times, but you also realize how much freedom you have to do whatever the heck you want to try. I hope I can find the same kind of independence back home.

Most of all, this trip was about the people. It’s funny how we were all strangers just a few weeks ago. In these three weeks, we have become vulnerable with each other through shared moments. I will fondly remember the midnight pizza runs, horror movie nights when we would all hide under the covers, strolls by the bayou when we tried to perfect our Southern accents, and last-minute stops at Raising Cane’s to satiate our persistent hunger for chicken fingers. This group of Bookpackers has reminded me to truly listen and connect. We all have sorrows that run painfully deep, but we also build resilience when we share our stories with each other. I come back to Los Angeles rejuvenated by the people I have met, inspired by their boldness and compassion.

Thank you all for this profound experience. I would not have wanted it any other way.

Manifestos, Meltdowns & More


“Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole is quite honestly, the strangest book I have ever read but also my favorite book from this bookpacking experience. It was such an odd conglomeration of absurdities and profundities that I really did not know what to make of it. What frame of mind was the individual who wrote this? Did he really believe these absolutely insane ideologies that he wrote of?

It follows the life of Ignatius Reilly, a completely absurd, flatulent, narcissist who cannot seem to stop falling down nor hold down any form of employment. He constantly clashes with his overbearing mother and her judgmental friends. He is quite frankly a failure of education system, a thirty-year-old man with a plethora of degrees and education who cannot function in society. His scathing manifesto of humanity and inability to say a word that is not an insult is a complete crack up but it took me a while to get used to it. No wonder Ignatius had a valve problem, all that negativity would clearly cause some acid reflex issues at minimum.

My immediate reaction was more or less irritation but once I got past my expectation for high-brow literature I realized just how special the novel is. It’s a sort of love note to New Orleans through a plotless piece of satire that feels almost like a preface. It is not until the final chapter that the exposition finally begins but that is exactly what makes the book so enjoyable. Readers do not need to get caught up in the complexity of the plot but can come to accept Ignatius and his shenanigans for what they are.

Canned food is a perversion,’ Ignatius said. ‘I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

When I got to thinking about it, Toole was clearly satirizing so much of the tensions that exist among humans in the world. I remember Andrew asking the class, “do you think Toole supported Ignatius’ way of life?” and my immediate thought was “no.” You can’t be an Ignatius to write an Ignatius. His entire existence was is meant to spark irritation in the reader. His constant complaints about his valve? Maddening. The fact that everything that could possibly go wrong always went wrong? Exhausting. Yet, I enjoyed so much of it. I found myself laughing and smiling throughout the book. In fact, it almost resonated with me on a personal level. Not because I too have valve issues or have absurd ideologies but because of his education.

You could tell by the way he talked, though, that he had gone to school a long time. That was probably what was wrong with him.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Before I left on this trip, my mother texted me “Have a great time, think about grad school while you are out there.”  I hope to pursue graduate school and someday obtain a PhD, but I strongly fear becoming an Ignatius. While exploring the city, I just kept seeing things through Ignatius’ eyes. At every hot dog cart, I let out a small chuckle, while watching a film at the Prytania, I imagined a belligerent Ignatius throwing his popcorn around yelling insults. Despite all that I remembered everyone’s path is their own. There is no timeline that I need to follow in accordance to my life. In addition, I don’t have to relate to every character, in fact, I can hate them and still enjoy the book all the same. All in all, I haven’t reached a conclusion on graduate school but I know I’ll figure it out. Ignatius is my anti-hero and although he didn’t provide me with any sort of clarity with my future goals, he definitely entertained me. New Orleans would not have been half as exciting without Toole’s insights into the city.

Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

On this bookpacking experience, so many of the books we read left me emotionally drained at the pain and suffering that so many of the characters had to go through. While Ignatius was clearly at the mercy of his overbearing mother, it was possible to read this novel without taking that experience on for myself, something which I did with so many of the other books. Perhaps this was because we read “Confederacy of Dunces” before leaving and actually being in the places where these novels occurred made me experience the novels through the characters eyes in a much more visceral way.

I already miss New Orleans and my fellow bookpackers but I am also glad to be home. Wherever I travel I plan to continue to read books to help enhance my experience. There is so much more out there to see and just as much to read and I cannot wait to see what the future has in store. For now, perhaps I will follow Ignatius’ lead and make some cheese dip, although I probably shouldn’t because I am lactose intolerant.

...When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occassional cheese dip.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

A Lesson in Baton Rouge


Baton Rouge proved to be a sleepy reprieve from the bustle of New Orleans, despite being the state’s capital, a city that would have fit Binx’s nature quite perfectly and an appropriate location for the next leg of our journey.  Our route took us across a twenty-two-mile bridge that dissected Lake Pontchartrain – a sprawling body of water that could easily be mistaken for the Gulf.  The monotonous scenery provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on our New Orleans experience, to let my mind wander – because there really wasn’t any other option for twenty-two-miles. 


Baton Rouge’s skyline is pierced by the massive capital building – the tallest capital building in the United States which was constructed by Huey Long, in the impressive span of only two years.  Our novel for Baton Rouge was A Lesson Before Dying.  The story takes place near the quiet town of New Roads, a short drive away from the city on the False River Lake. A Lesson Before Dying tells the tale of Jefferson, a semi-literate African American at the wrong place at the wrong time; he’s convicted of a murder he did not commit, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury.  In the time leading up to his execution, Jefferson is visited by Grant Wiggins, an African American professor who begrudgingly agrees to teach Jefferson to walk to his death as a man, not as a hog as the rest of the world perceives him.  It is a powerful tale of racism and the perseverance of the African Americans trying to live in a world that didn’t want them at the time. It’s a sharp contrast to Baton Rouge (and New Orleans) today, as our group was welcomed and greeted with smiles and friendly faces by everybody, and it is a wonderful show of progress and happiness in the world.

To further drive home the full effect of the novel’s message we visited the author of A Lesson Before Dying, Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, at his home for an interview.  Dr. Gaines lives on a beautiful expanse of land with large green lands, a beautifully kept plantation-style house with a one-room church in the backyard, and endless farmland sprawling as far as the eye can see.  His house appears a beautiful piece of property, but dig deeper, and you’ll find it was a working plantation that Gaines grew up on, impoverished, with 12 siblings and a crippled aunt-caretaker, where the church in his backyard was the only schooling he received, and the gorgeous fields of crops were the place of his work as a child.  Dr. Gaines’ decision to purchase and live in this house that provided a nightmare of a childhood is the ultimate act of owning your past and future, a deep parallel in A Lesson Before Dying


Speaking with Dr. Gaines provided an incredibly profound insight into his characters and their lives and further examined the horrors they went through from the viewpoint of someone who experienced those situations, those prejudices.  It’s a sobering – reading about these horrors from a book in the safety of a hotel room, or a sidewalk patio, or a cozy café is one thing, but to hear about them from the author himself is on an entirely different level. To hear what Gaines has been through put a new perspective on the novel, adding a more intimate layer that would never been achieved if we never met. Gaines was outspoken, humorous, and passionate about talking to us and answering questions.

To add to the weight of the story and fully understand the horrors Jefferson went through, we visited the jail cell that provided the inspiration for the novel’s jail.  Situated above a courthouse, we took a tour of the tiny jail that up until 1989 was in use for prisoners; it has since been converted to storage, filled with crumbling stacks of files, financial records, and case-photos (we should not have explored that far).  There are no words to describe the abominable conditions or the brutal heat the prisoners endured; there is nothing to say in regards to the overhead pipes and break-away floor they used to hang prisoners; there are no words better to use than the graffiti left behind: ‘We Are Equal’.   

My reading environment in Baton Rouge was rather limited after the infinite options in New Orleans, and I often found myself sitting outside of the hotel on the sidewalk but that proved to be interesting in its own right.  On our last night I sat there around midnight with fifty pages to go.  As I entered the last ten, after a particularly emotional chapter written from Jefferson’s perspective, a man approached me and asked me if I was part of the group that was reading ‘that lesson book’ (he had seen other students reading it earlier in the week).  Thomas (that was his name) proceeded to tell me his own lessons before dying: love yourself, love your neighbor, be kind to one another.  I agreed with him completely, and the words ‘We Are Equal’ rang truer in my head.  Here were two people that had just met that agreed upon the most basic principles of life.  He never asked for money, only to talk.  Before he left I felt that it was only fair that I give him a different lesson before dying and handed over my book, hoping he could find solace in the words of Dr. Gaines.


How do people come up with a date and time to take life from another man? Who made them God?
— Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

An Interesting Title

Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss. Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

The second half of our New Orleans excursion was spent reading The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, an existential novel that seeks to find the answers to life’s great mysteries through movies and casual sex.  Our protagonist, Jack “Binx” Bolling is droll, unhinged in a cool-headed way.  He moves lethargically from secretary to secretary the same way he moves from one major life decision to the next.

Sitting here out front of Between The Bread, a small café overlooking Lafayette Square, it’s easy to understand Binx’s attitude towards life, how easy it is to remember something so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things: “Other people…treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieve w/ her a sweet and natural relationship…I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember.  What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach…” (7).  Binx’s outlook on life is depressing at face value but when experienced, makes absolute sense.  We’ve seen incredible sights here, walked through streets full of vibrant history, where legendary authors wrote famous novels and screenplays, and artists created masterpieces, and musicians ascended to kings of their domains.  Yet all of these spectacular sights and sounds compound with each other as they fight their way to the top to be most memorable, the most interesting.  That is a good thing – so many experiences are appropriate for that position but they tend to crush one another, suppress the effectiveness.

I say this because I witnessed an interaction that solidifies Binx’s attitude for myself.  For the past hour I’ve watched an inebriated couple argue around the park while I read The Moviegoer.  Every once in awhile I’d lift my head from the pages to see them yelling into each other’s faces, throwing hands into the air and sighing loudly to the sky above in obvious exasperation.  I’d see one of them walk off, phone in hand, while the other sat on a bench and buried their face into palms, so I’d turn my attention back to the book. 

Binx would be on another mental excursion watching the world pass him by, with me trying to keep up in his rearview mirror, but several minutes later, I’d see a commotion out of the corner of my eye, and sure enough one half of the couple would come storming back with a newfound fury in dire need of yelling their current thoughts.  This happened multiple times before I decided that Binx wouldn’t mind me putting the book down to observe what was happening in Lafayette Park, so I placed it on the table and sat back, living in their moment.  This cycle repeated itself over and over again: yelling, the separation, the grand re-entrance, and it wasn’t just myself who became interested.  Passersby in vehicles, the passengers in streetcars, random people in the park, we all became attached.  Often one of the combatants would barely make eye contact with me before I was able to whip the book back up over my face, where’d I’d let a second pass before slowly dropping it below my eyes.  I never caught a specific word, never felt I knew what was going on, but when they walked down the block together, hand-in-hand, I knew I had been part of the resolution. 

Binx moved through personal relationships without so much as a second thought and that didn’t resonate within me until I became a fly on the wall to this domestic battle royale.  Out of everything New Orleans has graciously offered me, this stands out the most.  How strange is that?  Maybe it’s because the situation is more ridiculous than anything I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a Saint’s themed Darth Vader dancing in the street at 2 A.M. with a cigarette in his hand. Maybe it was because I could witness this without having to leave my chair as I sipped my coffee. Maybe it’s because Binx found more interest in a movie than a human relationship and this event was unfolding in front of me like a scripted movie. Perhaps it was the complete discord that arose from the situation: me sitting comfortably in front of a coffee shop quietly reading a book, and just across the street, a yelling match that sucked the world in. It was the perfect demonstration of how the opposite lives of New Orleans can be separated by something as trivial as a street.

Audubon Park

Audubon Park

As the second half of our New Orleans portion dwindled to an end, our mandatory activities lessened as well, providing us ample time to do nothing but relax and read.  And fall into the lethargic mindset that Binx often found himself in.  Each day became a treasure hunt for the perfect café, the emptiest bar.  At one point, we even found ourselves sitting in the middle of the Audubon Golf Course, reading and climbing trees.  Suddenly we were given this free time to explore the secrets of New Orleans and we ended up sitting in a park and reading.  I think Binx would be proud of that choice.  As we made our way to Baton Rouge, the next destination, we traveled along Elysian Fields – the road Binx uses to get from his home in Gentilly to the business district – a long, almost endless road that proved the perfect opportunity to lose yourself in thought, to contemplate everything that took place in New Orleans as you lazily moved away from it towards another adventure. 


A Slice of N.O. Life

How does one blog about New Orleans or write anything that can possibly do the city justice?  It’s a daunting task, asking the impossible really and yet so many fantastic artists have been able to capture the very essence of this vivacious place so it is possible.  My recent days have taught me that much, and also that there is such a thing as too much powdered sugar on a beignet (take note if you’re reading this, Café Du Monde).  All jokes aside for this paragraph, I will attempt to relive and reiterate the myriad of emotions that New Orleans can illicit in the short span of eleven days.

Jackson Square

The first couple days are a blur.  Not because of alcohol but because the sheer wall of information I’ve absorbed on a daily basis has blended into a stronger mixture than any bartender here could concoct.  It’s overwhelming to look back at, to separate where one memory ends and another begins.  Walking tours have proved to be our bread and butter, providing an exhaustive – sorry – exhilarating look into a city that really needs more than eleven days to explore.  But we persevered.  Jackson Square was our first stop, a short and sweaty walk from the Lafayette Hotel through an urban swamp where at least four people said they could read my future for varying prices though none had the ability to foresee me saying ‘no’ every time.  Arriving upon Jackson Square is a conflicting experience.  It’s a beautiful plot of perfectly pruned land whose serenity is punctured by the relaxing flow of fountains and a statue of Andrew Jackson that can’t be described as anything short of majestic.  There he is, the absolute center of attention, his bronze battle outfit blowing in the wind while his war-horse rears up upon powerful hind legs.  The statue is incredible, it’s impossible to say otherwise.  The massive St. Louis Cathedral roars its agreement behind him.  We celebrate him with this monument and simultaneously forget his signing off on the Trail of Tears – if I need to explain that then I would direct you to the internet for the sake of time.  But that’s what New Orleans is, it’s the south.  They revere their heroes like any group of people would.  Drive around the city though, and you can see the future catching up – four monuments stand strangely empty as racial and political issues spark greater debate within our country, yet, the monuments’ message is still the same: no matter how far you progress, you cannot forget your history. New Orleans is the epitome of that idea.

The Garden District.  A beautiful glide through town on the streetcar (I was kindly corrected after calling it a trolley) took us to a part of town made up of plantation style mansions, each in their own unique style, where live-oak trees stand tall and numerous, Spanish moss hanging from their branches while their roots rise from the ground, deforming the sidewalks.  We strolled through the streets, past the house Anne Rice (Interview With a Vampire) lived in, onto Lafayette cemetery where marble tombs replaced the city skyscrapers, stacked high to accommodate the hurricanes so that as flood waters rose, the bodies underground wouldn’t rise with them.  Like all things, that took an ‘oh, shit’ moment to realize before adapting, resulting in the magnificent tombs we see today. 

Lafayette Cemetery

Lafayette Cemetery

Marquee at the Prytania Theater

Marquee at the Prytania Theater

It’s easy to envision a vampire stalking unsuspecting victims in the darkness like they did in Interview, but we couldn’t fraternize with the supernatural forever and next moved into the world of jazz with Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter, a splintering novel that depicts Bolden’s incredible career as a cornetist and his descent into madness.  The novel itself is told through a very fragmented prose, made up of quick sentences and even quicker thoughts.  Over the next several days, we explored the city’s jazz offerings, getting a taste of the quickness that accompanied Bolden.  While none of us lost our minds, it’s easy to understand how he did.  And in a rare twist of fate, the movie Bolden happened to be playing at the Prytania Theater – a quaint, independently owned theater that the main character of Confederacy of Dunces frequents, and often hurls popcorn at the screen.  The movie was a great representation of Bolden’s descent, effectively incorporating quick cuts and blending sceneries to demonstrate how Bolden’s mind deteriorated.  We passed by the Little Gem Saloon, where Bolden came to fame, whose rear wall is covered in an incredible mural depicting the Bolden Band; we listened to live music at Preservation Hall, packed into a tiny rustic room like sardines as a group of extremely talented musicians serenaded us with the blaring taste of jazz; we attended bars strictly with live music and danced into the early hours of the morning as if Bolden himself stood on the stage and fed us the energy we needed to keep our feet moving.  But all these wonderful experiences come with a price – exhaustion.  The memories blend together with repetition and you slowly being to grasp Bolden’s predicament: the lifestyle of a jazz sensation coupled with the vices New Orleans have to offer on a daily basis drove him to insanity, a true shame. While Bolden’s death certainly was a tragedy to the jazz community, the musicians of New Orleans have made sure, all these years later, that the music would never die.


Reading On

The landscapes were unbelievable.  I learned how to put together a video I am proud of. The city of New Orleans was disgusting, beautiful, magical, nostalgic, and many other words.  The books were well chosen.  The experiences are memorable.  Each day was well planned.  The humidity was exhausting and I took a long nap most days.  All these I will take with me, but the one thing I will miss the most is waking up every morning and finding these amazing people to bond with.  

We didn’t get as much done as we should have but each and every one of my classmates were such a joy.  

If you can, take the time to bookpack.  There is nothing quite like reading where you are.  You will also feel very accomplished to get so much reading done while you travel.  I would like to give you some experiences I had that I could never have had without being in New Orleans in this very moment.

Confederacy of Dunces-I could never have explored Bourbon Street and seen the licensiousness of the people living here and the visitors.  A local waitress we got to know is opening a strip club for old people in her free time.  There is just this sense of crazy, kooky, wild existence filled with inebriation and adventures similar to the journeys of Ignatius.  Little episodes you would never see in Los Angeles.

The Awakening-Made me consider the impact we have on the environment and the freeing effect warm weather can have on the mind and body.  Edna was freed by the environment and became introspective, fleeing the busy grind we all live.

Interview with a Vampire-gave me a real sense of the historical development of New Orleans.  I considered what life would be like if I was immortal.  Would you pursue a life of lust and greed and earthly pleasures or tackle long term philosophical existence of the supernatural.  I did not finish the novel but it did give me goosebumps imagining vampires lurking in the ill lit quarters of New Orleans.

Coming Through Slaughter-I got to see what a Second Line Parade was like. Reading the book, I envisioned Bolden breaking out of neatly organized rows.  But the Parade is a mass of people and music.  Descriptions of events in books pale in comparison to real life events they are based on. And I got to see a film at the Prytania theater about Buddy Bolden, very well shot!

Moviegoer-was an experience reading for a second time.  Being around a group of thoughtful people, all in college on the edge of careers I questioned my life and what I put in my notebook was:

What if you had to write a bucket list of what you want to do in life?  Are you an outsider?  Do you fit in?  Do you want to fit in?

With life and death, what do you really believe in?  You should know your ambitions, yet the fragility of life remains.

A Lesson Before Dying is my favorite book of the course.  I got to meet the author and I felt I truly found a little point about looking and not seeing that I enjoyed exploring that concept.  In a moment of looking but not seeing, I almost got hit by a car here in New Orleans.  That gave me some perspective on what really matters in life on my walk home. 

Same Place, Same Things-I want to read more of the short stories.  Going to Tom fiddle shop, we got to see the vitality of the community. Everyone came once a month to be together. Grandkids from Alabama were running around. The reaction by the community towards the Texan makes sense now that I see how close everyone is. 

Thank you for reading along.  Thank you to my classmates for making this time fun. Thank you, Andrew, for a truly amazing experience bookpacking and I’m excited to explore America’s novels more in depth.

Meeting the Presleys

Our final stop before returning to New Orleans—which felt like home at this point—was visiting the parishes (counties) of Cajun Louisiana, settling for a few days at a hotel in Lafayette while reading Floyd’s Girl and other short stories by Tim Gautreaux.

Tim Gautreaux paints a picture of the contemporary Cajun south as a place that is dually violent and Catholic, happy with music and community while peppered with distaste for the “other.” Our few days in the area told a similar story. We munched on traditional Louisiana food at a local café, watching—and even participating in—a jam session of fiddles, accordions, and guitars, immersing ourselves in a Tim Gautreaux world of friendly, curious strangers and the joy of musical collaboration. We learned quickly that it is community rather than quality that makes the music fun to play—but perhaps not so fun to listen to, for string instruments are not so forgiving.

We experienced reminders of a culture that Floyd’s girl was in danger of losing:

…memories of the ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekend, vibrations of the soul…
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

We experienced these very vibrations of the soul as we participated in an intimate jam session at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow in Arnaudville the next day, which went down as one of my favorite activities on this trip. Never has so quickly a group of strangers made me feel so at home.



“Lori, or Yaya as the kids like to call me,” replied the grandmother of ten. She was married to Tom, the owner of the Fiddle shop that our group of thirteen was politely taking over. We had met three of the kids, the oldest a 14-year-old boy, Allister, a lanky boy with kind eyes; 11-year-old Tatum, a little firecracker of a girl, quite smart but mostly terrifying, who had gotten me right on the jugular with a stick twice her size while “dueling” on the back porch; and 10-year-old Sebastian, who if I let him could have spent ten hours asking questions about the bookpacking course and college in general, “so how does this class work? What are credits? How many credits have you done? Do you want to go out to the porch to talk more? Do you want some cake? How does college work?” All of the kids seemed to be quite aware of rather adult topics, each having explained to us that “well, Tom’s not our real grandpa; you see, Yaya used to be married but then she got divorced and then she married Tom, so that’s why we’re here. We’re visiting from Alabama!” I thought it was pretty cute. In response to learning that I was an artsy person studying engineering, Lori told me that she also grew up with both her left and right brains working together—she was a mixed-media artist and an ultrasound operator—and that her dyslexia allowed her to have superior 3D pattern recognition skills that helped her in her job. She shared with us her plans to tear down part of the left wall on the building and add an extension to the store where she could teach art classes. Eyebrows raised, she leaned in and said she was also thinking about building a houseboat on the bayou. She gave us her card, a 1-by-2-inch piece of cardstock with a tiny photo of her printed on one side and her information on the other—she was also a spiritual healer, which was great to know.

Elvis and Priscilla

Rescued by Tom and Yaya, Elvis and Priscilla were a set of jittery but affectionate hairless dogs. Elvis sported an impressive blonde tuft of hair on his head and tail, while Priscilla flaunted a more subdued display of black and grey. Priscilla and I became very close, especially when I was escaping the children, who had frightened me with their sword-fighting.


“I’m just being a typical Southerner, talking too much,” Gigi said, leaning forward charismatically in the crowded hallway from which we were all watching a group of men—the oldest an 83-year-old Mandolin player who spoke fluent Cajun French—play Bluegrass in the back of the fiddle restoration store. “Here in the South we say we could talk to a brick wall and have a pretty good conversation!” She laughed at what she said, then thoughtfully continued, “but I don’t feel bad; it’s important to talk to everyone and learn about their lives. I always say that for everyone you talk to, you have to leave knowing at least three things about them.”

She looked at me with wide eyes when I told her I was studying mechanical engineering. She explained how that stuff is completely out of her scope as an artsier person and I said I was like her, that it was a challenge for me every day to study what I was studying. She raised her eyebrows and to my surprise said “wow that’s cool! I’m gonna look for ya in the future, ‘That’s Maria, I know her! I met her at a back-road fiddle shop—” she interrupted her own thought with laughter. I decided I liked her a lot. Before we hugged goodbye, she told me to keep pursuing experiences like this and I said that I would.

We left Cajun Louisiana in high spirits, stepping out of the little shop in a burst of friendly goodbyes. Tom had asked everyone to “say goodbye to our friends from California!” I had never felt more at home than I did at Tom’s cramped fiddle shop, surrounded by people that didn’t hesitate for a second to make me feel like family.


Our final days in New Orleans were spent savoring our favorite study spots while wrapping up our assignments, saying goodbye-for-now to our favorite streets in the French quarter, and cherishing our last moments together as a rag-tag group of twelve kids following charismatic leader with a talent for accents—combining hotel beds, sharing seafood pasta, bidding farewell to the Mississippi, indulging in the superstitious industries of the city, and buying matching t-shirts that we all agreed to wear at the airport. I am so grateful for this experience, for everything it has helped me learn about myself, for all the amazing people that it allowed me to befriend, and for the opportunity it gave me to produce writing that I am truly proud of. I will cherish these memories forever and am brimming with excitement for what’s to come from the relationships I formed here and the lessons I learned.

So through bittersweet tears I say:

Goodbye for now,

Maria G.C.

Unspoken Histories of Mental Fortitude

It had not been explained to them so vividly before, and maybe not at all. I could see how painful it was for most of them to hear this, but I did not stop.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

On Day 10, Andrew took the backpackers to Whitney Plantation. Our guide, Ali, expressed concern for today’s youth as he delved into the unspoken histories of enslavement. His impressionable words of wisdom were addressed to other oppressed groups in today’s society, linking his views for universal growth to an individualistic level. I was left in awe because there were many collective forms of mental fortitude that the African American community has preserved in order to resist modern forms of enslavement. Ali’s passion for unity in diversity got me thinking of ways youth could begin to recognize enslavement so that they may brace themselves for the traumas with which they will be faced when they rise to the forefront of a mental revolution.

After reflecting on Ali’s words, I began to think about my Latino culture, and asking myself why it was so difficult for oppressed youth to unify in times of trauma. I took into account that disparate traditions may fracture generational modes of survivability. And if any preserved modes are altered by another’s perspective in survival, then the youth could become excluded from their community, shamed and blamed for unveiling unspoken traumas of the past. Regardless of the darker outcomes, I believe that it could cause a ripple effect purposed to guide the oppressed youth into a severe state of self-reflection, all the while assisting the older generation in coping with years of depression and anxieties. Under universal trauma, a “search” for one’s individuality, if analyzing both the weaker and stronger aspects of their self, could help them redefine their crucial role within their oppressed communities. Having concluded this, I had yet to be exposed to such a probable course of action.

On Day 20, we got meet Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, the author of A Lesson Before Dying. After an eye-opening Q&A in his living room, we learned that Dr. Gaines had purchased the land where his Aunt Augusteen had raised him and his twelve siblings. We also learned that the church in the garden was the very church where Dr. Gaines began his schooling as a child. In his novel, Professor Grant teaches in the plantation’s church, which made the personal significance all the more bittersweet. When we returned to Lafayette, I began to compile my quotations, and fell into a very intense analyzation of Grant’s compassion and frustrations when teaching at the plantation Church.


I understood that Grant’s compassion and frustrations welded the multitude of inter-communal and systematic ignorances in some complex way. What was most beautiful was the fact that he alone, in some respects, paved way for youth to identify traumas, providing for them the resources needed when it is time that they break through the oppressive barriers. Ernest J. Gaines did a beautiful job in expressing Grant’s frustrations with the lack of communal awareness in the need to assimilate to western knowledge; and his commitments to Jefferson equally translated another aspect in universal suffering. Though Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, and Tante Lou, Grant’s aunt, were invested in Jefferson’s sense of humanity, it nonetheless demonstrated how important it was for the enslaved to come together when external threats attempted to disrupt their solidification in mental fortitude.


Oftentimes, when I learn about the most raw nature of enslavement, and African Americans’ development in mental fortitude, I criticize my Latino culture with good intentions. Although Latinos are known for their fiery passions and devotion to relationships that are rooted in raw and vicious forms of expression, the older generation, in my point of view, has a tendency to suppress their traumas. This enables them to dismiss the youth’s traumas when facing inherent forms of systematic oppression. As a queer Latino in the English field, I sometimes feel alone in the battle against my own community’s ignorances. I do not claim to know the answers to a progressive form of action, but I do observe with a severe perception how normalized forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and assimilation to western knowledge discourages Latino and queer youth from nurturing the most wounded parts of their self. The older generation is often times defensive and aggressive in protecting their corrupted modes of survivability and intimacy. And as a consequence for triggering old traumas, and unveiling those that emerged long before our time, they react towards youth in violent ways, demanding that we refrain from exercising the very abilities they were terrorized to harbor in fear. Grant represented the nexus of old and new. I thank Dr. Gaines for unapologetically expressing his frustrations and without losing sight of the importance of unity and intimacy.

Be the Change

With our initial journey of New Orleans having come to a close, our bookpackers group made our way to Baton Rouge to have one of the most incredible experiences of a lifetime. After a long drive full of great tunes and greater naps, we pulled up to the perfectly placed Hotel Indigo, which was just feet from the water but also close to cafes and shops. The lovely view from our room would not stay a view for long though, as we quickly decided to venture out.

Our first couple days in Baton Rouge were spent touring the capitol building, the courthouse, and, perhaps most jarringly, the thankfully no longer used prison cells of New Roads. While the cells were extremely run down, with paint flakes falling from the ceiling, it was easy to envision Jefferson, the falsely accused man of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, sitting quietly on one of the bunks. The conditions of this prison were unimaginable, as it resided on the upper floor of the courthouse and had no air conditioning. As we all know, Louisiana is rather unforgiving when it comes to its astonishing heat, making even a quick tour of the facility unbearable. Seeing these cells and hearing about the conditions prisoners were subjected to made Jefferson even more of a sympathetic character who was put in a nightmare of a situation.

What truly made this novel come to life for many of us bookpackers, though, was meeting the man who put the story to paper. The one-in-a-lifetime experience of meeting Ernest J. Gaines in person and getting to discuss this novel and the art of writing with him was something that meant a great deal to me, personally. To be a writer with the opportunity to  receive advice from someone so acclaimed was simply astounding. Gaines advice was overshadowed, though, when I began to realize that he did not just bring the story to life but was also making efforts to preserve the history from which the story derived.

The property on which Dr. Gaines lives was the very same plantation he grew up on and he has made many efforts to keep the land true to its roots. He has gone to lengths as great as moving the church, which also functioned as a schoolhouse, that inspired the church in which Grant taught onto his property, into his backyard, to keep it from getting demolished. Rather than get rid of a piece of history such as this, he has taken it into his own hands and kept up the maintenance of the building and the narrative it tells. Having taken a seat on the benches of the church, I felt A Lesson Before Dying become tangible and could almost see Grant behind the podium in the church with his Westcott ruler in hand, ready to smack any of his students brave enough to misbehave.

Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to figure out how a man should live.
— Ernest J. Gaines

Not only did the setting of the book become tangible in walls of this church, but Grant’s feeling of confinement and desire to escape did as well. I could feel how the walls of the church and the surrounding town could become a type of prison in the mind of Grant, an inescapable life sentence to something seemingly mundane and undesirable. As he says himself, every day is about the same. He knows what his students will say, who will wear what, and who will go on to be somebody regardless of his influence on them. Grant, in living out his self-imposed Groundhog’s Day, finds that he has commitment only to maintaining the mundane life he leads.

This is not a feeling unique to Grant, as I’ve often found myself in a similar sort of rut with seemingly no escape. The routines of everyday life can quickly grow tiresome and, just as teaching grows mundane to Grant, being a student can seem just as mundane. Going to lecture after lecture only to hear professors rattle on about, more often than not, something they’ve already discussed countless times, gave me a decent idea of how Grant felt listening to his students rattle off the same few bible verses every morning. The overdone and outlived nature of every day leaves a person worn out beyond belief, hopelessly begging for a change and a sense of purpose being restored.

Grant and I, to an admittedly lesser degree, both receive this sense of purpose, whether or not we are reluctant to take it initially. Grant receives his sense of purpose from the impossible task he’d been given: teaching Jefferson how to be a man. In taking on this task, Grant is not only taken out of his rut of daily bible verses, he is also given the chance to make a change for someone else. The change is twofold, as both end up having a great influence on the other and, in the end, Grant is made a better man with a newfound sense of purpose and sense of self.

I, like Grant, have been pulled out of my rut by an impossible task: travelling to Louisiana with 12 complete strangers, visiting various historical sites, reading various historical works, and somehow making friends along the way. Much as Grant is apprehensive towards his task with Jefferson, I was apprehensive about this bookpacking experience. Before departure, there were countless times I contemplated dropping out of the course, sure that I wouldn’t enjoy the journey. Once the fateful day came and I was sitting on the plane, I thought about getting up and off as fast as possible. Routines weren’t meant to be broken, I thought. Scenario after scenario flew through my head but, against my better judgement, I fastened my seat belt. I’m glad I did.

Had I turned back around and let my own apprehension get the better of me, I would have missed out on some of the coolest experiences and some of the most amazing friendships. From going out sightseeing to staying in for hotel movie nights, strutting down Bourbon Street to strolling in the Garden District, and sunrise swims to midnight ice cream runs, I’ve made countless memories with my fellow bookpackers. Both having been stuck in our own ruts of mundane living, Grant and I were jarred back into motion by life-changing experiences. Grant, in choosing to continue his lessons with Jefferson, and I, in choosing not to hop on the first plane out of Louisiana, did what we did not think we could: we broke our routines and changed for the better.

Yes, I told myself. It is finally over.
— Ernest J. Gaines

Immersed in "A Lesson Before Dying"

A Lesson Before Dying is a book by Ernest J. Gaines that is about a young man, Jefferson, who is found guilty of murdering three people early on in the novel. Although it was never revealed whether or not he actually did it, he was sentenced to death. A teacher named Grant was tasked with making him into a “man” so that he wouldn’t die as what he was called in the courtroom—a “hog.” Grant did not want to go through with this task, but he was only up for it because his aunt asked this of him. In the end, he is the one who develops the most in his interactions with Jefferson. This novel does an amazing job at teaching us—the readers—a very valuable lesson that we might not always see during our darkest times. Loved ones—whether it’d be friends or family—those who are truly closest to us will always be there for us, just as we will always be there for them.


We traveled to the False Lake area of Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana. Our primary goal was to tour the Court House and Prison there in Pointe Coupee. Upon arrival to the courthouse, we were met by a statue/shrine of John Archer Lejeune, a very decorated legend amongst those who have served in the Marine Corps often revered as the world’s greatest marine. Right in front of the statue was a plaque that told his amazing story of servitude. He served in the Marine Corps for over forty years. Amongst his extremely compelling resume stands his leadership of the famous 2nd Division American Expeditionary Force during World War I. He retired as a Major General on the 10th of November in 1929 and was later advanced to Lieutenant General while on the retired list in February of 1942. This marked history, for he was the first marine to ever achieve this rank. Today his name is still a large every day part of the Marine Corps because they named the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina after him. On an info card by his statue, there is a reminder of the proper pronunciation of his name because most people today pronounce it incorrectly. They state that the proper pronunciation is ‘Le-JERN,’ which is not the way I pronounced it throughout my life. I am glad that I came across this shrine, for not only do I know more about an important piece of Marine Corps history, but I also have a good story to tell my buddies who currently serve in the Marine Corps.

When we were invited in to the court house, we were shown directly to a small entrance that leads to a very old elevator, which was used to take inmates up to the jail area where they held inmates within the Pointe Coupee area. The elevator was very small and intimidating in a way, just thinking of what it meant to be riding that elevator back when the jail was in use. When we stepped off of the elevator and into the old jail, the immediate sense of heat is overwhelming. It is not air-conditioned and is on an upper-floor, which to me says that it must become an oven in extremely hot weather. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an inmate there, and knowing that it was used up until 1989 is astonishing to me. The only reason they retired its use is because they built a new one, meaning that it is possible that it could have still been in use to this day had a new one not been built. Having been reading through “A Lesson Before Dying,” one can see Jefferson sitting in one of the cells down the hall, as he waits for the date of his inevitable doom.

Standing in the cells, although I know I am not actually an inmate, makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. Nothing to do but to sit in a hot cage with the only outside time being spent small portions in yet another small area that was walled off. There was writing on the walls in some of the cells which were of counting, what I can only assume is the amount of days an inmate spent in the jail. When I saw this writing, I couldn’t help but to take a moment and appreciate how blessed I am to be free. We were then showed a particular cell which was the only cell which women were held and was also used for hangings. When I saw the area that was used for hangings and noticed the piece of floor that would open up, my stomach dropped and a sense of sadness filled me. Visiting this old jail was a very unique experience that definitely made me appreciate my freedom.

Pictured at the head of the table is Sheriff Beauregard “Bud” Torres

Pictured at the head of the table is Sheriff Beauregard “Bud” Torres

Immediately after the emotionally-draining jail visit, we went back downstairs and visited the standing Sheriff, Sheriff Beauregard “Bud” Torres. Thankfully, Sheriff Torres managed to squeeze meeting us into his very busy schedule. We spent some time conversing with him about what brought us to Louisiana and our bookpacking activities. He was very delighted to meet a new bookpacking group and he even played us some of his music. I really enjoyed listening to his music then, and have continued listening to his music ever since! When it was time to go off to see the court room, I stayed behind and spoke to Sheriff Torres for a while. We spoke about his music and the history of Louisiana and the area around Pointe Coupee. He even educated me on my family name. I really enjoyed our conversation and hope to see his reelection in October 2019!


When I left Sheriff Torres’s office, I went on my way to search for my bookpacking group, for I was left behind. I knew that they had headed for the courtroom, so I asked a janitor that I happened to stumble by for directions. She then jokingly asked me for five dollars in exchange for directions. We had a conversations about the bookpacking concept and had a few laughs. A good sense of humor seems to be a reoccurring theme in Louisiana. Afterwards she pointed me towards the second floor, where the courtroom was and I was finally reunited with my group. Since the courtroom is actually still in use today, it has been kept up. This didn’t stop me from having that sense of satisfaction from standing in the same room that Jefferson from “A Lesson Before Dying” was standing in when he was called a “hog” by his lawyer.

All in all, I really enjoyed my time in Pointe Coupee, despite the heaviness of visiting the jail. I especially enjoyed meeting Sheriff Torres and all the people at the courthouse. The people really make the entire Southern experience that I am loving. People here are so wholesome and genuine, which I can’t always say for the people I meet back in Los Angeles. Louisiana is a much slower (taking it easy) and warmer environment (both with the weather and the people).

Searching for a Community

We explore the city of New Roads this week to enjoy a change of scenery from the festive, bubbly New Orleans. New Roads is a small city, around two hours inland from New Orleans, that sits right above a short river near the Mississippi. With our bellies stuffed with delicious beignets and Po’boy sandwiches, we delve into our next book to examine the value of being part of a community.


A Lesson Before Dying, a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, tells the story of a young black man, Jefferson, wrongfully sentenced to death for a crime, and Grant Wiggins, a teacher who visits him during his last days, hoping to impart some wisdom before the execution. Together, they learn from each other as they challenge one another to see their own value as human beings.

We visit the jail cells in New Roads that Jefferson fictitiously stays in during his time left before death. The cells are located on the top floor of a courthouse building. Warm air pervades the area. The wallpaper on the ceiling is peeled off by years and years of wear. Thick, gray bars line several cell doors, closing space off from the rest of the world. The doors at the end of the halls are solid, with only a small rectangular opening for food. The single source of light in each cell comes through barred windows. I stand inside the last cell down the hallway, closing the door behind me, and the space immediately feels a bit suffocating. I think of Jefferson lying on a bunk, staring aimlessly out of the tiny, barred window in his cell. He is cut off from the community, both physically and mentally, as he is forced to spend the days before his death in the enclosed space with minimal outside contact and fails to realize his self-worth.

Do I know what a man is ? Do I know how a man is supposed to die ? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?
— Ernest J. Gaines

Grant similarly feels hatred within himself and towards the community, failing to see the point of trying to teach Jefferson something if he is going to die anyways. He has people around him who love and care about him, but Grant does not truly accept that attention as he lives in a bubble of cynicism. This jail perpetuates those feelings of frustration and bitterness as it creates an isolated space, disconnected from the community. The difficulty of escaping from a place like this further contributes to an air of hopelessness. When I walk down the streets of this sleepy town, I also feel a bit of disconnection since there are no pedestrians out and about. This is, perhaps, exacerbated by the fact that the river the city is built on, the False River, is not connected anymore with the Mississippi.


However, soon enough, I notice that the concept of a community might just take on a different interpretation here. We go visit the author, Ernest Gaines, in his home. He has a small church on the land behind his house that is symbolic of the church Grant teaches in throughout the novel. The inside is lined with photographs and bursts of light flood in through the windows. Despite its compact size, rows and rows of seating fill the space. I think of the children Grant teaches. All of the colored children in Grant’s town who have gone to school have passed through this church at some point in their lives. Thus, this place brings together Grant and Jefferson’s black community so that they can learn together amidst the families’ difficult lives out on the plantations. It seems like having a community doesn’t always mean being able to join the bustling crowds in New Orleans; rather, in this area, it can mean congregating in a quieter, more intimate place where everyone knows and cares for each other enough that sacrificing yourself for someone else is worth the hurt, pain, and lies.

Gaines tells us about his life on the plantation. The house is his, but not all the fields and fields of corn behind it. Growing up, he lived on a plantation in this area. Just like Grant, he moved from Louisiana to California and back. To him, this place has a special place in his heart. His community here keeps him tethered to the place. Similarly, Grant’s loved ones constantly remind him to stay, to fulfill his duty as a teacher and give the black people in the town a voice. Galvanized by their words, Grant teaches Jefferson to accept his own worth.

“Tell Nannan I walked.” And straight he walked.
— Ernest J. Gaines

I came on this trip stumbling, frustrated with my own inadequacies. However, I found a community in this group of Bookpackers. This community of friends have reminded me that despite who I am, I can still walk. Anyone can walk. You just have to believe you are worthy enough to do that.

Finding a community, no matter what that means to us, where it is, or how we find it, is worth all the time and effort. Without it, we are broken and hurt. With it, we realize how much potential we have to become better students, teachers, and people. We teach each other compassion, empathy, and love. And maybe just a thing or two about life.


Unlike an Oak Tree

In our first couple of days in New Orleans, we took the streetcar to the Garden District to look at the beautiful houses and stop by Anne Rice’s House, the author of Interview with a Vampire. Andrew stopped our stroll next to a single oak tree and read us a poem from Walt Whitman’s collections in Leaves of Grass. The poem is called ‘I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing’, it is here below.


Before we even got on the plane to come to Louisiana, as we were waiting in the terminal Andrew predicted that by the time we were back at this airport in three weeks’ time, some of us would be in tears saying bye to one another. I thought this was pretty ridiculous. Going into this trip I was worried about everyone being annoying or not liking me so if I could get by with simply getting along with everyone I would’ve considered the trip a success. As a group we are individually so different in background, fields of study, and general interests, but here we make up one cohesive group. And now, three and a half weeks later, I don’t just think people here are tolerable or nice, but I have found real friends that I truly care about. Early on we were advised to create deep connections with each other and not just pretend to be someone we aren’t in order to sound smart or impress. It is hard and scary to be vulnerable with a group of, essentially, strangers but by doing so the friendships I made here have given me the most amazing memories. Doing something like ‘Bookpacking’ is an interesting and fun experience but it also gets lonely, makes you look inwards, and has you questioning what life is about. I couldn’t have gotten through it and taken advantage of all the course has to offer without the conversations I had with my classmates and now friends.

One of the greatest moments we were able to share as a group came in our last weekend spent in Cajun Louisiana. Our last reading, a short story called ‘Floyd’s Girl’ in Tim Gautreaux’s book Small Things, Small Places was placed here. The descriptions of,

“ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends, vibrations”
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

summed up our experience with the people here perfectly. We had the opportunity to take part in not one, but two jam sessions with people we met at the Tante Marie Café and Tom’s Fiddle and Bow Shop. On Sunday afternoon we spent about 2 and a half hours just talking and playing instruments with strangers who very quickly became friends and actually witness Floyd’s practice of, “…[making] noise with his friends on the weekends”. I actually had the chance to play guitar for a couple of songs in Blue Grass style in the back room (as compared to more southern, Cajun style in the main room), and experience, “the buzz of a fiddle and the clang of a triangle in her pretty head, the love songs sung through the nose”. Sitting and singing all together as a group was such a special thing to share together. Being able to learn about a completely different culture that we had just read about in such a small glimpse but then see it come to life was what the trip was all about. I wouldn’t have had the courage to partake in the music in the way I did without the support from this group and some special groupies.

A single live-oak tree…

A single live-oak tree…

And just as Walt Whitman realized he could not be joyous like the live oak tree if he had no friends around, this trip would have been nowhere near as amazing or memorable without the people I’ve met and gotten to know. I definitely will be crying saying goodbye but I know the friendships we carved here will last far beyond this trip. Moreover, this trip has made me be even more appreciative of the friends and family who “I believe lately I think of little else than of them”. Without our instructor Andrew, this trip would not have been bigger than simple ‘Bookpacking’. He encouraged us to make it a practice in empathy and learn about ourselves. While all 12 of the people here are so special, I have to give a little shout out to two amazing girls I met- Maria Camasmie and Cameryn Baker.

To Maria: I am so happy we roomed together those first nights in Grand Isle. I knew that moment when you brought your markers out that if anything we would at least draw together! But getting to know you and having the opportunity to build an actual friendship with you has been one of the best parts of my trip. I will forever remember and cherish swimming with you at sunrise in Grand Isle, opening up to you on our long walk on Magazine St., eating junk food for two hours straight on a rainy day, and dancing with you on the streets of New Orleans. It has been a privilege to get to know such a clever, fun, creative, and genuine person as you. You are unlike anyone else I have ever met. I can’t thank you enough for listening and being here for me every day of this trip and I can’t wait for the many more memories to come.

To Cameryn: My bear, I feel so lucky to have such a kind soul like you in my life thanks to this trip. You go above and beyond to make the people you care about in your life feel special and loved. Thank you for being my first hug, and usually at least the 7+ hugs, in my days. Your light and bubbly personality makes everyone around you feel a certain ease and comfort that can be likened to feeling at home. I wish you could see how amazing you are and how unique it is to find someone as generous and warm as you. You are a beautiful writer and it has been such an amazing adventure to be a part of your experience here. I am so excited to hang out with you even more when we get back for the summer and the school year (and set up play dates for Harambe and Gates).

Swamp Witches™ Forever

Swamp Witches™ Forever

Small Place, Big Family

Our last section of the class we read “Floyd’s Girl”, a short story from Small Place, Small Things by Tim Gautreaux.  We are in Lafayette, Cajun Country.  The area is filled with more swamps than we have seen yet and is a rather small place compared to New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I liked getting away from the bustle of the city and expensive restaurants.  I took this time to decompress from the past few whirling weeks and read as much as I could from Gautreaux’s collection.  


The story of Floyd’s Girl is Floyd chasing down a Texan man who his ex-wife is living with.  His daughter, Lizette, has just been abducted by the Texan.  In the process, Floyd barrels through trees in a giant green tractor, borrowed a car, got knocked down.  He raced around, knowing which routes the Texan would be taking his girl.  He grabbed an airplane and caught up to the man only to get in a bloody fight and the Texan beat up by T-Jean’s grandmére.


This story is rather different than the novels we have read here in Louisiana.  The other books seemed to be unable to read without an existential crisis and crying, or profound thought.  Floyd’s Girl and the other short stories truly capture life in middle of no where Louisiana.  Racing around to find Floyd, his only option was to climb into

The only machine left, a heavy international M, retired because it was too old to pull and ate gas by the drum


The land is littered with rusting equipment and falling apart homes.  He crashes through the shed in his rush.  This novel gives a sense of what the place is like. As we drive through, we notice the lack of care some places have. Whether this is from destruction of hurricanes and lack of funds to rebuild or not, it is still eerie to see these model homes next to these rotting homes. Some appear to be lived in by squatters or families unable to rebuild parts of the house.


The people are worn out, but just as hardy as the land.  And God loving too.

When Floyd was a baby and she held him in her lap, he was like a tough little muscle made hard by God for a hard life ahead. He was not a mean man, but determined enough to always do a thing right when it counted.

The people in the novel are hyperaware of the state and the systems around them. As our tour guide from a Cajun Pride swamp tour said, you aren’t truly taught anything in school. All the practical knowledge and innate senses are taught at home and outside explorin’. Floyd chased the Texan, not looking at the speedometer, feeling his way around the flooded asphalt and sensing the rubber. In his minds eye, he knew routes to beat a man with a 20 minute head start.

Then there is the sense of roots in Louisiana. Communal connection and extended families is in the book and our adventure to Tom’s Fiddle Shop. At Tom’s Fiddle Shop we were welcomed to the sound of music and smiles. I was expecting some awkwardness, as we were a group of 13 intruding on this family and friends event. Immediately four kids were talking to Tara and I and fake sword battles ensued. The ten year old, Sebastian, was extremely interested in the course and was already on a mental track to be a data scientist. Three of the kids came from Alabama, they were grandkids of Tom’s, and more would come in later weeks. I met one woman who was from San Francisco and summed up the reason why I like Louisiana so much, people are so welcoming here and it is rather laid back. You could never enjoy music like this as a community every first Sunday of the month in Los Angeles. People here say hello while passing the street where that is anathema to California.

The alien nature of worship of Texas seems anathema to every narrator we have. Each character we have see into them minds of in the novel worry about Liz being in the differently worshipping Texas.

There was something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted for the rest of her days by memories of the ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers...

The people here are honorable and friendly. This is what I aspire to be. In this Cajun culture, I have been thinking that everyone is laid back. But when it counts, as the story shows, people in Cajun culture will stop at nothing to get what they want and protect their family.

Traveling back to New Orleans, I can imagine racing down the road in Floyd’s borrowed car. Ironically enough, a yellow little seaplane did pass over our heads heading out of the swamps to our right, just how I imagine Floyd flying down low to get the Texan. The experience of reading a story while racing in the same area the characters are beats any description or photo that could be offered to me. While there is not as much introspection on reading this, I got a real understanding of the Cajun lifestyle, family values, and urgency of living life to the fullest by being here on the ground reading along.

Read On!

Shell driveway

Shell driveway

A Poem After Crying

Reading A Lesson Before Dying while sitting by the same river that author Ernest J. Gaines lives near.

Reading A Lesson Before Dying while sitting by the same river that author Ernest J. Gaines lives near.

The Bookpacking experience for Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying proved to be the most impactful of the trip. It was quite enjoyable to read a fictional story about vampires hunting on the lively nighttime streets of the French Quarter, where I had been spending the better parts of my days, or to read a story of a woman’s awakening while lounging on the same beach that she had. These were inspiring and pleasurable bookpacking experiences. Reading and visiting the locations of A Lesson Before Dying, however, proved to be an entirely different type of experience. It was a difficult one. It was not an easy thing to read about the mistreating of an innocent young black man, forced into a death sentence of which he has no chance of escaping, and then having to stand in the exact spot where he had lived this struggle. 

Our visit to the New Roads Courthouse Prison was a somber one. I’ve gotten used to our group being loud, always laughing, and occasionally bursting out in song. That all stopped once we had taken the tiny elevator—no bigger than a phone booth—up to the top floor of the courthouse, where the old prison cells still stand. The mood instantly changed. There was none of our usual laughter, no joking, and entirely no singing. There set upon us a silence and a sadness that could only have resulted from having just read Jefferson’s story, and the reality of his situation dawning on all of us simultaneously. You could feel the weight of the book descend on all of us again, with even more effect this time, as we saw the cells and beds that we had read about right in front of us.


I didn’t know how to write a blog about this book, or the experience of visiting the place that the majority of it had taken place in. My blogs so far have mostly been retellings of the joy I’ve experienced on this trip. This experience, however, while very powerful, was rather minimal in its joy factor.

I’ve chosen instead to write a poem, trying to relate the feelings I had while standing in the prison cells. Tammy, a deputy who had been kind enough to take us upstairs to the prison, showed us the exact spot where they had used to hang the prisoners who, like Jefferson, were sentenced to the death penalty. She pointed up to a spot almost directly above me. It was at that moment that the gravity of this place, and of Jefferson’s situation, really struck me. The poem I’ve written tries to capture the immensity of this moment. 

Courthouse Prison Blues

this spot

dirty dingy room

they hung them right above me

this room

tiny hardly lit

enclosed with bars and left to rot

i wonder

standing here unchained

what crimes had locked their manacles

i wonder

had their keys been turned

with reason or with malice

i am free, i can leave

i can smell and climb the trees

so why can’t i see why can’t i breathe

Photo stolen from Annaliese

Photo stolen from Annaliese

in their shoes

i try to see

through their eyes all their suffering

in this i find

colossal truth

“we are equal” written on the wall

now i feel chained

shackled and kept

years of crime burden my mind

painful crimes

done by the hangers

and not the hanged

i now can see

sorrows suffered by

the writer of the letter signed

sincerely jefferson


Comfort in Uncertainty

they got a moon out ther an i can see the leves on the tree but I ant gon see no mo leves after tomorrow ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

If I had the opportunity to find out the exact day, time, and incidence of my death, would I take it?

Would you?

I am certain that my answer would be no. With death there are so many questions: is there an afterlife, is there pain, are we reborn or do our bodies just turn back into the dust from the stars? I don’t know the answers and I likely won’t ever know them until my own death but that does not bother me. Yes, it’s scary, it scares everybody but the thing that scares me most would be knowing how it happens. There is beauty in uncertainty and just thinking of knowing with absolute certainty how I die makes me sick to my stomach. I know that sometimes people commit terrible crimes that are worthy of death but the fact of the matter is, the death penalty unfairly targets people of color.

How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God? ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

While reading Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” I had to get used to that kind of discomfort. It follows the events leading up to Jefferson’s death, a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman whose defense was not only blatantly racist but also horribly insufficient to be sentenced to death.

Gentlemen of the jury, look at this—this—this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man. Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this—this—this a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, following the defense attorney calling Jefferson a hog and a fool finds herself requesting that schoolteacher Grant Wiggins, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, speak with her godson to ensure that he dies a man. Her outlook always intrigued me, she accepted that he was going to die and though it pained her deeply, chose to fight for what she considered the next best thing.

We should try and reach Jefferson. Why not the soul? No, she wants memories, memories of him standing like a man.
― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

The novel was painful to read. During the final chapters I found myself crying at Gaines’ poignant words. It was very difficult to read about the end of a man’s life and all the conflicting emotions that come with it. Although Miss Emma intends for Wiggins to teach Jefferson a lesson before dying, it is perhaps Wiggins who learned the most. Before his conversations with Jefferson, he was in a place of stagnation. He was a knowledgeable man but only had the knowledge that could be obtained in school. After being forced through external pressures and an internal obligation to get to know a man sentenced to death, Wiggins learned the art of self-reflection and inner strength. Just as Jefferson shed his pained identity as a “hog” forced upon him by his attorney and walked to his death like a man, Jefferson was able to open Wiggins’ eyes and educate him on self-perception and change. Wiggins had acquired a sense of hopelessness before Jefferson came into his life. He did not believe anything he did would ever make a difference and then he saw Jefferson transform, a person in a place of imposed stagnation and realized that hope is necessary and changes are possible.

“You’re a human being, Jefferson,” I said. “I’m an old hog they fattening up to kill.


“good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this

Sincerely Jefferson” ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

I’ve been avoiding this blog in all honesty. I wasn’t ready to take myself back to the place that “A Lesson Before Dying” took me. Gaines’ words made me feel knots in my stomach, a strange sense of hopelessness that I don’t want to feel again. I’m not ashamed to say I cried while reading this book. Not the dramatic movie tears where one tears slowly falls down your cheek. It was gross all-encompassing sobs and that feeling stayed with me for longer than I care to admit. When we walked through the old jail sails in the suffocating summer heat my mind was with Jefferson. As I wandered and saw the inmates graffiti saying “we are all equal,” my heart hurt. Systemic inequality runs deep in the fabric of the United States and until people recognize that and actively make an effort to change it, the inequality will remain.

I can’t raise the dead. All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this—but he’s gone from us. ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Seeing the numbers on the walls was the worst part. The addition that didn’t make sense, the confusion… How long had they been there? Was it their countdown until their release or would they die there? Despite the heat, I had chills. When our tour guide showed us how the cells closed, my heart dropped, all I wanted to do was get out of there and I longed for the feeling of the ocean at the Grand Isle. I felt so trapped in the jail but I knew that at any moment I could get in a car and leave, sadly, the same cannot be said for Jefferson or the other inmates that were forced to live there. The conditions were not only inhumane but they were maddening. The courtyard that the inmates used for their exercises felt just as claustrophobic as the cells themselves. I felt on edge the entire time, that was not a life that any person should have to endure. The fact that inmates were kept there until the late 1980s is just a reminder at how slow the process of progress is. I’m grateful for this bookpacking experience, particularly the places these books and sights have allowed me to go and how they have connected me to my emotions. I hated how “A Lesson Before Dying” made me feel but I’m still grateful for it. Good literature is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, show you different perspectives, and challenge your thought processes and “A Lesson Before Dying” did that and more. I know that I feel things more intensely than other people and a lot of the time I resent it but I know that one day it is going to help me become the writer that I want to be.

don’t kno if you can red this mr wigin my han shakin and i can yer my hart ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Being in the presence of a writer like Ernest J. Gaines’ whose words drove me to tears was exciting and nerve wracking. I admire his ability to create such nuanced characters in such a deceptively simple fashion. They are not all protagonists in the common sense of the word and the message he conveys through each one lingers long after the reader completes the book. Grant Wiggins was somewhat of a hopeless cynic who simply functioned rather than lived. He was a teacher that disliked it greatly and seeing Jefferson’s internal growth while on death row altered his perspective on life. Both these characters were not ideal individuals nor in ideal situations but their impact on each other which instigated internal growth is a testament to the power and vulnerability in human connection. And the fact that I got to meet a writer who created this devastatingly painful and beautiful word continues to shock me. I remember I asked him how he avoid getting caught up in revisions and his answer was “I write and revise until I’m tired and I can’t revise anymore and need to write something else.”

Writer Ernest J. Gaines with the class.

Writer Ernest J. Gaines with the class.

Everyone always says the biggest part of the writing process is revision but being able to see an accomplished writer’s revision process was eye opening. I had never seen a manuscript before. There were so many drafts with so many miniscule changes that make all the difference. When Kayla found the copy where Gaines’ added in “Sincerely, Jefferson” I felt such an immense gratitude that the art of writing exists and a greater understanding of the necessity of revision. The words “Sincerely Jefferson” don’t seem like much but in the context of the novel, they would be the last words that Jefferson would ever write before his death and it makes Jefferson’s diary all the more impactful.

The experience of bookpacking with “A Lesson Before Dying” was challenging because of all the emotions it made me feel but I wouldn’t change it for a second. I got to meet the Ernest J. Gaines, hear his perspective on writing, and see locations that add to the experience. My pain ends when I put the book down and the residual feelings fade away but so many trapped in the prison industrial complex do not get that privilege so I will feel my feelings and be grateful to see the sun rise for another day.

Tell Nannan I walked. And straight he walked… ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying