Maria Camasmie

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.

Haply I Think on Thee

Our first days away from our beloved New Orleans found us in Baton Rouge, sleepy thanks to Memorial Day, at a hotel next to the gorgeous Mississippi, where we were to read Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying while exploring the State Capitol building and visiting the small town nearby where the novel was set. A Lesson Before Dying is about Grant, a young teacher grappling with the immense task of convincing Jefferson, a wrongfully convicted 21-year-old awaiting execution, of his own humanity—all under the hopeful eyes of a struggling community.

While reading this book, we had the privilege of immersing ourselves in the text by exploring the very places where the novel is set. We visited Point Coupée parish to see the prison cells where Jefferson would have had to live his final weeks—miserable little boxes, sealed by cruel metal bars and walls of bleak, flaking paint. Shockingly, this horrible place had only been retired as a prison in the 1980’s. The atmosphere of the prison was smothering, suffocating us due to its lack of air conditioning, and intimidating us with walls decorated with mold and wasp nests. Stepping into those cells, and having them close on us, trapping us inside, made Jefferson’s experience feel very real. I tried to stay light-hearted at the time, not allowing myself until much later in the day to reflect on the despair and helplessness that Jefferson must have felt in that cramped, hot cell. I found the arithmetic scribbled on the walls— “53 days left,” it said—quite disturbing, and I wanted to get out. It’s easy to forget that inhumane places like these still exist, that we still lock people up, reducing their freedom on this vast planet to about 4 by 8 feet of cement. And then I thought of Jefferson, sentenced for a crime he did not commit, and sent to this awful place with the belief embedded in him that he was not a human but a hog. This put Grant’s fear and hesitation into perspective—how do you transform someone who believes that they are as lowly as a hog, reducing themselves to eating on their knees with their hands behind their back, into someone who believes firmly in their own humanity? How do you convince someone to walk with their head held high to the electric chair? We all left that little prison—whether we revealed it or not in our outward disposition—uneasy and remorseful over the experience. I think we were all thinking of poor Jefferson and the inner tumult he must have been facing in that grim place. Visiting the prison made Jefferson’s ultimate transformation into a man even more astounding and impactful—I understood then what made him a hero.

The next day, we were lucky enough to meet Dr. Ernest J. Gaines in his home on the False River. We asked him questions about A Lesson Before Dying, his path to becoming a writer, and—my favorite part—his relationship with his wife, Diane, who was constantly keeping him on track when his answers started to drift. It was a truly special experience, which helped me understand the characters and message in the novel more. Interestingly, Dr. Gaines shared that he never put himself fully into any one character. He also gave us insight into his decision to allow Reverend Ambrose, a somewhat difficult character to support when reading, to rise up at the end of the novel when he, not Grant, was at the execution. His decision showed that, though an educated man himself, Dr. Gaines seemed to value belief—in people, in community, in God, even—over cynicism. We would soon discover that even more as the woman in charge of his archives, Shalon, showed us all that Dr. Gaines had done for his community. She took us to the restored church where the fictional Grant taught the plantation children, where she explained the significance of sharecropping and the poor circumstances of its unfortunate participants.

Throughout this experience, it became clear that Dr. Gaines both like Grant and Reverend Ambrose in his contribution to his community and simultaneous faith in its future. As we explored the town, we noticed the disturbing remains of an unsavory history—a celebratory statue of a confederate soldier, proudly waving his flags, and a memorial to a Native American, described on his plaque as a “savage.” Perhaps even more disturbing was the consistent erasure of black history, the history of those whose blood, sweat, and tears built that very town. Dr. Gaines and his colleagues are on the front lines, doing everything they can to prevent their history from disappearing. Shalon took us to the plantation graveyard—a tiny plot of land surrounded by thick grass, which was the only place plantation workers were allowed to bury their dead—to show us first hand how easy it was for black history to be erased and how important it was to maintain it. The graveyard had almost been demolished by tractors, if Dr. Gaines himself had not helped save and preserve it. Shalon raised a thought-provoking question to the group: “what makes a graveyard? How do you know you’re at a graveyard?” We hesitated to reply because we knew the answer wasn’t pretty, so she repeated the question. I eventually responded, “headstones… graves” and she confirmed; plantation workers didn’t have the money to afford marble headstones, relying instead on impermanent organic materials like wooden crosses to mark the graves of their loved ones, which resulted in the decimation of their burial sites. People who didn’t know the area would carelessly build over these graveyards without a second thought. Most heartbreaking is that Dr. Gaines’s beloved aunt, who had never walked her entire life but had to drag herself on the ground all the while raising a flock of children, is buried somewhere in that patch of land in an unmarked grave—dear to so many and so strong, yet lost somewhere in the dirt. I thought about how I had taken for granted the simple privilege of knowing where my loved ones were buried, to have a place to visit them, to honor them. The idea that so many had that opportunity stolen from them made me angry and remorseful. We left the graveyard carefully, avoiding large spiders and itchy plants, ruminating on what Shalon had told us. She had also explained how sharecroppers were essentially trapped in their “jobs,” as they weren’t paid in US dollars but instead in currency specific to that plantation, which they could only use at the local plantation store. It’s with these stories that I began to relate with Grant and his former teacher Mr. Antoine in their utter cynicism—they were surrounded by the constant reminder of slavery and the notion that it hadn’t ended, just simply taken another name. I’m sure that Dr. Gaines felt similarly in his youth and perhaps even now, so I only admired him more for never ceasing to write about hope. Where Mr. Antoine died pessimistic about the fate of his community, Ernest Gaines lives like the reformed Grant, perhaps not entirely relieved of cynicism, but never ceasing. Like Grant would continue to teach the story of Jefferson, Dr. Gaines continues to tell the stories of the brave people of his community and teach the history he refuses to let be erased.

Our final discussion on A Lesson Before Dying was an emotional one. Though about a specific community facing a gut-wrenching tragedy, this novel carries a universal message. Ultimately, it is about allowing oneself to be loved and believing in ones humanity. It is about finding hope and happiness, not in your material possessions or tangible accomplishments, but in the people that love you. That is how Jefferson walked to that chair a man. Wrapping up our discussion, our professor, Andrew, left us with the Shakespearean sonnet he goes to when he feels he needs this very message. Coincidentally, I recited this sonnet years ago in theatre but realized when Andrew spoke it that I had never truly understood it. As I looked around at my new friends and a professor that truly believed in me, I finally got it. I am good and human and worthy because of them and because of my friends back home and because of my family. Without much further ado, I leave you with this:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
Happily, I think on y’all. My new friends.

Happily, I think on y’all. My new friends.

Scoo-pa-di-doo-doop Scee-bop-bahp Scai-ai-ai-ya

Part 1: Night

I came into this trip somehow having convinced myself that because it was the summer and because I was in a fun city and because this class involved a lot of writing which is something I liked, that I could immediately hop out of the depressive cavern I had been in all year. Since August, I had regressed to a point of struggling to complete even the simplest of homework assignments, missing several days of class in a row, spending entire days in my room with the blinds closed, only leaving at night if at all. Two semesters prior, I had dropped a writing class the night before a paper was due, and last semester I had failed to start a ten-page report for one of my toughest engineering classes, sentencing myself to another “W” in my transcript and an extra semester of school. Needless to say, entering this Bookpacking class, I was not in the best shape to complete the multiple reading and writing assignments we were to be assigned. I had gotten so accustomed to and debilitated by the anxiety surrounding any given task that even sitting in front of an open laptop or notebook made my stomach churn and my fingers shake and my heart start to beat faster. Come this Bookpacking experience and I decide that somehow, I was going to put my anxiety on pause, to defer my personal madness—my depression, my academic paralysis, my perfectionism, my irrational fears, my black-and-white thinking—until after the trip. I sure fooled myself, alright. Even in the first week I felt it poking out of its cage, probing—I had already stayed up until 5AM to finish reading The Awakening and pulled a quasi-all-nighter a few days later to finish my first blog—but I still was managing enough to not trigger any alarms. I was having fun, loving my new friends, and breathing in the city. Then came the due date of the first essay—the first writing assignment I’d have to do after almost a year of barely completing an assignment; and I cared about it—a lot. I had mounted an overwhelming pressure on myself to prove, through these blogs and essays, that I was in fact capable, despite all the evidence I had gathered throughout the year saying otherwise. We had been reading Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and like its tormented protagonist, Buddy Bolden, I began “swimming towards the sounds of madness.” I was unraveling. Yes, still participating, maintaining my deceivingly sunny disposition, but unraveling, still, under the twisting iron balconies of the French Quarter.

Being back in the South, in a place that often reminded me of my youth in Florida, brought back beautiful memories of a childhood that I felt I had betrayed—what went wrong, I wondered. I suffered a painful nostalgia. I felt for Buddy, who before his disastrous fall from grace and sanity, too had shared happy memories with his family, inspired to play the cornet from watching the Second Line Parade with his father. Walking around New Orleans, grappling with these feelings, I noticed the city had a mysterious edge to it, something that fills you with both joy and a profound sadness—something that sways with your mood like the Spanish Moss that clings to the live oak. Amidst bright colors, romantic fairy lights, hanging plants, and vibrant shops of antiques and art and crystals, lingers a melancholy irony of an impoverished people surrounded by aloof tourists; the palimpsest of slavery, Jim Crowe, and Katrina; and the wandering eyes of zombified characters, spilling into the French Quarter from Canal Street like jetties into the ocean. Roaming those whimsical streets on my own, struggling dually with a difficult workload and self-judgment for not being able to handle said workload, I was tossed around by the schizophrenic current of a bipolar city. Reading about a brilliant man who redefined music as we know it and despite all this went mad—and was immortalized in said madness—made me nauseous and sad and scared. I thought myself a decent writer—good, even—but I hated myself and my mind—a labyrinth of sealed pipes, I thought—for holding back my talents, for restraining me from basic work, for enveloping me in dark thoughts. It was an anxiety with no cure, a depression with no relief, and an outward appearance so unassumingly cheery that no one would ever know. I kept trying to convince myself that this city was fine and happy and wonderful while trying to convince myself that I was fine and happy and wonderful, that I had somehow been able to snap out of my anxiety-induced-procrastination—a “procrastination” that had long ago mutated into a much more nefarious paralysis—and that everything was okay; that I could decide to write a blog or an essay or read a book and then sit down and do it. But I was wrong. As I walked down Rampart street, passing Storyville and Congo Square, where Bolden dragged his intoxicated legs long ago—cornet in tow—dripping in sweat from the smothering affection of the Louisiana heat and humidity, I wondered if I too was “tormented by order, what [is] outside it”, and if like Bolden I would one day also go irreversibly mad; and if that was worth the chance of creating beautiful art.  

Part 2: Day

Luckily, my friends came to the rescue, providing constant support and encouragement. Some noticed my inability to work like my peers, and to others I made small confessions. I realized that I had to open up about my personal madness, not defer it; that I could pursue my art without descending into a helpless pit. It took a bit more courage to admit all this to myself, and even more to talk about it with our professor Andrew, but I’m glad I did. I was scared of letting people down, but I recognize now that it is far better to confront these issues upfront, rather than let them fester—something that Buddy Bolden did not have the opportunity to do, relying instead on alcohol and other vices. Amidst the turmoil and pain and melancholy floating about the streets of New Orleans, there also exists a pervasive musicality and humor—a joy that stretches beyond racial and socioeconomic bounds—that I had the privilege of experiencing; alleviating, somewhat, my inner turmoil.

Our time in New Orleans—about two and a half weeks—was one of music, dancing, and happy surprises. I got into an almost daily habit of walking down St. Charles street from the Lafayette Hotel until it became Royal Street, stopping to people watch or enjoy the performances of scrappy tap dancers who had cleverly fashioned themselves tap shoes out of old sneakers. My fellow bookpackers and I discovered before us a city of jazz, born from the brilliant and mad mind of Buddy Bolden, moving in a syncopated rhythm, vibrating with its trills and trip-oh-lets of happenstance and serendipity.  

Despite the intoxicating madness of the Big Easy, there was still plenty of opportunity to relax over some beignets and a cup of coffee, and each of us eventually found our own little nooks for work and contemplation. Mine was Café Beignet, either inside where a guitarist with a straw hat played under the pixie-light-lined sign and palm leaf painted ceiling; or outside in the patio on a wobbly iron chair, petting the cat who shared my taste in quaint coffeehouses and breezy outdoor sitting areas. In the late afternoons, you could expect a street performer to perch himself against the fence, working in tandem with the constant buzz of the city to create an atmosphere that was somehow both vibrant and relaxing. I enjoyed doing my reading or writing there, but mostly would find myself sketching or coloring with my childish stack of colored markers, greeting fellow Bookpackers as they came in and out.

Improvisation, the invention that made Buddy Bolden the father of Jazz—a departure from the melody while maintaining the harmony—is the invisible force that governs New Orleans. Here, daily life is a cacophony of beautiful and bizarre occurrences, a seemingly formless melody. On one of my many afternoons sitting outside Café Beignet, I watched a rugged street performer with a handsome face, dented straw hat, and guitar with mitten charms dangling from its tuning pegs, sing songs in English and Spanish with a charming country twang. A man riding a red moped down Royal St. was momentarily stopped in front of the café by traffic—he had in his left hand, a large beer bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and in his mouth, less teeth than most. To my happy surprise, he joined the street performer in song, harmonizing loudly while improvising bluesy adlibs, their complementary voices resting in my ears with a satisfying buzz. This lasted for just a few moments, and then Moped Man drove off. Packing his guitar and lighting a cigarette, the beautiful singer set off in the sun to another spot, where passersby would be, hopefully, more generous. The café cat had come back after a rather traumatic encounter with a visiting dog and I watched him readjust himself in his usual hangout, snuggling between a brick enclosure and the fence, still a bit frazzled but recovering from the ordeal.

The most special treat of the trip so far was crowding into a tiny room with high ceilings and musty air, sitting uncomfortably on the padded floor while smiling tourists sat behind us on benches, to watch the 45-minute Preservation Hall jazz show. Shoulder to shoulder, in that little venue on St. Peter Street, we were swept up by what felt like 5 minutes of immersive joy. The trombonist with an infectious smile mouthed the words and swayed with the music, the trumpet player—a resounding leader—sang with an insecure stance but a confident voice, the piano player improvised brilliantly, the saxophonist made my friend Tara swoon (she named her blog post in honor of him), and the drummer played with such relaxed swagger that I felt cool just watching him perform. We left that experience flushed with delight, wishing it had lasted for a few more minutes, hours even.


I love this city and I love this trip. Though I am still recovering from a difficult year, I am happy to be doing that here. An exercise in empathy and immersion, Bookpacking through Louisiana has been a true privilege, and the opportunity I needed to learn more about myself and reconfigure my mindset. Now onto to Cajun Louisiana, where more adventure awaits!

New Or-lee-ans? New Or-lens? Naw-Lins?

On Tuesday, we arrived excitedly—and with aggressively rumbling stomachs—to New Orleans, ready to start exploring the various cultural pockets the city has to offer, while reading Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Michael Ondaajte’s Coming Through Slaughter, and other novels set in the Big Easy. We were more than anything, ready to eat. But that is beyond the point. We began carving into Interview while on the long car ride into the city from Grand Isle. Our first three days there would be spent looking through the eyes of Anne Rice and her vampire protagonists, observing first, the European influences that give New Orleans its Gothic and ornate charm.  

There was no city in America like New Orleans. It was filled not only with the French and Spanish of all classes who had formed in part our peculiar aristocracy, but later with immigrants of all kinds, the Irish and the German in particular. Then there were not only the black slaves, yet unhomogenized and fantastical in their different tribal garb and manners, but… the free people of color… who produced a magnificent and unique caste of craftsmen, artists, poets, and renowned feminine beauty. And then there were the Indians, who covered the levee on summer days selling herbs and crafted wares.
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

Louis describes a diverse and exotic city—relatively compact yet brimming with a “medley of languages and colors,” full of enough fascinating characters that a Vampire could blend in comfortably. Such a description seems initially as fantastical as the bloodthirsty subjects of Rice’s novel, and yet one quick stroll through the French Quarter—with its Spanish architecture but otherwise French influence—or the Garden District—with its “magnificent Grecian houses” and eerie above-ground cemeteries—proves otherwise. Louis’ perspective couldn’t be more grounded in reality. That being said, there is no better way to show the endurance of New Orleans’s diverse bizarreness and colorful characters than to recount some of the strange and whimsical experiences I have had thus far. The following vignettes vary in tone and seriousness, as does the history and culture of the Big Easy.


I: “Applejacks”

On the night of our arrival, a few of us, though ravenous, held up the rest of the group, insisting on buying postcards for our family members immediately. A bit disoriented from hunger and general misunderstanding of our new home, we found ourselves walking along the grimy epicenter of neon-lights and unsolicited conversations with zombie-like strangers: Canal St. We explored the kitschy and somewhat scandalous merchandise of Voodoo Mart, finally settling on two of the more tasteful postcards from the options on display. Voodoo Mart didn’t sell stamps, however, so we set off along the flickering lights and uninterrupted stares of Canal St. towards a place that did.

We found ourselves at a convenience store that sold small stamp packets, hastily gathering change to make our purchase and finally find food! As I was gathering my things, I noticed that Cameryn, a fellow bookpacker standing outside the store, was filming in my direction. I made some funny faces until my stomach dropped and I felt the presence of the real reason for her videoing. Two pointed objects put sharp pressure on my shoulder and something fluffy flapped excitedly, tickling my ear. To my horror, I see in my peripherals that a pigeon had landed on my shoulder and was now comfortably adjusting itself on my new white blouse. I felt his wing on my ear and wondered dramatically if this was how I would die. My bookpacking peers found this hilarious, naturally. My face was puckered in horror, my chin bunching as I fruitlessly attempted to move my face away from my unsolicited companion. The pigeon’s owner—or friend, perhaps—was an ill-fed, dirty blonde man with hunched, skinny shoulders sticking out of his sleeveless, tattered shirt and rugged, black-denim vest. I turned to him slowly, afraid that whatever movement I made would trigger my new pigeon-friend’s bowels. “God favors you,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “He’s blessed, you’re lucky, God favors you, you are blessed.” I asked him to please remove his pigeon off my shoulder. “He’s a pigeon-dove, actually, and his name is Applejacks.” He effortlessly picked up Applejacks’ fat body and placed it on his own shoulder, turning one last time to me, nodding reverently at my blessed-ness, before leaving to say hello to a friend wearing ill-fitting jeans, no shirt exposing a massive cross tattoo on his lower stomach, and carrying what was either a cane or a samurai sword.

II: “Around the Corner”

It was our first full day in the city and our group was roaming the French Quarter, appreciating the quaint streets so lovingly described by the sensitive vampire Louis, peering through the various openings and tunnels in brick walls that showed glimpses of mysterious yet inviting garden patios shaded by sleeping palmetto leaves. As we walked down Royal Street, the very road on which Louis and his vain and ruthless companion Lestat lived, appreciating the gorgeous view under an oil-painted sky, a black van with a blue stripe slowed down next to our group and a rather gaunt driver with sports sunglasses resting on a hat of oily, thinning hair stuck out his head and announced, “There’s weed around the corner, come stop by later, we got cannabis, joints, CBD oil…” and pointing a malnourished finger at each of us, said with matching rhythm, “weed, weed, weed, CBD oil, weed, weed.” We remained still for a moment as he drove away, and then broke into bewildered chuckles. Only in this city can you be at one moment, appreciating gallery-lined streets on a quiet day, and then almost immediately be accosted by drug dealers announcing their goods like one would a free concert, or ice cream. Needless to say, we did not attempt to locate the weed around the corner.

III: “Interview with the Vampire”

There’s a real vampire shop on St. Ann street.

IV: “Soft-Serve”

Note: In this vignette, I attempt to channel my inner Ignatius J. Reilly, protagonist of another book we read for this course, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Granted, I fail miserably. Enjoy.

For existing in such a hot climate, New Orleans does not appear to have any decent ice cream shops. Sure, there is the occasional fudge or candied apple store with a few neglected rows of hard-scoop ice cream also for sale, but no amount of looking will find you a freshly made waffle cone, and don’t even bother asking around for a cake cone. Chocolate and vanilla swirl? Forget about it.

One might respond indignantly, “but what about so-and-so gelato shop on such-and-such street?” I hesitate to respond, knowing that some wrong opinions just can’t be changed. I turn slowly to the asker, the enlightened words whispered from my barely parted lips, “my friend, gelato will never be soft-serve.” Oh, how at that moment I envied their blissful ignorance.

Continuing my fervent search down Royal St., I found a total of zero ice cream shops and instead, at least fifteen art galleries and five shops dedicated entirely to selling chandeliers and chandelier-adjacent crystal atrocities. At this point, I’m desperate and incredulous.  

Depleted and morose from my futile search, I settled on some homemade chocolate from a store that doubled as an antique shop. To my utter horror, the attendant was busy selling a lamp to another person! Unable to wait any longer and at my wit’s end, I exited with a huff.

From this experience, I can only conclude that New Orleans holds lighting fixtures to a much higher esteem than ice cream. A total disgrace!

V: “Coin Shop”

During a loan trek down Royal St., I stopped by a vintage weapons and coins shop, noticing that the store clerk was a young woman with short hair and blunt bangs, maybe just a few years older than me, slumped on a stool behind the counter, looking nowhere in particular, with an unprovoked expression. I wondered whether she had always lived in the city, and what brought her to working at that bizarre little store, which sold coins darkened by age for more than one-hundred dollars.

VI: “Street Poets”

Walking down Royal Street on a particularly crowded and sunny day, we took delighted note of a wonderful New Orleans street tradition. Poets sporadically lined the streets, hunched over bare-bones typewriters on little folding tables, crafting poems on any topic on the spot. Our bookpacking buddy, Kayla, asked one with a nicely groomed mustache and a turquoise machine to write her a poem about love. According to him, he was from Illinois but with “a lot of kin in Kansas” and had a speech impediment that made his l’s and r’s difficult to say. We asked him to read his piece out loud—a rather twisty piece of poetry, speaking more on shyness than passionate love, but altogether quite thoughtful considering the 10 minutes it took to write. Proud of this particular piece once he had heard it out loud, he asked if Kayla would email it to him later, rushing back to his typewriter, flipping the poem around, and immortally printing his gmail onto the back of the paper.

VII: “La Vie en Rose”

After a long day of roaming the French Quarter with my class, I decided to set off by myself in the cool afternoon, listening to Interview with the Vampire as I walked the same streets on which Louis, Lestat, and Claudia lurked in the night. I settled on the Café Beignet patio, under the shade of a melancholy live oak, listening to the ladies next to me gossip and watching the young man a few tables away playing video games on his computer while communicating strategy to his distant companions through a large green headset. Rarely have I been able to just sit and look out, not since a tumultuous academic year of self-doubt and constant inner dialogue. In that moment, I was not necessarily at peace, but at least mentally silent, finally allowing my mind to quiet down and let the sounds and pictures in front of me take full control. A saxophone player leaned on the fence separating the patio from the sidewalk, back towards the subjects of my observation, and filled my quiet mind with a sweet rendition of La Vie en Rose. I happily forgot where I was and what I was doing, just for a minute or two.

VIII: “You Dropped Something”

Having sweat through all my available blouses, I was walking with my friend, Tara, to the H&M on Decatur street when we hear, “Ma’am! You dropped something… ma’am, ma’am!” We tried to ignore the voices, thinking they might be con-artists or clever loiterers, but hands patting pockets and detecting genuine concern, turn around just in case. The voice, belonging to a stylish young man popping seemingly out of nowhere, says “you dropped… A CONVERSATION WITH ME,” reaching out his hand. We turn around instantly, laughing at our own naiveté and with great admiration for a pickup line we would surely be using later.

IX: “You Are My Sunshine”

Tara, Kayla, Alex, Cameryn, and I were walking back from brunch one Saturday morning, relieved that the rain had stopped right as the check was paid. The sky was clearing up, pouring light on Royal St. at its most vibrant thus far. Whether it was the blessing of Applejacks the pigeon-dove, or the general serendipity that seems to float through New Orleans on any given day, we all shared a tingly, happily feeling that luck was approaching. There was a lightness to the air, and we all felt an inexplicable whimsy. We had watched a show of bubbles dance outside the restaurant window earlier, seeming to celebrate our arrival, and tingly feeling rising, happened upon a musical block party on our way back. A brass band was playing on a stage, in front of which Baby Dolls danced, calling on the audience to sing along. Together, we sang “You Are My Sunshine,” clapping and two-stepping, looking up at the sky and around at each other, so grateful in that moment to be in a city where one can happen upon so much happiness at any moment’s notice, unplanned.


Such was the city of New Orleans. Just in the first three days, I found myself face to face with the charm, humor, and unapologetic weirdness of a city that embraced every facet of itself. New Orleans is unique, transgressive, and surprising like no other city I have ever visited. No wonder Anne Rice spoke of it with such tenderness—the people are as colorful as the buildings lining the French Quarter, its history as ornate as the ironwork on the city’s notorious balconies, and its eclectic citizens as warm and delightful as its famous beignets. Never a more interesting cast of characters have I met than in New Orleans.

This was New Orleans, a magical and magnificent place to live. In which a vampire, richly dressed and gracefully walking through the pools of light of one gas lamp after another might attract no more notice in the evening than hundreds of other exotic creatures…
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

Take Me to Laguna Beach

In short, [she] was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

We began our bookpacking journey with Kate Chopin’s heartbreaking novel, The Awakening, set first in 1870’s Grand Isle and then in New Orleans. It follows Edna Pontellier, a twenty-eight-year-old mother and wife wrestling with her role as a woman in society and searching for her place in the world. In The Awakening, Grand Isle is a glamorous vacation spot for the prominent Creole bourgeoisie of the city, fit with fine interconnected wood cabins facing a serene ocean. For entertainment, vacationers hosted starlit evenings of music, nibbling on delicate gold and silver cakes, after peaceful days of sewing, swimming, and gossiping. I was excited to roam the shore or walk the Grand Isle streets and feel like I could put myself in Edna’s shoes or see through her eyes, immersed in the world of Kate Chopin. Instead, the stark difference between Chopin’s whimsical and melancholic Grand Isle and the Grand Isle of today was made quite clear from an encounter we had with some friendly Louisianans on the beach, on one beautiful Tuesday morning.

The interaction went a bit like this.


“YOU’RE FROM LOS ANGELES?” The boy on the beach howled with laughter. His two friends smiled widely in amused bewilderment.


With this last outburst the boy, Alex, had tired himself out. Sinking into his beach chair, his head seemed to recede into his body like a soft, white turtle, as he chuckled and examined us groggily.

It was around 7:00 AM that day on Grand Isle. My newfound friends and I had been swimming in the ocean for more than an hour since rushing to the beach to enjoy a breathtaking Louisiana sunrise.

All prospects of romance and serenity were abruptly shattered by our neighbors to the left. Alex and his two friends were enjoying the latter hours of an all-nighter of partying and inebriated arguments over which Saints player was better, finally settling down around 5:30 AM at their pop-up-beach-bachelor-pad—three dilapidated folding chairs surrounded by a graveyard of empty beer cans. I’d like to think that at least 50% of the cans were crushed via can-to-skull contact, granted these dude-bros were the real deal.

While we were attempting to enjoy the glorious view of an orange-pink sky and a rising red sun—colossal tuna seiners creeping across the horizon, confidently lowering their wing-like rigs for a new day of fishing—the boys blasted country EDM on their speaker, a bizarre and jarring combination of noise that made us laugh. An air-duet of drumming and guitaring from our sunrise companions distracted my group from the beautiful scene in the distance to an arguably more intriguing one on the sand. We decided to make friends.

In typical Southern fashion, the boys instantly welcomed us as we approached, shaking our hands and offering us each a doomed can of beer. We declined their gracious offer to share in their beach breakfast.

 “You came… all the way from Los Angeles… to go to Grand Isle… Grand Isle,” gasping through laughter, Alex played up the gag with exaggerated disbelief, eventually relaxing into a lethargic smile, proud of his comedy. He was shirtless, sporting a pair of sunglasses which—missing an ear rest—had fallen diagonally across his face. No attempt had been made to correct it, and apparently, the glasses were not even his. His friend, skin red and splotchy due to his girlfriend’s apparent misapplication of sunscreen, laughed as he told us to pay Alex no mind; the more than 24 hours of sleepless drinking had clearly affected his articulation. “Take me to Lag-un-aaa Beach,” Alex yelled to no one in particular. “They have some of the best lookin’ women there at Laguna Beach,” he said, with hands behind head, contemplating his sophisticated observation. The third friend—beautifully tanned with a cross necklace resting proudly on his well-exercised chest—politely reiterated Alex’s confusion at us being in Grand Isle. We explained the bookpacking program and asked for any recommendations from our new friends—they lived about 60 miles North of New Orleans but were familiar with the city. We were to go to Drago’s for oysters and Deannie’s for all other seafood dishes.

We laughed over our mutual surprise that anyone was on the beach that early. “Yeah, we thought y’all were crazy,” they said. We parted ways after our three beach buddies had their last laugh at us having sought out what was clearly a vacation spot for locals to chug beers and lounge in their family-owned camps.

So here I was, a thousand miles away from Los Angeles with twelve strangers for the very specific reason of reading books at the places in which they are set, thinking I’d be immersing myself in the luxurious beach town where our glamorous 1870’s protagonist had her grand awakening—with romantic visions of sunsets, pensive waves, and salty air—and three shirtless boys couldn’t stop laughing at us about it.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kate Chopin’s Grand Isle anymore.


Grand Isle is, for the most part, a long stretch of gravel road, rough at the edges where the street meets the grass, lined by elevated wooden houses with a backdrop of vibrant blue sky, unbelievably white clouds, and bright, green foliage. A relentless sunshine reflects off the uneven grey street and wood siding of the houses, producing an image like an over-exposed photograph, still beautiful through squinted eyes. No two houses shared the same architecture, and for any given row of them, the members of the pastel color wheel received fair and just representation. Rows of large houses, or “camps” as they were called there, were separated every so often by swamp-like patches of water wherein gorgeous sailboats rested in the calm afternoon. No longer a luxurious vacation spot for the affluent city folk of the 19th century, the Grand Isle of 2019 was instead home to a warm, unaffected people—full of the charm of the American South and the joie de vivre of the French Creole—with tanned legs dangling idly from golf carts speeding down the road, stopping for the occasional drive-thru daquiri (one of the more surprising Louisiana staples observed so far).

Though not the sophisticated beach destination I imagined when reading The Awakening, Grand Isle possesses a refreshing, down-to-Earth charm, where local restaurants advertise their “Never-Frozen-Burger”—which I’d say is the bare minimum—where their tastiest fried food is sold in a gas station hole-in-the-wall named after a real cat called Jim Bob, where they put playgrounds next to cemeteries, and where kind, blonde women take interest in students bookpacking in their beloved town and give them about five pounds of free Pecan pastries, just for fun (these are all things that really happened). Long gone are the years of pampered vacationing for stately Creoles and foreign visitors in Grand Isle—today, it welcomes local families and college friends, enjoying the simple pleasures that their intimate town has to offer, like sucking on some fried crawfish, fishing on a quiet lake, or laughing at the Californians who came all the way to southern Louisiana just for a swim.