Sunday, October 25, 2009

New Orleans

Okay, so I know I've written about Disney already. But since animated bliss is such a major part of my life I figured mentioning it again wouldn't be too much of a stretch. I've just watched a "featurette" on Disney's next movie - The Princess and the Frog. And I'm so excited that I may keel over just thinking about it. One of the coolest things about this upcoming slice of animated glory is that it is set in New Orleans, one of my favourite cities in the world. I traveled to New Orleans in October of 2000, when I was sixteen years old. My mom had a conference with ASHA - the American School Health Association - and she took me along so that we could bond. Like any sixteen year old, I was hormonal and difficult at the age and the trip to New Orleans really cemented the fantastic relationship that I have with mom today. We went on a "voodoo tour" of the city, we had a 5 star brunch that we could not afford but that we "deserved," I ate my first oyster at the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter, and we had enough adventures to last a lifetime.

I still remember waiting for the plane from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. We were at the gate, looking out the window as they loaded the luggage onto the aircraft. There was a man fiddling about in the engine and then he came out, climbed down the ladder, and started shaking his head and crossing his arms as he talked to one of the other mechanics. The woman next to us, a business lady fiddling about on her laptop, had been looking out the window as well and said decisively, I am not getting on that plane." She proceeded to rally the other passengers and a group of smartly dressed business people stormed the little gate desk, where the worried looking counter girl sat reassuring and promising until eventually the call came through that no one would be getting on that plane. Instead we were diverted through Atlanta and ended up in New Orleans in the middle of the night.

I felt like I was in a foreign country when we arrived down in New Orleans. The hot, sticky air and the heavy southern accents, the delicious creole cuisine and the European design, the list goes on and on. I'm not sure what the city is like post-Katrina but I hope it has maintained that easy-going charm. It's hard to imagine that it has when so many people lost their homes and lives, but the spirit of the city has surely endured.

Another thing that stuck with me about New Orleans was the division of white and black people and also of poverty and wealth (not that the two necessarily go hand-in-hand, though sadly they sometimes do). Now, living down here in South Africa, I reflect and think that New Orleans really served as a prelude to this experience. New Orleans was the first place I'd ever visited that I would be standing on the street and be the only white person. At the time I remember feeling quite uncomfortable. Not because I felt threatened, but because the last thing a sixteen year old wants is to stand out, especially because of something they cannot hide. This made me think about all the "different" kids back in my hometown - it was one of the first times that I actually thought about what it must mean emotionally to be one of the only black kids in a school full of white kids, or the only Chinese or Indian, etc.

Now, down here in SA, it is quite common to find yourself as the only white person in a store or on a road. And that is something I've really enjoyed, because it has given me firsthand knowledge that we are still basically all the same. No one has treated me any better or worse because of what I look like - I get far more attention for my North American accent (which boggles my mind anyway - I never thought I had an accent - we're neutral!) than for the colour of my skin.

Another thing about New Orleans that was similar to South Africa is the extreme division between wealth and poverty. I know that this division is far more noted in areas of the world that I have not visited - I hear that especially in South American nations this dichotomy is quite noted - but they are pretty much my only two points of reference. In New Orleans you have the French Quarter and the Garden District and the New Orleans proper. The French Quarter is stunning - I'm sure you've heard of the hysterically fun Bourbon Street and the House of Blues and the various parades, etc. It has this fabulous European quality that just seeps out of every pore. Then you have the Garden District, which is where you'll find the grand Southern mansions and overflowing gardens. The city itself, however, feels much more like Detroit than Europe. There is a certain inner-city charm, but it is definitely a huge change from the glamour of the other neighborhoods.

South Africa has been a lot like that. The entire city that I actually live in is called Sandton. Sandton is a refuge directly to the north of Johannesburg (they blend together and can hardly even be called separate municipalities) that the wealthy people went to when Johannesburg itself became too unpredictable and dangerous. Sandton is divided into neighborhoods - from the super-affluent Melrose to the media- hub of Rivonia (where I live/work) to the shopping-mecca of Fourways - but all of them are basically upper-crust. Surrounding Sandton are townships (such as Soweto and Alexandra) which are much better than they used to be but are still markedly less wealthy than the surrounding towns. No wonder there is sometimes violent tension and anger when people are living in poverty right across the fence from someone with a swimming pool and a Mercedes.

I've been thinking a lot of New Orleans lately because of these similarities. That is why I'm so happy to see Disney embrace it and make it the setting for a film! How wonderful to give New Orleans the same treatment as Wonderland and Agrabah! And it has been too long since we've had a good old fashioned animated fairytale at the movies.

Maybe one day they can use Johannesburg for a fantasy-land. I know I made comparisons to The Lion King but that film is definitely more in line with other parts of Africa. What people don't realize about this area is the physical beauty. When you here Johannesburg, people think violence and poverty mixed in with big business. The truth is that the hot sun, the red soil, and the purple jacarandas give the whole city, rich or poor, a fairy tale quality. It is amazing to be in a city of seven million and still to be able to drive over a hill and see and expanse of hot red soil baking in the sun. The Johannsburg's days of being El Dorado ended when the gold was stripped of gold back in the days, the harsh physical beauty of the land still makes it feel like the protector of precious materials.

I'm suffering from the flu at the moment so I apologize if I don't make sense. I took myself on a date last night since I didn't feel well - I rented a movie, bought some soup, turned off my phone (not that I know enough people to expect phone calls!) and nestled into the couch. It was so nice to have an old fashioned relaxing night - I can't remember the last time I did that. I hope everyone else is having a similarly indulgent weekend.


1 comment:

  1. You are one of few people who has managed to see the beauty of Johannesburg without judging it on its international reputation. People don't get just how massive and varied the place is. What a great post. Time to tweet it? Yes.