New Orleans , Louisiana (July Fourth to 6th, 2005)

As part of our round trip across the US, we visited New Orleans during the Fourth of July week of 2005. I first visited the city while attending a convention on electronic messaging in the '90s. I was quite impressed with the character of the city, and so when we planned our trip around the US, New Orleans was one of the few cities I targeted for an extended stay.

The hotel

Having been on the road for days, we did not keep track of dates very well. We wondered why we had such a hard time reserving a hotel on a Monday (which also happened to be July Fourth). Finally, we got a reservation at a historic hotel named Place D'Armes in the French Quarter. I must admit that I was somewhat leery of the word "historic" which in many cases conveniently used to mean "old and run down" for marketing purposes. However, given it was advertised in our AAA Tour book, I felt we had a degree of assurance. That feeling of assurance dropped as we approached the French Quarter. Our fear increased as we drove past blocks after blocks of housings that actually looked run down and had questionable safety record. My wife and I agreed that if the hotel would turn out in a bad location, then we'd just move on despite losing our deposit. Fortunately, the hotel was in the heart of the French Quarter and seemed well cared for, even though it indeed looked quite old. The hotel receptionist laughed when he heard of our observation and drew us a line on a map to tell us the boundary not to wander beyond for our safety. The room where we stayed was quite clean and nice in the "historic" sense. It certainly had character. By the end of our stay, I took many photographs of the rooms, alleyways and its garden. The people at the hotel from the garage attendant to front desk and room workers were very nice to guests. I'd stay here again when we go back for the next visit, assuming that Hurricane Katrina did not do irreversible damage to the place.

The fireworks

After finishing with our check in process, we started to walk around the French Quarter. The area was lined with shops of all types - art galleries, bars, restaurants, etc. There were tours of all types - van, bus, and even horse drawn carts. Mixing all this with the crowd on foot made it a jovial ambiance. All buildings maintained an appearance of a historic town. I suspect some took advantage of that guideline a bit too far :-). After a short walk, we arrived at the bank of the Mississippi River . It was a nice relief to catch light breezes along the river on that hot and muggy day. Seeing many people sitting on the levee looking out to the river, we mused to ourselves that New Orleans people were very romantic - they took families to see the sunset on the river. As more and more people gathered, I could not resist and asked a person sitting there why so many people came, and whether they wanted to see the sunset. He laughed and told me that they were there to see the Fourth of July Fireworks that would be displayed at nightfall. I sheepishly thanked him, wondering whether he thought I was coming from Mars. We then quickly returned to the hotel for me to grab my camera and tripod and went back to the river. While waiting for the fireworks, we wandered around Jackson Square and Washington Artillery Park and snapped sunset pictures of the cannon with St. Louis Cathedral in the background. Visitors were entertained if not distracted by the numerous musicians, artists and other forms of performers doing their best to get attention. The sight, sound and noise made quite a carnival atmosphere out of the place. As the night approached, we walked to the bank of the river and squeezed into a spot where I set up my tripod in anticipation of the fireworks show. I could hear people debating about where the fireworks would come from. Soon enough, the debate became moot as two barges moved into positions in the middle of the river probably half a mile apart, flanked by Coast Guard boats, and the show began. It was the first time that we were so close to the action. The fireworks were well coordinated from the two barges. With the Mississippi River and the Greater Mississippi River Bridge as the backdrop, the fireworks doubled the display as they reflected off the water. The excitement was reinforced by the sound of the fireworks and the 'ooh' and 'ah' of the viewers. When it reached the end, both barges shot up many fireworks in unison for the final climax. It's too bad that I learned to photograph fireworks for the first time at this famous fireworks place (I later found out that this was among the top Fourth Of July Fireworks in the US ). For most of the night, I made the mistake of exposing the shutter for a long time, resulting in images of fireworks bunching together. Only a few lucky shots when I exposed in short but timely interval that they showed up really nice. Lesson learned for the next one. We thoroughly enjoyed this unplanned event. The lucky star must have shone on us that day.

The Swamp

The next day, we went on the afternoon Swamp Tour after strolling the French Quarter in the morning. It started to rain as the bus took us to the Swamp Tour boat. Perhaps due to the rain, there were only about a dozen of people on the boat. After we learned which end of the boat to avoid the fume from the boat engine, we got to enjoy the scenery. The rather large boat stayed on the deeper channels of the river and not deep into the bayou as I had seen on some ads. The constant rain made it quite a challenge to take pictures. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing alligators up close and the wild scenery of the swamp. These alligators seemed almost tame, although one would not want to pet them. As soon as they heard the noise of the boat, instead of hiding, they raced toward the boat in expectation of some treats, which they did indeed get. There were all kinds of alligators small and large fighting over what looked like marshmallows tossed overboard by the boat captain, who is also the reluctant narrator and lousy comedian. This trip was rather slow and boring in general. Aside from a few kids running around to take pictures like us, I saw others sleeping on board. If I do it again, I'd either go with small canoe or with the faster air boats, which should let you explore much "deeper" into the bayou where the water depth is much shallower. My pictures turned out barely okay due to the depressed colors of the swamp under the constant rain. The lucky star that had shone on us the previous day probably shone on someone else.

The City Tour

On the third and last day, we took a city tour before heading out. With the heavy rain of the previous night (somehow every time I went to New Orleans , there would be a heavy storm), our city tour only had my wife and me. I found it amusing that the driver/tour guide addressed us like a group of people. That must have come from his daily routine. He drove us through all the common places such as French Quarter, Farmer's Market, but then also to places we'd not been to such as the Garden District and Lake Pontchartrain . At our request, he skipped the tour of the cemetery, in exchange for a longer rest at the City Park . Along the way, we saw the evidence of the storm - fallen trees, parks full of debris. We had to skip the tourist parks at Lake Pontchartrain due to the storm as well. Police cars guarded entrances and waved us away. Thanks to the resourcefulness of our driver, he found a residential area next to the levee and parked there to let us see the lake. I should have written down the facts he gave us during the trip. Much of what he said about the history of the city and the buildings I took pictures of have now gone from my memory. Even though the tour was not complete because of the rain, we found it educational and will do it again one day with either a recorder or notebook in hand.

We returned to the hotel early in the afternoon and headed toward Florida , again wondering where we would stop for the night.

Follow this link for pictures from the visit to New Orleans.

The Epilogue - Post Katrina

Within months of this memorable visit, New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina. It felt like a personal loss as I saw images of the devastation of some places that I had been to. I wondered what was happening to the people I had met, to the hotel we stayed at, and to the old buildings of the French Quarter. Having a bit of time available, I went to the Red Cross to volunteer for service. There, I felt both a small degree of satisfaction and a big frustration. I was satisfied for the modest direct effort I did to help the hurricane victims, aside from donating money for the relief. But at the same time, I was frustrated with the poor planning, and lack of efficiency at the organization. I found many volunteers sharing the same frustration, while others resigning to the prevailing bureaucracy. I volunteered to go on site, but the chapter already had more than enough volunteers for that purpose so I wound up doing data entry work to create electronic records for victim families. It turned out that the software system Red Cross used for data entry was built by a company (to remain nameless) I had worked at. The application performed poorly, making a tedious job even less desirable, and brought efficiency down even further. So I took it upon myself to contact the executives of my former company and requested help. My former boss responded, and subsequently the account team did as well. They promised me that they were doing all they could to assess whether the issues were hardware or software, and had taken actions to correct the problems. That was probably my biggest contribution. It's nowhere near enough, but at least gave me the peace of mind that I did something. I later on contacted the Red Cross IT department and offered further services to improve the system performance. I probably should not be surprised that that communication went into a black hole.

The Plead for Help

Rebuilding New Orleans will require time and resources. With our national resources spreading thin both domestically and abroad (and I will refrain from making further comments), it'd be great for us to pitch in the rebuilding effort. If you like any of the pictures taken in the US on this website, please contact me at . You only have to pay printing and shipping cost. Images can be up to 20x30 in many cases. You should then donate directly to any Katrina relief organization, referencing this website in the donation but keeping your name as the donor for tax deduction purposes. And if traveling on vacation is in the offing, do consider New Orleans. It's a city of character and has deep rooted history, as well as history in the making.