Tag Archives: New Orleans

What’s Your #GuiltyPleasure #Travel Destination?

In just 3 days I’ll be on my way to Seoul, South Korea!  All this packing and planning has me anxious and excited and strolling down memory lane of my other travels.  Allow me to share a few of my favorite travel spots.  And then please share with me your favorite places in the comments!  I’m always looking for more travel ideas!

1.  Gurnee, Illinois – Six Flags Great America

Waiting in line to ride The Viper, my favorite wooden roller coaster.

Before I’d ever left the country, or boarded a plane, I rode roller coasters.  This was the all day summer trip my dad would take us kids on, following along as we made him ride every roller coaster with us and checking out the shows.  My favorite time of year to go is in October during Fright Fest, when Six Flags turns into a full fledged ghost town!  There’s spooky music, haunted cities, and the whole park is decorated for Halloween.

2.  The Rainforest of Guadaloupe

Chutes du Carbet (source: arras-france.com)

I was incredibly lucky to be able to go on a Caribbean Cruise with a friend’s family in High School.  One of the most amazing things I did was swim under the Chutes du Carbet waterfall on the french island Guadaloupe.  And in true Jess form, I immediately injured myself climbing the shore back  up yelling at my friend he couldn’t get up the way he was going!  Wouldn’t you know it, I was the one who fell down in the mud and had some french stranger start brushing me off and chatting profusely fast.  *face palm*  Still a worthwhile experience!

3.  Italy

Trevi Fountain (source: freefoto.com)

There’s a legend about the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy.  If a visitor comes to Italy and throws a coin into the fountain from over their shoulder and never looks back at the fountain, than he or she will one day return to Italy.  The architecture, the food, the history, the food, the mythology,…the food!

4.  Aran Islands, Ireland

Aran Islands (source: aranislands.galway-ireland.ie)

When visiting the Aran Islands, you can crawl right up to the edge and overlook the water.  It’s one of the most peaceful and beautiful sites I’ve seen.  Plus it’s not far from Galway, which was my favorite city!  Walks along the boardwalk, pubs all around, and an ocean view most places you go!

5.  Voodoo Donuts, Portland, Oregon

These maple bacon bars made me want to move to Portland.  I still crave them.

6.  Seattle, Washington

Pike Place Market

The memorable skyline, the throwing fish, the Experience Music Project, and the city that brought you Grunge.  I love it!  Plus, you’ll get a workout in climbing those downtown streets!  Must do when visiting Seattle, an Underground Tour!  Learn the history of the city before it was built where it is now, on a guided tour just below the street.

7.  New Orleans, Louisiana

For those that love history and/or love the paranormal, New Orleans is the place to go.  Their tour guides are exceptional and they have plenty of tours to offer.  From Graveyard Tours to Garden Districts, Plantation homes to Voodoo Queens, Jazz Museums to Swamp Rides!  And don’t forget, Swamps are for Lovers!

8.  Boston, Massachusetts

Living History Held in Boston Common

More for the history buffs!  Take the Freedom Trail History Tour and visit places like Boston Common, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church, and the cemetery where Ben Franklin and Paul Revere are buried.  And after putting on so many miles walking around the city, might I suggest a trip to Little Italy for some cannoli?

9.  Toronto, Canada

Casa Loma

For the hustle and bustle of a big city, visit megacity Toronto!  There’s the Eaton Centre, which is the largest shopping center ever!  And there’s a Distillery District for the beer connoisseur.  Plus the grounds of Casa Loma are incredible to daydream about.  Not to mention, Niagara Falls!

10.  La Crosse, Wisconsin

View of the bluffs in Hixon Forest

Sometimes the best vacations are right in your own neck of the woods.  I’m fortunate to live in a city that is bordered by bluffs and the Mississippi.  Never fails to set me right again after a long walk through the bluffs.  That is if you don’t do this.

Those have been my favorite places so far, what are yours?  

Saints and Sinners

The city of New Orleans is known for its “Saints and Sinners” but why is that?  A lot of history actually plays into where that phrase originated.  You’ll see it in the street names, intersecting each other, one direction named after the saints:  St. Ann, St. Charles, St. Philip, and the other direction named for King Louis XIV’s illegitimate children (sinners): Dumaine, Toulouse.

St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, French Quarter, New Orleans

The main reason the Big Easy, the Crescent City, NOLA is known as the town of Saints and Sinners is because only two key buildings survived the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788:  St. Louis Cathedral and Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (AKA: Speakeasy).  So there you have it, the saints and the sinners.

The Church has been rebuilt several times surviving fires and hurricanes.  And Lafitte’s, now known as the Blacksmith Bar, remains one of the oldest surviving buildings of New Orleans.  And, it’s on the ghost tour…

So who was Jean Lafitte?  Simply put, he was a pirate.  A quick-witted businessman, he set up “shop”  as a ruse to throw off the government and law officials who he had common run ins with.  Little is known as fact about Lafitte, a journal supposedly surfaced which described him as a Robin Hood of sorts, except instead of giving his treasures to the poor, he kept them for himself.  It is believed by New Orleans locals that the Blacksmith Bar is haunted by several ghosts, victims of Lafitte’s rage.

     And rage he did.  Four men were brought in for questioning by Lafitte’s thugs as payback for their loud mouths.  When all four refused to talk further, they were tortured one by one.

The thing about the blacksmith shop is that the fireplace inside isn’t big enough, nor does it have a proper chimney to filter out the smoke.  If the building were to actually be used as a blacksmith shop, the smithy would pass out from the heat that the building contained.

The story says that the four men were forced to watch as one by one their heads were placed in the opening of the fireplaces, scorching their flesh until their eyes burst out and they died.  Imagine being the fourth guy…

Locals believe the tales because several people, natives and tourists alike, have mailed in photographs that depict ghostly images around the fireplace.  I don’t think I caught anything, but I’m wondering if that’s cause we’re going digital now.  Does it make it trickier for ghosts to transcend this new technology?

     The other ghost story that occurs here happened years later.  I can’t recall exactly how it happened, whether it was a bar robbery or just a wrong place wrong time, but a man coming out of the restroom was stabbed and killed just outside the door.  Customers at the bar have reported hearing moaning sounds coming from the restroom and again photos have shown strange figures in this corner.

Blacksmith Bar, back right, the intersection before it

I always say you know it’s legit when the animals are spooked.  I think if an animal perceives some kind of danger or bad energy, you know something’s going on.  The intersection outside of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar has had the most accidents from horse drawn carriages.  There are several tour companies that offer carriage rides around the French Quarter, and apparently, those horses have taken out more street signs than anything.  The driver will stop at the bar to allow guests time inside trying to capture any ghoulies or ghosties on film, and it’s happened several times where nothing is seemingly around the carriage, but the horses get so spooked, they’ll bolt up onto the sidewalk taking out the street sign in the process more than once.  That, to me, is the freakiest part of this story.

What do you think?  Ghosts?  Historical energy emissions?  A Ruse?  What ghostly places have you visited?

Lafayette Cemetery

     I have an obsession with graveyards.  I must have been a groundskeeper in a past life, although my paralyzing fear of insects contradicts that possibility.  Maybe I was an archaeologist?  I also like to look at bones.  In fact I have an uncanny ability to find bones in cemeteries.  And NO, I’m not digging them up!  I just wander where others don’t I guess and maybe move a rock here or there, but that’s a blog for another day…

The photos in this blog were all taken inside Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, LA.  The Lafayette Cemetery is located in the Garden District of NOLA, which took me a half hour bike ride, a 10 minute walk through the French Quarter, across Canal Street, one streetcar (the green line), plus walking 15 more blocks to get to.  Might I suggest a driver?  Or at least a bigger map?

In my previous post about the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, I explained about the four kinds of tombs located in the graveyards and showed photos.  You can check out the history about that graveyard here.

Most of the tombs in Lafayette are family and society tombs.  I think the wall tombs here are some of the longest as well.  The markers for the tombs can be really interesting to read.  Some are sad, you’ll see tombs where a family’s children have all passed at young ages.  However there’s also a tomb in the corner where one man’s first and second wife are buried with him!  Crowded much?

In the St. Louis Cemetery post I also talked about the difference between restoration and renovation when it comes to preserving these crypts.  Just like the Save Our Cemeteries organization, Lafayette is part of a research project that involves mapping, tomb and name listings, and historical exploration.  For more information about the Lafayette Cemetery Research Project, check out their site!

I think one of the most fascinating things about this cemetery is the diversity within its walls.  It was built on property owned by a French plantation woman in the 1800’s, Madame Livaudais.  Since its French beginnings, it has come to be the final resting place for Civil War soldiers, Creole Americans, German immigrants who became merchants and entrepreneurs in the New World, and the Irish immigrants who did all the dangerous labor of the day.  It even houses a few families of African descent.  Because of this, the cemetery remains non-denominational.  A side note of which allows Lafayette to be filmed for movies, television, and documentaries.  The Catholic Church has forbidden further filming in the St. Louis Cemetery after Peter Fonda’s LSD trip in the film, Easy Rider took place on one of its society tombs.

Looks cozy, no?  If you’ve ever heard that New Orleans crypts are “Nature’s Crematorium,” that’s not exactly how it works.  I did learn that New Orleans uses wooden coffins to this day to place the bodies in the crypts, but they don’t really cremate inside them.  It would have to get MUCH more hot inside them.  These tombs are more like a crockpot, hot enough to decompose over time, but if you only want your ashes left around, you really ought to opt for the fire.  Tombs still in use remove the markers, break the plaster wall, and bag any remaining bones for DNA purposes, and then sweep the bag into the back of the tomb where it drops into the pit.  This practice allows generations of families to be buried together.  It’s not uncommon for some of these tombs to hold more than 40 people.  Imagine the family feuds possible over that timeline!

There’s something beautiful about the variety of graveyards we have.  The architecture, the historical significance, the climates and locations they’re built upon, the people inside all hold such interest.  I haven’t met too many people that aren’t interested in cemeteries; it’s anthropology when you think about it.  To think the crypts of New Orleans began as a solution to burial problems of the sandy, swampy, below sea level city have now become a major tourist attraction and warranted preservation societies like the Lafayette Research Project and Save Our Cemeteries.

What do you think?  Do the variety of burials in our country interest you?  What about them? 

Swamps are for Lovers

Romantic getaway for two? Comes complete with outdoor jacuzzi.

If you and your significant other are looking for a romantic getaway, may I ask, have you considered the swamp?  Located in sunny New Orleans, LA, the swamp offers a plethora of sunshine, local wildlife and plants, and all the seclusion two lovebirds could ask for!

Quite possibly my favorite thing I did all vacation, was going on a swamp tour.  Our guide, Captain Allan, said he’s in the process of making this place a honeymoon suite.  And seeing as he was born and raised in the bayou, been married five times, and has 11 alligators growing up in his house (does he keep them in the bathtub?), I’d say he knows a thing or two about love…and swamps.

The bayou wasn’t half bad in my opinion.  When our bus dropped us off at the boat launch site, there were already alligators chilling in the water.  How do you like that, Clay Morgan?

Home Sweet Home

As I said, Captain Allan was raised on the bayou.  He was cared for by his grandparents and learned the ways of the swamp from them.  His skills as a captain are primarily self taught and he’s been doing this for years.

This resulted in...

Captain Allan is a jokester.  He liked to feed the alligators marshmallows.  Why marshmallows you may ask?  Because, they’re marsh animals!

No kidding though, he really buys out shelves of marshmallows to feed them.  The color is what attracts them.  So when you plan your swamp getaway, don’t pack a lot of light colors unless you plan on alligator for dinner.

Consequently, one of my travel companions from the bus, a hysterical woman from Chicago, IL, wasn’t as excited about the bayou as I was.  Halfway through the tour, her dialogue sounded like this:

“Lord, take me back to the bus!  It’s hot!  If I see another alligator, I’m gonna…  I’m gonna eat me some alligator tonight just to get back at this tour!  You know what I’m sayin’?  I mean I’m gonna buy an alligator purse.  Lord, that man throw another damn marshmallow…  It’s a raccoon people, quit snappin’ pictures!  Actin’ like this is the greatest damn thing…  Send me another boat!  We’re gonna get stuck and die out here in the damn swamp!”


If we’re being honest, Captain Allan was probably, at least a little bit, clinically insane.  Anyone who feeds chicken necks to alligators by hand must be crazy.  But I have to admit, he got me really excited when I was allowed to do this:

Honey, look what Captain Allan gave me! You said we couldn't get a dog, you never said anything about alligators!

Another fantastic quote of the trip from my Chicago friend occurred as we passed the baby alligator around.  She kept turning him and moving him to be at different angles, then she finally turned towards the camera and said:

“Strike a pose!”

I very nearly died of laughter.  But maybe you had to be there.

In your face, Clay! Oh ok, so this one wasn't real. Made you freak out just a little bit, right?

So what do you think?  Next anniversary you want to go the swamp?  Give me a quick tally of who’s interested cause, I mean if this thing takes off, I’m probably gonna contact Captain Allan and start marketing the t-shirts.  I hope he makes me partner.  I’m thinking of expanding the business and advertising the cabin as a writing resort for authors too.  Open space, no one around for miles…

Literally. The only people out here are dead.

Swamps are for LoversTo book your reservation in advance contact:  Jess Witkins, 2020 Happiness Project Lane, Wisconsin. 

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

The City of the Dead mimics the Streets of New Orleans

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, Louisiana:  The first tour I signed up for was a tour that included the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.  I actually didn’t know there were 2 until I got there.  This shot is one of my favorites as it imitates the city itself with the variety of paint colors.  This is actually a point in the tour where our guide explained the differences between restoration and renovation.  The tombs seen in this photo have been restored, which costs more initially, but will hold up longer over time.  Renovated tombs typically use Portland Cement, the most common cement, however it’s not very conducive to water.  One has to wonder if the Catholic Diocese referenced a map when they made the decision to use Portland Cement when fixing the tombs in this landmark graveyard of the Crescent City, *cough* named for its crescent shape border along the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River.  Just sayin’.  It comes down to finances.  The materials for restoration are specific and meticulous, and can’t be purchased in bulk or slapped together by anyone with a rolling brush.  The cool thing is there is an organization that several of my guides discussed called Save Our Cemeteries, a group founded in the 70’s whose mission is in education of the architectural and historical value of the New Orleans’ cemeteries and they spend most of their raised monies on clean up and restoration.

There are several various kinds of burial in the cemeteries themselves.  Our guide noted 4 specific, but for the life of me I can only remember 3:  Step burials, Family tombs, and Social Graves.  Check out this post by Tess Conrad for additional photos and more burial examples of the NOLA graveyards.  There are quite a lot.

Example of a Step Burial

Some of the earlier graves looked like this, and could be used for families.  Similarly, the Jewish graves in New Orleans cemeteries resemble this, but the the middle is hollow and filled with dirt, so the body is placed in the earth.  Then it is covered in rocks and shells to weigh it down.  Tess’ post has photos of this.

A Family Tomb Marker

Family Tombs

Family tombs are the most common, though they range in size, some color, structure, and age.  It’s difficult to read, but the marker on the left was first used in 1837, and last used in 2004.  That’s pretty fascinating.

Typically a family tomb was just inherited of sorts.  Any new tombs or new use of family tombs now cost quite a bit over time, as the Church requires any new “inhabitants” to pay for perpetual care of the grave.  This allows the Church to keep any new graves within color guidelines (white) and pays for the cost of that Portland Cement when renovation is needed.

Many of you may be familiar with how the family tombs operate, but if you’re not, I’ll explain briefly.  When a family member died they were placed in a wooden coffin (still used today), and sealed up in the family crypt.  Depending on when the next family member passed away, they would remain there for at least a year.  If you were unfortunate enough to lose more than one family member in a year, you had to then rent a tomb to temporarily house the additional body until the year was up and the first body could be swept up and pushed back into the pit of the tomb.  Under each family tomb is a pit, and when the body had decomposed after a year, the bones were swept up (and now sealed in plastic bags for DNA purposes) and dropped into the pit, thereby creating space for the next family member.  Many tombs house up to 40 or more family members.  Some of the markers are funny, like a husband being buried with both his first and second wife in the same tomb.  Others are sad, you see families that lost several children.

The Italian Society Tomb

Lastly, you have society tombs.  If you couldn’t afford a family tomb, a cheaper way to be buried was as part of a society.  There are guilds, veteran, and artists society tombs.  This one is the Italian tomb, and coincidentally the film site of Peter Fonda’s acid trip in the movie Easy Rider.  It is because of that scene the Catholic Church forbid any other film crews inside the St. Louis cemetery.  Now, even documentaries, do their filming in the Lafayette Cemetery.

The St. Louis Cemetery is home to several noteworthy residents.  My two favorites being Homer Plessy (as in Plessy vs. Ferguson, “separate but equal” Supreme Court decision) and Marie Laveau, the noted “Queen of Voodoo.”

Homer Plessy

Marie Laveau

Everyone always wants to know what the X’s mean on Marie’s tomb, and according to our guide, they don’t mean a thing.  Leaving an offering is typical, but the triple X is just desecration of the grave.  I’m curious if anyone else went to New Orleans and heard different.  I know there’s superstitions online, but I’d like to know what another local says.  I was surprised to learn how closely Marie worked with the Catholic Church.  That was overall something really fascinating about this city, how 2 religions could impact one another so closely and thrive side by side.  Many voodoo gods have similar qualities to Catholic saints.  I bought Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse inside a voodoo shop, so it’s on my reading list to learn more about the culture as it originates from Haiti and Jamaica.

The cemetery was full of history and culture.  It was overwhelming and peaceful to know you were surrounded by life stories inside those gates.  Anyone else felt that way when visiting a cemetery?  Or a church?  Or a new city?  Every place has a story, and I’m guessing there are many versions to tell in this place.

The Midwest Young Adult Guide to Surviving New Orleans

Visiting the other end of the Mississippi

I’m back on the northern side of the Mississippi!   Amazingly, I’m alive somehow.  As luck would have it the adventures of this redhead were nothing along the disappointing avenue, rather they were at times too colorful for me imagine.  Before you all start conjuring up images of me in some drive-up daquiri daze on Bourbon St., let me clarify.  I was not drunk.

And any pictures that do make their way into this blog post were taken post day one, which was so terrifying I didn’t take a single shot.

I’ll back up.  I was in New Orleans last week.  I went to visit my best friend from High School who I haven’t seen in 5 years.  Exciting, right?  Sorry to disappoint again, readers, this post will not be a blast from the past or a list of Top 10 Things To Do With Your Bestie.  I’m going to tell you how to survive on your own for a week in New Orleans living like a kinda local. 

Rule  #1:  Though you’ve planned this vacation months in advance, you’re friend will be working all week long.  So get used to asking for directions.

Rule #2:  Those preemptive extra bottles of contact solution, hand sanitizer, and 2.5 ounces of shampoo will NOT save you from the Louisiana heat wave!  Or from the constant smell of sweat and piss both inside and out.

Rule #3:  When your friend says he’s arranged for transportation, you might want to check the measurements and pack any necessary safety features that aren’t otherwise included.  For example, my friend gave me a bike to ride, but it was too tall, and made for boys, so naturally, I fell…A LOT.  I wished I had a helmet, knee pads, wrist guards, shin guards, and yes, a giant padded diaper around my ass, because I was in immense pain after day 1 and illustrated bruises I didn’t know were possible.

Rule #4:  Learn how the locals eat, and react calmly.  If timing isn’t your host’s forte’, you may want to snack in the kitchen or dig in immediately when the food is done and just be that person, because what my midwest manners did instead was wait until everything was ready and set out on the porch, which then consequently became COVERED in flies, and I don’t know if you’re aware but flies VOMIT every time they land.  It’s true.  I took science.

Rule #5:  It’s not a joke when they say there are sharks in the water.  When your friend tells you we’re all gonna go swimming in Lake Ponchartrain and how it’s a salt water lake that bull sharks go to breed in, don’t laugh, he’s telling the truth, though you won’t learn this until you later jokingly ask a cab driver and he confirms it.

Rule #6:  Don’t mess with the police.  So, if Lake Ponchartrain happens to be closed, and you have to hop a fence, trip through some thicket and steak out a hidden corner of beach to go swimming, it probably means the police will be MAD if they find you there.  Especially if they find you hiding in the thicket.

Rule #7:  Bike rides aren’t for wimps in New Orleans.  Again with the bike, you say?  How bad could it be?  It was BAD, ya’ll!  Several of our gang were falling off their bikes and hitting pavement hard. There were busy streets, scary potholes, and loose gravel.  One member got separated from the group and was run down by a car yelling obscene comments.  She walked home with her bike and a badly cut arm.

Rule #8:  If in the morning you feel like crying and going IMMEDIATELY back to the airport after such a first day in a new city and you’ve slept all night on a pillow that stinks like B.O., just know you’re not alone.  I’m right there with ya.  And I’m here, alive, with no current police record, to tell you that New Orleans was ok. Laissez le bon tou roulez!

The view towards Canal St. between the Mississippi River and Decatur St. in the French Quarter.

Stay tuned for more of my epic adventure!  What have you all been up to?  I missed you guys!

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