Let the Good Times Roll!

A Review of the Rick Steves’ Rolling Backpack at Jazzfest, New Orleans

Day 1: Packing & Departure

I relish the anticipation for each new travel adventure.  My desire for new sights and sounds beckons always.  Travel planning and re-planning is one way I hold the wanderlust at bay, which always includes a packing list.  And while I try to maintain a bit of style when I travel, I have learned the hard way that it is essential to take less stuff than you first put on the list, and to pack for the trip you are actually taking as opposed to the trip of your fantasies.

This time, I’m packing for a five day road trip to Jazzfest in New Orleans.  All my life I’ve heard about this giant festival of music: the amazing music, fun and food.  I adore New Orleans, having visited many times and written both a novel and master’s thesis on topics rooted in this quintessential American city.  But I have never been to (insert “holy grail” sound effect) Jazzfest, and this is the year I will correct that omission.  You can call it a bucket list event if you like, but I prefer to think of it as a life goal rather than a pre-death-wish.

I also have a new suitcase: the Rick Steves Rolling Backpack.  Rick promises that it will be lightweight as well as functional, holding 1960 cubic inches of my stuff and yet still be optimally portable.  The rolling backpacks I’ve seen before weigh a ton with nothing in them, so while I like the choice of rolling or carrying a bag, I don’t want to break my back when I need to pick it up.  And with the ever-shrinking weight restrictions of the airlines, I have set a goal of reducing what I carry when I travel.  I’m planning to spend a week in Italy this summer, and hope to carry only this piece of luggage.

Can I do it, Rick?  Will your new Rolling Backpack carry all that I think I need, and be lightweight too?

I ordered the bag online on a day when they were having a 20% off sale.  It was still over a hundred dollars, so I was only cautiously optimistic as I placed the order.  It arrived a few days later in an enormous box that my ten year old son thought was empty.

“I think someone pranked you, Mom,” he said, lifting it over his head.  “See?”

But we both heard a clatter of something inside, so we opened it to find Rick’s newest suitcase.  I lifted it easily with one hand.  It really does weigh about five pounds, as promised.  As my son scrambled into the big empty box, I inspected my purchase.

It has sturdy wheels and a pull-up handle, as well as the padded straps you need to carry it as a backpack.  I tried it on and adjusted the straps, and it was light and comfortable—but still empty.  The interior space is not chopped up, but basically one big open block.  Some people like a lot of little compartments, but I am not one of them.  I make my own compartments with Ziploc bags, and I want room to pack whatever odd things I may pick up along my journey.  There are straps to secure your stuff as well as a little zipper pouch attached to a strap along the bottom.  Rick calls this a document pouch, and it is there to secure things you don’t want to lose track of.  The suitcase also comes with a lagniappe: two white mesh drawstring bags.  Perfect for organizing a wide variety items, but my immediate plan is to use these to separate clean and dirty clothes. Padded handles on the top and side, lots of zippers on the front, durable fabric exterior; it all looks great.

Listening to Trombone Shorty bust out the tunes of New Orleans’ newest generation of jazz musicians, I take out my list and begin to pack.

For an outdoor music festival, casual comfort is the key.  I want breathable light fabrics that will keep me cool, and a little sexiness doesn’t hurt.  Fortunately, rayon blends take well to being rolled up in a suitcase and are lightweight, so that’s the primary core of my list. I aspire to Rick’s level of minimalism in packing, and have watched his various programs on the topic.  I take students on European trips, too, and have used his videos to help them prepare.  And while I have learned to wash out clothes in the bathroom sink, I still want to have some variety of clothes on my trips and feel stylish while visiting wonderful places.  So lightweight dresses top my list, and if I bring a pair of jeans, it’s what I wear on the plane, not pack in the bag to be weighed.  Same goes for my cowboy boots, which unfortunately had a pretty rough time at Jazzfest.

Everything I wanted to take for the five day trip fit easily into the Rolling Backpack, even my straw sunhat folded nicely in half and was wedged into the top layer of stuff.  The weather promised to be 80 degrees each day, with some hint of rain on Sunday, and I knew from experience that it would be humid as well.

I loaded up the family—yes, my husband and I took our two sons, age 10 and 14—and headed off to Jazzfest.  We travel all kinds of places with our kids.  They have a great time, their metaphorical horizons are huge, and they have learned that even when they’re bored and worn out, if they hang in there long enough there will be ice cream.

Day 2

Rick’s bag is doing wonderfully so far.  This morning I chose an outfit from the top layer and had no problem finding my sandals wedged along the side wall.  I wore my cowboy boots on the road the previous day, so I gave them a rest.  My Jazzfest tickets were still in the document sleeve, easy to find with the attached strap.  After my morning coffee, I unfolded my straw sunhat and sewed on some green and gold mardi gras beads and white fabric roses.  Does that make me sound like ‘crazy hat lady?’  If you’ve never been to New Orleans, I will just tell you that Crazy is King; the funkier and more eclectic, the better, and there is no day of the year when a costume can’t be worn.  Trust me.  The creative culture is one of the things I love about the place.

Here is where it is very tempting to ramble on and on about how wonderful Jazzfest is!  The music was fantastic, and the choice of music available all day on ten stages was overwhelming—but in a good way.  The crowds were also overwhelming at times, and not in a good way.  Then there are the long lanes of food stalls, where many of New Orleans’ greatest restaurants have signature dishes for sale at terrific prices.  It was fun to line up for a Crawfish Beignet, then stand with the crowds at long tables and savor the delicious flavors.  The drinks were where they gotcha: overpriced, and nothing special.  But you’re allowed to carry in unopened water bottles, so that’s what we did.

Day 3

Four people in one hotel room might be cozy and/or fun, but it doesn’t take long for all the stuff to pile up and become disorganized.  My attempts to keep the clothes segregated failed completely, and this morning I had to move a lot of stuff around to find what I needed for the day.  But that’s not the suitcase’s fault.  I pulled out several things to hang up, stuffed my dirty clothes into one of the white mesh bags, then zipped the bag shut to keep my stuff separate from my three boys’.  My cosmetics were in a hanging bag in the bathroom, so aside from (unknowingly) sharing my toothpaste I was still in good shape there.

Soon enough we were ready to head back to the fest.  More music, more food, more fun!

One of the things I like about Rick Steves is that he is still a traveler.  He does not seem to insulate himself with five star hotels, limo rides and exclusive tours.  So his travel guides still offer information that is helpful on the ground, for regular people, and is useful whether it is your first or fifth visit to a city.

Rick has also become a bit of a philosopher over the years.  Most famously, his Backdoor Travel philosophy encourages tourists to embrace local cultures as they travel, and talk to local people as they journey through Europe.  A more recent book, Travel as a Political Act, reveals in intense desire to help Americans get outside of their comfort zone and try to see the world, or at least a few issues, from someone else’s point of view.  It can be mind-blowing to discover the possibility that someone else can have a completely different point of view from yourself and not be wrong.  We need more of that in this troubled world.

Day 4

Our last day of Jazzfest dawned bright and clear, with a promise of rain later.  The temperature had been lovely thus far, hovering in the low 80’s, and that Sunday began no differently.  The grass at the fairgrounds had already begun to wear down into dirt, so I returned to my cowboy boots.  Boots and miniskirts seem to be popular this year, so why fight it?  I still had two outfits in Rick’s Rolling Backpack that I hadn’t worn yet.  I’m still happy with the bag, but the return journey is always the test.  Will my boxes of pralines and bottle of Old New Orleans rum squeeze in with the jumble of my other belongings?

Over breakfast at Croissant D’Or we poured over the schedule for the day.  Choosing carefully, we mapped out a plan for catching our favorite musicians plus a few we’d  never seen before.  I tried not to look at the line-up for next weekend.  How I wished I could stay another week!

Sunscreen, sunhat, water bottle, sunglasses, folding lawnchair.  We were ready for the journey.  One of the tricky things about Jazzfest is that you can’t park anywhere near the fairgrounds.  There is a flat rate for taxi rides from the Quarter, and it’s not quite too far to walk.  The festival offers a rather overpriced shuttle ($16/person/day), but since we are a family of four that’s out.  If you have a local friend, you can get dropped off.  For us, the city bus was the best deal, so we made our way to the edge of the Quarter to catch the 75 cent ride uptown.

Almost as soon as we arrived it began to drizzle.  Hoping it wouldn’t last, we pressed into the Gospel Tent and found a seat on the back bleachers.  Listening to Amazing Grace in eight part harmony is a religious experience unto itself, and I was transported to another place.  The ladies of Kim Che’re’s group then rocked the house with a praise song I’ve never heard before.  “Loosen up and dance for Jesus!” she belted out.  How can you resist that?

When their show was over we headed to another stage, and then another, stopping for Alligator Pie along the way.  The rain backed off for part of the afternoon, so we set up our chairs outside the Blues tent to hear Kermit Ruffins festive fresh take on New Orleans classics.  The crowd had filled up the tent as well as the doorways.  Three songs into the show, heavy tropical rains suddenly poured down upon us.

Immediately the folks sitting around us crowded into the already-packed tent.  I saw the human crush and decided to stay outside.  Now that there was plenty of room, my husband and I danced to Iko Iko as the rain soaked our clothes and our boys laughed at us from under an umbrella.  We carried on for two more festive songs, then shook off the rain and went to the Economy Hall tent for the Treme Brass Band Memorial show for Uncle Lionel Baptiste, a New Orleans iconic musician who passed away last summer.  As they proudly boast in New Orleans, “We put the fun in funeral.”  The memorial was mostly a celebration of Uncle Lionel by the Treme Brass Band and a huge group of Second Line dancers and musicians, who paraded through the audience in fine Sixth-Ward style.  (If these terms are like a foreign language to you, check out my novel Bent but Not Broken or simply do a Google search.)

As the celebration ended, we ventured out into the rain again.  Stopping to Salsa dance for a moment at the Gipsy Kings stage, we soon were back at the Blues Tent.  BB King was wailing away in his signature blues guitar style.  My husband tried to explain to my sons who he was and instill a sense of reverence, but it didn’t really sink in. We resolved to play them some of his music on the drive home to improve their cultural literacy.  There are some things that kids just need to know.

Fun was had by all, and when the last show ended we shuffled towards the exit, regretting only that we had to go home the next day.

Day 5

It’s a good thing I’m not in a hurry to catch a flight as I slowly sort, organize and repack.  Partly, I’m exhausted but euphoric after our wonderful weekend of music.  And so is everyone else.  We’re all moving a little slowly this morning.  However, Rick’s Rolling Backpack is still proving to be a great choice.  Clothes, souvenirs, and everything else still fit nicely in the bag, and still with just a little room to spare.  However, I now have my soggy cowboy boots that have not dried at all in the tropical humidity.  Sloshing home the night before, I actually had a puddle of water in my right boot, which I poured out cartoon-style while standing in line for the bus ride home.  Also, my straw sun hat is still totally wet.  Another reason I’m glad that I do not have to pack these wet items for a plane ride.  Instead I put them into a plastic bag from Rouses’s grocery store.  Hoisting my fully loaded bag onto my back, I easily maneuvered down the tiny, twisting staircases in our historic two-hundred-year-old hotel.  I slip past a lady with a huge, bulging suitcase that she is banging slowly down each step with such a loud thud I’m sure she’ll break through the wooden stairs.  Am I feeling smug and superior?  Yes, if I’m honest.  But mainly I’m just relieved not to have her burden there, or hopefully ever again.

I always hate to leave New Orleans.  With my family, we made one last stroll through the French Quarter, lingering at our favorite points.  We slipped into the cheery, tiny cave that is the original Café Beignet for omelets and sugary beignets.  One last stop at the Louisiana Music Factory, where a crowd has gathered for a live performance in the store.  We pushed into the aisles to pick up new CD’s by artists we heard at the fest, and enjoyed one more unexpected musical moment as Tuba Skinny played a nostalgic ballad from the tiny stage in the store.

Eventually, I had to acknowledge that it’s time to start the drive home. Walking back to the car, I could hear a brass band at the corner of Jackson Square echoing through the streets, calling me back like a siren song.

Advertisements

When Art and Life Collide

Been There!

The Moment: The Branford Marsalis Quartet perform at the Dallas Museum of Art on June 25, 2004.

In the grip of a smoldering Texas summer, the pounding rainstorm came as a refreshing release.  That whole Friday afternoon, the seas seemed to splash around us.  The rains trickled off just in time, leaving downtown Dallas cleansed and sparkling like a cut crystal goblet.  We found our way through the city maze, my husband, two little boys and I, to the grassy plaza behind the Dallas Museum of Art.  We planted ourselves in the earthy lawn at the foot of a gargantuan red steel sculpture (Proverb by Mark di Suvero).  We were in for a truly unique experience: a free jazz concert by the Branford Marsalis Quartet celebrating the visual arts of Romare Bearden and the music Branford had written in response (Romare Bearden Revealed, 2003).

As the gleaming sun slipped behind the diamond point of the Fountain Place tower, we stretched out on the lawn on thick blankets, sipping sweet summer wine and chatting with a nearby couple recently transplanted from New York.  When the band took the stage, a mere thirty yards away, cheers from the crowd met melodies that are worthy of the spheres.  My little red-headed boys ate raisins and gummy bears, kicked their feet more or less in time to the music, and blinked intently at the stars.  My husband and I polished off the bottle and leaned against each other, reveling in this blissful and fleeting moment.

But it got better.  The highlight of the night for us was “I’m Slappin’ Seventh Avenue,” a tune where Dixie-style jazz splashes into the blues, and together they race a course over a modern funk groove.  The inspiration may be a bit further north, but I was instantly transported to the City Beneath the Sea, where Creole cooking wafts from the narrow doors of the French Quarter, where music echoes from every corner, where everything is just a little…easier.

I put my lips to the ears of the love of my life and whispered, “Wanna go?” “What, can we?” was his answer, no explanations needed.  The wheels started spinning.  Time we had coming a few days ahead.  Money?  I could get my hands on some if I made some cuts elsewhere.  Desire?  Every song brought me closer.  Crescent City’s call is as seductive as a siren’s song.  Branford’s music captured us somewhere between haunting rhythm and celebratory melody.

After the quartet’s fabulous ninety-minute set, the museum kept its doors open until midnight.  We all made our way inside to pick up a cup of free (yes, free!) Starbucks coffee and line up for the Bearden retrospective.  The harmonies of a gospel quartet filled the cavernous halls and kept the gleam in everyone’s eyes.  We filed slowly through the exhibit, a stirring collection of paintings and collage multimedia reflecting the culture of life in Harlem: the music, the righteous and painful struggles for human rights, passion and hope, love and defeat—it was all there.  That evening was a rich synthesis of the senses; everything I love all in one place.  Realizing its rarity makes it all the sweeter.

P.S. The Big Easy hasn’t lost an ounce of charm!

Previously published in Being There Magazine, Summer 2004

http://beingtheremag.com/archives/content/0502/beenthere.html

Between the Tents

Gator Pie

I adore many things about New Orleans, but the combination of music, food and culture at the Jazz and Heritage Festival is irresistible. This year, between Kermit Ruffins’ upbeat trad jazz set and rowdy Rebirth Brass Band, I took a stroll down the long lane of food stalls painted like old-town storefronts. There are several such streets of food to explore. I sampled as much as possible, including Duck Po’Boy and Miss Linda Green’s famous Ya Ka Mein.

Alligator Pie is a new favorite. The flakey, homemade crust puts all other fried pies to shame. Gator meat as fresh and tender as any Texas brisket, and the sauce—let’s just say this sauce has teeth. The sign should read “Alligator Pie: it bites you back!”

The sauce wrapped around my fresh gulf Shrimp and Grits was creamy, almost like étouffeé, but with a little red Louisiana heat. I scooped it up while waiting for the Comanche Hunters Mardi Gras Indians–a heart-stopping performance of costume, dance, voice and percussion like nothing else in the world. I tried Crawfish Monica: fusilli pasta with a light cream sauce, laced with garlic and paprika, with big chunks of ‘mudbugs’ in every bite.

And there are still dozens of things I didn’t get to try: Crawfish Sausage Po’Boy, Crabmeat Stuffed Shrimp, Oyster Pattie, Mango Freeze, Crawfish Sack.  Crawfish Sack?  What is that?  Sounds like a reason to go back to New Orleans as soon as possible.

I had to trade my son three shrimp from my po’boy to get a taste of his Crawfish Beignet. Worth it! Crunchy fritter on the outside gave way to light-as-air breading on the inside, with shreds of crawfish and spices throughout, topped with a thread of remoulade sauce from a gallon pump bottle.

Only in New Orleans!

Shrimp & Grits

Foodie Lane

Duck Po'Boy