Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"Deep South" Tour: My Mini-Trip to Oxford, MS, Memphis, TN, and Back to NOLA, Part I

After a year hiatus from the blogosphere, I decided to make a comeback. This blog is about my recent "Deep South" trip. I started in New Orleans, stopped in Jackson, Mississippi spent 4 days in Oxford, Mississippi and the surrounding area, went to Memphis, Tennessee for a day and a night, and made my way back home. 

Rather than give a summary of my experiences, I thought I'd try something new. I copied and pasted the most important parts of my "field note" journal and added links where necessary. All names, other than my own, are aliases. I hope this makes for more livid reading and imagery. Let me know what you think. I'd really love your feedback as I hope to enhance my writing skills. Feel free to comment on anything really, just don't be shy.

May 28, 2012: From New Orleans to Jackson, MS

I should start out this field note entry by mentioning what ultimately brought me to Oxford, MS. While I was in school finishing up my Bachelors at UNO, I realized I was in desperate need of a vacation. Having little to no money, I knew this would be difficult if not impossible. Somewhere between work and study a couple of months ago, I happened to stumble across an email sent by one of the professors in our Anthropology department. It was an invitation to attend a conference run by the Southern Foodways Alliance. After looking at their work and thinking about it, I decided I’d make the trip if accepted.

Sign outside Taylor Grocery Store; Taylor, MS
I’m at an interesting point in my life. I’m still not even settled into my new apartment- much less, other parts of my life. The last two years (2011 and 2012) have probably been some of the most difficult yet rewarding years of my life. I have worked harder than ever, started living on my own, got into some trouble with the law, yet came out stronger than before.

A general trend I’ve started to notice about myself is the desire to explore new places (and, maybe, at times, too many responsibilities). Although I’ve technically lived my whole life in “the South” (growing up in NOLA, many of us don’t identify as “Southern”), I’ve never been to central or northern Mississippi or other parts of the “Deep South”. It was less than a year ago that I even made it up to northern Louisiana to see the Poverty Point mounds, just outside Monroe. I thought it’d be interesting to experience this part of the country that has always been so close (geographically) yet so distant (culturally) to me. I also hope to mountain bike and maybe pay a visit to Memphis, time permitting.

Wetlands that suddenly appear right after NOLA on I-10W
 After all my packing and rushing to make sure I had everything I needed (basically a bike, ice chest, clothing and bathroom junk), I left New Orleans around 11:30 (May 28- Memorial Day) for Jackson. The reason I wanted to make a stop in Jackson was to meet up with a couple of friends who recently moved there from NOLA. I hadn’t seen them in a long time and part of me, honestly, questioned their motives for moving to “boring” Jackson from our “notorious” New Orleans. Even us enlightened anthropologists can have big egos.

Picture I took after my bike almost flew off my car rack outside Hammond, LA

Needless to say, my impression of Jackson changed to upon arrival. While I didn’t actually make my way to the downtown area, I saw it from a distance. There were a few skyscrapers (one of the defining characteristics of a “real” American city), lots of highways and interstates, and a generally clean, organized layout. [Unfortunately, my camera died and I don't have many Jackson photos.. sorry :/ ]

I arrived in Jackson while my friends were still at lunch with some of their friends for Memorial Day. This also meant it was damn near impossible for me to find a restaurant. After about 45 minutes of looking for a local place to eat, the best I could find was a Mexican restaurant in an outlet mall- everything else was closed for the holiday. So much for “authentic” Jackson food but, honestly, I wouldn’t know what that means. I guess my initial impression of “authentic” Jackson food would be somewhere between other Southern food (fried chicken, red beans and rice, collard greens, etc.) and soul food (chitlins, dumplings, etc).

Ridgeland neighborhood outside Jackson, MS (not Moses/Mary's area)
It was a pretty good Mexican joint though. The food was good; not the best, but better than expected. I had carne asada tacos with refried beans, rice, and chips with dip. The waiters also spoke to me in Spanish. I wasn’t sure if this was cause they saw the “Spanish” in me or not, but my Americanized Spanish must have threw them off.

Moses and Mary's house is located in what might be called the suburbs, but they were still a lot different than my typical perception of them. Each house in the area had the look of suburban homes in New Orleans, but each one had much more land. My impression of my friends’ new community was one of an interesting mix of suburban access and rural desires.

Moses somewhat confirmed his by telling me how he likes the quiet and peace of his new community while still being able to make it to the mall or grocery store with ease. Coming from someone who grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in New Orleans, this was no small matter. I also learned he had been picking up gardening. He said it was really relaxing and meditative. Go figure.

Front view of Mary & Moses' house in Jackson, MS
While I was there, all we did- and had time for- was relaxation. In some ways, this is the media perception of what “Southerners” do. Sit around the house on the porch or patio and spend time just talking. I did bring a 6-pack of Abita Strawberry Harvest beer for my friends. I ended up drinking all but two. We mainly spent the time catching up on life and how much it changes. We also played some video games. We talked about everything from New Orleans, life after college, their new lives in Jackson, and everything in between. Both of them have Bachelors in social sciences (Anthropology and Sociology) like me too. Now they’re (almost) certified massage therapists- now a booming industry in Jackson.

Moses told me that just about any new idea or service brought to Jackson has the potential to make a huge impact- and profit. He mentioned how one woman left her fruits in water for a few days and, ultimately, ended up bottling and selling this new “lite” fruit drink of Jackson. We both acknowledged the many different factors involved in shaping our life choices. Decisions like taking a new job, moving to another city, continuing school, how we choose our friends and lovers, and more.

Although we both share a common background in Anthropology and (superficially) grew up in the same city: we both have led and will continue to lead very different lives. Moses mainly grew up in Gentilly. I mainly grew up in Metairie and have only just begun to move around. He has children. I don’t. He has a new career and lives in Jackson. I still live in New Orleans and work as a server. The list goes on.

While the future will continue to march on, I know that I- and everyone else- will continue to have to make really tough life choices and all the other factors that play into them will continue to shape our options. At this point in my life, I know I must keep exploring. The saying, “The more I see, the less I know” seems to apply more and more to my life the more I live it- and I’m embracing it.

May 29th: First Impressions of Oxford

Barnard Observatory (front)
By the time I actually made it to the campus in Oxford and found the Barnard Observatory, it was 8:30 AM. The conference started at 9 AM. Another general trend that continues to follow me into my life is procrastination. In fact, I’m writing these field notes a day later.

Our conference group is an interesting mix. We have people from all over the US: Texas, Michigan, New York, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi are all well represented. Everyone seems to have very diverse interests as well. We have grad students, Ph.D students, freshmen, and people working in different non-profit organizations who are involved in everything from ethnobotany to 20th century African American history to organic farming to education to indigenous rights to Latino identity and much more.
Barnard Observatory (bac

We started out the first day by introducing ourselves. Ashlee (the SFA conference leader) also showed us some of the work the SFA has done and continues to do. She talked about what we’ll be doing for the next four days and also talked some about interviewing. Given the nature of the SFA, Ashlee also talked a lot about some of the delicious food found throughout the South: Bar-Be- Que, boudin, tamales, seafood and much more were all relevant subjects. My mouth-watered and my stomach begged me to nourish it. In my rush to leave Jackson and make it to Oxford in a timely manner, I did not have the time to stop so the first few hours leading up to lunch were truly painful.

For lunch, I decided to get “Chicken-on-a-Stick”. According Amy, this foodway is a favorite among (often, drunken) Ole Miss college students, especially at the late hours. It was down the street at the nearest Chevron from the university and sounded like a cheap food option. I got that and a mini-bottled Coke.

At gas stations here, I noticed that deep fried chicken, cracklins, and some locally grown vegetables may be for sale at gas stations. At gas stations in New Orleans, one can often find po-boys, seafood, jambalaya, boudin, and other New Orleans dishes. It is interesting how corporate franchises often contain an interesting mix of local and national food options. However, I'm sure Chevron's and other large corporations are some of the local food growers biggest customers.

Chicken dumplings, fried eggplant, and black-eyed peas
That night me and few others at the SFA conference went to eat at AJaxx diner. The menu had what I typically recognized as “Southern food”: chicken and dumplings, black eyed peas, collard greens, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried eggplant, mac and cheese, mash potatoes with lots of gravy, red beans and rice, cornbread and much more. I chose the chicken and dumplings with fried eggplant and black-eyed peas. Finally, I got to partake in some “authentic” Southern food! Although, admittedly, what that means to me is less and less clear.

After dinner, most of the group left back to their dorm rooms. Nathan and I decided to stick around and hang out a little more. Admittedly, I was feeling pretty worn out from the past two days of travel, heat, lack of sleep, and carbohydrates but I decided to stick it out. Nathan and I heard some music coming from the Rooster’s Blue House and we went up to check it out.                                 

It was certainly a college bar. Most everyone was slightly younger than I and the groups were playing cover songs from old classic rock songs. We both got a beer and just talked some more about our lives. I found out Nathan is from eastern Tennessee, went into the army, spent his undergraduate years at Virginia Tech, now lives in Austin and just got married. He also has traveled a lot like me. He’s spent time in Tennessee, Seattle, Virginia, Austin, TX, and even Iraq.

My entertainment center
After getting lost for awhile, we finally made it back to our dorm rooms. I had a cold night considering I forgot to bring my covers. Nonetheless, with some towels and effort, I managed to get some restful hours of sleep before the next morning. 

Unmade dorm bed

Friday, May 6, 2011

Finding Our Way Home: Three Life Stories Set in New Orleans

This is why I haven't posted any new blogs in a long time. I have been writing a book about three people's lives in New Orleans: my mom's, my grandma's and my own. Each of us has our own trajectory. My mom comes from another country, my grandma has always lived in New Orleans but grew up in a much different time, and I presently continue to have a love-hate relationship with the area. Part personal narrative, part ethnography, part philosophy, this book is about how people learn to call a place their home and how people choose and negotiate their own identity. This is a preview of it. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

New Ways to Travel in the New Age

                     What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you see this picture?


Or this one......


                                      (I really would honestly like your opinions as a comment)

     Despite looking like a default Windows XP background, this is real life, or at least, it's an image of a particular moment of a place and time in our physical realm. When I used to see pictures of surreal, exotic, magical, beautiful, (insert your favorite adjective) far away places, I could never feel an emotional connection to them. They were too distant for me. I could/would never see, feel, taste, touch, breathe or make it to any place like the images I've seen on TV or in photos in travel magazines so I would often brush them off as a non-existent (to my existence, anyway) but tempting tug on my imagination. That's where these people and places dwelt, only in my imaginary and normally image-necessary world.

        My conception of what the world outside of my parcel of Earth I happen to dwell in has been drastically changed in the last couple of years. Through a series of journeys I've taken, I've honestly emerged as a new human being. My conception on "what's on the outside" of South Metairie has grown- and it's all because I decided to make the imaginary and image-necessary world I lived in become a sensory- necessary world.

             I happen to be a person who, whether I like to admit it or not, has a deep attachment to this physical reality. What happened to me is simply this- I left the comfort of my home for a little while. For various personal reasons, I packed my bags one day and started heading out west. I ended up in Reno, Nevada and stayed at my friend Corey's house.

     I'd like to, at this time, tell you what the above pictures mean to me. It represents the personality of my existence, my soul if you are so inclined to call it. All kinds of emotions, memories, and thoughts come to the forefront whenever I look at this picture. I'm literally transported from this physical existence back to this place. The first two pictures were taken on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada by one of my best friends, Darin.

     Corey, Darin and me woke up at about 2 in the morning and we drove from Reno to see this sunrise. The landscape is so vast and empty- it's unreal. It's also circled by a ring of gorgeous rust red brown mountains. The "playa" (Spanish- beach) itself was actually once an ancient lake bed for many Plethiasauri (the aquatic dinosaurs that look like Bronchisaurus) and as such the surface of this place is actually a hard crusty alkali mineral bed. We left our monuments to capitalism, sedentary living and "civilization" behind us, if only momentarily, to make it to this forbidding landscape of dust storms and extreme heat. We had made it to the anti-thesis of modern civilization.

     Watching the sky open up to me like that was something I'll never forget. To see all the colors that change within a half an hour sunrise on the playa is to truly "paint with all the colors of the wind". The sky changed from pitch black, to dark purple-blue to dark red to orange to orange-yellow as the sun crept up from behind the mountains like a cat stalking it's prey. I'm convinced the sun was looking directly at us three that morning.

      We packed lightly- fireworks, a handgun and some bullets (those Nevadans do love their gun rights), a soccer ball, a few lawn chairs, and an acoustic guitar.You might be inclined to ask what can one "do" out there. What fun and recreation can be had in a literal nothing? I'm about to tell you.

      We shot that fucking gun. That's for sure. We certainly didn't have to worry about destroying personal property or lives out there. We just had fun- shooting the dirt, listening to the echoes of the gunshots ring out like an old Western, feeling the power of the little kick it had.

We also shot off those fireworks and watched them light up the night sky as well as the rising sun sky. We walked off as far as we could from each other until all we could see were little ants of ourselves. We took pictures of each other and the environment. We played music and we talked - something our species should do a whole lot more of. We drove that car as fast as we can in a free-range of 40 + mi of pure desert, doing donuts and other peeling out along the way.

      The emotions that well up the most to me when I make my way back to the playa are these: freedom, friendship, unity, curiosity, happiness, inner-peace, self-exploration, meditation, imagination, creativity, self-expression, and courage all tinged with a little loneliness.

This new blog I've started to write will essentially be about travel. Not just physical travel- we all don't get that luxury- I'm well aware of that, but I don't think we are as "stuck" as we tend to think we are. There are new ways of traveling in these post-modern times- and we all need to make the journey.

I hope to catalogue in the best way I can new means of transportation that are available to any individual if one is so inclined. I want to mark the trails I've taken in my life to make me who I am today for you to either follow, divert from, go the other way or make anew because I truly believe they can only lead to good things.

     We must push ourselves in new directions at all the time. We can't be complacent with mediocrity. We must challenge ourselves, our minds, and others. We must not be afraid to try new things, go to new places, or change ourselves.

     This is going to be THE post-modern travel agency- I'll be your agent. We specialize in planning trips to enlightenment, engagement, and experience. Book with us. You won't regret it.