Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Experiencing a different kind of Louisiana wildlife

April 22-24, 2013
Abbeville, Louisiana
Betty’s RV Park

My two previous posts focused on partying at Betty’s nightly happy hour, dancing at local festivals and bars, and enjoying Cajun cuisine. Earlier this week, we found some time to explore the natural surroundings in this area.

One of the first places we wanted to check out is a place called Intracoastal City, about ten miles from here. To be truthful, we expected it to be more of a port town, but instead it is mostly a commercial area for the area’s shrimp and oil industries. A man-made canal with locks connects the Vermilion River to the Gulf of Mexico, as part of the Intracoastal Waterway. We stopped at one of the first ports to check out the shrimp boats in the area. It was interesting to discover that most of the boats had Vietnamese names.  I remember seeing a 60 Minutes episode that showed how the shrimp industry in Texas is now dominated by Vietnamese immigrants. Looks like it is also true in Louisiana, at least judging by the names of these shrimp boats.

From here we traveled further down toward the Leland Bowman Locks where we saw lots of evidence of  barges, heliports, and tugs all in service of the offshore oil industry. I neglected to take a photo of one of the main docks which we found interesting as it was the first time we saw the name Halliburton on an American business. Perhaps the irony of this part of my post is the negative impact much of this drilling has had on wildlife.  It would be so sad to see this area after an oil spill or hurricane.  Perhaps that is why so many of the Cajuns embrace life fully as there has been much more hardship here than most have had to endure in terms of both natural and man-made disasters.

The next day we took about a twenty-minute ride to check out the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, so named because the man who built his estate here in 1870, Joseph Jefferson, was best known as an international actor who played the role of Rip Van Winkle over 4000 times.  He chose to build his estate on top of a large salt mine overlooking Lake Peigneur, giving himself one of the better views in the region.  Years after Jefferson’s death, the new owner turned the 25-acre estate into formal gardens and eventually donated it to become a public garden and historical site. After doing so, this owner built a visitor’s center, conservatory, and dream house on the property near the lake. Less than a year later, in 1980, a disaster occurred when a drilling rig pierced a salt cavern on the property causing a whirlpool that sucked most of the buildings into the flooded lake. Fortunately, no one died, but it took more than ten years to restore the gardens and the building and re-open the place to the public.

We were delighted to see these beautiful grounds, but we did not do as we were told (by other folks at Betty's) and go and pay $10 for the house tour and movie.  When we arrived, it was just too tempting to sit under these incredibly beautiful 350-year-old live oak trees and have lunch on the patio of the Jefferson Café. Vic ordered his third or fourth shrimp poor boy of the trip and I had my first authentic muffuletta sandwich with the classic olive salad and Sicilian sesame bread.

There are several Asian artifacts around the gardens as the new owner’s son is married to a woman from Thailand. The black circle hanging below the tree is a large antique temple gong—sure adds to the exotic beauty of the place. Check out the cat curled up on one of the chairs. There were lots of critters around the gardens who seemed to make themselves feel right at home. 

There are also temple bells on the grounds and a large Balinese carved gate with statues that is used for the many weddings that are held on the grounds. I found the symbolism of the gate explained in a brochure quite fascinating:  “The gate faces west so that the couple heads east toward the rising sun, the source of enlightenment. As they enter the gate, they enter their new life as a couple for life.Standing guardians on one side prevent past lives from following the couple. Seated guardians on the other side discourage a return to single life as marriage is a lifetime commitment. A small structure at the back symbolizes the hurdles one must overcome in life.” So fascinating, that I forgot to take a photo of the gate. . . .

My big distraction here was actually the discovery of a huge flock of roseate spoonbills near the entrance to the estate.  I kept hoping to see them in the wild in Florida and that only happened once in two years when we were kayaking in Sarasota Bay near Cortez.  I had to walk through quite a bit of muck to get close enough to take these photos and I stayed quite a while hoping to get an in-focus photo of one of these beauties in flight.  I did not succeed, but just seeing them in person was quite thrilling for me. I learned that April is prime mating season, which is why they are pinker and fluffier than usual. Okay, be prepared for too many photos as you have to experience the full monty.

I think in life before full-timing (LBFT), I would have thought seeing this many pink birds meant I had too much to drink. I am happy to report I saw these amazing creatures after only a glass of strong unsweetened tea with lemon.  Coming to Louisiana has felt like hitting the jackpot—quite unexpectedly.  And, as a matter of fact, gotta go—we are on our way to the Cypress Bayou Casino as Betty’s guests for a special dinner and dancing event. And, yes we are still here—extended our stay twice already!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Still rockin’ it in Cajun Country

April 22-23, 2013
Abbeville, Louisiana
Betty’s RV Park

My last post covered less than 24 hours in Abbeville—from our first happy hour with live music at Betty’s followed by a crawfish boil for dinner and Zydeco breakfast the next morning. After the breakfast, we toured around the charming town of Breaux Bridge before attending a local farmer’s market in Calambre, and a Cajun jam session at a local bar, Le Café Musee, in Erath, followed by Betty’s happy hour. Day one was pretty exhausting, but we enjoyed every minute.

Our trip to the farmer’s market was mainly focused on getting some local shrimp from Betty’s favorite shrimp guy and checking out the local scene.  Unfortunately, we found the market lacking in what we usually hope to see: fresh produce. They did have local seafood and grass-fed meats along with a few other booths like Kettle Korn and Louisiana fare such as boudin (a spicy sausage stuffed with ground pork and rice) and alligator tidbits. We did enjoy stopping to listen to more Cajun music which added a to the local flavor of the market.

The shrimp man, Rene, recently named the Shrimp Festival King, was on his boat across the street from the market where there was a small river harbor. He was quite the character, and even though he had sold out of his $2.50 per pound shrimp (keep in mind that includes the head on), he entertained us by showing us what most of Betty’s customers want to see: his Raccoon tattoo. Notice the strategic placement of the raccoon’s back end.

After returning to the motorhome for a little R & R we decided to check out some Cajun music at a local bar. Once a month the Acadian Museum in Erath honors a local person for promoting Cajun culture. This Living Legend program includes a jam session featuring traditional French Cajun music in the attached bar.

I love the look of these small town bars and buildings.  Pretty unassuming, but you just know a good time can be had in a place like this even on a Saturday afternoon. The only drawback, and it is a big one for us, is they allow smoking!  Fortunately, the ventilation was pretty good and many of the patrons were shall we say senior citizens, actually in their 80s and up, as the main inductee was 90, so not too many of the patrons were smoking. We met another couple from the campground here and it seemed like this was their hometown bar.  An important part of the Cajun tradition has to do with hospitality and community—well, it sure showed in how this couple related to the local folk. They have been here once or twice a year for the past six years, but they were so friendly with some of the patrons that they told me they even send Christmas cards to one another every year.  Pretty cute.

Since it was a jam session, all kinds of folks joined in with what two of the main guitarists. This woman could really squeeze out some foot-stompin’ tunes. Our campground friend, Nancy, took the opportunity to dance a Cajun waltz with one of the local Acadians she seemed to know pretty well.

We did not know much about the history of the Acadian people in this area, so the museum was a good place to start. First of all, the word Cajun is the Anglicized word for Acadian, so the terms are basically synonymous. Acadia was originally a colony in eastern Canada that also included parts of Maine (hence the name Acadia National Park). The Acadians were exiled by the British in the 17th century (during the French and Indian War) in what is known as The Great Upheaval and many moved to southern Louisiana where they are widely known for their distinct Cajun cuisine, music, and cultural traditions. Judging by our first few days here, the biggest tradition, besides maintaining their French dialect, seems to be holding festivals for everything under the sun. Just since we arrived, festivals in the area for the next three weeks included the Catfish Festival in Washington, the Festival International in Lafayette, and the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge. It seems we have heard of countless others such as The Giant Omelette Celebration here in Abbeville, the Cajun Hot Sauce Festival in New Iberia, the Shrimp Festival in Delcambre, the Cajun Music Festival in Mamou, and the local granddaddy of them all the Zydeco Festival in Opelousas. See Louisiana Festivals for a more complete listing!

I have always thought that I would like to attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans someday, but my new aspiration, is to attend a Courir de Mardi Gras, a Cajun Country style celebration, which begins with masked men on horseback going from house to house singing and dancing for different ingredients used to make a communal gumbo at a celebration later that night. The parade of men is accompanied by a Cajun band and people in costumes follow all along on foot and wagons. The highlight of the entire celebration is supposedly the chicken run where the horsemen beg for this main ingredient for the gumbo.  Several of the small towns around here have some version of the Courir de Mardi Gras, but the one that seems to get the most attention is in Mamou. I think they also have regular Mardi Gras type parades, but the whole event is more of a family affair than the drunken fest that takes place in New Orleans.

After kicking up our heels twice in one day, we went back to Betty’s for the last of happy hour. The campground was pretty full by now and everyone seemed to be having a grand time getting to know each other.  We ended up learning about the Catfish Festival held on Sunday (the next day) and made arrangements to go to it with another couple to see Geno Delafose, a popular local zydeco musician. Geno was scheduled to play at noon and the festival was a little less than an hour away. Another day of fun was in the making.

We didn’t really know what to expect at the Catfish Festival, but one thing was evident from the moment we arrived. Dancing is a main priority at these Louisiana Festivals.  Check out the size of this dance floor!

We arrived early enough to find close (and free) parking and set up our chairs right on this corner next to the dance floor. Of course, Louisiana style, beer, wine and mixed drinks were for sale at several of the nearby booths, plus they were serving all kinds of Cajun home cookin’ including catfish prepared several different ways.

Aside from dancing, it was quite entertaining to watch the wide variety of folks who come to these things.  I especially enjoyed looking at the different styles of dress.  I just had to take some photos to capture what seemed to be the predominant style of dress—lots of cowboy boots, shiny belts. leather, and bling.

One of the best “shows” was watching this elderly woman get on the dance floor and groove to the beat. She was inspiring in every way—including her leopard skirt and hat!

And then there were these two Northwesterners on the dance floor from Oregon. I even have my cowboy boots with me, but alas, came unprepared for a wooden dance floor outside. We made the best of it anyway.

The couple featured below, Jim and Donnalyn, are the ones who took us to the festival. They have been full-timing twelve years and come to Betty’s at least once a year to take in a handful of festivals. We have much to learn from them as they seem to have figured out how to make the most of this lifestyle as they say twelve years feels like yesterday!

We stayed for the second show, Connie G and Creole Soul, totally different than Zydeco but the music was great. The surprising part was hardly anyone danced. I guess it takes a rubboard and an accordion to get these folks out on the dance floor. The photo below is Connie G and boy could she sing; she performed “Proud Mary” and you would think you were watching and listening to Tina Turner. 

Connie G’s band did bring out a lot of line dancers who did something like the boot scootin’ boogie to some of her R and B tunes.

Even though Connie G attracted fewer dancers, this dancer, who I featured in my last post, showed up around the time of her first set and never stopped dancing—even if he was alone.  Finally, he jumped up stage—don’t know if it was planned or not but the band members seemed to enjoy it. Funny.

After leaving the Catfish Festival, we had barely enough time to put something together for a potluck at Betty’s where she made Cajun style roast pork, rice and gravy.  That night I talked to Vic about extending our stay for a few days as we were scheduled to leave for Houston on Thursday.  He agreed and we extended our stay until Sunday—which still may not be long enough as we are feeling the pressure from our new friends to attend the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge the first weekend in May. 

I know I am got a little carried away with the videos and numerous photos on this post. I am rather enthusiastic about all the music. These photos only catch me up to last Sunday (and I am writing this on Saturday).  We are surely getting into the Cajun spirit in letting the good times roll. Thanks for coming along.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Whooping it up in Cajun Country

April 19-20, 2013
Abbeville, Louisiana
Betty’s RV Park

A big shout out goes to Mr. and Mrs. Heyduke of On the Road of Retirement for writing a post about their memorable experience at Betty’s RV Park here in Abbeville, La. Originally, Vic and I intended to spend about a week in New Orleans, possibly attending the NOLA Jazz Festival, but after reading about the good times to be had at Betty’s in Cajun Country we chose to skip the crowds and expense of New Orleans and spend our time in the small towns of Vermilion Parish, whose motto is “the most Cajun place on earth.” This is the first time either of us has been to the state of Louisiana, but it surely won’t be the last! 

Good thing we were forewarned not to be alarmed when we saw the sites at Betty’s. The park itself is basically a large u-shaped gravel parking lot with seventeen full hook-ups for the reasonable rate of $20 per day for 50 amps. No showers, restrooms, pools, or shuffleboard courts, but what you have is something much better: Miss Betty’s incredible hospitality and her kitschy outdoor patio where she hosts a nightly happy hour gathering for her guests. As a result, the park has earned the distinction of being named one of the 25 Top RV Parks in America and Most Fun Small RV Park in the United States.

Miss Betty is an Abbeville native who was recently inducted into a local museum’s Living Legends program for her activities and work promoting Louisiana culture. Betty weaves her magic with the park’s guests not only by hosting her nightly gatherings, she also serves as a tourist guide making sure they know the best places to go and experience true Cajun culture. Guests also get a flavor of local culture just by viewing the many artifacts and whimsical art pieces she has on display in her Louisiana room and outside pavilion.

Betty also brings the spirit of Acadiana to the park by inviting local musicians to play for her guests and by bringing in or making Cajun meals. The first night we arrived, Betty asked if I wanted to place an order for boiled crawfish and shrimp as most of the guests would be dining together after happy hour.  We gladly put in our order and then she casually mentioned there might be live music that night too as she invited her friend Eric, a French Canadian, and Dave, a local Acadian, to play some Cajun music for us.  What a treat. 

Miss Betty even joined the musicians by playing on a small rubboard which she also passed around for others to try. Notice her signature fleur de lis wine glass, painted with the official symbol of the state of Louisiana. 

Crawfish, wine, foot-stompin’ music, and Betty’s joie de vivre are all part of the magic formula that makes this a special place to come together with fellow RV’ers who share a common love for seeking fun travel adventures. Of the dozen or so other campers there that evening, we were the only ones who were first-timers to the park. Most had been here as long as a month or two and had stayed here on several occasions. They welcomed us newcomers with the admonition that we would be likely to become Betty inductees ourselves. One fellow, Marvin, seems to have made the park a home away from home. He vows to only come for a month, then he says Betty casts her Jedi spell on him and before he knows it four or five months have passed. Such is the life of those who, to mix metaphors, get “caught in Betty’s web.”

As if this first evening wasn’t enough fun, we were invited to go with another couple to a Zydeco breakfast at Café des Amis in nearby Breaux Bridge. The only catch was that to ensure we would get a table at this popular Saturday morning event, we would need to leave at 6:30 a.m.!  I was all in but Vic, not so sure. Fortunately, by the evening’s end, he was fully embracing the Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler philosophy and set his alarm for 5:45 a.m. and off we went by 6:30.

We arrived about 7:15 a.m. and garnered a spot almost at the front of the line. At 7:30 a.m., the doors opened and we secured an eight-top table where some other locals joined us adding to the friendly experience. The band, Dikki Du and the Zydeco Krewe, was already setting up while we started the morning with the strange combination of Zydeco Bloody Mary’s and Vic’s first sampling of beignets. Off to a good start. 

Our strategy was to delay our breakfast order so we could get in some dancing before eating. It worked perfectly as by the time we ordered, the restaurant was packed and the food didn’t come out for another 45 minutes. The dance floor was pretty much full at the first sound of accordion notes drifting across the café.

I used to know how to Zydeco dance, but that was about fifteen years ago; however, Vic and I watched closely and figured we could come close.  I danced with a couple other Zydeco dancers first before Vic felt confident to hit the dance floor with me.  What a way to start the day!  Of course, just watching everyone else have fun was quite entertaining as well. Check out this video. This guy was a hoot.

Café des Ami zydeco dancers

The only downside to starting out the day this way is what comes next?  Fortunately, we had plenty of other possibilities ahead including, of course, the daily happy hour at Betty’s. I will leave you with scenes from Café des Ami. Stay tuned for Part II.

zydeco dancers1