We crowded together under the canopy of a flat bottom boat along with visitors from all over the world. It seemed a strange thing to be able to do in the middle of a bustling suburb of New Orleans just minutes away from the French Quarter. Under the shadow of concrete levees and three huge pumps we slowly drifted into a swamp filled with delights from Mother Nature hidden from the raucous tourists who flock to this strange below sea level area.
Cypress trees shaded the water and provided perches for the egrets who lounged on the protruding knees. Imported lilies triumphantly grew in spite of human efforts to rid the area of the plants intent on choking out all other forms of life. Maples and other trees lined and shaded our passage way as we drew farther and farther away from the signs of civilization. The only sounds were that of the motor on our boat and the occasional squawking of the feathered population. It was a strangely heavenly place in spite of the alligators lurking under the surface.
Occasionally one of the sharp toothed critters surfaced in hopes of garnering attention and a marshmallow from our guide. They came in all sizes and personalities. Some seemed to smile at us and others growled to chase us away. Now and again the our calm was intruded upon by other groups riding in obnoxiously loud airboats complete with guests shouting and cheering in what seemed inappropriate behavior for the almost sacred feel of the swampy environ. I was always relieved that they sped away quickly, vanishing into the undergrowth of one of the tributaries.
It was a cloudy day which somehow made our journey more spectacular. Without warning the sky opened up and a heavy downpour beat out a cadence on the roof of our conveyance. The spray soaked our shoes and spattered on our legs. A group from California jokingly asked what the precipitation might be, feigning an ignorance born from months of drought in their home state. As the laughter receded the questions centered on what hurricane Katrina had done to the watery preserve on which we floated. Our guide explained that it had been saved from any damage other than that from the power of the winds that blew through the trees.
On what should have been a hot and humid day we were cooled by a steady breeze and the continuous falling of raindrops. Somehow it seemed to be perfect weather for our exploration. Thankfully ours was a rather quiet and respectful group of humans who displayed our awe for the glorious sights we were seeing with silent reflection.
All too soon our tour was over and we were disembarking with a far better sense of our own places in the grand scheme of things. Our guide had helped us to understand that we are in many ways only visitors on our planet and as such we have a responsibility to leave it as pristine as we possibly can.
Next to the business offering the swamp adventure we had just taken was an open air fresh seafood market. In stalls lining a huge parking lot there were bins filled with shrimp and crabs just delivered from the boats we had seen in the harbor. We were taken by the friendliness of the vendors and their knowledge of how to cook and preserve the lovely gifts from the sea. We purchased five pounds of exquisite shrimp from a woman named Jerri whose Cajun accent delighted us as much as her warm and open personality.
One of Jerri’s customers was a man who had lost most of what he had owned in Katrina. His wife and children had moved to Houston and never returned. He still lived and worked in New Orleans and commuted back and forth on weekends between the two cities. He was unceremoniously proud that his daughter had just graduated from high school with honors and had received a full scholarship for college. In between guiding us in the selection of the best shrimp and explaining how to use it, he boasted that his girl wanted to be a doctor and had the smarts to achieve her goal.
That night we boiled some of the shrimp and froze the rest in the manner prescribed by the helpful folks at the market. There was something so special about sitting in our trailer munching on the lovely pink seafood while reliving the day’s remarkable events with our grandson Ian. I can’t say that I have ever in my life tasted better shrimp but I wonder if the gloriousness of our experiences had somehow colored my impressions.
I’ve got more of the shrimp that we purchased just waiting inside my freezer for a planned celebration with my family later this week. I’m certain that as we enjoy it I will think back on that lovely day in the swamp when I somehow felt an unlikely kinship with the beauty and the glory of a place so unfit for human habitation that it had managed to survive even as people carved up the surrounding land, sometimes damaging it with their hubris. It was a hidden world where things were as they should be, and it felt just right. The seafood market also spoke of a different kind of era when vendors gathered in a public place to hawk their wares in a friendly and intimate kind of business agreement. There was time to talk and get to know one another while making deals that made everyone feel good. Somehow we had stumbled onto a perfect day that we will undoubtedly never forget.