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Today we have a guest post by Michael Hibbard about his experiences in New Orleans.
New Orleans is one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited in my entire life. I have traveled all over this great country, visiting 37 states thus far. But, out of all the places I’ve visited and lived, New Orleans will always have an inexplicable hold on my soul. Back in 2010, I had traveled twice to New Orleans, and once in 2009. I almost exclusively spent my time in the French Quarter because there is so much to see in such a small area. Amazing restaurants, Jazz in the air, art galleries, voodoo shops, cemeteries and the people make this historic town a jewel in the American Crown.
One afternoon, I stumbled across a mask shop, wanting to get an authentic hand-made Mardi Gras mask. The experience was more than I had bargained for. The proprietor of the shop was an older Creole woman, very friendly, and hospitable, like all the people I met on my trip. No matter where you go in the French Quarter, you’re treated as family. I started to chat with the woman as I was paying for the mask, and in passing, I mentioned that I was on my way to the Voodoo Museum . It was at that point that I learned about Voodoo in New Orleans, first hand.
The woman closed the door to her shop, which was a bit unnerving at first, but I sensed no maliciousness from her. She went back behind the counter and began to tell me a fantastic tale.
“There are two types of voodoo,” she said conspiratorially in hushed tones.
“There’s the fake voodoo you see on the street an’ in the stores. And there’s the real voodoo you won’t find but in the bayous and hidden places.”
She didn’t wait for me to ask before she started again.
“I was in love with a man, and he was in love with me when I was jus’ 18 years old. We’d been fixin’ to get married. But someone else had other plans.” She looked about the room as if she were fearful to continue, but did so anyway.
“Anotha girl in the Quarter had this man in her sights, a voodoo queen. An’ she put a curse on me, an awful curse. An’ over a few days, alla my hair fell right out.”
Of course, at this point I was a bit skeptical of the story, perhaps something the citizen of this venerable city subconsciously concocted to keep the mystique alive. I asked her what happened in the end.
“He left me ‘cuz I was cursed an’ alla my hair fell out,” she said, obviously saddened by the whole affair. “That’s when I when back to the church and I ain’t never left. I go every Sunday, lord willin’”
I thanked the woman for her time, and told her I had to get on my way before the museum closed. The story, as I just related, was burned in my mind, word for word – as if a warning to not trifle with things that I do not know or understand.
My next stop was the Museum itself at 724 Dumaine Street, only a few short blocks from the mask shop. The older African American woman running the shop was just as pleasant as she could be, took my money and said to take as long as I wanted. The front of the museum was a store selling gris-gris bags, voodoo dolls, and books on the history of voodoo in New Orleans. Harmless enough. But as I crossed the threshold into the museum itself, the mood changed and my sense of security hung just beyond the door.
As I walked through the narrow hall, connecting several other rooms, the first thing that struck me was the beating of drums that played through speakers mounted throughout the building. The tracks being played were those of actual voodoo drums played during rituals to rouse the Loa from their slumber. They had a strange hypnogogic which made one feel as if they had entered an entirely different realm. But, I proceeded anyway.
I learned early on from my various trips to other shops that it was considered a sacrilege to take pictures of someone’s voodoo altar. Almost all voodoo shops and practitioner shops had such an altar, and they all had a prominent display sign forbidding pictures. The museum proudly allowed visitors to take pictures.
A typical altar is devoted to a particular Loa and is decorated with gifts to appease them. The above altar was devoted to Papa Legba .
The more I wandered through the museum, the more I was beginning to feel this sense of dread come over me. It was as if someone had thrown a hot wet blanket over my head, making it difficult to breathe. I do not know if it was the building, the Loa, or the drums that beat constantly as I wandered the narrow halls and small rooms.
I started to hurry, and take as many pictures as I could. Below are traditional voodoo dolls from the 19th century.
This is a bible that was opened at the foot of the altar at the heart of the museum, but strangely, when I took a picture of the altar, I later found that it was completely dark.
It was at this point that I found the building to be completely unbearable and I hastily made my way out back into the sunlight. I never went back to the museum in my several return trips to New Orleans. However, my story in the exploration of New Orleans Voodoo does not end there.
Later that day as the sun was beginning to set over the Mississippi, and I decided to take a walk to St. Louis Cemetery #1, the resting place of Marie Laveau , the most famous of all voodoo queens in the history of New Orleans. The legend says that if you make a wish and draw XXX on the side of any voodoo queen, your wish will be granted, as long as you leave something.
Now, having talked to the shop keeper and visited the museum, I felt it best that I not mess with someone as powerful as Marie Laveau. Instead, I went to the crypt of another unnamed voodoo queen, pictured above.
To understand my wish, I must tell you that this was my first trip to New Orleans, and I was immediately entranced by it, as I’ve mentioned before. The previous night, we had dined at a restaurant that was over 150 years old, and when we were done, I stepped out onto St. Anne’s street with the intention of going to the Boutique du Vampyre, a curiosity shop next door.
The sun had already set, and the gas lamps had been lit, and for what seemed an eternity, I stood there hypnotized by my surroundings. An inexplicable sense of Déjà vu overcame me – the clip clop of the mule drawn carriages, the sounds of music wafting on the gentle breeze coming over the levee, the smell of lavender, and the view of St. Louis’s Cathedral. I was overwhelmed and knew inherently that I had been there before. It was then that I decided that I would do anything to live in New Orleans, because it wanted me there. But I was leaving in two days, and that was not nearly enough.
So I stood at that tomb, with a piece of brick that had crumbled from decay and the ravages of time, and I drew my XXX and wished that I could stay just a little bit longer. I pocketed the piece of brick, almost unconsciously and went about the rest of my stay in New Orleans.
The day before I left, I did what most people do, and I got a Tarot Card Reading at Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop, but a strange young man by the name of Charlie. I say strange because there was something about him that struck me, something that made him stand out from the rest of the denizens of the French Quarter. He was a bit unkempt, with a weary look in his eyes. Now I had been extremely skeptical about any Tarot Card reader, because it can be a form of street magic. But something told me Charlie was different. As he read my cards, I was careful not to make any moves in body language or speak that might trigger him to give me information based solely on observation – I wanted to see if he truly had the power of foresight.
His reading was frighteningly accurate. And, while I’ll not get into the details, I did ask him one question, when the reading was done. I asked, “Will I ever move to New Orleans?” He turned over the card on top of the deck, the Star card, which is the card identified with New Orleans. He said to me, “New Orleans wants you here, but you will have to make difficult decisions on being here.”
I left feeling as if I’d been given a stock answer I was a bit dejected.
The next day was time for the trip to be over. My morning started off with a three course Creole Breakfast, with French Onion Soup, an omelet and strawberry crepes cooked table side. We had to catch our flight by three P.M., and as we checked out of the hotel, and started to walk towards Jackson Square one more time, I got a phone call.
It was Priceline calling me to tell me that a bad ice storm had hit Richmond, and that all flights would be cancelled for two days. They had already rebooked my flight and hotel. My wish, by whatever means came true.
So, for two more days I meandered the streets of the French Quarter, drank at the oldest pub in the United States, Jean LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop, pictured below, and visited several other key sites in the Quarter.
On the last day, I decided to respond to a job ad in the local newspaper. It was the perfect job for me, because it was in the field I already work in. Thinking nothing of it, I closed up my laptop to get ready to pack up. The only place I visited every day was the Café Du Monde to feast on their famous Beignet and drink café au lait Chicory Coffee.
I sadly left New Orleans, with heaviness in my heart. Not wanting to leave a place that seemed like home. We boarded our plane and headed for the first stop in Atlanta with a two-hour layover. As I sat in the terminal, I received a response from the company I had applied to and they were already scheduling a phone interview, which later lead to a flight back to New Orleans for them to offer me the job.
Now, as Charlie had said, “you will have to make difficult decisions on being here,” he could not be more correct. The job offer came at the high of the housing crisis here in the US, and unfortunately, I was unable to sell my house, which subsequently resulted in not moving. It was a tough decision, but I made the right decision for now.
I will conclude this tale with one very poignant message. Magic, voodoo, is real. There are things in this world that we cannot explain, and perhaps shouldn’t try to explain. Our world, our universe is a wondrous and amazing thing. I was an unbeliever in these things before my trip, but now, I have seen that there are forces at work that we will never understand – needn’t understand.
Accept this with an open mind. Everything I have said is true, and every encounter I’ve had was witnessed by someone else. Voodoo is alive and well in New Orleans. And it is something you should treat with the same respect you would a Lion or a Tiger.