By Eleanor, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
One thing I knew about the American college experience was the concept of “spring break”. While in the UK we have a break from university around Easter, US colleges have an earlier break period around early to mid-March. This is often an excuse to travel, relax, and party at destinations domestically and internationally. I had friends in the US travelling to Florida, California, and even abroad to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico. For me, I had one place in mind; New Orleans, Louisiana.
Before I started researching for Spring Break, all I really knew about “NOLA” was from the Disney film “Princess and the Frog”; jazz, voodoo men, alligators and magic. As I narrowed down the options, NOLA seemed to be the perfect location, as I wanted something a little bit different to the usual spring break fare. Once owned by the French as part of its colony in the state of Louisiana, New Orleans seemed distinctly different from any other US city, due to its unique French-inspired architecture and history of slavery that gave birth to jazz music. It is also undeniably a party town; its slogan is “laissez les bon temps roulez”, French for “let the good times roll”.
While we knew we wanted to travel, we also knew we were still students. So, we booked flights using Spirit (the US equivalent of EasyJet), and went for a hostel over a hotel. This saved us hundreds of dollars, and provided a lot of fun. Over our 4-night stay, we made friends with other young people from all over (although mainly a bunch of French students who were on a similar study exchange to us, in North Carolina), with hostel guides who would tell us where the best spots in town were. It was also rated the best hostel in the US several times, and it definitely lived up to our expectations. While not in the French Quarter at the centre of town, being further out meant we got to ride the historic St Charles streetcar (the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world) in and out of town, only 15 minutes each way.
The south is famous for its food; while we tried to live off packet noodles and cereal bars in the hostel to save cash, we also sampled some southern hospitality. The first place we ate after landing was Popeyes; while it is technically a chain restaurant, it was founded in NOLA and was one of the best chicken burgers I’ve ever eaten, especially the Mardi Gras mustard. We also sampled proper creole food (a combination of French, Carribbean, Spanish and African cooking unique to the South); po’boy sandwiches (fried seafood on French bread) and jambalaya (a cajun/creole rice dish) were my favourite. Like the rest of the US, the portions blew us away! For those with a sweet tooth, I would recommend grabbing beignets (square fresh doughnuts with powdered sugar) at Café Beignet or Café du Monde (just like those in Princess and the Frog), but they may give you a sugar rush.
Something we were also really interested in was the culture of voodoo and all things creepy in New Orleans. To learn more, we went on a ghost, vampire and voodoo walking tour of the French Quarter at night. Often seen as ‘evil’ or ‘satanic’, our tour guide Stella keenly explained to us the true nature of voodoo; practiced by freed enslaved persons from West Africa and passed down to NOLA inhabitants today, the practice of voodoo combines elements from traditional West African traditions with Catholicism. This practice being different from what European settlers had known led to it being demonised and turned into something it was not. As someone interested in spirituality, the voodoo shops and altars to Marie Laveau (the high priestess “Voodoo Queen” in history) were like places I’d never seen before, and I even made my own offerings to the altar of the Voodoo Queen herself.
I was genuinely so sad to leave NOLA and head back to Jersey, and not just because of the 15 degrees drop in temperature. New Orleans is one of the most unique places I have ever visited; while you’re aware you’re definitely in the US, the amalgamation of French, West African and Caribbean influences on the food, spiritual practices and architecture made it a true gem. We obviously took full advantage of the live jazz bars and patio nightclubs full of other college kids, but it was refreshing to experience a new region of the US away from the urban hustle and bustle of Jersey and NYC. I would go back in a heartbeat and urge anyone who studies abroad to consider NOLA as a travel destination.