Week 19-  January 16-22 Week: Culture Shock

We finished up Texas in style on Sunday as we worshipped with the wonderful congregation of New Saint John Missionary Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Texas.  How fitting it was that on Martin Luther King weekend, we went to a church where our family and our friends the Goldfines were the only white faces in the large congregation!  There have been several times on our trip when we have been the complete minority… and it’s a good thing to experience.

At 10:30 that morning we unwittingly embarked on a three-hour marathon of singing, clapping, dancing, and probably the most animated preaching I’ve ever attended.  Even the offering is a dancing, hand-shaking time as each row files up front to drop their tithes in the basket.  As a member of a Baptist General Conference Church of rather staid Scandinavian descent, this was not at all my normal Sunday service!  While we were exhausted, especially since we hadn’t known what to expect, it was refreshing to be part of a congregation not constraining worship to a time frame.  Back home, there is grumbling in the wilderness when the service isn’t over in time to see every minute of the Vikings game… 

Another aspect of the service was how dressed up everyone was.  The ladies wore elaborate and colorful hats, all of them in crisp dresses.  The men all wore coats and ties.  Now for anyone who knows me, I hate ties and can count on one hand the times I wear a tie each year.  But I realized, this was another way they could honor God in a special way on His day.  Hmm..  maybe our casual culture has lost something. 

We enjoyed our last afternoon in Texas on a beautiful, warm day enjoying the Gulf Coast.  We have been sharing meals with our friends the Goldfines, and special dinner entertainment that night was poetry readings of all five kids’ work.  A couple of times during our time together, Michael, a high-school English teacher has led the kids in a poetry class.  Kathleen is also a teacher, so Brenda and I have engaged them in great education discussions as the kids play.  Both of them are encouraging, innovative, and dedicated teachers.  This year of home-schooling has given Brenda and I even more respect for the work our teachers do every day! 

Our kids were ecstatic when we announced that our two families would travel to Lafayette, in the southern Louisiana bayou area to experience it together.  Kelson and Jael rode along with us in Harvey as we headed out of Texas, a novelty from their mode of travel in the huge pickup that pulls their fifth-wheel travel trailer.

On Tuesday we drove down into the heart of Cajun Bayou country where we toured the Konriko rice mill in Iberia and the Mc’Ilhenny Tabasco factory on Avery Island.  The 1912 rice mill is the oldest rice mill still in operation.  If General Mills purchased the mill, it would be shut down in a heartbeat-  the wooden equipment, the sanitation and safety hazards, whoa! 

The nearby Tabasco factory tour on Avery Island was a fascinating combination of history and food science.  Avery Island is an island in the sense that a bayou encircles the area, but there are still miles of swamp and waterways between it and the Gulf Coast.  The island is a dome covering one of the largest pure salt reserves in the world.  The McIlhenny family started making Tabasco in 1868 when the family returned to the island after the Civil War.  The sauce is fermented from a mash of peppers and salt both originating at the island.  Decades ago, the family also started a water bird conservatory and jungle gardens on the island.  Both coexist in harmony with active oil pumping all around the island. 

In the evening, Michael and Kathleen stayed with all of the kids so Brenda and I could go out on a date, the last one being in San Francisco at the beginning of November!  We tried out a local seafood restaurant knowing we wouldn’t have kids disgusted at what were trying.  We returned the date favor the next night, a definite plus of traveling with another family. 

The next couple of days, through a couple of National Park venues (Jean Lafitte Center and Vermilionville Village), we learned about the Cajun culture, of which I was completely ignorant.  The Acadians were French descendents who lived in Nova Scotia even before the U.S. became a country.  The British gave this fiercely independent culture an ultimatum to completely renounce their French heritage and loyalty.  When they didn’t agree to it, the people were rounded up and sent down the U.S. East Coast on squalid ships to be rejected by people in most of the colonies until they eventually made it to the Louisiana area.  There, French colonies accepted them and gave them the rich bayou land of southern Lousiana.  Since that time, close to a dozen different nationalities have immigrated to that area during different periods resulting in the unique blend of people, language, and culture that today are called Cajun-  a verbal slur of the name Acadian. 

On Friday our two families chartered a tour into the renowned Atchafalaya swamp basin.  We knew we had hired a character when he pulled up in a truck with almost a dozen dogs in makeshift kennels tied in the bed of the pickup.  Two of the dogs (very well behaved) joined us on the tour, much to the delight of the kids.

As we pulled out into the swamp in his flat bottomed boat, we soon found out that he was in competition with a past partner.  Both headed out with their tours at the same time, and it was kind of a race to get to the area where they knew wildlife could be spotted.  At one point, in his hurry, our guide beached the boat and we all had to huddle in the front as he rocked it off of the swamp bottom.  After reading Huck Finn, and being in this part of the country, we found ourselves in the pages of a southern feud just like Huck did!  In spite of the feud, the wetlands were fascinating with their huge, bell-bottomed Cyprus trees, birds, and wildlife. 

Before saying goodbye to our friends, as we needed to head out to New Orleans yet that afternoon, we stopped for a Cajun meal together.  “Chicken on the Bayou” is a local restaurant that deep-fries just about anything that at one time moved.  We had a great time sharing crawfish gumbo and seafood etouffee.  The kids were again disgusted as we sampled a breaded and deep-fried everything-platter, including frog legs, crawfish, oysters, and catfish. 

That afternoon we headed to New Orleans.  As the Interstate penetrates the Atchafalaya Basin, whole twenty-mile stretches of the road are built on pilings through the swamps and along the Bayou… what a unique area we had explored! 

Saturday was our day to check out New Orleans.  Being just a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, the city was already quite busy and beautifully decorated, resulting in the perfect atmosphere to experience it before the debauchery actually begins. 

Besides people watching, the highlight was the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.  We stopped by just as the Eureka band was starting a special performance at the Park headquarters.  We’ve been to National Parks with elk and cacti, oceans and mountains, but never the likes of this.  The place was jamming.  The Eureka band (through its evolution from a military band to New Orleans Jazz) has been around since the 1920’s with different leaders and members along the way.  The music was inspiring to a fellow trumpet player.  The lively Grand Marshal even employed Nate and Jenna to join the fun up front.  (And yes, the kids could even get a Junior Ranger badge there…) 

The day also included sampling of  traditional New Orleans’ foods like Muffulettas from the Central Grocery and beignets from the Café du Monde.  Between the food and the people, the southern Louisiana culture is probably most different from anything we have yet experienced.