Sunday, March 30, 2008

Indians, Fish, and Clinton

March has been an eventful month for us. We have both been busy with work and, as always, interesting things have been happening in the city. One of the highlights was the Mardi Gras Indian's "Super Sunday" parade. The Mardi Gras Indians are groups of black people dressed in elaborate costumes in honor of the refuge local Indian tribes offered runaway slaves in the 1700's. Originally these events were violent affairs, a time to establish dominance and territory. Today the confrontation is largely limited to verbal exchanges and competition to see who has the best suit. This tradition is a colorful part of New Orleans's unique cultural heritage.

If you are going to live in New Orleans, you gotta eat crawfish. Lots of 'em. My buddy Devin and I have been feasting on pounds of the little lobster look-alikes. The first step to eating crawfish is learning how to do it. First, you grab the body. Second, you twist the tail off. Third, you pinch the meat out of the tail. Last, you suck the juice out of the head (optional). This ritualized feast is usually accompanied by potatoes, corn, garlic, and/or beans and rice. I am lucky enough to live within walking distance of two crawfish joints: Captain Sal's and The Big Fisherman. If you are planning on coming down to visit, you just might want to time your arrival with crawfish season.

Bill Clinton came to town to continue the development of the Clinton Global Initiative. This organization strives to encourage effective philanthropy. His latest book "Giving" can be seen as a manifesto of Clinton's vision for non-governmental activism. Clinton thinks private citizens are now in a position to enact change regardless of the current political climate. He is right, of course. Social change has historically been enacted largely through individuals outside government, and the technology of today allows us greater opportunity to get informed about and participate in activism around the world.

We had great seats to see him speak. The tickets were free and there weren't any lines; Saint Paddy's day was the top draw that Saturday. Amazingly, there were no security checks. What's with that? Anyway, Clinton was not as good a speaker as I had anticipated. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but there has been a legacy of charisma and eloquence associated with him that led me to this expectation. He did well with the talking points but floundered when he attempted to bring in disparate subjects such as psychology, history, and science to support his message. My hope is that he was preoccupied with not saying anything controversial to upset his wife's presidential bid.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Jean Lafitte National Park

This past weekend Lauren and I went to the Barataria preserve. It is located about a half-hour out of town and is part of the Jean Lafitte national park. There are close to 20,000 acres to explore by foot or canoe and the wildlife is incredible.

During two hours of easy walking we encountered 6-7 alligators, 5 large snakes, several snapping turtles, sturgeons, and innumerable lizards. It was surreal. In all my experiences in the wilderness of the West, I have never been surrounded by such an abundance of wildlife. Although I was nervous about the prospect of encountering alligators, their lethargic attitude put me at ease. I am hoping to rent a canoe soon and explore the areas' waterways.

The park has an interesting history, too. Jean Lafitte was a pirate during the early 1800's. He prospered as a smuggler of goods and slaves. Bayous in what is now the Barataria preserve were his primary routes of transport. His skill and knowledge of the area made it impossible for the government to capture him and he acquired prominent notoriety.

This reputation is complicated with a closer look at the era. President Thomas Jefferson passed an Embargo Act that prohibited trade in 1807. The economy suffered mightily and many smugglers insisted that they were honest businessman forced into an unlawful position through poor governance. Indeed, Jefferson later acknowledged that the embargo had been a bad idea.

Lafitte added further intrigue to his reputation with his actions in the War of 1812. The English offered him significant money for his assistance, but he warned the Americans instead. The army was skeptical and went forward with an attack against his camp. Eventually General Andrew Jackson accepted Lafitte's assistance and his crew's performance at Chalmette was integral to the victory in this decisive battle. Today he is remembered as a mysterious legend. His disjointed legacy as a patriot/pirate is appreciated enough to, well, to name a national park after.