Sunday, October 25, 2009

Orchids and Sweet Tea

So we were on the road to Gulfport, Mississippi, then a night on the beautiful Back Bay of Biloxi and on to New Orleans. I noted down the usual things: how many great white herons we saw, and a fawn that luckily jumped back the right way, across the ditch into the wood. And the wayside signs: Big Daddy's Pawn Shop, Miss Molly's Mobile Home Park, Crawfish Burgers, Fatty's Restaurant, Free Pit Bull. But the states come so thick and fast, it's hard to remember if the signs were in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana. It's all a little overwhelming after Florida, where you're just either in the state or in the water.There is Alabama bearing down on the Florida panhandle, squeezing in next to Mississippi- staking out those miles of seafront (like rival old Great Powers- Russia, advancing south, hungry for a warm water port; landlocked Austro-Hungary, searching for an outlet to the sea.) But of course, when hurricanes strike, waterfront real estate doesn't look like such a good idea anymore.

Saturday night we stayed in a big house in the middle of a hay field near Gulfport or rather, thirty miles away. Thirty miles inland because as our hostess, whose whole solid house washed away in Gulfport, explained: "That's how far we were told we needed to be." She had a greenhouse up and full of great-looking orchids, especially her vandas, so we knew we were in the right place, but almost no trees yet.

That evening as the email had promised: "We will have gumbo and visit." There was a lot of laughter and good company and it was all done on sweet tea. Like many of my moslem friends, the members of the Gulf Coast Orchid Society did not need alcohol to get a good time going. And when I asked if there might be a glass of wine to go with my gumbo, there was that same moment of puzzlement and then a homemade bottle of cherry wine was located in a cupboard. But there was also a big cache of liquor too; wood floated away on the water while bottles sank, we were told, also guns and coins, left like seaweed at low tide.

We were the first to bring up Katrina, eager to show sympathy and understanding yet somehow it kept ending up everywhere with a lot of shaking of heads and sympathy for us and Andrew. But it was on the way to the meeting Sunday afternoon, along the seafront of Gulfport and Biloxi, that Katrina was inescapable. Among the spreading live oaks facing the beach, For Sale signs stuck in the grass, every few yards, like gravestones, mile after mile, marking where one big beautiful home after another had been swept away. But interestingly, the live oaks all were still there. Martin said it showed the contrast to Andrew, a hard, dry storm that took the trees; here the surge of Katrina had sucked away the houses.

After a night on the water of Back Bay, Biloxi, (We choose our orchid trips well!)where I learned the origin of the American pit bull ( brave and courageous cattle dogs) and was glad to hear someone else agree that the only bible to read was the King James version, we took off Monday to savor Louisiana and ended up spending the night at a beautiful turn of the century house at a small town called Hammond. Antique furniture, lamps and pictures, a great live oak, its branches reaching out to us, a fountain playing down below in the dark as we sat out on the broad veranda behind the pillars, with our chips and cheese.

We were proud of having discovered Hammond, and visiting tiny places north of New Orleans, places, unlike the city, that were something new and unexpected and showed that we were not tourists of disaster. We didn't arrive till mid afternoon - too late for our guided tour -driving into a New Orleans of leafy suburbs and botanical gardens the sort of area where orchid societies like to meet.

Taken out for another great seafood dinner before Martin's talk, I felt we were undeserving. Usually orchid people like it when we explore their back roads, not just zoom in for a talk, sell a few orchids and clear out. But this was New Orleans. Everyone had wanted us to see not how bad things were but how well New Orleans was surviving and coming back.

In fact, the great news to report is, if the New Orleans Orchid Society is anything to go by, New Orleans is doing more than just fine. We have been to many orchid societies from Southern California to New England and one of the usual problems you see is the age factor - too many old folk - and the feeling that quite a few of the older members are there primarily for the cookies and the raffle. Not so in New Orleans. The only addition to sweet tea was decaf coffee but the place was humming like a cocktail party. It was dark outside and inside there was a large cake with strawberries on top that said: WELCOME MOTES and nowhere could I see more than one or two who looked ready for Medicare. Since Katrina there's always been talk of people leaving New Orleans; well, certainly not the orchid society and for anyone wanting to join a young society this is the one- I'd even suggest moving in. And not just for the orchids.

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