Category Archives: USA

When Democracy Ruled

Image by Carol M. Highsmith –

Depressed by the current news, the arguments, the depths to which politicians and supposedly clever men and women are sinking, I think back to how years ago Franklin D. Roosevelt was a beacon of light to a world deep in a fiscal depression. As he saw America through a war and put in action methods to help Europe build itself up after the second world war, he laid the groundwork for 20th century democracy in the western world. Less than a century later, we stand to lose it.

FDR had many faults, he was a human being after all, but he was a giant compared to what we see today.

Sculpture Saturday: New Orleans

Statue to famous philanthropist

New Orleans Philanthropist Malcolm Woldenberg in conversation with young boy

Once lined with crumbling warehouses Woldenberg Park (opened in 1984 for the World Fair) is now a pleasant walkway along the Mississippi offering scenic views of the river. It’s a great place for people watching as it attracts tourists and locals alike and a steady stream of street musicians. The Promenade gets its name from philanthropist Malcolm Woldenberg whose life-size bronze is one of many sculptures dotting the riverfront.

Silent Sunday: New Orleans, St. James’s Cemetery

It doesn’t get much more silent that this!

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

It was featured in the classic 1969 film, Easy Rider, and one of the over 700 tombs there has been reserved by actor Nicholas Cage as his final resting place. Founded in 1789 the cemetery houses over 100,000 deceased, including the grave of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.

It was the first cemetery in New Orleans designed for above ground burial and it is claimed that it was modelled after Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise cemetery but as Père-Lachaise wasn’t used as a cemetery until 1804, that seems a bit fanciful. Also there is a significant difference in that in the Paris cemetery the bodies are usually placed in vaults in the floors of the tombs but in New Orleans the bodies are placed inside the walls of the tombs. Because of the subtropical climate, the tomb then effectively becomes an oven, the intensity of the heat causes the body to decompose in a process similar to a slow cremation and within a year only the bones are left.

This allows the tombs in New Orleans cemeteries to be used again and again. Depending on the family’s needs, after about a year the bones of the departed are swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb, now ready for its next occupant or occupants, as it is common practice to bury all the members of a family in the same tomb.

Tijuana – in the shade of the USA

It seems we can’t escape newspaper articles, radio reports and TV programmes about the border between the USA and Mexico, and all this has led me to think of my travels along that border some years ago.  I wrote an article at the time for The Traveller magazine and I thought it might be interesting to use it as a Post on my Blog as when I was there the border seemed to benefit the American tourists almost as much as the Mexicans

So, here it is.

Tijuana Border (2)

You’ll see them every evening, peering through the holes in the fence at the patrolling agents on the US side, or astride the wall, silently waiting for sundown and their chance to make that final spurt for freedom.  These are the ‘chickens’ – illegal immigrants who nightly swarm across the high steel fence that snakes inland from Tijuana to San Diego.  Like the old Berlin Wall, this one also has arc lights and guards equipped with night-vision cameras.

San Diego County, USA, borders Mexico for approximately 70 miles but the wall itself runs for only 14 of them.  Further north, the immigrants risk a gruelling three or four day journey across tough, arid terrain, but from Tijuana to the suburbs of San Diego it is only a short run.  Joselito spoke for them all.  “If we don’t make it tonight, there is a chance of finding some sort of job while we wait for another day.  So we stay”.

Tijana Border

Tijuana is a tough place to live: it is noisy and dirty, the crime rate is high and drugs are easily available, but for the scores of people who arrive daily from all over Mexico, this frontier town is the gateway to new beginnings and new hopes,  Many who come here to try their luck at crossing the border end up finding ways to support themselves and their families in Tijuana itself.

You will see them on the side-streets of the city: the brick-makers who squat by the streams, the farriers who tool and fashion the graceful Mexican saddles and boots, the touts who stand by the sidewalk, a damaged car door in one hand and a panel-beater in the other.  Their customers are Americans who drive their cars across the border for high calibre work at one-tenth of what it would cost in California.

That’s not the only thing that attracts Americans to Tijuana.  Drugs and dental treatments that are expensive in the United States are cheap and readily available in this border city.  It is almost certain that the American matrons you see clutching  pharmacy bags have just picked up a six-month supply of Prozac at giveaway prices, a supply of chemotherapy treatment or a mixed bag of sleeping pills and wake-up pills.

Rich and poor live in close proximity here.  There are modest houses of concrete and metal alongside magnificent colonial-style mansions, interspersed with crazily leaning shacks.  Plastic containers, splashed recklessly with scarlet and yellow paint and filled with scented red and pink geraniums, define the ‘garden’ space in front of these dwellings.  Here and there on end walls are brilliant murals of darkly exotic flowers and oceans and skies of an impossible blue, a naive art that owes more to the capacity for gaiety and colour in the Mexican temperament than to any innate artistic talents.  Even here, strolling groups of traditionally dressed Mariachi bands want to serenade you and if you have suffered six versions of  Quantanamera in 30 minutes it may be prudent to know the title of one or two other Mexican songs.


Twenty years ago, Tijuana was little more than a clutch of ragged adobe houses and a few stores, a border town of such searing poverty and dirt that I was glad to leave it.  Today it is a city in its own right, a city that has a future – of sorts.  Above all, it has a young and vibrant population, one of the reasons why Samsung, Sanyo, General Electric, Ford and other multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the city and why they currently employ more than 100,000 workers here.  The fact that there is work for thousands where before there was nothing will not halt the border crossings, but it makes the plight of the ‘chickens’ less hopeless and enables some of them to remain in their own country.

Meanwhile, the steel border, illuminated at night, adds a frisson of excitement, a charge, to life in Tijuana.  And those gaunt figures that sit astride it today will be followed, inevitably, by others tomorrow.





San Francisco’s Cable Cars

My first time in San Francisco and I felt as though I were in a state of shock.  It looked just like the movies but it was real, very real.   From the “Vietnam vets.” hustling for dollars and dimes at Fisherman’s Wharf and Haight Ashbury, to the open-sided cable cars grinding and ringing their way up and down those vertical hills, this was a movie-set.

Most great cities are walkable – with the exception of Los Angeles – and San Franscisco is no exception.  The one great drawback to this accessibility however, it that it is exremely hilly. But somehow, transfixed by the trolley-cars that rattle up those perpendicular slopes and listening to either the fog-horns in the Bay or the sound of itinerant Mexican musicians – depending on the weather – you forget the hills and throw yourself into the joy of being in San Franscisco, riding the cable cars, eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, taking trips on the Bay, gazing at the Rock (Alcatraz), and watching the sun goes down on The Golden Gate Bridge.


If you ride the cable cars, there are a few things you should know.

There are three cable car routes in the city, but the two that offer the most attractive rides are the Powell-Mason and PowellHyde lines.  At Powell and Market streets, the cable car turntable serves as the beginning stop for the Powell-Mason line which runs from there up and over Nob Hill and down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line starts from the same turntable and runs up over Nob Hill and Russian Hill before coming to a halt near Ghiradelli Square. Both lines take significantly different routes and end at different areas near Fisherman’s Wharf so it is important to know where in Fisherman’s Wharf you want to arrive.

For the best views when travelling, you want to be on the side that faces the bay.  That means the right-hand side for cars leaving from downtown and the left-hand side for cars leaving from the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Fisherman's Wharf

The California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District, through Chinatown, over famous Nob Hill and stops at Van Ness Avenue. Since all the cars on this line have the same routes, the signs are painted directly on the car.

Looking down from one of SFs most famous streets

The Powell/Hyde line ends up close to Ghirardelli Square famous for its shopping and chocolates, and the Vietnamese restaurant owned by Don Johnson, the ‘Ana Mandara’.  Lombard Street is known as the “world’s cmost crooked street” and if you want to take some great pictures, then you should get off at Lombard.  If you plan to stay on, make sure your camera is at the ready because at the top of Hyde and Lombard you will have an unobstructed view of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, way, way down in the Bay.

San Frans view with Golden Gate Bridge and AlcatrazAt the end of this line (at Hyde and Beach) is The Buena Vista Cafe, where the locals insist that Irish Coffee was born.  Don’t believe it.  I’m with the good folk of Shannon Airport who claim to have invented it many years ago to comfort passengers held up by fog in the days when Shannon was a mere stop-off point for the ‘planes to the USA.  What makes me so sure is that I doubt if the rich cream you need for an Irish Coffee – and that you get at Shannon – would be served in the USA as it would be too calorie rich!


The Powell / Mason line also passes close to Lombard Street but it is at the bottom, so the view you get is of the crooked street, like the postcard pictures you will see everywhere around.  The Powell/Mason stops off in North Beach, a quick walk to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 39, near some good eateries.  Best thing to do from here is to walk down to the Wharf and get one of those famous San Francisco sourdough bread bowls.

The California/ Van Ness car rides through the hills of the Financial District and hits the top of Nob Hill where you’ll find the most stunning views of the city.  For a real treat, go to the 19th Floor of the Mark Hopkins (Top of the Mark) and sip a dry martini, listen to some jazz and feel the buzz.


Another popular drinking hole is The Nob Hill Tavern at California and Hyde. Polk Street is good for shopping before the cable car makes its way down the hill to Van Ness where it stops and goes back the other direction.  And just to throw in a bit of culture, if you’re into Gothic architecture, make sure to check out Grace Cathedral at California and Taylor.

Alcatraz XXX

The cable cars start at 06.00 and finish at midnight.  Single cable car tickets were $7.00 when I was there, a 1-Day visitor passport was $21.00, a 3-day was $32.00 and a 7-day $42.00. There are trips around the rock of Alcatraz with its sinister watchtowers, from $33 to $110, the more expensive boat ride including a stop on the island and a tour of the grim penitentiary which once held Al Capone, The Birdman, and ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.


I have just won third prize in a Travel Writing competition run by the Society of Women Writers & Journalists in the UK and I thought I’d put the piece up this week as my blog.

The article is about New Orleans’ recovery after Huricane Katerina had nearly destroyed it.  For some, it did totally destroy their homes and their way of life, but some survived to re-build the city and forge a new existence for themselves and their families.   I’ve loved jazz and the city it hails from all my life: I love the easy-going rhythm of life and the people’s insouciance to the travails and troubles that beset them but I take my hat off now to their stoicism and their love of life which has restored New Orleans to something of its former glory.

Third Prize:  Title as above

Lone musician on Decatur
Lone Musician on Decatur – Mari Nicholson

The saxophonist in the too small trilby sits outside a café on Decatur, playing a soft, seductive blues.  Just down the street, a trio runs through its repertoire while onlookers stand around in the sunshine and clap each solo.  Behind us, on the muddy Mississippi the paddle boats make their way downstream, the sounds of ‘Oh, Didn’t he ramble’ drifting across from the onboard jazz band.  Music is everywhere and everywhere it is good.

Mississippi steamboat
Mississippi Paddle Steamer – Mari Nicholson

For this is New Orleans, cradled between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, a dizzying jumble of black and white where European cultures blend with Caribbean influences and where the world’s finest jazz musicians can be found busking on street corners or playing for tips in the magnolia hung Jackson Square.

Balconies 7

The history of the city is embedded in the fading, peeling façades of the houses in the French Quarter their filigreed balconies overhung with lush greenery and fragrant jasmine.

Balconies 1
Balconies in the French Quarter – Mari Nicholson

Cemeteries full of crumbling marble tombs, voodoo shops and houses selling magic potions called gris-gris should lend a feeling of melancholia but they don’t.  This is a place where voodoo is a thriving  religion an where a funeral brings people on to the streets to follow the coffin while as many jazz bands as can be mustered tag along on floats to add to the spirit of the day.

Voodoo house on Bourbon
Voodoo House in New Orleans – Mari Nicholson

The French Quarter was the site of the original settlement and the heart of the city for 300 years and I start my stroll in Jackson Square, once the Plaza de Armes under Spanish rule in the 1700’s but now a green oasis in front of St. Louis cathedral, the oldest continuously active Catholic Church in the USA.  The Square is bustling with jugglers, dancers, tarot card readers, and voodoo priestesses, the whole sound-tracked by groups of itinerant jazz musicians.


Zydecko Musicians in Street

Tarot Card Reader in Jackson
Tarot Card Readers in Jackson – Mari

Following the map in my self-guided walking tour (available free from the Tourist Office) I check off The Cabilde, from which Spain, France, the Confederate states and the USA have each at one time ruled New Orleans, before continuing through some of the city’s most attractive streets.  The leaflet illuminates important buildings from convents and haunted houses to the homes of writers Tennessee Williams and Frances Parkinson Keyes.  I hop on the Riverfront streetcar and for $1.50 I ride the 2-mile route along the Mississippi to the famous French Market and the stalls of the Flea Market.

Jackson Square
St. Louis Cathedral – Mari Nicholson

There are plenty of opportunities to stop for a snack or a meal and after a while I head for Café du Monde for coffee and beignets (doughnuts to die for, smothered in icing sugar).  New Orleans is gastronomic heaven whether you chose the world’s most famous Cajun restaurant, K-Paul’s at 416 Chartres Street or the more budget range La Madeleine for a croissant and chicory flavoured coffee but the two dishes you must try are Gumbo, the ultimate Creole dish, made with local Gulf shrimps, crabs and crawfish, and the more basic Red Beans and Rice, once comfort food for the poor but now elevated to a specialty.  Or chill out with a po’boy sandwich – crusty French bread filled with fried oysters, shrimps or soft shell crabs, roast beef, gravy and cheese.  We’re talking BIG sandwiches here.  Naw’lins don’t do small!

Bourbon Street
Most famous Jazz Club, Preservation Hall – Mari Nicholson

For many, the best time in New Orleans is after dark when the night beat of Bourbon Street starts up, when Preservation Hall hosts the oldest jazz musicians who play 30-minute sets, and the restaurants and bars fill up with customers.  It may require a pre-emptive cocktail or two to cope with the astounding decibels that reverberate in the seven blocks of Bourbon and the even more ear-splitting noise from the dark bars that line the narrow street, so head for the atmospheric Napoleon House at 500 Chartres or Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon for a Hurricane, or a Sazarac, Huey Long’s favourite tipple, a potent mix of whiskies, bitters, lemon juice and aniseed liqueur.  Rumour has it that if you ask for a third the barman asks you to sign a waiver.

Inside a bar on Bourbon Street
Inside a bar on Bourbon – Mari Nicholson

Bourbon Street is fun but for the authentic jazz experience, head away from the yelps and yells of the crowds that congregate here, towards places like Vaughan’s on Dauphine Street, Tipitinas at Napolean Aveue, the House of Blues on Decatur Street or Snug Harbour on Frenchman Street.  If you are heading out of the French Quarter make sure you have the ‘phone number of a taxi company with you as you will find it impossible to pick up a taxi anywhere and, not to put too fine a point on it, you wouldn’t want to be wandering around New Orleans alone after dark.

If it’s Cajun music you’re after – washboards, corrugated tin, fiddles and accordions – or its faster variant, Zydeco, you can find this at Mulate’s on Julia Street where you can work off the fried catfish and dirty rice by two-stepping to the fast rhythms.  Instructors are on hand to give neophytes a whirl around the floor.

It’s easy after only a few hours in The Big Easy to put life on hold and forget Museums and churches.  There are shops to investigate, a horse and carriage ride around town to contemplae and a ride on the historic landmark that is the olive-green St. Charles’ Streetcar at Canal Street.  For $1.25 you can ride for 13 miles from the Riverfront to the Lake and on to the Garden District, to view the mansions built by the rich merchants in the last century, the lush gardens surrounding them dotted with trees hung with gossamer-like grey streamers of Spanish moss.

Alligator in Bayou
Alligator waits for the unwary – Mari Nicholson

Best of all is to take a trip on the bayous to observe Cajun life, so book up for a day’s tour through the swamps, either by kayak or cruise boat, and meet the trappers and fishermen, boat builders and farmers.  In the tranquility of these Cypress Swamps where turtles and egrets share floating logs in the waters, the noise of the city seems a long way away.  You can be lulled into a sense of non-danger but trail your hands in the water at your peril for the alligators move swiftly to snatch at anything that moves in these swamps.  And if the alligators miss you, the nutrias, a sort of giant water rat on steroids, might get you.

From the bayous to the grand houses of the plantation owners is like moving from one life to another, from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to “Gone with the Wind”.  Driving along the Mississippi River gazing at the antebellum dwellings will have you longing to sample a mint julep on one of the verandahs.   If time is short, the best two houses to visit both in the lives lived by the inhabitants and in the architecture, are Laura Plantation and Oak Valley Plantation.  The guides bring the houses to life with their tales of black slaves who laboured in the hot sun to cut the cane that made the owners rich and the claustrophobic life lived by the women of the house.  And, at Oak Valley Plantation, you can have that Mint Julep sitting on the verandah of the house and for a few moments, you can be a character in a Tennessee Williams play – if you can forget that you’re drinking a mint julep from a plastic cup.

Plantation 7
Plantation House – Mari Nicholson

The New Orleans motto is “Laissez les bon temps rouler” (Let the Good Times Roll) a maxim that took a knock after the Katerina floods, but along with the rest of Louisiana, the inhabitants of the city are doing their best to get the good times rolling again – and they are succeeding.

Despite the tragedy of Katerina, New Orleans is once more up and running and you can again enjoy a cocktail-to- go on Bourbon or Basin Streets -a lurid coloured concoction in a highball glass that you get to drink on the street.

As the locals would say – “Only in Nola”.

The Man - Louis Armstrong
The Main Man – Louis Armstrong

Weekly Photo Challenge: FUN

Ain’t nothin’ more fun than Second Lining in New Orleans behind some of the best jazz bands in the world. They usually happen on a Sunday morning, just for fun, or maybe to honour someone who has just died, to raise money for a family in need, or “to let the man know we here”!