Pulling steamships over hills –   Leave a comment

Got an email from an old school buddy, from the middle of the Peruvian Amazon no less.  He’s taking a class of college kids, something about culture and conservation, up and down an Amazon tributary to Iquito, which he says reminds him of  New Orleans, kinda, with fabulous turn-of-the-century rubber-boom architecture that has tall ceilings and iron balconies, and Spanish tiles like we have in the Quarter.

He says he misses “wonderful, slutty Nawlins”.  Well of course he does.  They all do.  Bret was one of five of us who started the doctoral program at the same time, in anthropology, and became thick as thieves, drinking buddies and study partners from the start in a department of lone-wolf competitors, is how someone said it, so much so that when our 3 years on campus was nearly done and everyone was getting ready to go off to our respective dissertation sites, one of the staff asked if she could do a photo shoot of the five of us one night at a party.

1995, l.-r., Jim, Bret, Laura, Tom, Bill

1995, l.-r., Jim, Bret, Laura, Tom, Bill

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1995-Jim, Laura, Tom, Bill, Bret

1995-Jim, Laura, Tom, Bill, Bret

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1995-Laura, Bret, Jim - best shot of Bret ever

1995-Laura, Bret, Jim – best shot of Bret ever

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1992-Jim, Laura Bill, & Tom with friends in front of the anthro bldg

1992-Jim, Laura Bill, & Tom with friends in front of the anthro bldg

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I met this gang of nuts right after leaving not only my job working with Vietnam PTSD at the VA hospital but the whole profession of psychology to go back to graduate school in anthropology at Tulane.

1993, Tom, Bill and Laura on Bill's Landrover in driveway of anthro bldg

1993, Tom, Bill and Laura on Bill’s Landrover in driveway of anthro bldg

Due to start class end of August, my marriage unexpectedly blew up on a trip in Mexico.  And during a single month, I found an apartment, contacted the incoming group of graduate students to see if any of them needed a crash pad while they looked for their apartments, moved out, and got to know those who took me up on my offer while showing them around New Orleans and the want ads and good food that can be gotten on a student budget, its bars and music by night.  This instant social circle could not have been more tailor-made to mend a broken heart.

1992-Tom, Laura, Bill and Jim with friend, my apartment, scene of a funny hurricane stayover and many a cooking party

1992-Tom, Laura, Bill and Jim with friend, my apartment, scene of hurricane parties and alot of cooking

No sooner did they move into their places than a hurricane hit, and not knowing what to do, they all came back with sleeping bags, candles, canned goods, batteries, recreational herb and drink, and their cars to put up high, safely back in the parking lot of the bank next door.  Knowing we would not have to function responsibly in public for several days, we got pretty ripped and played Monopoly through a day and night of torrential rain.  Best laid plans.  My upstairs neighbors heard that we were awake and came knocking, begging us to help them move their piano, which was in the basement already in 2 ft of water, up to the stair landing.  So much for the buzz, but they were a great couple and we had to help.

Thoroughly soaked afterwards, we decided to go with it, go outside and swim.  My street dipped real low on my side, and the cars parked near there were submerged nearly to the roof, which afforded us great launching pads for cannonballs.  So, yes, it was at my apartment where they first got to swim in a hurricane.  Back in, everybody drenched, I handed out sweat pants and everybody took their turns in the bathroom to change.  At one point, Tom, who is a true inner city child of Baltimore, unfamiliar with nature, and has even centered his studies around inner city kids in blighted areas of Central America, calls out to me from the bathroom in a voice so steady and calm that I knew something was very wrong.  He asks me to please come in, and he’s standing with his wet jeans around his ankles, motionless, watching the snake that has just crawled out of his pants slither across the floor.  He never lived that one down.  Bret, an older, somewhat less raucous, lighter-drinking member of our tribe, though no less loyal, was not with us for that one.

1992-Tom, Laura, Bill and Jim with friend, my apartment, scene of a funny hurricane stayover and many a cooking party

1997?, St. Patrick’s Day parade at Jim’s – Laura, Bret, Jim & Bill, who lent his name for use as a verb for fielding cabbage missiles away from Jim’s turn-of-the-century window glass.  Feldo, feldas, felda, feldamos…

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Being anthropologists, everyone was interested in learning about New Orleans.  It was at Middendorf’s, a fried seafood house out of town built on a tiny dry spot surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Manchac with its moss-draped cypresses, that I told them about the Loup Garou, the Cajun werewolf.  We climbed under a gate and found slabs of concrete from the old bridge sticking out of the water to sit on, from before they built the raised interstate that ran above the water between the two lakes.  The moon was bright overhead with bright white wifts floating past it, and I told them that it was on full moons that you could see the Loup Garou flying on his giant bat.  Owls were hooting, and I explained that the only way to survive a loup garou attack, if he comes up to your door looking to eat your children, is to keep a flour sifter nailed to the door frame, cuz then he has to stop and count all the holes, and that’s when you escape out the back door.  Leave it to the Cajuns to take a but of 13th century horror folklore and inject humor into it.

2000, human sacrifice at MARI (Middle American Research Institute, Laura & Jim

2000, human sacrifice at MARI (Middle American Research Institute) for Kathe’s wedding, Laura & Jim

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. It was at Rayne’s frog festival that they saw teenage girls in white gowns watching a frog race in front of them, out from the middle of a bunch of concentric circles, and jumping up when one took a wayward leap under their dresses, and where they saw another frog, amidst a host of frogs dressed in Barbie gowns and feather boas, win a beauty pageant wearing surfer shorts and Hawaiian shirt, a surfboard tied to its feet, and one eye painted black… Spuds McKenzie.

It was through Bret’s connections with some of the Mardi Gras Indians he was doing an ethnography of, that we lily whites were graciously allowed into the inner sanctum of one of their club meeting places to see the ritualistic squaring off of two tribes, dancing and strutting their beaded, feathered costumes and singing the ritual songs that the Neville Brothers and Dr. John made known outside New Orleans.

Jazz Fest always came in the middle of exams, though.  Drag.

But on most nights when weren’t doing anything, it was done at our Warehouse district blues bar hangout, 3-4 nights out of the week, till 3-4 in the morning.  I don’t know how we did it.  Or how I did it.  But they gave me a whole second ‘childhood’ of graduate school years, after being a law professor’s wife for 7 years.

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.My apartment saw alot of dinner parties, big group affairs.  It turned out that I was the only native New Orleanian in anthro’s graduate school, faculty included, and trying to explain to people the difference between Cajun and Creole food evolved into my cooking typical-style dinners  where everyone would chip in a few bucks.  After the first few, the whole dept started showing up, and some faculty.  Fun times.

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1993-Jim, Bill, Laura, my cousin, & Tom visiting Cajun country

1993 – Jim, Bill, Laura & Tom visiting a cousin by the hunting camp that used to be in the Atchafalaya Basin until they flooded it and told everyone they had to move.

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It was on a cypress lake we camped on, by my grandmother’s farm in Breaux Bridge, that they found out that nutria sound like sheep and alligators have red eyes at night, and also where we made Tom burn in our first night’s bonfire a disreputable pair of blue jeans that put way more information out there than we needed to know .

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1998, Halloween, Bret's a cockroach, Iffi, Bret & Laura

1998, Halloween, Bret’s a cockroach, Iffi, Bret & Laura

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1998?, Iffi, Bret, Laura, Tom, & Jim when Bret's successful defense of his dissertation, in front of the Anthro dept. which is no more, torn down after Hurricane katrina

1998? – Iffi, Bret, Laura, Tom, & Jim, celebrating Bret’s successful defense of his dissertation, in front of the Anthro dept. which is no more, torn down after Hurricane Katrina.

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1998?, Iffi, Bret, Laura, Tom, & Jim when Bret's successful defense of his dissertation, in front of the Anthro dept. which is no more, torn down after Hurricane katrina

1998?, Iffi, Bret, Laura, Tom, & Jim when Bret’s successful defense of his dissertation, in front of the Anthro dept. which is no more, torn down after Hurricane katrina

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The anthro gang, l. to r. – Jim, Laura(me), Tom, Bill, & Bret

Anyhow, I googled ‘Iquito rubber boom’… (what do I know from the Andean turn-of-the-century industrial base, I’m a French Colonialist), and found “Fitzcarraldo”, the Werner Herzog movie from the early 1980s about a turn-of-the-century guy wanting to start a rubber plantation in an unreachable part of the Peruvian rain forest, amidst a hidden population of hostile head-shrinking natives.  Looking to avoid a treacherous stretch of rapids that tears ships up, he drags a steamship over the hill of an isthmus to another river just a few hundred yards away that would bypass the rapids.  He plays records from the roof of the ship of Caruso singing opera, resounding serenely up and down the silent river and through the jungle.

From there, I found mention of “Burden of Dreams”,  a documentary of the filming of the movie and the bizarre trials and tribulations that plagued it… too much rain, not enough rain (river too low for the boat), politics (war with Ecuador), squabbles with the native tribes, mechanical difficulties getting his 3-story steamship pulled up and over the hill, and disease.  Jason Robards got so sick his doctor made him leave the film, forcing a complete start-over, a recasting with Klaus Kinski (who shredded the screen!), and an unfortunate elimination of the role of idiot sidekick meant for…wait for it… Mick Jagger, who couldn’t start all over again cuz the Stones were about to leave on tour.  The documentary shows some of his footage… rich.  And supposedly one of the native chiefs, being helpful, heard one too many of ‘chief’ Herzog’s violent squabbles with the difficult Kinski and offered to take out him out.

Bret’s the kind of guy whose emails would always trigger something like that; in this case, renting two movies I would never have heard about.  Have fun on tomorrow’s stretch of river, my dear, cuz from what you describe, it seems you’re coming up on the ship-eating rapids that Fitz tried so hard to avoid.  And Sugar, please to not get yer head shrunk .

Laura, over’n’out.

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Posted February 25, 2012 by Laura Stella Sitges in Current Journal

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