Gary, who speaks a version of English that sounds like Creole-French and the Deep South run through a blender, is telling us about the bounty he collects on each giant swamp rat. “I get $5 for ‘em,” he says, guiding the pontoon boat along the bank of a tree-snarled island, where he points out a damp-pelted nutria in the shallow water. “I can kill a hundred of those a day.”
From a frontal point of view, before it turns to reveal a thick leathery tail, the soggy rodent is adorable, a cat-sized animal you can imagine taming for a house pet. It’s a gigantic guinea pig, or a small capybara; it’s one clever caption away from being the next meme.
I spot a second one and point it out to the bounty hunter.
“Do you know what happens when you put these rats in a swamp?” Gary asks.
“They disrupt the ecosystem?” I offer.
“They have babies,” he says, as though correcting me.
Gary explains how the nutria rat was introduced to Louisiana from Argentina a hundred years ago, “by some real smart people” who thought the rodents would manage the water lilies, and who have since infested the bayou and destroyed most of the grass holding together the small muddy islands surrounding us.
I’m concerned about these cute-but-ecologically-alarming mammals—really, I am—and I understand Gary’s general disgust with supposed experts who march into places that seem unkempt and tidy them up in ways that wreck them. This, after all, is the recurring story of southern Louisiana’s Mississippi delta, created by a river free to jump its banks, to move back and forth and deposit its silt across a messy coastline swamp, now ordered into a rigid causeway of canals and levees that have nearly destroyed it all—the plants, soil, swamps, fishing, and human culture we call New Orleans.
Aside from Gary, my students, and I, the only other people on the boat are two couples from France. One of these pairs makes me think of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. She is taller. He wears glasses and does not speak or smile; there is a cigarillo in the corner of his mouth. They both wear long trench coats. They are existential philosophers from Paris, 1953, teleported into the frigid swamp regions of Louisiana.
Gary explains that while the French have a single word for “turtle”—and he nods emphatically at the francophones on the boat—the French he speaks has dozens. Apparently, “turtle” is the Cajun linguistic equivalent of Eskimo snow.
A damp winter blows across the swamp, and the temperature—just above freezing—is about thirty degrees colder than I’d prepared for. It’s definitely chillier than it should be this time of year, Gary assures us, but fortunately, he’s got the coveralls—and, he promises, with a sweeping gesture from his shoulder to his booted feet, a solid 250 pounds that would be good for keeping someone warm. My students and I, huddled under thin blankets, scoot closer together.
This is the third time I’ve brought students to New Orleans, a great city for a travel-writing course, but not the place where I’d planned to be this year. My original plan was to take the class to central Mexico, where I have friends and where I wanted to use the Spanish I’ve been trying to learn for the past three years. But too few students enrolled. I offered the New Orleans alternative at the last minute. I didn’t expect the U.S. version of my class to make either, but it did.
When I teach this class, I give myself the same task as my students: to explore a place, to open myself to it, to find a story. The course has become a way to remind myself how it feels to get lost, and then get unlost. It’s a way to remember the discomfort of uncertainty and the unfamiliar. It’s an exercise in receiving the unexpected. In other words, it’s a good way to remind myself how it feels to be a student.
This year I have journeyed farther into New Orleans than I have in past years—mostly for music, sometimes two shows a night, most of it jazz. In the French Quarter’s Preservation Hall, I sat on the floor on a cushion, three feet from the band, and sang “This Little Light of Mine” with a hundred strangers behind me. I heard washboard blues on Frenchmen Street earlier that evening. Beyond the Quarter, in Tremé and the Bywater, I heard brass funk as well as the nation’s only all-female brass band. Sunday afternoon, my students and I first chased down, in a taxi, and then walked alongside a second-line parade through Uptown. Coming from rural Kansas, where there is almost no live music, these steady doses of energy and talent are exhilarating.
And yet, if you pressed me, during a quieter moment, with the right pointed questions, I might confess I’m still mourning the trip we didn’t take, to Mexico.
Three years earlier, when I went to a writing conference in San Miguel in order to research the area as a travel class destination, Mexico caught me by surprise. My trip was brief—only a week—and it’s hard to explain why it changed me as it did. I met a Mexican student studying translation who made me want to be more than I was, who opened a door to possibilities I’d shut years before. I came home and enrolled in a Spanish class I didn’t really have time for—I didn’t have time for an evening language class, for a second language in my extremely-full-of-English-speaking-and-writing life.
Language learning is hard learning. It’s learning relentless in illustrating what you don’t know, what’s still missing. These Spanish language lessons humbled me weekly, and still do, and remind me again and forever that there are things in this life which cannot belong to us, but which we might pick up and carry along anyway. These things become reminders of the histories and routes we’ve already collected and cannot revise—reminders of the burden of freedom, which is the burden of living.
I wanted to be in Mexico because it was the place that made me willing to pick up and carry what would never belong to me.
But I’m not in Mexico. I’m in New Orleans, bound by its own history, and I feel guilty, even as I exhilarate in this damp, remarkable, troubled city, which inhales and exhales music as a necessary breath.
Gary is now showing us his alligator traps, which are empty. The September hunting season is past; instead Gary explains how the traps work. A bait and hook system heaves the alligator up, hanging snout first, until Gary returns and shoots him. This past September Gary killed 28 alligators, the annual cap, and used 28 bullets to do so. Because he’s careful. Because he’s a good hunter, he tells us.
Sartre’s cigarillo, still perched in the corner of his mouth, hasn’t moved for at least an hour. The way the cigarillo droops but never falls, and the upturned collar of his trench coat, looks exactly like an iconic photo of Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who lived for many years in Paris. This strikes me as funny, though the only person I know who would also see the resemblance is my multi-lingual Mexican Francophile friend, who lives in the place I thought I would be this January but am not.
In his essay “What is Literature?”, Sartre—the real Sartre, that is—observes humans make the parts of our world coherent, whole. We create the landscapes that surround us with the bits we see—“this tree and that bit of sky”—within what we know and call our own, “our history, our love.” And so we create places and spaces where we see ourselves. Travel can be a way of showing us this.
For the trip back to the dock, Gary opens the throttle, and the pontoon boat flies over the swamp surface.
“These waterways are wider now,” Gary yells over the sound of the motor. “When I was a boy, they were a fourth as wide.” He doesn’t say if this is because of the swamp rats or erosion or the oil company canals that have diverted the Mississippi. By now, whipping through the frigid air, even in his coveralls, Gary is too cold to speak much.
The world is our task, Sartre writes. It’s a task as tangled as the Louisiana swamp, as ragged as the coastal bayou at the mouth of the Mississippi. I’ve been delivered into these waters despite my original plans; I see what I carry with me, for better or for worse. The creatures lugged in for reasons so sure and misguided may never stop gnawing away at the ground cover of our assumptions. And yet there I am in the center, inescapable, floating, braced against the cold, laughing.