The Bayou is full of beautiful cypress trees that are in many cases hundreds of years old. The knobby points of wood that stick out of the water around the trees are called "cypress knees". These pointy bumps are apparently what allow the trees to live in the water by providing them with oxygen and expelling wastes. Interesting huh?
Though for me the mention of shrimp boats generally conjures up images from the Elvis film "King Creole", real shrimp boats are much cooler. Our guide told us that from the docks in Westwego it is approximately 40 miles out to the Gulf of Mexico where most of the shrimp are caught. The fishermen sail out to the Gulf and fill the nets on these boats to the brims with shrimp before coming back home to Westwego with their catch.
The sight of spanish moss hanging from the trees is common enough in the South, but here in the southern Louisiana bayous the moss was once an important source of income for many cajun families. Before the invention of modern synthetics, spanish moss was used as stuffing for sofas, chairs, automobile seats, and other upholstered items. Local people would climb the trees and toss the moss into waiting boats, a difficult and nasty job when you consider that the moss was often filled with insects, crabs, and other crawly things.
Hunting alligators is allowed in Lousiana with the right license. The penalties for being caught with an untagged animal are quite extreme, however, as killing an alligator without a license is considered a federal offense. Many of the alligators which are hunted here are used for both their meat and their skins. Many locals claim that alligator meat is delicious and it is widely available in local stores and restaurants.
Alligators are hunted by the use of traps. Hunters mark these traps with colored clothespins which are atttached to the trap's lines. When the hunter goes out to check his lines and sees that clothespin has moved or is missing, he is almost sure to find an alligator.
Alligators can grow to be very large, approx. 12 feet or 3 meters, but few of the them ever attain this size because of hunting. To replace the alligators which are lost to hunters and to natural deaths in the wild, special alligator hatcheries raise babies until they are likely to survive on their own and release them into the environment.
Louisiana Mon Amour
"A Small Town on the Bayou"
The town of Westwego, LA was founded by the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1870 as a linking point to its docks and shipyard on the Mississippi to Bayou Signette's rich fishing grounds. The town itself was settled by trappers and fishermen, mostly of Acadian decent--who are today known as Cajuns, the decendents of which still live in the town today.
The origin of the town's name, Westwego, is largely a mystery, but there is a theory put out by some of the locals which states that the name came from the fact that the town was once the last railroad stop west of the city of New Orleans.
Today Westwego is still the home of a largely Cajun population of fishermen. It is said that the shrimp that they catch provide up to half of what is consumed in the United States each year. Unfortunately however, the delicate eco-system in Westwego's Bayou Signette has become extremely compromised due to pollution from oil and natural gas drilling as well as from errosion and rising water levels caused by drainage run-off from New Orleans. Hurricanes and tropical storms have also taken a toll along with overfishing and exploitation of the area's natural resources.
There is a strong effort now in Westwego to educate people about the Bayou's rich resources and to encourage their preservation. It was for this reason that I visited, and I have to admit that it is without doubt one of the most beautiful natural places I have ever seen.
The population of Cajuns in Westwego, and throughout southern Louisiana, are directly descended from the French colonists of Acadia, Canada (what is today Nova Scotia) who were ousted by British forces when Britian overtook Canada from France in the 17th century. This difficult period in the Cajun's history is known as "Le Grand Derangement" as many, many people died during the long journey from Canada to the French Colony of Louisana, and still many more from malaria, yellow fever and other tropical diseases. It is a testament to the strength and fortitude of these noble people that they managed so successfully to carve out a rich living and culture from this area's forboding swamplands.
Though today it seems that there are alot of things out there that call themselves Cajun, from all sorts of food to music, the reality of what Cajun is is much different. If you go to southern Lousiana and hear genuine Cajun French spoken and try some real Cajun food you will imediately understand what I mean.