“Where’re y’all frum?” the lady at the Louisiana Visitor’s Center asks as Malaika and I walk in the door.
“What’d she say?” Malaika whispers, looking at me sideways.
“Where are you from?” I interpret.
“Oh, I’m . . . from . . . Australia . . . and . . . he’s . . . from . . . New York,” Malaika slows down as if speaking to an elderly non-English speaker.
“Well, welcum,” she says. “What can I dofur ya?”
“What?” Malaika asks, again looking at me.
“She wants to know how she can help,” I say giggling at the scenario: a Southern-American-English speaker versus an Australian-English speaker.
“We . . . want . . . to . . . take . . . a . . . swamp . . . tour.”
The woman behind the counter pulls out a map and spends the next ten minutes explaining the best locations in the state. As we leave, Malaika leans into me and says, “I hope you got that, ‘cause I didn’t understand a word!” We laugh as we climb into the Jeep and head East. Banjo music plays in my head.
Breaux Bridge is about halfway through the state and is one of the last towns west of the Atchafalaya causeway, an 18-mile bridge (the 14th longest in the world) that crosses rivers and wetlands. Whereas Texas felt dry and flat, Louisiana feels wet and full of bridges and causeways. This is swamp country!
After checking into a chain hotel off I-10 next to Waffle House, we change and drive a short distance to Prejean’s, a Louisiana favorite, for some Cajun food. Our waiter, Joseph, is a native son, recently returned from Los Angeles. He works as a dialect coach on the HBO series True Blood and wows us with an impressive litany of Louisiana dialects.
“If ya from Nu Orleens, ya tawlk like dis,” he says.
“What’d he say,” Malaika whispers towards me. I shrug my shoulders.
“And if ya here frum deese hur swamps, ya talk like dis,” imitating a Cajun accent.
Malaika and I clap and laugh to each other, then ask ,“What do you recommend for dinner?”
“Gaytur,” he says.
“Like alligator?” Malaika suddenly understands.
“Yes ma’am,” Joseph responds, “some of the finest farm raised in the South.”
I place an order. When it comes to the table, Malaika tries one piece. I finish the plate. It tastes like chicken. Joseph tells us that farm-raised gators are fed chickens, “In the wild, they taste like whatever they eat.” My mind runs through the possibilities while a horror movie plays in my brain. A trio plays banjo music from the stage. Malaika squeals in excitement and jokes that she should join them with her didgeridoo.
The next morning, we rise early to join Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours. Bryan, our guide, is a friendly Cajun who tones down his accent for the group (which includes a foursome from New Jersey, an older couple from Arkansas and a few other folks). He’s operated in these swamps for over twenty years. His tour makes the swamp come alive. Well, it is alive, but it comes alive in a way I might not have experienced otherwise. Malaika is happy to see that America hasn’t drained the swamp and filled it over with a parking lot and Walmart. I am please with this as well.
The highlight of our tour comes when Bryan follows a bayou, which is different from a swamp, upstream to a secluded area. He juts the boat forward, nearly landing on shore. As the people in front stand up, a female gator hisses ferociously. “She guardin’ her bay-bies,” Bryan says. One of the New Jerseyites hyperventilates and leaps towards the back of the boat. I climb forward to snap a few pictures. The gator hisses louder and opens her mouth. “She’s pissed you ate her cousin last night!” Malaika yells, then howls at her own joke.
We survive the swamp and make it back to shore. The nearly two-hour journey with Bryan comes to a whopping $20; I give him a $10 tip, thankful for people like him who protect and guard such amazing nature. I fear that if he and his kind where not around, we Americans might just fill in these places with blacktop and strip malls.
As we drive east towards New Orleans, Malaika and I practice our best Louisiana accents.
“Where’re y’at, dawlin?” I ask with an unfortunate stiff upper lip.
“Jus bindown in dem dere swamps, dawlin,” Malaika responds sounding a bit like a drunk Crocodile Dundee.
We laugh at each other then make a pact to stick to our own languages, happy to have at least witnessed some of the local color in swamp country.