Tuesday, April 29, 2008

11. Welcome to Cajun Country

You can’t visit Louisiana without learning something about the Cajun culture and history. We didn’t know much about it, but our research told us that Cajun Country is centered around the southern areas of Louisiana. Lafayette seemed to be a central location with lots of history and cultural activity, so we dropped anchor in a nice little RV park just south of Lafayette. The tourist info center provided us with an armload of maps, brochures and good ideas to keep us busy.

History is everywhere, but is told especially well at the local Jean Lafitte Acadian Cultural Center and at nearby Vermillionville where historic buildings have been preserved and Cajun, Creole and Native American exhibits tell the story. The "palmetto hut" in the photo is an example of an early swamp hut that was insulated with a mixture of mud and Spanish moss. Very sturdy.

The history is fascinating so I’ll try to share a little of it. Around 1600, a group of French settlers moved into an area of eastern Canada, now Nova Scotia, in search of freedom from French oppression and a new land for their families. The settlement of “Acadie” (or Acadia) flourished for 100+ years. However, when the British took control in the early 1700s, they demanded that the Acadians swear allegiance to the British crown and support the ongoing wars against France. Well, being independent folks who wanted to be left alone, the Acadians chose to remain neutral and refused to support the British. So, the irate local governor put about 8,000 of them into boats, sent them out to sea and confiscated their lands. Some fled to other parts of French-speaking Canada, many returned to France, and others were scattered along the east coast of the U.S. Later, a group of exiles led by Joseph Broussard made their way as far as Louisiana where they set up their new Acadia near what is now the city of Breaux Bridge, just east of Lafayette. The Acadians, with the help of friendly local Indian, established new communities and eventually became known as Cajuns. They held onto much of their French culture and language and their music and food have continued to grow in popularity as major tourist attractions. Ron managed to find a good local music station (KBON, 101.1 FM). He loves the music, even though many of the lyrics are in French, and we’re eating lots of Cajun food.

Louisiana calls itself “America’s Wetland.” Can’t argue with that. There’s water, rivers, bayous, lakes and swamps everywhere. We wanted to find out more about the wetlands, so we took a swamp tour in Bryan Champagne’s 24 ft. aluminum crawfish skiff. Bryan was born a Cajun and raised on the banks of Bayou Teche, so he seemed to know what he was talking about. He took us in and out of the swamps, through thick vegetation, groves of cypress draped with Spanish moss and, to our surprise, no mosquitoes.

The swamp was full of birds, including herons and snowy egrets. We also came across lots of alligators. Most were sunning themselves on logs and we were able to get within a few feet of them. Some would casually slide off their logs and disappear into the water, but others stood their ground and stared us down. None were aggressive and, after a while, we began to really appreciate these big critters. They weren’t bothering anyone and were probably a little annoyed with us for trespassing in their territory. It was a great swamp tour and we all survived.

Vermillionville is a sort of Cajun cultural center, adjacent to the Jean Lafitte Center. The village is nicely laid out and includes a self-guided walking tour of early structures from small swamp huts to a typical home, school, church and other structures.
In the center of the village is an entertainment pavilion with stage and dance floor. A Cajun band was playing and, after watching for a while, we drug ourselves out onto the dance floor and went a few rounds. We later went to dinner at a place called Randol’s. They also had a live Cajun band, so we went a few more rounds on the dance floor (sorry, no photos). Those dance lessons we took last year finally paid off and we had a great time!