Thursday, May 5, 2011

Festival Time in Lafayette

African drummers at the Festival International de Louisiane
Every year during Jazz Fest, our neighbors are talking about another festival -- the Festival International de Louisiane in downtown Lafayette. It didn't take much convincing for us to get on the road and use this as our excuse to visit the heart of Cajun land.

Despite leaving work early, the four of us and half our house crawled out of the city in rush hour traffic only to sit in Metairie's infamous traffic jam. I've tried my best to block out the evening's travels, but I vaguely remember a lot of crying coming from two exhausted, yet stubbornly refusing-to-take-a-nap children. By the time we hit Baton Rouge, I swear the car stopped itself and kicked us out on the curb. The next 15 minutes were spent scarfing down Cane's chicken fingers while our 9-month-old August played his favorite game of beating the table and his older brother Charles breakdanced across the floor.
Statue of Mike the Tiger at Louisiana State University

Luckily, the evening wasn't a complete wash. A quick stop to see LSU's Mike the Tiger paid off when the bengal tiger put on an elaborate show of racing around his cage and trying to climb a tree. And then, when dark set in and we got back on the road, our two little angels passed out. We pulled into our friends' driveway in Carencro with a sigh of relief, plopping both kids in bed and settling down to visit with real adults while watching highlights of the Royal Wedding.



Musical instruments at the Acadian Cultural Center
The next morning was overcast and drizzly so we decided to stop by an indoor spot before attempting the outdoor festival. The Acadian Cultural Center, Jean Lafitte National Park's Lafayette site, details the history of the Acadians, many of whom settled in south Louisiana after being exiled from Nova Scotia. The French-speaking Acadians became today's Cajuns, known world-wide for their food and music. A movie and extensive exhibits showcased their culture, while a reconstructed Cajun-Creole settlement sat down the road at Vermilionville. Time and weather didn't permit us to visit the living history museum, but it certainly made my list for a future visit.

Dancing to the music
Although it was still misting, we couldn't prolong the festival anymore. Parking downtown, we grabbed our umbrellas and strollers (our friends had two small children as well) and went straight for the festival food, deciding on fried catfish served over rice and smothered in a spicy crawfish etouffee. With six music stages, countless arts and crafts booths, food courts and street musicians, the free-of-charge International Festival sprawls across the historic streets of downtown Lafayette. Musicians from around the world come to play at the five-day festival, and we saw everything from Native American flute players and African drummers to the next child star singing Cajun music. We eventually made our way to the well-hidden children's section, which turned out to be an enormous fenced-in area with multiple playgrounds, piles of hoola hoops and giant bouncy balls, art activities, face painting and some of the best music at the festival.

Chretien Point plantation
That evening, in anticipation of the next day's activities, we treated ourselves to a second helping of crawfish -- this time with pasta and delicious boudin from the local grocery store. On Sunday, we were in for a special treat. Our friend's grandfather owns crawfish ponds in the neighboring town of Sunset, and we were going to take a ride in them. To reach the ponds, we passed Chretien Point plantation, built in 1831, often visited by Jean Lafitte the pirate and boasting a staircase made famous in "Gone with the Wind."

A crawfish trap
Unfortunately, it was closed for viewing, so we continued on to the ponds, where we boarded a handmade boat complete with wheels to churn through the mud. The kids marveled at the crawfish hanging out in the bottom of each trap and threw in food as we passed. As I write this blog, the scratching noise coming from my den reminds me of the souvenir crawfish Charles brought home as a pet reminder of our once in a lifetime experience.

As with all trips, we should have ended it there, but instead we decided to try out a new Mexican restaurant in town. With the arrival of the queso dip appetizer, Charles' hungry fingers dragged the bowl closer -- just in front of August's face, whose chubby little hands took one swift moment to dump the entire contents all over himself. And so we bid farewell to our friends, promising to return again as we had so much more of the area to discover.   

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