Very Large Array: New Mexico

Very Large Array: New Mexico

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Back in January this year, my husband and I traveled to Socorro, New Mexico, so that he could give a talk at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). This was a new state for me, so I was keen to see what it had to offer.

We flew into Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon and picked up a car. It was already  late when we arrived so we didn’t hang about and drove south to Socorro, about an hour away.

My husband had been talking up the food at Socorro Springs, and it didn’t disappoint. We refueled on pizza and beer then headed to the NRAO guest house on campus via Walmart for some supplies for breakfast.

The guest house was perfect: spartan but comfortable, and very quiet.

Next morning it was cold and grey outside. I stayed in the guest house, working, while husband gave his colloquium.

In due course it was time for lunch and I met my husband and some work colleagues at Frank & Lupe’s El Sombrero. It was serving authentic New Mexican food, and I found the menu a little opaque! To save time, someone ordered for me and I found myself eating something delicious and full of chillies.

That afternoon we were given a tour of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) correlator. I know this already sounds boring, but bear with me. The VLBA is a global network of giant radio dishes which collect signals from space from telescopes around the world. The correlator is the important bit of computer kit which takes all the signals and smushes them together to make one coherent signal. Amazingly, data from telescopes all over the world are mailed here on tape drives and correlated using the computers in this building on the UNM campus. The scientific results are spectacular (e.g. “Astronomers Detect Orbital Motion in Pair of Supermassive Black Holes“).

Once we had finished in the correlator room, our host, Frank Schinzel offered to drive us down to see the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), about an hour east of Socorro.

So along we drove, through terrain that was desert-y but somewhat green, hilly but not mountainous, until we reached a huge plain and saw our first VLA dish (technically, antenna). Each is 25 meters in diameter and steeply curved.

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Very Large Array (VLA) antenna

Because we were with Frank we were lucky enough to get the VIP tour – the first stage of which is to get very up close and personal to one of the antennas. Periodically each of the 27 antennas goes into “the barn” for maintenance.

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We climbed up the outer staircase and went through painted white doors, stepping over ledges and hard pieces of metal, before scaling a ladder to emerge through a hatch into the bowl of the antenna.

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We were instructed not to step in the middle of the panels, but keep to the joints. Standing  more than a view feet up from the center of the bowl was nearly impossible and our perspectives were skewed by all the white around us.

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Next stop on the tour was the site of the Long Wavelength Array (LWA), a project my husband worked on while we were in Boston. It consists of a bunch of funny looking antenna in the field and a trailer full of computer bits which is the loudest place in the world.

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Long Wavelength Array

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Frank stepped into the trailer to do some tinkering and we tried not to become submerged in the cold mud layer beneath our feet. The sunset was magnificent as we left the LWA for a quick stop at the small but impressive visitors center.

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As it was already late, Frank drove us back to Socorro in time for drinks and dinner and conversations with more people from the university. We were well and truly ready for bed that evening!

The next morning we had a few hours to spare before heading to Albuquerque airport, so we decided to go for a “hike” (walk) in Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This, coincidentally, holds another array that is part of the LWA.

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Another LWA station – white patch in center of image

We had a look in the excellent visitor center, complete with stuffed animal nature displays, then got a map from the guides then headed off on the hike.

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The rain in the distance was a little worrying but it didn’t approach. The fresh air and the calmness was a welcome relief. Though we didn’t see any wildlife to speak of, we appreciated the geological formations, including a fault line!

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The scenery on the drive back to the airport was spectacular, with snow capped mountains and puffy clouds.

I’m happy to check off another telescope from my list! Hope we’ll be back one day.

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Total Solar Eclipse 2017

Total Solar Eclipse 2017

I use the word “2017” in the title of this post, because I have a feeling we’ll be seeing another total solar eclipse one day. We had such a fantastic experience with this one, on August 21, 2017, that I think we may have become official eclipse-chasers.

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My totality montage

Planning for this trip started earlier in the year with the thought that, of all the states on the path of the eclipse, Idaho was most likely to have clear weather. I spent a decent amount of time looking for accommodation in the path of the totality but found only a Super 8 for some many hundreds of dollars. Eventually I found a double suite at the Riverside Hotel in Boise, ID, which was about an hour’s drive from the center line of totality.

Thinking we were super clever, we found $50 flights to Salt Lake City, and figured we’d drive the 4 hours up to Boise and save ourselves $200 per head each way. Having booked that, time passed, and slowly the hysteria about the traffic started to build and we were panicked about whether we were going to be able to make that drive due to all the traffic. So we changed our flights to come in the day before and booked an airport hotel in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, I signed up for the Eclipse Megamovie project, and committed to taking photos of totality. I got myself a 70-300mm lens for my Nikon D3300 camera, and a paper solar filter, and started practicing.  The hardest part turned out to be focusing on the sun, because you can’t look through the viewfinder (eclipse safety) and it’s really hard to see the screen on the back of the camera in daylight. The key turned out to be zooming in on the “live view” screen to see the edge of the sun. Later on, closer to the eclipse, some sunspots showed up, and focusing on them was a lot easier. If it hadn’t been for the Megamovie forums I’m not sure I would have figured this part out.

On the appointed Saturday, August 19th, we flew in the morning from Burbank to Salt Lake City, picked up a rental car and checked into the Courtyard Marriott at the airport. We had an early night, having decided that we needed to get up before sunset to beat the traffic.

On Sunday we had a 4:15am alarm, and drove to our traveling companions’ hotel at just after 5am to pick them up. Yes, our friends Vikram and Emma were crazy enough to join us on this eclipse adventure. We drove through the darkness, and just before sunrise saw the thin crescent moon rise – we knew the next morning the new moon would mean the eclipse!

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Road trip: Salt Lake City, UT to Boise, ID

We changed drivers at some random gas station, and for the rest of the drive Vikram decided to regale us with “interesting” “facts” about Idaho he had just found out from The Internet. “Did you know,” he would say, “that Idaho has the third largest seated statue of Lincoln?” (probably true), and, “Did you know that the Fosbury Flop (high jump technique) was invented in Idaho?” (not entirely accurate), and later, “Did you know that Idaho only has three dry-cleaners” (not true). Arguing about these nuggets certainly passed the miles.

We arrived in Boise early – around 10am – and of course, were too early to check in, so a quick google search revealed a “good” place for breakfast, walking distance from the hotel. We passed gas stations, empty lots and rental car lots, when we finally found the Capri Restaurant attached to a motel. We were not inspired by its looks but when we saw the line outside, we knew we’d come to the right place. It was absolutely packed but we got a seat in about 10 minutes, and had drinks and breakfast in front of us within 15 minutes. It was absolutely delicious, and just what we needed.

Then we decided to walk into town to see what was what. We found our way to the State Capitol Building and went inside to find marble as far as the eye could see. We explored the empty senate chamber and the house chamber and admired the stars in the ceiling of the dome.

Suitably cultured we started back towards the hotel, stopping at a brewery tap room that had opened its doors for the first time just days before, and had some beer. Then it was back to the hotel to check in. I spent the rest of the afternoon checking camera settings, filling the car with fuel and generally running around.

After dinner we discussed our plan of action for the next day. We were going to head to the town of Weiser, ID, on the Oregon border which was completely prepared for an influx of eclipse viewers. As we talked I got worried about parking and emailed everyone on the helpful website parking list to see whether they had space. Two people replied 10 minutes after we went to bed.

The next morning, Monday, eclipse morning, our upstairs neighbor’s alarm went off at 4am. My husband was awake and so we woke Vikram and Emma. I paid someone in Weiser $50 by Paypal to secure our parking place, and we got on the road by 4:45am, panicked by the thoughts of traffic. We even forewent our planned McDonald’s breakfast stop.

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Very early start

It turned out we need not have panicked – the road was clear and we were parked by 6am. It also turned out there was acres of street parking and we didn’t need to pay. However, our parking host gave us some excellent local knowledge – firstly about a open coffee shop, and secondly about a great viewing spot. It turned out the local knowledge was worth the money on its own.

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Weiser, ID welcomes us!

Once we parked, we found coffee and checked out Memorial Park which was full of vendors setting up booths. We partook of their $5 eclipse breakfast while the local news filmed, then wandered over to our chosen spot on the edge of town – the Park Intermediate School, arriving just in time to see the sun rise at 7am and hear a cockerel crow. We decided this was our spot, so returned to the car to collect my excessive amount of camera gear and supplies, and walked it all over (because it was $25 to park at the school).

I spent the next couple of hours taking practice shots of the sun, trying to perfect the focus point on the camera. A few more people joined us on the playing field, but it wasn’t very crowded. Then at 10:10am, the eclipse started. I had all the timings to hand thanks to my a handy app (Solar Eclipse Timer App). I started taking photos, and as the sun got further eclipsed we noticed some phenomena in the environment.

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Soon after first contact (Note: hover mouse over images, or click, to see them in true contrast)

With 30 minutes to go, the app told us to pay attention to the temperature – it had indeed dropped – the sun didn’t feel scorching on our skin. Then we started to notice the shadows becoming sharper and the light becoming just plain weird. Vikram discovered he could see individual hairs in his shadow, prompting him to exclaim that he had “eclipse hair”. We made many pinholes to view the eclipse, and I kept taking photos.

At around 11:20am, with a few minutes to go we noticed it getting considerably darker and cooler. The light was so strange that I started to feel a bit disoriented. Then my 5 minute alarm went off and I set up my little camera to record video. Then my two minute alarm went off and it was getting noticeably dark. A cockerel crowed nearby. In due course, Vikram spotted the shadow on the western horizon and the sun was just a sliver of gold on the back of the camera.

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Then, at 11:25:19am, we reached totality.

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Diamond ring, moments before totality: 1/2000 sec; f/8; ISO 800

Nothing could prepare me for the sight of the black hole in the sky where the sun used to be. People were yelling and pointing. The corona round the sun became visible, and was actually very bright. We noticed the horizon was a sunrise/sunset all around and the sky was definitely not black. The corona revealed itself to be at least two solar radii, with distinct features. I made sure to take all of this in before turning my attention to the camera.

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Husband’s photo of me, pointing, during totality

With the solar filter off, I started on my prepared plan but I soon I realized I needed to  work faster – stop the camera down more rapidly to get to the slower shutter speeds that would capture all the features of the corona, while remembering to pause to let the camera vibrations die down. I got about 3/4 through my range of shutter speeds before my app announced there were seconds to go before the end.

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1/2000 sec; f/8; ISO 800

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1/200 sec; f/8; ISO 800

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1/200 sec; f/8; ISO 800

And then the light started to come back, people were yelling again, I kept clicking the shutter then we had to put the filters back on – the camera and our eyes! The light seemed to get brighter faster than it went dark, though of course it wasn’t, and my husband heard the confused cockerel crow again. After a few minutes people began to come over to each other to talk about their experience. One person wanted confirmation it was only 30 seconds long. It was 2 minutes 6 seconds.

Soon after, people began to disperse. I wanted to capture the whole eclipse so I put in a fresh memory card and kept taking semi-regular photos while trying to get content and photos to my work to post on our social media channels. At this point we noticed that things on our picnic blanket were damp with dew.

By 12:48pm the whole show was over. It was really hot again and so we packed up and lugged all the gear back across town, still high on the experience of totality.

Getting home was another challenge in itself, but that evening we celebrated a successful total solar eclipse and started thinking about the next one in Chile in 2019.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).

Astronomy from the inside

About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.

The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.

Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.

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200-inch Hale telescope dome at Palomar Observatory

We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.

This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.

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The 200-inch up close.

Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze.  It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.

An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.

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Inside the control room

By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.

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The Monastery

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Spartan but comfortable

We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.

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George Ellery Hale

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Concrete blank of the 5 meter mirror

Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.

To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”.  Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.

Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.

Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.

At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.

We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.

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Working on the instrument at the prime focus

Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.

Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.

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That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Thank you Gregg for an amazing weekend!

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What to do near New Orleans

Continued from previous post: What to do in New Orleans

After a few days in the city, we picked up a car and headed out of New Orleans. The first thing I insisted we do is drive across the longest bridge over water in the world: the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway – at 24 miles long. Once on the bridge, it wasn’t long before we could see only road and water. The geek in me thought this was great.

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After crossing we were then on the wrong side of the lake, so we drove north, west then south and ended up all the way back around at Peavine Road. We had lunch at Frenier Landing. The deserted restaurant was decorated with creepy looking stuffed animals and had boat propellers for ceiling fans. A quick bowl of gumbo later we drove to our next stop.

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We crossed the river at the impressive Veterans Memorial Bridge and went into the Whitney Plantation for the late afternoon tour.

At the Whitney Plantation we were greeted by our guide, Ali. Ali gave a passionate and fascinating history of the slavery in the US and the work that went on at this plantation. He showed us the plantation church, the cabins, the jail, the kitchen and the ‘big house’.  The big house was large, functional, and painted to resemble marble, as was apparently high fashion at the time. The double row of trees leading from the river to the front of the house acted as an air conditioner for the house, and the floor of the ground level was tiled, to better allow floodwaters to escape. In stark contrast, the slave cabins were small, hot and sparse.

The tour was a sobering experience, and at the end, when describing how slavery was ended through the efforts of those who had nothing, Ali told us what he tells school kids that visit: “not attempting to achieve your dreams is just laziness.”

That evening we stayed at the excellent Holiday Inn Express at LaPlace, and went to the Crab Trap Restaurant for dinner where we had the obligatory boiled crawfish. We ordered about twice as much as should have, and we needed a lesson from the waitress on how to, er, deal with the crawfish. Quite a long time later, and in need of several bandages from the sharp bits of shell, we were finished. It was delicious.

The next morning, we drove the few minutes up the road to Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. We boarded the boat, and for the next two hours our guide did not draw breath as we motored through the beautiful swamp. His monologue was uninterrupted as he threw marshmallows to the crocodiles in the water and to the raccoon family on the land. The turtles were not interested in marshmallows and remained perched on their fallen logs. At one point the guide pulled out a baby crocodile from a tank hidden at the back of the boat, taped its jaw shut (“regulations”) and passed it around the 40 people on board. I got the impression it was less than impressed with the experience, but everyone on board, including us, was.

Then we disembarked, and that was the end of our trip to Louisiana. We had a fantastic time in and around New Orleans. I highly recommend you visit too!

Check out: New Orleans: food city